Waltz Across Texas

Because her back was to the window, Madeline hadn't seen the enormous California condor swoop toward us, although she can probably hear the scrabbling as the bird finds a purchase on one of the protuberances on the roof of the bus. I sigh as I watch my sister head for the little camp the kids and Tori have set up.

Sara and Oliver are right behind me, waiting to get out. I'm just pausing to see how this scene is going to play out.

"Trouble?" Sara asks.

"Oh, not for you. Or me. Or anyone currently in human form, I suspect." That doesn't seem to satisfy the assassin Time Lord, but it's a good object lesson for them.

The bird cranes its neck so it can look through the door of the bus.

Cisco yelps again. Alex, who has just stood up, stops dead in her tracks. Figuratively, of course. Her qi shows more curiosity than anything. Sara and Oliver pretend to take it in stride. I really like them! All of them stare at the creature, however. I can't even blame them, really. Condors are ugly.

After looking toward the back of the bus to see what had made the noise, the bird stares at me. I raise my eyebrows. After a few seconds, I grin.

"Just what the actual fuck did you do, MOTHER?" the bird asks, speaking as distinctly as if she were human.

"Mother?" Oliver murmurs.

"Oh, a little of this, a little of that," I reply. "Went to a costume party in Las Vegas, your aunt won some money, we made some friends, bought ourselves a bus." I tilt my head to one side. "Well, I think we bought the bus. One never knows with your aunt. Then we took a pleasantly quiet drive, met some nice folks, offered them a ride. You know. The usual."

"Bullshit."

"Not at all, although there might be some embellishments and a few details omitted. By the way, is there some particular reason you chose the form of the most hideous bird in North America?"

"It's the biggest. I was hoping to land on your head."

"I guessed as much, hence my reluctance to exit the vehicle. Sometimes I still think I should have strangled you at birth."

She shifts to an Indian rock python and flicks her tongue out at me.

I laugh. "I can't even blame my cousin for this one. It's all on Uncle Bobby and his demented idea that all Disney movies were good for children."

"Don't laugh at me, Mother. Whatever you did..."

"Maria Sandra, stop playing games. Get your ass down on the ground. We have work to do."

She continues to weave back and forth for a few seconds, trying my patience. Oh, my daughter is fast... but I'm faster. I have one hand wrapped around her, well, neck I suppose — right behind her head, at any rate. She's well and truly stuck.

"Now. Are we all going to be grownups here?"

"Are you sure this doesn't count as trouble?" Sara whispers.

"As I said, not for anyone other the currently less brilliant of my children."

"How the hell are you doing that?"

"Oh, Jesus Fucking Christ, Maria! You and your idiot brother shared your damn gifts with me before you were even born! Or don't you remember that?"

"Hey, Mom! I see you've been practicing."

"Yes, well, your sister has been kind of a moron for a century or so."

"Aw, Mom, she's only been a real pain in the ass since Dad died."

"No, dear, she's been a right royal pain in my ass for longer than that. But at least she'd pay attention to him. Seriously, Maria. I should have strangled you."

"But that would have killed me, too, Mom. And I've always been a perfect angel."

I look out the door at my son. Unfortunately, his cousins aren't close enough to smack him. Nor is anyone else, for that matter.

"Right. Says the hellion who started opening portals by the age of ten."

"He opens portals?"

I look back at Cisco. "Don't get any ideas, Vibester. Paul's a lot smarter now."

"Thanks, Mom!"

I close my eyes for a couple of seconds, looking at the qi, determining where and how Maria is holding onto the bus, and yank... then jump out of the bus before she can play that little game Quetzalcoatl liked so much of wrapping itself around my arm. I fling her down the road then gesture for our guests to join the party.

Maria has shifted again, this time to a peregrine and starts a climb into the early morning sky. I sigh.

"Son, we have guests. Sara, Oliver, Alex..." I point to each of them and look back at the bus. "Cisco, come out and meet the family."

"That thing is going to hurt me!"

"No, she won't. She's pissed at me. Get out here, you wuss."

He pokes his head out the door of the bus and looks around suspiciously.

"And that's Cisco," I say to Paul. "Everyone... my son, Paul. He's the sensible one this year. Well, of my offspring, anyway."

Maddie and Logan are near the piles of gear, chatting with Tori and Em. Vin is staring up at the sky. I shake my head and look at my son.

"You might need to net her if she decides to have a temper tantrum."

"Um."

I raise an eyebrow at him as I start walking. "Better you than me, Paul. She's less likely to get hurt if you do it."

Then I point to Vin as I look at Sara and Oliver, who are keeping pace with me. Alex and Cisco are behind us, and I suspect the only reason Cisco got out of the bus is that he might believe he's safer in a group.

Well, he's probably right... as long as he's more than a few feet away from me.

"The statue over there is Vincent, Maddie's son. He'll come back to life again when my daughter — that's the shapeshifter up there — gets back from her crazy place."

"Mom?"

"Yes, son?"

"You really did a number on Maria with whatever you did a while back. She mostly had her shit together and now..." He looks up and groans. "Well, she's having a massive anxiety attack. I've never seen anything this bad. She said it had something to do with her finding gift."

I look up and can just barely see Maria start her dive to the ground. And I sigh. Again.

"I had to adopt these fine folks into our clan for the Spirits to be able to see them. With three Normals and a Mutant with no healing factor, it seemed prudent." I shrug and look at Paul once more. "I was going to let her hit the ground at two fifty—"

"Peregrines don't dive quite that fast, Mom."

"I was rounding up. It's close enough. Just keep her from hurting anyone, including herself, until she calms down."

Then I tilt my head toward Maddie and her little group as I look at the newcomers.

"Come on... you can meet the sane people of the group now."

"That's actual shifting and not an illusion?" Sara asks.

I nod. "Yep. She favors the birds."

"Like J'onn," Alex says. "But I think he just imitates people he's met."

"Huh. I'm not sure she's ever tried that. I personally prefer illusion to shifting when I'm impersonating a human," I say. "Not that I've never done it, it's just easier and it takes less energy to maintain an illusion."

I glance at Oliver and grin. "You can help Paul if you want. I'm not sure any of us are as good at archery as you're reputed to be. Shooting at her will give her a reason to calm down."

"You're serious."

"Completely."

"What if I accidentally hit her?"

I stop and look at him. "You misunderstand. I want you to aim for her. If you hit her, it will be because your skill at archery is better than her skill at evading arrows. We all learn something!"

"Jesus. I thought my family was fucked up."

I wave away whatever objectionable point he's trying to make.

"You might hurt her; you can't kill her." I shrug. "Go with the flow, Arrow Man."

I grin as Sara snickers and we continue toward Base Camp.

"Naming people is my thing," Cisco says to Alex, thinking I can't hear him. "And she's even renaming people."

I can hear Paul grumbling some nonsense about having the craziest family in the known universe as he heads toward Vin.

Yep, we're going to have a good time.

As I step to Maddie's side, I instinctively reach for our Husbands — Rene should be standing between us and Pablo should be on my other side. Their absence hurts, but I keep my own shields wrapped around me so that the pain doesn't resonate back to Maddie or becomes noticeable against Em's shields. She's going to have to expend enough energy as it is to block out Alex's pain until I can work with her a bit more on shielding.

But I can almost... almost sense them. The connection is more tenuous than it had been up in Las Vegas, which is interesting.

Tori and Em both have a shimmer of "here we go again" as they ignore my daughter, although outwardly they seem calm. Tori even looks cheerful. Yep, I'm just going to let Maddie run this part of the show — no sense adding my particular brand of weird to the mix until it's needed.

Oliver did not follow the group forward but hung back by Paul.

"Does your mother mean it?" he asked, motioning to the bird in flight.

Paul nodded, "Oh, absolutely. It's only arrows. It's not like Aunt Lin using live fire and grenades during training."

"Only arrows?" Then he looked up at the falcon, seemed to shrug to himself, brought up his bow at the same time that he pulled out two arrows and let them both fly. His aim was precise, and if he'd been aiming at a natural avian, there would now be a dead bird plummeting toward the earth.

However, as the arrows neared the bird, it seemed to disappear.

"HEY!" Vincent glared at the newcomer.

Paul was still looking up, but his eyes were darting back and forth.

"Relax, Vin," his cousin said. "She just shifted again. Huh. Hummingbird." Paul chuckled. "She's just showing off now, I think."

Oliver looked at the young men. "Doesn't seem to be a particularly effective method of capture. I'd use a net, but I need to see what I'm aiming at. And those are specialized arrows. It's not like I can just whip up more in the back of that contraption," he said, nodding toward the bus.

Paul nodded. "No worries. We'll make her fetch 'em back for you."

# # #

Madeline gave Andi a brief smile. She was pointedly ignoring both her niece and her son for the time being.

"Tori, Em, the fine folks trailing Andi are travelers the same way are, though involuntarily like I was."

She introduced them as they join the small group.

"Sara, Alex, Cisco. Tori is our local guide, so to speak, being that she's the only one from this time and place. Em is our daughter."

There were hellos exchanged. Sara extended handshakes to both. Alex and Cisco offered only waves, which, considering Alex's emotional state, was for the best.

"Andi, do I want to know why Oliver is still by Paul and looking perplexed?"

Sara answered, "Oh, she told him to shoot the shifter bird."

"Hmmm, that might knock some sense into her. Do you think he'd do it?"

Sara shrugged. "Maybe."

"You any good with a bow? The kids brought a few with them. Including hers." Madeline tilted her head in her niece's direction.

"Yeah, I'm pretty good but not as good as Ollie. I'm better at close range work, hand to hand and the like."

That statement garnered a little more attention than usual from Em.

"I owe you an apology, Tori, for leaving you with this headache."

Tori smiled enigmatically and tapped the toe of one boot against the nearest crate. "I think the bruja left an impression on her."

"Bruja? You'll tell us about it later?"

Tori offered a non-committal sound. "Interesting vehicle you got there."

"It will be a bit cozier than planned with four more, but I think it will do. Better than being spread out in multiple vehicles. How long have you been here?"

"Two, three hours," Em said.

Madeline contemplated that for a moment. "Let's get the gear stowed inside the bus. Then we can eat and rest up while we're still technically in safe lands. With twelve of us, we can spread out the watch shifts, four sets of three. When we start rolling, we'll already be set for a driver and two watchers on each shift. That said, Tori can you drive one of those?"

The tribal deputy nodded.

"Sara? Alex? Cisco? And what about Oliver, Sara?"

"Both Ollie and I can drive it."

"Me too," Alex replied.

Cisco shook his head. "Nope."

"So that's ten can dos, one not at all, and another that we'd rather not. And we'll split up the four norms, just in case, and pair the three Kin with the other Earthers.

"Sara and Em.

"Oliver and Tori.

"Alex and Logan.

"Myself and Cisco."

She chewed on her lip and considered the remaining four.

"Andi, you join Sara and Em. Paul is with Oliver and Tori. Maria will be with Alex and Logan. Then Vin with myself and Cisco. I will probably switch up that last a time or two."

Andi shrugged. Knowing that Maddie would undoubtedly switch things up — possibly on a daily basis, or even more frequently — she didn't bother commenting on the arrangements.

"First, I think Cisco is likely to get tagged as a mutant," Andi said. "Let's not assume he's a Normal... we don't really know what the Big Bad here is looking for or how they're tagging folks.

"But I won't," Madeline interjected.

Andi bit her lip as she nodded in agreement. "There's that. But if they have an intel network that's any good, you and the Normals are going to wind up being guilty by association, so..." She waved a hand in Maddie's general direction. "You know, tuck that away in your pocket for future consideration," she said, winking. She left the as usual part of the reminder merely implied this time.

It was pretty funny, really. The fact that her Sister didn't get tagged as a mutant made her propensity for walking right up to the Big Bad's front door even more of a cosmic Fuck You. It had taken Andi a decade or two to really appreciate the humor — and about ten minutes to realize that if she had just stayed out of her own way, Ninja would have been laughing a whole lot sooner.

"Second..." She nodded at Alex, getting back to the topic at hand. "I'm not sure how much time it's going to take to teach Alex here how to weave some shields. The bandage will hold for a little while, but..." Andi trailed off, shrugged, and smiled ruefully at her niece. "At least she's not a moron like your cousin and is the opposite of clueless."

"Like Tori said, I think Zosia might have knocked some sense into Maria, Aunt Andi."

"I'm so glad someone could."

Madeline did look for her niece now. "Can someone tell Maria to get her ass on the ground before I shoot her myself? We have work to do."

"I'll deal with her, Sis," Andi said, grinning in a very Ninja-like way that did not bode well for her eldest offspring. And I'll deal with your son, too, if necessary, she added silently.

As Andi walked off, Tori shook her head. "Did you say she braids her hair when she's working? She might want to get right on that." The eldest Kin snorted. "It's damn disconcerting seeing and hearing one of the kindest and gentlest people in the Nation looking and sounding so bloodthirsty."

The confused looks on the faces of the newcomers was an impressive contrast to the expressions on the faces of those who knew Andi and had met Elder Yazzie — as subtle as her cousins' reactions were.

"So many questions," Cisco muttered.

Tori laughed. "And I've been assured that I no longer have responsibility for this circus now that you've arrived, Madeline." Her head tilted to one side. "Of course, if Paul has been less than truthful, I might have to kill him once or twice."

At the open-mouthed stare of the young man Madeline and Andi had brought along, she laughed even harder.

"You short-lived folks can be damn funny."

# # #

As she walked across the field toward her son, her nephew, and Oliver, Andi furrowed her brows as she looked up.

What the hell is that idiot doing now?

She had half-expected Maria to dodge anything Oliver shot at her and shifting to something as small and stationary as a hummingbird was surprisingly smart. She heard and felt her nephew's annoyance at the exhibition, but figured Vin deserved nearly as much grief as her daughter did. Vincent's only saving grace in this whole mess was that he didn't go around feeling sorry for himself.

"Well, you tried, Arrow Man," she said as she approached the group. "Um, Paul?"

"Yeah, Mom?"

"What's your sister doing now?"

"Ah... gaining altitude. Again."

"Yes, I can sense that." Andi paused and raised an eyebrow. "That's not a peregrine form."

Paul shook his head as he watched his sister. "Nope. It's a crane."

Andi groaned. "Eurasian?"

He hesitated and then nodded. "Yeah."

She facepalmed. "Are you going to bring her down, or am I doing to have to do it?"

Paul put an arm around his mother's shoulders. "It's okay, Mom. She's giggling. And not in one of those I'm going to get even with you for setting fire to my meridians ways, either. I think she's going for silly."

"Silly?" Vin asked. He sounded somewhat hopeful to his aunt's ears.

Paul nodded. "Yeah, Binny, like when we were kids and liked to tease you and Em? Silly."

Vincent looked at his cousin, then up to the sky again. "Well, it could be worse. I guess."

Andi nodded in agreement. "Oh, it could absolutely be worse! Imagine how annoyed everyone would be if I had to shoot her down.

Oliver looked over at her, noting that the only weapon she appeared to carry was a staff. "With what?" he asked, obviously incredulous.

"Without the mumbo jumbo? Essentially, a lightning bolt," she replied without looking at him. "Or two."

"I'm surprised she didn't go for that griffon vulture if she's looking to get as high as possible," Paul mused.

"Don't think she had much of a chance to study them," his mother replied.

Then Maria shifted again.

Almost immediately, Paul started laughing.

Andi sighed. "Fine. That one IS my fault," she said with resignation. "At least she's not..."

Vincent groaned and closed his eyes.

"Never mind. I guess she is quoting the book."

"You gotta admit it's funny, Mom."

"As long as there's no sudden wet thud after she wonders if the ground will be friends with her, I will admit that there's a great deal of humor here." Andi snorted. "Who knew your sister actually had a sense of humor? Your father would not find this funny at all."

Paul grinned as the sperm whale fell toward the earth. "Nope. Guardian Zosia must have had a real impact on her."

"The bruja?"

Paul nodded.

# # #

Tori glanced across the field to the southwest, then nodded to Madeline and Logan.

"Ah, one of Gregor's grandchildren. Good. Maybe we'll get some semi-reliable intel about conditions in the Free Lands." Tori sauntered off in a path to intercept the cheetah that was heading their way.

Madeline sighed. "Yup, my circus, my monkeys. And intel beyond it's a cesspool out there would help. I'll catch up shortly."

What's on your mind, Em?"

"Aunt Andi did something to Alex there, didn't she? It's a good lockdown."

"She figured it was better for you. Alex has an excessively strained Bond. Her other half is back where she came from."

"That sucks. Sorry, Alex. Thanks, Aunt Andi."

Alex nodded in acknowledgment.

Cisco looked confused. Em hadn't raised her voice at all to thank her aunt yet seemed satisfied that she had been heard.

"What's he do?" Em pointed to Cisco with her chin.

"I Vibe," Cisco said.

"Gets readings off things about people or something," her mother elaborated. "Andi has a better handle on it, something to do with comic books."

"Tactical?"

"Maybe. Depends on what he can pick up, and if we can make sense of it."

"Hey, I'm still right here!" Cisco tried to glare at Madeline and Em.

Suddenly Em said, "Shit."

Madeline followed her line of sight and turned around as did Sara, Alex, and Cisco. Cisco's mouth hung open, Alex looked perplexed, and Sara was simply curious.

"What the everloving fuck is wrong with that girl?" Madeline spat. "That can be seen for miles."

Madeline stalked toward the large mammal now descending toward everyone.

Sara sidled up next to Em. "Your mom's pissed, huh?"

"She's getting there. Defcon 2 for the moment."

"What's your gift?" Alex asked as she came closer but put Sara between her and Em.

"I'm like my dad, except no adamantium," Em answered, holding up a fist and partially extending a claw.

Cisco's eyes went wide. He gushed. "Oh. My. God. You're X-23! Wolverine's clone."

Em growled a little. "I'm no clone."

"But, but… then how..."

Fortunately for Cisco, Sara answered. "Her parents had sex, Cisco."

At the expression on Cisco's face, Alex burst out laughing. It might have had a slightly hysterical edge to it, but it felt good to let go of just a little bit of the tension that gripped her heart.

"If Andi can teach me more of her voodoo and you keep embarrassing Cisco like that, Sara, I might just regain some of my equilibrium here."

Meanwhile, Andi cocked her head to one side as she continued to watch her daughter and smiled.

"You're welcome, Em."

Then she nudged Paul.

"Hmm. Okay, as funny as it is, I suppose it is pretty stupid." She flipped her staff out of the scabbard and held it out at her side, parallel to the ground, making it easier for Maddie to grab it when she reached them.

"Aw, Mom, can't you talk Aunt Lin out of smacking her?" Paul asked.

"Could... maybe. But won't." Idiot Maria Whale had just about the same about of time to shift into something that wouldn't thud wetly as it would take Maddie to reach the little group.

"You might want to take Arrow Man and keep Vin company until the fireworks are over." She glanced at her son. "I'll probably have to grab her my way and not yours. Go, go, my little Beastmaster."

"Yeah, yeah, Beastly Ninja Mamacita," he groused. "Let's move out of the way, Oliver." Instead of moving closer to Vin, Paul led Oliver toward the group gathering around the gear.

"What about my arrows?" Andi heard Oliver say.

"Oh, Maria still needs to clean up the mess at the end of the driveway," she heard Paul respond. "Mom will make her fetch your arrows, too. I told you not to worry."

Madeline wrapped her hand around the end of the outstretched staff, took its weight from Andi, and rested the bulk of it on her shoulder. Her steps never paused as she continued towards the falling whale. She watched its descent and observed as it turned back into her niece slash daughter-in-law.

As Maria started to shift to something that would land less spectacularly than a whale, her mother reached out and wrapped her in a net of qi, much the way she'd snared Quetzalcoatl prior to the formation of the Pentad. That startled Maria enough that she instinctively shifted to human form.

"Mom!"

Ninja just looked at her, then released the qi net when Madeline was close enough. However, she immediately grabbed Maria with the Beastmaster gift she'd picked up from Paul. She augmented her lack of strength with some help from Mother. Paul was better at this, although, as he had pointed out more than once since arriving in this place, his mother was frighteningly good at what she did. And when she was working, she was far less inclined to be nice about it.

While Andi was known for head thumping only when a Gibbs slap would not do, Madeline's style was a little different. Just before Maria's feet were fully on the ground, Madeline brought the staff off her shoulder and around at a low level, catching Maria behind the knees. Maria instinctively moved to stop herself from falling, but Madeline gave her a hard jab to the solar plexus and completed the staff's forward arc. She watched dispassionately as her niece hit the ground, hard. She rested the end of the staff in the same place she had jabbed and waited until Maria met her eyes.

Between the unpleasant feeling of being forced back to human form and then being bound to that form by her mother, Maria was disoriented to begin with. Being whacked with mom's staff and then punched by Aunt Lin didn't feel great. Because she was stuck in human form, it meant she couldn't tap into any of the abilities of her Shifter forms. She hit the ground a lot harder than she had in over a century.

Maria was pissed. As she looked up at Aunt Lin, there was defiance in her eyes, and she remembered quite vividly why she had spent almost a decade really disliking her Aunt. She even tried to reach out with her mind to Vin. Her eyes went wide when she realized she couldn't find him, and she glanced over at her mother for an instant. What she saw was Ninja in full-out working mode.

She became as still as a rock as she closed her eyes and took a few shallow breaths. She waited for whatever injuries Aunt Lin had inflicted to heal before she opened her eyes again and looked up.

Madeline's voice was quiet and cold. "We are less than a klick from the border with eyes constantly watching what goes on within the Nations. Anyone could have seen that display, especially that last one, even at this hour. If there weren't four people with us who may need your healing abilities during this mission, I'd shove you right back through a portal. Now, you will get your head on straight and behave as if lives depend on us. Are we clear?"

Maria took one more breath as she quickly checked her meridians—

They're fine, you idiot. Her mother was just as angry as Aunt Lin.

"Clear. Yes."

# # #

Just as Paul and Oliver joined the others, Em nodded to them then commented, "Glad it isn't me."

"What's your mom going to do?" Alex asked.

"Knock her on her ass. Hopefully, she remembers to stay down."

Paul nodded emphatically.

"Why?" Cisco asked nervously.

Paul gave him a quick grin. "Aunt Lin has been known to break bones to get your attention, though only with us. She typically only bruises those with normal healing abilities."

"It is an effective training method," Oliver commented.

"Yup," Sara agreed.

Then Paul's brows furrowed as he watched his family members on the other side of the field.

"Damn," he said with fearful admiration.

"Problem?" Sara asked.

He shook his head. "No. Just that my mom is a lot scarier and more powerful than I thought. She's keeping Maria and Vin from communicating."

"Huh?" Cisco was confused.

"My brother is the most powerful telepath any of us knows," Em said simply. "She didn't exactly wrap Maria in her own shields," she said to Paul. "It feels like something entirely different."

"Yeah, and still completely Mom. I think she's combining the Beastmaster thing she picked up from me with her own gifts... plus anything useful she can use from the Spirits, with the Earth as a power source."

"Did she ever do that back home?"

Paul shook his head. "She's never needed to. Well, she probably would have tried when she and your mom and dad when up against that ass right after they met. But Maria and I were still in the Before, so..." He shrugged. "She had less to work with. And was only starting to come into her powers anyway."

"Bottom line it for us, will you?" Oliver asked.

Paul looked at him and smiled again. "Be glad Mom's on our side. She's possibly the most powerful mutant on the planet right now."

He glanced back at Tori, who was chatting with a young girl, then looked at Uncle Logan and Em. His expression was much more solemn.

"If a huge portion of her power didn't come from what would be considered magic in this world, I'd be worried that she'd light up the Big Bad's sensors like a booster rocket. We need to ask Tori if they can track magic."

Em side-eyed Paul briefly. "Hopefully not. Bad enough if Cerebro's been compromised."

"Your mom thinks it might be?" Paul looked grim. "That would not be good." He watched his mother for a moment. "Well, even your brother can't find her using Cerebro, so..." He shrugged philosophically. "I guess even if the rest of us are screwed, our moms will be fine. I hope."

"Nice pep talk, kid."

"I wasn't..." He trailed off when he saw the look on Sara's face, then grinned. "Oh, good! Another smartass. Cool!"

Tori joined them, her arm wrapped around the young girl's shoulders in a friendly fashion. She glanced at the scene on the other side of the field and shook her head before introducing the child.

"Imani, our cousins Logan and Emelia, Em's cousin Paul, and their friends Sara, Alex, Oliver, and Cisco. Imani is part of the Zuni-Naaki intel network."

While Logan and Em greeted her in the Elder language, and Paul cheerfully said hello in Spanish, the others were more hesitant. Sara and Oliver recovered first, although before they could say anything, Cisco blurted out, "But you're, like, what? Eight?"

Sara reached over and slapped the side of his head. "Kids make great spies."

Imani laughed. "I'm seventeen. Among the short-lived, I'm an adult... although it is still considered very young among the cousin kin. And yes, I know I look much younger. Tori thinks I might be related to her Kinta."

"I guess we should wait for Mom and Aunt Lin to finish thrashing Maria," Paul said, appearing unconcerned about his sister's wellbeing. "So, Imani, what made you decide to become a spy?"

She giggled. "You're right, Tori. He is silly!" Then she shrugged. "I'm not really a spy, Paul. I'm just a messenger. I was studying to be a bruja before my gift blossomed, so Grandpapa thought I might be able to explain how things work out in the Free Lands better than my aunts and uncles. I can't work on the wards anymore because my magical signature is probably the most unique on the planet, but I used to work on this ward, although a bit farther south..." She points to the dirt road that represents the eastern border of the Zuni Nation. "...up until three years ago. Now I teach the apprentices."

Oliver looked at her, intrigued. "What do you mean by that... your signature being unique?"

"Shouldn't we wait for the Magnet of Weird before talking about the weird shit, Ollie?" Sara asked.

Her family members heard Andi's mental chuckle. If only my daughter were as considerate as Sara. Reassure our newest cousins that I can hear the young woman perfectly well.

Em smiled only slightly more than her father did, but Paul grinned.

"She can hear us," Em said. "I'm sure she'll have questions for you, Imani."

Alex glanced over at Andi and nodded. "Kara does that, too."

Imani noted the bag of fruit that Tori had transferred to the top of her stacked crates. "Ooh, did Grandpapa give you all his oranges?"

"It seems like he did," Tori replied with a chuckle, "but he's a wily old coot and might have the entire secondary station filled with them for all I know."

The girl raised her head and sniffed. "Nah. Nothing in there but dust. Do you mind?" she asked, pointing to the bag.

"Go ahead. In fact, all of you... help yourselves."

"What I mean by unique, Oliver," Imani said as she took an orange from the bag, "is that in addition to being a cousin kin like Tori and Logan and Emelia, I'm also a shapeshifter like..." She tilted her head as she looked at the woman still on the ground and then Paul. "...this one's sister. While there are quite a few cousin kin among the Lakota and Comanche who work on their wards and some shapeshifters here in the Zuni Nation also study magic, I am the only person who is both cousin kin and a shapeshifter."

She shrugs as she begins peeling the orange. "Tori said she had explained to Emelia and Paul and their siblings about the rarity of twins among the cousin kin. It's something that might happen once every second or third generation. That's among all of us, across the entire planet.

"I am the first and only cousin kin to have been blessed with the gift of shapeshifting."

"Huh," Paul said as he claimed an apple. "So the plethora of shapeshifters in the Zuni Nation are all short-lived folks?"

Imani nodded. "Yes. Lovely people. Some of them are even related to me! And they're delightful teachers." She snickered. "Well, most of them. My Uncle is a bit on the cranky side."

She spied her grandfather's compost tin next to Tori's crates and dropped the orange peel into it.

"It takes a delicate balance among the brujas working any section of the wards to mesh seamlessly with those working along the adjacent sections. With such a balance, combined with the strength of each group, the wards appear to be one continuous wall to those with the ability to see or feel the magic." She shrugged philosophically. "Given that I am unique in all the world, there is no way to balance my contributions to the wards."

Imani popped an orange section into her mouth and grinned at Paul.

"It doesn't bother you that you can't use all that knowledge you collected before your gift emerged?" Alex asked.

Imani smiled brightly at Alex and shook her head. "The cousin kin don't have the same view of time as those of you who are short-lived. I am here to share my knowledge with all of you — in that way, today I am using what I have learned. Each day that I teach, I use what I have learned. Who knows how the world will change in fifty or a hundred or two hundred years? If you learn to button a shirt and then discover all your clothing only has snaps or zippers or grip closures, you don't forget how buttons work. And if you come across something that should be buttoned, you are not confounded by it."

Alex smiled back at her. "So you're saying that nothing you learn is ever wasted."

"Exactly so, Alex!"

The Other Earther nodded as she, too, took an orange from the bag. "Okay. I felt like I might not have much to offer in this quest of Madeline and Andi's, but maybe something I've learned along the way but might not be relevant to my usual job will come in handy here."

Imani practically exuded joy and patted Tori's arm. "Wisdom outweighs foolishness here, cousin. You need not worry."

Oliver was still studying the youngster. "These wards, as you call them — how common are they? What do we need to know about them?"

Tori chuckled. "They are ubiquitous near any of the Nations. They're meant to keep strangers out. If you cross the road there and walk out into the field to other side, you wouldn't notice a thing."

"Unless you are highly attuned to magic and know the wards are there," Imani interjected.

Tori shrugged. "I wouldn't know. But if you were to come back across the road, you would notice... something. Everyone feels the wards differently. If the brujas sense you have no ill intentions, it might be something as innocuous as a slight shiver or a fleeting feeling of nostalgia. If they believe you pose a danger..." She shrugged and turned a menacing grin in Cisco's direction. "Squishy short-lived folks sometimes don't survive."

Cisco yelped and scooted behind Alex. While she and Oliver rolled their eyes, Sara laughed. Paul merely snickered.

Imani slapped Tori's arm. "Tori, stop it! Don't fib to them."

Paul does chuckle then. "You and my mom are going to get along far too well, Tori."

Logan reaches over and lightly cuffs his nephew — Paul only rocks back on his heels rather than falls over — and growls at him.

"Huh?" Paul looks over at Cisco, studies him for a couple of seconds, and finally says, "Oh. Yeah, sure. I don't mind helping him out, Uncle Logan."

Cisco imitates a fish again.

Now it was Tori's turn to study Paul. "You understand our language fairly well, youngster."

Paul shrugs. "Yeah, fairly well. I think Mom might be a little better than I am and Aunt Lin is totally fluent." He glances over at his sister. "Maria understands it as well as she understands Klingon."

Tori snorted. "You actually speak Klingon?"

"qaStaHvIS DuSaQ tlhIngan Hol vIghoj," Paul replied.

"Uh huh. If you say so."

"tlhIngan pejatlh!" Cisco exclaims.

"I'll hurt you both," Em says simply.

"Awful lot of children around here," Oliver mutters. "What Nations do you mean, Tori? And are we going to encounter a lot of them?"

Tori, Imani, and Elder Yazzie's other universe family all looked at him... suspiciously.

Alex cleared her throat. "I think we might have found another difference between Earth Prime and Earth 38. Out of curiosity, what happened to the indigenous people of North America when the settlers showed up, Oliver?"

Oliver and Sara looked at her with puzzled expressions.

"Um, well," Cisco starts to say before noticing that everyone was staring at him. "Ah, on the East Coast, folks just... I dunno... worked together?" He shrugged. "Like, we wouldn't even have the Constitution if not for the help and support the Founding Fathers got from the Iroquois Confederacy. State lines were negotiated between the folks who were there first and the colonists. I think that's why Kara said our map looked really odd to her. I think there was more fighting out west, but basically the same thing happened. Well, no. I think the Spaniards tried to get all rowdy and convert the Natives to Christianity, so that wasn't great. Kara said everything west of the Rockies looked the same."

He shrugged again.

"Even the US-Canadian and the US-Mexican borders were different."

Alex looked thoughtfully at him before turning to Oliver. "If I'm reading Paul right — the rest of you look like a bunch of marble statues, by the way," she said to the cousin kin, "their history is probably closer to ours, which involved genocide and reservations and... well, a lot of really bad shit. Toward the end of the nineteenth century, there was a mass uprising that lasted for decades. Eventually, all the indigenous people who had no interest in being part of the US just.."

It was her turn to shrug.

"Well, it depends on who tells the story, I guess. Either the US ceded lands to them or they just grabbed it and held onto it. In any case, eventually the entire Oklahoma Territory plus a lot of other land became the Protectorate of Sequoyah. Around the mid-twentieth century they declared themselves a separate nation. I'd have to look at a map of what your world looks like, Tori, Imani... But depending on where the eastern border of New Mexico is here, that's about where we'd be driving into Sequoyah.

"And, well, that's the way things still stand today. They have states just like the US does, and I think each of them represents an individual... well, I think it's what Tori might mean as Nations."

Paul just stared at Alex for a few seconds before blinking and looking over at his mother. Then he shook his head.

"Sure, Mom. That would make a great fantasy story." Then he sighed. "I guess taking the best of all the worlds would create a pretty nice one, though."

Then he turned back to Oliver. "Aunt Lin says this world is real mess. There are essentially war zones, and places where it comes close to our own world in the twentieth century, and then places worse off than that. If you think of the Nations as maybe friendly countries and everything else as enemy territory—"

"You're not far off with that analogy," Tori interjected.

"She could have included that in the sitrep," Oliver grumbled.

"I'm sure she would have gotten to it," Sara said.

Paul nodded. "Well, anytime we cross in or out of enemy territory, we going to be going through the wards. Leaving the Nations is no big deal, coming back into one will mean we'll be subjected to intense scrutiny."

He looked at Imani with a ghost of a smile. "Close enough analogy?"

"A very good one, in fact."

"Also, contiguous Nations have wards between them." Tori grinned mischievously. "They exist so the apprentices can learn their craft. I did warn Jimmy about the one between the Diné and Zuni Nations. It's possible that I understated the risks of getting too close to the wards."

Imani sigh. "Tori..."

"Oh, I told him to keep away from them! Even told him that he might get the same sort of shock a squishy short-lived person might get."

The youngster closed her eyes and shook her head. "You did not mention the junctions."

"Nope."

Imani is quiet for several seconds.

"Ah, Mom wants to know what these junctions are," Paul says.

"You know that's creepy, don't you?" Cisco asks.

"No. I know no such thing. I grew up with her and her super hearing. It's totally normal."

"Tio Pablo pretended it was creepy," Em noted.

"Well, yeah, but Dad never actually meant it. Hmm. I think Uncle Justin did, though. The telepathy, too, since he never developed it."

Oliver rubbed his temples. "If you people could stop going off on weird tangents for just five minutes, I'd really appreciate it!"

Sara snickered and he stared at her as she merely smiled at him.

"Junctions?" he asked Imani.

She opened her eyes again and looked at him. "I mentioned that part of the blending of magics along the length of the wards is one of the most delicate aspects of building them. Along the training walls, apprentices are practicing this skill." She shrugged. "They are students. They are still learning. Many of them are not very good."

"Sometimes the wards flare out at junction points," Tori clarified. "You know, Guardian... your pardon, Master Imani, there is no way for me to know who might be working on any section of the wards at any given time. Why upset the cub more than he already was?"

"Perhaps to prevent harm from coming to him?"

"Really? You know, the thought never crossed my mind."

Imani studied her for quite some time. "He made you very angry, didn't he?"

Tori shrugged. "Oh, I suspected he pissed off Madeline and Andi even more, but... yeah. He did."

The youngster shook her head. "It is not something you will need to be concerned with, Oliver. The training wards are situated so that one will cross them at close to perpendicular if one stays on the road. There is no real danger, although there is always the chance that students may not be as adept as their teachers would like."

# # #

Madeline held eye contact with Maria for just a bit longer before flipping the staff up and into a single hand. She held out the other as an offer of help up. Maria stared almost long enough for the offer to be rescinded but finally accepted the hand up. Madeline did not immediately let go once her niece was on her feet. The contact was held just a little longer, an emphasis on her earlier words.

"You should come meet the new family members."

At Maria's nod, Madeline let go and headed towards her son. "Vincent."

The hand-off of the staff happened so smoothly, without either woman taking her eyes off their respective offspring, that it might have looked eerie to anyone watching. As she flipped the staff over her shoulder into her scabbard, Andi said to her eldest, "You are very close to being a walking disaster area, Maria Sandra."

Maria didn't respond to her mother any quicker than she had her aunt. She did bite her lip, however, as she maintained eye contact with her mother.

"Yes, ma'am," she finally said, although it was barely audible.

Andi just tilted her head and looked at Maria for a few seconds. "Huh. That's probably the first time since you were thirteen that you haven't given me lip about the disarray of your qi. Are you going to get your shit together and get it together fast?"

Her eyes slid toward Vin. Mom didn't even seem to do anything, but she felt like she'd been slapped across the face. Maria's eyes widened.

Your qi is your fucked up qi, Maria. It's not Vincent's. You might have a Bond, but you don't have blended qi like your father and I do. Get YOUR shit together. Vincent can take care of himself.

Maria couldn't even work up the usual indignation over being berated again by her mother.

Aren't we supposed to have this whole togetherness thing going on? Her tone wasn't as snotty as it normally would have been. She was genuinely curious.

Yes. Togetherness is good. But if you lean too hard on him because you have chaotic qi, you're going to affect him negatively. And the next time your Aunt Lin decides to beat on you, I'll do more than hold you in place.

For a moment, Maria looked like she might say something else. She even opened her mouth once, but then closed it again. After a few more seconds, she nodded.

Um, Guardian Zosia said I ought to ask for help when I need it. She looked distinctly embarrassed, something else Andi hadn't seen in more years than she could count. Would you help me, Mom?

Andi grinned at her. I thought you'd never ask, dear. Of course, I will. She glanced over her shoulder at her son before nodding to Maria. I'm going to need you and Paul to help your new cousin, the young energy worker from another dimension, figure out how to keep from trying to rip holes in the fabric of space-time.

Vin faced his mother, an expression on his on his face that was somewhere between indecision and confusion. He had not felt this awkward in decades, maybe even since he was a teen. "Mom."

She could almost feel sorry for him, almost. "Get your head in the Pack. We need your skills not your emotions or feelings."

When he did not reply immediately, her eyebrows rose. "Can you?"

Madeline watched him take stock of himself before he nodded. "Yes, sir. I will take of bo-"

Madeline interrupted, "You will take care of you own shit, and she will handle hers. Everyone carries their own baggage."

"Understood."

"Now, we have a few other Travelers we've come across and you need to meet them. Only one is gifted and seems nigh helpless. The other three are norms but with good combat skills. Andi brought them into the family so the Spirits could see them and help as needed, especially the one missing her Bond-mate."

Madeline turned and headed towards the larger group of people, Vin falling into step beside her. As much as he wanted to check on Maria, he knew better. He did briefly glance over to her though.

"Let's go," Andi said to Maria as she turned to follow Maddie and Vin, staying back a dozen or so paces so she could watch the qi — all of it. Although she noted her nephew's glance, the flare of qi between the two of them was anything but subtle. Inwardly, she sighed. Not for the first time, she wished that she and the Pentad weren't a big black hole to all the precognitives. A little warning about this nonsense would have been nice.

You know, she said privately to her daughter, that stunt would have been hysterical in Ganado. Even your father would have appreciated it, including the quote from the book. He might not have found it as funny as I would, but he'd have appreciated it. I'm not sure Vincent cared much for quote. Andi gave Maria a side eye. You have a hell of a lot of talent, kiddo, and you're smart as a whip. Just... She paused to sigh mentally. ...could you maybe work a little on thinking before doing? Please?

This was the point where Maria would generally start an argument with her mother. Instead, she just nodded. Okay, Mom. Just before reaching the larger group, she said, Can we talk later, Mom? I mean, like a serious talk?

Andi raised an eyebrow and looked at Maria. "Of course." Then she walk over to the far side of the crates with her Sister and Brother.

As the other four joined the group, Tori introduced them to Imani. "Madeline, Andi, Vincent, and Maria," she said, pointing to each. Then she nodded to the youngster. "Imani is our local expert on all things magical and has the most recent intel reports from the Free Lands."

"It is a pleasure to meet you," Imani said, then added, "and an honor to meet you Master Andi."

At that, a single eyebrow went up. "Wow. I haven't used that title in a century." Andi grinned at her Sister. "Thanks to your dreadful influence, I can't stop the students at the School from calling me Sifu. And let's not get into the back and forth about it meaning the same thing, only in Cantonese, and my insistence that Grandmaster Chen himself awarded me the title and it's an honor to have it." She slid her eyes over to Oliver then winked at Maddie. "Apparently, Oliver is the impatient sort."

When Sara snickered, Oliver glared at her and said, "I have a feeling I might regret the decision to join this band of lunatics."

"Buck up, Arrow Man," Andi said with a laugh, "we'll get to the murdering and mayhem part of the program soon enough." Then she looked at Imani. "I suspect you don't mean 'Master' in the same way my Taiji teacher did, however."

The girl shook her head as she finished the last section of her orange. "Indeed not. You are a Master at the use of magic."

The Warrior tilted her head, then stepped around her niece so she could Gibbs slap her son. "You knew this and failed to mention it."

Paul just shrugged. Mom hadn't hit him very hard. "There was a lot going on, including whales falling from the sky."

"Hmm. I suppose. And you undoubtedly would have mentioned it eventually?"

"Yes, ma'am. Before we got on the road, in fact!"

"Son?"

"Yeah, mom?"

"Don't push your luck."

Wisely, Paul remained quiet as Andi stepped back toward Maddie and Logan, although Alex chuckled at the interplay. Cisco was threatening to imitate a fish again.

"Paul and I were wondering earlier if Aunt Andi's type of magic could be detected while we're out in the Free Lands," Em said to Imani. "Your explanations about the wards also brings up the question of whether or not the bad guys use magic, either defensively or offensively."

Imani smiled at Em. "Those are both excellent questions, cousin. The simple answer to the second is 'yes, of course,' while the simple answer to the first is 'yes and no.'" She looked around at the warriors who would be traveling with Tori. "I believe most of you — even the short-lived folks who do not pretend to be a fish..." She winked at Cisco. "...understand that simple answers are rarely sufficient in cases such as this."

"One can always hope," Oliver muttered.

"But are you not warriors, Oliver?" asked Imani. "Would it not be better to have as much information as possible to aid you in this mission?

Madeline started chuckling. "We hope, Imani, we never expect. Besides, simple answers tend to raise suspicions, isn't that right, Oliver? I mean, beyond 'the Big Bad is generally an asshole.' And I'd wager we've nearly all been assholes in our lives at some point."

Sara nodded. "Some of us more than others."

The youngster nodded slowly. "When we train as brujas, we are taught that few things are as simple as they appear on the surface." Then she smiled sadly. "And that all things are relative. Even I — someone so young that my life has barely begun — must surely have given offense to another without knowing it. It is never my intent to offend, but others with different life experiences may hear something in my words that strikes them deeply." She shrugged.

"But let us soothe Oliver's impatience with useful information.

"While it is not generally safe for our most adept brujas to venture out into the Free Lands, those with sufficient skill, adequate training, and personal wards that are..." She looked around at those gathered and pointed to Paul. "...similar in strength to yours, Paul, often wander the Free Lands gathering information.

"Thus, we know that there are very few people outside the Nations who possess enough power to be a threat. Those who do are much like Oliver — conflicted about the use of magic."

Imani raised an eyebrow as she looked at him, almost daring him to contradict her.

Sara chuckled again. "She's got your number, Ollie, that's for sure."

"Even in a world with little technology, most people prefer to see magic and science as completely different things. And so they deny they have the ability to affect the world around them by touching the energies that exist in everything. I believe that you, like Ha'atathli Andrea refer to it as 'qi,'" she said, turning her attention to Andi.

"My whole family does. I suppose it's because I studied in Japan and China." Andi shrugged. "I've known folks who've used different terms for it."

Imani nodded. "I will not say that it is impossible for someone with a black heart to experience the wonder of working with the energies and become adept at manipulating them. We know these people exist. We know they — like you and Paul and even Cisco — have the ability to open small portals from which they release the small demons that claim people's souls."

She paused and closed her eyes for a moment, taking a deep breath and letting it out slowly.

"Only the shamans can remove the demons from a person. It is a horrifying thing to see. I have observed Ha'atathli Chester perform this ritual twice. These demons are..." She could only shake her head. She just didn't have the words to describe them.

Andi reached out and rested a hand on the girl's shoulder. "I know. They are evil and utterly terrifying. But if they're anything like the Shadowkin in our world, they really don't like cousin kin." She glanced back at her Brother, frowning. "It still baffles me how that piece of shit infected you."

Then she looked back at the youngster, squeezing her shoulder gently. "It's true that it has a taste for mutants. But it's also true that once that crap is pulled out of someone, they can't be re-infected."

Imani's eyes flew open and she stared at Andi as she took the older woman's hand. "You have witnessed this? This could give some hope to those in despair that they will never see their loved ones again."

"Oh, yeah. I've seen it, Paul's seen it. Sometimes, it's kind of funny to see the little scumbags zipping around a room looking for a new host only to realize it's surrounded by folks who are immune and someone that scares them shitless. Or would scare them shitless if they weren't little energy leeches and could actually take a shit anywhere."

Andi patted the girl's hands. "I've already run into one of them up in Las Vegas. It behaved like one of the smarter versions I've seen back home. That is, it was looking for a specific host rather than just the closest human. But I managed to snag it and shove it through a portal without breaking character."

Logan rumbled in the Elder language and Andi laughed. "Oh, stop! I was playing the cheerful ditz. I would have had to sob on your shoulder if I'd broken a nail. Brat."

Tori looked over at Paul. "That's not fluent?"

He shrugged. "I don't know. Mom claims she doesn't understand everything Uncle Logan says."

Madeline eyed her Sister and her Mate, then said to Paul, "I'd put money on the fact that your mother's claims are bullshit."

Andi merely released Imani's hands, shrugged, and kissed her Sister's cheek.

"Listen," she said to the group in general, "the point is that there are people infected with Shadowkin — or possessed by demons, if you want to use this world's terminology — I can see them, I can pull the evil right out of them if necessary, and then stuff that crap where it's going to be hard for anyone to find.

"The question that we'll need to come back to is where are these amateur portal openers? That's a mess that ought to be cleaned up before we leave. So..." She looked at Imani again. "Other than opening portals to let demons out, what else does the other team have in terms of magic?"

The girl blinked a couple of times. "There are some places with wards. These are few, and the Elder Guardians theorize that it is more difficult for those with harmful intent to trust anyone enough to work that closely. The only known locations in the Free Lands of such wards are near Kansas City. There are three such places spaced many miles apart, and the wards merely protect individual buildings. That information is about a month old.

"We have yet to find any wards in the vicinity of Oklahoma City. However, there is a much larger presence of the demons there. Our last messenger from there arrived a week ago.

"The oldest information we have is approximately six weeks old, and is from the Wichita area. Other than the usual activities of attempts to fetch demons, there had been nothing of significance to report." Imani's brows drew together for a moment. "The last message did have a cryptic addendum, at least according to Guardian Joaquin. He has passed it along to the Guardians and Shamans.

"It just said Corbin is New Mosquero." She shrugged. It means nothing to me."

Tori, however, froze and her eyes grew dark with anger.

"Are your messengers in that area the two Kenton brothers of the Comanche?"

Imani looked at Tori with concern. "Yes. David and Daniel. Why?"

"I know what the message means."

Andi, Madeline, and Logan had heard a somewhat abbreviated version of Kinta's captivity and her rescue by Tori and her parents during their shopping trip in Albuquerque. Both women, as well as Andi's children and Imani, could see the change in her qi. Em could feel it. Everyone else, with the possible exception of Cisco, was aware that something was going on.

Like Andi, Tori's anger burned hot like the sun.

"Yep," the Warrior said in response to a question that hadn't been asked. "We're going to Corbin." She looked at Imani. "If you have a way to get word to Kinta's brothers, they're welcome to join us if they're so inclined."

"Want to let us in on what's going on?" Sara asked.

"Yeah," Andi said. "But later, okay? Even our kids don't know the details and Master Imani should have a chance to finish sharing all her information. After all," she added with a wicked Ninja grin, "we don't want poor Oliver to lose his mind, do we?"

"It might be too late for that," Sara quipped.

Andi grinned at her. "I like you." Then she looked at her Sister. "Any other questions you or our new cousins have before Imani gets into the far more exciting details about how I can both be detected and not detected in the Free Lands?"

I'm going to step over here with Tori for a moment.

"Imani, do your people have a way to communicate beyond the messengers? We did a handshake so Vin can get information back to the Dine, but your people are closer to the Free Lands. I know firsthand what a shit hole OK City is. If not telepathically…" Madeline now looked toward Andi, "maybe one of the Spirits can help."

"It depends on the messenger and where she or he is going." Imani considered the question carefully. "There are many factors that come into play when communicating telepathically, as I suspect you might know — ability, strength, and often familial connections. So the honest answer is that sometimes we can communicate with those in the Free Lands but more often we must wait until they return to one of the Nations.

"You understand, I hope, that messengers do not tarry in the Free Lands longer than necessary. There are those who..."

Imani looked over at Tori where she spoke with Andi, compassion in her eyes. Then she gave her attention back to Madeline.

"There are those like Tori's parents," she said softly, "who would, indeed, have been considered spies. To ensure their safety, we do not ever communicate directly with them — only through intermediaries, the messengers."

She shook her head then. "No, we have never asked the Spirits to assist in this way. Not everyone can sense the presence of the Spirits. Not all cousin kin have chosen to become full members of the Nation in which they reside, as we are very often nomadic in nature.

"But you must understand that there is only one shaman among the People with the ability to speak to any of the Spirits with ease." Her eyes darted to Andi for a second. "Ha'atathli Yazzie would wear herself out and spend every moment of her life doing this kind of work if she believed it would save lives. The sad truth is that there are fewer and fewer people in the Free Lands with guardian Spirits. There is hardly anyone left to speak with."

# # #

Andi had taken one of Tori's clenched fists in both her hands.

Careful, Warrior, Tori growled in the language of the cousin kin.

I trust you, Andi replied in kind.

That slight nudge away from center allowed Andi to pull on the deputy's arm. "Come with me," she said in Diné Bizaad. "We need to speak."

They managed to get two paces away before Tori stopped, every bit the immovable object that Logan was.

I said take care, Tori repeated.

Heard you. I see your anger. Rage. Andi paused a moment. "Tell me what you feel when you think of Kinta now," she subvocalized, "on Walkabout with Allo."

The change in Tori's qi was quicker than Andi would have expected given how thoroughly enraged the woman had been only a moment prior. Tori's response in the Elder language didn't have an equivalent in English, not really.

Family love, mother love, pride, protection, probably came closest, and even that was a poor substitute.

Andi smiled. "Well, I seem to have your key, don't I, Tori Walking Eagle?"

"You're one of those bloody witches, that's what you are," the other woman grumbled, although not seriously.

"Nah. You used your own magic there, Chief. And for what it's worth, if I ever got to the point of rage where I'd turn into a nuclear bomb, that's probably what would pull me off the ledge, too." She grinned and nodded toward the others. "I like your young friend. Seems like she speaks Weird Andi. We could have all kinds of fun!"

Tori sighed and muttered, "Spirits help us," as the two of them rejoined the larger group.

# # #

"If you have someone nearby who is at least receptive to telepathic communication, Vin can do the same handshake and pass details to the Zuni. I am fairly confident in the strength of his Gift."

Vin nodded. "I have decent range."

Em shook her head. "For a mental signature he knows, it's on a planetary scale."

Imani looked at Em and then her brother. "That is a great deal of strength." Then she smiled with a hint of mischief. "Your aunt could likely do the same with the Guardians, although she would need to learn the language we use when we communicate along the wards." She chuckled. "Or perhaps it would merely be learning the proper dialect of a language she knows instinctively.

She glanced toward the border station. "Grandpapa is able to speak with his sister. She is short-lived and quite old. But Aunt Tasha is able to speak with all the siblings and their children and their grandchildren. Some of them are shapeshifters and could be here within..." She looked back at Madeline and smiled. "Well, it would depend on where they are and what forms they have mastered, yes? Some within an hour. Some by midday. If you feel this is an important endeavor, I will speak to him about it."

Madeline was the one who answered. It was her circus, after all. "It will be important if we run into anything you need to know about. Frankly, I'd rather have it set up and not need it than the other way around. With what it's like out in the Free Lands, things can go south six ways to Sunday. If we don't need it, we'll say goodbye before we head home."

Imani smiled tightly and nodded. She pursed her lips and let out a five tone whistle that earned her a cuff from Tori. It wasn't any harder than the one Logan had given Paul earlier, but Imani was cousin kin and faster. The back of Tori's fingers barely touched the child.

When Gregor came out of the longhouse, she raised her voice only slightly and said, "Grandpapa, would you ask Aunt Tasha to have as many of the telepaths available come speak to Vincent? He is very powerful, and Tori's friends would like to keep in touch as they travel."

They could all hear his laughter float on the wind, although only the cousin kin could hear his response.

Ha! Good one! I'll bet Tori's just going to miss me. And Tasha says she'll call all the telepaths in the Nation over. He paused for a second or two. I'm pretty sure she's joking.

"I don't know which one of his sisters has the more peculiar sense of humor," Tori muttered.

"Oh, Grandpapa always says each of them has a different sort of humor. It's not a topic to begin, for then he will spend an hour or more attempting to explain how it is possible to have too many sisters." Then she looked at Madeline. "They have been called. As many as possible will come."

"There's such a thing as too many sisters?" asked Andi. She looked around the little group. As far as she knew, everyone here — with the possible exception of Imani — had either one sister or no sister. Well, unless the Other Earth folks had family structures that were different from the comics she'd read.

Imani grinned at her. "He has eight of them."

Andi tilted her head. "Whoa. I think he even has Captain Moira beat. She's got more brothers than sisters. Well, only by one I guess. There's an even split... six of each."

"Mom," Paul almost whined.

She gave him a stink eye. "What?"

"Um, can we talk about how the bad guys can and can't find you instead of your Imaginary Friend?"

Andi stared at him for enough time to make him uncomfortable. It wasn't as though any of the younger generation had problems being scrutinized by their elders or anyone else for that matter. He'd endured his Aunt Lin staring him down, as well as Uncle Charles, and even Ninja.

No, in this case, it was simply the fact that Andi was giving Paul the Mom Look.

"Sorry. She's not imaginary. She's very real. She just lives in a universe we can't get to."

"Yet," Andi noted.

"Right. Yet."

"Hmm." She turned to Maddie. "I swear, some days it's as if they purposely forget things. That's a sign of senility, isn't it?" Grinning, she looked over at Imani.

"So, the bad guys can detect me but they can't? How's that work?"

Imani raised an eyebrow at the interchange between mother and son. They were all so fascinating!

"Let me first qualify that they must be actively searching for magical activities. We suspect that they do, in fact, have their own versions of Guardians who scan for such things." She gestured to Paul. "Although Guardian Zosia was not working on the wards when your family stopped near her village, she is always watching — even within the safety of the Nation. So she noted when Paul used his magic.

"You would be noted as well, much in the same way.

"Upon noting a large emanation of magic, one would need to look more closely to determine who was using magic and what exactly they were doing. This is the point where they would not be able to see you."

Imani chuckled. "You look like Nature, like Mother and Father. If I could not see you with my eyes, I would likely assume that a storm of some sort had developed."

Andi set her hands on her hips as she looked at the youngster.

"They have to be looking for something, but it would be smart to assume somebody is going to be watching.

"Then they need to focus to see what caused the ruckus. Instead of seeing me, they're going to see..." She shook her head. "They're going to see Mother and Father?!? How does that even make sense?"

Then she jumped back a couple of feet — stopped only by the immovable wall of her Brother — and yipped.

"Hey! A light tap would have been just fine!"

This caused great amusement for her Sister and Brother, a moderate amount of amusement for the younger generation, and considerable confusion for everyone else.

Except for Imani, who was nearly doubled over laughing.

Oliver sighed. Loudly.

Paul patted his shoulder and smiled. "Nothing to worry about. I think Mother Earth just reminded Mom that she did her crazy 'connecting with the universe' thing yesterday morning."

Andi was looking at the bottom of her boot. "This planet is a lot less subtle than those back home." With both feet back on the ground, she leaned against Logan. "I think things are going to be weirder than usual and don't even bother saying you didn't believe it was possible." She closed her eyes and took a deep breath. "I didn't think it was either."

Madeline rolled her eyes. "Considering the weird shit I've seen since coming here, and you weren't even here yet, why would you think that?" She paused to look at Arrow Man. "And, Oliver, if it bothers you that much, I find it helps not to focus on it. Unless, of course, you are trying to understand the metaphysical mumbo jumbo. I'm generally good as long as I know what it does without needing to understand the how."

She looked around at the Pack, including the newest members, with a half-smile. "Alright, kids, let's get the gear stowed while we are waiting for the others to arrive."

"We're going, mom," Em answered as she grabbed both Paul's arm and her brother's ear.

Vin twitched. "What the hell, Em?"

"Don't push me, Vin. I've had it with your shit. You might be Professor and Dean to those back in New York, but you're just my pain in the ass little brother."

"By, like, five seconds."

"Baloney," Paul stated. "It was more like five minutes, although your birth certificates might say it was even longer."

"I thought you were my friend, Paul!"

"I am, Binnie. Exaggerating isn't going to help your case with Em."

"Will you please let go of my ear, Em?"

The back and forth continued as they walked away. Maria followed them, preferring the teasing of her brother and cousin to whatever her mother and Aunt could dish out.

As the kids went about their tasks, Madeline looked at the bus then her Sister. "Andi, is there a voodoo version of stealth tech?"

"Seriously?" Andi looked at Maddie, then Imani. "I definitely need to readjust the Weird Meter." Finally, she studied the bus as she took a half dozen steps in that direction. "Shut up, Paul," she muttered. As she crouched down to place a palm on the ground, Imani walked over to stand nearby, watching with immense interest.

"No one person has the power to do what I believe Madeline is suggesting," the girl said. "Although... you might."

Andi nodded and closed her eyes. It would definitely play into her Magnet for Weird superpower. The moment Mother began sharing all her considerable energy, Andi had to balance herself by placing her other palm on the ground as well. It was like closing a circuit.

Imani gasped.

Maddie could see her Sister's aura more clearly than usual. That, in itself, wasn't particularly odd. The fact that they weren't with the entire Pentad in private? That was a little unusual, yes.

Both Paul and Maria glanced over at their mother.

"She's doing something crazy again," Paul said.

"Yeah. But what?" his sister asked.

"You can't tell?"

Maria shook her head. Paul poked her arm, causing her to whirl on him and nearly snap out a biting comment before she noticed he was holding his hand out to her. She bit her lip and just looked at him for a couple of seconds.

"You know, the last time we did that, we wound up tripping into a portal."

"I was TEN!"

She looked at Vin and Em, then back at her brother and finally shrugged. "I guess we're both a little better at what we do now," she admitted as she placed her hand over his, aligning their lao gong points.

They both looked at their mother and blinked.

"Whoa." Paul's voice was hushed and almost reverent.

"Yeah." Maria sounded surprised, as if their mother had done something that wasn't supposed to be possible.

"Maria?" Vin asked.

She shook her head. "It's... I don't know how to explain it, really."

"Fireworks?" Paul asked.

"Sort of?"

"But contained in a bubble."

"Right. Her aura. Except it's never looked like that before."

Imani didn't see Andi's aura, she saw the raw power the woman held. She had to take a step back, turn away so as not to be consumed by the fire.

Everyone else? They just saw Andi crouching on the ground.

Given her Magnetism for Weirdness, Andi saw and heard and felt something no one else could.

Andi?

Pablo??

Who else? You're coming back for a visit so soon?

That wasn't my intention, although it's wonderful to chat with you. She could hear the tinkling bells, the rustling leaves, the songs of the whales that were the laughter of Mother and Father. I was trying to find out if it would be possible to use magic to cloak the rig Maddie found for us.

Madeline and Logan shared the briefest glance before stepping into arms' reach of one another. Logan wrapped his arms around her, and she laid her arms over his. For the briefest of moments, she was whole again as she had not been since arriving in this world.

You know, Sister, you just get more and more weird with every passing year.

Thank you, Rene, but it was actually Maddie's idea.

Well, that settles that, Brother. It's your wife that's corrupted mine.

I hate to admit it, Rene, but... well, that doesn't sound like Madeline.

Shut up, you two. Desperate times call for desperate measures. The bus didn't come with a cloaking device. This world — well, parts of it anyway — is a shithole. We picked up a quartet of similarly displaced folks. One of them is a mutant, all four of them are short-lived folks with no healing factor. Slightly more caution is warranted than Maddie's usual level of running in with guns blazing.

Wait. You've had time to find transport and gather up additional crew?

Yeah. It's been... well, somewhere between eight and ten hours since you two popped into the Crossroads, Rene.

Um, no, dear. It's been five or ten minutes since we showed up here. We haven't even finished teasing Padraig.

Andi sighed. Okay. This universe is seriously out of time alignment with just about everything.

Well, you don't know that for sure, Andi. Check back in about the same time tomorrow. We'll see how much time has passed here.

In theory, that would be possible. Apparently, my qi signature, while enormous and distinctive, would look like a weather anomaly here to anyone looking at the great disturbance in the Force that I create. At the moment, we're still safely inside the Zuni Nation, but we're right up against their equivalent of a border wall, so once we get moving, we'll be in enemy territory. Intel says it's relatively quiet and safe between here and OK City.

And where, pray tell, is 'here'?

We're camped off I-40, about seventy miles east of Albuquerque.

She could actually see Rene turn to Pablo.

I'll give you the geography lesson later, Rene. Andi, you're okay, right?

Oh, sure. If turning up the Weird Meter beyond maximum levels is okay, then I'm peachy, Pablo. Other than that? She smiled at them. Other than missing you, we're all fine. Well, we did have to beat the children a bit, but I think they've come to their senses. I think you guys are going to need to step back a bit so I can talk to Mother and Father here, though.

{Daughter, we hear} {Daughter, we listen}

What was that?

Oh, just Mother and Father. Nothing to worry about, Rene.

Right. I'm not sure I really believed that you actually talked to the planet.

Well, I told you often enough that I do.

Yes, dear Sister, you have. I wasn't aware that you meant it literally.

Uh huh. I worry about you, Rene. In addition to geography lessons, Pablo should give you a primer on the Weirdness That Is Andi. And guys? You know I love you, we all love you, but holding this much energy for so long is starting to make me feel twitchy.

Yes, dear. Go to work. Save the world. Come home soon.

Give our love to Maddie and Logan.

Will do!

{Daughter, we hear} {Daughter, we listen}

Thank you, Mother... Father. I was wondering if it would be possible to use this... well, Imani calls it magic—

{Oh, dear child!} {So beautiful!}

Yes, she is, isn't she? Smart, too. I rather like her. Anyway, is it possible to use magic to hide our bus from those who shouldn't see it?

The momentary silence is actually quite refreshing.

{Daughter, so little life} {Daughter, so hard to see}

Ah, the bus is constructed from man-made materials that have been altered so much that their lifeforce has been removed.

{Daughter, it is so} {Daughter, you understand}

That's okay. I had to ask. Um. Imani also said I can talk to the Guardians with magic. I'm sure she's right, I just don't see how that works.

Both Mother and Father laugh again.

{Daughter is clever} {Daughter is amusing}

Yes, thank you. Shall I just ask Imani?

{Daughter speaks} {Daughter speaks} {Mother speaks} {Father speaks} {All will know what Daughter says} {In all Nations, all People will hear}

Wait, wait, wait! No, no! I don't need to speak to everyone in every Nation! That's... that's too much.

Again, there is more laughter.

{Daughter, say the People} {Daughter, say the Guardians...} {...the Shamans...} {...the Adepts...} {...the Spirits...} {...the Beloved Ones...}

Andi blinked several times, trying to translate.

I should tell you which Nation to speak to? Whether I want to contact the Guardians or the Shamans or the... the students? You can relay messages to the Spirits? Well, actually, I can talk to them, too. Who are the Beloved Ones?

{People are Nations, yes} {People do many things, yes} {Spirits are capricious, yes} {Beloved Ones are loved, yes} {Imani} {Imani Faith} {Imani Faith can look like a Spirit} {Imani}

She blinked again.

Oh. I think I know what you mean about Imani. Okay. But if I ask one of the Spirits to give a message to someone, they might not do it?

{Spirits speak} {Not all listen} {Mother speaks, all listen} {Father speaks, all listen}

Outstanding. I believe I'm sufficiently confused for now. How about if we chat again later? Would that be all right?

{Daughter calls} {Daughter speaks} {Mother listens} {Father listens} {Daughter, love...} {Daughter, love...}

Andi took a deep breath and stood up, looking around her. Her wayward children were holding hands... how adorable. Maddie and Logan looked... She smiled.

"You felt them?"

Madeline simply nodded, answering for both of them.

Not that they needed to say anything, because... well, that was a damn peaceful Pentad kind of look they had on their faces.

Then she pointed to the spot where she had been crouching. "How long?"

"Twenty point five seconds. Why?"

Andi shook her head. "I dunno. Seemed a hell of a lot longer. But to answer the question that prompted all of that... no, probably not. Not enough organic material for the 'magic' to attach to."

Then she looked at Imani again. Yep. Mother and Father were right, although, really? Why wouldn't they be? The kid was a bodhisattva. Andi smiled as she sighed. Every one of them she'd ever met had been a bright, shining star of joy.

"But my son has been nagging me to mention the hair-brained idea that your son had before we popped over here to fetch you," she said to Maddie.

"What about bringing the Blackbird across? I suppose it's better to ask if it's a good idea before trying to figure how to do it."

Madeline seemed stunned for a moment, but just a moment. "Having the Blackbird means we could safely divide our forces. Most of those that would set off Big Bad's watchers could be airborne, and I get the feeling they don't search skyward.

"The logistics of getting it here are another matter entirely. We already know there's a huge time sync issue. I don't want to send anyone to get it and sit here for another three weeks. Do we have any other assets on the other side no one has thought to mention?"

"Billie Trammel is there," Logan told her. "We brought almost everything that was mobile."

"I'm not bringing Billie here, not at her age. Besides, I need her on Epsilon."

"Well, she's going to sit on Everness until we get back, but yeah. As brilliant as she is, she'd be a liability." Andi raised an eyebrow. "Unless she stays on the ship. Still, I'm not sure her brand of magic is going to help us here."

Madeline tapped her foot thinking. "If you can manage a portal big enough, Sister, and keep it open long enough to get it here, we could certainly use that ace in the hole. Will Vin's gift work through the portal? If you can open it right at the Bird, he can do preflight remotely."

"The portal held the worlds in sync," Andi mused. "That's probably why it was so hard to keep it open. With Paul's help? And the planet's? Yeah, I think we can get a big enough portal open, and even hold it open. But... holy moly, Maddie, that's what? Forty, fifty feet? You'd have to ask Vin about the telekinesis. It's less potent than his telepathy so... I dunno. But it took hardly any time for the kids to get through the one we opened from Everness, right?" She groaned. "That's what I love about you, Maddie — figuring out to do it before we even know if it's a good idea. Also, I'm gonna need to eat an entire cow after expending that much energy."

Oliver was grinding his teeth.

"Stop it, Arrow Man. You don't have a healing factor, and I'm willing to bet this world's dental science is less advanced than yours."

"No, no, keep it up," Sara said. "I don't understand a word you're saying, but getting this kind of reaction out of Ollie is a treat!"

Andi raised both eyebrows this time. "Your claim about having grown up together was somewhat understated."

"True."

"Oliver. You're going to break something if you don't chill out," Andi said. "Yeah, sure, Maria can heal you right up. However, annoyed as I've been with her since we arrived, dental problems are right up there with poison. Knock it off."

The look on his face was a thing of beauty... to Ninja. She wondered just how long it had been since anyone had pulled a brick from his wall.

Andi looked back at Imani. "How would you, the Guardians, and the Zuni Nation feel about us opening a big ass portal right here?"

The girl glanced at Andi, but then shifted her eyes to look at the ground.

"Bad idea? I figure better here than on the other side of the wards, but if we shouldn't..." Andi shrugged. "Well, we can cause the mother of all storms in the Free Lands, I guess."

Imani shook her head. "I... I cannot speak for the Guardians, although I can pass a message along and ask the question. I cannot speak for the Zuni Nation, but one of the aunties that comes to talk with Vincent is on the Council.

"I can only speak for myself when I say that your power is... frightening."

"Yeah, I feel that way a lot of times myself." Andi looked at Maddie and shrugged. "Despite our shared philosophy that forgiveness is easier to seek than permission, I think in this case the right thing to do is ask permission first." She sighed. "Oh, how it pains me to say that. But we are in the People's land."

"Of course we'd ask for permission first here," Madeline said with exasperation. "You did before you even tried to set foot on land in front of Andrea's house. On the other hand, doing it out there won't draw undue attention to the People. So, whichever you think is best. Magic is your bailiwick. Chaos and destruction is mine."

She looked at her Sister for a moment. It wasn't the words so much as the tone of voice that caused Andi to stop. She looked around at the other people in the small group. If anyone was going to make a mention of her glowing is broad daylight, it would have been Cisco. Probably. Still, no one else seemed to notice. And she had never been able to gauge the amount of energy she was holding — she had two levels: this is just fine, and I'm a gods be damned nuclear power plant. And she didn't feel like a nuclear power plant at the moment. Pablo and Rene had always been reliable about saying something. Of course, they weren't here. And Paul had gone off to help pack up the bus.

"I'm glowing again, aren't I?" she muttered.

Andi was about to call her son back over when Imani whispered, "Yes. You glow as brightly as the sun."

"Aw, crap." She strode over to her Sister and kissed her quite properly and thoroughly. There was a more than a healthy dose of Ninja still in her eyes as she broke off the kiss an eternity later. Then she growled as she grabbed the front of Logan's shirt and pulled him into a similarly passionate kiss.

This was not the best way to release all the energy. Scratch that. It definitely was the best way — it just wasn't the best public way. With an arm around each of them, she leaned against Logan's chest.

"Cool me in a river of love," she sang softly before sighing deeply. "Sorry. I'll have Paul keep an eye on me. Not sure I trust this Mother yet to actually accept the energy back."

"This is going to happen every time you do some crazy magical thing?" Tori asked dryly.

Andi glanced up and shrugged. "Hope not. But right now, it's probably the least dangerous way of discharging all that energy."

"Oh, no. No, it definitely is not," remarked Sara. "Not even close."

Andi turned her head and looked at Sara. And her qi. "Oops. Sorry?" she said as she stepped out of her Sister's and Brother's embrace.

"No, you're not." Sara grinned wickedly.

"Yeah. Mostly, anyway." Ninja returned the grin.

When Em called Sara over, Andi watched her walk away.

"I am sorry. And it definitely was the least dangerous way to release the energy." Tori gave her a stink eye. "Inside the Zuni Nation, okay? And I don't see any large boulders over there to smash into tiny bits, so..."

Glancing at Alex, she noted the woman's conflict. On the one hand, she'd been affected by Andi's display to some extent — far less than Sara, though. Andi bit the inside of her cheek to keep from laughing. Alex had chosen the prudent path of not watching the three members of the Pentad, whereas Sara seemed to have quite blatantly observed them.

Beside Alex, Cisco had turned a deep red and was once again imitating a fish.

That meant Alex, on balance, was far more amused than upset. She was having a difficult time herself keeping her laughter contained.

Oh, now there's a balloon that could be popped!

"Cisco! Have you never in your life seen public displays of affection? Gods, Buddhas, and Spirits, child! You're going to have a coronary over there."

Oliver just looked at the whole lot of them, scowled, turned on his heel, and headed for the bus.

"Hmm," Andi said just loud enough for Maddie, Logan, and Tori to hear, "I hope he doesn't turn into a Jimmy. I'd hate to have to drop him off a cliff."

"On the route that we're taking, he ought to be safe from that fate," Tori noted.

"Oh, good! I'll need to get creative."

Tori just sighed and muttered, "Children."

# # #

Em had finally released Vin's ear. Their gear had not been unpacked except for the tents. The bags with the weapons were just inside each tent with the rest sitting outside. She hefted a bag and tossed it to Vin without warning. Like her father, she was considerably stronger than she looked. Vin had to do a quick back step to keep from being bowled over by the duffel.

"Really, Em?"

She gave him a malicious smile. "Hey, Paul, catch."

Paul chuckled since he had been warned and effortlessly caught it.

"Maria, the med kits are over there. Take care of those."

"Looks like we've got our marching orders, Binnie!" he teased his cousin before heading towards the bus.

Vin sighed and followed in Paul's wake knowing his sister was not going to let up anytime soon.

"Sure, Em," Maria said. She knew the busy work would let her avoid the parental units of all of them for the time being.

Em pulled the weapons bag out of her tent. "Hey, Sara," she called, "Want to see if there's anything here you want to use."

Sara turned and saw Em taking long daggers in sheaths out of the bag. "I'd love to, Em. Try not to have an aneurysm, okay, Ollie?" she said before patting him on the shoulder and heading towards the other woman.

Em was buckling the holster around her hips as Sara arrived.

"What kind of blades are those?" Sara asked.

Em pulled one from its sheath and offered it to Sara. "Mom designed them for me to fit my fighting style and compliment my onboard weapons. They're made from adamantium like her whip and escrima sticks."

Sara hefted the blade and tested the balance, sharpness, and feel of it. "They're incredible. You hold them like this? What's adamantium though? And what do you mean by onboard weapons?"

Em nodded. "Yeah, exactly like that. Adamantium is an alloy of a rare metal and steel. I'm not even sure where she found it as most of it is on dad's skeleton. And, um, these."

Em made a fist and partially extended her claws. Sara's eyebrows rose. "Oh. Were you born with those?"

"Pretty much, though I couldn't extend them until I was ten."

"That's kind of cool. Are you the only one?"

"No, my dad has them too."

"Wait, you and your brother are twins, but he's not like you?"

"Nope. I got dad's stuff, and I'm also an empath. He's primarily a telepath with some low-level telekinesis. Though we both did inherit dad's healing factor."

"Huh. That's handy. What else you got in the bag of goodies?"

Em took Madeline's whip and sticks out then stepped back. "Have at. If you don't find anything to your liking in there, we have another bag in Vin's tent."

Sara spent some time shuffling through the large duffel then commented, "You could equip a small army."

Em shrugged. "Mom likes to be prepared, so we brought all of it from Everness. She never goes anywhere without her kit. I'm just glad she stopped kitting C4."

Paul returned from stowing the first bag. "Mom hates that stuff." He chuckled. "She liked to tell the Army demolitions folks that there really is such a thing as too much BOOM. They'd laugh at her. Aunt Lin would laugh at her, and then threaten to take her off to visit some guy named Frank." He shrugged and grinned. "It's just her super hearing, really. I think she enjoys watching things blow up, she just doesn't like hearing it.

"We have another stash in addition to Vin's bag of goodies. Most of what I packed are laser weapons, plus we have lots of swords, two types of bows..." He paused and shook his head. "Nope, at least three, because Tori has a longbow. I can't say for certain that there isn't a crossbow in the cache somewhere. Mom was looking at Arrow Man's recurve bow with a small amount of avarice."

Sara snickered. "He hates that name."

"Oh. Sorry," Paul said contritely. "I'll stop."

"No, no! Keep it up! It reminds him that he's not the Alpha here. It's good for him, even if he doesn't know it."

He exchanged a glance with his cousin. "He's not stupid enough to challenge our moms' authority, is he?"

"Oh, probably not," Sara admitted. "He'll probably complain enough, though, that I'll clean his clock." She rolled her eyes and shook her head. "Just when I think he's over his Important Rich Guy attitude, he has a relapse. Like I said, this will be good for him."

"So..." Paul did note an interesting spark in her qi just then. "Just give him the rope to hang himself?"

"Yep."

"As long as he doesn't put the Pack at risk, that is," Em added.

Paul nodded. "Yeah, there's that. I don't think there would be enough left of him for Maria to heal if he endangered the Pack or the mission.

"And being an Important Rich Guy would explain the quality of his bow. Maria and I use compound bows, Mom's is a recurve like Oliver's. Well, no, not really like Oliver's. His looks way more high-tech." He shook his head. "Don't get me wrong, it's top quality, and probably great for fighting the bad guys back where he's from. But when she decided she was going to buy one, Mom wouldn't let Aunt Lin pay for it or have one specially made for her."

Then he grinned. "It kind of served her right that she had to go back to the Nation to buy it. The archery stores in Denver wouldn't sell her one with the amount of pull she wanted. She wouldn't go in uniform, so there was no way she could prove she was strong enough." He looked at Em and rolled his eyes. "Well, you know how stubborn Mom can be."

He looked out at Oliver stalking across the field toward the bus. Furrowing his brows at the mess of the other man's qi, he leaned his head out of the tent and looked over at his mother.

"Mom, what did you do?" he asked softly.

She looked over at him, and Ninja grinned. Nothing. Much. Oh, you're going to need to keep an eye on my power levels and let me know when I'm glowing in broad daylight.

Oh, good gods, Mother! Did you...? He shifted his gaze to Cisco and Alex and groaned. Then he rubbed his temples and looked at his cousin.

"She's in scary Ninja mode and is frightening the children. I really wish Dad were here."

Sara laughed. "Oh, I wouldn't call what she did 'frightening.' It was rather educational, though."

"Yes, I'm sure it was." He turned to leave the tent, but said over his shoulder, "Beastmaster needs Taiji. There are a lot of unbalanced people around there and an annoyed cousin kin who's older than the United States."

Let me know if you really need me to help with the loading, Em. I need to get through a few forms first, though, or I'll wind up trying to smack my mother with her own stick.

Em merely raised an eyebrow as he walked as far from everyone as possible without being too far for a quick return if it was necessary.

"Is he okay?" Sara asked.

"He will be. He knows how to balance and center." Em snorted out a laugh that lacked humor. "And unlike his sister, he knows when he's off kilter." Then she nodded. "He did offer to let us go through their weapons, too. Shall we?"

# # #

Paul walked past the pseudo driveway into the field and just stood quietly in a comfortable stance, eyes closed but facing the wards. He had a vague sense that there was something there and suspected that if he practiced long enough to reach what Mom called the No-Time place, the wards would become visible. That wasn't his intention at the moment, however.

During the trip from Ganado to Albuquerque and then to Bernalillo, he'd been trying to find the balance, that perfect sword's edge, that represented his family. Mom had done something crazy, something he didn't think was possible — she had pierced the veil between here and wherever Dad and Uncle Rene were waiting. He was pretty sure she'd taken a side trip to the Crossroads and pulled the two of them into that...

Well, technically, it was another dimension. But it was one that existed outside of all other dimensions, outside all the universes, and even beyond the Not Born space of nonexistence. He knew that was true because he and Maria hadn't been able to follow her the first time she wound up there.

On the one hand, her ability to tap into the strength and balancing nature of the two missing Spirits was probably a good thing, especially for Aunt Lin. On the other hand, it made Mom, well, more unpredictable than usual. In ordinary circumstances, that wouldn't necessarily be a bad thing.

These, however, were far from ordinary circumstances.

Maria seemed to have settled down, finally. To be fair to his twin, she'd almost managed to get her shit together by the time they'd arrived here at the border station. But that space between 'almost' and 'completely' was large enough that Mom's adoption of the Other Earth folks had knocked her back into her crazy place. Oh, well. At least it hadn't been her morose and depressed place of self-pity. Still, in trying to work her way back to some semblance of normal, she'd managed to piss Aunt Lin off.

Since it hadn't been the first time nor would it be the last time that Maria's stubbornness was knocked out of her by Aunt Lin, he didn't find that the slightest bit unusual.

Vin had a vibe of overprotectiveness hovering around him and stretching out to Maria. Paul was pretty sure both Mom and Aunt Lin had told the two of them to get their own shit together, and maybe Vin even believed he was letting Maria deal with her issues on her own. Because they had a marriage Bond now, Maria really needed to get her shit together so that she didn't knock Vin off course.

There wasn't anything he could do about that, other than keep an eye on them.

Tori, like Uncle Logan and Em, was a solid pillar. She'd had a moment when he'd been worried that she was going to lose control, but Mom had settled her down. The surprising thing was that Tori had definitely wanted to stay furious. It was a different sort of trigger than either Em or Maria had that made his Beastmaster gift want to erupt. It made sense, of course. Tori was Tori, and on top of that, he didn't think anyone besides Mom and Aunt Lin could get that enraged.

The Other Earth folks... He inwardly sighed. He understood why his mother had done what she did. And it looked like both women were going to work well with the group dynamic. Despite her strained Bond, Alex was coping remarkably well. Of course, Mom had managed to do Spirits only knew what to help her. Actually, the Spirits would probably be as baffled as he was. Still... she was a little shaky, but recovering faster than anyone he'd ever seen, with the possible exception of Em.

And Sara? Oh, gods, she was going to wind up playing the Mad Instigator — which was usually Uncle Rene's role. Actually, the more he considered it, that felt like a good thing.

The guys, on the other hand? Yeah, Cisco needed all the help he could get. Looking at his qi, it seemed like he was trying to use his gift but whatever limb he'd been accustomed to using had been amputated. It wasn't the best analogy, but it would work well enough. He and Maria might be able to help him access his gift using other pathways. Maria would need to get her shit together and keep it together because it was undeniable that it would take the two of them to teach the kid.

And Oliver? Yikes! He had a similar sort of qi signature that Jimmy had. The root cause of his attitude was different. Despite Sara's assurances, Paul wasn't entirely convinced that Oliver wouldn't cause more problems than Maria.

None of those difficulties were insurmountable obstacles, although there were quite a few of them and it seemed like Aunt Lin wanted to get the Pack moving ASAP. Nope, the super colossal problem was likely going to be his mother.

It wasn't just the fact that she attracted Weird Shit even more readily than Aunt Lin attracted Trouble. And it wasn't just the fact that she was frighteningly powerful. It was the fact that he'd always considered her effects on the world around her as a dice roll, a single simple hexahedron. Here? Dear gods, she had the chaos factor of two icosahedrons — or as Uncle Justin would have said, 2d20. It really didn't help that she could never tell when she was overloaded with energy, literally glowing in broad daylight to anyone who could see qi... and sometimes, even those who couldn't. And he was going to have to step in for Dad to make sure she didn't inadvertently turn into the world's most massive halogen light. And it would appear that she didn't trust her usual methods of discharging the energy, either.

"You were not planning to perform any magic so close to the wards, were you, Paul?"

He smiled without opening his eyes.

"I wasn't planning on it, Master Imani, no. However, I still don't completely understand what constitutes magic and what's merely..." He paused, tilting his head a bit to one side. "...taking care of myself."

She chuckled. "That is one of the first lessons I teach the apprentices. Perhaps you will allow me to teach you."

Paul opened his eyes and turned to face her, bowing as he would to any of the Masters in the dojo. "I would be honored to learn from one as wise as you."

"You are teasing me now, Paul!" she said with a laugh. "Even measured by the lifespan of short-lived people, I am certainly not old enough to have become wise."

He shrugged. "You're a bodhisattva. You were born with wisdom." He grinned then. "Maria and I are daft and decided to remember everything from the Not Born place. We were born with knowledge."

She raised an eyebrow. "We must speak more of this, it is most intriguing. But first, I must send a message along to the Guardians."

"Mom's actually considering opening a portal to fetch our ship?"

Imani lifted one shoulder in a partial shrug. "She only wanted to know the advisability of opening an unimaginably large portal within the Nation. I will be honest, Paul... I fear her power."

He nodded. "And I'll be honest in return, Imani... so do I." Then he gestured toward the wards. "Please, don't let me keep you from your task. If you don't mind, though, I'd like to watch how you work."

She inclined her head slightly. "I will be well-shielded, but you may observe whatever you can."

Imani walked toward the road but stopped about twenty feet shy of where he sensed the wards were. He took several steps back then knelt on the ground in a meditation pose, his hands resting lightly on his thighs. As Imani raised her arms to shoulder level, palms facing the wards, Paul closed his eyes again to watch the qi. Or magic. Or whatever.

It took a few seconds for him to see what she was doing, but when he did, he grinned broadly. It almost looked like she was playing a harp. The qi definitely resembled music. He couldn't hear it with his ears, but he could feel it with his heart. It felt like... not quite a symphony. A concerto maybe? Yes. And even though it appeared as though she was playing a harp, the solo instrument had the energetic feel of a cello. Paul couldn't understand the message, but if this was what Em felt with her empathy... whoa. So many emotions! He added another thin layer to his own shields, which muted both the emotions and sense of 'cello,' but it allowed him to pick out the vibrational tones of the orchestra. It wasn't often that he saw qi that was this astoundingly beautiful.

Even after Imani lowered her arms and he could no longer see the messages flowing through the wards, Paul continued to sit watching her and the wards.

"Beastmaster." She sounded somewhat surprised when she said it. "You have a light touch."

"Thank you. I've had good teachers." He smiled. "And a very patient best friend."

"So you saw more than most would see when one sends a message. Come, show me this caring for yourself that may or may not be magic."

He opened his eyes, grinned at her, and jumped up. "Mostly, I do Taiji forms, but sometimes I'll mix it up with some Qigong."

# # #

Madeline playfully cuffed Andi. "Quit tormenting the poor boy, Sister."

Having felt the missing Spirits raised hers considerably. "Did you say something about them being in our comics or something? What do you know about him from them? Maybe we can find out how accurate it is from the others."

Logan rumbled his agreement. Any intel would work in their favor. That might not be exactly how he would think of it, but it was absolutely how Madeline would consider it.

Andi looked at Maddie for a moment before staring after Oliver. Finally, she just shrugged. "I read the comic when I was a kid still living in Japan. There was a TV show, too, that Bobby made me watch. But the highlights that I remember are rich playboy — think Tony Stark, but not nearly as wealthy. Or charming. Dysfunctional family. Some kind of boating accident that killed his dad and left him on a deserted island that wasn't deserted. Learns to fight — martial arts, the bow, probably other stuff. Hooked up with the League of Assassins, had connections to Bratva, worked for one of the super-secret alphabet soup organizations for the US government. Hmm. Got tired of it all and went home, put on a hood, and started protecting his home city."

"He's nearly as colorful as I am," Madeline commented with a laugh. "You could have compared him to Rene even. And Tony wasn't quite as wealthy or charming as he thought he was, although he does get points for his scientific genius."

Andi shrugged. "There are very few people I'd compare to Rene." She smiled at her Sister. "To be honest, I suspect the man is one of a kind. And Stark?" She snorted. "Unlike Rene, he let his ego get in his way of being charming.

"Oh, yeah." She nodded in Oliver's direction. "And so much guilt that he'd top out you and Rene combined."

She glanced over at the tent where Sara was admiring part of their weapons cache with Em.

"League of Assassins. Oh, yeah. Those two have a history. Whether their reality is the same as the comics or TV show is something we'd have to ask them, but I guess it's a place to start." Andi chuckled and looked at her Brother. "We already know Cisco thinks you're taller than your counterpart in his comics."

"Well, he is," Cisco muttered.

"That's my point, kiddo," Andi replied more kindly than her previous interactions with him. "Just because we think we know something of one another doesn't mean it's the truth. It was easier for me to accept that Las Vegas here in New Mexico is a miniature Sin City — not that I'm saying it was easy — than it was for me to accept that my original guardian Spirit, Raven, is sane in this universe."

Alex looked thoughtful. "I'd only ever met Cisco before because he and Kara keep in touch. She talks about the folks from Earth Prime, though." She smiled. "And if you know anything about my sister, you'll know she only presented their better angels, so to speak. It's not that she won't recognize that everyone has their faults and demons, but she's the kind of person who'd rather believe everyone can be good."

She looked at Madeline and Andi. "She's not as naive as that sounds. She's just..." Alex shrugged as she smiled fondly. "I guess I'd call her eternally optimistic. Her cousin is almost as bad. They really help when the days get dark, and there doesn't seem to be enough hope in the world." Her voice drops to a whisper. "I wish she was here."

Andi bit her lip then glanced at Maddie and Logan, before addressing Alex again.

"Alex? If anyone here is going to be the eternal optimist in our little gang of lunatics, it's Paul." She chuckled. "Think Bridge Over Troubled Water and Lean On Me all rolled into one sentiment, and that comes close to my son's outlook on life."

"Yes, Paul does tend to see the good in people. Of all my students and trainees over the years, he never quite got to the point of despising me. Most of them outright hate me at least once."

"It helps them stay alive longer," Logan said.

"Generally takes them a while to appreciate that, but I'm all right with it."

Her Sister chuckled. "The first time my daughter decided she hated you, it took her more than a decade to get over it. I guess Paul picked up enough common sense from Ninja and his father that he could see the reasons why you were viciously cruel, applied the lessons, and never let any of it get in the way of his affection for Aunt Lin."

She looked over at Paul who was demonstrating some of the Taiji forms for Imani. "Unlike Maria, Paul never had a problem differentiating Sifu Madeline from Aunt Lin — even when it seemed like Aunt Lin was doing the teaching." Andi snickered. "He's also been able to notice the second I switch from Mom to Ninja since he was ten. That started right after he accidentally opened that first portal."

Madeline looked over and considered Oliver. "I suppose I should go talk him off the ledge, though."

Andi raised an eyebrow as Oliver stepped onto the bus. "You might want to wait until he comes staggering out, vomiting from the sickly sweetness of the newlyweds. Even I don't want to go in there."

Then she narrowed her eyes at the young bodhisattva. "I grok that there are magical ways to detect us. I even get it that Big Bad is using mostly magical means of controlling the people who work for him, her, it, them, whatever. I'm still not clear on the level of technology Big Bad has available."

"I don't think that's an easy question to answer," Tori remarked. "Imani's aunt on the Zuni Council can probably fill in some of the blanks, but there's always going to be the question of how much of the old tech is still functioning? Even the last time I spoke with my folks..." She paused a moment, sighed with obvious sadness, and shook her head. "Well, it was fairly clear even then that the people with relatively high-level technology were losing ground. A world at war? And a war like this one? Who can afford to develop new technology? Even among the people who we'd consider the enemy, there are factions that don't always see eye to eye."

She crossed her arms and stared off into the distance. "I'm not sure how things progressed in your world, but this world hit its peak of so-called cooperation during the Troubles — human versus mutant. Mutants are never going to go away, as much as the fanatics try to make that happen. More than half of humanity seems to be on board with that idea, and they've gone back to squabbling among themselves. This 'Big Bad' as you call it is likely the single most coordinated organization on the planet — more so than any of the governments outside the First Nations. And their most effective way of eliminating or controlling mutants is with demons brought from other dimensions using magic.

"Yes. The fact that they seem to have another facility dedicated to finding a way to control or eliminate the cousin kin is enough to enrage me. But it's taken them twenty years to come back to the level they were at when my parents and I destroyed their facility in Mosquero." She raised an eyebrow and regarded Madeline and Andi. "You bring this ship through from your own world? I suspect that will give you better resources that the rest of the world combined." She shrugged and smiled wryly. "Or at the very least, better resources than the people of North America."

# # #

Maria laughed and jabbed Vincent with an elbow. "I'm going to start talking to you like Mom talks to Dad if you don't get out of my way. I do know how to pack a camper, you know."

"I've heard your mom mouth off to Tio Pablo. Please don't go down that road," Vin said with a smile.

She looked at him with a mischievous little grin of her own. "Get your weapons out of the food cabinet, Husband. It's Ninja who mouths off to Dad, not Mom."

He gathered her up in a fierce hug. "That kind of talk I don't mind, Wife," he whispered close to her ear.

Maria dug her thumb into his side, and not gently. "Vin! Come on, please stop. You know I love you, I really do. But I don't want to get pummeled by your mother again." When he loosened his hold, she wiggled away and picked up one of the med kits. "And at this point, we'll have both our mothers and your sister beating the snot out of us if we don't get our collective shit together." She tucked the kit on one of the overhead racks. "And I have more work to do than you, which I really, really have a hard time doing when you're distracting me."

"I'd say I'm sorry, but..." Vin shrugged and grinned at her.

"Well, get the weapons out of the food cabinet anyway. I swear," she said as she rolled her eyes at him, "you'd think this was the Bird. Here..." She shoved a box of MREs at him with her foot. "Put this stuff away."

"Yes, dear." He continued to grin as he worked.

She set the second med kit aside and lifted the bench so she could put her duffel inside. She eyed the space and nodded. "All the clothes will fit in here," she mused, "though we'll need to rearrange stuff in the duffels."

Then she looked at the rack on the opposite side of the bus, raising an eyebrow when she noticed the slight differences in the two shelves. She'd already noted the pulldown mesh that would hold items on the racks as the vehicle moved. It was knit from fishing line, or at least that's what it looked like. The magnets on the bottom were reasonably strong, and there were also small carabiners to hold the screen down if the ride got really wild. There was a good chance the only way anything would go flying off the shelves was if the driver rolled the bus. And knowing how well everyone in her family drove, they'd have to be driving through a literal war zone for that to happen.

She knew Aunt Lin was always hesitant to let her drive anything, especially something this big. But if all hell were breaking loose and she needed to heal someone that fast... Well, they'd have bigger problems than parking the bus in the middle of a highway. Maria was almost entirely sure she could manage to come to a full and complete stop before her brain just had to make her do her thing.

She tugged on the tiny ring that dangled from the inner wall of the bus and rolled out a felt pad that covered the shelf. The ends of the bar at the leading edge of the material had small hinges that flipped down to hold the pad in place.

"Huh."

Maria pulled on the ring above the first one, noting that it was a thicker quilted pad.

"That's interesting," Vin said as he closed the food cabinet. "What do you think it's for?"

"I'd put weapons up here. Lay all the long blades out on the felt, pull this quilted piece over them." She let the pad slowly roll back into the wall of the bus, then reached up for the third ring. That, too, extended a quilted pad. "Maybe put Mom's recurve and Tori's longbow up here with all the arrows."

"There might be room for Paul's and your compound bows between the blades and the other two bows," he said as he wrapped an arm around her waist.

Maris studied the space for a few seconds before nodding slowly. "Yeah, definitely."

"Oliver's, too? I mean, if he wants to stash it."

"Depends. I haven't seen it. Is it compound or recurve?"

"Recurve," said Oliver from the doorway.

"Absolutely," Maria responded.

Vin looked at the shelf skeptically.

"Are you sure? Don't you want to measure it?"

She looked at Oliver, then at his bow, and finally at Vin. "Okay. I measured it. Happy?"

"You did— Oof! Hey!"

She grinned at him. "Go put the camp stove in the back bin on the other side. Put the bottom against the end nearest the food cabinet."

Vin just shook his head and picked up the stove. "Mom isn't going to be happy if I wedge this in here and Dad has to yank it out."

Maria snorted. "First, I'm pretty sure we wouldn't need Uncle Logan to rip it out if you get it stuck — which you won't. My mom would be happy to do it."

The stove slid into the bin with just under a centimeter to spare on each side.

Maria smiled smugly. "Both tents and three of the tarps will fit in there too."

"Okay, which one of your gifts lets you do that?" Vin laughed as he stepped back to her side to wrap his arms around her again.

"Shapeshifting, duh."

She gestured for Oliver to join them as she nudged Vin with her hip. "There's another box of MREs over there that can go in the food cabinet." Then she looked toward the back of the vehicle and eyed the racks back there. "Tori's crates should fit on one side, the second med kit and most of the laser weapons will fit on the other, especially if we keep them in Paul's duffel. There's still plenty of room for the sleeping bags tucked around everything. Mom's just going to put her staff wherever she feels like putting her staff," she mused.

"There's a rack on the back for the propane tanks, isn't there, Vin?" she asked as she went through a mental inventory of their belongings.

"More like a lockbox, but yes." He took a momentary break to kiss his wife — his wife! — once more.

"Christ, is this some sort of hippie commune?" Oliver asked.

The two of them turned toward him looking ever so slightly embarrassed, although that didn't stop them from keeping their arms around each other's waist.

"We're newlyweds?" Maria answered.

Oliver didn't smile, but he lost his scowl. "Congratulations. But how do you explain the lunatic out there in the Catwoman costume?"

"Catwoman?" Vin asked.

"Oh! I think he means Mom. If you compare her to Eartha Kitt's version of Catwoman, you'll score brownie points," Maria told Oliver.

"Who?" both men said in unison.

Maria blinked and gave each of them a look of incomprehension. After several moments, she shook her head and sighed. "Uncle Bobby. It's gotta be his fault."

"You're not helping me change my mind that long-lived folks are all psychopaths."

"Well, to be fair, the only other person who'd definitely get the reference is my brother," Maria admitted. "Mom probably would, though it depends on how many shows besides Star Trek Uncle Bobby made her watch. Uncle Logan almost definitely wouldn't get it. If Vin is clueless, then there's a good chance Em is too. Maybe Aunt Lin, too. Tori is from this world, so... um, anything goes?"

Vin chuckled. "Okay, that one I know. Cole Porter, right?"

She nodded.

"Fine," Oliver grudgingly admits. "I know what Star Trek is and who Cole Porter is. Will someone please explain your mother's insanity to me?" he asked, nodding to Maria.

She bit her lip and looked at Vin. You're better at this than I am. Also, you're more interested in, and therefore have paid more attention to, her particular brand of lunacy and how it relates to the Pentad and our missing family members.

Vin nodded and seemed to pick up his role as Professor Xavier without doing anything.

"Do you believe that magic is real?" he asked Oliver.

After tensing almost imperceptibly, Oliver made a conscious effort to relax and nodded to Vincent. "I've studied the occult a bit."

Maria's eyebrow twitch went unnoticed as Oliver's attention was focused on Vin.

I think that's what Imani meant by conflicted, Maria said.

"Then you understand that there are unseen forces that exist outside the perceptions of most people."

Oliver nodded.

"And that some people can manipulate those unseen forces," Vin pressed on.

Oliver's jaw tightened for a fraction of a second before he once again nodded.

"Great. Now, Imani calls that magic. In our universe, in our family, we know it as qi. Some people can see it, others just feel it, some have no clue what it is, and a couple of folks can manipulate it." Vin gave Oliver an affable smile. "Still with me?"

"Still with you."

"Okay. Now, Maria and my mom can see it and sense it to varying degrees. I suspect there are more variables than you're interested in at the moment to explain the how and why of it all.

"Paul is pretty good at manipulating it. I know he likes to downplay some of his abilities, but..." He shrugged and looked at Maria. "You need to remember that I met your mom before she was even Aunt Andi. It might have been a whole lot of years ago, but I remember — at least a bit — how she seemed before she adopted Mom, before they formed the Pentad, before you guys were born."

He looked back at Oliver. "Anyway, Paul is probably about as good at the manipulation as his mother was before he and Maria were born.

"And then there's Aunt Andi." Vin turned his head almost as if he was looking through the side of the bus toward his aunt. "She's a magnet for weird. Tio Pablo always said that was just one more of her superpowers." He shrugged and gave his attention to Oliver again. "Not only does she see and sense and manipulate qi, but she can also store it. Not to the extent that everyone else in the known universe can, but so far beyond that to the point that she can get overwhelmed by it. Still following?"

Oliver nodded. "Everyone has a cup and can fill it with water. She's got a gallon-sized jug."

Maria chuckled. "It's not the analogy she'd use, but it's a good one."

Vin nodded. "Except that she doesn't have a gallon jug, she's got a lake-sized reservoir."

"And sometimes it overflows," Maria added.

"And the mechanisms for manipulating the dam's floodgates aren't here," said Vin.

"So she kind of has to improvise," concluded Maria.

Oliver took it all in as he looked between the two people who appeared to be nearly as young as Cisco but were apparently a whole hell of a lot older.

"So you're saying I just need to get used to her acting..." He pointed out the door of the bus. "...like that all the way across the country?" He did not sound happy about it.

Both shook their heads.

"No," Maria said. "Dad usually keeps an eye on her — well, Dad and Uncle Rene — to make sure she doesn't start glowing in broad daylight, as Dad calls. But Paul's going to do that."

"And she's exceedingly good at channeling that energy into doing her job," added Vin. "Once we're on the move, well, the only person scarier than Ninja is Black Wolf."

"And the only reason Black Wolf is scarier than Ninja," Maria muttered, "is that Aunt Lin is just plain meaner than Mom."

Vin shrugged. He couldn't argue the point. No matter how much evil Aunt Andi had seen of the world, Mom had seen that much and more before Aunt Andi had moved to Japan with her folks.

# # #

Sara glanced over at the bus as she inspected one of the handheld energy weapons. "Should we help them?"

Em shook her head. "Not with the crap I've had to put up with from my brother and Maria for the last fifty years, which has only been exponentially worse since we got here a couple days ago. That's a laser gun, but Aunt Andi calls it a disruptor. Something to do with some show called Star Trek."

"How do you recharge them?"

"Special converter, though if one of those runs out of juice, we'll be having bigger problems than just needing to recharge."

"What do you mean?"

"You'd have to fire it continuously for about a decade or more to deplete the charge," Em said with a grin. "And they're pretty much just point and shoot once the safety is disengaged. What weapons do you normally use?"

"Escrima sticks."

Em chuffed a laugh. "No wonder mom liked you. That's her go-to as well. Any particular fighting style?"

"Jeet Kun Do," Sara answered.

Em's eyes sparkled. "That seals it. You and I are going to have to spar. It'll be a treat. We've all been together so long that we know each other's moves too well, and, well, since Mom taught all of us…"

"What about your dad?"

"Yeah, he taught some too but not what works best for him. I'm the only one who got that."

"Why not your brother too?"

"It takes a certain physicality. And being the kind of mutant we are — what they call cousin kin here."

# # #

Imani watched as Paul demonstrated the Taiji forms and Qigong exercises that he'd explained were the most common ones he practiced. She had just smiled as she looked at him with her inner sight. He was like a lake that became calmer, quieter, clearer the more he moved through his forms. If this was self-care, then it was very good. Should any of those in the Free Lands who watched for magic saw this, they would only see someone who was ordinary and serene.

She knew that any attempt at opening a portal — something he said he could do — could be seen, and would be noted. If he had learned to tap the energies of the world, he might look as innocuous as his mother while doing that work.

It was fortunate that the dark users of magic all seemed to congregate near the strongholds of the Great Foe. Being who she was, it was good that she was barred from venturing out into the Free Lands. The swath of land from Oklahoma City up to Kansas City looked like a cancer — or at least, that's how she pictured it after reading through some anatomy books in the Albuquerque Library. There were pockets around the country that looked like canker sores — most were along the eastern coast of the continent, but Minneapolis and Houston looked like that, too. Dallas looked like a scabbed over sore that still oozed some pus. Los Angeles and Chicago? They looked like necrotic tissue.

Los Angeles was entirely surrounded by the Confederacy of California Nations and Tribes; it would probably be a dead zone within fifty years. It would be swallowed up by the Confederacy within a century. Chicago would take longer to die, but it eventually would. The only question was whether one or more of the First Nations would enfold it and heal the wound or if the cancer in the middle of the continent would stretch out and engulf it.

Imani smiled to herself as she shifted from human to cheetah. She could easily see that Paul took notice of it — the surface of the lake seemed to ripple with a breeze. So. Passive use of his gift would not draw attention. She shifted back to human form.

"Pause your practice, please, Paul. I would like to see what your gift looks like when you are actively using it."

Paul finished his current form, centered his qi, and sat down facing Imani. "Is there something in particular you'd like me to do? Unless Maria is shifting into something less familiar and she thinks I ought to keep an eye on her, there isn't much for me to do." He chuckled. "I know Uncle Logan and Em and, I would have to assume, Tori can all find hunting game as easily with their own senses as I can with my gift."

"One never knows in what way events will unfold, especially in the Free Lands," she said. "Simply... seek out an animal and urge it to proceed in a direction it had not intended."

"Sure." He closed his eyes and let his mind and his gift stretch out, up, westward looking for living creatures. About a mile or so southwest of them, he noted a coyote walking along a streambed. It was hungry, but not hungry enough to cross the stream where it was more than a few inches deep. He nudged the animal with the thought, the idea, the sense that there was a jackrabbit on the other side of the stream. The coyote lifted its head with what might have been surprise, looked at the water, then loped a few yards downstream before leaping across.

Paul opened his eyes. "Poor fella. He's going to be disappointed when he doesn't find the rabbit I taunted him with."

Imani chuckled. "And yet, he will eventually find a meal. The way your energy moves when you work is quite interesting. Your exercises, self-care as you call it, make you look like a serene and perfectly ordinary person. When you noted my shift, it barely caused a ripple. Even to one who is exceptionally paranoid and cautious, the active use of your gift could also be interpreted as someone who is completely human, although perhaps highly agitated."

She sighed and shrugged. "Unfortunately for the world in general but fortunately for you, a large percentage of the population in the Free Lands is highly agitated.

"That said, the Beastmaster gift is not one that calls attention to itself. That is, it is one that I would categorize as passive rather than active even though you are active while using the gift. This means that it is something that could be noticed if one of their guardians happened to be looking in your direction at that moment, but only in that circumstance. The opening of a portal, however?" She smiled wryly. "That will call quite a bit of attention to yourself."

Paul nodded. "And would it be the case that a bigger portal will be, well, louder? Or would it simply reach a larger audience?"

The youngster tilted her head and regarded him for a moment. "Excellent question. Unfortunately, the answer is not clear-cut — that is, it depends on the strength and style of the person opening the portal. I might make a guess that your mother would cause a very loud noise, as you put it. However, without actually observing you doing it, I cannot say with certainty."

He nodded again. "Once we're out in the field, I wouldn't expect to open any portals except to shove Shadowkin into some pocket dimension, at least not before we're ready to go home. And we can both do that in just a few seconds without using a whole lot of energy. If we get an okay to open a portal here from everyone who would need to sign off on it..." He glanced over at his mother and aunt. "Well, I think both Mom and I will need to work together to open one that's big enough. I guess you could watch what we're doing. But if you don't know how it's going to affect your wards or how disruptive it's going to be in the Zuni lands, we can't really know if we should open it here or across the road."

Imani chuckled. "Indeed, you have grasped the complexity of the issue. I suspect, however, if approval is granted to open your portal within the Nation, the Guardians will ask you to move west by several miles." She shrugged apologetically. "Your mother is extremely powerful."

# # #

Andi looked over at her son, who was now sitting on the ground with Imani. She shook her head. Kids.

Then she sighed as she looked at her Sister and Brother.

"I still have questions for Imani, and so many questions that maybe Tori and the Zuni Council rep can answer. But let me ask you this first, Maddie.

"You surmised that the Charles of this world wouldn't or couldn't use Cerebro because it might have been compromised or even stolen. You have a lot more experience with it than I do. And you saw the way the school in this world looked, at least from the outside."

She had far too many questions about the device, so choosing the right first question might help to sort the rest of them into reasonable categories.

"What if neither is the case? What if it's malfunctioning, damaged, or destroyed? You said it yourself to Chief Kee — somebody bombed the hell out of their tax base. There could have been power failures or loss of structural integrity." She nodded. "Yeah, I'll admit that the second one seems a bit far-fetched given what I know of the school in our world. But this isn't our world, so who knows what differences there are?

"That could certainly explain his reluctance or inability to use the device."

"That's my guess," Madeline replied, "and only because of personal history. It's hard to say why really. Our Cerebro — well, Vin's actually — is in a closed power system, self-contained and self-powered by something Hank tried to explain to me. Leon understood it, of course. I assumed the one here is not so different. However, considering the state of the buildings, structural damage could have happened. From the surrounding vegetation, whatever destroyed the mansion happened long enough ago for the surrounding forest to regrow."

Andi nodded. "In other words, the question of that particular tech is still an unknown. I don't like it, but it is what it is. We have to assume it's a threat."

Then she looked at Logan for several long seconds, recognizing the vast gulf between her beloved Brother and the man from this world who wore his face and carried his name. She frowned as she looked at her Sister again.

"And what if this Charles can't use it? And yes, I have a bizarre theory that might explain why. I just don't want to go there right this second."

"Anything's possible. And I don't know if this is worrying or concerning, but other than the initial scan to realize I'm not a mutant, he never reached out to me despite my giving him explicit permission. Now, even without Cerebro, Charles had a good range, especially for those he already knew. What's different about this one other than the lack of chair and the fact that he seems to still be close with Eric? Damned if I know."

"Well, unfortunately — or fortunately, depending on your point of view — that plays well into one of my more bizarre theories." She tilted her head, considering what she'd just said. Then she snorted. "Nope, it's probably about par for the course on the Weird meter.

"You said you thought this Charles was interested in the portals. It would make sense to send Jimmy along with you to see what happened when you reached Andrea. Okay, sure, he didn't know exactly who you were going to see — just that you were looking for a way back home, and that way was going to be facilitated by someone in the Nation."

Andi bit her lip as she looked over at Alex and Cisco, looked toward Sara and Em enjoying their discussion of weapons, glanced at the bus where Oliver was annoyed with... well, everything. Then she looked back at Maddie.

"What if this Charles is interested in the portals for the same reason you were, for the same reason our new family members were?

"What if he doesn't belong here anymore than we do?"

Madeline tilted her head to the side and pondered Andi's statement. "Hadn't considered that, but, yes, that would make sense. And I suppose I rather didn't give him the option of bringing up the subject. Jimmy seems to be from here, and they've at least developed some sort of rapport. If that's the case, perhaps he's been here even longer than I have. That would wear on anyone, even Charles, and I'm sure Eric probably isn't helping matters.

"Now I'm even more curious about this girlfriend of Jimmy's. Well, I guess we will have to go all the way to New York to get our answers."

She slipped an arm around Logan's waist. "And I'm ever so grateful to have much better company on the return trip."

"Well, I did get the sense that Jimmy remembered things Logan doesn't. Nothing specific, really, just..." Andi shrugged. "Just my spidey sense, I guess."

"You know Spiderman?" Cisco asked.

She looked at him and blinked. "Ah, no? From what I heard of him, he was probably a nice kid. Ran with the Avengers every once in a while. I didn't get along with most of them, so..." Again she shrugged. "Stark said I don't play well with others."

Then she turned to Maddie and laughed. "Pot, kettle, and he couldn't even see it."

"Yeah, yeah, Tony's an asshole. We all know this."

"Anyway, yeah. The new folks haven't been here long. You've been in-country for three weeks. We don't know who's dumping people here or why, but Charles and Eric could certainly have been here for months or even years. And there could even be..."

Logan and Madeline could see it — Andi's shift to Warrior in less than the blink of an eye, skipping right past the snarky but somewhat more laid back Ninja persona entirely.

"...others here, too."

"Should we look for them?" Alex asked.

"No." Andi's voice was low, and she nearly spat the words out. "If they're still alive and on the side of good, I'll find them."

As she looked at Madeline, she left the flip side of that statement unspoken, even telepathically. It was bad enough that she even had the thought. She knew she attracted every manner of weirdness the universes could throw at her. She didn't even want the universe to perceive that she knew there was a flip side of her comment to Alex.

Logan and Madeline stepped apart, Logan's hands dropping loosely to his sides as he looked around. Madeline kept her eyes on Andi but opened her peripheral vision. "Em, heads up," she said then took a step towards Alex.

"Andi?"

Across the campsite, Em's head came up. She glanced over at her folks and aunt and saw their stances. Her own hands dropped to the hilts of her blades. She was glad she had just shown Sara the safety on the handheld weapon.

"Hang on to that," Em told White Canary. "Something may be rolling in."

Vin, incoming.

A mental nod came back. Inside the bus, he motioned the other two to stay out of sight. Oliver frowned.

"As little movement as possible," Vin whispered to him. It would be impolite to just reach out telepathically.

"Trouble? " Oliver asked.

"Don't know yet."

Give me a sec, Andi said to her Sister. Then she closed her eyes and stretched out her senses as far as possible. She even let Mother lend her some energy. Almost surprisingly, Mother understood that less was more right now.

She felt herself being pushed back away from the wards, which was a good sign. At least Andi thought it probably was. She'd have to step outside to do recon on the other side, but despite the assurances of the young bodhisattva, she wanted to see for herself that they were safe here.

She could feel the Wolf Pack snapping to attention — even her flighty daughter had her shit together at the moment; Sara and Alex where on high alert. In fact, Alex had moved to the side so that Cisco was between her and Madeline, putting him in what she thought was the most protected position. Well, she was probably right. Paul held utterly still but was ready to defend Imani or fight at her side, whichever would be necessary. Like Logan, Tori was trying to find the source of whatever danger Andi had sensed.

Maybe it's all in my head, she thought to herself.

The only person in the group that wasn't acting like a member of the Pack was Oliver. He was on alert, yes. But it was apparent that he chafed at the need to be still.

Andi could sense the incoming shapeshifters — various birds, coyotes, wolves, mountain lions. All of them hesitated, some even veered off slightly.

"Tori," she whispered, practically subvocalizing, "anything beyond the wards?"

After a few seconds, the Elder chuffed, No. Nothing reeking of danger.

The people of this world all had a connection to it. It was in their qi, it was in their DNA. The folks from the other Earths were different. They didn't quite have any blatantly discernible differences in their DNA, but their auras were unquestionably blue-shifted — Alex's nearly imperceptibly more so than the other three. The Wolf Pack? Their auras were red-shifted, but not anywhere near as much as the Other Earthers were in the blue direction. She wondered if that made a difference. At least it was a marker she could use to detect anyone who was not of this world. Maybe? Probably.

Finally, Andi opened her eyes and met Maddie's.

Sabertooth isn't going to be able to get into this world without my help. It was hard enough to get Logan here. Eric isn't acting like Magneto. Who else should I be watching for while we're out there?

Aloud, she said, "We're fine. For the moment."

Madeline blinked at the name Andi used. The one in their universe was dead for all intents and purposes, at least as far as she knew. Logan had nearly shredded him and destroyed a dam and the lake that was over the top of it.

With a shake of her head, she responded in the same manner. Your guess is as good as mine. My counterpart is dead, and the Charles and Eric of our world are too. There are too many damn variables, especially if people from other universes are being dropped in here for whatever reason.

Yeah, that's the biggest problem — how many universes are these unseen forces pulling people from? Or maybe the biggest problem is not knowing why. Andi paused as she noted people moving from high alert to watchful guarding of their territory. I'm going to simultaneously be optimistic in hoping they're trying to pull in people who can clean things up here while at the same time matching your level of paranoia that they're not.

Aloud Madeline passed the word, "Em, stand down but stay alert."

Her eyes shifted just long enough to see her daughter's stance change.

Em reached back into the weapons bag and pulled out the holster to the handheld and offered it to Sara. Sara took it, slid the weapon home then clipped the unit to her waistband. Em frowned a moment to make a decision.

"I'm going to walk the perimeter. You want to come with me?"

Sara nodded. "Sure."

Em nodded and smiled her thanks. "There are a couple things that I want to do first."

She led Sara back to the first tent and ducked inside. When she came back out, she had a long dark red duster on and a couple of bundles of fabric and leather. She handed the black bundle to Sara.

"Can you take this to my mom while I give the other to my brother?"

"Sure," Sara answered and turned to do as requested.

Em did not quite jog to the bus, but it certainly was not a casual stroll. Vin. Oliver preceding him, her brother met her at the door and accepted the white bundle from her. Em gauged Oliver. To him, she said, "Might be something. Might be nothing. We prefer to be prepared. Can you keep watch from up there?"

Oliver followed her gaze to the top of the bus. Looking back at her, he nodded. "How do I alert you?"

"Just say whatever it is you see, just like you're talking to me now. I'll hear you, so will Tori and my aunt and father."

Oliver looked somewhat skeptical, but he had already observed Andi hear something that she should have been too far away to hear. "Okay."

He climbed to the top of the bus and unslung his bow. Around here, that was not such an unusual sight. Bows were the primary hunting weapon.

Sara approached the group of older people and went straight to Madeline, who smiled at the sight of the bundle she carried. She shrugged out of her leather jacket and traded it to Sara for what she held. Seconds later Black Wolf stood in Madeline's place. Black Wolf smiled too, this time at the extra weight of her duster. Em had slid her sticks into their places.

"The jacket should fit you if you want."

Sara's gear was already on the bus. She pulled the offered jacket on and settled it into place. It was a good fit.

"Em and I are going for a walk."

"Enjoy the sights."

In the confines of the bus, Vin unfurled his duster of winter white and pulled it on. He did have to admit that the Pack uniforms were better than the X-men's though he would never say it aloud. He looked up to see Maria watching him.

She smiled tightly. Despite the fact that the duster made him that much more attractive, it also meant they were working. "Should we get eyes in the sky?"

Vin shook his head. "Not yet. I'm going to see if I can pick anything up."

"I'll watch over you."

He unlatched one of the chairs from the floor, turned it so that the back of the chair faced the border then straddled it. He let his eyes unfocus, and his mind expand. He noted those closest: Maria, Oliver, Em — receding, Paul, Imani, Sara — meeting Em, Tori, Aunt Andi, Alex, Cisco, Mom, Dad...

Andi pulled her staff from its scabbard and looked at Alex and Cisco.

"I'm sorry to say that you're our weak link, Cisco." She glanced over at the bus and nodded, then looked at the pair in front of her. "Go hang out on the bus, will you? If Maria is able to sync with you so you can see how she's monitoring Vincent, great. If not, just..." She smiled at him, one of the friendly ones. "Just chill for a while.

"Alex, would you mind walking the perimeter opposite Em and Sara with Paul?"

Alex looked from Andi to Cisco and back again. "No problem. I'm just looking for... anything that sets my cop's instincts on edge?"

"Exactly."

"Okay. Come on, Cisco. You can be lazy until someone finds you some tech to play with." She grinned at him in a way that told Andi that she was awfully damn close to being back to normal.

When she looked at the strained Bond the woman had with her soulmate, Andi just shook her head. She didn't say anything until Alex was out of earshot.

"I scare myself sometimes," she murmured. Then she looked toward the sky and shook her head. "And other people, too."

Sweeping her arm in an arc from west to southwest, she said, "At least a dozen land-based shapeshifters are incoming. I've freaked out the avians — I think they're younger — so some of them dropped down and shifted back to human. But there are ten or twelve of them, too."

Then she nodded in Imani's direction. "I'm going to reassure our friendly neighborhood bodhisattva that we know better than to mess with the wards. I know Vin's going to watch, well, everyone." Andi's eyes shifted to the border station.

"Hmm. Maybe someone should tell Imani's grandpa that we're not trying to blow up this corner of the Nation."

Tori actually laughed. "I'll tell him. Gregor might look worried to you, Andi — and I'll grant that he hasn't seen this much activity here since he started working at the station fifteen years ago — but once I explain even in broad, general terms what we're doing?" Her smile was a combination of affection and bemusement. "He'll think it's the funniest thing to happen in his entire life. He's kind of warped that way."

Andi shrugged as Tori jogged off. "Warped is relative." Then she nodded to the southwest. "First shifter incoming now."

As Alex joined Paul and Imani, the youngster merely smiled and rested a hand lightly on Paul's arm for a moment.

"I felt the resonance your mother created on the wards, Paul. You and Alex take this opportunity to see what can be seen beyond them, to learn more of one another, yes?" She laughed lightly. "If my opinion counts for anything, I believe your skills and personalities are well-suited to a successful working relationship."

As she walked off to meet Andi, Alex shook her head. "What did that mean?"

Paul just grinned and said, "Heck if I know. I guess we'll find out." He took a closer look at Alex's qi before walking along the road and the wards. That bodhisattva was almost as spooky as his mom.

"How about if you watch for physical anomalies and I'll keep an eye out for the metaphysical. We've got twenty-four... nope, twenty-five telepathic shapeshifters incoming. Maybe Imani's grandfather wasn't kidding about calling every telepath in the Nation to talk to Vin."

# # #

Seeing Oliver crouched on top of the bus looking like he was ready to shoot anything that moved didn't really surprise Cisco. Barry had described him often enough. Cisco wasn't sure he was all there, though. Come to think of it, he wasn't sure most of these people were playing with a full deck. Alex was still Alex, even though she missed Maggie like crazy. He was kind of jealous but, on the other hand, not really. He really wished he had someone back home that he missed like that, except the missing part would suck. A lot. Maybe that's why Andi acted like an insane person. Her husband was back home. Except... except he was dead?

This place was weirder than a world full of metahumans, that much he absolutely knew. No doubt about that. He'd seen some crazy shit since he started working at Star Labs, and even more insane stuff since Barry...

Nope. He wasn't going to think about Barry. Barry might be the best friend he'd ever had, but damn... He'd fucked up big time with that timeline changing bullshit. It's not that Cisco didn't totally grok why he did some of that stuff. It was just...

Cisco shook his head. He really wasn't sure what was more fucked up — Barry's fucking with time or this place. Probably the time nonsense. He briefly wondered if Caitlin was worried about him. She'd always been really great, almost like a big sister. He liked that.

As he stepped onto the bus, he blinked at the sight of Vincent in his white leather duster.

"Whoa, dude. That is so cool!"

Vin smiled back at him before settling on the chair. "Thanks, man. It's Mom's idea."

"Matching outfits for the whole family! Neat. Later, you need to tell me why you picked white and your sister got red. Or why your mom picked your colors. Or... hey, you know what? I'll just shut up now."

Maria chuckled. "Don't worry about it, Cisco. You don't stand a chance of out-babbling my mom once she gets going, so it's not anything we haven't dealt with."

"You good, Maria?" Vin asked.

She closed her eyes and paused for a few seconds, then nodded as she opened her eyes. "Good to go. It seems to be a lot easier to set shields now." She squeezed his shoulder before looking back at Cisco.

"Mom sent you over here because you're a non-com, huh?"

Cisco stared at her for a second before the term filtered into his brain enough to make sense. "Oh. Yeah, right. I guess. She said I should sync with you or something, but not much of what your mother says makes sense."

She nodded. "Yeah. I know. Mostly, we just tune her out when she goes into her metaphysical mumbo jumbo mode... even Paul and me. And we inherited some of her qi powers." Maria shrugged. "I'm going to guess she means I should work with you to see if you can at least see qi the way we do. Come on back," she said, gesturing to the back of the bus.

"Um, don't you need to..." He gestured to Vin, who was just sitting at the table and didn't seem to be doing anything. Maybe napping — he did have his eyes mostly closed. "...I dunno, watch him or something?"

Maria smiled. "I am. I watch from here," she said, tapping her temple, "and here," she added, tapping her chest above her heart. "When Vin does the Ghost Wolf thing, I'm better off not watching with my eyes." Her smile broadened into a mischievous grin, and she winked at Cisco. "My husband is awfully sexy."

"I heard that, Maria," Vin muttered barely above a whisper.

"Stop multitasking, Vincent. We're on high alert for a reason."

Cisco sat once again on the back bench and watched Maria practically glide toward him and sit on the bench where Alex had been on the way out here. He was probably noticing how beautiful she was because he was trying to keep from being freaked out by all of this. Nah, it was because she was beautiful. Still, it did stop his mind from racing away to the madhouse.

"So... don't you have a uniform, too?"

She smiled. "I'm wearing it. At least, this is what I wear when I run with the Wolf Pack. Aunt Lin doesn't insist on uniforms, but Mom wears her Ninja uniform because it's practically indestructible. And the Wolves wear their uniforms because, well, duh. But Paul and I, Uncle Logan, Dad and Uncle Rene when they're with us? We usually go with jeans, t-shirts or tank tops, and either a leather jacket or a jeans jacket. Sometimes Uncle Rene will wear full leathers, at least until Mom zaps him and tells him to change into something less distracting," she added with a laugh.

"So I'm not underdressed?" he joked.

"Nah," she replied. "If Vin's going to stick with his Wolf duster, he'll probably let you borrow his leather jacket. Your hoodie doesn't look all that warm."

He shrugged. "I'm okay during the day. It was fucking cold overnight, though."

Maria smiled wryly. "Winter in the desert. Welcome to the land of extreme temperatures. It should even out as we move east and to a lower elevation, but..." She shrugged. "It's still winter. Only Mom and Paul have built-in furnaces." Then she snickered. "And Paul's doesn't work all the time."

"I don't get it."

"Oh. It's, um, I guess it's a Taiji thing. Mom learned all sorts of stuff when she lived in China and studied with Grandmaster Chen. She said that all Taiji masters can regulate their body temperature and heart rates and stuff. I can sometimes manage when I'm meditating or doing Taiji, but if I really need to stay warm and pay attention, I shift to something with a thick coat. Usually a wolf. Paul's usually pretty good at the temperature regulation even when he's doing ordinary things, although not if he gets distracted. Going into battle is distracting. Mom?" Maria just shrugged. "Well, she's scary."

Maria, when your mom did whatever she did to send us into work mode, did she go beyond the wards?

She looked over at Vin. No idea. Why? And do you want me to ask her?

If you would, please. I'm getting the impression of... a gentle warning maybe? Something more on the order of a sign that says 'wet paint' than one that says 'beware of dog.'

Okay. Give me a sec.

She smiled Cisco and tapped her temple. "Give me a second, okay? Need to check on something."

Mom? Vin wants to know if you went beyond the wards when you did whatever you did.

Maria could hear her mother's mental chuckle. No. It felt like I was getting some pushback. I don't want to offend our hosts, so I didn't press the matter. She paused for an instant before laughing. It had the feel of someone turning me around and saying, "Now, dearie, you shouldn't be playing over here. It's not safe."

Maria grinned at the thought. I hope someday I'll be able to tease you about that without getting my ass kicked.

Keep dreaming, kid. Keep dreaming.

Vin, Mom said she got the sense that they were pushing her back. I get the impression that she thinks we can trust the Guardians, so you should probably do the same.

Got it. Will do. I hope somebody is watching them, though.

She looked out the window at Mom — who was chatting with Imani and a couple of folks she had to assume where the local telepaths.

"Mom's with Imani," she whispered. "Imani is paying at least as much attention to the wards as she is to anything else."

Vin nodded slightly.

Thanks. I'm going to need to go to work soon to make those connections.

Maria sighed and turned back to Cisco. "So. I'm going to guess there's not much I can do to help you not feel freaked out by all of this. Want to tell me what you do and how you do it?"

"Um, well, I can open portals. At first, it was just, you know, from one place to another?" Cisco looked embarrassed and decidedly uncomfortable. "Like, across town or whatever. And then... I dunno, I opened a portal to a different version of Earth, and that was weird. And if I have something that belongs to you, and I see where you are. And sometimes see what you're going to do in the future."

He shrugged. "But I need my Vibe glasses to do that, so I don't know how much help I'm going to be."

Maria smiled and waved away his worry. "Paul and I will work with you and see if you can at least help open portals — little ones — to stuff Shadowkin in if Mom finds any." She glanced out the window and sighed. "And I have a feeling she thinks we're going to find a lot."

Then she cheerfully nodded to him. "And helping you makes me feel less useless, too! So we all win."

Cisco looked skeptical. "If you say so."

# # #

Despite the seriousness of the situation, Madeline wore an amused look. Logan tilted his head at her and chuffed, "What?"

"Two things. One, it's good to have the Pack with me again. And two, everyone is so well trained I feel almost superfluous."

He laughed softly. "Oh, darlin', you'll never be superfluous, not to me. And it has been far too long since the running of the Wolves. Though it might be nice to have family get-togethers without the fate of any world hanging in the balance."

She raised an eyebrow at him. "The fate of the world?"

"Your Mate has seen more war than you have even if your Husband has not. And both of us know the kinds of things that put you on a Mission."

"Point taken."

He eyed a couple more new arrivals. He nodded, then pulled a cigar from inside his jacket pocket. "I'm going to counter the pairs while you and Vin do your thing."

"See what I mean? Almost completely superfluous."

"Just means you're a good leader," he said with a wink just before he walked off in the opposite direction that Em and Sara had gone.

She watched him walk away with great fondness. Damn, it was good to have him, the real him, back. Turning back to see Andi and Imani, she saw four new people now. She headed in that direction.

Let's get started, Vin.

On my way.

Vin retreated back into his own mind, noting the people he had earlier only in reverse. He also made a note of the new arrivals without contacting them in any way. That would be rude. In regards to his family, he knew their mental signatures the same way regular folk knew faces and voices. The four newest members were also easily distinguished from one another though Sara and Alex were the most alike.

He opened his eyes and gave himself a light shake from head to toe, waking up his physical self. Being that focused was near trance-like. He rose and paused to smile at Maria.

Thank you, wife.

She smiled in return. You're welcome, husband.

When Vin got up to do his Connect With the Telepaths thing, Maria reached over and patted Cisco's knee and said, "Just hang out here. I'm going to keep watch on Vin from the doorway. There's food in the cabinet here if you're hungry." She smiled wryly as she stood up. "It's mostly MREs, but some of them are pretty good — at least if they're the same as the ones back home."

With that, she headed over to the steps of the bus to watch her husband and aunt greet the telepaths. It certainly looked like there were more coming in here than there had been in Window Rock.

Her son joined Madeline at the halfway mark. Same routine as before? he asked.

Yes. Should be straightforward. And we'll just hope we don't need it while we are out there.

# # #

"I would be most interested to know what you just did, Master Andi," Imani said as the two of them met partway up the driveway. "I could feel the wards vibrating."

Andi sighed. "It started off innocently enough. I was just thinking out loud about the folks who've somehow gotten pulled into this world — Maddie, the four folks we found on the way down from Las Vegas, two of the people Maddie met at the school back east."

She watched as the timber wolf stopped short of them and merely sat down to practically smile at Imani.

"Maybe we should chat later. The telepaths are arriving. You should deal with that first."

The youngster smiled. "That is thoughtful of you, but Grandpapa called them. He will introduce them to Madeline and Vincent." She looked over at the wolf with fondness. "This is my friend Makiko. Makiko, this is Master Andi, one of the warriors who will be venturing into the Free Lands."

The wolf yipped a greeting.

"We will speak later after we both finish our work here for the day."

The wolf seemed to laugh before bounding off toward the border station.

"She is a dear friend, and we were fortunate to have some of the same teachers," Imani said as she watched the wolf playing with several of the other shapeshifters. "But you were mentioning a thought you had about people not of this world?"

Andi, too, watched the wolf. "She reminds me of my cousin with her energy and joy." Then she sighed and turned back to Imani. "We know that Maddie fell through a portal in New York. Based on the descriptions they provided, the four people we found out near Dilia all seem to have also come through portals, although nowhere near as violently as Maddie did. In New York, she found Logan's doppelganger, as well as two people who have been dead in our world for many years." She glanced over at Maddie. "One of them was a dear friend."

She is quiet for a moment before sighing. "I speculated that perhaps these two individuals might also have been pushed here, as well."

Andi just left the issue there. If Imani could see the same thing she would prefer not to acknowledge, then such a thing was better spoken by a Bodhisattva than a Warrior.

Imani regarded Andi for a moment before watching Madeline.

"You wonder if there are others."

Andi merely spread her arms to the side and shrugged.

"And in wondering that, you and your sister — being warriors — thought to assess any dangers?"

"Partially, yes. As I told Alex, I can find them... if they are on the side of good, and if they are in range."

"Ah! I understand. The Guardians feel it is safer if one of your power does not attempt to cross the wards in that way." Imani smiled apologetically. "It is not that we — or rather, they — begrudge you the opportunity to seek out others, but rather a concern that the balance of the wards might be disrupted."

"I assumed as much," Andi replied with a nod. "But if we are inside the Nation's borders, might someone else be here as well? I had to look.

"If the map Chief Kee showed us was accurate, we found the others twenty or so miles outside the Diné border... maybe the same distance from your northern border here. Did the Guardians note any disturbances two and three days ago? There would have been four portals opening into this world from other universes, much like the portal we opened in Ha'atathli Yazzie's driveway a day and a half ago — although I suspect the one Paul punched through into this universe was considerably more stable. And larger. Oh, and it stayed open longer, too."

Imani shook her head. "The Guardians have made no mention of it, and this is certainly something they would mention. We only knew of your portal because Elder Yazzie reported it." She smiled wanly. "Like you, she has great power and monitors the training wards from as far away as Ganado. Had she not been there, it's doubtful even her most adept apprentice would have noticed the energy prior to the portal's complete opening — and even then, it would have been but a momentary thing."

Andi just turned and looked out past the wards, trying to make sense of what she knew, what she suspected, what she could feel from the qi within the Nation and the auras of the people here.

"You have additional concerns, Master Andi?"

"I could sense Cisco trying to open a portal from the road. It was grating and painful. I suspect it would have been more noticeable than their entries into this world."

If the Guardians hadn't noticed anything last night, then that was a reasonably good indicator that she'd be able to tell when a portal opened — at least if she were close enough. She wasn't going to speculate on how far that might be. And what did the color shift mean? She'd had to look closely — would anyone else even notice? Even Andrea? Maybe, if she knew she ought to be looking for something different.

There were two possibilities — time and distance. The others had come from a time in the past. Except for the disparity in the condition of the world, it was the same year here as it was back home. The others were comic book characters in the world the Wolf Pack came from. The Wolf Pack had met two of their own doppelgangers.

Andi mentally shrugged. It would only matter if they found someone else who had been dropped here. Did she really want to know whether or not this Charles and this Eric were from another universe? Did it even matter?

"You believe there may be others like you — more persons from outside our world."

Imani's voice was calm and quiet, and yet there was something about the way she said it that made Andi turn to look at her.

"Maybe it's just healthy paranoia," she admitted. "However..." As she glanced around at the telepathic shapeshifters arriving to speak with her nephew, her eyes tracked the one in horse form that was carrying Gregor toward the gathering. He was laughing and smiling as though it was the funniest thing that had happened to him all week.

"The horse... who is that?"

Imani grinned. "That is Astra. She is Grandpapa's eldest daughter and my aunt. She is our Council representative."

Andi nodded. "As I said, perhaps I'm just being overly cautious about this mission that my Sister has set up for us. But the presence of two bodhisattvas in one place and in the same family?" She leveled her gaze on the young woman. "Before today, in one hundred and eighty-five years, I've met one such person. And now I meet two in the same place on the same day.

"It's like the coincidence that my son plucked out a tiger eye in his ritual of stone fishing in Window Rock.

"And I don't believe in coincidence."

"I am afraid I do not quite understand. Paul mentioned the condition of being a... bodhisattva, you say? It is not something I have studied, yet he claims it is something that carries with it wisdom from birth." Imani shook her head and laughed. "I certainly do not feel wise, although my aunt exhibits great wisdom."

Andi shrugged. "Folks who have lived many lives and achieved enlightenment and choose to return to life to help others on their path — rather than remain in the place of the Eternal Qi — are called many things. That's the Buddhist term, although it does tend to take on different meanings once you dive into the study of their philosophy.

"I just look at the qi. It's distinctive, pure."

At Imani's confused look, Andi smiled and nodded toward the middle of the field where Vin was preparing to greet the telepaths. Maddie stood nearby to... Well, do whatever it was that she did.

"Don't worry about it. Just be you."

"Who else could I be?"

Andi chuckled. "Exactly. Shall we greet the others in an ordinary, human, non-telepathic way?"

The girl eyed her and then smiled. "You are almost as funny as Grandpapa, Master Andi. Yes. And you should meet him," she said as she began walking toward the group that was gathering. "He enjoys life. And tea."

Andi grinned. Tea was a lovely thing. Coffee was better, but in a pinch, tea would do. She noticed her daughter standing on the steps of the bus, watching Vincent. Thankfully, she was doing her job — monitoring him and the situation in an entirely different way than her aunt did — and not acting like a lovesick nincompoop.

Lifting her gaze, she noted that Oliver looked a little silly on top of the bus, almost as if he believed he was hiding in a dark shadow back home rather than in plain sight in broad daylight. Again, she mentally shrugged. As long as he kept watch, it was fine.

As they walked, Vin updated his mother on the little bit he had noted. There was a note of warning when I reached out, a 'piso mojado' kind of thing. I think it may have been the Guardians. I was about to go past the border when you called.

I'm not sure I want you to do too much outreach once we're out there. We are still not sure how they are tagging mutants, and if there's a telepath on their side, you getting in a wrestling match with them would paint a neon sign over us.

I'm pretty resilient, mother. But I understand. Only use it if absolutely necessary. Stick to our mundane skills. Don't overly rely on my gifts.

She grinned at him. I like you better when you use your brain.

Gee, thanks, Mom, he responded though he did chuckle.

They came up alongside Andi and Imani and waited for the introductions.

Andi met her Sister's eyes and shrugged. Apparently, this is her grandfather's show — something about family protocol?

Fortunately, a moment later Gregor arrived on horseback, and the horse quite handily tossed him to the ground. He tucked and rolled as effortlessly as a young man would and jumped back up, ready to slap the horse on its shoulder, laughing the whole while. The horse, however, had shifted to human form and grinned wickedly at him.

"You enjoyed kicking me just a little too much, Papa. Did you hurt yourself when you fell?"

"You get more like your Aunt Leona every day!"

"I'll be sure to tell her when she gets here, Papa. She'll be so pleased, never mind the fact that she's younger than I am."

Gregor lost his smile for a moment. "Leona's coming? Here?"

Astra smiled while Imani giggled.

"Well, Papa, you did ask all the telepaths who were available to come meet my niece's new friends."

"Oh. You're right. I did do that, didn't I? Well, she's my only sister who's going to show up. Thank the gods!"

Imani laughed. "I think that might not be true, Grandpapa. Your youngest sister will also likely pay you a visit."

Gregor looked at her in mock horror before thumping his forehead with the heel of his hand. "That crazy mother of mine! I keep forgetting about the little ones. Uschi can't possibly be old enough to know if she has any gifts yet!"

Imani shook her head and sighed. "Grandpapa, she's older than I am."

"Are you sure?"

His daughter punched his shoulder. "Stop it, Papa. You need to be serious for a few minutes. Then you can go back to whatever game it is that you play to entertain the universe."

He looked around at the shifters who had already gathered. "Oh, I suppose you're right, dear. As usual. That's why you're my favorite."

This time, Astra sighed and rolled her eyes. "That's only because I'm standing right here, Papa. We all know Danika is your favorite." She looked fondly at Imani. "And neither Esther nor I mind at all because Danika is our favorite, too. Imani, if you would be so kind as to make the appropriate introductions, I believe I can spare us too much more of your grandfather's silliness before we do the work we came to do."

Imani laughed as she took a step over to her grandfather and gave him a hug.

"Now, Grandpapa, you know some of your guests already."

He nodded. "Oh, yes. Tori spoke at length about this latest Walkabout of hers."

"Madeline is the leader of the warrior band. Her Mate, Logan, has gone to walk along the wards with Paul, whom you know, and Alex who arrived with their parents. Master Andi is her sister. She is both a warrior and a powerful shaman."

"Oh, yes! Tori mentioned her resemblance to that nice Diné shaman she works with and their witchy voodoo stuff they do."

"Of course, Grandpapa. Well, I suspect Andi is slightly more powerful than Tori's friend in Ganado. The others you haven't met, in addition to Alex, are Oliver..." She pointed to the man perched on the top of the bus. "...Sara, who is walking along the wards with Em, and Cisco, who is staying safe from your madness in the bus."

"It's a delight to meet you all!" Gregor exclaimed. "I wish you would stay longer so we could have a proper celebration to greet you and a grand ceremony to see you off on your journey!"

Imani patted his arm. "Not this close to the wards, Grandpapa."

Gregor sighed with all the theatrical expression of the true Irishman — something he obviously was not.

"No, I suppose not. Well, let's see. Next, I need to introduce all you marvelous folks to my eldest and favorite—"

"Papa."

"Well, my eldest daughter, anyway. Astra is a shapeshifter if you haven't figured that one out, which I'm sure you did. She has a wicked sense of humor, unlike her sweet sisters who are cousin kin like their mother and me."

"Hmm, and just where is Mama these days?"

"Oh, on another of her Walkabouts. She said to give her a two-year head start, then I should go looking for her. Still have another year to go. That woman sure does know how to keep my life interesting!"

Astra shook her head. "Should I live to be as old as Shaman Yazzie, I will never understand the two of you." Then she turned to Madeline, Andi, and Vincent, smiling a welcome. "In addition to being a telepath, I am on the Zuni Tribal Council, and I understand there are some discussions you would like to have regarding the advisability of opening a portal."

Andi had watched the family reunion with interest and no small amount of delight. In a world that had gone to hell in a dump truck, these folks sure did know how to create an abundance of joy.

"That's about it in a nutshell," she said. "Vincent can explain what he and Maddie are doing. It seems like Tori and I should probably grab Gregor by the ears and get him out of everyone's way so that things move along smoothly."

Gregor's eyes widened and his covered his ears with his hands, then took off running across the field. Both Astra and Imani burst out laughing.

"It did not take you long to understand Grandpapa, Master Andi!" Imani said. "I will monitor the wards for a message from the Guardians, and will join you and Tori when I have their reply."

Andi watched her nearly skip toward the wards in the same direction Logan had gone after Paul and Alex. She shook her head. "That kid exudes peace, that's for sure."

Astra chuckled. "Yes. She will keep us all young and joyful for all the days we have remaining. She's a treasure." She waved Tori and Andi off. "Go along with you, now. First things first, yes?"

"Just how many shapeshifters are there in the Zuni Nation?" Andi murmured to Tori as they walked in the general direction Gregor had run.

"I think I mentioned that there are a lot of shapeshifters here," Tori replied softly. "No one has bothered to do a census, but we do know there are more here in the Zuni Nation than any of the other Nations. There is something hospitable about the people that draws them here."

"The people? Or the land?"

Tori shrugged. "People are of the land, are they not? So wouldn't the answer be 'both'?"

Andi just nodded thoughtfully as they continued their way across the field.

"And Vincent," Astra said, turning to him with the confidence of an elder and the serenity of a bodhisattva, "how does this connection of yours work?"

"It's no different from any other telepathic connection, but the tactile part helps me be better able to distinguish between people that I've just met. And it also amplifies their voice for my mother to hear. She listens to the tone and timbre of the voice. It's a precautionary measure on our part, so we don't pass information back to someone who is compromised. We understand that it's unlikely, but we try to be prepared for any eventuality as much as possible."

Madeline smiled and nodded to Astra.

"Are you a telepath as well?" Astra asked of Madeline.

Black Wolf shook her head. "No. But I seem to have a natural affinity for receiving messages. The only ones I can speak to via telepathy are my son, my Mate and my Sister."

"And how would you know if someone on the receiving end is compromised? Just by listening?"

"I have had a lot of practice. Physical voices and mental voices are not all that different in that respect."

Astra considered the information. "Interesting. Shall we proceed then?"

Vin offered his hand and she clasped it. The connection seemed to be over before it started. Vin also had a lot of practice.

Astra smile. "It was a pleasure to make your acquaintance. I will pass the necessary information on to our other telepaths."

"And you as well, Astra. Thank you."

Astra corralled and urged the others present forward to meet Vin. It was not that they were reticent, but rather they were distracted by so many of them coming together in one place. There were many joyful greetings, all of which included hugs and horseplay.

As Vin explained his handshaking procedure and his mother's part in it, Maria took a moment to look at the gathering shapeshifters. She knew from experience that shifters were longer-lived than normal folks, although not as long-lived as the shamans. And they didn't seem to age at the same rate as other people either. Cousin Billy had been close to a hundred when he died — he had barely looked fifty. Not that Uncle Justin had looked almost a hundred either when he died, but he had looked like he might have been in his late sixties.

The youngsters here at least looked to be their actual ages... at least, well, they probably did. Even looking at their qi, she couldn't decipher anything other than familial connections. Then she thought about it for a few minutes and smiled. It was pretty awesome that there was such interconnectedness here. Even the shifters who weren't related to Gregor, Astra, and Imani had a strong bond of friendship within the warp and weft of the family. There was a real sense of community here.

There wasn't a way to describe what Vin and Aunt Lin were doing — at least, Maria hadn't come up with a sufficiently accurate way to get her mind to accept anything other than "working." Mom said she thought of it as a library catalog. But Mom was a library nerd and that kind of thing made sense to her. Maria could admit that the analogy was a good one without being able to completely understand it. And she'd only made the mistake of asking about the Dewey Decimal System once. If anyone thought Mom's metaphysical mumbo jumbo was mind-numbing, they ought to spend half an afternoon listening to her expound on the joys of book categorization.

After shaking hands oh so seriously with Vin, the youngest of the shifters — that Maria had seen so far, anyway — ran off toward Imani. The man behind her, obviously her father, looked after her fondly before he, too, took Vin's hand. She didn't even need to look at qi to see the love there. It was written all over the man's face. She smiled softly to herself. She'd seen that look on Dad's face a lot. Come to think of it, she still did.

She noticed what might be the last of the avian shifters — a small kestrel — diving and teasing someone who was running toward the group at a fairly good clip. The way the girl was running reminded her an awful lot of Em. She dove for the ground, rolled, and then lay flat on her back looking up at the bird.

"Ha ha, Hari! I told you I'd make it!"

The bird landed beside her and shifted to a young man who proceeded to plant his fists on his hips. "Honestly, Gaja, you have got to be my craziest cousin." Then he shook a finger at her as he grinned. "But not the weirdest. That would be Imani." Then he reached out a hand to her.

She took his hand, although she didn't need the help getting up. "Imani isn't weird, she's strange. Or... just different. Hmm. Okay, sure, she's weird. I'm a cousin kin. You're a shifter. She's both!"

"Are you two going to pick on your cousin all day?" asked one of the women who had already met Vin.

"No, Mom," the young man said with a grin. "We can't pick on Imani because she thinks everything we say is way too funny."

"I think Uncle Gregor shared his sense of humor with her, Aunt Rachel," the young woman said, nodding.

"Well, you have a point." She smiled. "Go on. After you have your little meeting, Gaja, you might look for Vincent's sister. She's kin like you, and maybe old enough to talk sense into you."

Gaja laughed. "Dad's a hundred and fifty and Mom says he doesn't have enough sense yet, so I wouldn't count on it. I'm still a kid! Derek and Imani are the only cousin kin younger than me."

Rachel waved the two of them off and turned to the woman she'd been chatting with. "Sometimes I think Gregor is right, Leona. Your sister Jean Marie has a positively warped sense of humor — and it got passed down to that one... and then some."

Maria smiled at the scene out in the field and at Cisco's cautious approach behind her.

"It looks like a family reunion. Or a madhouse," he said, although there might be the beginning of a smile in his voice. "I don't get it. Honestly, Maria, no offense, but I'm more freaked out now than I was when I wound up in this place.

She looked back at him and nodded. "We came here deliberately and still didn't know what we were walking into. So I get that. And I'll be honest right back at ya — I've never seen so many shapeshifters in one place in all my life. I'm not sure if I'm excited or totally weirded out by it."

She stepped down to the ground and sat on the bottom step of the bus, then tapped the top step — the floor of the bus. "Have a seat. We can talk and watch."

Cisco hesitated only a second or two before shrugging and sitting behind her.

"So... what's Vincent doing besides just shaking hands with people?"

"The short answer that's free of any crazy spin my mom would put on it is, well, taking a snapshot of their mental voice and signature. Once he knows somebody, he can find them. It's kind of like what I do with family members, feeling the qi connections among the family."

"So kind of like what I can do back home? At least part of it?"

"Yep, kind of."

"Huh. That's gotta come in handy."

"Well, it does mean Vin can also talk to any of them, too — if he needs to get information back to the Diné or the Zuni, that is."

"That's a new one. We use tech for that. You know, earbuds and computers and pinging off satellites."

Maria nodded as she continued to watch her husband work. "Oh, we use that too back home, at least when we're working with the X-Men. Not everyone is a telepath, and not everyone is keen on having the Professor talking inside their head. And Aunt Lin always says that it's better to use conventional means to do things, to not rely on our gifts."

She turned and grinned at Cisco. "If we can bring the Bird through, we can probably scrape up at least a notebook for you. It might mean sending two people through and holding the portal open longer, but I'd bet anything Mom's got more than just her e-reader in Aunt Lin's ship. She's kind of a nerd that way."

She was still smiling as turned around to watch one of the shifters — the pretty timber wolf who had arrived early and greeted nearly everyone — wind her way toward Vin.

"That would be cool," Cisco said. "I mean if it's possible and all. Hmm, it would mean staying off everyone's radar, but I've done that before." He seemed to be talking more to himself than Maria. "It's just getting to know the new tech, right? And I'm the best. Fine, Felicity is the best, but I don't see her here, so, ha! I'd have to..."

He had only been half paying attention to Maria as he'd been muttering to himself, so he didn't notice when she tensed up as the wolf shifted in front of Vincent.

Makiko remained seated on the ground, one leg tucked gracefully under her and the other — the damaged one — bent slightly in front of her. Her smile, however, was brilliant and joyful as she held a hand up to Vincent.

"My most sincere apologies for not bring my crutch along so I could stand to greet you, Vincent." Her eyes twinkled with merriment and a deep intelligence. "The message we received said we should hurry." Then she laughed. "I am Makiko. Imani is my very best friend in all the Nation."

Maria had barely the time it took to inhale once to make a decision. Then she shifted to one of the smaller birds she didn't know as well as most others, a simple bluebird. Maria Bluebird understood two things — stop trying to do a bad thing, and find the Protector.

Cisco blinked as Maria suddenly turned into a bird and flew off. "What did I say wrong this time?"

Oliver noted the bird flying off and simply watched it. After his last experience with the lunatic, he wasn't going to waste an arrow on her.

Paul stopped walking when he felt Maria shift and start searching for Beastmaster.

"Something wrong?" Alex asked.

"Yes." He searched the sky for a confused looking bird. "Maria again."

"Your mom and aunt are going to pummel her again, aren't they?"

Paul lifted an arm as a perch for the incoming bird. "Not this time," he whispered.

Maria Bluebird saw the Protector, felt him calling, and flew down toward him.

Help, help, help, help me!

He caught his sister, wrapping her in the protection he was so perfectly suited to provide. The bird cried almost pitifully, but he heard Maria's mental plea easily enough as he brought her closer to his chest.

"Shhh, I've got you. You're safe. How can I help?"

Alex watched with fascination, noting Logan's approach as well.

Heal, heal, heal, heal... nooooooooooo!!

"Okay, 'Ria. It's okay," Paul said soothingly and softly. "You stay here. I've got you."

Paul.

He looked over at their mother, Maria's turmoil reflected in his eyes.

It's okay, Mom. She saw the shifter with the deformed leg. It was either this or let her healing instinct take over. I think she realized that the girl was born that way, so, you know... ethical dilemma. She even chose a form that's not as familiar just so she could short-circuit the healing and find me.

He glanced at the young shifter who was looking up at Vin with a radiant and joyful smile.

She did the right thing, Mom. Maria knew she shouldn't heal the girl's leg without asking.

Maria Bluebird shivered with fear and tried to tuck herself inside Paul's jacket.

Upon seeing Makiko's condition, Vin immediately settled himself on the ground so that they would be eye to eye. "No apology is necessary, Makiko."

Madeline knelt beside him, her hand still on his shoulder.

She smiled when he sat down. How very kind of him! She never wanted to be a burden to anyone, or cause anyone to go to any more trouble to interact with her than any other person. And he very kindly came down to her level, too. Such good people... Imani was not exaggerating about them even a little bit!

He was going to say more but part of his attention was suddenly pulled away. He smiled his own apology. "Pardon, one moment."

Maria? Paul?

It was Paul that answered. Maria is trying to avoid healing.

Ah.

Makiko had noted the shifter flying off — such a tiny bird! Birds were hard for her, well, harder than wolves and cats. But she'd only realized her gift not quite two years ago, and everyone said that she couldn't learn everything all at once. But she watched the elders of the village shift to hawks and swallows and even birds that weren't native to this part of the world and... and it was all so exciting!

Vin returned his full attention to the young woman in front of him. "I assume the process has been shared?"

At her nod, he held out his hand. When she met his hand with her own, he also offered an explanation. My wife is a healer as well as a shifter. She had to shift suddenly to avoid her instinctive need to heal to take over. Her worry reverberated through our Bond.

Makiko's eyes went wide at the information Vincent shared. "Oh," she said, barely more than an exhalation of breath.

I am so sorry to have caused her such distress! I hope I can convey my own apology to her, but if I can't, I hope you will do that for me, please. I very much appreciate her concern, but this is not an injury. It is just the way I am, the way I was born. She shrugged but smiled at the kindness of the family. Since this is the way I have always been, I am used to it. My family and friends and everyone in my village — they are used to it. All the other shifters, especially the Teachers, understand that my human form is not perfect.

Then Makiko giggled, a sound that drew Imani's attention from the wards, and made her sound perhaps slightly younger than her fifteen years.

Mother says no one is perfect. Except maybe Imani and Astra. Please, kind Vincent, extend my most profound apologies to your wife. Her gaze shifted slightly in Paul's direction. If I remain in a non-human form, could she teach me how to do the big whale thing? I heard about that. It sounds so interesting!!

Vincent smiled more widely. I will convey your apologies if you wish, though I will not let either of you get into a circle of them. Neither of you can change what is in your natures. As for the whale, he paused to look briefly to his mother, I believe she would be willing to tell you but not show you. My mother was not happy with the display so close to the Free Lands.

Makiko only had to glance at Madeline to see the confirming nod and serious eyes.

The child nodded seriously, although she couldn't maintain a solemn attitude for long.

Oh, yes. We learn that only ordinary forms should be practiced near the wards. You have a very soothing mind-voice, and you explain things very well. Thank you! She looked over at Gaja as she played tag with the youngest shapeshifters. I will tell my friends to come talk to you before their aunties have to drag them over by their ears. Or tails. She giggled as she took her hand back. "My friends are all so silly!"

Although it looked as though she was going to roll off to one side, Makiko shifted in mid-move to a small lynx and ran straight for Gaja.

"Her parents had been so worried about her when she was born," said Ronan, one of the few shapeshifters in the group who wasn't related to Gregor and Imani. After speaking with Vincent, he had stayed nearby to keep the youngsters' games from interfering with the work. "Perhaps it was the will of the gods that Danika and Faraji lived in the cabin across from Sachiko and Hayato. Imani was still unsteady on her own feet, but she toddled over to see Makiko every day since the day after she was born."

Being a gentleman, he held a hand out to Madeline to help her stand — knowing that she very likely did not need the help, but it was still something ingrained in him, something he'd learned from his father and grandfather. His red hair was fading to white, and laugh lines radiated from his sapphire blue eyes. His wife Nerys was one of the older folks trying to corral the youngsters; despite her pure white hair, she didn't look much older than thirty, though she had confided to Vincent and thus Madeline that she was forty-five.

Madeline accepted the hand up and in turn offered the same to her son, not that he needed it any more than she did. It did, however, provide an opportunity to check his status. Em had said they had only been at the campsite for a couple of hours, so the kids were running on as little sleep as they were. She noticed a bit of wear but nothing untoward just yet.

Looks like there's only a few more left.

Reminds me of when you and Professor X would take turns testing me.

She chuckled a bit. You'd eat several servings then sleep for days at first. Good thing you learned to conserve.

He only smiled and returned his attention to Ronan.

"This communication network you are building is something else she can take pride in being able to do to help the community." He glanced at the lynx as it nipped at the heels of the young cousin kin. "I'd say she has self-confidence to spare, though. And by the Blessed Lady, you should see that child run with that crutch of hers!"

He pointed to the last few shifters who had yet to speak to Vincent. "Gregor is egging them on. Nothing anyone can do about that. He might have counted ninety birthdays already, but most days he prefers to act even younger than Melissa and Makiko."

"Not to worry, Ronan," Madeline said. "We've dealt with similar before."

Paul noticed the longer than usual conversation Vincent was having with Makiko. He could pick up the general gist of the conversation, but Maria's fear and pain were overwhelming her to the point that he needed to concentrate more on her than Vincent.

"Tried to heal the youngster?" Uncle Logan asked — or maybe just stated the obvious as he walked up to Paul and Alex.

"Yeah," Paul said. "I understand why she fled the scene. But on top of trying not to heal the girl, Maria's terrified that Mom and Aunt Lin are going to pummel her again." He smiled wanly at his uncle. "She's going to need to shift to something with higher reasoning skills before I can convince her that she actually did the right thing this time."

Logan nodded and also watched his son and Mate talk with the girl.

"Could she really fix the girl's leg?" Alex asked. "Even though she's had the, well, deformity since birth?"

Paul nodded. "Oh, yeah. She absolutely could. She's done it before, several times." He gave Alex a weak smile as Maria Bluebird continued to shiver and cry out her pain and helplessness. "But it's always been something parents ask her to do. Well, except in Denny's case. That was Shaman Marjorie who asked her to fix whatever was wonky with his brain that made his empathy gift not work quite right."

Andi, too, was watching the children. She almost, almost, felt sorry for her daughter. Oh, hell, fine! In this one very specific case, she did sympathize with Maria's plight.

"So she tries to heal everything she sees wrong with people?" Tori asked.

Andi sighed. "Yeah, pretty much. She's got enough control to at least hold off long enough that she's not going to put others in more danger." She glanced over at Paul, Alex, and Logan. "The only thing we've ever been able to figure out that will keep her gift from manifesting is the Friend Or Foe Test. I don't run with the X-Men, but I've read all the after mission reports and talked to Hank, the School's brainiac. There can be half a dozen injured people within a few meters of one another, she'll take one look at the pile of people, and heal only the injured team members and civilians that got caught in the middle."

"Good tactical advantage to that," Tori noted. "No sense taking out a squad of bad seeds only to have them healed up to keep on fighting."

Andi shrugged. "Sure. That part makes sense. But even when the gift first manifested and they were still at school in Denver, she'd heal kids who got injured on the playground — everyone except the bullies who instigated the fights. And it wasn't that she didn't try. She's got enough compassion to believe that even bullies deserve to have their cuts and bruises healed. It just never worked."

Tori nodded. "Well, one thing we learned when we stopped in Carnuel for our chat with Guardian Zosia is that she doesn't think she's really necessary on this mission." She looked at Andi, who was rolling her eyes. "Did I say it made sense? She's your kid."

Then she grinned. "But you brought her those four nice squishy short-lived folks she needs to keep alive."

Andi raised an eyebrow. "You have a ruthless streak that pleases me, Deputy Walking Eagle. We might just manage to make a large dent in the Darkness of this world before going home." Ninja grinned then. "And after we make a dent, you'll just need a small army of cousin kin to take care of the rest."

Tori regarded her for a few moments. "Is anyone in your little group actually sane?"

"Nah. Sanity's overrated," Ninja said flippantly. Then she paused as she looked around the field of children playing, the adults chatting as they watched, too. "Honestly, Tori? I don't think any of us could do this job if we hadn't at least peeked into the abyss at some point. Maddie stared it down and kicked its teeth when it dared to look back at her, although I'll grant that it took a while to get to that point."

Tori was silent then, thinking of the things she had seen and experienced in her long life, remembering conversations she'd had with Jeremy. She still felt the pain of her parents' deaths, still felt the anger over the story Kinta had shared with her and Allo. She had all of it neatly compartmentalized so that she didn't lose control, but she remembered every abyss she'd looked into.

She just nodded an acknowledgment to the Warrior.

Cisco didn't want to leave the bus. Well, he did, but he had a feeling it probably wouldn't be a good idea. So he just edged down to sit on the bottom step where Maria had been before she turned into a bird and flew off. Shapeshifting — that seemed like it would be a handy gift to have. The kids out in the field sure looked like they were having fun. The lady who turned into an enormous raven was scary, at least when she was a raven. She seemed so cheerful and kind when she was her regular self. Even the big bear she turned into was more like that bear from the Jungle Book than anything dangerous.

He leaned forward to see if he could see Maria. He really hoped she was okay. She was good at explaining things without making him feel like an idiot. Of course, with all the crazy stuff this world was throwing at him, it's not like he didn't already feel like an idiot. Just one computer — if he could get his hands on one decent computer with a satellite uplink, maybe he'd feel useful.

Andi did say that they were going to get all of them back home, which was absolutely what he wanted to do right about now. But the Wolf Pack folks had been talking like they'd be riding smack through the middle of a war zone before they could send Alex and Sara and Oliver and him home.

Cisco was definitely not in favor of anything that had the potential to make him dead. It was cliche to even think it, but he was too young to die.

# # #

Em had adjusted her stride so that Sara did not need to overextend herself to keep pace. It had only taken a half dozen steps before they were in complete synchronization.

"We looking for anything in particular?" Sara asked.

"Trouble," Em answered.

Sara snorted. "I'm right here."

"Yeah, well, according to Mom, she and Trouble are old acquaintances," she responded with a snort of her own. "Anything that seems off, I guess. More off? Know it when I see it, sense it."

"So, I'll just say something if it seems off to me. Work for you?"

"Works."

"Okay if I ask about the coats?"

"You and Arrow Man have outfits or uniforms or something?"

"Yeah. But more than just a jacket. Head to toe stuff. Though I don't bother with the wig anymore. Ollie still has his hood."

"It's like that. Mom didn't much care what was underneath as long as movement wasn't restricted and it was generally dark, but the dusters are identical outside of color and size. There's a hat piece with a mask too, but those don't get worn all the time. Probably won't be here."

"Why not?"

"No reason to hide our identities here. Not planning on sticking around that long... I hope."

"You hope?"

Em shrugged. "Depends on how obsessed Mom gets about fixing things. She's been known to chase things down for years."

"Years?" Sara's voice rose the tiniest bit.

"Don't worry. Aunt Andi won't let you all stay here that long even if the rest of us get dragged through the muck for the duration." Em softened her words with a grin.

Sara chuckled. "You seem pretty okay with it. No one to go back to?"

"My family is all here," Em said, wondering at the intent of that question, "except for Oncle Rene and Tio Pablo. So, no, no one who'd miss me. Vin says it's because I'm on the move too much."

"No home base even?"

"Not really. Sure, there are family places, but I carry everything I need. It works for me. What about you?"

"There's my crew and the Time Ship."

"Wait? Time Ship? As in a ship that travels through time?"

"Yes."

"Now you need to be here long enough to tell me that story."

"If we have Time," Sara said with a smirk.

Em just groaned.

# # #

While the young shapeshifter who had set off her daughter's instinctive need to heal ran after the few remaining telepaths that still needed to have a chat with Vincent, Andi looked at Paul with a raised eyebrow.

Not sure, Mom. It's going to take a couple of minutes to coax her back to human, or at least something with a larger brain and capable of reasoning.

She nodded. Well, do your best to convince her that Mommy Dearest has left the building and mean old Aunt Lin isn't going to wallop her either.

Her son's mental chuckle matched the smile on his face. You realize, Mommy Dearest, that neither of us ever believes you when you say that.

No, no... just smartass Ninja here, dear. I'll try to keep it that way. The Warrior doesn't have a sense of humor. Golly gosh, and I used to say the same thing about Ninja back in the day.

Mom, I think you might need therapy.

Andi chuckled out loud as she watched both Imani and Astra converge on her location. David has been gone for so many years that it isn't worth wishing I could talk to him. Don't worry, son. Sitting curled up on the sofa with your father's arms around me for a few hours ought to right most of what's wrong.

"Master Andi, I have a reply from the Guardians," Imani said as she joined them and wrapped an arm around Astra in a hug. "I am to hear the decision of the Council representative first, however, before sharing the appropriate recommendation."

Astra smiled. "As always, the Guardians are cautious."

Andi looked at the two of them and squinted. The only other time she'd met a bodhisattva was at the Medicine Dance for one of the folks Ji-Ji had attacked. Aliza had been such a sweet child, and the Beautiful One, Great Spirit's daughter, had asked her to let the little girl's mothers know how incredibly exceptional she was. The following four months or so had been — well, the Librarian always came back to the same quote: It was the best of times, it was the worst of times... Despite the hell that damn Aztec demi-god had put them through, despite the insanity that her hellions had showered her with, that had been the beginning of everything that had led to the formation of the Pentad.

Did she dare hope that meeting two bodhisattvas was an auspicious sign? Maybe it was superstitious. But so was Paul's desire to keep the tiger eye stone with him. Maybe, like the stone, it was an expression of the luck missing in this universe because the Husbands weren't here.

She could definitely feel them right now, though.

"Andi?"

She blinked and smiled at Tori. "Sorry. Just shearing sheep."

The other woman nodded. "Unless we want to risk Gregor actually trying to organize a party of some sort, you should probably be gathering information instead of wool." Tori smiled and winked at Andi.

"Wow, do you know how nice it is not to have to explain what 'shearing sheep' means?" Andi laughed. "Okay, okay!" She took a deep breath and directed her first question to Astra.

"As I'm sure you know, my Sister has a mission outlined for us: beat the snot out of the minions of the Darkness and shine as much light into the Darkness as possible in the form of righteous fury. Eventually, the seven of us need to go home to our own world after I find a way to send the other four home to theirs. But if we can do enough damage to tip the scales, then the people of this world who are willing to beat back the remaining Darkness ought to stand a fighting chance.

"We can make do with what we brought with us, with what we can find in this world." Andi nodded her head toward the bus. "But we have equipment and technology that we left in our own world that could help considerably in this fight. Fetching it means opening a big ass portal back there and holding it open long enough to get over there and pull our equipment back here.

"I'm asking for permission from the Zuni Nation to bring our tech into your lands so that we can organize ourselves appropriately before heading into the Free Lands."

Astra studied Andi for several minutes. For her part, the Warrior waited patiently. She understood that she was asking for a favor so enormous that it might not be possible to repay it.

Finally, the Council representative nodded slightly, satisfied with what she saw and sensed of this woman from another place. She turned to Tori.

"And what is your opinion, Elder Walking Eagle?"

"You know I hate it when you people get all formal like that."

"You and your sister are the eldest cousin kin known to any of us on the American continents, Tori. My grandmother has spoken of meeting your sister when she was barely more than a cub, and Lelani was already older then than Bolormaa is now. Forgive me if a small amount of formality seems required in this situation," Astra said with a smile.

Tori just shook her head, but she returned the other woman's smile. "What the hell do I know, Astra? It sounds like their tech is better than anything this world has ever produced. So, yeah, it could make a difference. But my information on the technology possessed by anyone outside the First Nations is out of date by four decades." She shrugged. "I'm sure things have changed out in the Free Lands since my last Walkabout."

"It's true. There are modest centers in Kansas City and Chicago that still produce the component parts to keep their basic utilities running — phones lines, power grids, that sort of thing. That small plant near St. Louis still produces parts for some models of automobiles."

Astra turned to Andi again. "If this technology of yours would aid in the fight against the Darkness, there is certainly a good argument to be made for bringing it here. However, the Council's concern is twofold: Can you say with a high level of certainty that your actions relating to retrieving your technology will not endanger the Zuni Nation or its neighbors? And can you ensure that this technology will not harm or call attention to our wards?"

Andi didn't answer Astra right away. Instead, she looked at Imani and addressed her own questions to the youngster.

"If I understood your earlier explanations, opening the portal a safe distance from your wards would only be noticeable by you and possibly Ha'atathli Yazzie if she happened to be looking in this direction, yes?"

Imani nodded. "Possibly Guardian Zosia would take note of the energy spike if she were also looking in this direction. It is doubtful anyone else would notice even if you used more energy than you did in your previous... exhibitions," she said with a hint of a smile.

"So the portal itself would pose no danger to the Zuni Nation or its neighbors."

"In my opinion, no. The portal itself would not endanger anyone."

Andi nodded. "And what of the wards? How high do they extend? Are they a wall, or a bubble covering the whole Nation?"

"Oh, goodness, certainly not a bubble!" Imani exclaimed. "They are merely... well, I suppose 'walls' might be an appropriate analogy. They extend nearly to the height of the tallest building in Albuquerque — perhaps a hundred meters?"

"Excellent!" Andi said with a grin and turned her attention back to Astra. "Assuming Imani gives us a location far enough away from the wards so that opening the portal doesn't disturb them, I can say that the possibility of endangering the Nation — its inhabitants and the land itself — is minimal. The Blackbird can, and usually does, take off vertically. It's able to leave Earth's atmosphere and orbit." She shrugged. "Maddie, Logan and I came to Everness from Earth in it, the kids traveled in a similar model, so interstellar travel is no big deal. We don't need a runway. It does kick up a bit of dust and debris on takeoff and landing, so..." She shrugged. "Having a road or some other type of paved area would save some farmer's or rancher's field from developing a crop circle. On the other hand, Mother Earth seems entirely too willing to help, so there's also the possibility that she'd ensure there wouldn't be any long-term inconvenience.

"Unless anyone else has airplanes or even hot air balloons, they wouldn't be checking their radar — assuming they have that ability — for anything flying out of the Nation, especially at an altitude of the average plane before my kids were born. And even if they do, well, the ship can be cloaked. I guarantee no one is going to detect the ship if it's cloaked. Not here."

"Imani?"

The girl looked at her aunt and didn't quite roll her eyes. "The Guardians recommended a distance of at least a mile from the wards, assuming permission was granted by the Council. However, I have witnessed Andi's power first-hand and would suggest a minimum of two miles."

Astra nodded. "The old reclamation facility? The one four or five miles southwest of here with the building that had been torn down before we took over these lands?"

Imani closed her eyes to set the location in her mind. "The one where the roads look like a glass with a stem from the air? Barren land all around it still?"

"That's the place, yes."

The youngster nodded and opened her eyes. "That would be acceptable to the Guardians."

Astra chuckled. "I suspected it might be. Well, Andi, it seems you have the permission you need. I don't doubt that you would like to fetch your vehicle and be on your way as soon as possible."

"That's true. My Sister is anxious, which makes me anxious. From the stories I've heard..." Andi shrugged. "The sooner I can rip the demons out of people and my Sister can punch holes in whoever's in charge, the happier we're going to be. That said, we still have questions."

"Tori did imply that you wanted something more concrete than 'magic' as an explanation of how mutants and cousin kin can be detected in the Free Lands."

Andi laughed. "Oh, hell no! 'Magic' works just fine for me, if that's all there is to it. It's Tori that doesn't like that answer. Well, and Maddie isn't convinced that's all there is to it. Chief Kee hinted that there might be some sort of technology involved."

Astra sighed and looked around, then crossed her arms as she regarded the Warrior. "You understand that this is essentially a world at war, don't you?"

"Of course."

"So you see the need to compartmentalize the information any one Nation or any one person might have. Jeremy knows the big picture. He understands this war on a global scale. If you asked me how the people not on the American continents fared, I couldn't tell you." She smiled sadly. "It's hard to say 'I really don't know' to people like Ronan, Nerys, Fintan, their family, their Choctaw kinfolk when they ask about Ireland." Her smile grows slightly. "The friendship between the Choctaw People and the Irish People has endured for centuries."

Andi swallowed hard and pressed her lips together. "It wouldn't be inappropriate for me to mentioned what I learned from the Chief, would it?"

"Certainly not!" Astra replied with a laugh. "Just don't tell me, as I'm not supposed to know. However, I can guess by the look on your face that your news will brighten Ronan's day even more than this gathering has."

Andi relaxed and smiled. "Cool. I'd rather make people happy than beat the crap out of them.

"But I take it that you know more about the low-level activities in the Free Lands than Chief Kee does."

"I do." Astra looked at Imani. "You know, my dear, technically, you shouldn't be listening to Council business."

Imani smiled brightly and wrapped an arm around Astra's waist. "That is only because I am not old enough yet to be on the Council, Aunt Astra. Besides, I believe we both want to provide Andi and her family with as much information as possible to make their mission a success."

"Sometimes, you're too clever for your own good, my dear." Astra shook her head and smiled. "But to answer your question, Andi, yes. I do know more about the low-level activity, as you put it. And as Tori well knows, I have a particular interest in technology." She grinned almost mischievously. "Even though it would do the world, my Nation, or me absolutely no good whatsoever, I'd dearly love to see your ship."

Andi shrugged and returned the grin. "I don't see why not. There wouldn't be a problem flying it over here after we bring it through the portal, would there? Vin is quite a good pilot. Paul is even better. I doubt he'd have a problem keeping the Bird less than thirty meters off the deck."

Both Astra and Imani shook their heads.

"Great! We might get that party Gregor wanted after all! But, Astra... tech, tech, tech! Particularly any tech that can detect persons of interest."

# # #

When he'd felt the weight on his back and the sense of tiny knives trying to pierce his uniform, Oliver had reacted instinctively — twisting and reaching for an opponent that didn't seem to exist. The knives retracted and the weight, as insignificant as it was, moved to his quiver. He tugged on the strap across his chest. That removed the pressure for a second until it moved to his shoulder, the knives dug back in and he heard a soft, high-pitched mewp near his ear.

Watching the shenanigans out on the field made Cisco smile but at the same time, it made him feel... homesick? Lonely? He certainly felt sorry for himself. And he couldn't stop smiling at the kids roughhousing and teasing one another. He wasn't sure that any of them were older than he was.

The inkling he had that something was wrong, or at least not right, was when he heard Oliver's voice from above him.

"Hey! Stop that! Get off me!"

Cisco knew that he should probably stay inside the bus, but if there was something interesting going on outside, he definitely didn't want to miss it. So when he stood up and took a few steps away from the bus so that he could see Oliver, it was all he could do to keep from laughing.

The most adorable little orange kitten was using Oliver as a climbing tree.

The more the kitten evaded Oliver's grasp, the broader Cisco's smile got. When he finally managed to shake the tiny thing off his arm, the kitten jumped — spread eagle and every needle-like claw extended — landing on his raised knee. As he moved his hand to brush the kitten off, a gray and white puffball climbed up his back.

This time, Cisco did laugh. Oliver glared at him. "What the hell is so funny?"

"You. The kittens."

A third one, this one entirely black, had climbed up the outside of the quiver and was perched on the edge of it, looking down at the contents. Cisco wasn't sure if the kitten could get in there, but he'd learned never to underestimate the ability of cats to get into places they shouldn't be. The gray and white one had reached its goal and sat on Oliver's shoulder, holding on for dear life as the man tried to dislodge them. The black one started pawing at the fletchings of the arrows.

"God damn it!"

Oliver set his bow down so he could use both hands to deal with the mewling little needle monsters.

Cisco continued to chuckle.

Finally getting a hand around the orange thing, Oliver was all set to toss it down the length of the bus when the black one lost interest in the arrows and ran over his shoulder and halfway down his arm, while the gray and white one jumped from his other shoulder to his leg.

"Ow!! What the hell?!?"

He stood up, hoping that his movement would at least dislodge the gray and white thing on his leg. No such luck. It started climbing up toward his torso, so he plucked it off with his free hand. Another kitten, this one white, started climbing up the back of his leg.

He looked ridiculous. With a kitten in each hand, another perched on his arm and a fourth climbing up the back of his body, Oliver just stood there practically grinding his teeth, scowling at the fluffy bits of danger wiggling in his hands.

That was probably why he didn't see a hand that was attached to an arm with elastic-like properties reach up from the opposite side of the bus and gently, quietly, quickly take his bow.

Cisco had to cover his mouth with his hands to keep from exploding with laughter. Then a fifth kitten, this one a tortie, joined the white one in climbing up Oliver's back. Cisco wasn't sure where these kittens were coming from — they seemed to just appear out of thin air — but this was absolutely the best thing that had happened since he'd arrived in this insane world. For a few minutes, Cisco was delightedly happy. Then he heard a soft mrow and felt a thump against his leg. He looked down to see a larger cat, but still kitten-like, looking up at him. He grinned. The cat pawed at his leg and let out another mrow.

When he bent down, the cat practically jumped into his arms and rubbed its face against his cheek. Cisco didn't think he could be happier.

# # #

Paul continued to coax his sister back to sensibility. The shifter had run off; even he couldn't sense anything wrong with her in lynx form.

He'd been murmuring softly to Maria and was about to use his gift to nudge her into shifting when he heard Oliver's exclamation.

When he saw the five shapeshifters coordinate their attack on Oliver — including the one who performed a very Billy-like maneuver to steal his bow before shifting into a kitten — he laughed.

"Maria, come on, you need to see this! There's a whole pack of Billys out here teasing Oliver!"

"We're fortunate to have only one shifter per generation," Logan noted.

"Oh, some generations have more than that, Uncle Logan. But they're spread out so far — some of them are even off-world — that usually only one or two will show up at Mom's house when you and Aunt Lin are there for a big gathering." He chuckled. "And none of them are quite up to Billy's standard of zany."

For her part, Alex just stared at the sight of the Green Arrow losing a battle to kittens. She smiled with happiness for the first time since falling from — or getting knocked off — the CatCo Building.

Maria Bluebird felt the reassurances and the joy of the Protector. Safe? Was she safe? She peeked out from where she'd hidden in his jacket. She dared to walk up along his arm, almost to his elbow. It seemed safe. She couldn't feel danger. She couldn't feel that horrible, overwhelming need to do something terrible.

She launched herself into the air and caught sight of the show on the bus. That startled her and she shifted to a python as she dropped to the ground. However, she immediately climbed up Paul's body to peer over his shoulder at Oliver and the kittens.

"See? It's safe, Maria."

Maria Python bobbed her head a couple of times before she shifted back to human form, her arm wrapped around her brother's waist, her head resting on his shoulder.

"Gosh, if that doesn't make me miss Billy, nothing ever will," she said with a smile in her voice.

# # #

"Hari! Alli! Yonina! Melissa! Avis?! What are you lunatics doing up there?"

A tall handsome man who looked to be about forty stopped next to Cisco with his hands on his hips and a grin on his face. He noticed the cat Cisco cradled in his arms. "Well, you and my daughter may be the only sensible youngsters here, Makiko. Although I do have doubts about Uschi — she enjoys teasing her eldest brother far more than she does my son."

The cat just purred.

"Hmm. I suppose you're right."

Cisco blinked. "She said something?"

The man chuckled. "Just that my daughter sees Arthur every day and getting to visit Gregor is a treat. I'm Aatu, by the way. My Mate is the matriarch of this insane asylum we call a family."

"Oh. Well, I think it's really great. Big families that get along are just, well, awesome."

"You're Cisco, right?" At the young man's nod, Aatu smiled. "Our family is extremely large. Six of my eight children — I suppose short-lived families would call them stepchildren — are older than I am and Rahela and I are the same age."

"That's..." Cisco blinked. "Isn't that confusing?"

Attu shrugged. "It can be if we let it be. It is unusual for a cousin kin to have three Mates. While we shapeshifters usually live a bit longer than most short-lived folks, Bolormaa did not expect Altan to live as long as her, she expects to outlive me. One can't dictate to the heart where love will be found, eh?" He looked up at the kittens still climbing all over Oliver. "No one could have expected their great something grandfather to die so young. But the forces of Darkness caught him as he was shepherding others to safety. His death was a tragedy that my Mate still feels keenly, as do his children. But his sacrifice was not in vain — because of him, fifteen people lived that day and dozens are alive today who never would have even been born."

"I still have these damn cats all over me," Oliver said.

While it was true that all five of the kittens were still perched on Oliver, they were sitting calmly on his shoulders, two on one side, three on the other. The inner ones — orange and black — were nuzzling his ears. Oliver did not look happy. The kittens were all purring.

"Children." Aatu smiled; his voice was indulgent. "Our guest does not appear to be a cat person. Come down from there."

The kittens all jumped from Oliver's shoulders to the roof of the bus, then looked at one another. An instant later, they shifted to puppies — mutts with feet they'd have to grow into and floppy ears that at least two of them pretended to trip over as they yapped and jumped around Oliver's feet. It was possible that Oliver was turning red. If this were a cartoon, steam would definitely be coming out of his ears.

Both Aatu and Cisco attempted to hide their smiles; the older man was more successful. The cat butted Cisco with her head and when he looked down, she reached up a paw and patted his chin.

He grinned at her and whispered, "Yeah, it's pretty funny."

A young woman with short curly blonde hair and green eyes walked up and draped an arm over Cisco's shoulder. "Yup, my family is sure crazy."

"Gaja, have you spoken with Vincent yet?"

"I was waiting for Hari, Grandfa," she said, point to one of the jumping, yapping puppies.

"I will wring all your necks!" Oliver bellowed.

The puppies immediately stopped moving and stood as still as statues for all of five seconds. Three of them then shifted to hummingbirds and darted away. Another shifted to a blue jay, flew up to eye-level with Oliver, and screamed at him as she flew back and forth.

"Alli's just telling him that he doesn't have a sense of humor," Gaja whispered to Cisco.

"Well, she's probably right," Cisco whispered back.

The fifth puppy shifted to a garter snake — western ribbon snake if anyone knew their species well enough to notice — and slithered up one of Oliver's legs to his knee. From there, it wove back and forth, flicking its tongue out as if to agree with whatever the blue jay was saying. Not that Oliver noticed it. Yet.

The cat in his arms went completely limp at that point, startling Cisco and almost dropping her.

"Makiko!" Gaja said with a laugh, "Not everyone has reflexes like I do. You almost got dropped on your head!" Then she shook her head and grinned. "Yeah. Hari is hysterically funny. That's why we have so much fun together!"

She waited until Alli flew off and Oliver crossed his arms, glaring at the world in annoyance.

"Um, Mister Arrow Man, sir?" Gaja had a convincing look of innocence on her face. "I think you have a snake on your leg. Maybe. I mean it's green, your clothes are green. But yeah."

Oliver looked down and Hari flicked his tongue out at him again. Then the man proceeded to perform an expressive and energetic one-legged jig as he tried to dislodge the snake.

"Gosh, I've never seen a Normal leap around like that without falling over," Gaja murmured to Cisco. "He has nearly as much dexterity as a kin or a shifter."

"I think it's assassin training or something."

"Really? That's cool!"

Finally, Oliver had enough of the annoying snake and stomped his foot down on the bus, then reached down to pluck the snake from his leg. Hari, however, was both younger and faster in addition to possessing a sense of humor. As Oliver's hand neared him, he shifted again to a little orange kitten and grabbed the hand with teeth and nails.

Oliver yelled a few potent curses in Mandarin and flung the kitten away from him.

Hari shifted to a jay in mid-flight, screamed at Oliver, then flew to the ground, landing beside Gaja. Then he shifted back to human form.

"Neener neener boo boo?" Gaja asked.

Hari just smiled at her.

Cisco looked up at the very angry Oliver then at the two fun-loving cousins next to him and smiled. "I'm going to remember that. 'Neener neener boo boo.' Excellent."

When Oliver stopped glaring at them and looked down, expecting to find his bow on top of the bus, Hari said, "Gee, Gaja. Maybe we should go have that chat with Vincent how, huh?"

She glanced at Oliver and nodded. "Yep. Good idea." Then she smiled at Cisco and Makiko. "You two take care of each other!"

The two of them turned and raced one another toward Vincent and Madeline, Gaja winning easily, of course.

"There's more tomfoolery than the five of them trying to entertain themselves at your friend's expense, isn't there?" Aatu asked Cisco.

"Where the hell is my bow, you little ingrates??!??"

"Um, yeah," was all Cisco could offer.

# # #

Maria giggled. "Are you recording this?"

"Uh huh," replied her brother with a grin. "I know Sara is watching, but I have a feeling she'd love to have some memories to bring home with her.

# # #

Astra laughed. "Impatient, aren't you? Goodness, if Tori hadn't informed me otherwise, I'd think you were no older than my son!"

"I think I said anxious, but sure... impatient works, too," Andi replied with a grin.

That was when she noted the commotion over at the bus. She did refrain from laughing out loud, barely. She tapped one of the pouches at her waist in a specific seven-beat pattern. She could just barely hear the whir as the recording cam embedded in her collar turned on. The AI's voice was hardly any louder.

"Working."

"Focus on the activity on top of the bus, zoom and enhance as necessary."

"As you say, Ninja."

She smiled. Sometimes she liked to use the AI functionality of her suit just so she could hear her friend's voice. Of course, the show Arrow Man was putting on was pretty damn good too.

# # #

Maria?

I'm fine, Vin. The girl just overwhelmed my need to heal, so I had to bug out.

That's what Paul said. You going to be okay even when she's in non-human form?

Yeah, no problem. Shifters are weird that way... even if the human form is damaged, I perceive the animal form — or in Billy's case, cartoon form — as perfectly healthy. Even that Headless Horseman thing Billy liked to do.

Her husband chuckled through their Bond. Em and I sure did love his cartoon characters.

I know. I thought you were both as demented as he was.

I've got the last two racing for me, but Makiko would like to know how you did the whale. I impressed on her the fact that that you couldn't actually show her. Mom would definitely kill you.

She'd probably kill me twice. Don't worry, no more whales! Go to work, love.

"Whales?" Paul murmured.

"You eavesdropping on my conversations with my husband, little brother?" She was grinning broadly.

"You're leaning against me. I'm your twin. It's not like you're whispering or anything."

Maria giggled. "I suppose not."

Alex looked from one to the other and then back at the show Oliver was putting on. "Telepathy would sure come in handy sometimes," she said. "It gets annoying when comms don't work." She, too, was smiling. Part of it was watching Paul and Maria — in a lot of ways, they reminded her of the relationship she had with her own sister. Yet, they were so different, too. And then there was Oliver. He was taking everything so seriously! How could a person be upset with kittens and puppies, even if they were shapeshifters? They just wanted to have fun, and help him have a little fun, too.

Kara had mentioned he was a serious, get down to business kind of guy. She had failed to disclose the fact that he lacked a sense of humor. Oh, well. Sara seemed to make up for it, even if her sense of humor was a little dark and twisted.

# # #

Maria, dear, I'm not sure any of us would be pleased if Arrow Man strokes out and you try to heal him. Your brother is right there and would have one of his fits.

I know, Mom. It's not like I could keep from healing him, though. If he strokes out, that is. His meridians seem clear enough to me, aside from this whole business of being furious. And Uncle Logan could just cart Paul off and dump him on his head if he starts that 'oogie, oogie!' nonsense.

Hey! I heard that!

Oh, color me shocked, son of mine.

Oh. Right. We were kind of talkative before we were born.

Exactly. And you felt the need to share it all with me. I'm still not happy about that.

But you love us, Mommy! they said in unison.

Andi just shook her head and rolled her eyes.

Did either of you see what happened to his precious bow?

I think one of the shifters pulled a Billy, Paul said. But I don't know if she shoved it under the bus or in the driver's window.

I'll go check, Maria said. We all might as well get back to what we were doing before the kids decided to entertain us.

Maria hugged her brother, smiled at both Uncle Logan and Alex, then shifted to a golden retriever and trotted off toward the bus.

She thought it would be best to not draw attention to herself, so she stuck as close to the road as possible as she came up behind the bus. She'd gotten the sense when Paul mentioned the shifter who had pulled a Billy that she'd been standing on this side of the bus when she reached up for the bow. It wasn't anywhere on the ground here — that made sense because Oliver would have noticed it already if it was that simple. She got down on her belly. Nope. Not under the bus either.

Standing up, she listened for Oliver's location as he stormed around on top of the bus. He was at the back, so she went around the front, wagged her tail at Cisco then climbed up the steps.

Well. She would have expected the bow to be right there on the driver's seat. But it wasn't. It wasn't on the floor either. She took a couple of steps toward the back of the bus — it wasn't on the front bench or any of the chairs. Sighing, she shifted back to her own form — after all, Oliver wasn't going to see her from here — and saw the bow on the table. Damn! Either the shifter had been imitating Elastic Girl, or there was a historical record in this world of Billy Yazzie's Cartoon Exploits.

She picked it up and leaned it against one of the chairs to make it easier to grip, then shifted back to the golden retriever. Carefully, as if picking up one of her own weapons, she grasped the bow between her doggie teeth and carried it outside the bus, dropping it between Cisco and Aatu. She was inordinately pleased to see how happy Cisco was holding Makiko Cat.

Then Maria Pup sat down next to Cisco and barked once.

Oliver ignored the four of them.

Oh, how talented you are, Maria! I do not think Oliver understands us, though.

I don't think he does either, Makiko. I think he's a little annoyed with me, too.

The whale?

Nah, the whale made Aunt Lin really angry. It was before that. One of the birds... hawk, crane... whichever one he shot at.

He shot at you???

Maria Pup looked up at Makiko Cat and gave her a doggie grin. My mom told him to try. I annoyed everyone. I think I'm better now, though.

"Oliver?" Cisco called out. "We found your bow."

Oliver stalked over to the side of the bus above the door and glared at Cisco and his strange friends. "Whoever is responsible for taking it better hope I never find out who they are."

Wow, he's all kinds of fun, isn't he? Maria said, more to herself than anyone else.

I believe he may have lost the ability to see wonder and joy in the simple act of living, Aatu noted.

Maria Pup looked up at Oliver. I have a feeling heading out into the Free Lands isn't going to help any.

"I didn't see anything," Cisco said. "I think it must have been one of the kittens."

When Oliver continued to just stand there and glower, Aatu chuckled, picked up the bow and walk over to the bus. He inspected the bow for a moment before handing it up to Oliver.

"It's a fine instrument. I can see why it means so much to you." Aatu smiled as he took a step back. "Don't stare so hard at the trees, Oliver Queen, that you fail to notice the beauty of the forest."

Oliver looked out across the field where entirely too many people and animals were acting like this was some sort of holiday.

"Right. I don't see many trees around here and certainly no forests."

"Only because you're looking in the wrong direction." Aatu smiled and then turned to Cisco. "I believe Makiko wanted to have a discussion with Maria about whales."

Cisco blinked. "Huh?" When the cat in his arms thumped her head against his chest again, he looked down. The cat seemed to be pointing at the ground, which was weird and more than a little disconcerting, but he bent down to set her on the ground anyway. He straightened up and looked at Aatu. "That was weird."

The older man just shrugged. "That was Makiko." He watched her run across the field toward Imani, Maria right behind her. "Come, young Cisco. Perhaps you would enjoy talking to some of the more sensible people in the family."

He smiled and shrugged. "I thought I was used to crazy stuff, you know? We have a bunch of metahumans running around. My best friend ran back into the past and kind of messed of the present. Or created alternate timelines. Or something." He shook his head as he walked along with Aatu. "See what I mean? I don't even quite know what Barry did. Some of this is kind of cool, but some of it freaks me out, too."

Aatu patted his shoulder and nodded. "As the Warrior said, you are strangers in a strange land — and even two hundred years after the book of that name was published, people still understand the reference. Our world may always seem strange to you, but I hope you can come to appreciate the good people that inhabit it."

Cisco looked over at Makiko, who was winding her way around the legs of everyone with Imani — including Maria, who had resumed her human form.

"Yeah. Yeah, I think I can do that. Andi promised not to let me get killed. Well, except I think Madeline had some kind of escape clause in there, but if I don't screw up, then Andi has to keep me alive." He laughed. "Where I'm from, most of the people around me are screwing up so much that it's hard to notice when I do it. I'm pretty sure things are different here."

# # #

Their conversation was casual as they walked, quiet but not whispered. Only those with acute hearing could actually hear them. Em was on the right, watching to the left, her back technically turned to the outside of their camp. She had full confidence in not only her own ability to hear anything odd but Sara's ability to take notice of it. It did not occur to her to wonder at the near instant trust with this person she had only just met. Her mother, father, and aunt trusted her, and that would be enough. Em's own instincts were keen, and her gift of empathy was always like a back-check if she had misgivings. Sara was Sara, what you saw was what you got. In that way, she was a lot like Mom and Em herself.

It was Em's positioning and her sharp eyesight that enabled her to see the beginnings of the tormenting of Oliver. She quickened her pace a bit, and Sara followed suit.

"You're going to want to see this," Em told Sara.

Sara turned in the direction Em was looking and broke into a broad grin. After watching for a bit, she said, "Damn, wish I had a camera. I'd love a snapshot of that."

"Drop a step back," Em said.

When Sara did, Em activated the cam embedded in her lapel giving directions to center and zoom on Oliver as well as take continuous burst shots. "We get the Bird here, and you can pick your favorites."

# # #

"End recording, thank you."

"Recording has ended, Ninja."

"Well. That was quite the show! Your shapeshifters are certainly playful."

Astra smiled as Makiko and Maria raced over to them. "They certainly are. I wonder what got into them."

Andi snickered. "Oh, maybe they recognized that Arrow Man doesn't have a sense of humor and they wanted to help him find it. Or they were messing with him." She shrugged. "Either way, he's going to be an absolutely delightful traveling companion."

Although Maria shifted to her human form, Makiko remained in lynx kitten form, winding her way around everyone as she brushed against their legs.

Andi smiled at the young shifter then looked at her daughter. "You good?"

"Yes. Vin and Aunt Lin are just finishing up. He and I need to have a chat — make sure we're balanced, on the same page, that kind of thing." She smiled at her mother. "I managed not to fall into my usual spiral when I feel useless, so... Hey, maybe I've managed to take a step forward."

"As long as you don't start running backward, I'll take even your baby steps as a sign of progress."

"Oh, and I told Makiko I would explain the whale to her. She thought Imani might like to know about it, too." Maria grinned at the youngster. "No demonstrations, of course, but I think I can meld the theory with some practical demonstrations of some of Billy's wackier forms."

"Since we all know how much cartoon characters disturb you," her mother said, "we'll all thank you in advance for the sacrifice you're making."

"Cartoon characters?"

Andi shrugged as she watched both Maria and Imani shift to mountain lions and chase Makiko to the west. "My cousin was more than a little goofy." She smiled at Tori and her question. "He was also a great teacher."

Then she glanced back at Oliver and sighed. "I think your youngsters ought to enjoy the lessons, Astra. And it's possible they'll be less likely to start playing with Oliver again."

Astra laughed at the absurdity of the idea, but then sobered quickly.

"I'll get back to your question about the various types of technology we have out there in the world these days.

"I don't know how things developed in your world, but here... Well, there has never really been a reliable technological way to determine if a person is a mutant or cousin kin when there is no physical manifestation of someone's gifts. A surprising number of kin can pass for 'normal' humans," she said, using air quotes around the word 'normal.' "The majority of people with gifts don't show any outward signs of having those gifts until they're actively using them.

"In the years before the Troubles, scientists had developed a blood test that could identify the cousin kin and many mutants. It was possible to determine if a person had been exposed to the Virus — even if they themselves showed no signs of having developed gifts, it was possible that they would pass the mutation to their children.

"All of this presupposed that one had given a sample of their blood to the those looking for mutants, either willingly or not."

She smiled and held up a hand forestalling Andi's questions.

"Yes, they did try to develop other methods — equipment that could be used from a distance, even if that distance was a mere hundred feet. I believe they may have had some prototypes that were marginally successful, but nothing that was in common use. In the early years of the Troubles, quite a bit of money was still available for research and development. What we know from reading the documented history of the time is supplemented by the observations of those who lived through those times, and the stories passed down from generation to generation."

"The implant in Eugene's head that I mentioned when I relayed Kinta's story was something they tried to use," Tori added. "It was cost prohibitive."

Astra nodded. "And it only worked semi-reliably on normal humans. It wasn't something they could use on the kin because the person's body would reject it. It didn't work on most mutants, either. And the demons were much more effective in that regard."

Andi nodded. "That stuff loves mutants. Given a choice, it will head for a mutant every time." She grinned one of Ninja's less pleasant smiles. "It hates Elders — cousin kin — and once I rip the Shadowkin out of someone who's been infected, that shit hates a formerly poisoned person almost as much as it hates me.

"While I'm also interested in other ways the Big Bad might have of controlling people, my biggest concern is that we've got big, glowing signs over us. How does it find the cousin kin? Are we going to be driving down the road and get stopped because Tori, Logan, and Em are on the bus with us? How about those of us who are mutants? Chief Kee and Captain Benally implied that Maddie would be guilty simply by association — I'd have to assume the same would be the case for Sara, Alex, and Oliver."

She looked from Tori to Astra.

"Your world is different from ours in a lot of ways. But in some ways, it's eerily similar. In our world, we have a piece of technology that would be catastrophic if it fell into the wrong hands. Maddie made an oblique reference to it when we were in Window Rock. In our world, it was stolen once by a piece of shit who even reversed engineered it and duplicated it. Thank the Gods, Buddhas, and Spirits that the original was recovered and the duplicate destroyed.

"According to Kee, that tech may have once existed here. I got the impression that he doesn't know for certain that it ever really existed or, if it did, whether or not it still exists today."

Andi watched Astra's face grow paler as she spoke, but she pressed on.

"Vincent is possibly the most powerful telepath our world has ever seen. He's more powerful than his older brother who was, in turn, more powerful than Charles Xavier. Vincent can find and reach people he knows without the use of technology to the same extent his mentor and our friend Charles could when using the technology. Thankfully, Vincent has a strong moral center and — this nonsense with my daughter notwithstanding — is a brilliant and genuinely decent human being.

"The technology is in Vincent's safekeeping. It's well-protected from use by anyone not authorized to use it, and I'm pretty sure Maddie worked with some tech and security geniuses to ensure that this particular piece of technology would self-destruct if someone tried to steal it to misuse it.

"My Sister and my nephew assure me that our Cerebro is safe, that it will always be safe. Maddie is not prone to making sweeping statements like that when it comes to security measures, so I believe her when she says that isn't a specific problem we need to worry about. In our world."

The Warrior paused a moment.

"Now, you look like you're going to pass out, Astra. You're scared, you're about two seconds shy of panic, and you have a well of grief that I recognize all too readily from my many years of seeing that pain in others, of feeling it for myself." Her voice softened, and her whole demeanor changed. Just as Andi had flipped to full-out Warrior mode in an instant, this time she slipped into a role she could only take on when she knew she was in a safe space. Right here, right now, she could be Andrea the Best Friend because her family had her back. She trusted each and every one of them. She trusted Tori.

"You have a story, young Astra. I will hear you."

Astra smiled wanly. "It's been a long time since anyone other than Papa called me young. But yes..." She nodded and took a deep breath. It almost seemed as though she didn't want to let out the breath any more than she wanted to tell the story. Finally, she exhaled slowly. "Yes, I have a story."

She looked around and shook her head. "We know Charles Xavier. Not any of us alive now knew him personally, but we know of him and his school. There is a Story here because his story intersects with the history of our family."

Astra was silent for a moment, glancing around at the family members who had answered her father's call for telepaths. Was it a coincidence that so many of them — all of them, really — had a connection to the school and the man who had founded it?

No. Not really. Everyone one in the family was connected to that era of history as long as the Story continued to be told to the youngsters.

"To put everything into perspective, to help you understand why I am telling you with utter certainty that this technology that exists in your world is also not a concern here, I need to begin when the Troubles began. It was so long ago that the only family members who were alive then are the cousin kin among us."

She glanced at Tori for a moment. "I have known my entire life that Grandmother is a bit of an anomaly even among the cousin kin. Ten children?" She smiled at the look on Tori's face. "Even she realizes she's a bit strange. But she loves easily and deeply, something to which Aatu, her current Mate, will readily attest."

Looking at Andi again, Astra continued. "Apparently, the prevalence of cousin kin in our world is far more than in yours. Hundreds upon thousands of years ago, homo sapiens evolved — mutated, as it were — from homo erectus. Archeological research failed to recognize for most of that time that two types of people — those we call cousin kin and those who are ordinary humans — evolved to coexist with one another. Some cousin kin are not as readily able to blend in with the general human population as others. My grandmother, my aunts, the majority of my cousins and their Mates — yes. But some do not come as close to human standards of beauty as young Gaja does.

"The fact that cousin kin have always been part of the world — at least as long as humans have — makes the kin as normal as, say, people who are left-handed or have blue eyes. It wasn't until the years leading up to the Troubles that the persecutions began in earnest. Yes, in some places during certain eras in history, it was better to disappear and begin a new life elsewhere. Perhaps a scholar would look at this world's history and see that there were always times or always certain places that such a ruse would have been necessary. I don't know.

"In the year 2002, there was a rash of attacks on mutants, including the kin, as well as assassinations of politicians who supported them. Senator Knight had been pushing — too hard, some said — to repeal the Mutant Registration Act that was part of the Sokovia Accords. I think most people understood that the individuals like the Avengers and other so-called superheroes needed some sort of oversight. The wholesale destruction of entire cities was unacceptable. But there were quite a few people who saw the Registration Act as a step too far... that the ghettos were more than just a mere step in the wrong direction.

"For years, the Xavier School for Gifted Youngsters trained teens and sometimes even younger children to use their gifts responsibly. Among the various Nations, of course, it wasn't a concern, but the uptick in mutant gifts scared a lot of people. It was also a school that stressed academic excellence. When a group of fanatics attacked the school just after the president, Senator Knight, and several other politicians were assassinated, it shocked and horrified much of the country.

"Children. Even the majority of those outside the Nations couldn't countenance the killing of children. Today, it should be something unimaginable — except that it happens regularly in the Free Lands."

Andi swallowed hard. "I don't have to imagine what happened at the school that day, Astra." Her voice was barely above a whisper and held a lifetime of pain. "My Sister lived through it. Her older son was one of the children kidnapped in our world. I hold her memories."

"I'm so sorry. I hope events resolved better in your world than in ours.

"When the Professor and students were taken, several of the former students who had gone on to become X-Men heeded Magneto's call to join him and Mystique in their rescue attempt."

"Wait. Magneto???" Andi had a hard time believing her ears.

Astra nodded. "He and Mystique and the Professor had been friends for decades. Cousin Kyle often spoke of his years listening to Charles and Erik debate any number of issues while Raven laughed at them both. With as many shapeshifters as there are in this family, is it any wonder that he found Raven fascinating? His mother, his brother, several of his cousins were shapeshifters.

"One thing he often stressed was that Raven said it was silly to keep having the same argument over and over when reality never changed... and so she laughed at them. Yet, she loved them both like brothers. Charles and Erik were good friends who may have had disagreements, but they did have the common goal of safeguarding vulnerable mutants, teaching what they could." Astra smiled. "Family lore does say that Erik was not the best teacher at the school," she added wryly.

"Well. Okay. For as long I as knew Charles, he and Erik were at loggerheads. Erik put him in the wheelchair." Andi snorted. "And even to the end, Charles never blamed Erik for that. But they didn't ever seem to see eye to eye on anything. Erik's insistence that the surge in mutant abilities was a new era of evolution for the human race always grated on my nerves."

Astra shook her head. "Charles Xavier was not in a wheelchair, even at the end of his life. Ours was not, that is. And the Erik Lehnsherr of our world seemed to understand that the rise in mutant gifts was due to environmental poisoning and biological warfare — or as our Diné cousins call it, the White Man's Curse."

When Vin finished with his handshakes and headed towards the circus at the bus, Madeline quietly joined Andi, Tori, and Astra. She had heard the last part about Erik and, while she had never considered him a friend, she had far more in common with him than with Charles. Funny how things worked.

"But I was mentioning the rescue of the Professor and the kidnapped children. Magneto and Mystique were joined by Jean Grey, Storm, Cyclops, and Wolverine. While the Professor and some of the children were rescued, the losses that day were devastating. Half the children and Jean Grey died in the rescue attempt. Wolverine was presumed dead as well, for he was never heard of, heard from or seen again."

Jean... Madeline could still picture the beautiful redhead cuddling her little Leon and reading to him. Ororo Munroe, Scott Summers, Logan...

Absolutely devastating. Though the pain was decades old, it still hurt. She pulled into herself a bit, not wanting Em to pick up on it. Rene, Vincent, Emily, Jeannette, Will...

Andi smiled tightly and pointed to Logan. "Our world's Wolverine is right there. Your world's Wolverine is dead, and the shell of a man he's become is wandering through your Nation trying to get back to his truck parked over there under the overpass."

Astra just stared at Andi.

"Don't feel sorry for him," Andi added. "He'll either grow a pair or not. I'd bet on 'not,' but hope does spring eternal."

"So Wolverine didn't die?"

Madeline looked at her Logan, remembering when they had first met. He had been fully Wolverine then, completely Feral as it were. He turned to meet her gaze, a question on his handsome face. She offered a small smile and sent her desire for his arms through their Bond. He took his leave of Paul and Alex and joined his Mate, slipping his arms around her.

Andi shrugged. "Maybe he did. Maybe all that's left now is James Logan Howlett." She gestured for Astra to continue her story. "Please, continue... what happened in our world isn't as relevant as knowing what happened in this one."

The other woman nodded. "After the rescue, with the school badly damaged, the remaining faculty, staff, and students relocated to the safety of the Iroquois Confederacy. They had been the first Nation to open its borders to refugees. They had already expanded the reach of the Nation into New York State, and they offered the use of several buildings at the old SUNY Plattsburgh campus to Professor Xavier for his school. Of course, it was still a vibrant university, but it was now part of the Iroquois Confederacy's school system. It's still one of the best undergraduate and graduate schools east of the Mississippi."

Astra paused to take another deep breath. "This is about the time that my family's story intersects with the history of the Xavier School.

"Minali and Moa were the children of Aunt Rosamund's eldest son. To hear her tell it, they were the brightest and most beautiful children ever born." Astra smiled. "Aunt Rosamund is prone to hyperbole at times, but my other aunts who knew them agree that they were delightful. And they must have been smart, too, for they both obtained advanced degrees from the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque, which is still one of the best schools on this side of the Mississippi," she added.

"It is a long and winding story of two sisters from New Mexico who fell in love with two brothers from New York who were studying at UNM. The sisters returned to New York with the brothers, and by coincidence or fate began working at or near the People's University in Plattsburgh — Minali as a counselor, Jason as an architect, Moa as an instructor at the high school just off campus, and James as an engineer and construction manager." Astra chuckled. "Honestly, the beginning of their story sounds like a fairytale romance.

"Moa and James had just arrived in Plattsburgh only months before the Xavier School took up temporary residence there. It was she who convinced the others that offering their help to the Professor and his school would be the right thing to do. Both sisters were shapeshifters, and Moa was a telepath — not so odd when one considers that their father, grandfather, and great-grandfather were all shapeshifters, and their mother, grandmother, and great-grandmother were all telepaths.

"It seemed to be a perfect match. The brothers worked with the Professor to rebuild his school in Westchester in addition to their work with the Nation. Both sisters taught the students; Minali acted as a counselor. Their lives seemed perfect. Each had two children — Minali a daughter and a son, Moa two sons. They had friends and jobs they loved. Their children grew up in a safe world, surrounded by people who understood that their gifts were simply that — gifts from the Great Spirit.

"In about 2020, the new school facility was completed. Kyle always said that everyone had the impression that the Professor didn't think the Plattsburgh campus was secure enough for his Cerebro technology, despite his deep appreciation to the Iroquois Confederacy for their hospitality and help over the prior two decades. And perhaps in 2020, that might have been true.

"The parents all accompanied the Professor to Westchester. Amanda, the eldest of the children, was still in graduate school and joined them a few years later. The others were still attending classes at the Xavier school. Eventually, both Mason and Zachary attended the University at Albany, which had yet to be annexed by the Nation. Kyle came back to New Mexico to study and decided to stay. As a telepath, he was able to keep in touch with his family as communication lines began to deteriorate around the country.

"Not long after Kyle left — in the early 2030s — the mutant hunters were striking at anyone they even suspected of being a mutant. It was a difficult time.

"We know that Storm struck out on her own when the school moved. Perhaps even the Professor lost touch with her. But around 2030 — when ghettos were being attacked all around the country — Magneto, Mystique, Cyclops and a handful of other X-Men tried to save the people, or at least the children, from the New Jersey State Mutant Colony firebombing." Astra shook her head. "They were all killed. The messages Kyle received from his family were grim. The Professor was grief-stricken, of course. Yes, he had lost friends and students before, and he would lose friends and students in the future. But Erik and Raven had been like siblings to him.

"But Aunt Minali reported many months later hat he had found renewed strength in working with the young ones. She had spoken with him, of course, because she was both his friend and a counselor. One of Jason's and James' cousins was a Medicine Man for the Mohawk. He and his wife, a Seneca Medicine Woman, also came to speak with the Professor. They seemed to bring comfort to him... or so Kyle's messages to the rest of the family indicated.

"Those would not be the last deaths to affect those who were persecuted, however. By the middle of the next decade, anyone with mutant abilities that was trying to help others needed to do so secretly. To all the world, the X-Men, the Avengers, all so-called superheroes ceased to exist by then. They hadn't, of course. They merely worked from the shadows, using stealth and cunning rather than working in the light of day."

Andi let out a half-laugh. "That's how I started out back in 2003 — working in the shadows, protecting the underdogs, staying out of the spotlight."

Astra nodded. "So you understand. There were so many who needed help and so few to help them. Whenever possible, people were encouraged to find sanctuary in one of the First Nations. The school still took in students, of course. But to all the world, it was merely a private boarding school for exceptionally bright children.

"Time passed, for that is the nature of things. Minali's and Moa's children grew up, married, had families of their own. With the exception of Mason's son, Usman, and Zachary's son, Randall, all the children eventually came back out here to New Mexico."

"My grandfather often spoke of his mother's decision to return here," said one of the younger shapeshifters. "She was torn. She had wanted to stay in New York with her parents and cousins, yet she couldn't refuse her twin's request to come back here."

Astra hugged the younger woman. "Perhaps Great-Grandmother is right in her suspicion that Trina had a touch of precognition, Xenia. If she and your Grandmother Gail had not returned, no one of Minali's line would have lived."

Xenia smiled sadly. "I know. She was still a sorrowful person all her life."

Astra looked around at the family members who were gathering around — some in human form, most as their favorite shifter form. She gave her attention to Andi again.

"Much of the story Kyle didn't tell until years later. He, too, carried an immense amount of pain and grief. Despite the school's security and the watchful eye of the remaining X-Men, there would be periodic attacks that tested their defenses. The original four family members were getting older — Minali and Jason were ninety, James was eighty-five, Moa was eighty. They lived on the grounds and acted like parents and then grandparents to all the children who came and went. Their children and spouses all taught or worked at the school, too. Everyone loved the Professor and, as Gail's story shows, it was often hard to leave. His kindness and charisma were legendary."

She smiled at Andi. "He sounds no different from your friend, Andi, in that regard."

Andi shook her head. "Not at all different. Charles was very much loved — so much so that my nephew took his name when he walked on."

"So he died peacefully, surrounded by his family?"

Andi nodded.

Though the question was not addressed to her, Madeline also nodded. Charles was an astonishing man who had had faith in her when she had none in herself. She had trusted him like no other except Rene. He had never judged her though she had allowed him to see all that she was, all that she had done.

"I would have wished the same for the Professor who touched the lives of my family.

"Shortly after Usman left to attend university in Albany — by now, a protected city in the Iroquois Confederacy — Kyle's messages from the family began getting... less frequent, more hurried. He became increasingly concerned, but none of the three telepaths still at the Xavier school — his mother, his cousin Amanda, his cousin Mason's wife, Nitza — would speak of their concerns. In fact, they very deliberately hid things from him. Usman was not a telepath, and Randall was still very young.

"What he later learned was that Randall was exceptionally talented — much like your Vincent, although perhaps not quite as powerful. He was, however, more powerful than the Professor — and to safeguard the boy, the Professor asked that no one speak of it.

"However, in 2060, only months after Usman returned from his university studies, Kyle learned the whole story from Randy, who was only fifteen at the time."

She sighed and once more looked around. "If you are familiar with telepathic communication, you know that volumes of information can be transmitted in the blink of an eye — or so it seems."

Andi looked at her Sister then back at Astra. "Oh, yes. I still have conversations with my Brother Rene that seem to go on for hours in the moments between sleep and wakefulness."

"The penultimate message Kyle received was from Randy. It told of attacks on the school that had been increasing in both frequency and severity. He said that the Professor was concerned, that he was preparing an evacuation plan to ensure that everyone could safely get to Kingston, the southernmost city in the Iroquois Confederacy. Even then, the entire student body — only about a dozen students at the time, including Randy — all of the faculty, staff, and older people — like our elderly family members — who simply stayed because they loved the Professor and the school would fit in a bus about the size of yours. Even taking the back roads, it would have only taken two hours at most to reach Kingston."

Astra paused as her father came up beside her and folded her into a hug.

"You are the only one who can tell this story, little light of my life. I will stay right here until you finish."

"Thank you, Papa. I never met these people, and yet their story hurts so much."

"Oh, well, that's because you're such a bright light, silly. And if any of the nonsense Andi's children have been spouting holds any water, maybe you did meet them, eh?"

Astra shook her head and sighed. "Yes, Papa. Whatever you say, Papa."

"Ah! Now you are back to teasing an old man! You're all better. Excellent!"

Nevertheless, she leaned against him as she finished her tale.

"The Professor planned to destroy Cerebro rather than allow it to fall into the hands of those who might use it for evil purposes. And your fears about the technology, Andi, are well-founded. From what you have said and from what our family history says, it is the same device in both worlds."

Madeline's hands tightened on Logan's arms. She knew all too well the danger Cerebro posed.

"The last message Kyle received from Randy — the last private message, I should say — was hurried and came only a few hours later. The school was under attack. Bombs had been dropped, troops had been sent in. He and the Professor had retreated to the secure area where Cerebro was kept. Randy was defying the Professor by staying, by not fleeing, but it seemed clear that there was nowhere for him to go. This boy who was barely a man knew with certainty that everyone at the school — his family, his friends — everyone except him and the Professor were dead.

"He knew that his time, too, was short. The Professor would need to manually set the destruction sequence, for the bombs had destroyed the automatic self-destruct computer."

She paused again and looked Andi in the eyes. "Have you ever been in telepathic communication with someone when they died? Violently?"

Andi's eyes flickered to Maddie and merely nodded to Astra.

Logan's arms tightened a bit more, pulling Madeline closer though she was ramrod stiff. Astra's story was all too familiar. But there had been others.

"I have not," Astra said. "But my grandmother was... as were my aunts Rosamund, Jean Marie and Devorah... as were Rosamund's son Ramiro and granddaughter Fadila. And of course, cousin Kyle. Randy's last message went to all of them in the instant before he died.

"He did it. You're all safe. I love all of you. Tell the whole family."

"And he is honored for his courage and sacrifice to this day," Aatu murmured.

Astra nodded. "And that, Warrior Andi, is how I know with certainty that Cerebro does not exist in this world, and has not existed since 2060."

Madeline took a deep breath then another before she could speak. Her voice was tight and rough. "I thank for your Story, and I share your sorrow. Charles…" She paused to swallow a lump in her throat. Tears streamed from her eyes unchecked. "Charles always saw and believed the best of people. It was his best quality and, at times, his greatest weakness. He also inspired those around him to be the very best they could be. Young Randall sounds a lot like my Leon. As much as it pains the family, I am still glad that Charles was not alone at his death, but had a young Warrior of courage and conviction standing beside him."

"We hold Randall in our hearts with pride," Astra admitted. "All of them, really. The elders had decades to grow to know Charles just as you and Andi knew your friend. The loss of our kinsmen is balanced, however, by our knowledge that the Professor was not alone at the end and the belief that his journey to the next life was not a solitary one either. Whether one believes in an afterlife, or another life, or simply the cessation of existence, I believe there is a moment in which a person's soul hesitates before moving on. No matter the Professor's beliefs, he was not alone in the moment of hesitation."

Andi looked at the tears on her Sister's face and barely held her own in check. "A young Irishman once told me of his interminable moment of hesitation in which he and his beloved had time to say goodbye. She was of the First Nations and held to her traditional beliefs, he had been raised as a Catholic, and he was afraid that he would never see her again. Her words to him held so much wisdom: Heaven... the World of the Ancestors... it's all the same thing." Andi shrugged. "I suspect Gloria was more right than Padraig could ever understand."

"You... you speak to the dead?" Gaja asked. For a young cousin kin who hadn't yet learned to be afraid of anything, this seemed to terrify her.

Andi nodded. "Only those who are tied to someone still living. Padraig is tied to his sister because they share a soul. Rene..." She looked at Maddie again and smiled. "My Brother Rene has a marriage bond with my Sister that could not be broken even by death. He's a charming rake, has a wicked sense of humor, a gift that is not suitable for use around children, and I miss him just as much as I miss my own husband. They are both Spirits and couldn't enter this world with us. But I hold them both in my heart, and have twice now pierced the veil between this world and where they are currently waiting."

"Please do not do that while in the Free Lands, Master Andi."

She nodded to Imani. "I don't plan on it, not to that extent anyway. Of course, I don't plan on a lot of things, but the weird and bizarre just happen around me anyway.

"I am curious about how Randall knew who to contact other than Kyle. Does anyone even know?"

"Oh, that would be all Devorah's fault," Gregor said with a laugh. "Who in the world ever heard of a cousin kin baby to have colic? No one, that's who! But there was Devorah, all colicky and crying all the time."

"Papa!"

"Oh, you know it's true, Astra. Rosamund son's wife had just had a baby — that would have been Fadila, such a sweet little thing, or so Rosamund has always said. Mama left Devorah with Ramiro and Angela and went on a ten-year Walkabout. She was in New York when Randall was born. Or maybe just before he was born. Or just after? In any case, she visited with her kin out there."

He looked at Andi and shrugged. "Who knows? But every cousin kin who was both descended from my mother and a telepath got that call. None of the spouses. No one who was a shapeshifter or just an ordinary telepath — and there were a few of them, including Xenia's Great-Granny and Great-Auntie. Even Kyle's son was a telepath.

"So your guess is as good as ours, Andi."

The Warrior tilted her head in thought, then looked around at the family members.

"Xenia, are you the only one who is descended from two of the people Randall last spoke to?"

Xenia shook her head.

"Oh, no," said one of the men, "certainly not. Several of us are descended from either Rosamund or Jean Marie. Xenia is the only one of us who is a descendant of Minali. I'm Giles," he said as he placed his hands on the shoulders of two young women. "Jean Marie is my mother; Rasha and Avis are my daughters."

"Jean Marie is also my grandmother," Gaja said.

"Rosamund is also my grandmother and Ramiro is my father," said the most elderly of the shapeshifters. "I am Joseph. These are my sisters, Kishori and Ylsa. Our cousin Katherine is Fadila's daughter and would have found a way to be here if she were a telepath."

Kishori laughed. "She very nearly decided to run here anyway. Aunt Fadila told her what Gaja had planned. I believe her exact words were, 'I am not going to let that young whippersnapper show me up!'" She looked at Gaja and grinned. "I think Grandpa Ramiro threatened to sit on her."

Gaja grinned in return. "I'll have to visit her later. She's so much fun!"

Hari poked her on the side of her head. "Much later, I think. We're supposed to be watching the sad cub wandering through the mountains when we're done here."

"Oh. Well, drats."

"You two remind me of my hellions when they were teenagers," Andi said with a smile. Then she appraised the eight family members as she worried at her lip.

You're planning something.

Andi glanced over at Maddie. Am not. More like plotting.

Oh?

Yes, 'oh.' Plotting is more devious.

Then she looked back at Xenia. "Would you mind sharing your memories with me? All of you?" she asked the small group.

They looked at one another, clearly puzzled. "I don't think we mind," Joseph said. "It's just an odd request."

Andi nodded. "I know. Normally, with my Curse, I simply collect memories without realizing I'm doing it. Or rather I did until I learned how to shield so well against it. But... well, I only want to collect those specific memories — the stories of Minali, Moa, and their families."

"You can do that?" Xenia asked.

"Yes. It would be similar to what you did with Vincent, except you would merely need to concentrate on the story, the people, whatever way you feel about them."

They were silent for seconds that turned into a minute and then went beyond that. Andi noted the odd vibrational tones of the qi between them that meant they were talking telepathically among themselves.

Are you sure this is a good idea, Sister? Madeline asked.

We're going to New York, right? Then yes. It's an excellent idea.

"I think our only question," Gaja said, nodding to the others, "is... well, why?"

"Because your family deserves to be remembered even if it's in a world not their own. Because the Charles Xavier of this world was as fine a man as the Charles Xavier in ours. Because the Erik Lehnsherr of this world is someone I might have actually liked."

Andi smiled; Ninja's wicked grin peeked out. "And because I'd like to share the memories of our Charles and your Charles with the one who fell into this world and who lives in the rubble of the Xavier School." She shrugged. "Maybe he just needs to be reminded that he can make a difference in this world."

"Unless he has his own school and students and X-Men to go home to," Maria added softly.

Andi regarded her daughter thoughtfully before nodding. "I'll take that risk. In either case — staying here or a need to return home — I have to believe that the memories of everything two other versions of himself accomplished will give him hope."

Giles shook his head but smiled. "You might be crazy—"

"Might be?" interjected Madeline with a snort.

"I definitely am," Andi stage-whispered.

Giles smiled. "What would you like us to do?"

She returned his smile. "As I said, all you need to do is concentrate on the people, the story, your feelings when you heard it, your feelings now. My gut tells me Minali's descendant is most important." She gave Xenia an understanding look. "Then Rosamund's other descendants, and finally Jean Marie's."

They exchanged another quiet telepathic conversation before Gaja laughed. "Yes, it's nice to meet someone crazier than I am. We're in."

Andi nodded. Kids, tighten up your shields, she told her hellions as she turned toward Em. "You're going to want to batten down the hatches. I'm going to need to drop my shields almost entirely." Her eyes moved to Vincent, who had come over to stand with his arms around Maria, almost a mirror image of his parents. However, she didn't say anything. She didn't need to — if the memories she was tapping caused an emotional backlash that would overwhelm Em's shields, Vin could just as easily wrap the entire Zuni Nation in a protective bubble as he could his aunt and the eight descendants of Bolormaa.

Even with the amusement that Oliver had provided, Sara and Em had kept going. Em's steps faltered at Andi's warning.

"Em?" Sara asked.

"I'm okay. Just something my aunt said. Let's widen the perimeter."

Sara did not know what one had to do with the other, but she went along with it. "Sure, okay."

Then Andi looked at her son. I need you to keep an eye on me. You have the skill and power to shield me from most of Mother's energy if she gets out of control.

Are you sure, Mom?

I'm sure, Paul.

Then Andi looked at her Sister and Brother. "You might want to build up your shields, too. Or come along for the ride." She shrugged. "It's your call." Then she looked at Logan, his arms wrapped around his Mate, and gave him a smile that, all on its own, expressed her love and trust. "You just keep doing what you're doing there. And make room for me when I'm finished here. I'm pretty sure I'm going to need a hug."

I get the feeling that I may not enjoy this.

Logan rumbled quietly.

Madeline shook her head. "No, I don't want to sit down. Just don't let go."

"Never, darlin'."

She leaned back against him, took a deep and cleansing breath then gave her Sister a nod. She was going to see and feel whatever Andi did regardless of shielding. It was that single soul thing. The shielding might dampen it, even between them, but the result was typically more like the annoying buzz of a fly.

Then Andi turned back to Xenia and held out her hands.

She had told them that it would be similar to what they'd done with Vincent. And in a way, it was. Andi held each person's hands in hers as she allowed in the surface memories, and then the deeper memories, and finally the trauma and pain, the love and pride that was almost encoded in their DNA. She met each person's eyes, heedless of the tears flowing from hers.

Perhaps it was an oddity of this world or the slightly different personalities of the Spirits supporting her, or maybe it was just that her focus and intent were precise, but beyond the memories of long-dead family, she didn't pick up anything other than a general sense of the character of each person.

There was unquestionably a method to her madness. From each person, she could trace back to the memories of parents and grandparents, or even farther, and their experiences of learning the story. And because she was fucking good at what she did, and because Mother was ridiculously happy to provide just the right amount of energy, she could track forward from Bolormaa to Rosamund to both Minali and Moa, then to their children and grandchildren. It was almost like walking through time itself as she plucked out the memories of Charles Xavier, Erik Lehnsherr, Raven Darkhölme, Jean Grey, Ororo Munroe, Scott Summers, and so many others who had lived and died before any of these eight people had even been born. The depressing and horrific memories she kept to herself. The joyous celebrations, the peacefulness, sense of accomplishment, satisfaction that they had all made a difference... those memories she let linger for each person, left them more easily available. The last memory — the deep respect for, the fierce loyalty to, the immense pride in Charles Xavier that Randall Dubois had in the final hour and especially minutes of his life — was something that even Andi found comforting.

Madeline had closed her eyes as soon as the memories had started flowing. She let them wash over and through her, only catching glimpses. She did not try to parse or pick anything out as the brief snippets were quite enough. She held her own memories of these people and even some of the others. She knew their faces and names instantly when they arose before her. And that last final testament to Charles... She thought of Vin asking if it would be okay to take on the Xavier name just before their Charles had walked on.

Far from the nucleus of people, Em growled a little and clenched her fists.

"What is it?" Sara asked, immediately going into defense mode.

"My aunt, what she's doing," Em answered through clenched teeth. "Or rather, not doing."

"What?" Sara was understandably confused.

"You know what an Empath is?"

Sara nodded. "Yeah."

"I'm one. To do what she's doing, she had to drop her shields, which wouldn't be so bad except for the effect on Mom and the echo I'm getting from them both."

"Can I help?"

Em tried not to snap. "Don't know. A distraction?"

Sara smirked just before pulling the off-balance Em into an impassioned kiss. Em was stunned by the blatant action but was soon returning the favor. Andi was long finished and re-shielded by the time they separated.

Sara seemed inordinately pleased with herself. "Distracting enough?"

Em could only nod.

It made Cisco think of a zombie apocalypse, kind of. Well, okay, not really. But he still thought it was peculiar to see everyone just drifting silently toward the apparent center of the gathering. On the one hand, he really wanted to understand what the hell was going on. On the other hand, he wasn't sure he really wanted to know.

When everything and everyone got very quiet... it was just a little unnerving. He glanced up at Oliver. He was standing up now, looking out across the field on the other side of the road. If Cisco were going to be charitable, he'd probably have said Oliver was resolutely ignoring the gathering in favor of keeping watch. Of course, Cisco wasn't entirely sure he was in a charitable mood at the moment, so it was possible that Oliver was just having a snit fit and ignoring everyone.

Something caught his attention in the direction Sara had gone with Em.

Oh. Oh, wow. He knew he probably shouldn't be staring at the two of them, but... well... they were standing right there out in the open, and they didn't seem to care that they were right there where anyone could see them.

He must have made some sort of noise because he heard Oliver's snort. Cisco wasn't sure if it was disgust or not, but either way, it was rude.

"Figures," he heard Oliver say before he turned back to watch the grass grow. Wait, hadn't Maria said it was winter? That would mean Oliver was watching the grass not growing.

Finally, as she pulled her shields back around her after spending a few moments with Gaja, Andi hugged the young cousin kin fiercely. Her niece had never quite been as carefree as Gaja was — Maddie always said her family was genetically predisposed to paranoia — but the joy of her Feral nature had the same texture and quality that Em had finally found for herself.

She felt Logan's arm steadying her before she even realized she'd nearly exhausted herself. Andi leaned more heavily against him than she had expected.

"And before you ask," she whispered to Maddie and Logan, "yes, it was worth it."

Madeline cracked an eye open. I'll ask later. For now, she held her own cherished memories close.

Maria looked at her mother and tried to figure out just what needed healing. She had that urge to heal picking at the back of her brain, but Mom seemed... well, perfectly fine. She glanced over at her brother who just shrugged.

I don't know, Maria. It almost looked like she was... Okay, you know what? I don't think there are words for what Mom does. I've said it before, and I'm pretty damn sure I'm going to say it again. And again. She's spooky. She's scary. She has both of those qualities in amounts that are starting to freak me out.

You weren't already freaked out?

No. But that was because, until this little demonstration, I pretty much understood her. This? It looked like she walked through time gathering memories. It sort of looked like she was traversing a labyrinth.

Maybe that's why I feel like I need to heal... something. Kind of. Maria practically scowled. Except that the feeling is starting to fade. That's never done that before. EVER.

Xenia was smiling with a buoyancy that seemed unusual for her — at least, that's the impression Maria got from watching her interact with her family members. She looked at the other seven people Mom had...

Maria blinked, and her jaw nearly dropped open. "Mom??" True, it was only one syllable, but her voice rose about an octave from the beginning to the end of the short word.

"Hmm?"

She looked at her mother with wide eyes. "Did you just do a psychic healing???"

Andi blinked in surprise, looked at the folks she'd worked with and then merely said, "Huh."

"'Huh'?? That's it? Just 'huh'?"

"That would explain why I'm tired, I guess."

Imani giggled at the fish face Maria was making.

Alex looked at Paul as he started chuckling. "Want to let me in on the joke?" she asked teasingly.

"Oh, Mom just did something freaky again. And after a hundred and fifty years, Maria still gets this I can't believe she did that vibe going. It's funny."

Mom? There was a touch of concern in Vin's voice.

I'm fine, kiddo. Just thinking about the Professor.

Oh… Do I want to know what Aunt Andi did?

Maybe later. After we're home.

"You're a hundred and fifty." Alex snorted. "Yeah. Right."

"Well, a hundred and fifty-two on our last birthday, but at this age, you just tend to round to the nearest five years."

She studied him for a moment. "I can't tell if you're kidding me or not. You two barely look like you're twenty five."

He grinned at her. "Thanks!"

Alex rolled her eyes. "Okay, I get it. You're the lunatic of the family."

Paul checked the area with his eyes and extended his sense of unseen things before answering. "It depends on how you define lunatic. I'm not quite on the Peter Pan level that my mom believes, but I'd rather go with the flow than try to swim upstream. To use the parlance of this world, I'm on Walkabout more than I'm at home."

"So wherever you hang your hat is your home?"

He chuckled. "That's a song in your universe, too? Nah, more like home is where the heart is. So anytime I'm around family, I'm home."

She just smiled, but immediately noticed when his attention shifted. She looked down the road to the south. "I don't see anything."

"Me either, but there's something, someone causing some of the animals to freeze or flee."

"Trouble?"

He shook his head. "Hard to say, but enough of the larger animals aren't bothered by it. So I'd guess it's probably something familiar."

He was partially listening in on the conversation swirling around Mom and Aunt Lin by piggybacking on Maria's senses while at the same time watching for anything unusual along the road.

"There," Alex said, pointing to a speck down the road.

"Good eyesight," Paul said. "Hang on." He stopped and closed his eyes, reaching out to one of the dozens of birds in the vicinity and gently nudging it for a flyover of the person on the road.

"Looks like a kid, walking next to a... donkey, pony? Hard to tell with bird vision. Small cart. Maybe a blanket covering the contents?"

He opened his eyes and blinked rapidly to reset his vision to proper human, front-facing sight.

"Kids can be dangerous," Alex pointed out.

"Yeah. But either that's one well-trained animal to follow the kid so well, or this is a frequent trip, and it knows where it's going."

"Still, better safe than sorry."

Paul nodded. Hey, Em. We have a visitor coming up the road. Seems okay, but Alex has convinced me that paranoia isn't out of place. You and Sara want to wander over this way? He hesitated for an instant before adding, That was a mighty fine job she did of settling your nerves. I like her.

She'd know that he was grinning at the moment... and utterly sincere about his appraisal of Sara.

Me too. And don't let Mom know your paranoia is lacking. She might thump you next.

I'm not that stupid, he replied with a mental grin.

To Sara, Em offered a smile. "Thanks, that helped. We're needed over there."

"Anytime," Sara answered jovially. "Lead on."

Which direction they coming from, Paul? We'll head to intercept.

The road.

Got it.

As Em and Sara approached, Paul took his attention away from the approaching child, donkey, and cart and studied Sara for a moment.

"What?"

He shook his head. "Nothing. Well, not nothing nothing. You just don't look any more interested in my mother's variety of crazy than most of us."

"You get it that now I need to know what this 'nothing' of yours is, right?"

Paul raised an eyebrow. "Huh. Well, okay. You have an interesting aura... odd striations. Could explain why Mom likes you."

"Oh, goodie."

"Exactly!" Paul said with a grin. "You probably remind her of Aunt Lin."

"Is he always like this?" Sara asked Em.

"No. And aren't you supposed to be the sane one, Paul?"

"I am," he said to Em. "And I'm just saying you've got markers for Aunt Lin's brand of madness rather than my mom's," he said to Sara as he shrugged. "No big deal. As long as you're not going to torment us like our siblings did, it's all good."

"Yeah, well, madness kind of comes with the territory when you get resurrected."

Paul blinked. Twice. "Oh. Well, sure. That explains a lot. Excellent. Carry on."

Em Gibbs slapped him. Knock it off.

He rubbed the back of his head as he looked back at the approaching stranger. Better that I notice and mention it than Mom, don't you think? She'd talk us all to death. And I am knocking it off, okay?

The kid in question appeared to be a young boy of six or seven years, although, at that age, it wasn't easy to discern gender from a distance. Em and Paul were able to pick up the interesting one-sided conversation the child was having with the donkey.

"Aw, come on, Ferd. You know we can go faster than this. Mommy needs her tea from Mister Gregor, and Mister Gregor needs onions and potatoes, but I don't know why he'd want turnips. Ick. Well, how should I know what he does with them? He probably makes stew like Mommy does. And you know he sometimes has carrots for you! Ferd! Stop moping. Put on a happy face, that's what Mommy says. Okay, fine, maybe donkeys don't have happy faces. But your ears get all perky when you see carrots, so I think that counts as a happy face."

Paul smiled at the child's flight of fancy. By now, Sara and Alex could probably hear the child, as well.

"Ferd, look! Mister Gregor has visitors! There's a bus up there. There's never been a bus over here before. Come on, Ferd! I've never seen a real bus before. Well, I know you don't want to go on the bus, you silly donkey! But wouldn't you like to at least look at it? Come on, please, Ferd?"

At about this point, the whole field was visible to the child. He stopped and stared at all the people.

"Wow. Did Mister Gregor tell us he was having a family gathering? Did we forget, Ferd?" He looked at the four people closest to the road. They didn't look anything like Mister Gregor, but they weren't old people either, so maybe that made a difference.

"Hi, are you related to Mister Gregor?" he asked them. "I'm Benji, it's short for Benjamin 'cause that was my daddy's name, but I like Benji just fine. That's a really pretty coat, Miss," he said to Em. "Red's my favorite color, but my big sister says that's a girl's color, except Mommy says I can like whatever color I want, and red is everyone's color. And does your jumpsuit keep you warm enough, Miss?" he asked Alex. "I have a blanket if you need it. Well, except it must keep you warm enough or your boyfriend would lend you his jacket, wouldn't you, Mister?" he said to Paul. But he just smiled brightly and happily at Sara. "You have the same color hair as my Mommy. She's the prettiest person in the whole wide world." He nodded decisively. "But maybe you're the second prettiest. Oh, except you're all pretty, except you're handsome, Mister."

Paul looked at his cousin. "Whoa. It's a miniature Mom."

"Oh, are you all related to each other and Mister Gregor? I have two sisters and a baby brother. I really like my sisters. I like my brother, too, but he's still a baby and kind of boring."

Paul crouched down so that he was eye level with Benji. "I'm Paul. Em here is my cousin," he said pointing to her. "Sara and Alex are our friends. We just met them today so it wouldn't be proper for Alex to be my girlfriend right off."

"Oh. But she's a girl, and she's your friend, even if she has a boy's name. I'm sorry, Miss Alex, but it true 'cause that's my baby brother's name. Alex. It's short for Alexander."

Alex glanced at Sara and Em, then smiled at the boy. "In my family, Alex can be a girl's name or a boy's name. It's short for Alexandra."

Benji's eyes grew wide. "Oooooh! That's neat! I learned something new today. How about that, Ferd?" He patted the donkey's neck. "Ferd doesn't say much. Well, really, Ferd doesn't say anything, I guess. And Ferd's not short for anything. Mommy says his name was supposed to be Fred, but when Ferd was born her little brother Uncle Edwin was just learning how to make his letters and spelled Fred the wrong way so Ferd's always been Ferd 'cause Granny thought that was darn tootin' funny."

Paul did his best to remain mostly serious. "So you're here to see Gregor? Gosh, I'll bet he never expected to have so many visitors today."

Hey, Mom... we've got a mini motor mouth over here who's apparently come to see Gregor. The kid reminds me of you.

"Oh, I come to see Mister Gregor all the time, so I don't think he'd be surprised to see me. Maybe all of you. He makes lots of good teas. He makes a medicine tea for Mommy. She ran out of tea yesterday, so... here I am today! Me and Ferd and our taters and stuff. Oh, wow! Is that Imani??? Isn't she just the prettiest? And so nice! She used to come visit Mommy sometimes, but hasn't visited in a long, long time."

# # #

"So, we've determined that there's no Cerebro here. Blood tests might work if they get our blood and I've always been reluctant to give that up," Andi said. "Some folks, of course, feel the need to pick fights and that might cause a bit of blood loss for some of us.

"I can see where a quick test would be possible to find the Virus antibodies in someone's blood. And maybe if there's a protein marker that identifies cousin kin from other humans that could be a way to identify some of us." Andi's brows furrowed. "But in our world, it took a genetic screening to pick up my Curse... which was probably the only funny thing about that whole incident with the coma. Pablo thought they could figure out that I was a mutant from a standard blood test, and he kind of freaked about the hospital having my blood. Genetic screening wasn't something doctors generally ordered and even when they did, it took a week or two to get results back from the labs."

Astra nodded. "There are three separate tests to run, but even the genetic screening will only take about fifteen minutes.

"But the only test that's economically feasible is the one for antibodies to the Virus. The other two require specialized equipment that's very expensive. So you're not likely going to find random patrols asking for blood samples. There are a number of hospitals inside some of the Nations that have the equipment."

"I hear a 'but' in your tone, Astra," Andi said, almost with resignation.

"But we know that the two large hospitals still standing in Oklahoma City have excellent lab facilities. It's hard to get reliable information out of Chicago because the mob families are all a little crazy."

"More like completely deranged," said Channing, her son.

Astra shrugged. "Maybe so. At any rate, they're at odds with whoever is running things in the I-35 Corridor. They've always been at war with them. Sometimes, they're friendly with some of the First Nations, sometimes they're not. So any information we have..." She sighed. "It's not especially reliable."

"Okay, so we should stay away from Oklahoma City, the entire I-35 corridor, and Chicago." Andi snorted. "Well, considering that we have a notion to kick the crap out of Oklahoma City then head up toward Wichita and obliterate this town Tori's Comanche pals mentioned, I can say there's a fair possibility that we won't go to Chicago. Unless we do."

She stood up straight and rolled her shoulders, then grinned Ninja's most unpleasant smile. "But no blood donations. Got it."

Madeline still had her eyes closed, listening to the back and forth. "You're both being too high tech. The easiest way to find and tag mutants is with people."

"Yeah, I know," Andi replied. "I tend to use the top-down approach, and you start off in the trenches." She smiled grimly. "At least we get all the bases covered."

Now Madeline did open her eyes. "In nearly any populace, people can be made to turn on each other. There will always be those who hate and gleefully turn in others. Some will do so out of fear, whether that is fear of the other or fear of what would happen should they not go along doesn't make a whole lot of difference. And then there are spies, people who earn others' trust only to find out what they know. Good ones are very hard to pick out. I would know.

"Beyond that, there are mutants who can find other mutants, sniffers as it were. I don't know about this world, but there unquestionably was a precedent on ours. Some were willing, and some were forced. But they absolutely existed.

"Also, this crowd out there doesn't seem to be the type to care overly much if they accidentally net someone who isn't actually gifted. It's all just collateral damage. They'll either use them or eliminate them.

"It's what I would have done."

Astra listened to Madeline and sighed. "You bring up valid points, though that isn't my area of expertise." She looked at her cousin. "Joe, you and Nalani have spent time wandering the Free Lands much as Elder Walking Eagle's parents did. Perhaps the two of you could address Madeline's concerns."

Tori reached out and jabbed Astra's shoulder. "What did I tell you about that 'Elder' nonsense? I swear you're as bad as your father." She looked at Gregor and shook her head. "The two of you just have different ways of trying to drive me crazy."

"But it hasn't worked yet, Tori!" Gregor exclaimed with a grin. "You're still sane."

"Really? I'm going on Walkabout with a band of dysfunctional warriors. You think that's sane?"

Andi sighed heavily. "Children."

Gregor laughed as though it was the funniest thing he'd heard all week. Tori just glared at Andi.

"Perhaps I should begin the discussion, hmm?" Joseph interrupted, then turned to Madeline. "You're correct. The human component is the most common way of ferreting out those who are cousin kin and those who have gifts. Technology is sometimes employed, but people are the greatest asset on either side of a conflict."

He paused as he momentarily contemplated everything he had seen and learned in his ninety years. "Collateral damage," he murmured. "We — those of us who work in the light — understand it can't be avoided but take no delight in it. The Great Foe? At times, it seems as though its minions go out of their way to create as much chaos and destruction as possible even when such destruction is not in its best interests."

Madeline couldn't help the sly look. "Chaos and destruction can be useful. Coyote and I are old friends."

"That's true," he agreed. "In the beginning years of the Troubles, many cousin kin and mutants who could avoid detection worked within the ranks of our enemy to sow the seeds of dissent. From a historical perspective — I wasn't alive then — I have a hard time seeing that those tactics did much good in this particular fight." Then Joe smiled. "On the other hand, as a sociologist, I look at the cycles of human behavior — individuals and cultural subgroups — and have to admit that those efforts were necessary. But my point was that the chaos and destruction that is not useful, the activities that actually do harm to its cause — this is the sort of thing the Great Foe does."

Then he shrugged and tucked his hands in his jacket pockets.

"Today, there are still people who report perfect strangers, neighbors, friends, even family members to the so-called authorities. And any single individual's motivation would be impossible to predict, making it impossible to avoid them. However, there are trends that can at least provide some insight into how the people of this world might differ from yours.

"For instance, in larger population centers, family relationships are often the only thing that might keep anyone safe from the mutant hunters. In rural districts, such as the areas in the Free Lands south and east of here, a connection to the community itself can provide a safety net. Interestingly, two of the larger cities that are surrounded by, yet not part of a Nation also hold the community-based values of the rural areas."

He paused and smiled sadly. "Not everyone fears strangers, but it's a good policy to assume that no one will trust you. Interestingly, in the smaller towns and hamlets, as well as rural communities, people these days are far less likely to report a suspected mutant than they were even fifty years ago. They will, however, do their best to encourage you to continue your journey as soon as possible if they believe you are cousin kin or mutant." He nodded knowingly to Madeline and Andi. "That often means 'immediately,' yes."

"Oh, goodie, Sundowner towns. Don't worry, Joe," Madeline assured him, "I understand their level of paranoia. I'm not exactly the trusting sort and certainly not out there."

"Sundowner... that's an ancient term, but it would certainly apply in this era easily enough." He shook his head and chuckled. "Having your own paranoia while understanding theirs will probably make your journey easier. Fools rush in where angels fear to tread. You don't strike me as a fool."

Andi looked at Maddie and then she too shook her head as she looked at Joseph. "Neither fools nor angels, I'm afraid. We are, however, quite mad at times."

He studied the two of them for a moment. "I take it you don't mean 'mad' in the angry sense."

"Nope. Not usually. My Sister dances across the crazy line more often than I hop over the furiously pissed off line these days, that's true. But not by much." Andi grinned at him. "And after the first couple of decades, I stopped having mini-strokes over it, too. My Husband still claims she's trying to kill him, despite the fact that he's already dead. But he enjoys being melodramatic even more than I do."

"I have a feeling I should be thankful these husbands of yours couldn't get into our world," muttered Tori. "I'm not sure we'll survive you two. They sound even worse."

"Nah," Andi replied with a half-smile. "They keep us balanced, and you'd love them. While the five of us together might be an unstoppable force of nature, bad people tend to get crushed, and good people are left happier." She shrugged and glanced around at the current members of the Wolf Pack. "It's not the regular crew, but I think we'll make do."

"You worry too much, Tori!" Gregor chimed in. "You're going to have fun being a spy on your Walkabout."

"Gregor..." She sighed with exasperation.

Joseph chuckled, then glanced at Tori with a wry grin. "Spies are very real. That's effectively what my wife and I did during our Walkabouts outside the Nation. We could quibble about the terminology — and believe me, we have — but in war, the act of covertly gathering intelligence about the capabilities of the enemy is called spying."

He shrugged. "Unless you are a bruja who can see into a person's soul, the default position for all travelers is to trust no one. There are risks to the brujas and telepaths who look into people's hearts and minds. Sometimes, it's worth taking a risk."

Joseph regarded Vincent and then Andi before addressing Madeline again. "It's possible that your son has the ability to slide past someone's defenses undetected. From what I've heard here today, he's certainly more powerful than anyone inside any of the Nations. Given the fact that most Nations have a telepath or two who are likely adept enough at discerning a person's motivations without detection, there would be only a small possibility that anyone would notice him. Not impossible, of course, but the Great Foe does not have as many spies in its ranks with these abilities as we do.

"Imani has shared with us her opinion that your sister is the most powerful bruja in all our history. Not only that, but she has a natural protection that makes her look nothing like a bruja. So perhaps you can identify even the most clever spies and remain hidden from the Great Foe's gaze."

"Eventually they will know without a doubt that we exist," Madeline interjected. "That may or may not be when I go knocking on the front door. I intend to burn down as much of their organization as we possibly can. You may want to increase the eyes and ears on this border."

"If our young Master bruja hasn't already alerted the Guardians," Astra said, "I'm sure it will be one of her first tasks once the adventure of fetching your technological wonder is completed. I will, of course, notify the Council." She looked from Madeline to Andi and then to Vincent. "There are other Nations that should be informed of your intentions, particularly the Caddo, Osage, Wichita, and Comanche."

Andi noted the concern vibrating through the woman's aura. "If we find a need to destroy anything outside the currently defined I-35 Corridor, we'll get word to you. I promise."

Astra visibly relaxed and nodded. "Thank you."

Tori picked up the narrative again. "Imani already mentioned the people you call 'sniffers,'" she said. "The demons will infect mutants and ordinary people alike. As Andi noted, they have an affinity for mutants. That makes them the perfect bloodhounds." She sounded disgusted by the whole idea. "One of these things could possess any of the telepaths in Gregor's family or their friends who came to speak with Vincent today." She waved away Andi's clarification before the other woman could even speak. "Yes, we know... except for Gaja. My point is that only three people in your merry little band are safe from them."

Andi shook her head. "Not true. You, Logan and Em are safe because you're cousin kin. I'm safe because I'm a Qi Master, and apparently someone who channels as much qi as I do is extremely unappetizing. My kids inherited enough of my abilities to make them immune, too. When we formed the Pentad, Maddie acquired an immunity, as well.

"So rather than three people being safe, we have seven. There's a chance that the marriage bond between Vincent and Maria could extend her immunity to him, but I wouldn't chance it."

"I'd rather not," Vin agreed.

"And technically, they could all be given immunity by infecting them with Shadowkin and then I could pull it out." Andi looked absolutely serious — so much so that Vin almost started to worry. "But Pablo and Ben both said the experience of being infected was barely worth the immunity. Of course," she added brightly as she looked directly at her nephew, "they were infected for a lot longer than you'd need to be."

Though she was fairly sure Andi was teasing Vin, Madeline growled, "Absolutely not. I've already gone through that with Rene. I have no intention of repeating the experience with any other family member... or friend even."

"And the stink is... challenging to remove," Logan added.

Had Logan not said anything, Andi would have just agreed with Maddie... no muss, no fuss. Instead, she gave her Brother a look of feigned shock.

"Challenging?" She snickered. "Hoo boy, Logan, you don't crack wise nearly as much as the Husbands, but when you do, you go all out, don't you?

"Challenging?? Most excellent and favorite Elder Brother — see what I did there? — the only challenge you had..." She grinned wickedly and shook her head. "Nope. The kids were still in New York with Charles, as I recall. So you're a big old fibber. Now, when Pablo was infected, we had to make sure we didn't give Ha'atathli Ravenclaw a heart attack. That's how we discovered that the little caves above Tommy's house were so awesome."

Andi giggled as she looked at her nephew. "I don't think Vincent would have a problem getting the stink off." She glanced over her shoulder at Sara and Em and chuckled. "Neither would Sara. Alex might be tricky, but not necessarily challenging." Then she nodded to her Brother. "But yep, Oliver and Cisco would be challenging. Well, maybe not Cisco. Gaja seems to have taken a fancy to him."

Vin caught the drift of his aunt's reply... "Um, Aunt Andi..."

...just a second before Maria did. "Mother!"

Both of them blushed furiously, causing Andi to snicker again.

"I think you and I could manage Oliver," Madeline told Andi. "He wouldn't know what hit him."

"That's true." Andi nodded. "We might kill him though," she added blandly.

Vin choked a little.

"Huh?" Gaja said. "I don't get it."

Her cousin bumped his hip against hers. "Oh, I'm sure we'd have time for you to roll in the hay a bit before going off to watch the sad cub."

Being all of twenty, and despite being a cousin kin, she had to blink a few times before everything came together and she understood what Andi had implied.

"Oh." She looked over at Cisco and smiled. "Well, sure, he's sweet. And it would be fun. But, Hari, he has a fragile heart," she said, looking back at her cousin. "It wouldn't be fair."

"But if you nearly kill him, Maria would heal him right up!"

Gaja slugged him. Hard. "That's not what I mean. He's emotionally vulnerable, you dolt!"

Andi was grinning at the minor mayhem she'd caused. "I love this girl. She's so much more sensible than my daughter."

"Mom!!"

"Andi, are you finished playing?"

She looked at Logan and sighed. "Yeah, I guess so."

"Thank goodness," Tori said dryly as she crossed her arms. "How long until the next outburst?"

Andi shrugged. "I dunno. Until something else sets me off?"

Tori slugged her. Hard.

Andi looked from Tori to her upper arm and back to Tori. "As I was saying, only five people could potentially be infected with Shadowkin or demons or what have you. Two of them are mutants. Only one of them is a squishy short-lived person, as you call them.

"If someone with a bag of demons shows up, they'll head for Vin and Cisco first." She looked at her daughter. "Don't you dare freak out." Then she looked at Tori again. "The absolute worst case scenario is that they both get infected—"

"Actually, the worst case scenario would be all five of them getting infected," Tori noted. "But you're assuming that you can capture enough of them before it gets that far?"

Andi shrugged. "How many demons do people carry around with them? I mean, other than the one they'd be infected with?"

"They must be summoned one by one," Imani said. "They are difficult to control."

"I'll say," Andi agreed. "So the worst case scenario is that we're surrounded by a bunch of demon-infected minions of the Great Foe, and they manage to get to Vin. That seems logical, as he's the most powerful of the bunch. We just kill him..."

"MOTHER!"

She turned on her daughter. "I told you not to freak out. He'll heal. Neither of you will like it, none of us will like it, but it will get rid of the infection, and he'll be FINE. Jesus, Maria, stop trying to protect him. He's a big boy."

Madeline snorted. "Healing from dead is only a shock the first time it happens. At least the lot of you are forewarned."

"Well, usually it's a shock. I'd been warned, and hung out with Great Spirit while my body was healing. I think it was more of a shock to you, Maddie. Anyway, that's beside the point. And it's not like neither of you has died before."

"Of course it was. Healing from dead isn't a normal side effect of pregnancy and wasn't anything I was expecting. And if you're referring to the first go-round for you, it wasn't the healing but the dead part since I was already back in Paris when it happened." She paused to consider her son and daughter-in-law. "You know, if we do have to do it that way, you'll probably need to sit on her. The cut to the Bond is the part that hurts the most."

"Oh, hell, no! I'm not sitting on someone who's freaking the fuck out and can turn into fur-covered razor blades." Andi snorted. "Her brother can force her to turn into a rock or something. But yeah, your experience was not normal. Neither was mine. Actually, I'm not sure Pablo was able to appreciate the soul-crushing pain until after I'd healed up. He was busy trying to keep the skank away from him and failing miserably, I might add. I'm so glad I snapped her neck."

Maria looked like she was going to say something else, but the combination of the glare she received from her mother and the squeeze on her shoulder she got from Vincent at least kept her thoughts away from her already-annoyed mother.

Andi pinched the bridge of her nose for a moment before looking back at Tori. "Where was I? Right. We can't kill the others, but if they're injured enough, the Shadowkin is going to look for another host. They're not going to like that at all. But Maria can heal them. And then they'll be fine.

"Now, that's the worst case scenario. Obviously, it's better if no one gets infected at all. Cisco is a non-combatant, but if there are swarms of these things, I'm going to need all the help I can get opening portals to stuff them back in their little hells. My hope is that Paul and Maria can help him get to the point where he can at least do that much. If not, we lock him in the Bird."

"Andi, out of curiosity, could you put a person in a qi bubble? And would one of those things be able to penetrate it?" Madeline asked.

"You sure do ask the hard questions, Sis," Andi replied. "Well, I think we discussed the first question... yesterday? It seems like years ago thanks to these two." She gestured to Maria and Vincent. "Anyway, I mentioned the hypothetical possibility when we were talking with Ryan and Chief Kee. One person, easy as pie if they're in the shield with me. Wrapping someone in a bubble who's outside my shields? It's been a good hundred years or more since Pablo and I worked on that project. We were successful, sure, but I was building off the Pentad bond and our marriage bond. That said, in theory, I might be able to protect Cisco."

She paused as she considered all the variables that didn't exist in their own universe.

"We'd better test it out before we hit the road. If Cisco is zen about it, at the very least, he'll be safe. But the more he freaks out, the harder I have to work, which means he'll be less safe and I'll be less effective in getting rid of all the other Shadowkin." She sighed. "I'm well aware that no one likes the idea, but at the far end — the worst case scenario end — of the spectrum, a vaccination is a better solution than risking the entire mission later on.

"But if everything lines up and a bubble would work, could Shadowkin get through it?" She snorted. "Hell no. I create the bubble, and it's my qi signature... and I cannot emphasize enough just how much that stuff hates me."

"Let's test it out after we bring the Bird through. But I don't want the Xavier model. I want the Pack's. It has the cloak as well, and we have our Ducatis on it. Sister, tell our Husbands to go hang out by it so that it's easier to open the portal near it."

Andi looked at her Sister with an expression that conveyed her concern for Maddie's mental health. "It's probably safer for all universes if our Husbands stay right where they are. They can't kill Padraig with their insanity and Moira could probably slap them silly. True, they'd probably enjoy it, but she's even more adept at manipulating the Overworld than I am. They've already driven Billie off once. Doesn't the woman deserve some peace from those two reprobates?" She paused a moment. "Well, they did say she'd stormed off to the school's Bird, so an extra person wouldn't need to go through to make sure she safely got to the cabin. Not sure all of those trails are clear enough for her. And I was kind of hoping to bring over some of our tech for Cisco anyway. On the other hand, she wouldn't just head back to Epsilon, would she? No, no... not with the School's Bird.

"Or would she?"

Then she narrowed her eyes at Maddie. "You just want to see Rene and Pablo again. I get it. I do too. But it's going to upset Imani a whole lot less if I don't pierce the veil and then open a portal.

"Besides... Maddie! I know exactly where the ship is. Hello! I was there when we landed. Paul and I will be holding the portal open. The only question is whether you're going to fetch the ship yourself or if you're going to let Vin do it."

Then she sighed and smiled. "It sure would be nice to have the Ducatis. Fun, too... especially in stealth mode."

Madeline smiled like the Cheshire cat. "I figured you'd see it my way. And Billie is more than welcome to return to Epsilon with the school's Bird. She can get back to what she needs to do, and it will be safe there. We can always drop the newlyweds off there on the way back. Em and Paul can go with them or stay with us. I've got a hankering to go see the kids in Suriname when we get back.

"And I think both of us should go fetch it. It will go faster that way since we moored the landers. Anything in the cabin you can think of that we might need other than the coffee?"

Andi grinned in return. "Maybe just my e-reader. It's already connected to the ship's databanks, so perhaps our new geek friend can tweak it to use as a text-only communications device. I just dropped it on the porch when the shit hit the fan." She paused to consider anything else from the cabin that might be useful, then shook her head. "I don't need more clothing than I already have. I hadn't gotten bored enough to offload any of my other tech."

She shrugged, but then looked over at the Other Earthers. "No, I take it back. Grab all the clothes. Sara is about your size, Alex ought to fit in my clothes, Oliver can probably get away with wearing Logan's clothes even if they're a bit loose."

Then Andi looked at her nephew. "You're the one who'd most likely have clothes that would fit Cisco, but the two ships are a couple of klicks apart, and that's assuming you have anything to spare on the Bird. If you can work around that little problem, great. If not..." She looked at Maddie again and grinned slyly. "I'm sure you can find us a place to 'shop' before the poor kid is wearing nothing but his skivvies and a sleeping bag."

She raised an eyebrow as she regarded Maddie. "You know, that isn't a thought I should find as amusing as I find it. More than any of us, he's the least suited to dealing with the shitstorm we're walking into.

"I suspect I need a proper meal. Ninja cannot live on qi alone."

Vin shook his head. "The extra we brought is in our packs. The only thing left on board would be the uniforms. And since this is Pack work..."

Madeline forestalled the rest with a raised hand. "We should grab those too. This world could do with random X-men sightings. A few recordings and holo-projections could add to the confusion. Smoke and mirrors as it were."

Andi snickered. "Paul is going to be so distressed."

She looked at Andi now, thinking out loud as it were. "I'll take both Em and Vin with me. Vin can get the pre-flight done. I'll collect the stuff from the cabin, and Em's got the speed to get to the school's Bird and back before we're done."

Her Sister nodded. "That ought to work." Andi looked over at her son then. Your brazen insinuation that I talk a lot is noted. Remind me to thump you over the head later.

"Seems like you have a small visitor, Gregor. From the looks of things, he's doing his best to charm my son out of his pocket change and his watch — neither of which he likely has on him." She chuckled.

"Oh, that's Benji... such a sweet little boy. He brings me vegetables, sometimes a jug of milk or some cheese. I send him home with tea."

"You send everyone on their way with tea, old man," Tori said with affection.

He chuckled. "If you have to be known for something, it's not such a bad thing to be known as the man to sends everyone on their way with tea. In this case, it's for his mama... a soothing medicinal blend." Gregor sighed. "So very sad. Her husband was killed over the summer — who's to say how? Even clever little boys aren't privy to such things when they're only six. She grieves, she does the best she can, she's depressed. The tea helps as much as anything can.

"Benji is a joy and keeps people amused. If it were less dangerous, I would send Imani over there to help. They're good people out there — honest, hardworking ranchers and farmers — but something killed Ben, and I haven't even heard a rumor of what it was. None of them are kin or mutants, so it's a mystery... and a sad one, at that.

There was nothing to be said about Gregor's statement of the mystery. Sometimes shit just happened. Madeline was working on another problem. Andi's comment about a meal had set it off. Both Andi and Paul would be expending considerable energy maintaining the portal. She and Logan would also need to fuel up soon and no doubt so would the kids. Staples they had.

"Any game around these parts?" she asked their hosts.

Gregor laughed at that, too. "If you like turkey, those evil creatures practically walk up to you and beg to be someone's dinner. Except that they'll peck you to pieces if you get that close to them."

Tori cuffed him lightly. "That's only true for squishy short-lived folk, Gregor. You can outrun the fastest one even if you're pretending to be older than I am." She chuckled and looked at Madeline. "That said, most folks just fetch their bow." She looked over at Hari, who was practicing shifting into peculiar animals with Imani and Makiko. "A few of the young shapeshifters like to scare them nearly to death by shifting to rattlers, but that..." She pointed to Hari who had shifted to a misshapen Spongebob Square Pants. "...might also work."

Andi shook her head. "Dear gods, Billy would have loved it. And hated it." She gave her daughter a stink eye. "Did you do that on purpose?"

"No! I gave them highly accurate images of all of Billy's favorites." She glanced over at Hari. "I think he might be more demented than Billy was."

Gregor chuckled. "You should tell him that. He'll think it's a compliment."

Andi smiled and shook her head. "With the exception of my daughter, every shapeshifter in the family has been nutty as a fruitcake, and not a one of them had Coyote as a guardian Spirit. I guess they caused their own little zones of chaos well enough on their own that they didn't need help."

"We've got bow people," Madeline said, not derailed from her original train of thought. "Maria, take Oliver and hunt down dinner while we fetch the Bird and other stuff. I'm confident Logan, Tori, Sara, Alex, and even Cisco can keep an eye on other things."

"I'll join the hunt," Logan said. "We have a lot of mouths to feed. And I expect you'll want it cooked."

"That would be my preference, yes. If Em's quick enough, we can even load some of the firewood from the cabin. We need to move about four miles west, right?"

There were nods from Astra and Gregor. "Southwest," the woman added, "but yes, it's about four miles. Direction only matters because of the wards."

"Well, let's just use shit for brains' jalopy to get that far in. One of us will just have to drive it back once the Bird is through."

Tori gave Madeline a skeptical look. "I'm not trying to talk you out of using that hunk of junk, but I did leave the asshole with the impression that you intended to leave his truck in working condition." She snorted. "Well, working as well as it ever did, I suppose. But when we talk about roads, especially the backroads in areas like this, we're usually talking about dirt roads that were in their best condition two hundred years ago."

She looked toward the overpass, then pointed to the road that ran along the eastern border of the Nation. "That's a road. It's actually in good condition, all things considered. The..." Tori hesitated a moment and shrugged. "Let's call it a trail. It's about, oh, three and a half mile south of here. Now, I'm not sure if you remember the condition of Elder Yazzie's driveway and the road out to the highway, but it's in fantastic condition compared to the trails out here."

She turned to look at Gregor. "When was it that I ran with you and some of your kin during deer season? Four, five years back?"

"Oh, maybe six. But not more than that."

Tori nodded and grinned at Madeline. "Like I said, I'm not trying to talk you out of taking the truck. I'm just saying it might not make it back to the highway here. I'm sure Gregor could deal with Jimmy if he decided to get angry, but is it really fair to subject him that asshole's self-centered indignation?"

Andi laughed. "Oh, it's not fair to Gregor. Of course not! You remind me of too many of my relatives — all the fun-loving ones. But damn... Jimmy sure does deserve a broken truck."

Tori shrugged. "If you folks are intent on using the truck and wind up breaking it, he can always walk down to Santa Rosa and see if the fuel station there has a competent mechanic. They still exist."

"I know you want to get this show on the road as quickly as possible, Maddie, but the boys are going to be the limiting factor in how fast we get there. Em moves as fast as her dad. I can almost keep up with them. True, you're a little slower than we are, but not by all that much." Andi grinned at her nephew. "I don't know how much running around you do, Professor Nephew, but I'm pretty sure you'd stand no more chance of catching me than my son would."

Then she shrugged and looked at Maddie again. "Astra and Imani are shifters. They'll beat us all there."

Astra merely observed the exchange and raised an eyebrow at Andi's last comment.

"If the goal is to reach the appropriate site in as little time as possible, you have two dozen shapeshifters who'd be happy to help you arrive quickly and safely. And you'd spare the truck. If that leads to less trouble for Papa, then it's a better option, in my opinion."

She chuckled.

"We can go nearly straight down to the site — just over four miles — and the truck would have to take the roads, which increases the distance to over seven miles. That might not seem like a big difference, I suppose. But for the truck?" She shrugged. "Maybe it is."

"Huh." Andi raised an eyebrow at Maddie. "Em could probably still outrun a horse. Hell, I might be able to do it. But unless your goal is to fuck with Jimmy, maybe we should take them up on their offer."

"The only condition is that you need to ride bareback." Astra smiled apologetically. "Some of us don't mind saddles, especially when it helps one of our elderly non-mutant relatives get around, but for the most part we prefer to avoid them."

Madeline stared at her Sister for the longest time. She could not look at Astra. The request meant something different in her lexicon. "I'm suddenly grateful Rene isn't here."

Andi stared right back at Maddie, biting the inside of her lip. "Indeed," she finally managed to say, "your Husband would only make this situation exponentially worse. And I'm sure the children would die of mortification."

"I don't suppose there are any actual horses to be had, are there?" Madeline asked.

Gregor and Astra exchanged a puzzled look that seemed to convey a touch of concern for the mental states of the two sisters.

"Maybe you need to be as old as Tori to understand this," Gregor muttered.

Tori stared at Andi and Madeline as well, finally raising an eyebrow as she turned to Gregor. "Or maybe it's a reference to something in their own world," she said, not bothering to keep her voice as low as Gregor's.

After a brief study of Logan's impassive gaze, she looked at Madeline. "I have come to accept that I'm going to suffer through this sort of nonsense from Andi during this Walkabout. Let me know if I need to be concerned about both of you, would you? I'm fairly certain none of us needs to know what just set the two of you off, especially with the expression on Maria's face."

Astra just shrugged. "It would take more time to fetch horses than it would to simply walk to the site. If that's your preference, I could send Alli back to her village to fetch them." Her tone made it clear that she was confused and didn't understand why that might be a preference when there were sufficient shapeshifters available and willing to help.

# # #

Paul smiled at Benji. "We just met Imani today, too. She's one of the nicest people I've ever met, and I've met a lot of nice people. I think she's been busy learning new things. Maybe that's why she hasn't visited you and your family."

Benji nodded with all the seriousness a small child could muster. "That's a good reason, Mister Paul. Mommy says learning is really important. I hope Imani is having lots of fun learning new stuff! My big sister Annie — that's short for Annabelle, and sometimes Granny calls her Belly — she's helping me learn my letters and teaching me how to read."

"Oh, I'm sure Imani is having a lot of fun. She seems like she's a really smart person. She's definitely smarter than I am."

Em just snorted, causing Benji to look at her sadly. "Mommy says it's not nice to be rude, Miss Em."

"Em's just teasing me, Benji. We've known each other forever, so we do that sometimes."

"But... but Mommy says teasing is mean." He sounded both sad and confused.

"Oh, I think every family must have their own rules about teasing. My mom teases folks all the time. If Em thinks I'm being too mean, she just bops me on the head. And if I think Em is being mean, I tell her so. And sometimes I do silly things to make her laugh."

"Yeah, and sometimes you get carried away with it, and I bop you even harder."

Paul grinned. "It's true. She does."

Benji looked up at Em and then at Paul. "You have a confusing family, Mister Paul."

"You're certainly not wrong about that," he agreed. "I think we confuse ourselves sometimes, but that can be fun. Oh, and you don't need to call me 'Mister.' Paul is just fine."

The boy's bottom lip quivered a bit. "I... I don't think I could do that, Mister Paul. Mommy says it's not polite."

Paul made a face as though he was thinking awfully hard about something. Finally, he said, "You don't call Imani 'Miss,' I noticed."

"But Imani is my friend!"

Paul's face lit up with a bright smile. "Well, then how about if you and I are friends? You could call me Paul then, right?"

The child threw himself into Paul's arms, which had the added benefit of allowing Paul to do a more thorough scan of the child.

"Oh, boy! A new friend! Wait until I tell Mommy!" He hugged Paul as tightly as he could, before taking a step back. "Did you hear that Ferd? I have a new friend! See? This is Paul!"

The donkey looked thoroughly unimpressed. Benji shrugged and turned back to Paul. "I think Ferd only likes carrots. That's the only time he puts on his happy face."

"That's okay. Ferd's a fine donkey when he's just being himself."

He's just an ordinary kid, Em. Healthier than his friend Ferd, who's getting on in years. I think the biggest threat he poses is that he'll talk us to death.

He glanced up at his cousin for an instant. And if Mom hasn't done that already, little Benji isn't going to manage it.

"Can we help you and Ferd with your chores today?" Alex asked.

"Oh, no thank you, Miss Alex! All we do is walk over to Mister Gregor's house up there on the old highway. That's easy!" He looked at the bus. "Ferd doesn't care about any old bus 'cause it's not a carrot, and it's not even something new to eat." Then Benji grinned at Alex. "Would it be okay for me to look at it? I've never seen a bus up close before. It looks all fancy compared to Uncle Edwin's tractor!"

# # #

He had watched Sara and Em head down the road toward Alex and Paul. He had watched all the shapeshifters — well, no, just a whole lot of them — turn into different kinds of animals and wander off. He watched Maria for a few minutes with her knight in shining white armor. Finally, Cisco sat down on the bottom step of the bus again.

He felt... well, he wasn't sure how he felt. Other than alone — he definitely felt alone. It wasn't that he didn't sometimes feel alone back home in Central City. This kind of alone was different. Even the people from his own world weren't his friends. It wasn't that he disliked them, he just didn't know them all that well. Although he did wonder what Barry saw in Oliver. He sort of felt like Maria might grok his sense of being lost here, of feeling pretty useless. But... well... she'd gone off to help Imani. And Makiko. And some of the other shapeshifters who acted like they were still kids. Not that he really faulted her for that. Like, it was something she did too, so teaching other people new ways of shifting was probably an obligation or something.

Paul was supposed to be helping him learn something, too. How to open portals without his tech? Maybe. But just little ones so they could stuff demons through to other dimensions? This place was so fucked up. He wanted to go home. Wasn't he supposed to be the genius comic relief of the team? He knew how to do that. He didn't understand shapeshifting and opening portals that weren't actually vortexes. He didn't have any tech. That might be the hardest thing of all to deal with. He was smart — and there just wasn't a way to apply his particular brand of genius to this world.

"Hey, Cisco. You look like you could use a friend."

He looked up and was surprised to see Gaja standing in front of him.

"Weren't you just...?" He pointed to the center of the field. "How did you...? I didn't even see you."

She dropped to the ground, sitting tailor-fashion but propping her hands on the ground behind her and leaning back a little. Then she sighed.

"Yeah, we do that, cousin kin, I mean. Move quickly, sneak up on people even when we don't mean to. Sorry."

"It's okay. That you came over fast and sneaky, I mean. Barry moves faster than anybody, so I suppose I ought to be used to that. I'm still kind of freaked out, but I think it's this whole world."

"Barry's your friend back home?"

"Yeah, he's a meta and Central City's superhero."

"It's cool that your world still has superheroes. Astra was telling us the story about..." She sighed and looked over her shoulder, remaining silent, not looking at Cisco.

"Not a good story?"

She shook her head and turned back to him. "It's good, it's bad. Mostly, it's hard to hear and harder to tell. I don't know what the heck Andi did when she asked us to share our memories of our cousin Randy, but..."

Gaja looked peaceful, but confused about it, too. "Maria said it was a psychic healing and from the way she said it, maybe it shouldn't be possible? Whatever she did, the story of our ancestors from a century ago seems more..." She sighed and shook her head again. "I don't know. It's hard to describe. It was a terrible time, and we already knew that they were heroes. But it seems brighter now... the story, I mean. Like, everything the elders did for Professor Xavier and his school matters more. The folks who came back here to New Mexico did what they thought was best at the time, and it turned out to be the perfect thing to do. And even cousin Randy..." Her brows furrowed. "I mean, we knew he was unbelievably brave to stay with the Professor and help him destroy Cerebro, but it's like there's a spotlight shining on him now. Does that make any sense?"

Cisco started to say something glib, but then stopped and thought about the tiny snippet of this world's history that Gaja just shared.

"It sort of does," he said slowly. "In my world, Barry — the Flash — ran back in time to save his mom and that changed our present in crazy ways. Then he stopped himself from killing her because he had really fucked up. But things were still different, you know? In weird ways. I guess that's how we know that some events and people are important. Maybe? I get the whole alternate realities thing, that butterfly effect stuff." He shrugged. "Maybe she highlighted the points where things might have been different if they hadn't happened the way they did. Even if the stuff that happened in the past was awful — as awful as Barry's mom getting killed — things could have been a whole lot worse if any of it changed to make your relatives not have to die."

Gaja studied him for a moment. "So you're saying she kind of said 'Listen, this shit happened and it hurts, but here's all the good stuff about it'?"

"I don't know. I mean, maybe? I know what happens when the timeline gets changed and you folks don't. And I guess just about everyone has some event that happened to them or someone they love that they wish they could change. I know it's a bad idea to do that. Like, you said your cousin helped Professor X destroy Cerebro. What if things had changed and that didn't happen. Sure, maybe this world would be better. But on the other hand, nobody knows if not destroying it would have fucked things up so much that none of us would be here."

She nodded. "Okay, sure. I get that. It's still kind of weird, though, to see Xenia so... lighthearted? Joyful? She's always been more serious than most of the shifters I know. Maybe that's what Maria meant by the psychic healing. It was kind of like... maybe looking at everyone's DNA and washing the pain away. Does that make sense?"

Cisco laughed. "That it's possible? No way. But assuming that it's possible and she has the ability to do something that insane? Sure, I guess that explanation makes about as much sense as anything. She's scary as fuck, pardon my French."

Gaja chucked. "Hey, no need to apologize. Imani said pretty much the same thing. She just said it in that very serious and extra polite way she has. She's an odd one. Oh, don't get me wrong," she said as she said up straighter and brushed the dirt from her hands. "I don't think I could love that girl more if she were my sister, but she's a cousin kin and a shapeshifter, so everything about her is just..." Gaja shook her head. "Well, she's an anomaly."

Cisco finally smiled. "You realize you're all a bunch of weirdos to me. Not that there's anything wrong with being weird. Shapeshifters aren't something I have experience with — illusionists and people who use holographic technology, sure. But someone who actually changes their body structure into something else? That shouldn't even be possible. A hundred and fifty pound person shouldn't be able to turn into a four ounce kitten."

She giggled. "You'll hurt yourself if you think about it too much. And the only way to explain it is with quantum physics, which isn't for me. Hari likes it, though, so if you're up for the math, he'd be more than happy to tell you all about it."

# # #

Em nudged Paul. "We'd better head in. Mom has plans for all of us. She's only talking it out right now, but she's got that tone that she gets right before we all have to scramble."

"Come along, Benji," she said to the child. "Gregor is over there too."

"Us too?" Alex asked.

"Yup. Aunt Andi made you part of the family, so there's no getting out of it now."

"Oh, no, Miss Em! Me and Ferd... oh, I mean Ferd and I need to go up the road and then up the ramp and then go to Mister Gregor's house." He smiled brightly at Em. "Ferd's a hard worker, that's what Granny says. But he gets confused by new things. Granny says it's 'cause he's getting old, but Annie says it's just 'cause he's a donkey and donkeys aren't smart like people."

Alex chuckled at the child's logic and smiled at Em. "How about if I walk Benji and Ferd up to the bus? He can take a quick peek while I give Cisco and Oliver a sitrep on what we know. And sure, that isn't much. But I think everyone can win this way."

Then she turned to Sara with a sly grin. "Unless you'd rather head over and torture Oliver."

"Maybe we should take turns torturing him," Paul said. "Ow! Don't slug me, Em. Shouldn't we gauge who can push which of his buttons and how many of them? I mean, besides Sara and our moms. It's for science, and don't you dare hit me again. When the time is right, we'll know who should push which buttons and then point him in the direction of the bad guys."

He looked up the road toward the bus with Oliver silhouetted on top of it. "He's not the same kind of ninny our siblings are, but he's some kind of ninny."

"Oh, you have no idea," remarked Sara dryly.

"Come on," Em told the others. "Catch up, Alex, and bring Oliver and Cisco along. Mom has plans for all of us."

"I'll torture Oliver later," Sara told Alex, "I'm going along with Em."

# # #

Gaja tilted her head and regarded Cisco for a moment. "So... think I can take a look at the bus?" She glanced up at Oliver who seemed to be keeping watch over the fields across the road. It was an unnecessary task and he didn't seem to be doing a very good job either. He smelled angry and frustrated. She grinned as she looked at Cisco.

"What?"

"The bus. Do you think it would be okay for me to take a peek inside?"

Cisco looked around for the two crazy women or even Wolverine. They were all too far away to help. "Well, it's... I mean..."

"Oh, I don't want to invade your space or anything. It's just that my uncle managed to get his hands on a mostly working bus something like this. He and my cousin are the mechanical geniuses. They figure they can probably get it going again.

"But the inside has been totally stripped bare. And they were hoping to turn it into a shuttle of sorts for the Normals, the old folks anyway, who have a hard time getting from one place to another. Does that even make sense? Most people around here think they're crazy."

"Huh? A shuttle service? Why would that be crazy?"

Gaja shrugged. "You see all the shapeshifters here. Sometimes I think half the population of the Zuni Nation is shapeshifters. That's an exaggeration, of course, but I'm pretty sure if anyone did a census, they'd find that the cousin kin and shapeshifters outnumber the Normal folks and other mutants. That's probably why people think they're crazy.

"But there are still plenty of Normal folks here and in the northern Naakaii states who have relatives up in the Diné Nation or the Pueblo states.

"Oh, I know," she continued with a sigh, "most folks think it ought to be donated to the Tribal Police or the Hospital, but they already offered to give it to either of them. It's way too big to be useful for any of the police departments. And the Hospital just said they'd get pressed into service in the case of a disaster anyway. It's really too big to be a normal ambulance."

Cisco stared at her for several seconds before he blinked. "Are you saying there's a shortage of cars and trucks and ambulances in this world?"

"Of course. Most people don't have cars." She pointed to the little boy talking to the other newcomers. "For short distances, there are little carts like Benji's. For longer distances, there are wagons and carriages."

"I've fallen into hell."

Cisco's tone and demeanor were so serious that Gaja had to laugh.

"You have not!" she said as she jumped up. "Now you're just being silly, Cisco. It's a good thing I'm used to Hari being a lunatic all the time. You folks have this nice bus! You don't need to worry."

For an instant, her eyes unfocused and she almost seemed to be looking right through him. Then she grinned again.

"Uncle Giles says they're getting the show on the road to fetch some tech from the other universe. Please, please, please can I have a little peek so I can take some ideas back to Uncle Tarek?"

Cisco just stood up, climbed back onto the bus and gestured for Gaja to come aboard.

"Sure, why not? If the crazy women get mad at me, I'll blame you," he said.

"Sounds like a plan!" she agreed as she climbed the stairs. "Tell them I threatened to break your toes or something. Make sure it's silly." Then she looked at the interior of the bus.

"Ooh, this is neat! Probably a bit much for what Tarek and Lucas have in mind, but..." She paused and nodded. "I think I can bring them back at least a few ideas." She looked more closely at the nearest rack, noting the latching mechanism without touching anything. The placement of the hinges on the bench meant the seat could probably be lifted to store items.

"So what's that guy's deal?" she asked in an offhand sort of way as she pointed to the roof. "Did he really leave his sense of humor back in your home universe."

Cisco looked up and shrugged. "I don't know. Barry likes him and says he's a great guy. Maybe getting stranded on some prison island after a shipwreck and all his assassin training kind of took away his joy. I suppose all of that had to have sucked."

"Huh. Well, I think it's sad. Maybe your crazy women will help him." Gaja chuckled. "I don't think they're crazy, you know. Andi puts on a great show. She's like Hari and me all rolled into one ball of goofiness. But she's crafty, sneaky... you know? And scary. Imani said she's definitely scary. Madeline reminds me of my older cousins. They put up with us, even have fun with us, but when it's time to get serious? It's serious."

"They both scare me," Cisco admitted. "Did you know that we're comic book characters in their world? And Wolverine is a comic book character in my universe. How weird is that?"

Gaja shrugged. "Maybe it's not weird. What if it's cool that comic book heroes have come to life?" She chuckled at his expression of bewilderment. "Just think about it, okay?"

She glanced over her shoulder out the front window to see Benji and one of the Wolf Pack team members. He was talking with the same animation he always showed every single time she saw him. He was a great kid. Maybe she should swing by the border station more often.

"Looks like you're being summoned," she said to Cisco. "Don't go sneaking off without saying goodbye, okay?"

He smiled and nodded before realizing she was looking at Alex walking up the road with a little kid. "Sure. No problem."

She turned back to him and winked before jumping from the bus, skipping the stairs entirely.

"Gaja!"

Benji ran as fast as his legs could carry him to his friend. Gaja lifted him off his feet and spun him around several times before setting him down again.

"Benji! It's wonderful to see you again! How's old Ferd doing? He looks pretty happy."

"I made a new friend! Maybe he is happy after all. And Miss Alex said I could take a little peek at the bus."

"Well, Cisco let me have a little peek, too. Do you just want to look at the outside?"

"Yeah! Insides are insides, but the outsides have all kinds of attachments and stuff."

She laughed and ruffled his hair. "You're going to grow up to be a mechanic, aren't you?"

He just shrugged. "I'm still too little to know for sure. But maybe."

Alex chuckled. "I'd bet on some sort of tinkerer. You're one smart little boy, Benji." She bent down to give him a hug. "I'm glad I got to meet you on my visit here to Mister Gregor's place."

"Oh, me too, Miss Alex."

She looked up at Oliver. "We're all supposed to head over to whatever conclave is going on with Andi and Madeline."

"I'm on watch."

Alex sighed softly and caught Cisco's look as he exited the bus. Both of them rolled their eyes.

"Well, the folks who outrank us have given us our orders, so you might as well come along. I'm pretty sure the locals can handle watching out for anything that's out in that field."

"There's only a bunch of squirrels and rabbits out there mostly, Miss Alex," Benji offered.

"That's about all I saw out there until you came up the road," she replied to the child. "Nice meeting you... Gaja, is it? We need to go, but maybe I'll see you later."

"Count on it," the young cousin kin replied with a smile. "Cisco promised not to leave before saying goodbye."

"Well, he's a man of his word," Alex said as she looked at Cisco. "At least, that's what my sister keeps telling me."

She looked up at Oliver, who didn't appear to be going anywhere any time soon. Then she shrugged.

"Well, Cisco... looks like it's just you and me. Think Andi will sic one of her Spirit animals on Oliver?" she asked as the two of them headed toward the center of the field.

# # #

Logan bent his head and put his mouth right next to Madeline's ear, his whiskers and whisper tickling. "I'll carry you, darlin', to hell and back if need be."

She squeezed his arm and kept her smile to a minimum.

Andi looked at her Sister and Brother for a very long moment. "My dearest pot and kettle, it would appear that Tori is the only person more likely than you to even attempt to inflict damage on my poor delicate personage for acting like the lunatic I was forced to become due to circumstances beyond my control. It would please me greatly if you could make the supreme sacrifice of removing your minds from the gutter long enough to focus on the task at hand — the retrieval of the Blackbird."

She even managed to say all of that with a straight face.

Then she turned to her daughter and nephew... son-in-law... whatever. "Maria, go fetch the bows — yours, Tori's..." She glanced back at Logan for a second before continuing. "...and mine. And while you're at it, get that idiot off the bus and tell him to get his lazy ass over here.

"Vincent..." He was getting to see a side of his aunt he hadn't seen in decades. This version of Andi was the mother that was entirely fed up with the antics of her children and the Husband and Brother who encouraged their preteen flights of fancy. "Start walking. If you're lucky, one of Astra's kinfolk will catch up to you."

Then her gaze turned to Em, Paul, and Sara. "You two, with Vincent. Move." Paul, recognizing this facet of his mother, didn't say a word or even hesitate before making an arc around the group and heading toward the southwest. Pissed Off Mom was sometimes even scarier than Ninja. Maybe it was because her anger was too much like Aunt Lin's — icy cold.

"Sara, if Maria is unsuccessful in returning with your friend, I'd like you to convey a message to him. Remind him that he's now a member of the Wolf Pack, that the Black Wolf is his commanding officer, and that Ninja will beat the living daylights out of him if he refuses one more request — partially as a reminder that not following orders will get people killed and partially because I'm just in one of my moods."

Finally, she turned back to Astra and smiled. "If you and Imani would be so kind as to lead the way, we'll be following. Hopefully, I won't cause too much disturbance in the Force by practicing my shapeshifting. I don't do it nearly as often as folks who have the skill as their primary gift."

The elder bodhisattva nodded, looked over at the three youngsters playing several dozen yards away — causing a flurry of both shifting and hurried conversation — and finally took a running head start before shifting to a hawk and winging off to the southwest.

Andi watched as Imani shifted as well — her choice was a cheetah. She nodded to herself as she tried to hold back the torrent of qi Mother was trying to share with her.

"I'll meet you at the rendezvous point," she said to Maddie through clenched teeth.

Mother and I are going to need to have a chat. This is almost as bad as being pregnant.

Then Andi turned on her heel, began jogging after Imani, then shifted to cheetah as well. The pure animal joy of running soothed her human mind. She sensed Beastmaster's surprise and dismissed it. There was only the running.

# # #

Maria hadn't seen her mother that pissed off in a long, long time. This wasn't one of Ninja's fires of fury that would burn out in due course. Oh, no. No, this was Mom at her angriest. The only time she'd ever really snapped at Dad was when she was furious like this. And it had always been because she or Paul, or the two of them, had done something phenomenally stupid and Dad had decided to justify their stupidity. Although, now that she thought about it, it had usually been both Dad and Uncle Rene trying to convince Mom that she and her brother deserved leniency.

The weird thing today was that she was pretty sure neither she nor Paul had done anything to trigger Mom.

She waved to Alex and Cisco as she jogged passed them. They seemed engrossed in their conversation, and Maria wasn't about to stop and chat with Mom in this kind of mood. As she approached the bus, she slowed, trying to decide which path to take.

She sighed. Deal with Oliver first. Since he was standing close to the front of the bus, she walked to the back and, using the fuel lockbox as an intermediary step, swung herself up to the roof. She just stood there with her arms crossed until Oliver turned to her.

"What do you want?"

Maria tilted her head as she regarded him. There was something off about his qi, but it wasn't something that required her healing skills.

"It's not so much a question of what I want as it is a question of what I don't want. And I don't want to be in the vicinity when my mother, Aunt Lin, or both beat the snot out of you. I've been pummeled by both of them and have no desire to heal from the beating you're rushing toward."

Well. Wasn't she being bold and assertive? Ah! This felt like a training session with a new student. That explained it.

"What makes you think either or both of them could take me?"

She raised both eyebrows in disbelief.

Except... no, this was part of Mommy Dearest's crafty madness. Here you go, Maria! Look in this mirror and see your flaws!

Okay. Between Guardian Zosia and this little exercise, she was absolutely convinced that she needed to stay as far away as possible from the beating she had been rushing toward.

"I'm over a hundred and fifty years old, and I've known both of them all my life? That ought to do for starters. But come on... you have met them, haven't you?"

"In my experience, all long-lived people are crazy, generally in the category of psychotic."

Maria shrugged. "And I'd respectfully argue that you've met all the wrong people. My reason for coming over here is to deliver a message, however — not get into a debate.

"I'm to tell you to get your lazy ass over to the gathering at the center of the field. We're going hunting, you have a bow. There are a lot of folks here, and I know for a fact that my mother is going to need a massive protein intake." She paused. "Also, I think the person who's going to deliver the next message is your friend Sara, and you probably don't want to hear that message."

Oliver smiled. "I'm no more afraid of Sara than I am of your mother or your aunt. After all, as you pointed out, Sara is my friend."

Maria unfolded her arms and rested her hands on her hips as she took another look at Oliver's qi.

"So Sara terrifies you, is that what you're saying? Well, it's your funeral." Then she snorted. "Or it would be if Aunt Lin wouldn't make me heal you after Mom beats the shit out of you. I don't think you understand just how good they are at what they do. And as Aunt Lin and Uncle Logan have been heard to say, what they do isn't very nice. At least Mom tries to stay on the appropriate side of an invisible line that only Dad can see. But he's not here. And this world is affecting her in ways that our universe can't because they snapped the neck off the beast before Paul and I were born."

He shrugged, dismissing her concerns. "I'm not sure you're one to talk. Looks to me like you're the family screw-up."

At that, Maria merely raised a single eyebrow and smiled. Vin probably would have been moderately surprised to see her edging toward one of her mother's trademark Ninja grins. After a long silence, she finally nodded once.

"And I have been shown the path to redemption, cousin. You might consider looking for the path yourself. It will save you a couple of beatings, at the very least."

"I'm not your cousin, and I don't think you're in any position to tell me what to do."

"Suit yourself. But Mom adopted you into the Clan and named you and your friends our cousins before the Spirits. In the Diné Nation, that's legally binding. On an energetic level, since I can sense you with my gift of finding, it's true whether you want to accept it or not.

"And I'm the one standing in front of you, Oliver. Seems like I'm in the perfect position to tell you what to do. However..."

She walked to the side of the bus and merely jumped to the ground. Landing lightly on her feet — there definitely were advantages to being a shapeshifter, with weight distribution being one of them — she looked up at him as she walked to the door.

"...you do you, Arrow Man. I'm going hunting."

It only took her a couple of minutes to fetch three quivers of arrows and her compound bow, Tori's longbow, and Mom's recurve bow. Then she was out the door again, jogging back to Tori and Uncle Logan.

# # #

Madeline tapped Vincent on the shoulder and sent him off after Paul. "I'll catch up in a bit."

She waited a moment until most of the others had moved on, eyes sighting on the bus.

Em had hung back too, watching her mother, waiting.

Madeline smiled at her. "See what you can do, Em."

Em just nodded and watched her mother head after the others. She had figured this would fall to her.

"I'll be back shortly," Logan told Tori and Maria just before walking off after Madeline.

"Sara?" Em asked.

"Yeah?"

"Would it be fair to say 'highly trained, wealthy enough to not care, on a mission but with lots of regrets'?"

"Oh, yeah."

"I got this. Maria, you may want to start the hunt... just in case."

Maria took a moment to read her cousin's stance. Em would not do any permanent damage if she had to go that route, but Em also seemed to have a talent for talking people off the ledge, when she had to anyway. "Okay, sure. I'm heading out."

Em casually strolled toward the bus, taking her time to give Maria enough time to gain plenty of distance, and passing Alex and Cisco in the process. She said nothing to them, only nodded. She was watching Oliver watch her approach.

When she reached the bus, she took the same route up that Oliver had from wheel to fender to hood to mirror to roof. She probably could have skipped a couple, but the utter ease with which she made the transitions gave enough information to those who understood. She figured Oliver was one who did. Besides her innate ability that came with being Feral or Kin, she very much enjoyed parkour. The other part that made her inwardly smile was that it was something her father could not do. His weight alone would have likely bent the fender and would have certainly snapped off the mirror.

Oliver stood there with arms crossed, not quite glowering. She did not even have to try to read him with her Gift. His uppermost feelings were radiating off of him. Most would have named it animosity, but that was just the culmination of all that was going on.

"Oliver, we've got watchers aplenty now. Could use your help with a meal."

Whatever he was expecting Em to say, that was not it. "You don't want me cooking."

"Not cooking, catching," she said, her eyes shifting briefly to his bow, "or rather hunting. We've got quite a crowd here, and I know my own family has a very high need for animal-based protein. I'd also be willing to bet the lot of you haven't had a decent meal since arriving. We should all rest and eat our fill while we can, but first, we need the food itself."

"Where are they going?" he asked, indicating the direction Vincent, Madeline, Paul, Andi, and others had gone.

"They need to get a few miles away from the wards. Aunt Andi and Paul are going to open a large portal back to our universe to bring the Pack's Bird through. Vin, Mom and I will collect it and a few other things that should be helpful here."

"Pack's Bird?"

She nodded, knowing her explaining things was getting him to relax a bit. She was able to pick up the other emotions swirling under the general animosity. Irritation, anxiety, worry, fear and guilt. He, in no small way, reminded her a lot of her mother.

"You have a team you work with back home? They got a name?"

"Yeah. Felicity calls it Team Arrow."

"Same kind of thing. We're the Wolf Pack. The Bird, it's an aircraft of a sort. Has VTOL and stealth capabilities among other things."

"What kinds of other things?"

"Heard mom say she's got the Ducatis on board. I'm sure there's an extra stash of coffee."

"Coffee?"

Em shrugged. "Mom's kind of a snob when it comes to coffee. Comes from owning a coffee plantation, I suppose."

From down below came Sara's voice, "Did you say coffee?"

Em looked over and down at Sara. "Yup."

Sara turned her gaze to Oliver, smiling winsomely. "Come on, Ollie, help a girl out?"

Oliver looked at Sara then back to Em. Something shifted in his stance and eyes. He resigned himself to the situation for the time being. "Fine. What needs to be hunted and where?"

The ghost of a smile graced Em's features. "There's a flock of wild turkeys over the ridge that way." She paused, glanced around and spied her father waiting in the near distance. "My dad is waiting for you. He doesn't talk much. You're better off with him than Maria. I've got to run, literally."

With that, Em vaulted into a dive from the top of the bus. She tucked at the end and rolled up to her feet already in a run. Sara looked after her with admiration.

"Down, girl," Oliver said as he landed on his feet next to her.

Sara just grinned. "I'm going to catch up with Alex and Cisco. Happy hunting."

"Right."

Oliver trudged off towards Logan who waited with the casual ease of someone who had all the time in the world.

# # #

Maria handed Tori's bow and quiver to her, slung her own quiver over her shoulder and adjusted the fit across her torso before modifying her mother's quiver so Uncle Logan could use it. It wasn't that wearing a quiver at one's waist was completely unheard of — it was just that her mother was the only person who preferred to wear it that way. Even that wasn't strictly true. Her staff's scabbard got in the way, and Maria had never seen her mother go hunting anywhere for any reason without her staff. Mom said she'd done that once — went somewhere as a civilian without the staff — and it turned out she'd wished she'd had it with her. After that, never again.

Once adjusted, she handed Mom's equipment to Uncle Logan with a smile. I'll be back shortly had meant exactly that — just long enough to say a few words to Aunt Lin. She gripped her own bow in her other hand before giving Tori a small nod.

"Lead on, Macduff," she said. "Those turkeys aren't going to kill themselves." Then she chuckled. "Unless Gregor is downplaying their stupidity, of course."

Tori returned the smile. "That's difficult to do with turkeys. They're not bright. Maybe that's why they're so mean." She started walking in a generally south direction, scanning the area ahead of them with a practiced eye. "Haven't heard that phrase in a couple of centuries. Even then, most folks had no idea what they were saying."

Maria's smile broadened. "At least Paul and I use the phrase knowing that we're misquoting. Every time Dad would say that Mom would threaten to crack him over the head with her staff. I'm pretty sure by the time Paul and I were old enough to read and understand where the phrase originated, Dad was just doing it to tease Mom. By the time we were in middle school, in addition to threatening Dad's pate, Mom would quote the Bard. Before my body I throw my warlike shield. Lay on, Macduff, and damned be him that first cries, 'Hold, enough!' And then the two of them would get so disgustingly mushy that it was unbearable." She laughed as she, too, watched for the presence of the wretched, tasty fowls. "They still do it."

She was quiet for a few minutes as they walked in silence.

"It feels weird even to me not to have him here, not to have Uncle Rene here," she admitted quietly. "Although..." She sighed just as softly. "I'm not sure even they'd be able to counter the effects this world is having on Mom."

"What do you mean?" Tori asked.

"Paul could probably explain it better, but the qi here is different. I think that's why the Spirits, including Dad and Uncle Rene, couldn't get through the portal. The Spirits are qi. It's not different enough that it affects anyone except Mom. I can't actually see a difference except how it manifests in Mom's actions. Maybe Paul can, maybe he can't. But Mom sure as hell feels it."

Tori glanced at the younger woman before pointing out a gully to the south. "There's a big flock that tends to congregate about half a mile down there. They don't care about the wards, and the neighbors down here are all friendly, so they hunt over here, too.

"What do you mean that your mother feels the difference in... the qi?"

Maria filed away the information that others might be in the area and shrugged at Tori's question. "As I said, Paul might be able to see it, so maybe he'd have a better explanation.

"But I'd almost equate it to my anxiety attack when she adopted the four Other Earthers — except, you know, she's less likely to do something stupid," she said with a self-deprecating smile. "She's on overload. She hasn't figured out the right way — or maybe even if there is a right way — to discharge her excess energy. Back home, Mother Earth was happy to take back the extra energy." Maria shook her head. "And had a tendency to overshare, too. That bit back there where she did her shapeshifting? For her, it takes about five times as much energy as it takes someone who has the ability as a natural gift. Her ability is partially something she picked up from me when she was pregnant and partially Fox's gift. Illusion has always been easier — or maybe just less energy-intensive — than actual shifting, so she doesn't do it much. The fact that she did it today?"

Maria looked at Tori and shrugged. "Well, that plus the fact that she was snippy with Aunt Lin and Uncle Logan means she's got that nuclear power plant feeling going on. She used to blame Paul and me for that when she was pregnant, but we weren't doing it. She was just growing into her powers.

"Guess this world is doing the same thing."

She glanced over her shoulder to see Uncle Logan following then, then pointed to the other side of the gully.

"I can see two turkeys from here. How much should we thin the flock if the locals count on them as a food supply?"

Tori weighed the information Maria provided against what she had learned over her four centuries from Shamans and their families. Then she simply nodded. She might have questions for Andi later. Depending on the answers, she might have more concerns about this mission than she already did.

At Maria's question, however, Tori snorted. "We could bag enough to provide every person with a whole turkey, and those suckers would keep coming. The ecosystem is still out of balance down here, so they overbreed. Not enough of the big cats have spread this far east — they don't like people, and people are afraid of them." She shrugged. "Could be why so many cousin kin live in the nearby villages."

# # #

"Those spirit things are something else I don't understand," Cisco said. "Are they ghosts of dead animals? Who'd want something like that hanging around them? Are they interdimensional beings that are drawn to her? I suppose that might make sense, right?"

Alex shrugged. "It makes as much sense as any of this. No, it actually makes more sense than some of it. At least we understand that there are other dimensions."

"I suppose."

A red fox appeared at Alex's side and looked up at her. "Your understanding of our nature is far more advanced than most who acknowledge our existence," it said.

Cisco yelped and nearly stumbled over a rock. Alex steadied him, but before she could say anything, he stopped and pointed to the fox. "If you tell me to calm down about that thing, I'm definitely not going to calm down."

She patted his shoulder. "No, I was going to suggest that you be careful. Falling over a rock will probably just leave you with scrapes and bruises. If you step in a ground squirrel burrow, you're liable to twist an ankle."

"Oh." He looked at her face and saw that she meant exactly what she said. That didn't seem to help.

The fox edged around Alex and looked at him.

"Young Cisco, your reaction to seeing the Spirits for the first time is quite understandable, and we take no offense that you are distressed by our presence. We have vowed to help the Warrior on this mission of hers to turn back the forces of Darkness. Is there something we might do to help you become more comfortable with us?"

Warrior? Wait, hadn't that giant black bird called Andi that? "Do you have to look like scary wild animals?"

Alex smiled and wrapped an arm around his shoulders. "Foxes aren't scary. I'll admit the tiger was a bit unnerving, but it seemed so friendly." She paused and chuckled. "Okay, sure, enormous black birds are kind of scary."

"We had taken the forms that the First People associated with our natures when people first started spreading across this land. Our true forms can't be seen by human eyes," Fox said. "It is a rare Shaman whose mind and heart can perceive those forms." The Spirit sat down in front of them. "Great Spirit has told us that Warrior Yazzie has been able to see the nature of the Spirits since she formed a marriage bond with her husband. It took Ha'atathli Yazzie many years more to see us.

"But if my presence distresses you, I would be happy to ask one of my Siblings to accompany you and to be seen by you."

"I guess I don't mind," Alex said, "although it's strange to see animals coming and going in the blink of an eye." Then she shrugged with one shoulder. "It will just take time to get used to it, I guess. How about you, Cisco?"

He looked at the fox and then at Alex. He started to say something, but then closed his eyes and shook his head.

"Not even a friendly puppy or cute kitten?" Alex asked with a smile in her voice.

"No. It's just too weird." He opened his eyes and looked at the fox again. "It's too weird today. Who knows how normal all of this is going to seem tomorrow?"

A butterfly caught his attention, and he stared at it for a few seconds. "See? That seems normal, except it doesn't. Maybe it's this world."

Alex, too, looked at the butterfly — it was a deep iridescent blue, edged with black, and was nearly a handspan across. She was fairly sure nothing like this was indigenous to the southwestern United States, although she was no butterfly expert. But she was reasonably confident that winter wasn't butterfly season. It was stunningly beautiful, however, and an expression of awe crossed her features.

"Wow. That's amazing."

Cisco glanced at her and sighed before smiling. "Okay, you got me. I guess it is."

Alex raised a hand, something she'd seen her mother do sometimes that often encouraged butterflies to perch on her finger. She was pleasantly surprised when it fluttered around the two of them a couple of times and then handed on her hand.

"Whoa," Cisco whispered.

"Sibling Butterfly holds the traits of transformation and balance, among other things," Fox said. "It is willing to assist you to achieve balance in this world."

"This is a spirit?" Alex asked. "It seems so real."

"We are real," replied Fox. "We are as real as you, young Alex. We are merely beings from another reality that cannot be seen in our true form while in this dimension, as you call it."

"I still don't understand it," Cisco said.

"Maybe we're not supposed to, Cisco. This isn't our Earth. And even your Earth isn't the same as mine and Kara's. Maybe we're just supposed to accept that, and work with what we have."

He sighed and nodded. "It just seems like you and Sara and Oliver have a lot more to work with than I do," he said sadly.

Butterfly lifted itself from Alex's hand and danced in the air for a few seconds before landing again, this time on Cisco's shoulder.

He held his breath for a few seconds before relaxing. "Eep?"

Alex chuckled. "Even on my Earth, I'd have that reaction if a regular old butterfly landed on my shoulder, Cisco. It wouldn't even need to be the most gorgeous one I've ever seen."

"Balance," Butterfly whispered ever so softly. "You change. The world changes. Everything grows and becomes something new."

"Um." He looked at Alex, then at Fox. "Okay, I guess not all weird things are bad."

"That's true," Alex agreed.

She noted Em head toward Oliver now; apparently, whatever Maria had said hadn't had any effect on the man. She wasn't quite sure what she and Cisco were supposed to be doing at this point. Paul was head off somewhere with his cousin. She thought she had seen Andi shift into some sort of cat, but she wasn't entirely sure. Maria was the shapeshifter in the family, wasn't she? And Maria was heading off in another direction with Tori.

Gaja was helping Benji unload his cart up at the building on the highway. It occurred to her that she didn't know who any of these other people were.

"Hmm. I'm not sure what we're supposed to be doing other than making friends and getting used to this world." She grinned at Cisco. "What do you say we go make some new friends?"

# # #

Despite her mother's head start, Em easily caught up and wasn't even winded. Madeline didn't even have the satisfaction of blaming it on the age difference.

"All good?" Madeline asked.

"All good. Reminds me of you from when I was a kid."

"That bad, huh?"

Em nodded emphatically and wore a half grin. Madeline shared the smile with a shake of her head.

# # #

There was only the running... and the chasing. She moved too fast, and so what Andi chased wasn't either of the two shifters. It was the qi, the motes of energy that seemed to be different, unusual, out of place. They might be typical for this world, but they weren't anything that she recognized.

Maybe that explained the annoying itching inside the brain feeling she'd had since getting back on this side of the border wards. Shouldn't her shields block that out? She would have thought so, but apparently not.

So she stopped chasing the flotsam of the world's qi and looked inward as she ran.

Well. There was definitely a problem, but not one that would have been obvious at first glance. And it wasn't anything that would have been obvious from outside her shields either. Paul would have mentioned it if he'd noticed it, she was sure of that.

The interior of the hogan that represented her shields was a wreck — dust, cracks in the walls, even decay. Definitely not good.

She could see it just ahead when she focused outward again: the convergence of two... no, three ley lines. Andi put on another burst of speed, ran toward the convergence, sank her front claws into the ground just in front of it, swung around and shifted only part of her body, then dug eagle talons into the concrete on the other side of the convergence.

And Billy had thought she hadn't been paying attention to his more bizarre forms! She inwardly chuckled at the strange reverse griffin form she'd chosen.

When Astra and Imani arrived several minutes later, she was kneeling in a meditation pose with her eyes closed, although she was watching everything.

"Master Andi," Imani said hesitantly, "is this the wisest choice for your portal? We had thought—"

"Shhh," Andi breathed. She picked up another fiber of qi with her mind and wove it into the tapestry she was recreating for the doorway of her shield's hogan. That was part of the problem, possibly the whole of the problem — her shields were incredibly strong and resilient, but they weren't quite... well, tuned to this world might be an appropriate way to put it. So many tiny differences! This world was missing family members, although no Diné would consider that a tiny difference. The books all around the walls of her hogan were still there, but they looked like ancient manuscripts from the early days of the printing press. The objects representing other people — Abe's hat, Denise's shield, Tommy's bundle of sage, Maddie's coffee plants — were worn and looked like cheap imitations.

So... from outside, her shields looked fine. From inside? Not so much.

She had already pulled energy from the ley lines to make the interior look exactly as it should, had patched cracks in the walls, and had rerouted the adamantium filaments to allow energy to drain back into the earth when necessary. She had been doing this for such a long time — this tending to her shields — that it hadn't taken very long for the housekeeping. The trickier part was weaving a new blanket for the doorway. It took more time. This world demanded a new one; she hadn't been able to just pull a beloved one from her memory in this place.

Paul and Vin had arrived by the time she finished.

"Check my shields again, Paul," she whispered.

"Mom?"

"Did I speak one of the languages you don't understand, son?"

"Ah... no. It's just that I already checked them."

"Yes. Hence, my use of the word 'again.'" Andi refrained from sighing... barely. She could sense him reaching out with little fingers of qi almost immediately, which was considerably sooner than she ordinarily would.

"Jesus."

Andi didn't open her eyes. "As your Abuela Maria so often said to your father and me, 'Do not take the Lord's name in vain.'" She paused, then continued when he said nothing else. "Use your words, Paul."

"If your shields were titanium before, they're vibranium now."

Andi nodded. "Good enough."

Paul sputtered. "Good enough??!?"

Finally, she opened her eyes and gave him a tight smile. "Right. Good enough." Then she turned to Vin. "Try to get past them, Vin."

"Aunt Andi?"

She furrowed her brows and looked at Astra and Imani, who had been patiently waiting a dozen or so steps away for her to finish. "I would have sworn I spoke English."

"It's just that I've never been able to get past your shields, Aunt Andi. Or even find you unless you're with Mom."

"Have you ever tried coming from an emotional space where you assume that someone will die if you don't get through to me?" she asked, one eyebrow arched.

"Well... no. Not really."

"Well, then. Hit me with your best shot." She grinned. "Fire away."

"Pat Benatar. Nineteen... eighty?" Paul murmured.

"Yes. Nineteen eighty. Your uncles taught you well." She smiled at her son, then turned to her nephew and just stared.

In other circumstances, in their own world, in the safety of the School's walls, Andi might have noticed that Vin was at least looking for her. Today, she merely gave him a curt nod when he flinched and said, "Ow?"

"Master Andi?" Imani sounded worried.

Andi jumped to her feet and looked at the youngster. "Yes, dear?"

"You... you've become invisible."

Ninja grinned back. "Oh, goody! That is a good thing, right?"

Imani just nodded.

"Cool."

She glanced back the way they had come and saw Maddie and Em approaching. Although Em could have easily outpaced her mother, she hadn't. That was sweet of her.

"Okay," she said to Paul, "I was thinking that we should open the portal back here along a north-south line. Vin, does that give you enough space to ease the Bird onto the concrete pad over there?"

Vin nodded slowly. "Give me four or five feet on either side. I'm not quite as good as Paul is," he said almost sheepishly. "He'd only need as many inches."

"Heck, if you could hold a portal open with me, I'd send him to fly the Bird instead." Andi shook her head as she looked along the line she'd sketched out for Paul, then at Maddie and Em as they jogged up. "Whose idea was this again?" she asked rhetorically. "We're going to be opening the biggest portal planet-side, like, ever. And I'm only qualifying it as 'ever' because those damn Conduits are pseudo-portals."

Then she sighed. "Paul, let's get started. We'll walk it back from here. Someone needs to let us know when it's big enough because I don't think I can accurately judge that anymore. Imani, warn us if we're doing something you think is dangerous."

It didn't take her and Paul even half the time it took to open a considerably smaller portal from Everness to this world. She nodded to Maddie.

"Paul's the weak link here, even though he's not particularly weak. Move as fast as you can please." She winked at her Sister. "I don't want to break the Zuni Nation."

"Got it. You two know what you're doing. Let's go. And not a scratch, Vin."

"Promise, Mom, not a scratch."

# # #

Andi felt the passage of the ship through the portal. She shouldn't have, but this world was so fucked up that it was getting more difficult to shield against every little thing, even after rebuilding her shields. After Vin set the Bird down, after she and Paul gently closed the portal, she watched Astra and Imani ogling the ship and grinned.

"You both want to ride back to camp in the Bird?" she asked them. Astra grinned like a child in a toy store, but Imani shook her head as the main hatch opened.

"Oh, no, I don't think so, Master Andi. The magic you're using is far too strange."

Andi shrugged as Em disembarked.

"Billie wanted me to remind you that she's waiting for an explanation, Aunt Andi, and — I quote — you damn well better stop by Epsilon and hand it over, end quote. Yeah, Mom told her to take the School's Bird back there."

Andi nodded. "Probably better that way. Time gets wonky in the Crossroads, and when your uncles get tired of teasing the Irish twins, they'll be gunning for Billie." She sighed as she looked toward the plane. "At this point, I half believe I could pull them into this world from there," she muttered.

"Really?" Paul asked. "Wouldn't that break the universe?"

Andi gave him a stink eye. "If you ask me, it's already broken."

Her son grinned cheerfully. "I'll fly the ship back. You coming, Em?"

She shook her head. "I'll run back with Imani. The less time I have to spend with my idiot brother the better."

"Can't blame you." Then he turned to Astra, bowing as he gestured to the Bird. "Welcome aboard the Starwolf, finest ship in this entire universe."

Andi Gibbs slapped Paul as she walked past him.

"Not even the chronicles from the farthest-flung corners of the world speak of anything like this," Astra remarked as she followed Andi onto the ship and looked around. "This is something commonplace in your universe?"

"It's a somewhat more tricked out version of this particular model because my sister likes nice things and can afford the best. But yeah..." She smiled as she grabbed a couple of protein bars from the cabinet. "It's not out of the ordinary, really."

She gestured to one of the seats and sat down herself. Vincent had already moved to the copilot's seat, anticipating his cousin's arrival. Andi smiled to herself. She had to admit that she was proud of her son — he could pilot anything he could board. He handled a motorcycle every bit as well as she could and was probably more dexterous with a skimmer. He'd been a better driver than her by the time he got his driver's license, something that Pablo had teased her about until their children had started college.

For all his flippancy, Paul was serious and focused the instant he slid into the pilot's seat. "Hatch secured. I have a green board," he said, hands hovering over the controls.

"Confirm a green board," Vin replied.

"Straight flight and take it easy?" Paul asked, glancing at his aunt.

"If you wouldn't mind."

Rather than the expected smartassery, he merely nodded. "Lift-off commencing, cruising altitude thirty meters off the deck, flight time about three minutes."

"Three minutes?!" Astra gasped.

"Should I keep the speed under a hundred?" Paul asked, sounding concerned. "Even Aunt Lin's Bird rocks a bit going slower."

"No, no! Go as fast as you need to go," she replied. "We're just not used to vehicles going that fast."

Andi watched Astra stare out the front viewport as they sped back to the camp. It was nice to be able to surprise people in a way that didn't involve her ever-increasing Weirdness. This? This was all on Maddie and the kids.

"Paul, snug up to the bus and activate stealth mode," Madeline instructed. "I'll set up security after everyone disembarks."

"Understood," her nephew responded.

Anyone else would have interpreted Madeline's words to mean a half dozen yards away from the bus. Her nephew, on the other hand, set the Bird down mere inches from the vehicle.

# # #

Andi had just finished wiping her face and hands clean with one of the dozens of damp cloths Gregor had provided and started to reach for a second turkey leg when she looked sharply at the Bird. It didn't seem possible, given that Maddie had set security on the ship before she left, but this world was all about the impossible.

"Weird. Did one of the Shifters sneak on board?" she wondered aloud. At Maddie's raised eyebrow, she touched her collar. "The ship's pinging me."

She stood and stretched. "I'll check it out, no need for you to get up," she said with a snicker.

"Do I look like I was going to get up?" her Sister asked as she leaned against her Mate.

"Nope." Andi looked around, then called out, "Cisco! Come join me."

"She scares me," he muttered to Alex. Having a lower protein consumption need than some of the others here, they both appeared to have finished eating.

"I heard that, Cisco," Andi responded. "Come on, kiddo! You like tech. I have tech. Come view the lovely tech."

"Okay," he said as he grinned and popped up. "Take me to your tech! Can I play with it? Can I touch it?"

"No. And only with your eyes unless I tell you to use your fingers." She tilted her head slightly to one side as she strode toward the Bird. "Maybe it's a good thing Rene isn't here. He'd find a way to make that sound far more suggestive than necessary."

"Huh?" was Cisco's witty retort.

"Don't worry about it," Andi said as she approached the craft, noting Oliver and his desire to maintain his loner status as she walked by him.

Sister, leave him be, Maddie said, preempting any snarky comment Andi might have made. I'll take care of it.

She shrugged an acknowledgment. Cisco brought her attention back to the task at hand when he spoke up.

"Um, where's the ship? I mean, I know it's here, but how are you..."

His voice trailed off, eyes widening, and he gaped as the access stairs seemed to appear out of nowhere. He stopped walking and stared.

Andi tugged at his sleeve. "My suit's AI is linked to the ship, and I don't turn this sucker off when I'm in-country. It's saved my bacon once or twice." She paused at the bottom of the stairs and narrowed her eyes in contemplation.

"Yep. Twice. Come on, kid."

She waited inside the hatch as Cisco followed, then closed it behind them. Andi frowned at the red blinking light on the pilot's instrument panel. "Well, that's weird."

"What is?"

She glanced at Cisco and shrugged. "The emergency comm channel. It shouldn't even register in a different universe." She reached over and tapped the speaker.

"—self immediately. I repeat: Unknown ship, identify yourself immediately."

Andi looked like she'd been punched in the gut as she sat down in the pilot's seat and gestured for Cisco to have a seat as well. He sat down next to her and looked at the controls with avarice.

She toggled the comms. "This is the private civilian cruiser Starwolf, registry IAO five two eight four seven. To whom am I speaking?"

There was silence from the other end so profound that the only reason Andi knew the line was still open was that her hypersensitive hearing picked up the hiss and crackle of an open comm line.

"We have no such ship in our records. Who are you?"

Andi closed her eyes and breathed as Grandmaster Chen had taught her. This had to have been something like the feeling Maddie had when she woke up in the basement of this world's school.

"No, I suppose you won't have records of us. I'm Ninja, a member of the Wolf Pack, and in our universe, my family and yours have been friends for a very long time, Shuri."

"Another universe?" Again, there was a pregnant pause. "You are in what has been designated 'Free Lands' by the colonizers. You should move your vessel or remain cloaked."

"Colonizers! Ah, Shuri, I do miss you. Well, you'll be happy to learn that we are still technically inside the borders of the Zuni Nation. Well, just barely." Andi smiled and then slapped Cisco's hand as he reached for something on the console. "I can see the road they consider the border from where I'm sitting, and if I focus just right, I can even see the wards themselves."

"You can see the Peoples' wards?!"

"I can. I'm guessing you picked up our ship because you — well, the you in our universe — did most of the upgrades."

"Your ship scans as one of ours, yes. What are your intentions?"

"My Sister fell into this universe, and those of us who could get through the portal came through to fetch her home. She's decided we need to right a few wrongs while we're here. We came across a few others who fell into this world from an entirely different universe and hypothesize that those she first met on arrival here might be from yet another universe. We had planned to get out to New York, cleaning up as much of this mess with the Darkness, Great Foe, Shadow, whatever you call it here along the way. I want to have a few words with the dumbasses out in New York. I promised I'd figure out a way to get these other four travelers back to their universe."

Andi paused for a moment and slapped Cisco's roving hand again.

"If you don't mind, I think a trip out to your place after that wouldn't be a bad idea. Have you noted the prevalence of portals opening? If so, when did it start?"

The Wakandan techo-genius was just as quick on the uptake as her counterpart in Andi's world.

"I have. They began opening at a rate and a pattern that was noticeable about six months ago. Prior to that, it had been a random and rare occurrence. The rate at which they open is accelerating. I have many questions, Ninja of the Wolf Pack, about your ability to open portals. And how do you think you will come here if you do not know where we are?"

Andi laughed. "Didn't I mention our families have been friends for a long time? How is the ever-charming and handsome T'Challa, by the way?"

"My brother is well. And that does not answer my question."

"Shuri, I spend as much time in Wakanda as I do in Paris — although I still spend the majority of my time inside the borders of the Dinétah. This ship has the palace's landing pad programmed as a frequent destination!"

"This is... both distressing and intriguing. I would be most interested in conversing with you, but I believe the King and his council would advise a meeting location less strategically important than the palace."

Andi smiled. "Of course. I'd like to meet W'Kabi's war rhinos in this world. Oh, you wouldn't believe how vexed he was at me — still is, even after a nearly a century — that I could keep the whole herd from attacking me!"

Again, there was silence on the line, during which Andi whispered, "Cisco, if you can't keep your hands to yourself, I'll be forced to break your fingers."

"A century? What other strange powers do you have, Ninja of the Wolf Pack?"

"You ever hear the story of Doctor Dolittle? That's one of them, sort of. Qi manipulation, which may or may not be considered magic, depending on who you talk to. Master martial artist. Astounding healing factor, long life expectancy. Your world is trying to pour more power on top of me than even pregnancy did back when that was going on. So, you know, I guess I'll find out the extent of my powers at some point." She glanced back in the direction of her family. "I don't suppose you folks can help us out over here?" Andi asked Shuri.

"We cannot. We protect Africa. We venture as far as we can. The Americas are too far, even for us. I wish we could help, but it is not possible."

"Okay, I get that. If we can clean up as much of the mess as Maddie and I are hoping to clean up, will you pass the word to any Supers who'd be willing to help the folks we'll be leaving behind?"

"Of course!" Andi could easily imagine the smile on her friend's face. "There are warriors in other countries who would be willing to help if they knew the cause was not hopeless."

"Thanks. If you see us pop up on your monitors again, it should be either a brief transfer of personnel from the ship to our ground transport or we're trying to bomb the hell of some bad guys. Probably."

She paused again and preemptively flicked Cisco's twitching hand.

"You don't mind if we give you a call now and again, do you? We'll try not to be a bother, of course."

"That would be acceptable, Ninja of the Wolf Pack. It would be useful to obtain more information on the state of affairs in North America. Please extend my regards to the Ashiwi for the recovery of their lands."

Andi chuckled. "Will do. Thanks, Shuri. Starwolf out."

After toggling the comms closed, she locked the board and looked at Cisco. "Do you have eyeballs in your fingers, kiddo?"

"Um, no," he said slowly. "That would be gross."

"Indeed! I just wondered because I told you that you should only touch the ship with your eyes and there you were putting your fingers all over the board!" She grinned at him.

"Well, yes. About that. You see—"

"Never mind, Cisco," she said as she stood before clapping him on the shoulder. "Come on back to the workstation, and I'll let you touch some tech."

"Really?!!"

"Really."

The workstation was only a few steps away and didn't amount to much more than a monitor and a dozen or so small access ports. Andi swept up her e-reader from the nearby shelf as she motioned for Cisco to have a seat across from the panel.

"This is already synced with the ship," she said, waggling the small tablet.

"Didn't you say that's just an e-reader?"

"Ah, my skeptical young friend! Do not forget that it's been more than one hundred and fifty years since I got my first Kindle!" She chuckled. "This little thing has more computing power than my tower did back then."

She swiped the screen with the edge of her hand, then tapped on it a couple of times.

"Okay, I've archived and off-loaded everything. It's a blank slate." She handed the tablet to him.

"Now what?"

"Now you initialize it. Just place your palm on the surface."

"Like this?"

The tablet softly chimed.

"Exactly. You've got guest level access to it now. Of course, since I wiped it clean, that doesn't mean much. Computer, training mode.

"Training mode activated. Welcome back, Miss Yazzie."

Cisco's head jerked up, and he stared hard at the monitor. "Is that—"

"—the most distinctive voice in the known universe? Yes."

"How...?"

Andi grinned. "Didn't I mention that my Sister is the richest person in our universe... by a large margin? That it gives her access to people, places and things outside of the reach of ordinary folks? Hmm. I must have overlooked that part of the briefing."

"But... but... but Morgan Fucking Freeman???"

"We called him Mr. Freeman, but sure. Swell guy... he was definitely one of the good people."

"He's dead?"

She rolled her eyes and lightly rapped Cisco on his head with her knuckles. "Hello? The year is 2165 in our universe. Most people we knew in the early part of the twenty-first century are dead."

Cisco glanced at the front communications panel. "But not, you know, them?" He lowered his voice to a whisper. "Do you really know the Black Panther?"

"No, not them. They have tech that would make you think you'd died and gone to heaven. I have no idea how Shuri does what she does, but she..." Andi shrugged. "Well, did something magically technical or technologically magical. I grok qi and how energy makes just about everything work... and she's light years ahead of me. A bit of a genius, that one." She chuckled. "And yes. He's a fantastic sparring partner when I can get out to Wakanda. King T'Challa is also one of the good ones."

Cisco looked dazed once again.

"Cisco?"

"Can I go home with you?"

"No." She paused for a moment. "Doesn't Barry need you?"

He considered the question for a minute... a very long minute. "Yeah. I guess he does." He looked at the comm panel again, then the monitor, the tablet in his hands, and finally at Andi. "Can I come visit?"

She raised an eyebrow and studied him. "You know, I'd like to say 'maybe' but I'm worried about cross-universe contamination."

"I wouldn't mess up your world, I swear!"

Andi patted his shoulder in reassurance. "That's not what I'm worried about, kiddo. I'm worried about your world. Didn't you say that Barry already screwed things up by changing the past? What would changing your world look like if you brought in tech that's only fictional there? How would it affect the other Earths? Don't answer now — just think about it. We'll talk again after we eliminate some of these bad guys, okay?"

"I guess."

"Great! Now, Mr. Freeman is going to run you through the basics of the programming language and how to interface with the ship from that thing," she said, pointing to the e-reader. "You'll have full access to the tablet, and the ability to communicate with the ship and the team comm units."

"Not the ship itself?"

"Ha ha, you're so funny, Cisco. See? This is why I like you. And no. Six people have full access to this ship, two of whom aren't here, two of whom just want it to work exactly the way it's supposed to work, one is in Africa, and the other is me. Four other people have limited access. Our Gray Hats have other kinds of limited access, and they aren't here either."

"Oh."

"Indeed! So... let's get you set up, shall we?"

# # #

The hunting party had done well while they were gone. There was enough meat for everyone, even those who had extremely high protein needs. Oliver, still not comfortable with the shifters or the situation, chose to isolate himself even during the meal. He didn't go far, but he was far enough away from everyone else to make his intentions perfectly clear. He also observed everything, keeping watch in his own way.

Madeline had watched him as she interacted with her family and their hosts. She patted Logan's knee then pushed herself up. She bent to kiss his cheek then told him, "I'm going to go talk to Oliver. Em said he reminds her of me in the early days."

Her walk towards him was casual though she did send those getting too close off to the other side. Their conversation would not technically be private with so many individuals here who could overhear them without trying. Most would ignore what was said between the two of them and at least to give them privacy.

He seemed resigned at her approach. "I prefer to be left alone."

"Even so, you and I need to talk. We're going to be heading into some shit, and we need to be on the same frequency."

He leveled his gaze at her. "So this is your circus?"

"Yeah, and, for the time being, you get the dubious pleasure of being one of my monkeys. You should know, though, I only have the flying kind."

"Wicked Witch of the West?"

She shrugged. "Been called worse, deservedly so. Why don't you come for the tour of the Bird you opted out of earlier, and we can continue our discussion. Besides, I think I might have something on board that you may be interested in."

"You're going to stand there until I agree, aren't you?"

"Or I get tired of the nonsense and take a less tactful approach. I'm trying to keep you and your compatriots alive while we're out there since you don't get up from dead like we do. Seems to me like you may want the same thing."

Oliver had been in no-win situations before, had been forced into doing things he did not want to do. He thought of this situation in the same way. His eyes sought out Sara. Her immediate past was not all that different from his. Finally, he nodded and rose.

Madeline was relieved when he capitulated. She hadn't really wanted to go the other route. She led him to where Paul had parked the Bird once they had been through the portal and took on those who had been interested in flying back to the border. She had also had him turn on the stealth mode before landing closer to the bus so that it could not be seen by prying eyes.

Here, right now, the Bird was empty of people save for Andi and Cisco. Still, security on it was set. It was not the minimal settings they used on Everness where the likelihood of anyone stumbling across her was almost nothing. However, it wasn't in full combat mode either, at least not yet.

"Starwolf, initiate starboard access," Madeline said.

Anyone watching from the Zuni side would see what looked like a portal open a few feet above ground and a ramp slide out and shift into stairs. Should anyone be watching from the other side, the two of them would have simply disappeared from view.

Andi looked up as the hatch opened. She barely glanced at Oliver but noted the look on Maddie's face.

"Right. Give me ten seconds," she said as she handed the tablet to Cisco and pulled her notebook from the fitted slot under the monitor. "I'm right behind you, Cisco. Go."

She checked the battery level on the notebook as she stood, noting that it was fully charged — as it should be.

"Mr. Freeman, please transfer training protocols to my notebook then shut down training mode on primary unit."

"As you wish, Miss Yazzie. Have a pleasant day."

Finally, she nodded to her Sister as she made her way past Oliver. "The room is yours. Come find me when you're finished. I have news."

Then she was out the hatch, leaving Maddie and Oliver to take care of whatever business needed to be worked out.

Madeline gave her Sister a nod. Whatever news Andi had could obviously wait. The hatch automatically closed behind Andi and Cisco.

Oliver looked around, not that there was much to see in its current configuration. The cockpit plus six passenger seats — making eight seats total — the workstation and shelf Andi had collected her notebook from, and what appeared to be solid paneling.

His expression had gone from resigned to slightly puzzled. "There's eight of you and four of us. So we're on the bus? And your daughter said this thing has stealth and VTOL capabilities?"

"No," Madeline told him. "The four people who are normal for all intents and purposes — you, Sara, Alex, and myself. The rest up here to keep our party off the radar, as it were, out of sight of whatever it is they use to find folks with abilities. VTOL is fairly typical, but the stealth, that's something special. There's no way to pick this ship up unless you know precisely how and where to look. It's unlikely anyone on this version of earth has the capability, especially here in the Americas. Now, what was the real question?"

He didn't quite glower in answer, but she could certainly see the wheels turning.

She studied him, her daughter's words in her mind. "Mind if I guess?"

His eyes narrowed, and there might have been a shrug.

"You are trying to decide if you can dare to trust us. Although those people out there are not necessarily your people, your team, you feel responsible for them. And you are used to being the one in charge, making the decisions. With that group, Cisco is the obvious helpless one, Alex was in too much pain to function clearly, and Sara is likely too cavalier about it all for your tastes. Which takes us back to trust. Trusting in the wrong person or the right person at the wrong time has led to death or worse. Or someone you trusted completely turned out to be someone you didn't even really know. Possibly all of it.

"Now, I'm not going to give you platitudes or anything to try to convince you. That doesn't work with those of us who have made a master skill out of paranoia. You can walk out of here, gather your people, and strike out on your own. No one here will try to stop you.

"Just know this world is a shithole of the worst sort, and once outside the borders of the Nations, it gets as bad as I've ever seen it, and that includes the wars that destroyed Yugoslavia.

"On the other hand, if anyone can get you back to someplace at least close to home, it's Andi. We are obviously a lot further off from your starting point than we are ours. At least for us, it's the same year.

"So what I will suggest is... give it a try. If it turns out we all can't work together, no harm in going our separate ways. What do you say?"

Ollie had listened, he really had. The things Madeline had said were on the mark though he hated to admit it. He gave her a slow nod. "I'll think on it."

"That's all I ask. One more thing, though... you do join us, you will be following my lead. This is my team, and I'm the only one who gets to shoulder the guilt."

"What do you know about guilt?" he asked.

"Many years ago, I had to give a kill order on a dear friend as well as my husband. They had been captured and potentially compromised in a way that would have destroyed a lot of innocent lives. My husband had been compromised, and it was me that carried out the kill. If I could have died with him that day, I would have."

"You don't sound…" he began but seemed to reconsider the comment.

"Guilty? Remorseful? I've had over a century to deal with it, and a lot of help and support along the way — from my Mate, my Sister, and the Spirits of our People. In the early days, my guilt nearly subsumed me, and Em and Vin suffered for it. Ironically, or maybe not, taking up the mask was my first step towards a better place in my head and in my heart. Hopefully, it doesn't take you as long to deal with whatever it is you've got going on.

"While you let all that sit in the back of your mind, a simpler question. Do you like Ducati bikes?"

The sudden change of topic had its desired effect. It was a much simpler question with an equally simple answer. Oliver answered without hesitation, "Yes."

"Take a couple steps back, si vous plait."

As he did so, she switched to French to once again address the ship. "Loup De L'etoile, initier l'accès au garage."

As a part of the floor slid away, a ramp downward appeared.

"Reconstituer Loup Un et Loup Deux."

She smiled mischievously at him before heading down the ramp. "These have a few aftermarket upgrades done by some friends of ours."

"Why French?" he asked as he followed her down the ramp.

"Security protocol."

"You spoke English outside."

"Different access level."

Madeline had stopped between the two matte black motorcycles and pressed a thumb to a small screen on one of them. She read the information that scrolled across the screen and entered a couple commands as Oliver took a slow circuit around the bikes.

"What kind of upgrades?"

"Offensive and defensive measures. More accurate voice recognition."

"More accurate?"

"It's commonplace in our world and time, but still leaves something to be desired when you do the kind of work we do. You don't want to have to speak loudly and clearly in the middle of a stealth op."

"Top speed?"

"Five hundred kilometers per hour, on wheels and good roads. Double that in air. Logan, Andi, and Em are the only ones with quick enough reflexes to consistently go that fast, though. The others and I can usually handle about 400 kph."

He took that in and came to a standstill opposite her over the bike she worked on. "In air?"

"Hover tech. Assuming you had Star Wars movies in your universe, think a speeder bike. They don't get more than a few feet off the ground, but it does mean an otherwise impassable road or lack thereof becomes a non-issue. Care to take one for a spin?"

This time he didn't try to school his expression. "Are you sure?"

"I've set this one back to factory so it can calibrate to you. Logan won't mind. There are helmets in the unit behind you. I'd recommend it until you get a feel for it."

Sister, warn the locals we're taking the bikes out for a spin, will you? Don't worry. Yours is still in storage.

As Oliver retrieved a helmet from the locker, Madeline dug into an upper pocket on her coat. She slipped the small device she pulled from there into her ear. She was busy tapping on the small panel on the other bike when he turned back with one that he felt would fit.

"The comm unit in the helmet will activate once you put it on. It will connect you to both the bike and me. Ground operation is like your typical bike. I have most of the special features locked down so that you don't accidentally trigger them. Go ahead and mount up. It will adjust the suspension according to your weight for a smoother ride."

"Wouldn't it have been less an adjustment if you had left it set for Logan?" he asked.

She grinned and shook her head. "No. He outweighs you by at least double. His entire skeleton is encased in metal."

She swung a leg over to straddle her ride, watching out of the corner of her eyes as he settled onto Logan's. The adjustments were minor, as she had expected. The small screen lit and glowed light blue.

"Place two fingers of each hand on the screen for biometric recognition."

He did as she instructed and watched as the screen pulsed at each point where touched it. "Wolf Two, recognize Oliver Queen. Confirm recognition."

After a few more pulses, Morgan Freeman's voice was once again heard on board. "Oliver Queen recognition confirmed. Please specify security language."

"What's your preference, Oliver?"

"How many are available?"

"Nearly all of them."

"How many do you speak?"

"Morgan, how many languages am I up to now?"

The distinctive voice responded with, "You have complete fluency in ten languages, with spoken fluency in seven more."

"Seventeen," she answered Oliver. "Though I'd say complete fluency in twelve since two of the others don't have written counterparts. What's your choice?"

He considered a moment before answering. "Russian."

"Western, Eastern, Southern, Northern or Central dialect?" Morgan asked. "Or speak the phrase, 'When the clock strikes twelve, it is midnight' if you are unsure."

"Central," Oliver responded.

The answering voice changed to a sultry female. "Russkiy podtverdil. Privet, Oliver Queen. Ty mozhesh' zvat' menya Natasha."

Madeline was chuckling at what sounded like the computer flirting with Oliver, knowing full well that the speaker who had lent her voice for the Central Russian speech had done the come hither vocals on purpose.

"Privet, Natasha," he said with a look of concern at Madeline.

"Nat's almost as much of a smartass as I am and just as deadly. The flirtatiousness was all her idea when she did the recordings."

"Her name was really Natasha?"

"Yes, Natasha Romanoff. Speak to her a bit more so she can learn the cadence and nuances of your vocals. In Russian, of course."

"Anything?"

"Da, anything, even if it is simply that you think I am a psychopath in need of strong medication."

As he commented on the situation in general in Russian to the listening Natasha, Madeline slipped on a pair of motorcycle glasses and started the "engine." The Ducati emitted a soft hum that gradually became quieter until only those with the most sensitive hearing would notice it.

"There is a turn-on switch where a key would normally go. Turn just like you would a key to start her up."

He did so and listened as Wolf Two started off with the same low then disappearing hum.

"So not combustion engines."

"Our 'verse is considerably beyond those. Ready?"

In response, he slipped the helmet on and leaned forward to grasp the handlebars. Her voice now came clearly into his helmet as if she were standing next to him.

"All the functions you would find on a typical bike are there and operate in the same manner. Even though there's no gas, we still call it that, brakes, gears, et cetera. The helmet will automatically go to night vision when it's dark, and if outside with a clear sky and bright moon, it can do an overlay just so you can see the hazards to avoid them instead of full-on night vision."

"Let me guess, infrared too?"

"Of course, and transitions to as dark as you need it to be during the daylight hours." She tapped the earpiece of her glasses. "These do the same."

"Is that your suit?"

"Most of it. Not necessary to conceal my identity at the moment. May not be at all on this trip. We shall see. Starwolf, ouvrez la porte arrière."

The bulkhead before them split on the horizontal, the top half receding upwards and the bottom canting towards the ground. Crouched low behind the handlebars, Madeline punched it as soon as there was just enough clearance for the bike. She shot from the back of the Bird like a missile. Not to be outdone, Oliver was a split second behind her though he had to duck a bit more to avoid the upper.

Their wheels came down on the road with barely a bounce, the forward spin grabbing onto the old asphalt and propelling them forward at breakneck speeds.

Those with better than normal hearing would have picked up the rear hatch opening and whir of the wheels as both bikes shot forward.

# # #

She had Cisco set up and started on the tutorials for the ship's systems when Maddie contacted her.

Oh, joy. Don't let Oliver kill himself, okay?

The safety features are activated.

"You seem to have the hang of things here, Cisco," Andi said with a smile. "I'm going to take a little stroll outside. If you have any questions that the system can't answer or run into any problems, just have Mister Morgan fetch me."

She patted his shoulder before turning around and headed for the door.

"Oh, and the system won't let you break anything," she noted from the doorway, a grin on her face. "But it will report how many times you've tried if you get carried away."

Andi looked at the groupings of people, judging their distances from the Blackbird, and decided none of them were close enough to get run over by Maddie and Ollie when they decided to exit the ship. She shrugged her shoulders and jumped to the ground, then looked over at Logan.

Maddie's taking Oliver for a spin around the neighborhood on the bikes.

She smiled at him when he shrugged.

Yep. But it might be interesting.

She strolled over to the plot of Earth where Paul and Em were chatting with Sara and Alex.

"Getting your legs under you, Alex?"

Alex didn't answer for a moment, causing Paul to regard her with interest.

"Getting there, I think." She took a deep breath and exhaled slowly. "I'm trying to convince myself I'm just on some crazy mission for J'onn."

Andi smiled with understanding. "Whatever works for you. It's certainly a saner path than some of the things Maddie and I would consider."

"And what about you, Mom?" her son asked. "Planning on doing anything else insane today?"

"Nope. I think I'm good for now. Maybe tomorrow."

"That brings up another question — when are we planning to leave?"

Andi watches Maddie and Oliver fly out of the Blackbird before turning back to Paul.

"I think we could all use a good night's sleep in a relatively secure location. How much sleep have any of us had since we left Ganado? We napped on the way to Albuquerque, sure. I dozed between Bernalillo and Santa Fe, but I was talking to your dad and uncle, not actually sleeping."

Paul nodded. "We might have done the same — without the chat with Dad and Uncle Rene, of course — while Tori was driving us here. But it wasn't any more refreshing than your nap."

"I'm not sure any of us have actually slept since getting here," Alex added.

Em raised her head to look at the ship and watched as her mother led the way out. She was still watching Madeline and Oliver as she contributed to the conversation. "Mom will expect us to keep watch, but there are plenty to share the load this time out, even after we leave the Nations. I expect you will take the 'oh my gods, it's early' shift, as usual, Aunt Andi."

Alex nodded. "You know... that might help to circumvent that still sleeping, almost awake, in-between state where I'm most likely to try latching onto Maggie." She gave Em a smile. "And it will definitely help remind me that I'm on some crazy mission for J'onn."

Em chuckled at that. "No, you're just on a crazier mission with the Wolf Pack. Crazy is mom's specialty."

Paul laughed too. "Pot, kettle."

Andi chuckled. "Ah, you know me so well, dear Niece. And if startling you awake will keep you from passing through that painful stage, I'll give you a nudge, Alex."

She looked at the woman knowingly. "It didn't take my Husband long to figure out the whole Being A Spirit gig, but those few days were enough to make me utterly miserable. It was definitely a different kind of miserable than my offspring contributed while I was pregnant—"

"Mom," Paul says with a sigh.

She Gibbs slapped him lightly.

"I will rationalize my powers in my own way, son. Nothing you or your sister can say to change my mind."

Em could definitely feel the roiling laughter tripping through her aunt's meridians. Clearly, Aunt Andi understood what had been happening... and just as clearly would never stop teasing her children.

"As I was saying!" She gave Paul a stink eye. "After shoring up my shields, I think I'm a little better off than I was when we arrived here this morning, but I still feel like I'm fighting Mother Earth. Interestingly, being inside the Nation's wards seems to aggravate the problem. So getting out of here will help. I hope."

Paul looked like he was going to say something else but then shook his head.

"Son?"

"Not sure. I might need to get outside the wards to figure out some of what I see in the qi." He shrugged. "Or maybe this world is just way weirder than anything I could have imagined before I got here."

"Weirder," Em said with conviction. "I'd expect someone with dad's skill set to be a merc or general brawler, possibly even a garden variety serial killer before I'd ever expect a fucking coward. So, yeah, there's a lot off here. I don't have your qi sense, but I can tell something's bugging you."

She glanced up at her aunt now. "It isn't from anyone's shields not being battened down, I just know you all too well. Well, and kin instinct, I guess."

Andi nodded. "Yeah, that Jimmy is one hell of a mess. Boggles my mind that he could turn out the way he has, and I'm the one who always has theories."

Sara watched the interplay between the family members with fascination. "You guys are a trip. How does your family get along so well?"

Em's reply was sardonic. "We've all avoided the newlyweds as long and as much as possible."

Andi just shrugged at Em's assessment. She'd always been more perceptive than her brother. From a girl that had gotten the queasies from Andi's first use of Fox's magic and had barely reacted to Andi's inadvertent use of the Beastmaster skill, it didn't surprise Andi that Em could sense something was off. Since she was so very much like her mother, Aunt Andi wouldn't even consider explaining what might be happening unless Em asked.

Andi chuckled at Sara's comment.

"There's more to it than just avoiding the idiots as much as possible, but it can probably be summed up as 'there's nothing more important than family.' I'll even tolerate those two..." She gestured toward Maria and Vincent. "...more than most because they're family."

Then she laughed.

"Snarkiness is one of my superpowers, or so says my Husband, so I just let loose on them when they get more ridiculous than usual... causing them to avoid me."

Paul rolled his eyes. "You know, I absolutely agree with Dad about Ninja's sense of humor," he muttered.

"Yes, I know. Your sister just thinks I'm an asshole."

"Well, you kind of are, Mom."

"Thank you for noticing, dear."

He just sighed. Mom was Mom, and one just needed to roll with it... or go with the flow, as Grandpa Nelson used to say.

This time Em laughed at Paul. "Yeah, like you didn't pick up any of your mother's smartassery. Hell, I can even hear my mom rolling her eyes from here."

Paul laughed. "Em! I've never denied being more like Ninja. It's part of my charm."

"Don't push it, son."

"Sleep, good sleep sounds wonderful," Em said. "I think I was out at the Telescope last time I got a full night's rest. And that was before we hit Everness. Sara and Alex, you can bunk with me. It'll be tight, but it does cool off at night considerably. Cisco and Ollie can bunk with Paul. We'll make the newlyweds take a hike if they get up to any nighttime nonsense. I assume you, mom and dad will be on the Bird, Aunt Andi."

"Wherever Maddie decides we'll be, that's where I'll be." Her smile was fleeting. "I swear I won't pull our Husbands into this world, as much as I want to and as much as I suspect I could. I'm crazy. Not stupid."

Em was likely the only person in the family, other than her mother, who could get away with chastising Andi. Sometimes, Andi even admitted that she deserved it. If she ripped a hole between this universe and the Overworld? Oh, yeah. She'd deserve to get her ass handed to her.

Paul eyed his mother suspiciously for a moment before addressing a potentially greater problem.

"Cisco seems pretty cool... like he'll be fairly chill about all this once he gets over his initial freaking out about being in a different universe. Is Oliver going to calm down?" he asked Sara. "Well, more like, is the potential there? If so, how long do you think it will take?"

"Oh, he'll get it under control, once he's made to face the fact that he isn't in control," Sara assured them. "I'll give Ollie this, he's changed a lot since the Queen's Gambit, mostly for the good."

She glanced over her shoulder to where the bikes were zipping around. "Seems like Madeline has a handle on making that happen."

"Oh, yeah, I just needed to give her the proper piece of information," Em agreed before looking up at Andi. "He's got almost the same feel like mom did before you brought Oncle Rene back to her."

"Ah," her aunt replied. "His dysfunction makes more sense now."

"What do you mean, Em?" Sara asked.

"He's, well, broken inside," Em shrugged. "Whatever has happened since that time you mentioned, I'd wager he feels responsible for a lot of shit that isn't really his fault. He's wired like mom that way. Took her years, decades even to not blame herself for Oncle Rene dying. The whole 'it's never enough' took on a real personal meaning. She tried to hide it from us but had no way of knowing I could feel it even when she was two floors up or anywhere in the house, really."

Sara was nodding. "That tracks. I know he feels guilty about his father sacrificing himself to save him. I'm pretty sure he felt guilty about me dying too until I came back. Now, I think it's more about how we treated Laurel and all the shit we put her through. His best friend's death didn't help either."

Sara returned to Paul's last question. "I'm not really sure. He's not used to not being the one in charge anymore even though he knows better than to try with me."

"This...?" Andi gestured to the two riders. "I want to hope it's going to be a door into his madness. I think Maddie can help him more than I can, from what you've said." Then she shrugged and half-smiled at Sara. "I can't stop trying to mess with the man. It's my idiom. But if Em senses I'm doing more harm than good, she won't be shy about telling me to knock it off."

Em's smile was tight. "No, I won't."

"Well, I'm going to be an asshole for a minute and hope you give him a stroke," Paul said without humor. "It would serve my sister right. Might do both of them a world of good."

His mother sighed. "He's family now, dear. We don't deliberately cause family members to stroke out." And then Ninja brought out her trademarked grin. "Accidently is fine, though."

Em lightly Gibbs slapped Paul. "No. I get that my brother and your sister have been right royal pains in the ass, but Vin's the last person we need to lose his marbles. His gift is stronger than Professor X and Leon combined, and I don't want to have to kill my brother. Thrashing is okay, killing is not."

Alex looked a bit shocked at the casual way Em had said it. She could not imagine talking about Kara that way.

"It's not like he wouldn't get back up, Em," Paul said.

"Not the point." Em's tone said the conversation point was closed for discussion.

"Hmm. I thought we were going to make Oliver stroke out so Maria could heal him." Andi's gaze moved back and forth between the cousins. "That shouldn't adversely affect Vincent. Vin's been around Maria before when she's healed people. It's not like their bond is new... they just finally got around to admitting it exists.

"However, let us attempt not to make Oliver's head explode. That won't go over very well once we leave the Zuni Nation.

"And Alex? We all heal from dead and are a bit more bloodthirsty than the average family who aren't serial killers. Add to that the fact that Vincent and Maria have been working our nerves — in Em's case, quite literally — for well over three decades with their nonsense, well, it makes us all a little more willing to thrash them soundly."

Em frowned at Andi. "She takes the affliction into herself when she heals someone else. It might not kill her, but it could. I may not remember all of my first ten years, but enough to know what mom was like and how you were after Tio Pablo died, so I'd rather not, thanks."

Em's shields were top-notch like Aunt Andi had taught her, but she still had that twin connection with Vin. The thought of feeling that same thing from her brother that she had from her mother and aunt was not something she wanted to deal with just yet. In fact, she would prefer it to be decades off.

"I know we were all worried about your dad when you four got to Everness, but the poison she pulled out of him dropped her into a coma." Andi shrugged. "It's not death, of course, but on the other hand, she's never actually died from healing someone.

"Yes, sure, there's a first time for everything. And with four squishy short-lived folks — as Tori likes to call them — with us, it could theoretically happen.

"Never mind the nonsense we've been talking about with Ollie. It seems like we have a couple of things to work out this evening. The first is making sure you've got your shields as strong as they can possibly be. Second would be having a backup plan for knocking Vincent out if he gets overwhelmed by Maria's inadvertent death."

Andi looked across the field where the two lovers were trying to cause anyone with any sense to throw up in their mouths when they looked at the idiots.

"Maybe actually acknowledging their bond will mean things work differently now between them. Or maybe they'll be fine. Better to have a plan, though, in this case. I'd rather have the both of them out of commission for however long it would take her to heal than to have all three of you down."

She looked at Em, deadly serious for the first time since they arrived in this world.

"What's the worst case? We'll work up contingencies for that, and then contingencies for the contingency plan."

Then she turned to her son.

"Your Beastmaster ability can be every bit as instinctive as your sister's healing. You're part of whatever plans get devised."

Paul just nodded to his mother. Maybe he could get between Em and the pain of an untimely death on Maria's part that would cause potentially overwhelming grief for Vin. Maybe he couldn't. But that? That was between him and Em to work out. Probably sooner rather than later.

Em, as always, was pragmatic about it. "They're locked up tight. Should the worst happen while we're out there, well, wouldn't that mean we're deep in the shit? In that case, I'll already be in fighting mode. Like with dad, just point me at the bad guys and stand back from the carnage. Whoever is closest to Vin will have to deal with him. We all know what it would take. You, mom, and dad wouldn't hesitate. I'd like to think I wouldn't either but…

She paused to look towards her twin.

"My protective instincts could interfere. Paul is physically strong enough should he not have a proper blade handy. I have a feeling Ollie could do the deed too. That leaves Sara, Alex, and Cisco. Let's not count on Cisco. Sara?"

"What are we talking about here?" Sara asked.

"At very minimum unconscious, as in TBI-causing injury in normal folk. Death may be necessary, with either a severing of the head from the spinal cord via a break or a knife into the brain at the back of the skull."

"This is your brother we're talking about."

"I am fully aware of that. I also know if he decides to go, pardon the expression, Aunt Andi, off the reservation mentally, he could kill, instantly, a whole shit ton of people around the world. His telepathy is that powerful."

Sara sat back at that and saw that Em was deadly earnest. She answered in the same fashion. "Yes, I could."

Em turned to the last member of their little conclave. "Alex?"

Alex was still taking it all in. "I… you… I'm having a hard time...I just…"

"I get it," Em told her. "If you can't or don't think you can, it's fine. Better we know now."

Alex was nodding her head. "I just.. Just don't know."

"Fair enough."

"Paul, if I lose it in the wrong crowd, I expect you to stop me as best you can your way."

Again, Paul nodded. "We've had this discussion before, Em. Standard operating procedure in the Wolf Pack is to know not only what we're up against but to have exit strategies lined up. I've got your back. And I don't have a problem dealing with both you and my sister at the same time."

"I hope you're right, Paul." Andi paused a moment. "Well, as long as you remember to tap into Mother's energy when you're working, I suspect you'll be fine.

"I'll let Tori know about our concerns. She'll understand, she'll do what needs to be done."

She knew that Em and Paul understood all the way down to their bones just how powerful Vin was — just as she, Maddie, and Logan did. No matter how much they loved him, they knew where he would be most dangerous. And they all — with the possible exception of Em — could absolutely do what needed to be done. Maria, on the other hand... Maria would be stupid. So they'd plan around it.

"You know, I'd really like to find the person or persons who dragged everyone into this world and give him, her, or them a piece of my mind. And introduce them to my little friend," she said, tapping her staff.

Em snorted. "You may have to get in line behind mom."

"I love her dearly and am still faster than she is," Andi remarked, a touch of humor returning. "We can't plan for every eventuality, and we don't know how the new folks are going to react in the heat of the moment. Sara, you seem pretty damn solid." Andi looked at Alex. "I get the sense that both of you can follow orders without backtalk. I'm concerned about Oliver, but I trust my Sister to set his head on straight.

"I want to keep Cisco as far away from any fights as possible, but if I can't get him kitted out with enough tech, he's going to feel useless. Even if I have enough tech to throw at him, he's not going to have the security access that he's used to with his own systems. Seems to be the kind of kid who'd want to do something, anything to help even if every person on the team tells him to sit on his hands. And that makes him dangerous.

"Paul, take him aside this evening and at least see what kind of qi power he has. Alex, you seem to have a rapport with him... would you mind keeping an eye on him?" She smiled. "Not as a babysitter, just as a friend. Keep him grounded if you can. Em, let me know if his frustration starts spiking, will you?"

"Sure thing, Aunt Andi," Em replied.

Andi looked over at the bus and grinned.

"Honestly? I'd have thought Morgan would have pinged me already because Cisco tried to do things he shouldn't. I hope this means I can trust the guy with as much of our tech as Maddie and I would be willing to give him. He hasn't tried to hack into the ship itself. That's a good sign."

# # #

Out on the flatlands, the two high-end bikes sped along, their riders swerving to avoid potholes and various debris.

© Kelly Naylor and Ivida Kt