Issue 1: Meetings and Reunions

Madeline's first full attendance at a Fashion Week is finally winding down. For the Paris shows, she only attends a single night, a single event. It is a token representation to keep up appearances. They are part of the host city's Design Houses. The general managers and public relations staff do their thing and make everything go smoothly. She had not realized that being a guest would take more effort than being a host.

Logan has decided he and the twins will stay at the school and get to know it while she and Leon are "entertaining" in New York City. She doesn't blame him, not one bit. And it's a good idea. It's coming time to think about special schooling for the twins as well, and there's no other school that compares to Charles'.

She's glad of the offer she had made to Charles. The students have offered her a buffer and an excuse to miss a good portion of the events she might otherwise have been expected to attend during this week. Her secretary had issued official regrets and included the "local school field trip" reason. And the PR people had spun it in their favor despite not being allowed to use photos of any of the students other than Leon.

Now it is just the two of them again, mother and son, and the Finale Event of the week. It is a black tie affair, and they have had to fit Leon for a new tuxedo. He has long outgrown the last one he wore. It will fit Vincent now. She helps him with his bow tie — not one of those clip-on or slip-on ones, but one that must actually be tied.

"You're out of practice," she says with a smile.

"Don't have much occasion to wear one, Mom," he says, and then hesitates before asking, "Did you tie Dad's too?"

Her smile changes to one of fond memory. "Sometimes. He'd say it was only fair since he had to help me with my zipper."

After she finishes the tie, she smooths out the shoulders of his jacket and proudly says, "My handsome son."

He colors with a blush. "Mom."

She just smiles more.

"Are you ready to go?" he asks, just wanting to not be embarrassed anymore.

"One more thing."

Madeline returns to her dressing table and opens the small hard case there. She takes a ring from it and slips it on the ring finger of her left hand. It is exquisite and old and obscenely expensive... and utterly priceless to her. Certainly she had teased Marie about that ring, but it has extra special value now. Marie knows that. It had been in her eyes when the two of them had talked about passing it on to Leon. She picks up a tissue and dabs at the corner of her eyes.

Leon comes closer. He has never seen the ring before. He does not remember his mother ever wearing one. "Mom?"

That tinge of sadness is there when she looks up at him. "It's my wedding ring. It's been in your grandmother's family since before World War Two."

"But you've... I've never seen you wear it before."

"I only ever wore it for Events when your father and I were in France. It mostly stays in a lock box in a bank. Tonight, this trip, it just seemed appropriate. Now... let's get going before I tear up worse and ruin my make-up."

They are fortunate that this particular event is being held in the main ballroom of their hotel. It was probably Chantel's doing. That woman deserves a raise.

She doesn't know why, but at some point the organizers of this Finale Event had decided to invoke the Old World with a touch of heraldry. That means entrance into the main ballroom is not only well-coordinated but also staged for everyone to make a grand entrance. The big doors swing open and an unseen person announces their arrival as they step forward.

"Representing the House of Beauvoir, CEO Mrs. Madeline Jacobs escorted by her son Leon."

There is the flash of a million tiny suns as the press and design house photographers engage in their business of documenting the event. Madeline had warned him from the start that this sort of thing is to be expected and has given him pointers on how to react. Pick a random person and smile and nod at them, make a quarter turn then do it again. At his look, she had patted his arm and told him not to worry, that he would be fine. And she had been right.

He takes to it like a natural, definitely something he has inherited from his father. She is not the only one who notices either. A couple of the older designers who are longtime competitors and friends with Marie have taken the time to mention it to Madeline. She smiles and thanks them, knowing it is their way of honoring Rene and letting her know that he is not forgotten by more than just her. Marie had called too, and they had spent many tearful moments reminiscing earlier in the day.

The spots dance in front of her eyes as the flashes continue to go off. At a predetermined signal, an event assistant comes over and guides them to their table. This is done for everyone coming in as it takes several moments for anyone's vision to return to normal after that kind of bombardment. She and Leon share their table with house reps from Milan, South Africa, Georgia and Hong Kong. There is small talk and chatter, and Leon handles himself admirably. Every moment that passes, he just makes her more proud of him.

It's late, in the wee hours of the morning in fact, when they return to their suite. She smiles fondly at him as he struggles to contain a yawn. "Don't worry, sweetheart, no big plans for tomorrow. We can sleep in. Logan isn't expecting my call until noon at the earliest."

"That's good, Mom. I'm beat. I don't how you do this all the time."

She laughs lightly. "I don't. I think I'm set for several more years of avoidance. Good night. Sleep well. I love you."

"Good night, Mom. Love you, too."

She takes her time getting ready for bed, long enough for Leon to fall asleep. Wrapped in her silk night clothes, she pads quietly to his door to peek in on him. Although he had been exhausted, he had taken the time to hang up his tux, she notes with a smile. That is all Rene, too. In sleep, his face looks even more youthful, the shadow of the child he had been still there.

"Sweet dreams, my sweet boy," she wishes him before going to her own bed.

The next day Logan arrives with the twins without waiting for her to call. He sends the three kids off to have some fun as he goes in to see their mother.

"You're early," she tells him with a smile as she accepts the cup of coffee he offers.

He sits down on the bed beside her and slides an arm around her. "Was it a good week?"

"Yes," she answers simply.


He lets her finish her coffee before asking, "What's next?"

"The cabin."

"Are you sure?"

"Yes. It's more than past time."

"How soon?"

"Need to make some arrangements first. The travel out there is simple enough. It's the haul out that is tricky. We'll have to have properly equipped vehicles, although some of the ordnance might be… donated. I'll need to contact the local law — hopefully Joe is still with them — and the local Supers. Mostly out of professional courtesy considering what we're moving through the area. You sent the kids off somewhere?"

"Down to the hotel pool. Leon's friend Jenny came with us so they are all quite occupied. Em's still trying to figure out if she should like or dislike her for liking her big brother."

"And Vin?"

He shrugs. "She's a pretty girl."

"So we have some time to ourselves then?"

He grins ferally. "Yes."

She laughs and puts her cup aside.

They have time to be intimate and time for her to make the first set of calls she needs to make before the kids — all four of them — return. She is more than happy to order room service for everyone at Logan's suggestion. They had been moving nearly non-stop the whole week, and she needs the rest, mentally if not physically. She has no desire to venture out. The children get themselves set up in the main living area with a movie while they wait for the food to arrive.

She and Logan go into the office so that she can make the final set of calls. Leon can sign the order receipt, and Logan will make sure none of them are eavesdropping. They do not need to know about their mother's secret identity, not yet anyway.

Logan moves a chair near the door and settles into it. He listens intently for a moment then gives her a nod. She picks up her phone and dials a number she has not called in over ten years.

"Jefferson County Sheriff's Office," a woman's voice answers, "Deputy Davis speaking. How may I help you?"

"Hello, Deputy Davis. I was wondering if Joe Baker is still with the Sheriff's department there, and if he is if I might speak with him."

"Sheriff Baker is in his office. May I ask who is calling?"

"An old friend... Madeline Jacobs."

There is the tiniest of pauses. "I'm sorry, but did you say Jacobs?"


"Just a moment, please."

There is a click then a tone before another ring that is quickly answered.

"Lin? Is that really you?"

"Hello, Joe. Yes, it is. And it's probably a bit late, but congratulations on your promotion. How are you? How is Amanda?"

"We're good. Amanda's great. How are you? How is Leon? It's been... what... five years or so?"

"Eleven years, and we're doing good, Joe. Leon is quite the young man now. Listen, Joe, we're going to be out there in a bit. Could use your help with something."

He still has the same warm chuckle. "I knew this couldn't be purely a social call. What do you need?"

"Going to pack up the cabin. Along with that, I'm planning on clearing out the things from the back property. Can you put me in touch with the local Supers? I'd rather they know ahead of time an armament convoy is coming through."

"Absolutely. One of them regularly goes up to the old place. Has some kind of gift with keeping the wildlife out of the populated areas. You know how the big cats can get."

"Certainly do. I appreciate it, Joe."

"Anything for you, Lin. Any idea when you might get here? Amanda will want to know. She'd love to see you and the boy again."

"Estimating by the thirty-first. Trying for earlier, but there are a few details to still iron out. Don't see it being before the twenty-seventh though. I'll call again when we're en route and introduce you to the whole family when we get there."

"Okay, Lin. Sounds good. And it is really, really good to hear from you."

"You too, Joe. Talk to you soon."

Sheriff Joe Baker stands up from behind his desk shaking his head. That call is certainly out of the blue, but she sounds good, and for that he is happy. Those last few months she had been in the area had worried both him and his wife. Then she had driven off that one day and had never come back.

He pokes his head out of his office and spots the deputy who had transferred the call. "Davis, get on the horn to Ninja. Ask her to stop in and see me as soon as she can, please?"

"Sure thing, boss."

That done, he returns to his desk to call his wife. "Amanda, you'll never guess who I heard from today..."

She loves the midterm part of the semester, now that she's not a student anymore. So many young people, from high school through college, are in a high panic about papers they haven't started writing and tests they fear they're going to fail. She isn't happy about their panic, of course... just the fact that she can often relieve a lot of it.

In fact, she's in the middle of teaching a high school freshman about the card catalog system — a computerized system with nary a card in sight — and how to find information about the Tong Dynasty in China when her phone vibrates with a text message. And by 'her phone' she means that phone. Excusing herself while the young woman is taking notes on various books, she pulls the phone out of her jacket pocket and reads the message. It's from Sergeant Davis out in Jefferson County. She's starting to hate Jefferson County and those gods be damned cats!

Well, not really. But it does feel that way sometimes.

Ok to call? Need to talk.

Great. Busy, busy Andrea needs to just drop things so Ninja can take a call. How the hell would sponsorship help this situation?

In the middle of something. Will call you within 30.

She has a break in about fifteen minutes, so that should be fine. Going back to the student, she notes the books the student lists in her notebook and nods with approval.

"All right," she says with a smile, "let's show you where to find the books themselves now, shall we?"

Handing the young woman a map of the library, the librarian points out their current location and the section where the history books are shelved. They chat a little as they walk over to the history section. By the time they find the right stack, she feels there is a slight possibility that she might have convinced another student to at least consider starting projects more than a week before they're due. On her way to the workroom, she lets her fellow librarian Stephanie know that she's going on her break.

Fortunately, the workroom is empty... she certainly wouldn't mind going outside to make this call, but everyone gets so weirded out when she doesn't put a sweater or something on. It's in the sixties! She could see Russia from her front porch! And not just Russia, but Siberia. Take that, Sarah Palin. Ooops, she's gone and made herself giggle.

She dials Davis' direct number.

"Deputy Davis."

She chuckles. "Deputy? What happened to Sergeant? And is that a promotion or a demotion for you, Davis?"

"Oh, shut up, Ninja!" Davis replies with a laugh. "The County Board of Supervisors decided we needed to be more 'old timey' or some such rot. So everyone is a deputy except for the Boss Man himself. It's a lateral move to the nineteenth century."

"I love it! It's so... Old Colorado. And what did you need?"

"The boss would like you to stop by and see him as soon as you can. He's... I don't know, but can you come out today?"

There's an expression about eyebrows crawling up into a person's hairline. Ninja feels her eyebrows attempting to demonstrate the accuracy of that particular turn of phrase.

"Davis, it's after three! And unlike certain flying persons of our mutual acquaintance, I don't have a sponsorship and have to work for a living." She rubs her forehead. "Thursday morning is the soonest I can get there if you want me there during business hours."

She can hear the hesitation on the other end of the line. "Well, he just said for you to stop in, so... I'm going to guess that means business hours. You really ought to consider sponsorship, Ninja."

"Don't make me have to hurt you, Davis. Our mutual friend nags me about that enough already."

"Oh. I was just... I didn't know Peregrine was actually trying to help you get sponsorship. Sorry."

"Don't sweat it. Just... please... don't mention it again, okay?"

"Lips are zipped, and I'll let the boss know you'll be here Thursday morning."

"Thanks, Davis."

She disconnects and drops the phone back in her jacket pocket.

This double life is starting to make her wish she had... no, not a time machine, but damn... SOMETHING that would ease some of the pressure!

Charles had finally convinced her to check out of the hotel and stay at the school. He has more than enough room there, and he enjoys the company. Plus, Logan intrigues him. Despite her initial misgivings, it works out well. Leon is able to keep up easily with his classwork, and Emelia and Vincent are making friends with other children who will eventually be their classmates. It also offers them the kind of family time they have not had in five years. It is good for all of them.

Now there are things to do and the last piece is being put into place.

"Thanks, Mitch. I'll see you out there."

Madeline gets off the phone and turns to Logan. "We're all set. Just have to go pick up our transport. Our ride will be here in about ten."

They meet their ride outside the gate. He is not comfortable coming onto the school's grounds, and Madeline does not want him inside the school's security anyway. A couple of quiet words are exchanged as they get into his truck. Two hours later Madeline and Logan return in a couple of massive vehicles, Humvees to be precise. She can hear Charles' laughter in her mind as she pulls around the mansion.

Those look suspiciously familiar, his cultured voice says inside her head.

Old habits you know, she responds with a smile.

He knows they plan to head out the next day.

Leave-taking from Charles does not take long. They will be back this way to bring Leon back to school. And besides, Charles opts to speak with Madeline privately as she is driving. It is nothing untoward or earth shattering; just one friend worried about another. He's also making sure she knows he will be available... just in case. Madeline is pretty sure he had a similar conversation with Leon as well.

It's a long drive, and they make several stops along the way beyond overnighters. At each stop, the kids switch up who they're riding with, and Madeline and Logan both let Leon take a turn at the wheel where there are long, straight stretches. He is grinning like a loon after each one.

Thursday morning, bright and early, she rides up to the fancy Jefferson County Sheriff's Office. Staff in hand, she enters the building through the main entrance and just grins at the guards standing near the metal detector.

"I'm gonna drive your machine crazy and I'm not giving up the weapon. On the other hand, I'm not planning on hurting anyone. Bossman Baker wanted me to stop by."

The both of them look at her as though she's speaking Chinese. She would have sworn she was speaking English; maybe she should switch to Chinese.

"Oh, stop playing with the help, Ninja," Davis says, smiling as she comes around the corner. She motions the black-clad woman around the side where she can't set off the alarms, and they head over to Sheriff Baker's office.

Ninja just shrugs and grins. "I like to see how people react to the unusual."

Davis merely rolls her eyes as she knocks on a door.

"Boss, Ninja is here."

"Thanks, Davis. Show her in," his warm baritone sounds from inside the office.

Once his requested visitor is in his office and the door closed, he gives her a smile.

"Thanks for coming, Ninja. You still go up around the Jacobs' place, right?"

"Seems like I'm up there more and more often these days, what with those three mischievous mountain lions tripping the alarms," she replies with a rueful shake of her head. "If they were people, I'd say they were doing it on purpose.

"Other than the cats, I haven't seen anything out of the ordinary." Well, except for... Nah, for now, that's a little secret best kept to herself. "Why? Any problems you know about that I don't?"

She looks at him like... Hmm, like a librarian peeking over her reading glasses perhaps.

"Don't tell me their munitions dump is about to explode. That would make a lot of wildlife cranky, and a lot more of them dead. Let's not even get into what it would do to dear Mother Earth."

"No, Lin Jacobs called," he says, all business. "She is coming with her family to pack up the cabin and clear out the back property and asked that I let the local Supers know. She figured you would want to know there would be a munitions convoy moving through your territory. She also wants to meet you when she comes in. They'll be stopping by here first. She expects they'll be here between the twenty-seventh and the thirty-first.

"I've notified the Rangers that once the Jacobs are up there, they'll need to keep tourists away until they've left."

Jokes and snark are dropped immediately, and the woman nods. "A little surprised you called me and not Peregrine, but with him being sponsored and having the spotlight on him so much..." She pauses, then nods again. "With something like that going on, you wouldn't want the spotlight to follow the Super."

He pauses and looks down at his desk for a long moment. When he looks back up, the Sheriff has been put away, and there is just a man concerned about people he cares for.

"Look, Ninja, Lin's a friend... as was her husband Rene. My wife Amanda was their midwife, helped bring Leon into this world. They were good people just trying to make a new life for themselves; succeeding too, until... until Rene was declared dead after a terrible car accident."

She pauses again to regard the man, and not the Sheriff, studying his aura.

"I've heard precious little about the Jacobs, Sheriff. But I know your people, and their deep respect and high regard for you. That tells me what kind of person you are.

"If you say the Jacobs are good people, then in my book the Jacobs are good people. Pretty simple, really."

She gives him a crooked grin and refrains from any of her usual smart assery. "If there's anything at all I can do to help, I will."

"Appreciate that.

"And you hearing precious little is a good thing. Most folks were not so charitable toward them. They were outsiders when they arrived and were treated as such. It's not such a small town as it was then, but there is still a lot of small town mentality.

"Honestly, I called you and not him because he is... she would not trust him. The Jacobs weren't just outsiders, they were immigrants... wealthy ones, but immigrants nonetheless. I may not know much about you personally beyond 'Ninja', but the name alone is enough."

"I guess I can understand that. It's similar down in Denver, although the wealthy tend to be welcomed even if they are immigrants." She shrugs.

"That's probably because they spread their wealth around," he says, referring to the generally known reputation of wealthy Denver immigrants. "The Jacobs didn't. They lived simply. The only reason I know is because of our friendship."

She smiles. "That part makes perfect sense. But my name is purposefully misleading. True, it gives everyone a good clue to what I can do and the culture in which I learned to control my powers. But ethnically?" She chuckles.

"You're all immigrants to me, Sheriff. I'm Diné... Navajo, one of the Native Peoples." She shakes her head and smiles wryly. "Given the history of this great land we call America, I have a tendency to embrace the immigrants as kindred souls. And the more recent their immigration, the more I seem to be able to relate to them." But then she smiles warmly. "I understand that this is a serious matter to you, given your friendship with the Jacobs. And the lightness of my spirit today isn't taking anything away from the serious nature of the situation. I believe I'm just feeling a bit tickled that Madeline Jacobs sounds — simply from your words, tone of voice, general attitude — almost like a long lost sister."

She raises her hand and nods. "I know... I know. I've never met the woman and she could hate me on first sight. However..." She lowers her hand and sighs. It almost sounds wistful.

He chuckles himself. "I'm really less concerned about the actual ethnicity than the understanding of the culture. And Lin will not hate you on sight. She might be wary. It's just her nature, but she won't hate you."

"Well, here's another interesting insight into the snarky Super of the area... and your friends, too. One of the things I can do is actually see the energy flows of the world. Sometimes, things happen in places that leave an imprint, something like a memory. And I'll tell you something I've noticed about the Jacobs' cabin, Sheriff.

"Even today, the memory... the imprint of love at that place is as clear for me to see every time I go up there as it is for you to see me right now."

He smiles at her description of the cabin. "Amanda's going to love that. She thought they were newlyweds when they first moved here. She was thrilled to find out they had been together twenty years already, married fifteen."

Ninja smiles as well. "I'm well accustomed to wariness, by the way, given that I primarily look out for the... ah, unwanted and less appreciated people of society, if you will. That is, when I'm not arguing with the wildlife of your fair county," she adds with a chuckle.

"And yes, with that sort of memory imprint I see... they probably would have seemed like newlyweds had they both lived to be a hundred."

She swallows hard and looks out the window to the left. We Supers are supposed to be tough, aren't we?

"I can understand why Madeline left after Rene died," she says softly.

"She was devastated," Baker says. "It was the hardest thing I've ever done, driving up to tell her. Truthfully, Amanda and I weren't much better. The thought of losing each other..."

He just shakes his head.

"We worried when they left. Lin had closed down so much that we were afraid she might do something foolish. We heard nothing from her for over a year, but then a check arrived with a note. She wanted to be sure Amanda's clinic wanted for nothing."

She nods, then looks back at the Sheriff with a sad smile. She can see he has that same kind of connection with someone, with his Amanda, now that she looks for it.

"There are people who have a love so deep and true that it's hard to imagine living without the one they love. But if the unimaginable happens, eventually they pick up the pieces of their lives and their hearts and manage to continue on. Although some people just let go of this life and follow their loved one into death. That happens an awful lot with the elders.

"And then there are some of us..."

She takes a deep breath and shrugs.

"This really doesn't have anything to do with my job as Super, but it does have everything to do with the powers I have. There are those who not only find that deep and true love, but a create a connection on a different level. Some might call it metaphysical, possibly spiritual... personally, I'm not sure it can be defined. But that kind of connection makes it impossible for someone pick up their shattered lives and hearts. If the pain of their loss doesn't kill them, they do wind up doing something foolish.

"When I moved out here, when I started doing what I do, when I started coming up here and saw the cabin, I did a little research. Learned of Rene's death, and Lin's departure. And truthfully, I had fully expected to find out that Madeline Jacobs had done something foolish.

"I'm awfully nosy sometimes, so I asked Davis about it," she says with an unapologetic expression. "She said that all she knew was that Mrs. Jacobs was alive and well. Somewhere.

"For a woman I'd never met, I felt an incredible amount of relief knowing that. Because that's the kind of connection she had with Rene. That's why I could see the imprint of their love so clearly."

Well, that and the fact that I've chatted with Rene. I think it might be time for a change of subject before I start getting maudlin. Dang, it's possible that I've already gotten maudlin. That would seriously suck.

"I will take to heart your observation of Lin Jacobs as the wary and not quick to trust sort," she says lightly. "I'm going to assume it would be a good idea to leave the newest Super in town at home in Denver. He's new enough that I've only had a chance to introduce him to Captain Sanchez at DPD."

"I think a one on one would probably be best to start with," he agrees. "We'll call you after she calls me. Hopefully, we won't be interrupting anything."

"Some things are more interruptible that others, Sheriff," she says. And because it amuses her, she says it without expression, without her characteristic snark.

As they cross into Colorado from Nebraska, Madeline calls Joe Baker once again. This time, though, she calls his home, as it is well into the evening.

"Baker," he answers, the same way he always did.

"Joe, it's Madeline. We just hit Colorado. We're driving straight through."

His voice is heard a little farther away when he speaks. "Manda, they'll be here tomorrow morning... Of course..."

There is the shuffle of the receiver being handed off, then Joe's voice is replaced by Amanda's. She orders, "You, Madeline Jacobs, will be here, at our house by 11:30 AM so that we can visit and have lunch. And you will bring your family, too."

Madeline laughs. "Yes, ma'am. Eleven thirty hours sharp."

"I can't wait to see you, Lin," Amanda says. "You've been a stranger too long."

"I know, Amanda. We'll see you tomorrow."

"See you then."

They drive through the night with the kids nodding off through most of it... even Leon. They arrive in Golden in the wee hours of the morning. She takes the lead and brings them to The Golden Hotel. Although check-in is not officially for many more hours, the hotel has made the necessary arrangements. They get settled into their suite and everyone gets some much needed rest.

It takes Ninja until just about dawn to get home Saturday morning, and she's exhausted by the time she gets there... at least mentally and emotionally. Pablo isn't home yet, and that makes her uneasy. She needs... Well, after denying for so long that she needed anyone, it's still strange to admit even to herself that she needs to feel his arms around her. It feels strange to admit she needs, so desperately, the comfort of their qi flowing through them, between them.

She knows this is going to be a tough case for both of them, and she's not looking forward to the coming days, or weeks. Sally had meant so much to so many people. And there are still two men missing.

There's no message from him on either the house phone or her cell phone. She's just going to assume he believes he'll be arriving home close to the same time she will. It's her head, after all... she can have whatever delusions she wants in there.

However, she does need a long hot shower. As usual, she has the braids finger combed out of her hair before she even makes it downstairs to put her staff in the dojo closet. Heading back upstairs, she pulls off her vest and inspects it for dirt and damage. Like her pants, it's leather, so cleaning it is fairly simple. And, like the pants, if there is damage, it's a pain to repair. But this morning, it's all good news. She didn't get into a fight overnight or even do much to convince the cats to be on their way. So there isn't anything to do except remove the items from the pockets and hang the vest in the closet.

The turtleneck is — happily — undamaged, and she can just toss it in the laundry hamper. She would consider Pablo's suggestion of wearing something made of his spandex-looking material, if only because it would be more resistant to the usual damage her shirts take. But it's expensive! Still, it would pay for itself over the course of a year or two, given how many turtleneck shirts she buys. However, she has to wonder if that material would be as comfortable as a turtleneck.

She takes off her boots and leather pants, and sits on the bed going over the whole length of the pants, especially the side seam that has already split once. The knees need to be cleaned, but there's no damage. She sets them aside to clean later. It would be nice to pick up another pair; more than once, she has cleaned dirt from them after she's already put them back on and is trying to get out the door. Anything worse than dirt and mud she cleans right away, but there have been a lot of nights and days — like today — when she's just too damn tired to deal with a little dirt.

So sue me.

Pants made from the ballistic polymer stuff would be sturdier and even easier to clean — probably — but there is no frackin' way she's wearing spandex as an outfit! Or even ballistic polymer that looks entirely too much like spandex.

She sighs as she stands and removes her underwear and drops that in the hamper on the way to the shower.

She doesn't know how long she stands under the flow of hot water and between the wall jets of hot water after she's clean. She thinks she might be practically sleeping on her feet. Given the amount of Taiji she did up on the mountain, she shouldn't be so tired. But a body does need sleep and it has been well over twenty-four hours since she's had any. She's gone longer, true... but not while in so much emotional and soul-biting pain.

She has nearly finished blow drying her hair when she hears Pablo's car pull into the driveway. She puts the dryer down, grabs her silk robe and wraps it around herself as she pads out to the kitchen to meet him. He looks haggard, miserable, exhausted as he comes through the door. She wraps her arms around him and just holds him, resting her head against his chest and feeling the flow of qi between them.

"Did you just get up?" he asks as he runs his fingers through her still slightly damp hair.

"Haven't been to bed yet," she admits with a sigh. "I got home just before dawn, took a shower... was hoping you'd be home soon. I..." She swallows hard as tears threaten to fall again. "I was going to go down to the dojo to practice if you didn't come home soon." She looks up at his face. "I'd rather lie wrapped in your arms. I have so many tears yet to shed."

His face shows his sorrow as clearly as his aura does, but his anger is still sharp... sharper than hers at the moment. He brushes his fingers lightly across her cheeks as he smiles tiredly. "Do I have time for a shower? I really need one, love."

She nods, returning the smile. "You shower while I finish drying my hair."

In less than fifteen minutes, the ringers on the house phone, his cell phone, and her personal phone have been turned off. Her hair is dry and Pablo is clean... and they are wrapped around one another in their bed. She cries, but it seems as though she has far fewer tears than usual. Perhaps it's the comfort of his arms or perhaps it's the strength of their common soul. But for whatever reason, the soft words he speaks, the light kisses on her head are like a soothing ointment over a wound. And perhaps... just perhaps... the integration of her personality has helped, too.

"Remind me I have stuff to tell you," she says sleepily, already dozing off.

"Mmmmm," he responds just as sleepily.

The next thing she knows, there's a phone ringing somewhere near her head. There shouldn't be a phone ringing. They had turned all the phones off before they crawled into bed.

Crap. Except for Ninja's phone. And the spy phone from Peregrine. Except the ringing phone is Ninja's.

And it's actually ringing. It's not the text tone.

The phone is ringing!

She sits up and grabs it before it can ring for a fourth time.


"It's Sheriff Baker in Jefferson County again. Sorry for the short notice, but the Jacobs will be arriving early tomorrow morning. I'd like to give them a little time to settle in, and would prefer a more... casual meeting. Could you come by my place tomorrow around noon for lunch?"

It takes a few seconds for her still exhausted brain to process his request. Jacobs. Long gone, out of town... returning... Right. Right! Yes, their cabin... clearing out the stockpile of weapons out back.

"It's your show, Sheriff, and you know her better than I do." Well, probably. "Just text me your address, and I'll be there."

They disconnect and she sets the phone back down, noting that they had barely had two hours of sleep.

"Who was that?" Pablo asks sleepily.

"Jeffco's top Sheriff," she says as she snuggles against him. "Munitions cleanup tomorrow, wants me on hand. Don't worry, go back to sleep."

"Not invited?" he asks, already starting to drift off again.

"Jeffco, not Denver," she murmurs. "Sleep... sleep..."

They manage to sleep until mid-afternoon, and Pablo wakes her up in the most pleasant way possible. Love is the most potent antidote for a soul in turmoil. After another shower, he settles in their now shared office to work while she goes downstairs to practice. Just as making love with her husband heals her soul, practicing Taiji heals her heart and mind and adds strength to her body. She continues with form after form until she notices Pablo standing at the bottom of the stairs. She finishes the current form, then opens her eyes to look at him. He's leaning comfortably against the wall, arms crossed and a smile on his face; the look in his eyes says she is the most amazing wonder he has ever seen.

"I thought I should remind you we promised to have dinner with Bobby and David tonight," he says, chuckling. "You've been down here for three hours; I thought you might have forgotten."

She grins. "No, I didn't forget about dinner. I just got lost in the forms and time did that crazy stopping thing it sometimes does. How much time do I have?" she asks as she walks over to him before kissing him.

"Mmmm... only thirty minutes, so you'd better stop kissing me like that or we'll be teased mercilessly by the Human Tsunami for being late."

She laughs. "Right. I'm not sure I'm in the mood for merciless teasing tonight. Even the usual teasing might be too much. Let's make a deal... when Bobby starts teasing too much and David starts flirting too outrageously with the gorgeous straight man, we'll just save each other, okay?"

Pablo laughs. "It's a deal. Now, go. Get dressed... before we're late."

Dinner with their neighbors is fairly quiet for a change, with discussions centering around movies and the wedding rather than anything that might have been newsworthy, anything that would have been uncomfortable to discuss. Oh, to be sure, there is laughter and teasing and flirting, but it is a fine evening... especially since neither of them receives a phone call that would ruin the evening and their fine moods.

They will not head out again until it's time to see Joe and Amanda, which makes for a lazy morning. They have a light breakfast from room service. Even the kids are not anxious to get up and going, although Leon has a different reason than his siblings.

Emelia toys with a pastry while looking out the window. "Why are we here again, Mom?"

"Leon and I used to live out here. Our old place never did get fully packed up so we're going to do that."

"It's pretty here. Why'd you leave?"

"My father died," Leon answers for their mother.

Em turns and looks from older brother to mother, her young face somber. "I'm sorry."

"Thank you, Em," Madeline says.

Leon nods.

"How?" Vincent asks.

The twins have always known that their father is not Leon's, that his Dad was dead. But they were never told any details. Madeline and Logan had always figured that they would ask when the time was right.

This appears to be the time.

"A car accident," Madeline answers. That's the official cause of death. Only Leon needs to know the rest.

Logan's hand squeezes her shoulder. He knows as well... but he had also been there.

"Must have been hard," Em says now, looking at Logan. "I wouldn't want to lose Dad."

"Not going anywhere, sweetheart," he assures her.

"How old were you?" Vincent asks his brother.

"Four," Madeline says. "He was four."

"I'm sorry," Em says again.

"Me, too," Vincent adds.

"Thanks," Leon says, casting a pained but worried look at his mother.

Before Madeline can say anything, both twins run to Leon and throw their arms around him. "We love you, big brother."

He hugs them back, tears in his eyes. "I love you too."

Logan's hand on her shoulder becomes an arm around them, and she leans against him.

"You okay?" he asks softly.

She nods. "Yeah."

The rest of the morning is subdued but good, warm family time. They all take the time to clean up and get dressed before heading to the Bakers'. Leon opts to ride with Madeline, and she notices him fidgeting.

"There's no need to be nervous, sweetheart. They're good people."

"But they knew you... and Dad... and they'll expect me to remember them."

"They won't expect it. You were only four. It will be fine."

Joe and Amanda are waiting outside for them when they drive up. Amanda practically flies around the vehicle and eagerly embraces Madeline, nearly knocking her off her feet.

"Lin!" she exclaims.

Leon's eyes widen at the sight of the exuberant redhead cheerfully greeting his mother, and his mother accepting it with a smile, and even returning it.

"Hello to you too, Amanda."

Amanda only half releases her. "Now come inside and bring everyone with you," she says just as her eyes fall on Leon.

Her face brightens even more, although it did not seem possible. "Leon. I think I'd know you anywhere even if you have grown out of your blond hair. Just as handsome as your father."

Leon blushes. "Um, hi."

Joe approaches Logan as he exits his vehicle. He holds out a hand in greeting. "Joe Baker," he introduces himself.

Logan clasps the other man's hand. "Logan."

The twins tumble out in short order.

"Are you really a Sheriff?" Vincent asks excitedly. "Do you have a star shaped badge and a six shooter?"

Vincent has recently discovered a love for Westerns... both movies and books.

Joe laughs. "Yes, yes, and no. And what is your name?"

"I'm Vincent and that's my sister Emelia. I guess you already know my Mom and brother. And, well, you just met my Dad."

Emelia sidles over to her Dad and puts her hand in his, looking around at everything with inquisitive eyes and subtly scenting the air.

Amanda finally is able to get everyone inside and a new round of introductions see them all settled into the back room of the house. Madeline looks around then to Amanda and Joe, curious. Amanda understands without words being exchanged. She shakes her head.

"It isn't meant to be for us. But we've made peace with it."

"Wasn't for us either," Madeline says, then dips her head toward Leon. "You never know."

Amanda is about to say more when the doorbell rings. Joe excuses himself and goes to answer it.

Morning comes, and they're both getting ready to go their separate ways. She's going to Sheriff Baker's home for a luncheon meet and greet with the Sheriff, his wife, and the Jacobs. He's heading off to his office to work on Sally's case.

Pablo asks, "So... who is this you're meeting again? I don't think I was awake the last time you told me." His smile is — at least for the moment — teasing and joyful.

"You know the old Jacobs' place above Lookout Mountain?" Andrea asks. "The cabin that can be seen from that spot where you... or we... knocked over a couple of trees that night?" She waggles her eyebrows at him. "Turns out the owner — something known only to the Jefferson County Sheriff's Office and yours truly — has a munitions storage area out back. She's come to clear it out... thankfully. I've been worried for years that a hiker or hunter would stumble across it. Or worse, one of the coyotes would get in there. I had one scare a while back and that was more than enough."

Pablo just looks at her. His aura shifts to... hard to describe exactly, but an unhappy and maybe hurt place. "You couldn't tell me about the weapons?"

She sighs and pauses in the act of pulling on a boot.

"You don't tell me everything about your work, right? And even if you did, it's not something I'd share with the folks in other counties if it were confidential information."

He considers that for a moment, then shakes his head while his aura clears. "I guess I'm still not quite used to the reality of you being Ninja, and everything that entails," he says. "It never occurred to me you might have secrets that you couldn't share. I... I think this is another of those things that's going to take some mulling over while I process it."

She finishes pulling on her boot, then stands and walks over to him, taking his hands in hers. "It's a dangerous bit of information, and I made the call to keep it inside my own head. And since there's nothing you could have done about it, I didn't want to burden you with the worry. Once Peacekeeper is known to all the Sheriff's Offices, there won't be a need for keeping as many secrets."

He nods and pulls her into an embrace. "Well, it certainly proves you can be trusted with confidential information," he says.

"Exactly!" she says, making no move to escape from the circle of his arms.

But after a few minutes, he releases her and smiles. "Okay, time for us to go, before we don't go anywhere.

She laughs as she picks up her vest and slips it on, tucking the various electronics in their proper places. "Yeah, go get your car out of my driveway," she says with a laugh, as she heads out to the kitchen where she has already left her staff. She pauses at the door to the breezeway and the garage beyond. "Good luck," she says softly.

He nods, brushing fingertips along her jaw, sending shivers up and down her spine. Then he gently tugs a braid as he smiles. "Stay safe."

He goes out the back door to his car. She goes out to the garage to put her jacket on over her uniform, tucking the braids down her back, and the helmet on her head before opening the garage door. Pablo is backing out of the driveway, and she follows, closing the garage door with the remote in her pocket.

A scant twenty minutes later, she's pulling into the driveway beside a couple of armored military grade Humvees in front of Sheriff Baker's house. She raises an eyebrow at the vehicles; that kind of security makes her think there might be a little paranoia and fear in the Jacobs clan. Well, if she's added everything up the right way, a lot of paranoia and fear would be reasonable. Rational. Smart.

She removes the helmet and hangs it on one of the handlebars. She takes the jacket off, takes a small item from the inner pocket, and drapes the jacket over the bike's seat as she takes her staff from its holster. She feels pretty confident no one will bother the bike or anything near it.

A moment later, she's ringing the Sheriff's doorbell.

Keep your head about you, Andi girl. Maybe filter what comes out of your mouth, too, eh?

The Sheriff is fairly sure he knows who it was. His guess is confirmed when he opens the door. "Come on in."

He leads her back through his house, clearing his throat to garner attention in the back room. "Lin?"

"Joe?" she asks, turning in her seat.

She stands up when she sees the person behind him and walks over.

"This is Ninja. Ninja, Madeline Jacobs."

As she follows the Sheriff into the back room, she habitually scans the room's occupants... only the most surface of glances at their auras. It's always nice to know what kind of atmosphere she's walking into. But she does a double take when she sees Madeline Jacobs and her family. She knows her sight is not deceiving her. And she's also fairly certain the good Sheriff does not know what she now knows.

She smiles as Madeline walks over. It's not Ninja's usual cocky grin, but it's still something more than Andrea's always warm and polite smile. She hands the object in her left hand to the Sheriff as she shifts her staff from her right hand, leaning it against her left shoulder with the ease of a dozen and a half years of practice. Forsaking her own heritage and traditional American greetings, she feels the right and proper way to greet this woman is as Ninja's equal, with the same salute she would give any Taijiquan Master.

Her right fist is placed against the palm of her open left hand, thumb tucked in, then arms roll so her right thumb faces Madeline and her left fingers point to her own chest. She holds the position for a moment before lowering both arms to her side.

"I'm pleased to meet you, Mrs. Jacobs."

Madeline's eyes widen momentarily in surprise at the style of the greeting before she responds in kind. "The pleasure is mine, Ninja."

Taking a step back with a quarter turn, she says, "May I introduce you to my family?"

And in that short space of time, they have all shifted so that they are literally arranged from oldest to youngest.

"My partner, Logan."

Less than a husband, more than a boyfriend, the tone of the word nonetheless indicates a special relationship. The man is not disturbed by her word choice and offers his own traditional salute, fist to palm.

"And our children... Leon, Emelia and Vincent."

They each nod in turn. Leon's eyes are full of questions. Emelia's are intrigued, and Vincent suddenly has something new competing to take his attention from Joe.

She nods to each of them, repeating their names as she does. Then she grins as she looks between the two youngest. But before saying anything else, she turns to the Sheriff.

"My American friends have told me there is a custom of bringing a small gift to people whose house you are visiting for the first time," she says. With a smile, she nods to the object in his hand — a small, palm-sized Navajo woven basket. "A traditional Navajo friendship basket. I... know the weaver."

"Thank you, Ninja," he says, smiling affably then holding out his hand to the only other person in the room. "This is my wife, Amanda."

"Happy to meet you finally, Ninja. Thanks for all the help you give Joe."

"It's a pleasure to meet you, Amanda. And I'm happy to help him and his people out," she says, smiling. "Despite the persistent stubbornness of the wildlife around here, those three wicked mountain lions really are the biggest problem Jefferson County has yet to hand me."

She sighs dramatically, mostly for the children's benefit. "But I finally got the mastermind of the little gang to admit they've been tripping the prox sensors on purpose." She shakes her head. "That only took four years!"

"You talk to cats?!" Emelia blurts.

Madeline and Logan both chuckle. Even Leon grins. She has been hemming and hawing at Vincent's excitement about meeting the Sheriff. Now it's her twin's turn to roll his eyes at her.

"You might as well come in and sit down, Ninja," Amanda says with a grin.

"Yes," Madeline agrees. "Em's not going to let you out of her sight now."

She chuckles at the girl's excitement. Heck, she remembers when she first "talked" to one of the animals near Chenjiagou. I should try to remember that excitement more often.

"A cat fanatic, eh?"

She takes a seat on the floor, her thin-soled boots making half-lotus a comfortable position; she tucks the staff out of the way.

"I only really talk to the larger cats," she says to Emelia. "The smaller ones, like house cats, I just get images from them usually. It's a different way of communicating, that's for sure. I show them what I'd like them to do, and... if they feel like it... they'll do it. Cats are mischief makers, so if I want them to trip a drug dealer going down the stairs in the dark, they're all over that. If I want them to follow a bad person to their house...?" She shakes her head. "Nah, better off asking a dog or a bird."

And that, of course, leads into an animated and hilarious discussion of talking to different animals... bears only want to talk about food. And then the antics involved in trying to control their actions... squirrels have attention deficit disorder. Finally, Amanda announces that lunch is ready.

Lunch with the Baker and Jacobs families reminds her a lot of meals with her own family, only with a bit more decorum as there isn't anyone here whose Spirit is Coyote. Thank goodness... one Henry in her life is plenty! Even as quiet as Logan is, he reminds her — in some ways — of her cousin Tommy.

Also... ha! If she had worn the lovely mask Peregrine had given her, she wouldn't be able to enjoy lunch at all!

After lunch, as a proper guest, she offers to help clean up... knowing full well the offer will be turned down. But as eyes flicker about the table, it gives Amanda the opportunity to say, "Oh, I don't think so. I have three young helpers right here!"

The entire time, Logan has been observant, equally of Ninja as well as the children, particularly the twins. When they appear about to object to Amanda's words, he makes a sound that closely resembles a chuff that catches both their attentions. They look over quickly.

"We'll be glad to help," Leon interjects almost immediately and corrals his siblings into clearing the table.

"Why don't I show you my new project?" Joe suggests.

He leads them to his workshop-office out back in a separate structure. There are various woodworking tools all around and several items in progress. The office portion is less office than it is storage and wet bar.

"Can I offer anyone a drink?" he asks.

"Whiskey," Madeline answers.

"Same," Logan says as he plants himself by the door in an obvious guarding position.

Ninja raises a questioning eyebrow at Logan's position; it doesn't seem likely they would be in any sort of danger here.

"For when the twins sneak over and try to listen in," Madeline explains.

"Ah!" she says with a nod.

"Just seltzer water or soda." She looks around at the other obvious adults, almost feeling like a child. Then she shrugs. "Alcohol has no more effect on my body than... well, soda. So I never developed a taste for it." Ninja smiles. "My other life friends are happy. I'm always the designated driver."

Madeline shrugs and grins. "Doesn't affect us either except in obscenely large quantities but I had developed a taste for it by the time that happened."

Joe brings out the requested drinks for all of them and settles in a corner. "Your show," he says to Madeline.

She gives him a nod and turns to Ninja directly. "Joe tells me you came across our stockpile. Did you happen to notice if anything seems to be tampered with? I know I had locked up tight before I left, but there was a certain set of people who would think nothing of B&E."

Ninja shakes her head. "Not really. About a year, year and a half ago I noticed a very amateur attempt to pry open a seam that had been exposed when a bear broke open a huge anthill. Based on the weather we'd been having then, the attempt couldn't have been more than a day old. So I spent a week skulking about, trying to get a fix on who'd been up there.

"Finally came across the coyote that spooked them, and got a good image of them. Just a couple of kids... early to middle teens. I stuck around a few more days to see if they would come back. Although, from the look of the exposed seam, they would have needed to bring some Jaws of Life with them."

She takes a sip of the seltzer, then grins... wickedly, almost ferally.

"And wouldn't you know it, they were dumb enough to come back. With hammers and chisels." She shakes her head. "When I jumped out of the tree above them and whispered 'boo,' they pissed themselves and ran off." Then she shrugs. "Some days, my sense of humor is really warped.

"But I replaced the Earth that was moved and dumped a dead log on top. Gave the Sheriff's artist a good description of the kids.

"I haven't noticed anything but animal tracks out back since."

Madeline speaks and takes sips of her whiskey occasionally. Over in his corner, Joe is watching her. He had never asked what they did before, but he has some good guesses.

"Good. They would have needed more than the Jaws of Life though. It's essentially a bomb shelter in more ways than one. But as I said, there were certain folks who could have still gotten in. And if they had, well, we would have to be extra cautious opening it."

"I have a friend coming up to help with a vehicle appropriate for moving all of it. Only some of the small arms would even fit in the Humvees, and Leon's the only one who has been around them."

"All in all, I figure it will take a few days for that part alone. The cabin...

"That could take a little longer. I think it might be a good idea to just toss the fridge though. When we left, I intended for it to look like we were coming back."

Ninja just nods. Not surprising, given what she's learned recently.

She wonders if she should mention the fridge. Given how long the Jacobs had been gone by the time she first went up there, surely whoever had tried to clean the cabin after they left...

She glances at the Sheriff but then looks back at Madeline.

She had been sure something had died in there; she had been able to smell the rot from the parking lot at the Nature Center. After the second or third time up there, she had mentioned it to Davis. The smell of cleansers had been nearly overpowering the next time she'd gone up.

She never can decide which one is worse: excessively scented cleaning supplies or people who feel the need to bathe in perfume or cologne. It probably depends on the day... and which product was offending her hypersensitive sense of smell.

Ooh, on the other hand, the games the wildlife play up there probably ought to be mentioned...

"There's a family of skunks living under the porch, I'm sorry to say. The three masterminds of the prox sensors like to tease them in a way that makes them a little cranky if you know what I mean. I've already told the cats you'll be around and to back off. I'll try to keep the skunks calm, but if you've got some gas masks in that bomb shelter of yours, you might want to break them out first," she says with a chuckle.

Madeline chuckles as well. "Enough for a whole squad. Decon chamber too if it's that bad."

"Let's hope it isn't."

Joe sits up a little at Madeline's comment.

"Which I would be happy to donate to the local Sheriff's Office if they're interested."

"We would be," he says without hesitation.

Madeline chuckles again. "Maybe you want to come up and see if there's anything else you need as well, Joe."

Her eyes shift to Ninja. "Offer's open to you too. It's the least I can do."

"Thank you," says the other woman, "but this is the only weapon with which I have any proficiency..." She pats the staff leaning against her shoulder again. "...unless you've got any Chinese swords. Got pretty good with those. Too bad the Chinese government wouldn't let me take one out of the country... not that the American government would have let me bring one into this country. And that was even before nine-eleven."

"There might be. I think I remember having a few extra tian po, even some Japanese weapons, things not gifted by my Sifu. These weren't exactly declared at customs if you take my meaning."

"Hmm, yes. I believe I do." She smiles and seems to look inward for a moment... no more than four or five seconds. "I learned with both the jian and dao and was equally proficient with both, although I'm more than a little rusty after thirteen years. For the work I do, the staff is the most effective weapon. Well, for a weapon that isn't me," she says with another shrug. "I wonder, though..."

Ninja looks at Madeline and then the sheriff before asking Madeline, "Would you be willing to transfer your offer to... a proxy? Denver PD always seems to be getting the short end of the stick, and there are some mighty fine men and women down there doing without because... well, because politics suck." She exchanges a knowing look with the sheriff. "I know Captain Sanchez would make sure any donations are put to good use."

The sheriff's brows draw together. "I thought Denver had a fancy, high-tech SWAT team."

She nods. "Yep. And that's about all there is as far as fancy and high-tech are concerned."

"I would," Madeline says. "However, I would also want to make absolutely sure they know how to handle them. Most of the things in there are not American made. I have a... friend... who could assist in that matter. And I practice weekly, at least when business and family don't have me otherwise occupied. Logan is familiar with the various Eastern styles as well."

Ninja nods. "That's fair." She takes a closer look at Logan, the only indication of surprise being a raised eyebrow. Then she smiles at both of them. "I have a feeling I would get a better workout with Logan than I've had since leaving China."

Madeline can't help but laugh. "Oh, you have no idea how right you are!" she says with emphasis.

She watches the two of them for another moment, before smiling. "I might have to hope you spend a few days in the area. You've certainly piqued my interest."

Ninja then looks wistfully at the sleeve of her uniform. "Now, if you only had the secret to indestructible clothing! Even if I could sweet talk Sanchez into fronting me for a uniform of that ballistic polymer, I'm pretty sure I couldn't talk myself into wearing something that looked like spandex."

Madeline chuckles. "I believe my friend may also have some suggestions regarding the clothing issue if you'd be willing to talk to her."

Watching her aura as she speaks of her friend is more than a little interesting to Ninja. Oh yes, we must speak of that. Later.

"I'd be more than just willing to talk to your friend. I'd be thrilled," she says with open honesty.

Madeline gives her a slow nod, seeing the understanding in Ninja's eyes. "I will make the arrangements then. She's just a phone call away. We can discuss it more at the cabin." Ninja finishes off her glass of seltzer and regards the room's other occupants.

"When will your friend be arriving with the appropriate moving vehicle, Madeline? Aside from a particularly nasty case for which I'm lending my talents to Denver Homicide, I've cleared my calendar for the next week."

"I expect her sometime tomorrow but we won't start loading up until the next morning. I need to get in there and take stock since it's been a long time. So... nothing until the day after tomorrow."

They discuss a few more details; Logan gets up once, pokes his head out the door and growls a warning. Once the things that can be settled here and now are settled, they call it a done deal and go their separate ways.

Madeline sends her family back to town while she stays and catches up with Amanda. She has not had many women friends in the course of her life and other than Amanda, almost none outside her previous profession.

Being around Amanda is centering and grounding in a whole other way. Amanda makes her feel almost normal, almost like she's just like everyone else. And Amanda wants to know all about the twins — in her professional capacity, of course. She sighs and says that she wishes she could have been there. Madeline tells her that she, too, had wished Amanda could have been there... and she means it wholeheartedly. They talk until nearly dinner time. As dusk falls, Madeline bids her friends goodbye and returns to her family.

It had been good to see them again. It had been a cathartic visit.

Heading down the mountain after the meeting with Madeline, she has a lot to think about. Oh sure, Logan — now there is a person with an unusual aura! — and Sheriff Baker had been present, but it was abundantly clear to her who had been running the show. Even before the Sheriff had said anything.

First, there is more to this family than meets the eye. And any hour now, she is going to forget who told her what, and who else is supposed to know what she knows.

Well, this is what I get for letting myself get involved with Ghosts... not that I actually had much of a choice in the matter.

She's fairly certain Joe Baker has only suspicions about his friend Lin, and those suspicions don't even come close to the reality she can see in the woman's aura. He's a good man and takes people at face value. He's willing to believe the best of people.

Interestingly, Ninja knows an awful lot of people like him. Getting to know him better is certainly going to make working with him easier.

She had expected to arrive home before Pablo, so she's not surprised when she doesn't see his car in the driveway. She's not even particularly surprised to see David's car in front of Bobby's house, either. She smiles. She loves how happy they are, and she's beginning to understand why Bobby has been such a nag all these years, urging her to find someone to love. She's still not going to forgive him — yet — for being such a pest, but last least she gets it now why he was such a pest.

She pulls into the garage, drops her helmet on the table, hangs up her jacket, and then heads into the house. She pulls the hair bands from her braids as she walks. By the time she has her staff stored in the dojo closet, her hair is loose and hanging down her back again, the electronics are out of the vest pockets, and the vest has been shrugged off. She quickly changes into jeans and a polo shirt, then puts Ninja's clothes away.

Just in time, too. She hears a knock on the back door and barely two seconds later, Bobby comes in, bearing gifts of freshly baked muffins and coffee cake. She smiles at him as she enters the kitchen.

"Are you trying to get us fat, Bobby?" she asks with a laugh. "It's going to take us all week to eat this much!"

"Oh, you don't fool me any, Andrea Yazzie!" he says, shaking a finger at her after putting the coffee cake on the counter. "I know you two are a couple of heterosexual bunnies, spending every waking moment in sexual bliss, and if I didn't bring you food, the two of you would starve to death!"

She rolls her eyes at him while he's putting the muffins onto one of her plates so he can take his own home. "Bobby, first of all... not your business! Oh my god! Second, we do actually go to work, you know. And third, if that were true, you'd have to slip food through the mail slot instead of walking right into our kitchen."

"I'd still walk right in," he says airily, "I'd just try to ignore the sounds of your heterosexuality in the bedroom."

"Really?" she says with arched eyebrows. "You'd risk walking in on us making out on the kitchen table?"

He gasps and places a hand over his heart. "You actually DO that?!" he asks, almost as if it's a good thing.


He laughs and gives her a peck on the cheek on his way to her coffee maker. Lucky for him, he pulls two coffee mugs from the cabinet and pours for both of them. She sits down in her breakfast nook as he brings the coffee over and sits down across from her. Just like old times.

A tiny voice in a distant corner of her mind notes that it seems weird that "old times" was only a few months ago.

"So, where's Detective Dreamy?" he asks. "I'm getting used to tripping over his car on the way over here, so I notice when it's missing."

She looks at him over her mug as she takes a sip.

"My question is... what are you doing here with me when you have your hunka hunka burning love at home?"

He rolls his eyes and sighs dramatically. "Ugh. An extra rehearsal! He and some others are doing some little quartet thingy. I'm sure it will be fabulous, but..." He leans forward and speaks more softly. "...can you believe that two lesbians and a straight boy — who isn't even half as adorable as your straight boy — took him away from me for the afternoon?" He leans back and sighs again. "I just can't believe it, Andi!"

She laughs. "Thank you, Bobby. I needed that. I've missed your drama."

He winks. "Of course you do, dear. I don't know how anyone can live without my charm and wit for as long as you've managed." He put one arm along the back of the booth back. "So? Where is Detective Dreamy, hmmmm?"

She looks down into the darkness of the coffee mug. "Working. It's... it's a really bad case, Bobby. Well, yeah, all homicides are bad, but this one...?" She takes a deep breath as she puts the mug down and looks back up at him. "I think this might be the worst one he's ever told me about. And... and he didn't even tell me all that much."

He didn't need to. Unfortunately, she had been one of the first responders.

He reaches across the table and covers her hands with his. "And it's hard to be supportive? When it's really awful like that?"

"It's not really that, Bobby. It's just knowing that..." She swallows hard. "'s knowing that people are so hateful. More hateful than I've ever heard of before."

He's quiet for a minute, just holding her hands.

"I guess I really don't have much to bitch about when I get upset about David's job, do I?" he asks softly.

She shrugs. "I can't say. I see how torn up you get over some of his cases. Is what I feel worse than that? I don't think so, Bobby." She smiles wanly. "We're both in love with men who see the darker side of humanity."

Of course, the fact that she sees even more of it than Pablo does some days isn't really the point.

"You know, we really should start that support group! Look at the two of us practically crying in our coffee." He pats her hands and sits up straight. "Girl, if we're going to cry in our coffee, there should be a whole group of us, and there should be crafts and more food! We could decoupage your cabinets right now, in fact!" He smiles brightly.

"Oh, we will do no such thing, Bobby Tompkins! I like my cabinets just the way they are!"

"Of course you do, dear. But now we're both smiling again," he says with a chuckle.

She just shakes her head and smiles at him. It's just the way best friends are.

They chat for another half hour or so while Bobby manages to drink nearly all her coffee. Little sneak. Pablo's gone for a few hours, and there goes her hazelnut!

After Bobby leaves, she gives Justin a call... to catch up, to see how his plans for getting out to Denver for Christmas are coming along. He's not having a problem, but he really wants Nicole to come out here with him — and she want her brother's girlfriend here, too! — but Nicole has only been at her new job for a few months and is still trying to work out the logistics. They had both talked to Mama and Dad earlier in the day, and they chuckle over the YouTube video Papa had made of his ukulele playing. He's actually pretty good, and picked IZ Kamakawiwo'ole's version of Somewhere Over the Rainbow, which is maybe even more awesome than Judy Garland's version. Not that she would ever tell Bobby that! Or any gay man, for that matter.

And as the sun sets, she begins to worry. Not really about Pablo per se, because she can feel him — distantly, but still — through their bond. He seems... frustrated? No, what he's worried about is the case. Sally's case. She picks up the phone and stares at it for several minutes before dialing his cell number.


"Hey, it's Andi. Just worried about you. Need me to bring you some dinner?"

"Oh, love! I'm sorry... I meant to call a couple of hours ago, but..." She can hear him sigh. "Well, this is a real shitty case."

"I understand, Pablo," She says softly. "You know I do. But you still need to eat."

He makes an attempt at a chuckle, but it comes out more like a grimace. "We just ordered out for pizza. I know, I know... not the best meal in the world, but it does have all the food groups present."

"As long as it's Beau Jo's and not that greasy New York style stuff you guys usually order from Anthony's," she says with humorous chiding.

This time he does manage an actual chuckle. "We order from Anthony's because they deliver. But we did, in fact, order from Beau Jo's this time and the Captain's wife will play delivery person." He pauses, and she can almost hear the smile in his voice... probably the first smile he's managed since he left the house this morning. "The Cap insisted on decent food since it looks like we're going to be here a while. We're coordinating with Missing Persons to see if we can find Ben and Dick before..."

She takes another deep breath. "Before it's too late," she says quietly.


"You'll be late then," she says. It's a statement, the knowledge of a cop's wife.

"I'm sorry, Andi."

"No, no... don't be sorry, Pablo! You... you need to find these bastards. Not just because of Sally, not just because they could still kill Ben and Dick." She pauses. There are some things that shouldn't be discussed over the phone. "I picked up some information last night, early this morning... can't really remember the time, you know? But... it doesn't involve the case, and probably shouldn't be discussed on the phone."

She can almost see him nodding. "We'll talk about it later then, promise. Hey, how was your lunch?"

"It was good," she says with more enthusiasm. "I got to know Jeffco's Sheriff better. He's a good man and his wife is just... Well, she's pretty awesome." She smiles at the memory of the cheerful and energetic redhead. "She's a midwife."

"Oh? Is there something I should know?" He finally laughs. "Or are you just planning ahead?"

"Just planning ahead, dear. If there were something to tell you, I'd have already told you," she says with a smile, and so very much love.

"And the out-of-town visitors? How did that go?"

"Really well, I think. They're... they're good people, and the two youngest have so much energy and life that I was wondering how long I'd be able to keep up with them!" She chuckles. "The oldest boy is standing on the cusp of manhood and seems so poised and is more well-mannered than any teens I've ever met. Madeline is fascinating, her partner Logan is..." She pauses again. "Well, I've never met anyone like him. The whole lot of them have the most interesting auras."

"Do I have competition, dear?" he teases.

"Oh, hell no!" She laughs. "You are the only one for my heart, my life, my soul... and you know that, Detective Garcia, fisher of compliments."

She sighs again.

"I hope I get to see you before I head back up the mountain tomorrow morning. I think... Well, strictly speaking, they probably don't really need my help, but..." She stops, trying to figure out how to explain it. "You know how you just a hunch about something? And you know you just have to act on it?"

"Sure. Happens to cops all the time... well, to the good ones, anyway."

"Well, I have a hunch I need to be there for Madeline tomorrow morning. She's cleaning out the cabin..." She isn't sure why she believes it's important to say this next bit. "Davis told me the reason she packed up and left was because her husband was killed in a car crash around the same time Rosalia and Juan were. Within the year, anyway. And before you ask, no... I don't see any connections at all. But I know how you bottled yourself up, and how you were when you finally let go of the pain.

"I don't know if she's walked a similar path, but I just feel like... like I need to be there."

He's quiet for a while. She can hear background noises... phones ringing, people talking, the sounds of the world of a homicide detective.

"If you feel that strongly about it, then you definitely need to be there, Andrea." She can hear pride and love in his voice. "If you can give her one iota of the peace you brought me, then... God, Andrea, you have to do it."

"I love you, Pablo Garcia," she says, feeling as though she might just start crying because she is so overwhelmed with love and appreciation for this man.

"And I love you, too, Andrea Yazzie. You are my life."

"And you are mine, my beloved." She smiles, knowing that, quite literally, that's true. They are One. "You should go back to tracking down bad guys. I'm going to practice for a while, maybe go out and visit with my buddy out in Adams County. If you get home before I do, I probably won't be far behind.

"If you plan to crash at the office, you'll let know, right?" she asks... just a gentle reminder that he's trying to build a new habit.

"Absolutely." Again, she can hear the smile in his voice.

"I may need to spend a couple of days out in Jefferson County; I'll keep you updated," she says. "You have my numbers if something comes up."

"I'll miss you, Andi."

"I miss you already, my dear Pablo." She takes a deep breath. "Now go do what you do better than anyone in Denver, with the possible exception of Rodrigo Sanchez."

He chuckles. "Talk to you later, love."

After they disconnect, she sits in the darkened living room for ten, fifteen, thirty minutes... she doesn't really know. Finally, she gets up and change into her workout clothes and go downstairs.

She starts with the slow and graceful Yang 48 form...

Driving out from New York had allowed them to adjust somewhat more gradually to the differing time zones. Still, Madeline wakes early. Her normal time zone is still many hours ahead.

"Good morning," Logan says softly in the dark.

She smiles and turns to him. "Good morning."

They share a soft kiss as his arms wrap around her. He is concerned and worried. They had talked last night about the plans for today. She and Leon will go up the mountain in the morning to look around. It's something they need to do together, just the two of them. She had recently told him about his father, and this is one more step in their journey of healing.

"We'll be fine, Logan," she says, kissing him again.

"I know you will."

His hands slide across her skin, caressing her and saying so much with just his touch. She knows there is more on his mind than just his concern for her. She runs her fingers through his beard and across his lips. She can never love him like she had loved Rene. She can never love anyone like that again. Rene had been her once in a lifetime kind of love. She does love Logan though.

"I love you, Logan. Love Wolverine."

At her words, he pulls her closer and holds her tightly, his cheek rubbing against hers. His voice is rough with emotion when he speaks.

"Love Madeline."

They stay in their tight embrace until sounds from outside their room drift to them. At least one of the children is up and about. They both listen closely and together say, "Leon."

"You're still Dad to him, Logan. You always will be. And for that, too, I love you. Why don't you go out there and spend some time with him? I think he needs it as much as you do."

She feels him nod, and then he releases her to slip from the bed. He gives her another soft kiss before pulling on pants and leaving the bedroom. Madeline lies in bed a while longer before finally rising and getting in the shower.

Logan exits the bedroom, his chiseled chest and feet both bare. Leon looks up from where he sits on the couch. "Sorry, Dad, didn't mean to wake you."

"You didn't," he says as he crosses to the still half-full coffee pot.

It's cold, but it doesn't matter.

"Dad?" Leon asks, his voice hesitant.

Logan pours the coffee then walks over and sits down across from Leon on the edge of the table. "What is it, son?"

"You know Mom's been... been telling me a lot about my father, right?"

"Of course."

He stumbles over what he's trying to say, trying to ask. "It doesn't... does... does it bother you? I don't want you to think... I mean, it won't change..."

The look he gives Logan is a little helpless, a little fearful that he's going to disappoint the man.

"It doesn't change anything between us, Leon. It's good for a boy to know about his father, to know where he came from."

Leon nods, and a tear rolls down his face. "Kinda worried about today, about Mom, going up there..."

"Your mother will be fine. You'll be there with her. I have confidence in you and so does she."

"Thanks, Dad," he says, although his eyes still say he is not convinced.

"And I'm just a call away."

Madeline and Leon are both lost in their own thoughts on the way up. She pulls into the drive and stops at the bottom, looking up the winding unpaved path. They stop for so long that Leon begins to worry.


"We bought this place sight unseen. We missed the turn off twice, Rene pulled over to look around, and I desperately needed to walk around a bit. Just as he was helping me out, we saw a car pull up. Amanda poked her head out of the driver's window and asked if we were lost. Hell of a way to meet your midwife."

She blinks away the mist in her eyes and continues the drive up to the cabin. She pulls up in front and shuts the engine down. "Here we are..."

It doesn't look any different to her eyes. And even without Leon's gift, she can see the two of them — her and Rene — climbing the steps that first time and opening the door.

"He insisted on carrying me over the threshold..."

Or sitting on the porch as Leon took his first shaky steps.

"You learned to walk on that porch..."

Leon reaches over the encloses his mother's hand in his own. She squeezes his hand but does not look over.

"You had a mobile of little wooden figures that your Abuelito carved. It should still be in a box in the closet in your room. Your room here, I mean."

She falls silent, caught up in her memories, slow tears trickling down her face. Eventually, she does open her door and slowly gets out, and then walks to the steps. She takes a colorful keyring out of her pocket that has only a single key on it. Her feet feel leaden as she climbs up the stairs and crosses to the door. Her movements are achingly slow, and Leon hovers just behind her.

With a shaking hand, she offers the key to Leon. "You'll have to do it."

"All right," he says, taking the key and unlocking the door. He pushes it open.

He waits for his mother as she stands there and looks inside. It looks exactly the way she had left it. Except... her brow furrows and she steps through the doorway. She had not expected it to look exactly the same. And yet it did. As if they had never left, or at most had only been gone a few hours instead of nearly a dozen years. She moves into the kitchen and sets the car keys down on the counter.

There is a note there, yellowed with age.

Didn't want you to come home to a dirty house. ~A

She manages a little smile. "Amanda."

Madeline sits down on one of the barstools and just keeps looking around.


She looks over at him. "It's almost like I can still feel him here."

The next thing Andrea knew, she was hearing her alarm going off upstairs reminding her to get up and get ready for work. Except that she had taken the entire week off to give her time to Madeline Jacobs and her family.

The blue jays had vacated her tree a couple of weeks ago for more hospitable lodging, and it isn't quite sunrise. There's a message from Pablo on the house phone's voice mail letting her know that he would be at the office all night. The call came in around midnight. She apparently had practiced for about eight hours. It's been a long time since she's done that, but she admits to herself that she must have needed it or she wouldn't have stayed in the zone for that long.

A muffin and a cup of coffee are plenty for breakfast after showering, although she takes another mug of coffee with her into the bedroom where she gets dressed. She knows she has plenty of time. The more she practices, the more connections she can see among all the weavings of qi.

She takes her time riding out to the Jacobs' cabin and for the first time, she rides up to the cabin itself rather than leaving her bike at the Nature Center. It appears that she has arrived almost immediately after Madeline and Leon, and she's a little surprised that they don't notice her. But Leon is focused so intently on his mother and Madeline is weaving through her memories it does make sense. The qi in the vicinity moves with the rolling spirals she often seems when people are caught up in memories of the past.

Madeline's thoughts are powerful ones.

Ninja's footsteps, even to her own hypersensitive hearing, are silent as she walks up the pathway, up the stairs, and stops in the doorway to hear Madeline's words from where she sits.

It's almost like I can feel him here.

Ninja can see a distortion of qi behind the other woman, and she feels a lump in her throat.

"He never meant to leave you, Maddie," she says softly, her voice husky with emotion.

Madeline turns toward the voice, somehow not surprised to see Ninja. But her words... her words rip open a wound that has never fully healed.

Her shoulders start to shake as tears spill unabated from her eyes. She doesn't speak; she can't. But Leon is there at her side in an instant.

"Mom?" he asks, unsure of what he should do.

His mother grasps his hand and her thoughts shoot through their contact.

I miss him so much! I feel like a part of my soul is missing...

His eyes well up, and he wraps his mother in a tight hug.

Ninja walks toward them; she feels as though she can almost hear the distortion of qi that is Rene. It's not possible, but that's the impression she's getting from the qi flowing through the room.

She stops a pace away from them and sets her staff on the floor.

She looks at the qi flowing from the distortion, watches the pattern repeat a second time and then a third time before she's fairly certain she understands.

"Maddie... I've spoken with Rene three times and..." She looks over Madeline's shoulder again. "...and if I understand correctly, Leon can show you our conversations. He..."

She feels a stabbing pain in her foot and doesn't need to look down to know that Raven is pecking at her.

"...and my guardian Spirit very much wants you — both of you — to see and hear our conversations."

She feels another peck on her foot and closes her eyes.

"I would rather give you a chance to ask questions, get used to the idea, take some time to think about it... but I'm getting my foot pecked off here.

"And... well, Rene is a little anxious."

She lightly rests a hand on each of their shoulders, putting trust in her crazy guardian Spirit and the Spirit of a man she had never met in life, but has come to like and trust nonetheless.

Madeline tries to wrap her mind around what she is being told by this woman she only met the day before.

"You... you've spoken with him??"

She very much wants to believe that it's possible, but fear keeps her wary. She had found him once before, only to have him ripped away again. She doesn't think she can deal with that loss a third time.

"How...?" Leon begins to say as Ninja places a hand on his shoulder.

Then he understood. His gift... he meant his gift. If it would help his Mom, there is nothing he would not do.

"Trust me, Mom," he says.

She nods. "Of course, sweetheart."

Everything shifts then...

Rene runs his hand through his hair as he paces. He pauses and runs his hand over the counter, at least as much as he can anyway. He sighs sadly, remembering the last time he and Maddie had sat at the counter here. It had been before he left on that last mission. They had sat there, quietly drinking coffee, not speaking, just being in each other's company. After so many years together they did not need to speak.

He knew her worries. He understood them. She was the one who stayed behind every time now. They had discussed it in the beginning. He had been so proud of her for that, for making that choice. He would look in on their miracle before he left, kiss his golden head and she would walk with him out to the car. They held each other tightly and kissed passionately, and when he drove away he would look in the rearview mirror. She would watch for it and tap her temple.

He would nod in response and wink, and even though he was already too far for her to see it, she would know.

"I never meant to leave you, Maddie."

Madeline gasps and holds out her hand.


The worse the weather, the more frequently the big cats come down the mountain. Occasionally, there'll be a coyote, rarely a bear... they are more likely to infringe on what humans had claimed as their own land in the spring. But the big cats, they're trouble. All it will take is an itchy trigger finger of a hunter, or worse yet a homeowner, and there'll be another dead mountain lion.

They aren't the representation of her guardian Spirit, but it still bothers her.

She had just spent an hour trying to coax the cat she secretly likes the most back up a few miles. It had taken the promise of meat, and lots of it, to get the cat moving, though. She idly wonders if procuring meat for the cats and coyotes would be considered a business expense if she decides to go the sponsorship route.

She shakes my head. What does it really matter? She would help the animals out as best she could, and not just because it's her job.

But there are two other cats up here she still needs to convince, so she decides to practice for a while. She could use the energy boost, and with the temperature dropping down below freezing, she can use the increased qi flow to keep warm.

Halfway through the Long Form for the fourth time, she feels the qi flows quiver oddly. Raven, who had been conspicuously absent for months, appears and caws furiously at her.

What the hell now??

It flies a short distance down the mountain, toward the clearing where the old Jacobs cabin stands, then back again, cawing even more loudly.

You must call him out! He is trapped!

Crazy flying things!

I have no fracking idea what you're talking about.

Not for the first time, the thought crosses her mind that it's really a good thing that she can continue her forms even with distractions like Raven.

Sing! Sing!

She doesn't actually need any prompting. She's been feeling a tingling up her back, stretching from Mother Earth to some point... No, it's too hard to tell exactly where, but it's definitely in the direction of the Jacobs cabin. So she Sings.

She's more than a little surprised when the last note opens a portal. That's... that's never happened before without a whole group of people. Well, yes, there had been that incident in Flagstaff at the Safeway, but that was WAY different than this.

She can tell that the dimension beyond is nowhere near as bad as the one she had opened in Flagstaff, not anything like the hell where Pablo had gone thanks to the ancestral pest. But it isn't as calm and serene as the Spirits' dimension either.

Why in the name of the Great Spirit did Raven think I needed to open a portal? She bends down and picks up her staff, then just watches very, very carefully.

Everything around him begins to… shift. At least, that's the only word he can think of for whatever is happening. Instinctively, he reaches for a weapon that isn't there, and that he wouldn't be able to grasp even if it were. He looks around cautiously, ready to move at a moment's notice. Things sometimes came out of nowhere here. The walls of their cabin become transparent, or rather, he no longer wishes them to be solid. He turns slowly, seeking the source of the disturbance.

There! His eyes widen a bit as he thinks he sees... No, it can't be.

He moves toward what he thinks he saw. He takes care, cautious but hopeful. Although he has no breath, his breathing quicken nevertheless. He sees dark hair and black clothing, and a heart that no longer beats skipped one.

"Maddie?" he can't stop himself from asking.

But no, she doesn't wear her hair like that. She never lets it get longer than just below her shoulders. Still, who is she? Why is she here? Without knowing it, he crosses the barrier between where he had been and where she is.

"Who are you?" he wonders aloud.

She resists the urge to go Pythonesque. Most people don't get the reference anyway, and someone stepping out of... or at least trying to step out of another dimension lessened the odds considerably.

"Ninja. And you?"

The fact that she answers surprises him. It shows on his face. "You heard me? You can see me?"

"Oh, yeah. Gotta say most things coming out of dimensional portals aren't half as polite."

She glances at Raven.

This is why you wanted me to open a portal? You think I need even more conversation tonight? The cat wasn't enough?

Raven just flies around the man's head, grinning. She really REALLY hates when that thing grins. Birds should not grin.

"You have me at a disadvantage, sir. I have introduced myself. You are...?"

He doesn't look like he's going to step between the worlds, but the woman stands in a defensive posture nonetheless, her staff held firmly in both hands.

He doesn't blush but does seem slightly chagrined. "Oh, right, sorry. Rene. Rene Jacobs. Am... I'm not quite sure where I am... I'm trying to find my Maddie again."

"Jacobs? The folks who own the cabin down there?" She nods in the general direction. "Place has been empty since before I got to the area."

She relaxes, rests one end of the staff on the ground and leans it against a shoulder.

"No one knows the story except Sheriff Baker, and despite his pleasant personality and easy-going nature, he's incredibly tight-lipped about why the place is deserted."

Ninja pauses while thinking of what she does know. Precious little, that's for sure.

"Madeline... your Maddie? She and her little one left one day and never came back. That's about all I could get out of Davis when I mentioned to her I'd found your... ah... munitions dump back behind the house."

She shakes her head and tsks. "Not the safest place for a cache of weapons; fortunately, between the Sheriff's department and yours truly, we've managed to keep any less than brilliant hunters from getting up here."

She looks beyond him, into the... Well, there's no way to explain what the other dimensions look like to human eyes... a swirl of light and color and energy she supposes is the best way to describe it.

"Well, can't say exactly where you are as I haven't seen all the places that exist on different planes, but I'd say... hmmm... Not the worst place you could have wound up. You seem to be relatively sane and fairly intact, so you're in a paradise compared to the place Peacekeeper wound up." She shrugs and sighs. "On the other hand, it doesn't look like the plane where the guardian Spirits reside, and they claim they have the best neighborhood of all."

Again, she glances at Raven, a rueful expression on her face. "They've been known to be less than entirely honest and forthcoming, however."

"Madeline, yes. My Maddie and our Leon."

His memories bring forth images of them unbidden. A woman, petite, with dark wavy hair and smiling green eyes. A small boy with long golden tresses and blue eyes just like Rene's set in a face that resembled the woman. His longing for them is plain, as is his worry.

But as she speaks, he concentrates on certain parts more than others., repeating pieces to himself as he pieces together his fragmented memories. "Just drove off one day..."

The reprimand about their stash goes unnoticed.

"I used to see her... not like I'm seeing you now but..."

He struggles with the explanation. Even when he was still wholly in this world, it had never been something he put into words.

"I could be there for her, even when I was far away, let her know... there was a time I couldn't though. Something blocked it, my ability to reach out to her. I eventually found a way... around it I guess, but it used me to get to her and tried to get to Leon..."

He goes to a nearby tree stump and sits on it. His expression is forlorn, anguished. "Though I could hear her calling for me, I dared not go to her again. She was in so much pain."

His eyes glisten with tears when he looks up. "I would have given anything to stop her pain. She had already suffered so much."

As he works through the thoughts and memories, he comes to a time that he had let slip away from his consciousness. "The last time I saw her..."

A deep breath is needed.

"We fought... not out of anger, but it was a physical thing. She was trying not to... she only wanted to disable me. It though, It wanted her dead. I knew the blow would kill her, I couldn't pull it. It wouldn't let me. So I stepped into her counter strike, knowing it would do the same to me. It didn't kill me right away. I saw Francois there, saw him pull the knife from her chest and beg her to wake up.

"I thought he was… a bit crazy to say it, but I understood it. Crazy thing was, she did wake up. It was the most incredible thing... then she was leaning over me, begging me not to leave her... I didn't want to..."

His words falter, and he looks back toward the cabin.

"Maddie, it's not your fault, my love. I never meant to leave you... Maddie..."

He hangs his head then, his heartache pouring out from him.

There isn't much she can do but stare and listen. Except... except when he talks about being able to... to be with his wife...

She leans heavily on her staff, her heart pounding wildly. If he and his Maddie had the sort of connection Pablo and I have... oh, holy shit.

When he sits down, she can see... it's hard to say if she sees his aura or if he is his aura. But it tells her a lot more than his words have, makes sense out of some that seemed... she won't say crazy. She has been through enough herself that she isn't even sure she knows what crazy is anymore. She would love to sit down, because this whole thing is one hell of a shocker for her, to say nothing of this poor guy. It's safer to stay standing, though; there's less of a chance of the portal closing that way.

"Ahhh, Rene? I think you're, um, dead, man. Except... well, except I think the connection you have with Maddie kind of made that whole crossing over to the other side thing go wonky.

"And I don't think I've ever seen anyone do what you just did... you thought about your wife and son and... poof! There they were."

Well, good on him... some new and different for me to chew on and worry about, she thinks to herself. Having bad guys around with that kind of power would make life hell. How had he manage to get me to see them, though? And...

She studies the energy flows around him; she never met a ghost before, but she supposes... wait...

It's not his energy that's strange. Well, yeah, it is. It looks a hell of a lot like Pablo's did when that skanky floozy was still hitching a ride with him. Like he had... like Rene has... some kind of connection to the dimension he's in.

Okay. She nods to herself. She can work with that. What's the deal with the projection of the family though?

Oh. Oh my, now THAT is utterly fascinating and totally cool! She can actually see what he's doing, although... again... the words just don't exist.

"Looks like you're pulling... yeah, I'll call it qi... from the other dimension, and shaping it the way you want it to look."

She closes her eyes and just feels the energy flows. He's incredibly faint, but for someone who's... mostly? dead, she has to guess that's probably normal. The family projection, though, that's just a swirl, and mini-vortex, nothing truly coherent. Heh. He's a clever one, she'll give him that. And as faint as he feels, it's definitely coherent energy.

Coherent... just like people who aren't dead.

"If all this happened... what? Ten years ago?

"Dude, I had the same sort of connection with... with my husband. If he'd died then, I'd have been in a rubber room for the rest of my life. But he got an engraved invitation to visit with his ancestral pest to learn how to use his powers. I probably shouldn't be telling you, but hey... who are you gonna tell, right?

"Time is fucked up on the other side. He spent three years in some god awful place; I spent a day and a half in a coma. Because he was alive. I didn't have to go insane. Me? If I knew your wife? I'd worry. Hell, I don't know your wife, and I'm going to worry."

She pauses again, this time for a deep breath.

"From where you are, I don't think you can reach Maddie. Or not well. Not often? I don't know how time flows over there. But..."

She looks at Raven.

I can't do it alone. I don't think so, anyway.

It waddles... she hates that, too... over to Rene.

You need others. His others.

She sighs.

Helpful, Birdbrain. Real helpful.

"Okay. Whatever you do, however, you do it... I think, maybe, I absolutely will not make any promises, but it might be possible to at least get you to a place where you can talk to Maddie.

"I don't think either one of you can actually die unless the other one does, too. Wow, and if what you're going through is what Pablo would have gone through or what I would have gone through if one of us died before he visited Q-ville... that would have sucked. A lot.

"So, if I can figure out a way to get you closer to Maddie, would you go for that? Might be hard, might be painful, might not even work. But, hell, I'm willing to give it a try.

"How about you, Rene Jacobs?"

He knows he's dead. It had taken him a bit to figure that out, but he finally had. He can see things, be in a place and not be able to touch anything. He truly had not meant to leave, had in fact promised to watch over her. And he tried, the best way he knew how. As for how long he had been here, wherever here was, he can't say. Sometimes it seems like only moments. Others, it seems like an eternity. There is no rising and setting sun, no discernible way to mark the passage of any kind of day. All he knows is that he has to reach her, to let her know he still watches over her, and he keeps trying.

When Ninja started talking about this qi thing and how he did what he did, he can only shake his head. He has no idea what she is talking about. That "little trick" is something he has always been able to do in his own mind. He has never tried it with anyone in the physical world, it's always a mental thing, and the only one who has ever seen it, noticed it is Maddie.

He remembers that first time he had looked into her eyes. She had been barely aware of him through the light of her madness. He had soothed her as best he could until he had convinced her that she was safe.

"Insane? Maddie's been there before. She's a fighter though. She doesn't know how to quit fighting.

"And I do worry about her. There's a part of her... She has to fight the madness, every day."

He looks up at her.

"And if there is any chance at all, yes, I will take it, whatever it takes. Pain ? I can't think of anything that could hurt more than knowing that she suffers every day. Sometimes... Sometimes she comes to me. Suddenly she is... just there or here... whatever... but I know when it happens, when she's here...

"She might be dreaming... or... I just don't know... but we spend as much time together as we can before she is pulled back."

He looks around at the forest about them, then at the bit of vista through a spot where two pines lean away from each other.

"I have nothing to offer but my eternal gratitude for your efforts. Please, yes, I would very much like for you to try."

She nods. "Gratitude is enough. Knowing there's a chance I can lessen your pain, her pain... that's enough for me.

"It seems it will be necessary for her to be here..." Raven does one of its aerial acrobatic maneuvers that makes her want to smack it with her staff. "...and no one seems to know when that's going to happen.

"I know Davis will call me when Sheriff Baker knows she's coming to town.

"It looks pretty certain you're somehow tethered to the cabin."

But how to get the two to intersect, eh?

"There's a pretty big rock at the foot of the stairs up into the cabin. You check the front porch whenever you are near enough to see, okay? I'll put the rock on the porch when I know she's heading to town. Then you'll just need to stay close for as long as you can."

Sometimes she suspects Tommy's the only person who understands her when she talks about this stuff. And sometimes she's not sure even he understands.

"You understand, completely?

"With you and Maddie both here... well, Raven seems to think we can work something out."

"The cabin is the only place that was wholly ours," he explains.

It's the place he feels most drawn to; it had extra special meaning to both of them.

"The house in Suriname belonged to her parents like the one Marseilles belongs to my mother. And this, this is where we chose to live when we found out Leon was coming. This was our home, our family home."

He stands and nods more to himself than her.

"Yes, I understand. If I can manage it, I won't leave at all."

He walks over to Ninja, offers a hand to shake, a purely corporal gesture. "Thank you."

She adjusts the flow of her qi and takes his hand. It's not like shaking hands with a more... well, solid individual, but there is some sensation.

"You're welcome, Rene. I'd hope someone would do the same for me if I were in a similar situation."

She lets go of his hand and watches as he almost seems to float back toward the portal she had opened. Perhaps it might be more apt to say he was being pulled? Who knows? But once he crosses the border between worlds, she drops to her knees and taps her hands on the ground. The portal closes with no sound, no evidence it ever existed.

Except for the wide-eyed mountain lion who is staring at her.

Strong Cat go! Head Talker has too many tricks. Strong Cat stay on mountain! And off she runs.

Good. Two down, one to go.

And a reunion to arrange whenever Maddie gets to town. That should be... interesting.

As Rene returns to that other place, he feels something he has not felt in longer than he can remember. He feels hope.

Things shift again, this time to a place Madeline recognizes from her dreams. The only indication is a sharp intake of breath.

He has been so distracted recently by the Ninja woman, or rather their agreement, that he almost misses it. He freezes where he is and listens with every part of himself. The inkling of danger was there, tingling up his spine, making itself known just like it always has. Now he pinpoints where it's coming from and moves away in a circling motion, slowly though, trying not to send off... Well, in the physical world, it would be the equivalent to moving down wind while being careful not to leave any signs of his passage.

The circling brings him close enough to the source. It seems familiar, and it takes many long moments for him to figure out why. When he does, he curses. He curses first in French, then in Spanish, and then in Malay, then in Dutch, and finally in English. However, through every curse, he does not move again. Instead, he watches it and waits. He knows this Thing, knows he could not let It see him, find him or, worst of all, catch him. But he has to know what It is doing. He has to try.

He concentrates on It just long enough to get a very bad picture in his mind. He pulls away none too soon, as It had felt him, and begins to look for that which had dared touch It. He hides until It stops looking and slowly fades away. It wants the world he had left behind, wants it in the worst way. It had almost succeeded before... with the help of that jackass Stryker. He has to warn somebody.


He thinks first of her. He always does. But, no, he can't reach her successfully, not in any way where he can make her understand. There has to be someone! Then he remembers that odd... day? Time? Well, the time when he had been partly in the physical world.

Ninja. If I can find her... maybe get her to do that portal thing again...?

He returns to the place he had seen her before, up on the mountain above the cabin. He looks into the other world but sees nothing but the forest.

Maybe the cabin...

With the mere thought, he is at the cabin, standing on the front porch.

What did she say to look for? Think, Jacobs... think. Remember, damn it! That was it... the rock!

It has not been moved. It still sits at the bottom of the stairs. He lets out a frustrated breath and follows the stairs down to the gravel driveway. He stands in the middle of it, arms crossed, wondering if he could possibly find her below...

It takes until dawn to roust the last cat from her happy hideout far too close to tourists. It takes about thirty seconds to put the fear of Ninja in her... or Head Talker as the cats like to call her.

Hey, it fits better than that Nightwalker nonsense the old ancestral pest annoyed me with. Especially since Head Talker is awfully close to Head Case, and damn! After tonight, I sure do feel like a head case. Talking to ghosts! Now, who is going to believe that? Well, besides Tommy?

She takes her usual path back down to the parking lot; as always, she walks past the Jacobs place. Again... weird, weird night.

In the shimmering of the morning sunlight, she sees something she's never seen before. There is very definitely a distortion in the light, in the energy. And it was man-sized. Man-shaped, too.

No way.

Just no fracking way.

Once... that's weird.


That is just too fracking weird.

She stops a good dozen paces away.

"Hey... that you, Rene?"

I hope like hell it is, because the alternatives are... well, really bad.

He stares down the road, thinking furiously, trying to figure out how to reach out to the one person he knows he can communicate with. The hairs on the back of his neck prickle and he drops low and spins to look behind him.

It's her!

He sees her mouth move and it seems like she's talking to him.

"Ninja, I need to talk to you," he says urgently, willing her to understand.

She sees the distortion move... twist? And the weirdest... well, she keeps using that word but the things she could say that are worse would just convince her that she's crazy. Anyway, some of the distortions seem to flow in soft, billowing waves of energy toward her. They die out about halfway to where she's standing but... it's definitely a neat trick.

If this is Rene... and her gut instinct says it is — the distortion has much too close a match to the feel of his aura for it to be someone else — then wherever he is...

Think, think...

He must be awfully damn close, dimension-wise. And if that's the case...

Oh, what the hell! Where do reluctance and timidity get you anyway, eh Andi ol' girl? Never mind. Don't answer that.

She walks over to where he is distorting the qi in this dimension and reaches through to put a hand on his shoulder, pulling energy from Mother Earth and running quickly through her Power Song. Of course, a song with only eight notes does move rather quickly when one doesn't hold the notes out.

Oh boy howdy! Frack and fuck, that itches and tingles and kinda hurts and feels all kinds of bizarre! But my hand does feel like it's touching a shoulder.

Rene watches, unsure of what she's doing but trusting her anyway. His brow furrows as he sees her hand reach out... and then there is contact! He can actually feel her hand on his shoulder! He takes advantage of it and moves closer to speak into her ear, hoping it works.

"It is coming. It wants the world. It is looking for another way through."

He stops and waits, waiting to see if she understands or not.

Well, it doesn't quite work. She can almost... almost hear him. And if her enhanced hearing isn't picking up the right signals...

She sighs.

So... she just needs to try something else.

Good thing it's daylight because I have a feeling this would be noticeable for miles around at night.

She lifts her staff and chants one of the Calling Songs... She needs Raven and its cousins. Within moments, Raven waddles over — Have I mentioned how much I hate that? — and its cousins... Crow and Eagle and Hawk and Falcon and even Sparrow and Woodpecker and Dove and Owl and Parrot... are circling around.

Just open a window, please.

The ones actually flying begin circling faster and faster and faster, while Raven jumps up on her shoulder. One more time, she sings her Power Song and taps the Earth with her staff on the last note.

It's more of a Dutch doorway than a window, but that does the job.

Thank you, Cousins of my Guardian.

"Hey, Rene. What's up? You seem pretty anxious there."

He is relieved to see and hear her "normally" again. "It is here, on this plane, and is looking for a way through... again. It... it is dangerous to everything. It will use us if it can. You have to be on the lookout for it. Warn others. Warn Maddie. It tried for her once..."

"Okay, chill. Relax. I absolutely will warn Maddie whenever she gets to town. I don't think I have a way of contacting her outside of official channels, and... well, Sheriff Baker is the official channel. I don't think he keeps tabs on her when she's not here. At least... well, I'll check it out, okay?"

She takes a deep breath.

This thing again.

"We've had some warning already about a Shadow or Darkness or some such coming. But if it's as close as the dimension you're in, it's awfully damn close. Too close for my comfort, seeing as the great and powerful ancestral pest, Quetzalcoatl, seems to think I'm taking point on this mission.

"Yay me, huh?

"And yeah, Quetzalcoatl says it wants to destroy the world. I am SO not keen on having that happen, although it's just my luck to finally get to the altar and then the world implodes. Fuckin' asshole better not fuck up my wedding or I'm gonna be fuckin' pissed... pardon my Navajo."

She pauses, rubs the back of her neck.

"I've warned the other two Supers in Denver. I'll see if Peregrine can get the message out through official channels. I'm more of a behind-the-scenes, not seen and not heard from kind of gal."

She sighs and closes her eyes.

"If Quetzalcoatl can be believed... and in this I'm going to give him the benefit of the doubt... that thing is going to try breaking through here. In the general Denver area, anyway."

She opens her eyes and immediately knows they're flaring like they do when she gets extremely emotional. Right now that extreme emotion is fury.

"This is my city. These are my people. No deranged scumbag from another dimension gets to have my city and my people. If there's anything you can tell me about fighting the motherfucker, I'd be awfully pleased to hear it."

He rubs his chin, thinking, forcing his mind to go back to that time. His eyes are shadowed and haunted. Under It's influence, he had done... unspeakable things. "I think... well, it seems to target those with mental abilities, like what I can do or telepaths... but it needs help from this side..."

He shakes his head and gestures toward Ninja. "That side, I mean. It wasn't until they broke me that it could take over my mind, control me, my actions. What it made me do... that was worse than the torture..."

He closes his eyes and clenches his jaw tightly, forcing that part aside. "It discovered my connection to Maddie, used it to try to get to her, but someone else was there with her. A very strong telepath that warned her and shielded her. I don't know who it was though... If you could find that person, maybe they could help, but..."

When he opens his eyes, his expression is apologetic. What he had told her isn't much at all.

She reaches out, places a hand on his arm... his remarkably solid arm. "I'm sorry. I know that doesn't take the pain, or the past, away. But I'm sorry you went through that."

She allows her hand to drop back to her side.

"None of the Supers in Denver are telepaths. At least we have that going for us. It does make me nervous about having Maddie here if this thing was after her the first time." She sighs. "I'm so far out of the loop, I don't even know who most of the Supers are in the US, can you believe that?"

She looks out across the plateau of Lookout Mountain, to Golden and Denver beyond.

"Quetzalcoatl said others would be helping, but that I would be — for lack of a better term — staring down the maw of the beast."

Her city. Her people.

"If I can manage what I said earlier... give you and Maddie a secure connection... is that going to help protect her or put you both in more danger?"

She looks back at him.

"You seem like a really good guy. I like you, man. I don't want to see you suffering any more than you already are." She shrugs and smiles. "Call me a sap if you must.

"But I don't want either of you in more danger than you already are. If reconnecting the two of you makes you both stronger, better able to resist this thing... well, that can only be good, right?"

His answering smile is bittersweet. "I think it was only after her because of where she was or who she was with or something. Maddie's not a mutant, but I know she was working with mutants, kids. It probably thought it could get access to them through her."

"Although, knowing my Maddie, it might have found itself in a world of hurt..."

He chuckles a bit at that.

"Especially if it pissed her off — and going after kids would absolutely piss her off beyond words. It's definitely a trigger for her and woe be to anyone or anything that pushes it."

"So, maybe, her being here could be a good thing..."

She smiles crookedly. "Something tells me I'm going to like your Maddie a whole lot. I have my own buttons, and woe be unto those who push them.

"If she can help... if having you at her side, at least in an intangible sense... then..."

She shrugs.

"You two aren't going to get your happily ever after for a while, but — yeah, yeah... sappy ol' Ninja... and don't you dare spread that tale — a happy as possible right now is what I'm going to do my damnedest to get you.

"Then we'll kick some trans-dimensional ass."

She tsks and shakes her head. "I swear, what IS it with those nasties, thinking they can just trash any neighborhood they want?"

She feels a sharp peck on her head and takes a swipe at Raven. As usual, she doesn't manage to hit it.

"What is wrong with you? That hurts, you know!" she says, looking at it floating — yep, of course it is, upside down — off to the side.

Visiting visitors come to visit! It twirls dizzily in place.

"Lunatic," she mutters as she looks down toward the visitors center.

"Ooops, yeah, crazy flying thing is right. The tourists are arriving to photograph the grand view eastward. While seeing me will give them a thrill and annoy the hell out of me, seeing you," she says, looking at Rene again, "would be a bad thing. I don't suppose you have any way of manipulating things on this side of the door in case you need to chat again?"

He offers a shrug. "Honestly I've never tried... although, sometimes, when I can find Maddie I can almost touch her. I know she feels it, she reacts to it, but I don't know if that's because of us or what...

"But even if I can manage it, wouldn't out here be too noticeable? Maybe inside..."

His head nods back toward the cabin. "If she didn't seal that before she left..."

He points to the side. "There in the wood shed, there's a lock box. The combination is... 82 left 07 right 16 left 99 right, spin it counterclockwise before you begin to reset it. Spare door keys should be in there."

"Dude, that's almost too James Bond for me," she says with a chuckle. "The draperies on the left window there are not quite closed all the way. Yeah, I've peeked, so sue me. There's a vase smack dab in the middle of the table there. Just move it a bit... if you can. I'll open one of these doors."

She glances in the direction of the tourists. They're not in view yet, but she can hear them.

"I can see at night as well as the owl; I'll notice. And I'll make a habit of getting up here regularly.

"Gotta shut the door now, though. I sure do hope Maddie's planning to head out this way sometime soon." She grins. "Maybe my guardian Spirit has been having a bad influence on me, but I can't wait to see the look on her face..."

She shakes her head, becomes more serious.

"You take care, Rene. Don't get close to that thing... though I probably don't need to tell you that."

"Good luck, Ninja. Tot ziens."

He fades away from view, satisfied that he has done all he can.

"God go with you, Rene," she whispers, crouching down to tap the Earth with her palms, closing the doorway between the two dimensions.

This time the shift brings them back to where they already are, and the sudden intake of breath is Leon's...

He feels something tug at him, something familiar. He follows that feeling until he is back at the cabin. Puzzled, he looks around, starting with the outside. First, he looks for the big rock at the bottom of the wooden steps and sees that it's still there. He beings to frown with disappointment when he feels the tug again, from behind him... from inside the cabin. He turns and passes through the wall then freezes at a sight he had never before seen.

Maddie stands there in the corner of the kitchen, and beside her stands a young man. The room shifts a bit and Rene now sees himself sitting in one of the dining room chairs strumming his old guitar. He follows his own gaze to the small boy hanging onto a chair. His eyes widen suddenly and he looks from the child to the teen.

"Leon," he whispers in amazement. "Has it been so long?"

And then he hears her voice, rich and soft — just as he always remembered — as she speaks to their son. He listens with tears in his eyes as she tells Leon about a couple of special memories. Rene's heart nearly breaks when she recounts his proposal and her feelings then.

"Oh, Maddie..."

And when she apologizes for not being a good enough mother, he wants to wrap her in his arms and kiss away her tears and her insecurities. She was always so hard on herself. He crosses the room to them and is just reaching to brush the hair from her face when they vanish.

"No!" he denies, wanting them to come back, to see him, to know he still loves them and always will.

Bereft and broken, he goes back outside and settles on the porch, putting his head in his hands and weeping.

This has been a completely craptastic night. Okay, not completely... talking the skinheads down off their homophobic ledge had actually worked out pretty well. But the worrisome nature of the visit to Old Mama and then Sally...

Fucking craptastic.

All she wants to do is curl up with Pablo and be held. She needs that; she needs to just lie in his arms and cry. She believes it will be at least as effective as doing Taiji for hours and hours while she cries. But no. She can't even do that because of these damn cats!

Though, from the text Davis sent her, she has a feeling it's more than just the cats. And she's willing to bet it's not lost hikers up at the Jacobs place, either. And then the brief conversation she had with the Sheriff himself. Yeah. The next few days are going to be...

It was the best of times; it was the worst of times. Give a librarian an occasion, and she'll find an appropriate quote. Dickens seems appropriate for this situation.

It's no trouble getting from...

Fuck, I'd better just go the speed limit on I-70, maybe less. Every time I let a thought of Sally cross my mind, I feel like I'm going to start crying again.

As she had told Pablo when he first heard the call on the police band, she isn't an investigator. She protects her people.

But she failed to protect Sally.

She's a warrior. But she's beholden to the same laws that the police are in these kinds of situations.

Fuck that shit. These people are going down.

The problem is that she isn't a hunter.

Unfortunately, she suspects these Aryan motherfuckers are not going to make themselves hard to find. And they still have Ben and Dick.

Right. She doesn't actually know that. It's just instinct that tells her that they'll announce it in a few hours.

She's thankful that traffic is fairly light on I-70; once she exits onto US-40 and heads up Paradise Drive toward the Nature Center, there's no traffic at all.

She parks her bike in the lot for the Nature Center. It's getting late enough in the year that she pulls one of the cards she keeps in the pannier for just this purpose. It's just a bright orange index card, the color of warning. It has a printed message that lets the Rangers and the Nature Center employees and volunteers know to ban the tourists from the upper levels of the Lookout Mountain area. The larger and more dangerous wildlife are still a little too close for the safety of the tourists. Or really anyone. That's the official story, anyway. She uses it when the situation isn't quite so dire as well; when she wants privacy.

Because she's still feeling unsettled, she climbs the stairs to the scenic overlook. Nearly the whole of the Denver area is visible. The bright lights of the city are shining in the middle of the night, competing with the stars in the clear night sky. She still needs to rid herself of this horrible pain, but at least out here, with the nearest people several miles away, she can loosen the shield she's kept tight around her heart. She would like to take the time to run through the Long Form, except...

The one who calls herself Mighty Cat is sitting a level above her, watching with keen eyes.

We knew you would come, Head Talker. There are strange things happening at the place of People No More.

She turns away from the sight of her city to look at the tawny cat.

All three of you came down here because you knew it would alert the Rangers.

The cat twitches her ears in amusement.

Of course. We enjoy playing with you, Head Talker. Your stick does not make loud noises at us, and you don't try to hurt us.

Ninja sighs. At least the cat confirms something she had suspected on more than one occasion.

I'm not in the mood for playing tonight. A friend was hunted and killed tonight.

Mighty Cat flattens her ears and growled softly.

Then we will go, with no playing tonight. But there is much strangeness at the place of People No More. We thought you would want to know since you speak to the Ghost.

She nods. She needs to speak with the Ghost anyway.

Thank you. Thank your sisters. I will make sure all is well at the place of People No More. But you should spread the word that the People are returning, for a short time.

She stands and swishes her tail.

I will inform the others to stay away. When may we return?

The woman sighs and shakes her head, but smiles slightly.

You're not supposed to return at all, Naughty Cat! She pauses a moment, then looks at the sky. When there is no moon in the sky... unless the People are still here. Then wait until the next night of no moon.

The next new moon is about two and a half weeks away. From what she had been able to read between the lines of what the Sheriff had said, it didn't seem likely Maddie would be staying all that long. Not at the cabin, anyway.

The mountain lion bounds off and is out of sight within seconds.

And Ninja takes another few minutes in standing meditation, trying to settle herself before heading up to the cabin to face Rene. Oh, but dear Spirits and Buddhas and Gods of all people... I hurt so much!

As she approaches the cabin, the pain she feels seems to explode through her heart and soul. She needs to lean heavily on her staff as she looks at the stairs where Rene shimmers in and out of existence. The closer she gets, the worse the pain is. And she can't block it out, no matter how hard she tries. It takes a minute or two — she's not feeling all that brilliant tonight — for her to realize that Rene is sobbing as hard as she wishes she could but doesn't dare. And that half the pain she's feeling is coming from him.

She stands almost transfixed, feeling helpless and unsure if she can even open a window big enough so she can talk to him.

She feels a bump against her leg, and as she looks down to see Raven staring up at her, a tear escapes.

I will open a window so you can speak to him. But you will need to open a doorway to our World... Deer wishes to meet him.

She nods, then watches as Raven simply pecks Rene's foot a couple of times. He solidifies, and it's clear that he is — at least for the moment — in the same dimension she is.

"Rene." She stands about four or five paces from the stairs on which he sits, still leaning heavily on her staff. "You look like I feel."

Now that they're on the same plane of existence, the pain she had been feeling from him has diminished, slightly. Very slightly.

It takes a moment for him to realize someone is speaking to him. When he looks up, his face is haggard. He tries to respond but in the heartache written across his face his words fail him. He stays silent, just looking at Ninja. He makes a visible effort to pull himself together, knowing that this person wants to help. Finally, his chest rises as he takes a deep breath. He does not bother to wipe the tears from his face.

"I saw them tonight, Maddie and Leon, here... a time when he was small... and now... I could almost touch them...

"I didn't intend for you to..."

He just waves back at the cabin as he once again lapses into his pained silence.

That explains his pain, and she can, in part, empathize with the man. To be within sight of the world of the living, to see those he holds most dear...

"No, don't worry about it," she says softly. "Technically, it was the cats who brought me up here, although they would have stayed where they belong if they hadn't noticed something odd here." She glances at the cabin, then back at him as she shakes her head. "It's a strange thing you've done, Rene... even your nearest neighbor noticed something. He called the Sheriff's office to report lights on in the cabin. I know love can do many things, but..."

She takes a deep breath. The air here is clean and fresh, yet she still has the memory of the smell of blood permeating her entire head.

"And, well, it got me away from a crime scene that..." She just can't say anything for long minutes. The two of them are caught in their own pain that's so intense she isn't sure she can keep from crying again.

But another deep breath manages to push some of it away, clears away some of the memory of bloody smells.

"And I spoke with Sheriff Baker. Maddie and Leon, the whole family, will be coming out to Denver. Soon."

She watches him carefully, closely.

"He didn't have an exact date, but apparently Maddie's in New York right now and was trying to make arrangements even as they were talking.

"Tomorrow... well, later today, really, since it's after midnight... at the earliest, Halloween... ah, four days from now... at the latest."

His whole being changes at her words.

"They're coming?" he asks.

It's a beacon of hope in what has been a very dark time for him. To know that finally he might truly be able to see them again... that he and Maddie might have a chance of being whole again.

She manages a bit of a smile. "Yes. They're coming. They really are."

"It's been so long... I didn't realize until I saw him... he's a young man now."

He pauses as the rest of what she said sinks in, and he tries to remember something. "Whole family? There was... Damn it, that time is so jumbled. I..."

He shakes his head. "Doesn't matter."

She shrugs at his confusion about the whole family bit. She doesn't know any more than what the Sheriff told her, so she can't help with that.

The knowledge that they are coming and soon is like a salve alleviating his pain somewhat and making him realize he is projecting. He consciously pulls it in then his eyes widen a bit.

"I'm sorry."

He doesn't know what has caused the pain she feels but recognizes the kind it is. His words are condolences, not enough, never enough, but more said would be too much.

When he... well, maybe he just sees her pain? But it looks to her as if he simply takes his own pain, wraps it in a sack of qi, and tosses it backward. It disappears into the dimension where he's been for... well, perhaps forever. That does enough to diminish her pain that she feels steadier than when she arrived. At least she's not awash in her pain, his pain, and the resonating effects they have on one another. That little trick of his... that could come in handy, even if she doesn't have another dimension to toss it. Mother Earth is always kind and loving and willing to take the sorrows of those who walk lightly on Her, when humankind can refrain from hurting Her.

His condolences, though... it's as if he truly understands the nature of her pain. And perhaps he does. But his simple words help. Not as much as the good long cry she still needs with her husband's arms wrapped around her, but even a little understanding is a big help.

"Thank you. She... was a friend. One of the Unfortunates."

Another deep breath helps settle her even more.

"I'll need to warn Maddie when she gets here. The detective heading the case says it looks like the work of the Aryan Knighthood, a more extreme offshoot of the Aryan Brotherhood."

She swallows.

"Simply put, they hate mutants. And people they think are mutants. And people who have the audacity to help mutants.

"All kinds. Good or bad, beautiful or hideous, they don't care."

She looks off toward the city. Her city. Her people.

"I need to find them and stop them from killing the other two people who've gone missing," she says, her voice full of pain. "There are a whole lot of people in danger if Detective Garcia is right and the Knighthood is back in Denver."

She shakes her head again as she looks back at Rene.

"Don't worry... getting things worked out with you and Maddie is still my priority once she gets here. The police are better at investigating and tracking down where the assholes might be than I am."

He nods at her thanks, a simple gesture acknowledging another.


It isn't a word he recognizes, at least not how she uses it. But he does absolutely know about the kind of hatred mutants have faced. His eyes darken with the burn of anger and shame.

"Unfortunates are the ones..." She takes another deep breath; it's good to breath in the clean air. She knows the memory of the smell will stay with her for a long time, hit her like a brick at times least expected. "...the ones deformed by the Virus, mutants. Shunned, ghettoized."

"What Virus?" he asks, then shrugs apologetically. "Sorry, been out of it for a while. And the work we did... it didn't provide for a lot of consistent current news sources as it was."

She frowns. Doesn't everyone know about the Virus these days? Even the people of Chenjiagou knew of it, and if people of a place that remote knew of it... wouldn't everyone?

"A biological experiment at the beginning of World War Two gone awry." If that isn't enough information, maybe there would be time later for a more thorough explanation.

There is a shadow of his affable crooked grin on his face. "Yes, the War to End All Wars," he says. The irony is certainly not lost on him.

"Right, right... we called it something else. And it certainly wasn't the first of the bio-weapons." There is something in his tone that says he knows more about war and weapons than the average person. "My father told me about it once.

"The Thing that's coming..." he says. "It used mutant haters the last time... the 'people' it worked with, through..."

The quotes around people are almost visible with the distaste.

"They were the ones who orchestrated the slaughter of school children in their beds just because they were mutants. That was the school Maddie was at..."

And that leads to another memory, fit another piece of the puzzle together.

"The Beast? No, the Wolverine... she called him Wolverine..."

A brief quirk of a smile ghosts across his face.

"Wolverine and Leon's siblings are all mutants too. And the Wolverine? He is a force to be reckoned with... The ones who took me and others and did what they did? They were afraid of him, with good reason. Perhaps... perhaps you should tell Maddie everything that's going on..."

His words chill her to the bone. The coming Shadow Quetzalcoatl warned then about, and now the return of the Aryan Knighthood... the time is coming. And she thinks she remembers something... her brows furrow.

"I remember reading about the school... but not when it happened. I was too overwhelmed by being back in America."

She thinks perhaps people around her might have been talking about it at the time, but in truth she was more than slightly overwhelmed. But she had done quite a bit of research when Denise had been beaten and before she had offered to do what she does now. But the media had only reported the massacre... or, depending on which publication one read, the cleansing. None of them had mentioned anyone by the name of Wolverine. But if he's so powerful that even the human servants of the Shadow feared him then... he's someone she wants on her team. She needs him on her team. And... Maddie's married to him now? With other children, too?

"You're right. Maddie needs to know everything." She pauses, trying to puzzle out a correlation between that last incursion from the Shadow, and this new one Quetzalcoatl foretold.

"Damn it, Rene, it's too soon!"

She feels the pain and sorrow starting to overwhelm her again. How is she supposed to fight against this Shadow and its earthly minions and not make it a fight of vengeance? She has a feeling that — fighting it from a place of vengeance — would only feed its power and weaken hers. No doubt that's the reason it's sending its minions here now.

But why here? Why now??

She feels a pressure against her leg again and looks down with a wry smile. Can birds have puppy dog eyes? Normally, the answer is no. Except when referring her insane guardian Spirit.

The other door? it asks. And then it bats its eyelashes.

She rolls her neck. Birds... should... not... bat... their... eyelashes! Even if they had eyelashes to bat!

She turns back to Rene. "One of the guardian Spirits of my people would like to meet you." She hesitates a moment, trying to decide the best way to describe Deer. "It is the Spirit that represents compassion, peace, intellect... many other things, but those are the predominant ones.

"I believe it is because I have asked the Spirits to allow you to live in their world." She smiles softly. "It wishes to be sure you are worthy... that would be my guess. I have no doubts on the matter, although my own guardian does not seem to be able to convey my certainty to its kin." She glances back down at Raven, shaking her head, before looking at Rene again. "It will take longer than usual for me to open the portal to their world, even though it's the easiest to open, because of... of what happened tonight. Are you willing? Raven can keep the window open to this plane for you, but it may be very tiring or painful." She shrugs apologetically. "I don't really know... I've never done anything quite like this before."

"As good a time as any as suppose. It isn't like I don't have plenty of it," he says with a bit of wry sarcasm. "Is there anything I can do to help?"

But his offer to help at least elicits a bit of a chuckle from her. "Other than being patient and trying to stay in your doorway there while I'm opening the portal, not really. Once I have the portal open, just be... your true self.

"And..." She sighs again. "Raven has told me which Spirit will come to meet you, so I know what its appearance will be... to me. But not everyone sees the Spirits — even among my People — or sees them the same way." She just shrugs and smiles. "So as Lao Tzu said, just go with the flow."

He nods and shrugs as well. "I only know how to be me. Maddie was our infiltrator And I'm not planning on going anywhere."

She manages a real smile then and sets her staff down, out of the way.

"Then all you really need to do is stay in this time zone, my friend."

She looks at Raven and shakes her head wearily. "I hope you're right about me being able to open the portal myself."

And then she closes her eyes and begins her dance. One form flows into another, over and over again until she is in that place of No Time. Until she can see the qi as clearly as Normals can see trees and animals and all the things people have built.

The night is bright with qi, and immersing herself in the dance and the qi helps to begin mending the tear in her heart and soul. It isn't a complete healing, but it's a good start.

She can feel the pull of the energies urging her on, urging her into the faster forms, urging her out of the strictly taught form sets and into something that is uniquely her own. Swirl and block, swirl and block; kick and punch, attack and defend... faster and faster. No longer a slow, graceful ballet, her forms have become more a true fighting form melded with, perhaps, jazz. She can hear Raven crooning softly and can begin to see the weakening between worlds. Unlike what one might expect, rather than a thinning of the qi... the energies... it looks to her like a massive buildup of power and light.

Another block and dance away from a nonexistent opponent, then she rolls to grasp her staff... leaping to her feet to twirl with the staff, as though knocking aside half a dozen opponents. Thrust left, then right... stepping back to jab, then forward.

And now, she adds the song...








And finally a powerful planting of the staff in the Earth, Who sings with her as she sings the last note of her Song.

She watches as the light and energy of the developing portal seems to shatter into shards of light and beauty. Hundreds, thousands, perhaps millions of tiny star-like butterflies float into the trees, the ground, the air itself.

Finally, she opens her eyes to see Deer stepping daintily through the portal. It appears to be a doe of exceptional beauty, although it's half again as large as the average whitetail deer. It looks at her and then Rene, and then studies him with intensity and a great deal of interest, before turning to her again.

"This is the Spirit who wishes to claim refuge in our World, Warrior?"

She is momentarily stunned to speechlessness. She has never heard one of the Spirits speak for human ears to hear. She has never even heard tales of such a thing.

"It is."

What more can she say? She is a little surprised that she's able to say anything at.

Deer walks toward the portal where Rene waits with Raven. It studies him for what seems ages, although Andrea... Ninja... realizes that she still stands in the place of No Time.

"I see the nature of your soul and find it acceptable."

It touches him on the chest with its nose, then takes a step back.

"Speak for your heart; why does it seek sanctuary in our World?"

Rene stays where he is, sitting and watching. In many ways, Ninja reminds him of Maddie. He remembers watching her practice, on the deck of the house in Suriname or an open spot wherever they were staying... even here in front of the cabin, almost exactly where Ninja stands now. Maddie had said it calmed her and allowed her to focus. Watching her had done that for him. And if he does not look too closely, he can pretend Ninja is Maddie.

He is so caught up in the beauty of it that when she finally finishes, he simply sits there mesmerized.

He also doesn't notice when the other form steps through the portal, at least not until it is right in front of him and touching his chest. He sits back, eyes wide as it speaks to him.

He does not respond immediately, other than the tearing of his eyes. He feels the sharp pain of loss in his heart. "Truly, the thing I want most is to be with my Maddie again like we were before, but I know it isn't possible... not for a while. I just would like to wait for her there, if you don't mind?"

Madeline gasps softly.

Deer nods its head once.

"Your heart is true. This is acceptable to us."

Then Deer steps over to Ninja. She feels the power of its Essence. Deer's mere presence gives her a glimpse of the world, the dimension in which it and the other Spirits reside... peace, harmony, balance. The Spirit touches its nose to the hózhó in the center of her staff, then scratches the k'é symbol in the dirt in front of the woman.

"You are the key, Warrior. The one for whom this Spirit waits must attend you, and you must bridge the Worlds. Are you up to the task?"

She looks into those doe eyes that seem to know the history of all the worlds, that reflect all things that are possible, all things that might happen or will happen.

"I am. It is something that must be done to protect others from the coming Shadow."

"You cannot protect everyone, Warrior," the Spirit says as a warning.

She nods and stands firmly between Mother Earth and Father Sky. "But I will protect as many as I can. Maddie Jacobs and her family must be protected; they can help make the difference in this fight just as He Who Shares My Soul will."

Deer seems to chuckle. "You are wise for one so young. Very well. We await the opening of the gates once again."

Then Deer turns and walks through the portal. Ninja looks at Raven who — she has to close her eyes for a moment, although it doesn't help at all — is perched on one foot with wings outstretched on top of Rene's head. She suspects it is trying to look like a ballerina. It is failing miserably at that. It merely looks, as usual, like an idiot. Raven grins foolishly and bobs its head. Ninja just sighs as she bends down on one knee and presses her hand against the ground... being mindful to keep her other hand firmly on her staff.

With no fanfare, the portal silently closes... and she rests her hand on her raised knee as she looks at Rene. And tries not to see Raven.

"Now we just need to wait for Maddie."

"I would wait an eternity for her," he says, unaware of how prophetic his words might be.

The scene shifts one last time as it returns them to the here and now. Madeline clings to her son, and he to her. Both have tear-streaked faces.

"Rene," she whispers, hope and dread coil and twist in that one word.

There is something he does not know.

"Papa," Leon says, his voice almost childlike.

She looks at Ninja now. "Is there a way? Truly?"

Ninja drops her hands from their shoulders, and looks at the distortion in the energy flows that is Rene. Then she looks at Maddie, and Leon... and finally back to Maddie again.

"There is. I'm not going to say it will be easy, but... Yes. Truly."

She grabs onto the offered hope like a woman drowning. "What do I need to do?"

And me, too," Leon interjects. "How can I help?"

Madeline's gaze shifts to Leon as a mother's instincts flare protectively. She will not risk him, not even for a chance to be with Rene again. She had made that mistake once already. But here and now... she now also knows it is his choice. This is his father as much as it is her husband that they hope to... rescue?

Her internal battle having been fought and decided, she returns her attention to Ninja.

It's all instinct now. That, and the intuitive knowledge of how to open the portals. Deer had said that she would have to straddle the worlds, and that implies a distance dangerously close from one portal to the other.

What must be, must be.

She looks first at the boy. Raven sits on his shoulder, one wing hugging his head, a feathery cheek rubbing softly against a human one.

She raises an eyebrow at her guardian Spirit and it turns to kiss the boy on the cheek — bird beaks should not ever, ever turn into lips! — and then looks back at her, smiling smugly.

She inwardly sighs and contemplates bashing the crazy flying thing yet again with her staff, but she smiles at Leon.

"You have already helped a great deal. Now, you need only believe what your eyes will see."

The she looks at the woman sitting in front of her. Her internal struggle had taken only a few seconds but looks to have brought determination and banished the fear Ninja had sensed only a moment ago.

"What martial arts forms do you know? You could mirror my moves, yes?" she asks Maddie.

Madeline sits up a little straighter, although she does not let go of Leon. The things they have seen can only have one source, and that is her Rene. She has never harkened to any god, deity or spirit so has no 'faith' to offend. She does know the introspection of one's own soul however, and the constant battle to keep balance.

"Several. Yes, I can do that. Is a staff necessary?"

She picks up her staff, holding it horizontally and balanced on her palms. The carvings are clearly evident... especially the large hózhó in the middle.

"This staff is necessary... toward the end of the Dance, I believe. If you have one to provide balance, that would be helpful. If not, we can make do without."

"One moment."

She slips off the barstool and pats her son's hand. "Be right back, I promise."

When she returns after a few minutes, she lightly carries a burnished and old bamboo long staff. Its only decoration is a single hand painted Chinese character representing Tiger set in the precise middle. She has also changed clothing from the jeans and sweater into black yoga pants and top and her feet are bare.

"When and where?"

She nods at Maddie and the outfit change.

"Now is good, especially with Quetzalcoatl's warning... Rene's warning... and the return of the Aryan Knighthood to Denver." She motions toward the door. "Out front is best."

Ninja walks back outside and stands in front of the building for a moment with eyes closed, feeling for the right flavor... scent... texture... sound... color, pattern... of qi that will indicate the best location for opening the portal to the Spirits' world. For this Dance, precision will be needed, as the portals will need to be close together and, preferably, at a slight angle.

She's very glad neither she nor Maddie had parked too close to the cabin.

Raven pecks at her head to get her attention. By sheer willpower, she manages to refrain from sighing, and simply opens her eyes to see it spinning wildly in a spot not far from where Deer had entered this world Friday night.

She shakes her head and points to the opposite side of a nearby tree. Portals are moving targets, albeit slowly moving ones. For most Dances, it doesn't matter... a group of dancers will simply gather in the general area where a portal exists. The brilliance she had seen Friday night that showed the location of the portal is now about a dozen paces away.

She looks back at the cabin, at the distortion of qi that she knows is Rene. He's anchored to the cabin, but he didn't have any problem stepping through the portal farther uphill. So she doesn't foresee any problems there.

Finally, she looks from mother to son.

"I practiced for so long last night, opening the portal to where Rene is shouldn't be a problem; Raven will be able to hold the door open, so to speak." She regards them with more seriousness than anyone would ever give her credit for... at least in the guise of Ninja. This is damn powerful mojo, and she doesn't want anything to screw this Dance up. She wants to do it right, and she wants to do it once.

"I don't know if either of you will be able to see or hear Rene, although I think it's possible that you will. If you can, that's great! Feel free to chat for a few minutes... but whatever you do, DO NOT try to touch him. Not yet. Based on what he said, I suspect this... this Thing, this Shadow... might be able to sense it, sense the two of you. And that would be a hundred million kinds of bad."

She takes a breath... holds it... lets it out slowly.

She looks at Leon. "You just watch. Do not go near the portal, okay? You and your Dad might be able to chat while your Mom and I are working. But you absolutely have to swear you will not touch your Dad unless I say it's okay, and you will not go near the portal."

Then she looks at Maddie. "You have the easier task... once we start the Dance. Just face me and mirror my movements. Normally, I stick with Chen Shi Taijiquan, although for more... peaceful? Yeah, peaceful intents, I'll use Yang style or even Aikido... so I will likely use quite a bit of those. Just... move with me. Harmony... balance... hózhó..." She points to the large symbol on her staff. "...that's what's going to be important."

She looks once again from one to the other. Their auras are bright with hope and tinged with the fear that this won't work.

I am a Chen Shi Taijiquan Master; I am an Aikido Kudan. I am Ninja, the one who harnesses qi. I can, and I will, do this.

"Any questions, comments, concerns?" She eyes Leon, a touch of humor in her tone. "And a sacred promise from you, young man."

Madeline merely says, "I need to center and ground before we begin."

"As do I," she responds... though her way of doing so is likely different than Maddie's.

Leon listens to the things said, knows in his heart how important this is to his mother. He nods at Ninja's words. "I promise," he says with all the seriousness called for by the situation.

She nods to Leon. If she gives the impression of one warrior acknowledging another... well, there is probably some truth in there somewhere.

"Thank you."

It's a thing she had done many times before within a certain small radius, a spot that she goes to unerringly. Madeline moves out into a center area and kneels, laying the staff across the tops of her thighs. This time holds more import than any had before, and she will risk no stray thought or distraction.

She starts with eyes closed and slow breathing, in through the nose and out through the mouth. She pulls in and tames all of her swirling emotions. She pulls them inward along with her focus and settles her being. Once complete, she bows, touching the palms of her hands and her forehead to the earth, then gracefully rises.

Her face and eyes are calm and serene.

While Maddie prepares for the greater Dance, Ninja begins the task of opening the portal for Rene. Setting her staff aside, she begins the slow, graceful Yang 24 form. Taiji itself is an act of centering and grounding for her... with closed eyes she watches the qi circle, spiral, loop and dance around her. She notes Leon's keen interest, she watches Maddie's aura settle to something resembling a placid and clear mountain lake.

She dances with purpose, her heart holding peace, compassion, love... her mind empty except for thoughts of unity, harmony, balance. She feels Mother Earth supporting her, speaking in a voiceless hum of happiness; Father Sky sighs with contentment.

She can feel the veil between the worlds thinning. And as she completes a final repetition of the form, instead of ending with the simple lowering of hands to the side or the Bone Washing Qigong exercise she moves into several repetitions of the Great Opening. She pushes the last of the veil up and off to the side.

When she opens her eyes, Rene stands in the center of the portal with tears in his eyes.

"I'll remind you of what I already told Maddie and Leon," she says softly, "what I think you intuitively know...

"You mustn't touch either of them until Maddie and I have opened the other portal and this one is sealed. You understand... completely?"

He has, of course, been watching everything. His heart and arms ache to hold both of them. But he can wait a bit longer.

"Oui," he says in a rough voice.

"Ahéé'héé," she says with a nod. "Thank you."

Raven waddles over and leans against Rene's leg and caws at her, pointing toward the sky with a wing. She raises an eyebrow but looks up to see all its cousins circling the clearing surrounding the cabin. She smiles as she looks back at her guardian Spirit.

"And ahéé'héé to you, Raven."

Ninja takes a step back and to the side, motioning Maddie to a spot opposite her, three or four paces away.

She nods to Maddie and they begin... more slowly than usual at first until they are both comfortable that they are in sync, then move up to the normal tempo, which still is not very fast. For every movement — every block, every parry, every kick, every turn, every punch — it is as if she's once again practicing at Grandmaster Chen's school where one entire wall is a mirror. Maddie is a perfect mirror image in movement; except that she is taller and her hair is longer, she might truly be looking in a mirror as Maddie matches her every movement perfectly.

She closes her eyes and watches the qi, noting how tendrils of her own energies reach out toward Maddie and entwine with those that float from the other woman. It is nothing like the melding of qi that she and Pablo share. It is much more like the play of qi between her and Bobby... between her and Justin. But that entwining of qi makes it effortless to stay in sync. It also raises the level of power they are generating.

The portal shines as bright as the sun to her inner sight. Raven's cousins dart and swoop, exuding the essence of cooperation, harmony; Mother Earth laughs with the joy of the Dance while Father Sky wraps the clearing in peace.

Being in the place of No Time means they simply Dance with no worries or concerns, they Dance simply for the Dancing. But there finally comes the moment when she senses the veil slipping away between the human world and that of her People's Spirits. As the current form nears an end, she opens her eyes and meet Maddie's.

And Maddie follows perfectly as they come to the close of the form and sharply clap their hands together in unison, twice. At the second clap, golden butterflies of light seem to fly in every direction, save that of the other portal. The sight of them causes Raven's cousins to perform spectacular aerial acrobatics... the deciduous trees chortle, the conifers giggle... Mother Earth and Father Sky embrace... and Deer steps through the portal...

...along with Lion, Lynx and Turkey, Panther and Monkey, Quail and Mouse. These are the guardian Spirits of her grandparents, her parents, her aunts, and her uncles. Following them are Pelican, Dog, Crane, Puma, Coyote, Giraffe, Spider, and Wolf. These are the guardian Spirits of her brother and cousins.

Wolf, guardian of her 'Shifter cousin Billy, walks to Maddie's side. In addition, Cougar and Beaver step out into the world and walk to Leon and Rene, respectively. Beaver eyes the other portal with suspicion and distrust, slapping the ground with its broad tail.

"Guide your charge, Beaver," Deer says with a light tone of amusement, "and do not worry over a task that is the Warrior's." Deer looks at Maddie for a moment, then adds, "Our Warrior, that is."

With that, Ninja steps back and picks up her staff, and walks behind Rene while Deer steps in front of him. She swings the staff around, a gesture that generally represents the breaking of ties. In this case, she is quite literally breaking the ties Rene had to that other world, as the Spirits of her people surround him, connecting him to their world.

Raven flies up to perch on her shoulder as the tie is broken; the portal begins closing, but slowly.

She jabs the ground at the edge of the portal, essentially short-circuiting the energy holding it open.

"Sits'a'ji Tchin'din!"

And the portal to the other world... is no more.

Ninja turns and places a hand on Rene's shoulder.

"You are now of the World of the Diné and other Beneficent Spirits."

He looks at all the spirits that surround them... at Madeline, she who has ever held his heart... at his son. Then finally he looks at Ninja.

"Can I go to them now?"

Madeline had felt... something... during the working. She could not name what it is, only that there are changes around her. But in it all she feels Rene there. She has no doubts that it is him, his essence, his soul. He is so near, and yet still so far away. She closes her eyes so that she can see him, in her memory at least.

Like his mother, Leon doesn't see the currents and spirits that Ninja talks with but he does hear everything. He does not understand the non-English words, but he knows without a doubt that the other Warrior is Madeline. It is at Rene's question, though, that he holds his breath knowing that his mother cannot hear them.

Ninja smiles at Rene, joy and peace radiating from her eyes, her face, her whole being. She gestures broadly toward both his wife and son.

"Yes, yes! It is now safe."

She motions to both Maddie and Leon to come closer to Rene, as she steps out of the way into the gathering of her family's guardian Spirits.

Leon beams at the answer but does not move, not quite sure where to go exactly. His indecision is forestalled by Rene though.

"I need a few minutes with your mother, all right, son?"

"It's fine, Papa," he answers, reverting back to the name he had used for Rene when he was a toddler.

Rene walks over to Madeline and cups her face with a gentle touch.

She feels the caress of his thumb on her cheek, his hand cupping her face and smiles sadly. "I miss you."

"Open your eyes, Maddie," he says softly.

She can't at first as tears slide from beneath her lids. Fear wars with hope.

"Please?" he asks.

When she does, he is standing there in front of her. Her heart thunders in her chest and her breathing is rapidly shallow. She slowly raises trembling fingers to touch his scruffy beard. When he does not vanish but is solid beneath her touch, she gasps, "Oh, gods, Rene."

He pulls her into his arms then, holding her for all he is worth.

"Maddie," is all he can say as tears course down his face.

It might have been seconds or days that pass as they do nothing more than hold each other. Finally, he tilts her chin up and kisses her, long, slow, deeply, tenderly, with all the love he holds for her. She accepts and gives in return, holding onto him tightly, so tightly. When their lips part they merely look into each other's eyes, communicating all their love and fear and hope to each other.

"Rene," she starts.

"Shhh... Let me go first?"

She bites her lip and nods.

"It wasn't your fault. There was nothing more you could have done. Stop blaming yourself."


"No. I know you. I know why you do the things you do. It is not nor was it ever your fault." He brushes the hair from her eyes. "Promise me you'll stop."

She nods. "I promise I'll try."

"Good enough. And you've raised our boy up fine. Don't tell yourself any different. I'm not saying I wouldn't have loved to be there, but you did good, real good. He's a fine young man."

"He takes after you. He has your heart."

"Which means he has your love just like I do."

She pulls him close and puts her head to his chest. "You will always have my love."

He kisses the top of her head. "And you mine."


"Yes, love."

"When you said you'd wait an eternity..." she pauses and takes a deep breath. "You might have to."

"Maddie?" he asks, confused.

"You know about Logan..."



"Yes. You know I do. He's been good for you, both of you. You know I wouldn't hold that against you."

She leans back and looks up at him. "There was a... side effect. I've gained a healing factor."

He grins. "That's good. You always were a little too fond of getting hurt."

"No, Rene, you don't understand. I don't just recover from hurts, I recover from all wounds, even fatal ones... like when Frank pulled the knife from my chest. I was dead. I didn't stay that way, and I won't."

"What does that..."

She puts her fingers to his lips. "Logan is a hundred and twenty years old with no sign of slowing down. I have that now. It could be a very long time..."

"I don't care how long it takes. I will wait for you... You've died recently haven't you?"

"Yes. Twice. It was real then? We were together."

Leon is suddenly there with them. "Mom? What do you mean you died?"

It is not quite a demand.

Rene is nodding in answer to her question, still caressing her face. She reaches a hand out to Leon, and he takes it.

"I'm sorry, sweetheart. I didn't mean for you to find out this way. It is simply a hazard of the job."

"You retired, Maddie," Rene says.

"The fashion industry isn't that cutthroat," Leon protests.

"I have a new job... or rather an additional job."

There is a hint of irony in her smile as she looks at Rene once again. "Alois has pressed me into service..."

"Certainly he isn't still with the Legion?" Rene asks, surprised. "He must be near to ninety by now."

"He is with Interpol now."

Rene's eyes widen and he laughs. "You? And Interpol? Ah, love, you have turned over several new leaves."

Leon is just staring wide-eyed at her.

"Leon?" Madeline asks.

"Son?" Rene asks.


Madeline has an idea of what he is thinking. Leon is a smart boy, smarter than she had been at that age. "Leon?"

"You," he repeats. "You're her. You're The Black Wolf. La Loup Noir."

"La Loup Noir?" Rene asks.

"A Super in Europe, based out of Paris, appeared on the scene about three years ago from no one knows where," Leon explains. "They say she's the terror of the underworld."

Madeline blushes. "They say no such thing."

"Super?" Rene asks.

"Superhero, Dad. Yes, they do, Mom. We talk about the Supers at school all the time."

Rene is obviously tickled by it. "You're a Superhero, Maddie?"

Madeline, on the other hand, is actually a bit embarrassed by all the fuss. "No, I just do what others can't."

"Yes, you are, Mom."

She points a finger at Leon and warns, "Not a word to your siblings."

Rene hugs her a little tighter. "I'm proud of you, Maddie. But I'm not surprised."

Now it's her turn to be confused. It shows on her face.

He smiles his half smile. "Because it's never enough."

Her own smile becomes wry. "No, it isn't."

There is a shared memory there, one that neither speaks of but understands and feels. Despite the sudden sobriety of his parents, Leon is still all smiles.

"My Mom's a Superhero," he says excitedly once more.

Madeline chuckles and ducks her head into Rene's chest, shaking it with mirth. Rene chuckles as well, as much at Leon's excitement as Madeline's chagrin...

It takes a lot of energy to open a portal; normally, she would feel... not tired, really... a bit drained, perhaps. But the reunion of Rene and Maddie is so... well, she knows she and Pablo worry about making the house glow in the dark sometimes for a reason. Love — the love of two hearts being inseparable, the love of two souls woven together, the love of two people bound together for all eternity — is a powerful force.

She leans lightly against Deer, her Tita's guardian Spirit, almost in the same way she would lean against Tita herself, waiting for those strong and loving arms to wrap around her. She has tears in her eyes; her face is wet with them.

You weep, Warrior. Is this not the outcome you wished for?

It is exactly what I hoped for. I weep from happiness, that these two — who have hearts and souls bound together almost as tightly as I and He Who Shares My Soul are bound — can be reunited, if only for a short time. I weep for happiness that they will now be no farther apart than any of our People is from our guardian Spirit. I weep with humility for having been instrumental in diminishing their pain.

Deer chuckles. For a Warrior, you are surprisingly sentimental.

She shrugs. Perhaps. Or perhaps I was not meant to be a warrior in this life.

Deer nudges her. You were meant to be exactly who and what you are, She Who Fights the Darkness. Could you fight the Darkness if your heart and soul were not full of light and love and life?

She smiles. Certainly not as well, no. She pauses, watching Rene and Maddie, listening to her explain her... yes, Ninja... Andrea... will call it a curse. An inability to die... at all? It's enough of a curse that she might live three lifetimes or more. But her soul, her qi... they have been forged with Pablo's into something new; their fates are tied together.

But during the family's discussion of Maddie's status as a superhero, Ninja chuckles. Maddie's words? They're eerily close to her own words: I just do what others can't... or won't.

At Leon's comment about his Mom being a superhero, however, she shakes her head, roll her eyes and says, for no one's benefit but her own, really, "And THAT is why my best friend must never find out what I do." Good grief, Leon's excitement can't hold a candle to the over-the-top and delirious glee Bobby would exhibit. It would top the wedding announcement, for sure.

"Come here, you," Madeline says affectionately as she pulled Leon into their shared embrace.

He is still all grins, and Rene keeps chuckling.

"Stop it, you two," she admonishes.

Which, of course, just makes them both worse. She too laughs a little. It's hard not to, both are disarmingly charming. This is her family, the way it was meant to be originally.

She sighs.

"What is it, Maddie?"

"This..." she says looking around. "This is that thing you both do isn't it?"

They answer in unison, "Yes."

"And when you aren't doing it, everything goes back to... to a world without you?"

"Not entirely."

She raises an eyebrow. "What does that mean?"

He looks a little sheepish. "Um, well..." he begins, then looks over her shoulder. "Ninja?"

Leon's face lights up a little more. "I know two Superheroes!"

She looks at Leon, head tilted as she regards him, then smiles broadly.

"I suspect you know more than just two superheroes, young man... you just don't know that you do. The world is full of them. Not just of the sort I am, or your Mom is. I figure anyone — anyone — who steps up and gets into the game, makes a difference... instead of spending their life on the sidelines watching life go by... is a hero."

She gestures in the general direction of Denver.

"The captain of Manual's football team stops a couple of idiots from bullying one of the gay band geeks... that makes him a hero. The fact that he does it on a regular basis and risks ridicule, risks being forced off the team, risks not getting that college scholarship, risks losing so-called friends... that makes him a superhero."

She looks at Leon, really looks, and sees one of the truly good people that are so lacking in our world today.

"Anyone can be a hero, Leon." She shakes her head and smiles at him. "And a person doesn't need superpowers to be a superhero."

Leon colors a bit at Ninja's gentle admonition.

"The Professor says the same thing," he admits, but the subdued attitude only lasts moments. "But it's still really cool to know superheros."

She chuckles. "Well. I guess it's a lot easier to argue the point when you are one."

Madeline smiles, and her eyes tell Ninja that her words are more true than she could possibly imagine.

Ninja looks at the young man again, she sees a building of potential around him, and suspects it isn't going to be long before he realizes there are so many more superheroes in his life who are of the sort he's thinking about.

She nods almost imperceptibly to Maddie as she takes a few steps toward the family. She looks around at the Spirits that have gathered in the ordinary world. She had expected... well, she isn't quite sure what she had expected, but she hadn't expected the guardian Spirits of her whole family.

She stops... blinks... looks back at Deer, the guardian of the family matriarch.

You didn't!

Deer laughs.

Of course we did, Warrior. You would have him given to another family? We name him of Tódíchi'íi'nii and born for Dzilt'aadí; his mother's father is of the Bilagaana and is father's father is of the Naakaii Dine'é.

She leans her forehead against her staff for a moment, takes a deep breath, and then sighs it out as she looks at Maddie and Rene. No, I suppose Rene wouldn't be able to explain all of this very well, would he?

"Well, the two of you have a connection of heart, soul, energy similar to the connection I have with my husband... fiance..." She exhales a forceful breath of frustration. "It depends on who you ask... so, husband. And the wedding's in two months.

"Anyway, that connection prevented Rene from crossing over to wherever we go when we die. He couldn't go very far from you, Maddie. His Spirit slipped into the closest... dimension? Plane of existence?" She shrugs. "That's a question to ask the Medicine Man, really.

"But it turned out to be not the greatest neighborhood... oh, not the worst! No, not by a long shot. But from the glimpses I got of it, there were enough unpleasant neighbors that he had to spend attention and energy watching his back."

She looks at Rene and shrugs. But then she smiles at the three of them.

"I guess I'm just a big ol' romantic sap. I figured if we could relocate Rene to a place where he didn't have to be worried about things creeping up on him... Oh, and the fact that he mentioned the Shadow was slinking through that dimension..."

She pauses. That thing SO cannot be allowed into this world. No. Absolutely not.

"The long and short of it is that I asked the Spirits of my People to allow him to live... live?" She glances as the collection of Spirits behind her, then shakes her head. "Good enough, I guess. Anyway, I asked them to let him live in their dimension. They agreed, so we performed today's Dance to sort of pull the moving van up and get Rene into his new digs."

She looks around again at all the Spirits gathered.

"I don't know if you guys can see them. Most of us can see our own guardian Spirit, when it's in the mood to be seen. The only other adults I know who can see them all are the Medicine Men.

"The point is that except for Beaver and Cougar, all of them are the Spirits of my family."

She looks back at Deer again with the sort of expression she gives her Tita or her Mama when they do something unexpectedly loving and kind. Then she shakes her head before turning back to the Jacobs family. She is probably exuding all that joy and peacefulness again.

"They have adopted Rene into the Tódích'íi'nii, the Bitter Water clan, and born for Dzilt'áadnii, Near the Mountain People clan. These are the clans of my father's and his siblings' parents. Technically, Rene is... well, not exactly uncle, but definitely part of my family. Sort of, because he's also a Spirit."

She rubs the back of her neck.

"The way it was supposed to work was that Rene would always be with you, be near you, be no more than a thought away. Now...?"

Your instincts are true, Warrior, Deer says. Why do you doubt yourself?

She bites her lip. Why? Because the Spirits are all crazy... not just the flying ones?

Generous beyond measure and comprehension, yes. But still on the crazy side.

"Now, it will eventually — let me stress that in the strongest way — be possible for Rene to return to this plane just as the guardian Spirits do... sometimes, and not for long periods. I think."

Once again, she glances at Deer, before looking at Rene and Maddie again. She knows she looks more than a little confused herself, but what can she do, right?

"I... Hell, I'm so confused, I don't know what else to tell you."

The first part of Ninja's explanation rings true. They had had a connection for years. It had always been there, although it was faint at times. It had only been that last year when it had been blocked. And even then it had not been completely blocked. On that last fateful day, it had been whole again, for a few moments anyway. And when he had died so had a lot of other people...

The last part of her explanation has them both furrowing their brows.

It's Madeline who gives voice to what they are both trying to figure out.

"So he's my Guardian Angel now? And if I need to talk to him, I just do and he can answer? And what do you mean by return to this plane? A physical presence?"

"Well, no... not really. Or maybe," she says, trying very hard to remember all those classes she had taken a decade ago, and various books she has read in the interim. "At least not any more than he was a guardian angel when he was alive, or in the other dimension. Although from what Rene said..."

She's well and truly confounded by this. "I don't really think there's a proper classification for Rene right now. Maybe the Muslim qarin — constant companion — is the closest concept."

Great. Super Librarian strikes again.

"Except... you know... Rene's one of the good guys."

"He was that, in many ways," Maddie says, looking up at Rene. "From the very beginning."

His arm tightens around her once more. "You captured my heart even then. Such indomitable spirit."

Leon chews on his lip, both enjoying the sight of his parents like this and yet also feeling just a bit uncomfortable. It had not been all that long ago that Mom had told him of their first meeting.

Ninja nods and smiles. "Rene said you used to be able to communicate before he died. And you hinted at being able to communicate with him when you're dead. Well... however it worked for you before, the communicating from a distance, ought to work the same way now."

For her other question, Ninja looks back at Deer.

"We will teach him how we manifest on this plan, Warrior of the Wolf Clan. He will manifest as we do."

Ninja blinks; the surprises just keep on rollin'. She looks back at Maddie and Rene.

"The Spirits absolutely have a physical presence. Raven takes particular delight in pecking me and pulling my hair out." She points toward the portal. "Coyote loves bowling my cousin over; Puma likes to scratch up the shed behind another cousin's house." She nods to the large Wolf at Maddie's side. "Wolf follows another cousin around like a herding dog." She grins at Wolf. "Something for which I thank you, good Spirit, for that cousin is dear and sweet and highly energetic and sometimes more flighty than is comfortable for his family."

She looks from Maddie to Rene to Leon several times, meeting and holding their eyes. Finally, she lets out a contented sigh.

"This?" She points to the three of them embracing. "Oh, yes. This can happen again."

When the Deer spirit speaks, Madeline knows this one speaks to her. She has a strange feeling that she was being accepted as well. Not exactly as one of them, but accepted nonetheless.

"Terima kasih," she tells Deer and means it for everything that they — the spirits, and their Warrior — had brought about.

Tears once again roll down her face, but these are tears of happiness. She reaches out and caresses her son's face. "You'll be able to ask him all those questions now, angel."

Looking back at Rene, she says, "And I would very much like for you to meet Logan and the twins."

"I would like that too," Rene says.

"Will you stay near while we pack up?"

"I'll never be truly far again," he tells her as he bends to kiss her.

Like any normal teenager, Leon sidles away, embarrassed and a bit grossed out, and mutters, "Get a room."

Rene and Madeline both chuckle.

"Ik houd u," she whispers to him.

"Je t'aime," he whispers back.

Now they both look at Ninja.

"Dank je," one says.

"Merci beaucoup," the other says in the same breath.

She hides her smile at Leon's muttered comment. But when his parents thank her, it brings another lump to her throat.

"Thanks are not necessary, but I accept them gratefully for they help to ease the pain in my heart," she says sincerely. "This has been a gift freely given, from my heart to yours."

The Spirits have begun to pass back through the portal... one at a time, and slowly. She sets her staff down and closes the distance between herself and the Jacobs. Taking one of Rene's hands in both of hers, she holds his gaze as she smiles and says, "Hazhógo aniná, hozógo nasádo... Walk in peace, walk in beauty. I am so happy I was able to reunite you with your Maddie and your Leon." After a light squeeze of his hands, she releases them and turns to Maddie.

Taking the other woman's hands in hers, Ninja finds it difficult to speak for a moment. "As my alter ego must always remind certain people, things happen as they should happen when they should happen. I still wish it had been possible to ease your pain before today. But the time was not right... until today. Rene has tantalized me with his few comments about you; I would very much like to get to know you better."

"I would be glad to get to know you better, both with and without the mask."

She releases Maddie's hands as she glances at the portal. Only Lion and Deer stand at the entry, holding it open.

"Unfortunately, it looks like it's nearly time for Rene to get settled in his new digs." Taking a step back, she says with a grin, "I'll chat with the poor embarrassed teen for a moment while you two say see you later." She gives them a wink before walking to Leon, who has taken a few steps away.

"I think I was lucky in some ways to spend my teen years in China on the other side of the planet from my parents," she says, slipping her arm through his. "By the time I got back to the States and got to watch how easy and affectionate my parents are with each other, I was old enough to think they're utterly adorable." I chuckle. "So are my grandparents, for that matter."

As Ninja distracts their boy, they once again turn to each other. They do not exchange words but stare into each other's eyes. He brushes the hair from her face, and she runs her fingers through his beard. They kiss then, soft and tender and exploring; like it was their first kiss ever.

You will always have my love, Maddie, always.

And you mine, Rene.

I'll only be a thought away.

They part, and he joins the spirits at the portal.

Leon just blushes and tries really hard not to notice or look at his parents. Still, he is happy for them. "Ninja, thank you for helping my Mom."

She looks sidelong at him. "You've been worried about her, haven't you?" She pats his arm. "I think you have one less thing to worry about now." And she smiles at the thanks. "I like helping people. I always have. Even if I couldn't do all this flashy stuff, I'd still be off helping people somehow."

She feels the strain as Lion and Deer pass through the portal; she and Raven are the only ones holding it open now.

"Go on and say so long to your Dad; Raven and I can hold the portal open for a while, but not nearly as long as Lion."

As the young man walks toward his father, she picks up her staff and stands beside Maddie.

Just... stands.

And smiles.

Leon nods and goes to where his father waits. He doesn't quite know what to say. He remembers this man from his earliest memories, but Logan has been the one who raised him, the who has been his Dad. He is happy for his Mom, of course, but feels awkward.

Rene seems to understand.

"Leon... son... I'm just a thought away from you if you ever want to talk. I'd like to get to know you."

"I'd... I'd like that too," Leon says. "I don't remember much, but Mom's told me a lot... too much sometimes."

Rene chuckles at that. "You know how to reach me... that thing that we do, as your mother calls it. I love you, son."

"Love you too, Papa."

Rene waves and steps back through the portal, vanishing from sight.

At his wave, Maddie smiles through her tears and taps her temple.

When Rene waves one last time, then turns to follow the Spirits of her People, Ninja kneels on the ground and places the staff in front of her. Then she looks at Raven.

Going home, or sticking around?

Its answer is to waddle a few steps toward her, then launch itself into the air to begin performing its aerial acrobatics.

She shakes her head and closes her eyes, then taps the Earth twice beside her knees. She feels the portal close softly, gently. She rests her hands on her thighs for a moment, before expressing her own thanks.

After the portal is closed, Madeline feels Rene smile and wink, and his mind voice caressing hers. I'll always be with you, Maddie.

"Thank you, Mother Earth," she murmurs. "Thank you, Father Sky; thank you, Spirits of the Diné People for your help today."

She takes a slow deep breath and lets it out even more slowly before opening her eyes and standing up.

Raven is doing the backstroke through the air. She just rolls her eyes.

"Crazy flying things," she mutters.

Madeline sighs then and turns to look at the cabin.

"Do you drink coffee, Ninja?"


Wait. Does Ninja drink coffee?

"You know, I don't believe I've ever been offered coffee while wearing the braids by anyone other than law enforcement. And I'd rather drink straight from the South Platte than drink the swill they call coffee."

She chuckles and extends a hand to shake Maddie's.

"Andrea Yazzie," she says, introducing herself... her alter ego. "And yes, I do drink coffee."

She smiles and shakes the offered hand. "Pleased to meet you, Andrea Yazzie.

"And I understand about the coffee. It's one of my home country's national crops and the French are fairly particular as well. It was one of the staples Rene and I always carried going in country."

She opens the back of her Humvee and pulls out a box from the storage compartment.

"The stuff most military folk call coffee could pass for mud."

She swings the door closed and heads inside. She pauses and looks at her son.

"You staying out here for a bit, angel?"

He had stuck his hands in his pockets and is still looking at the spot where Rene had been when she asks her question. He turns to her, his face blank for a moment as the words register. "Um, maybe. You okay, Mom?"

"Better than I have been in long time, sweetheart."

"I'm glad, Mom."

"Me too. And it's okay to call Logan if you need to. We'll be inside."

This time when she climbs the steps and goes inside, it is a much easier trip.

© Kelly Naylor and ividia kt