Issue 11: Let It Go

The shiny black behemoth of a recreational vehicle pulls expertly onto 5th Avenue and rolls down the street stopping just shy of Andi and Pablo's house. Madeline disembarks, followed by Rene while Logan stays behind the wheel. Instead of making the straight shot to Andi's door, she diverts to Bobby and David's and knocks on the door.

"Hi, Bobby," she greets him when he answers the door. "I didn't get a chance to give this to you the other night."

She hands him an envelope. "My secretary's contact information is all in there as well as mine, though she is typically much easier to reach. She'll be expecting your call after the first of the year to discuss the birthday event and any necessary travel arrangements. I don't really have any ideas about the whole thing other than the fact that masquerades are still held in certain circles. I'm sure we'll be chatting next month. You and your intended have a lovely New Year's. Take care."

Bobby hasn't gotten a word in edgewise. She leaves him gaping at the door as she joins Rene on the walk up to Andi's door.

He politely knocks.

Andi had heard the RV as it turned onto their street. She sighs for the five hundredth time since Maddie called to let them know she and Logan would be picking them up. Here. On her lovely little residential street that wasn't designed for big ass RVs.

She begins the process of shutting down the computer.

"Time to go," she tells Pablo as she stands, Gibbs slapping him for reading through work-related emails at his computer. "Stop doing that."

He chuckles. "My inner detective can't go to sleep any more than Ninja can." He closes his programs and begins shutting down his computer as well. "Are we really bringing our uniforms along? I thought this was just a quick run out to Wyoming to drop the kids off."

She rolls her eyes and sighs. "I told Chris I'd work with him. You don't need to join us if you'd rather not, but with your control over air currents, it might be helpful. Still, wear whatever's comfortable."

"You're cranky."

"You're a detective."

He wraps his arms around her and stops her from moving around the small office. "What's wrong, Andi?"

She rests her head on his shoulder as her arms snake around his waist. "Not sure. Everything? Nothing? I'm pregnant and get to spend four days with Henry?"

"Okay. The last bit explains a lot. I'll bring my gun."

At least that brings a smile to her face. His love helps calm her down, too.

"I'll put your uniform back in the closet if you'd rather leave it at home."

He chuckles. "I think I've learned my lesson from you. It's better to have it and not need it than need it and not have it."

"I'm glad to be such a positive influence on you."

He kisses her, and she suspects that she loses track of time.

"Come, my dear wife," he says, releasing her and turning her toward the door. "It's time to spend time with people."

"Yes, dear." She steps out of the office as he makes sure the monitors are turned off. "Justin! Are you and Nicole ready?"

"We've been ready for hours," her brother replies from the living room.

She barely resists her urge to roll her eyes. They haven't even been back from the airport for half an hour. As Andi steps into the living room, Justin is sitting on the sofa with his feet on her coffee table, pretending to read an invisible newspaper. She looks over at Nicole leaning against the wall with her arms folded and raises an eyebrow. Nicole just shrugs.

"Well, I see you're getting prepared to spend time with Henry."

Justin folds the imaginary newspaper and puts it on the table as he drops his feet to the floor.

The big ass RV has stopped out front.

"Dearest and most incredible sister, I've already spent months with Henry. And that's just in the time since he arrived in Denver for the wedding." He grins at her. "Why do you think I'm already acting like a madman?"

"Hmm. Well, that explains a lot." Her brows furrow at the explosion of panicked qi from next door. Bobby is in Overdrive Crazy mode; peeking out the window to see Maddie walking down his front stairs explains a lot of it.

Andi sighs again.

Nope. She's just going to let David take care of Bobby and hope there's still a neighborhood here when they get back.

"Well, grab your bags, and let's get the circus rolling."

Pablo has the duffle bag with their everyday clothes, toiletries, and his cold-weather gear — gloves, hat, scarf. Oh, and her scabbard. She slings the backpack with their uniforms over one shoulder and grabs her staff from the corner of the room. Justin picks up the carry-on suitcase containing his and Nicole's clothing as she grabs the bag of snacks for the trip up. Both of them are wearing their winter jackets and grinning like a couple of kids. Pablo has his coat draped over his shoulder.

Andi is pretty sure she doesn't even own a coat that could be considered winter wear. But hey! She's at least wearing a long-sleeved shirt! And Pablo probably has her leather jacket stuffed into one of the bags anyway.

She opens the door about three inches when Rene knocks and peers at him and Maddie.

"I don't know what you just did to my best friend, but I hope David can fix him before we get back. Broken. Very broken. More broken than usual, even!"

She opens the door all the way to allow them to step inside.

"Mrs. Jakovits should be getting home from work in about ten minutes. Let's get the party bus filled—"

"Party bus!!" Justin exclaims.

"Oh, dear gods." Once more, she sighs. "He's been infected by Henry. Let's get the rolling insane asylum moving so Pablo can take down the emergency no parking signs."

She looks at Pablo. She suspects she has an expression of desperation on her face. She certainly feels desperate. She feels... Yeah. Too much, unbalanced, not right.

Pablo stops to run his fingers through her hair — bringing a level of normalcy she hasn't felt in a week — before barking out orders to Justin and Nicole.

"Move it. Let's go, children. One, two! One, two!" He marches them out the door to the accompaniment of their own laughter.

She drops the backpack, although not her staff, and wraps her arms around Maddie.

"I don't like feeling this way," she whispers. "It's worse than feeling like a nuclear power plant. My healing factor can't keep up. Mother can't feed me enough qi without making me glow in the dark. And I'm going to wring both their little tiny necks as soon as I can reach their little tiny necks!"

She takes a deep breath, kisses Maddie's cheek, and releases her.

"And if my husband says one word about a baseball team or a soccer team or any kind of team in the context of children, I will kill him dead. Very dead. Then I will be sad. Probably. Most likely."

Finally, she nods and smiles wanly. "Okay. I'll be fine. I hope. Too much to do not to be fine. I'll try to keep Justin and Henry from starting that stupid song about beer on the wall. Who the hell puts bottles of beer on a wall? What kind of deranged person made that up?"

She picks up the backpack again.

"And Bobby is more broken than I am anyway."

She waits for them to exit before locking up and following them to the big ass RV. Dear gods, she thinks. It's probably a good thing that Logan isn't the sort of person to grin like a drunken nincompoop because if his qi is any indication, that's exactly what he'd be doing right now.

That's good, she supposes. Once the twins are all grown up and out of the house, he can get a part-time job driving heavy rigs. Or party buses. Or... well... very large vehicles.

It isn't really surprising that being in close proximity to the rest of the Pentad is more soothing and settling than even doing an afternoon's worth of Taiji. She finds a safe place to tuck her staff after handing the backpack over to Pablo.

She notes the glaring absence of the youngsters and sighs yet again as she sits down and looks at her Sister.

"By the Gods, Buddhas, and Spirits, Maddie! You need a fucking quartermaster! I know that big galoot up there is having a grand old time, and you have all the money in the world, but does this thing even get ten miles to the gallon? And you're going close to thirty miles out of your way by taking this twisting loopy route to get from the Golden to the Golden again?"

She sighs. Heavily and with extravagant theatrics.

"Are you okay, dear?"

I just look at Pablo for close to thirty seconds.

"Ah. Right. Squeezing pennies until they scream. Got it."

"But if Madeline has all the money in the world, what does it matter?" Justin asks.

Nicole elbows him in the ribs. "It's about screaming pennies. And maybe something about wasting money being a sin. No, wait. That's just me projecting my family values. Sorry. It's all about the pain of the pennies for Andi."

"I wonder if it's too late for me to back out of this insanity," Pablo mutters.

Andi Gibbs slaps him.

"Logan! It's going to be dark by the time we get up there. Let's you and me have a bar fight without the bar, out in a field instead. We'll see who can see better at night. Hint... it's me. I cheat."

Madeline smiles indulgently.

"I am not in need of a quartermaster. I am on vacation as are we all, need I remind you? Or perhaps I should ring Captain Sanchez to remind you?"

She guides Andi to one of the comfy captain's chairs and presses freshly brewed coffee into her hands.

"And don't worry about Bobby. I was just dropping off my secretary's contact information so the party planning can begin after the New Year.

Logan gets the behemoth rolling towards their next stop.

"Pablo, Justin, Nicole, the refrigerator is fully stocked. Help yourselves. If you are even thinking about being hungry, it might be good to eat up before we pick up the locusts."

She gently massages Andi's shoulders and neck.

"Shhh," she hushes.

Rene squats down by Andi's knee and looks up at her. "I'll tell you a secret, Sister. He doesn't need to be able to see you. Your fragrance is unmistakable."

# # #

The man who flopped down in the chair beside Chris in the hotel lobby wore an infectious grin on his face; his long black hair fell to his mid-back, except for the locks that flowed over his shoulder to his waist as he leaned forward. He had dropped a Southwest Airlines duffel bag on the floor and a thick winter jacket on top of it.

Chris likely would remember Henry from the wedding reception because Henry was hard to forget. Some would even say he was impossible to forget.

"Hoo boy! We're gonna have us some fun, huh, Chris? Wyoming! I've never been there before, but my brother Charlie was out there last summer talking to the Shoshone and Arapahoe elders at Wind River. Nice folks! Boy, did he come back with some great stories and songs! Too bad we're not going out there, huh? It would be great to meet all those people.

"He said it gets really hot out there, but then Andi said it gets really cold, so I thought they were messing with me, you know? Then Andi gave me a good smack on the head, and it shook my brain loose so I could remember that winters are cold in some places. I spend so much time in Phoenix, and we don't fly to Wyoming, so I forget sometimes. Except I flew the Chicago route once so maybe I should remember. But it was in summer, so that's my excuse. And besides, I didn't leave the terminal.

"Hey, you know about that Midway Airport? It's not so bad as some of my buddies tell me. Maybe they were comparing it to O'Hare, I guess. That's silly. It's not as big as Sky Harbor, sure, but they've fixed it up real nice. Denver has a real strange looking airport, man. Looks like a circus tent if you ask me. But nobody asks me because they know what I think about it already. I've only been out here twice. That last time was fun, too, because I got to meet Madeline and that Ghost who isn't a ghost and help Andi with her job that hardly anybody knows about. I got to drive some nice folks from their little village to a part of town where lots of Andi's friends live. That mayor out there, Hank, he said they were all a bunch of scaredy cats — he didn't call them that because he's real nice — but they didn't seem like they were scared at all. Then we were supposed to help Andi — me and Coyote were — after it got dark except I fell asleep. But Coyote said I didn't miss anything that was fun, so that's okay. Oh! And I met a nice girl named Mitch. I sure wish she was still in town and came to the party, but I heard Andi say she'd probably shoot me if I asked her out. Maybe she likes girls? But that's no cause for shooting someone, at least I don't think so. Oh, and I met that nice blue man who came to the party too and didn't even tell my baby brother about him. I promised Andi I wouldn't, and I didn't even forget!

"Okay, I'll tell you a secret. I just pretend to forget things sometimes because it makes people laugh. Except for Pablo. I dunno what's up with him, man. I think that crazy snake god of his messed up his brain. And Coyote says Eagle doesn't always remember how to have fun and that's who's watching over Pablo now. I sure hope Andi can make him smile more. Well, they sure did look happy at the wedding and the party afterward, didn't they?

"My sister knew about them even before they did, except Andi says she already knew how Pablo felt and they didn't tell each other for like a hundred years. How crazy is that? Talia — that's my sister — she says I'm gonna get smacked upside my head when I meet the right gal, so I figure Coyote is gonna have to jump me or something. Talia and Coyote both say Coyote is gonna stay out of it, so how am I supposed to know, right? It's not like I'm some genius or anything.

"But she knew about Andi's babies before Andi did! Ha! See? My sister is pretty smart. Well, she can see the future, so I guess that's cheating, isn't it? But most folks don't want to know about that. I do, except Talia won't tell me. And Coyote says I don't want to know either. That was awfully confusing at first because I knew that I wanted to know, but then Coyote said I didn't. It's the kind of stuff that really makes your head start spinning around. You ever see that movie where the girl spits up pea soup? That's the kind of spinning I thought my head was doing. Except then Coyote explained that knowing what's gonna happen takes all the fun out of it. And then it was like my head was stuck back on my neck the way it ought to be! I'm lucky to have a guardian like Coyote. That's one smart Spirit, I tell ya. Life is supposed to be fun.

"Justin says I should come out to Chicago to visit sometime. Well, I guess we're all gonna go because now he and Nicole are gonna get married and that's going to be in Chicago. I sure love parties! But that's not going to be for a while, and he wants to show me all the great things about Chicago that are outside the terminal at Midway. I'll bet there are a lot of things, huh? It's a pretty big city, man. I usually fly the Wichita route. It's a nice town but not that big. Phoenix is pretty big when you count all the little towns they gobbled up. Even ate some of the Pueblo folks lands. That wasn't very nice. Those Pueblo folks, they're nice. Lots of different ones, you know. Hey, the Hopi are inside the Navajo Nation, and they're one of the Pueblo folks, too!

"Man, the government really messed up when they were taking away our lands and squishing us all together like we were all the same folks. Maybe that's why Andi gets so mad at 'em. Me? Well, I can't get mad about something that happened even before Papa and Tita were born. Except it ain't right that they're still doing it."

Henry paused for a moment to look at the floor, blinked once, looked back at Chris with a grin, and started up again.

"Oh. Well, Coyote says it's not my job to get upset about things. We ought to leave that to the Warrior — that's Andi — to right any wrongs that need to be righted. She's got a whole bunch of the Spirits talking to her, and that makes cousin Tommy dizzy sometimes, but she has a lot of responsibilities, and sometimes she needs more help than the rest of us. Coyote even helps her sometimes when she gets to thinking that she needs to make things right that just can't be fixed. That's when Coyote and Bear get all silly and remind her that some things just gotta be the way they are even if we don't like it. It's usually really big stuff. The little stuff, like helping all those folks in their village at Halloween? That's a good thing to do. Well, I guess it wasn't really all that little, but it wasn't as big as... as maybe making sure all the Pueblos get their own lands back, you know?

"Anyway, I'd sure love to see that big lake of yours from up close! Flying by is pretty cool, but I'll bet there are a lot of great rocks down there. You think Chicago would mind if I brought a few of them back home with me? I get along real well with rocks. We're friends. I gotta tell ya, though, they're mighty finicky. First, they want to be on one side of the courtyard, and then once you have some of 'em moved, they'll decide they wanna go back to the other side. Ya gotta be careful around rocks. Make sure you understand what they're saying before you start moving them, especially the big ones. Oh, wow, maybe Chicago rocks wouldn't like Phoenix! Wouldn't it be terrible if Justin had to come fetch his rocks back because they didn't like Arizona? I should ask him about that.

"But how's he going to know if they're the finicky ones? I'll have to think about that. He's really smart, like you and Andi's new nephew Leon. You science folks are something else. You'd probably figure out a way to get a rock to cooperate, except Justin says you're a water guy, so maybe not. But water is really important. It's probably one of the most important things.

"Oh, Coyote says not to get all serious, either. Things will work out. So I won't worry about the rocks.

"You got yourself a guardian, too, Chris? I heard Tommy saying something about that to Talia. I hope you got a good one like Coyote. Well, everyone in the family seemed to get really good ones, except for when Raven was trying to make Andi and Pablo crazy, but I think it was because of his snake god that wasn't one of ours, you know? But I guess Raven didn't follow the rules or something and got demoted. Now she's got a bunch of 'em. I dunno if that's such a good idea, but maybe that's because she's the Warrior.

"Oh. Well, I guess that's part of it. That's what Coyote says anyway. She's gonna get another one when she becomes the eldest of her clan, but that won't be for a long time. Aunt Sandy's aunt is still alive, and so is Aunt Sandy's older sister, so that's a long time Andi's going to have to wait.

"You don't talk much, do you? That's okay. I'm used to doing all the talking because cousin Tommy is pretty quiet, and so is my sister. My baby brother just bounces around a lot. The Dehiya cousins are all pretty quiet folks, really. You got any brothers or sisters, Chris? They're the best. I got really lucky in my family. Me and Andi, we're the oldest. Well, all the Dehiya kids are older than us, but we're the oldest in our families. We're cousin-twins. That means we're born in the same year. I made that up when Andi was in China to cheer her parents up because they were missing her a whole lot. Coyote says that was one of my best tricks ever! Her birthday is in April and mine is in July, but we're still cousin twins. Justin and Charlie are cousin-twins, too, except Justin's birthday is in March and Charlie's is in June. He said your birthday is a couple of days off from his, which is really cool. If we adopted you, you'd be cousin-twins with Justin and Charlie. Well, I suppose that would make you triplets, but I like twins better so from now on, even if there are a whole bunch of cousins born in the same year, they're all going to be cousin-twins."

Henry looked at the floor again. "You make sure you let the future cousins know the rule, okay? I probably won't be around, and Andi might not remember. Really? She does? Oh. Well, that's cool, but it's gotta be hard too. Poor Andi."

He looked back at Chris once more. "Coyote says Andi's Curse makes her remember all sorts of things, especially if they're related to emotions, I guess. And Coyote says she loves me even though I drive her crazy, but I'm not sure I drive her all that crazy. And I know Madeline likes me, so she'd remember for Andi. Don't you think Madeline has a wonderful smile? She's pretty scary, too, when she gets to beating on the bad guys, but when she's just being Madeline and not the Black Wolf, she's really nice. Sometimes, I can't decide who's scarier — Ninja or Black Wolf. Before Andi went and adopted Madeline, I would have said Black Wolf was scarier, but that's because I'm Andi's cousin-twin. I know she needs to be scary sometimes. But now I'm related to both of them, so maybe they're both equally scary, just in different ways."

If Chris' eyes glazed over during all of this or he became slack-jawed at the sheer volume of words that flowed from Henry, well, he wouldn't have been the first person to suffer such a fate.

# # #

What helps most is the coffee. Just holding the mug, focusing on the scent, breathing...

This really is worse than feeling like all the energy of the universe was flowing through her, and she had no control. Even then, in the back of her mind, Andi knew that she could trust Mother.

Now? Right now, she can't trust her healing factor to control her fucking hormones.

She hates this.

Shit. She also hates crying.

She looks up at Maddie. "I don't know how you managed to do this. I already don't like how I feel, and I have six more months of this."

Pablo looks at her, hesitant to go with Justin and Nicole, almost afraid to leave her alone.

Go with them, love.

"It does get better," Madeline assures her.

"Actually, I think Maddie was less psychotic when she was pregnant," Rene muses.

Madeline reaches over and smacks the back of his head. "Not helping, Jacobs."

He smiles impishly. "As you say, Jacobs."

She leans down to amusedly whisper in Andi's ear. "He did actually mean scent, dear Sister. Not your metaphysical shit." She markedly sniffs a couple of times. "Like the desert."

"Sage," Rene adds.

And from up front, Logan adds, "The warm smell of colitas."

Andi drinks half the coffee, thankful that it's not so hot that she'd have to suffer through the itching while everything healed from scalding herself. And then she breathes some more, allowing Maddie's soft touch to calm her even further.

By the time Rene squats down beside the chair, she mostly feels like a... hmm. Well, not a normal person because she hasn't been normal since she was thirteen. But more like the person she's that come to know herself to be over the past few months.

"I know," she says. "I have a super sniffer, too."

Maddie had mentioned more than once that her hair smells like sage. It had been something Andi had started to notice a few weeks, maybe a whole month before the full force of her Curse hit her. And Maddie isn't the only person to have mentioned it, although not everyone can identify the sage. She'd even asked Mama about it a few years back, and she'd laughed. It had been obvious to her, too, from the day Andi was born.

It's comfortable and comforting and, when she's not totally freaked out, it reminds Andi of home.

"And you're very funny, Logan... quoting songs from before I was even born! And get your nose checked, bub. Colitas and sage don't smell the same," she adds with a laugh.

She watches her Sister and Spirit Brother as they settle on the seat across from her. For an instant, that horrible out-of-control feeling starts to build again but is siphoned away by Mother.

She nods and finishes the coffee.

"I knew that, didn't I? Plus the Pentad connection..." She stares into the empty mug. "Well, we all feel it, but I have more of an awareness of it than the rest of you when I..." She shrugs. "Part of knowing the qi. Being the qi. Like you, except not really. And even though I'm cheating, it still won't ever be an even fight with Logan, but I kind of feel like I just need a knockdown, drag-out fight right now."

She looks over her shoulder at Maddie. "You know."

All three of them are chuckling. Rene rises and takes a seat on the couch. Madeline joins him but stretches out so that she is leaning back against him with her feet up on the arm.

"Oh, so what you're really after is sparring. I think there are some wide-open spaces where we won't hurt anything. Jenny's folks might give us a bit of side-eye. Or not, considering her mother is of the Peoples too."

"Yes. Maybe. I don't know that sparring with Logan not holding back will help in the long run, mostly because Jocko is the only other person I know who can give me a run for my money. And even he'll hold back when he figures out I'm pregnant. Maybe this feeling of..." She stops and tries to find the words for it. "...unfocused rage? Terror and frustration? Feelings that might not even have words. Maybe it will go away. Soon. I hope." She shrugs. "So, sure, sparring. Except bar fight works, too. The only rule is no killing Andi."

Andi sighs and turns back to Rene. "I need to figure out how to find a balance. I feel better when you're all here, but you can't stay here all the time. And I can't spend six months in Ganado. It would be bad for Denver, and it wouldn't be fair to Pablo or Tommy. Even if Tommy just dumped me in one of those caves in the mesa walls beyond his property, I'd still drive him nuts."

Andi closes her eyes and manages a smile. "Okay. I have the first piece of the puzzle. Moira gave me others. I just need to find the rest. And put them together. Um. Yeah, before you guys head back to France. So, you know, this weekend."

Pablo steps over to stand on the other side of the captain's chair from where Rene had been crouching. Andi opens her eyes again and looks at him — arms crossed over his chest and a long-suffering look of weariness on his face.

Her smile broadens almost to a grin. "Hey, no pressure."

"Oh, no. Of course not. No pressure at all." Then he chuckles. "Andi, I'm going to have gray hair before the children are ever born."

"Yep. I think they plan to make sure of that."

"No. I mean you are going to give me gray hair. How is it possible that I understand this weird mystical nonsense better than you do?"

"Um, I'm a hot mess?"

"Huh. Well, with Madeline, you're whole. With Logan, Rene, and me, you're grounded."

Andi nods, enthusiastically this time. "Yes! Another puzzle piece!"

He shakes his head, sighs and looks at Maddie. "I give up. Only a crazy person can understand her right now, and I'm not demented enough yet."

Andi giggles as he goes back to chat with her brother.

"He's smart. He just doesn't want to admit it."

Despite the size of the vehicle, Logan manages to maneuver it around tight corners and down narrow streets without damaging the big ass RV or any parked cars. Sure, it helps that there are quite a few people out of town for the holidays. And he quite sensibly takes Lincoln Street up toward Colfax rather than trying to get on and off I-25. By the time they pass the Capitol Building, she actually feels calm again. It doesn't hurt that Maddie and Rene haven't gone any farther than the couch across from her or that Pablo has returned from the back with half of a roast beef sandwich for her.

"Didn't we just eat?"

"A few hours ago. Obviously, you need more food."

"Mmm," she mutters around the bite of food. "Mmm hmm." She nods in agreement.

He laughs and looks out the front window for possibly an entire second before he starts ogling the cockpit of the behemoth.

After swallowing the first bite of the sandwich, Andi merely says, "No."


"No, we don't need one. No, we are not getting one. No, no, no."


"What did I just say? I said no."

He looks at Madeline with immense sadness as Logan stops for the light at Colfax.

"She never lets me have any fun."

Madeline and Rene share their amusement over Pablo's RV envy.

"I think Logan might let you drive out on one of the straightaways. Would you, darlin'?"

Logan's response is a humorous but non-committal grunt.

"Maybe, anyway."

Andi stares at Pablo until they've passed the Y at 16th Avenue.

"I'll remind you of that when I share all the joys of labor and delivery with you."

"Um. You know what? We really don't need something this big. In fact, I'm sure my car will be good enough."

She smiles around another bite of her sandwich.

"That's probably not a smart idea, Pablo," Justin says. "I mean, sure, you have a great car for a family. But, ah, doesn't it belong to the City?"

Pablo sighs and sits in the chair beside his wife. "Yeah. I guess having infant seats in the back when going to a crime scene isn't the best idea, is it?"

Andi shrugs. "Minivan."


She looks at Maddie and Rene, who are doing a damn good job of not laughing, and Justin, who is not doing quite as well. Nicole is definitely giggling. She points to Justin.

"Explain to Detective Dingbat," Andi says, then goes about the task of finishing the sandwich.

"A minivan, Pablo. They're a cross between your car and this thing. And then pour some ugly over it."


Clearly, Nicole has experience with people trying to communicate while they have food in their mouths, and she pokes Justin's side.

"Okay! Sorry! Not all minivans are ugly!"

"But where are we going to put a minivan?" Pablo actually looks panicked, but all Andi can do is roll her eyes.

Nicole wraps her arms around Justin's waist from behind and rests her chin on his shoulder.

"In front of your house? Down the street? Two streets over?" She chuckles. "Pablo, you don't have half the parking problem most Chicago neighborhoods do. You'll be fine."

Andi uses the napkin to wipe her lips and hands, then gives the napkin to Pablo.

"What she said."

As Logan pulls the behemoth to the curb in front of the hotel, she looks at Justin.

"Did you let your friend know we were on the way?"

"Oops. No." He starts to reach for his phone. "I can text him."

"Nah, don't bother. I feel better." She leans over to kiss Pablo, who is still so freaked out that she's not captured forever. She bounces up, grins at Maddie and Rene, stops to give Logan a kiss on his forehead — at which he pretends to scowl — before practically skipping down the stairs. She turns before going into the hotel, however.

"I still want to spar. Definition one. We'll see about definition two later."

She turns around to realize, to remember that the Brown Palace is a fancy hotel with a doorman and she even remembers that she's not in uniform! So instead of tormenting the poor man, she smiles her friendly librarian smile and thanks him.

She can hear Henry from the doorway.

Oh, dear gods. Poor Chris!

Once Andi is out of earshot, Madeline leans forward conspiratorially. "If I were you, I'd go for the full-size van. Or, if you'd like, I can hook you up with my Humvee source."

While waiting for the additional circus acts come aboard, Madeline winks. "Just something to consider."

Pablo blinks and looks vacantly at Madeline.

"A Humvee? No, that's..." Shaking his head, he appears to slowly be recovering from the shocking reality of just how much life is about to change. And this is only a small shock. Eventually, there will be a need for a new house. Schools. He really needs to have another long conversation with Elvia.

"If the past is any indication of the future, inside of a week Andi will have researched the safety records of every auto on the market and determined the safest and most practical vehicle available. Then she will inform me what we're buying." He smiles and relaxes; after a few moments, he chuckles. "She'll do it after we get home. I might have to bury her phone somewhere. After she crushes mine with her bare hands and scatters its ashes in the ocean."

For the moment, Pablo is back to his version of normal.

# # #

Chris has actually enjoyed listening to Henry. His sister Claire has a friend like this — you didn't have to say anything, they'd just talk all night. Makes it easy, really.

When he gets a chance, he answers some of the questions.

"I guess I have a guardian. That's what Justin tells me anyways. Could be a one-time thing though, I really don't know how that all works.

"And just a sister. Claire. She's older than me. We're really close. We've gotten along well all our lives. I guess being only a few years apart helps. Justin is the closest thing I've ever had to a brother."

Andi strolls over to them — Chris can probably see her in his peripheral vision if his eyes aren't completely glazed over, but Henry's back is to her. Henry should never be left alone with other people who have no way to escape. Poor Chris.

Andi slips up behind her cousin-twin, smiling Ninja's not-so-nice smile.

Who's scarier? Oh, Henry. You should know better.

She grabs one earlobe and pulls gently.

"I am. Now, get up."

"Hey, Andi! Let go of my ear, okay?"

"Nope. Hi, Chris. The rolling insane asylum is right out front. I trust you can still walk. I'll escort this inmate out."

"Andi! Ow!"

She snatches up Henry's jacket and thumps it against his chest. "Hold this." Fortunately, he's sensible enough — or his reflexes are still good enough — that he catches it before it falls to the floor. Then she picks up his duffel bag and slings it over her shoulder.

"Come on, Henry. Let's go."

"Ow, let go of my ear!"

She drags him along by said ear. They both know she's not hurting him. It's all for show. Unless he gets really naughty, in which case, she might actually need to hurt him.

"As soon as we're on the bus. Want me to tell Maddie that she should spend five minutes with you and not be on vacation?"

The desk clerks are snickering. The doorman is doing his damnedest to remain professional, but Henry and Andi are not making it easy for him. She does regret that. A little. Because they probably look ridiculously funny.

"No, no, no! Come on, Andi! I'll behave!"

The doorman opens the door for them. "Thank you, kind sir. I would tip you handsomely if I didn't have my hands full. So... be right back!"

"If you just let go of my ear, Andi, I could give the nice man a tip. I'd be happy to!"

"No, no, Henry. That's not necessary. See? There's Pablo." He seems to have recovered well from the shocking thoughts of a minivan. "Dear, please tip the nice doorman handsomely."

Pablo looks from Andi to Chris to Henry, then jumps out of the RV.

"Right," Andi says. "Justin! Get out here!"

She stands on the sidewalk, still holding Henry's ear. He's lucky that he's not a foot taller than she is or he'd be hunching over instead of pretending to hunch over. Justin's head pops around the corner of the RV doorway, taking in the scene in a single glance.

"Oh, shit."

"Yes, little brother. Oh, shit. You left your friend alone with the madman."

Behind them, the doorman is trying to tell Pablo that he's being tipped far too handsomely, but Pablo understands what the staff must have had to endure if Henry had been going on in the manner Andi had overheard for more than a couple of minutes. He's insisting that the doorman share it with anyone else who was listening to Henry and looks glassy-eyed.

Justin is tending to his friend, apologizing profusely for not warning Chris about Henry. Well, a warning wouldn't have really helped, now would it? Until one experiences Henry, one has no way to judge just how far to let him go.

Andi tosses Henry's bag up the RV's stairs.

"Did you put Colorado rocks in your bag, Henry? Because you know that's illegal."

"I didn't! I swear!"

"You know I'm going to check your bag later, don't you?

"Um. Let go of my ear?"

"Did you steal some rocks?"


"Should I have Pablo arrest you?"


"Does that mean I can shoot him instead?" Pablo sounds just a little too happy about that idea.

"No!! No, don't let him shoot me, Andi."

"No shooting anyone, Pablo. Not where you'll get in trouble for it and make your boss sad."

"Darn. Okay. But I'll call the station and see who's working Patrol today. Have them come by."

"Don't worry about it. It's..." Andi pauses, trying to decide which side of shift change we're on, and shrugs. "Probably Martinez and Villanueva, but maybe Esposito and Tryon. None of them need the headache."

"If I put the rock back, will you let go of my ear?"

"No, I'm not letting go of your ear until you're on the bus. But if you tell me where you stole the rock from, maybe I won't have Pablo arrest you."

"Okay, okay! In front of the big white building with the gold hat!"

"Across the street? From the park over there?"

"Yes, yes, yes!"

"You're a very naughty person, Henry. I may need to sing to you all the way up to Wyoming."

By this time, Justin and Chris are back on the bus.

"By the way, just how handsomely did you tip the doorman?" Andi murmurs to Pablo.

"Sixty bucks. It was all I had."

She nods. "Probably enough." She gestures toward the bus. "Let's go."

Pablo gets on the bus, then Andi drags Henry after her, although she stops at the top step.

"Gonna need you to pull over after you turn onto Colfax," she tells Logan. "We don't need to carry contraband with us. Well, fine, Maddie's version of contraband is partially acceptable. Henry's version is not."

Once they're fully on the bus, she swears Logan grins as he shuts the door.

Pointing to the bag on the floor, she releases Henry's ear. "Fetch it out."

"You're mean, Andi."

"I'm upholding the law, Henry."

He sighs and kneels down to open the bag. Before fishing through his clothing, he grins at Maddie and Rene. "Heya, Madeline! Heya, Ghost Spirit!" Then he pulls a jagged red rock about half the size of his head out of the bag and hands it to Andi.

"Great. Now, go sit down."

"Okay, Andi!" he says cheerfully and sits where she had been sitting.

"Nope. That's my seat. You and your bag, which you are going to take with you, are going all the way in the back."

He sighs as though he's being put upon. She raises an eyebrow. He gets up, picks up the bag, and heads to the back of the bus.

"And no food for you!"

"Aw, Andi! You're mean!"

"Hey, Henry. The back is pretty nice," Madeline notes. "You and Coyote should be able to curl up and take a nap if you want.

"And, don't worry, we won't let Andi starve you.

"Welcome aboard the crazy train... rather, bus, Chris. The kitchenette there is fully stocked. Help yourself."

"Thanks," he says to Maddie as he gets on the bus and takes a seat. He's feeling nervous and excited. He wants to really try things with his power, but at the same time, there's the apprehension that he might only be able to make slick spots and ice cubes, or the opposite that he freezes someone accidentally.

You have to learn sometime, and these are the best people to try this with, he tells himself.

Andi sits down for the three-minute trip up the street and around the corner. Pablo is grinning like a ninny again. She's glad she could cheer him up. Come to think of it, pretending to drag her cousin-twin around cheered Andi up, too. When Logan stops the behemoth across from Civic Center Park, she steps in front of the vehicle and studies the park and Colfax Avenue. There's no one in the park on a day like today. Traffic is relatively light. Then she throws the rock — a fastball right over the plate — across the street to land near one of the trees. The park folks will figure out where it belongs and put it back.

"Thanks, pal," she says to Logan as she gets back on the bus. "Let's go fetch some locusts."

"Henry! You broke my friend! I know how to get even."

"Heya, Justin. You don't have to go singing to me, you know. Please don't sing that song."

Andi grins at her brother. "You want to take harmony or melody?"

Justin blinks, and a slow smile spreads across his face as he gets Chris settled.

"There's a harmony line? Oh, you gotta teach me!"

She chuckles. "Will do. And I wasn't going to actually starve the dingbat, Maddie. But like your kids and his little brother, he's a bit of a hoover."

After collecting Chris and Henry, they head over to Golden to collect the kids: Leon, Jenny, Emelia, and Vincent. It's a bit chaotic again at the hotel as the children are brought on board and ushered toward the rear of the cabin which had more seating available.

"Pablito, go entertain the children, will you?" their mother asks. "There are card decks and a couple of board games. And it will keep the twins from sighing too loudly about the cow eyes."

Em and Vin grin at Pablo eagerly. They had also enjoyed their games when Tia and Tio had come to Paris.

Madeline rejoins Rene on the forward couch but sits up this time and spears Chris with a look. "I've heard this and that from the family members, Chris, but I like to get to know folks by other than hearsay. Tell me what your research is about and what you are hoping to accomplish with it."

He watches the kids climb aboard, working out each name as they enter, seeing if he can remember them all from the reception. He thinks he's actually managed it and the talk around him confirms that he probably has.

He nods to Madeline as she sits across from him and smiles at the chance to talk about something he understands for a change.

"We're looking at a way of making any water safe to drink, obviously without a complete filtration system since the countries that need it the most have no way of building or maintaining one. So we're looking into combinations of chemical and biological solutions that might work.

"It has to be harmless to plants and animals. Add that all up, and it may not even be possible, but we're trying."

Madeline nods. "Looking to turn contaminated water into potable. That's a good goal. Are you also looking to capture drinking water from other sources, say from the air? Is it only theoretical, or do you have any working prototypes?"

Rene sits forward too, also interested in the answer. He knows where Madeline's line of questioning is headed.

"Any source we can," Chris replies. "From the air, underground, rivers, lakes, whatever. But anything out of the ordinary takes a lot of extra work to ensure we don't do something that drastically changes the environment. We don't want to wreak havoc on the weather.

"My part is much smaller. It's working with the water itself once we have it."

"So, no prototypes. There's a project in Bolivia that might interest you. It's essentially a desert region due to lack of rainfall; however, they have an incredible amount of fog. A researcher has found a way to harvest the fog for both drinking and irrigation needs."

Madeline glances over to Rene. "It's eased a lot of the suffering we saw when we were there."

"I would suggest you start small though. Make it individual and mobile so that people can provide for themselves and their families. Community-based systems or even large scale operations are needed as well, but those can be compromised, and are generally the first types of places that are targeted in conflict zones. They are destroyed if they can't be occupied.

"People can live a lot longer without food than they can water."

"Interesting. We'll look at anything. The companies generally come up with the ideas, I'm just a grunt at this point having been recently hired. But they all seem to be willing to listen to new ideas."

"I hope you're taking notes," Rene interjects. "She may quiz you later."

Madeline rolls her eyes at Rene then looks back at Chris.

"From what Andi told me, your recently acquired abilities have to do with water. Maybe you can find a way to use that to advantage your research. What exactly is it you seem to be able to do?"

Chris tries to hide a smile at Rene's comment but fails.

"Me? So far, I can freeze things. I've been able to freeze water if I touch it. But what you said about fog makes me wonder if I couldn't freeze water out of the air. I guess that's what this whole trip for me is about — finding out what I can do. Even if I'd thought of it, I'd be afraid of experimenting on my own. For all I know, I'd encase myself in ice and suffocate myself or worse, someone else.

"I'm really just beginning. I don't know what I can do, I don't know how to control anything," he adds sheepishly.

# # #

Andi gets up and follows Pablo toward the back, leaving Justin and Nicole near the middle of the bus. Her brother is torn between looking out for his friend and a golden opportunity to tease Henry.

Ah, well. He'll figure it out.

She grabs a bottle of water from the fridge and rummages through the food in the cabinets. Ooh! Beef and venison jerky — the good stuff, too. She sits down on the sofa in the back with Leon and Jenny. Pablo and the twins are across from them, trying to decide what game they should play. Henry is on the floor, pretending to be a throw rug.

"Don't mind me," she says to the two teens as she opens the bottle of water, "I figured there ought to be some adult supervision back here."

"Hey, Andi!" complains the throw rug, "I'm an adult."

She raises her eyebrows. "Gosh, Henry, you could have fooled me. Despite what your birth certificate claims, I usually have a hard time believing that." She nudges his shoulder with her toes. "And don't blame Coyote."

"I wasn't gonna?"

She snickers. "Were too." Looking across at Pablo as she sips some water, she can feel her brows drawing together. "What are you teaching those young, impressionable children over there, Pablo?"

"Texas Hold'em. And I taught them when we were in Paris," he says with a grin. "We're just practicing."

She sighs and then mutters, "We're doomed."

Jenny giggles.

Andi leans forward to look at Jenny on the other side of Leon. "Go. Save yourself. It's too late for me!"

Leon laughs. "Aunt Andi, are you quoting internet memes??"

"I'm an equal opportunity quoter, I'll have you know." She grins. "Why? Would you prefer something more Shakespearean?"

"How about Nietzsche?" Jenny asks.

Andi preemptively jabs Henry again. "So passe. Everyone quotes him."

"Ow! Andi, why'd you go and kick me?"

She looks at Henry. "First, I didn't kick you, I jabbed you with my toes. Second, I'm trying to prevent you from uttering your horrible, terrible, not at all funny pun."

"I wasn't gonna do that."

Coyote is laughing.

"Your guardian Spirit seems to think otherwise, cousin-twin."

"Aw, Andi, that's not fair!"

She shrugs and takes another sip of water. Pablo is trying not to laugh. Leon looks slightly confused.

"How can Friedrich Nietzsche be a pun?"

"Are you sure you want to know?" It really is a terrible pun.

"I think so?"

"I do!" Jenny says.

"No, you really don't," Pablo says from across the bus.

"Don't listen to him," Henry says. "You do! It's one of my best!"

Leon nods slowly.

"Don't say I didn't warn you," Pablo intones.

Andi barely touches Leon's knee with the palm of her hand. She counts to three and gives him the tiniest jolt — nothing more than a tickle — before moving her hand away. He jumps anyway. She only needs to count to two before Jenny starts laughing. Her nephew is slightly confused for a second more before he starts grinning.

This time, she does kick Henry.

"It's really only funny the first time," Andi admits.

"But it is funny. And that tickled," Leon says. "How did you do that? Is that all you can do with it? Tickle people, I mean?"

"Leon, Andi's tried explaining her Curse to me a hundred times, and none of it makes sense," her husband says.

"Leon is smarter than you are."

Pablo looks up from the cards on the table. "Hmm. That's true. He might understand it."

"Explain it to me, too, Andi!"

She looks at Henry, who is grinning like the Fool he is. "Henry, Pablo is a hundred times smarter than you pretend to be. Besides, you already know how it works."

"Why you so grumpy, cousin?"

"Gosh, I don't know, Henry. I'm sure it has something to do with being pregnant and the impending doom I feel about spending four days with you. I love you, cousin, but after about two days, Pablo always wants to shoot you."

"Oh, we didn't even get that far this time."

"But Madeline won't let him shoot me! She likes me!"

"Yes, she does, Henry. And so does Pablo. When you're not around." She nudges him again; this time, he sits up. "You really excel at making people bonkers, pal."

"Yeah, my mom says that, too. And so does Aunt Sandy and Aunt Sonia and even Tita."

"And for what it's worth, I won't let Pablo shoot you either."

He grins happily. "Thank you, Andi!"

"You're welcome, Henry. If you need to be shot, I'll do it myself."


"Oh, relax, Henry," Pablo says, "she can't hit the side of a barn when she's five feet from it."

"Yes, I can! It's once I get out to about fifteen feet that I have problems. And I wouldn't use your gun anyway. I'd use this."

She holds up a hand, palm out.

"Hmm. Yeah, that would work." Pablo goes back to the poker game with the twins.

"But you just tickled Cousin Leon! How you gonna hurt me, huh, Andi?"

"Geez, you're such an idiot, Henry."

She turns slightly so she can look at Leon and Jenny.

"So. How much do you know about Chinese medicine?"

# # #

Justin sits with his elbows resting on the table and his chin in his hands. "Freezing the fog..." he muses. "Interesting."

He isn't thinking as much about his friend's gifts as their practical application. Did Chris wind up with these specific water-related powers because of his interest in the field of water purification?

Now, that could have a bearing on his research. Well. Maybe. It probably wouldn't help with the creation of a vaccine, but might be a predictor of how well a person made it through the flu caused by the Virus.

Or was it the fact that this last outbreak had been concentrated around the Great Lakes? And it had been particularly virulent around Lake Michigan.

Until now, the Virus had been understood to be an airborne pathogen. How much water is needed in the air for it to survive? He knows that it had never touched the Nations in dry climates; all the individuals with so-called mutant traits in the desert Nations could trace them to genetics.

"Dude, if you could pull water out of the air..." Justin lets his mind wander down one of the paths of possibility. "...I might be able to get an actual number for the humidity needed for the Virus to survive." His eyes show his excitement even though he sits fairly still. "Like, you might have to pull the water out drop by drop until my instruments can register both dormancy and death, but we might actually be able to come up with a predictor of outbreaks!"

His eyes take on that faraway look of a scientist in the zone. He doesn't really look all that much different from his sister when she's thinking her Weird Andi Thoughts — not that either one of them will admit it.

Nicole nudges him. "Aren't you supposed to be on vacation?"

"Yup. But I forgot to leave my brain at home."

She rolls her eyes. "Maybe I should be playing poker with Pablo and the kids."

"Okay," Justin says absently.

Nicole sighs and rests her head on his shoulder. "Wake me when you get back to earth."

"Uh huh."

From the back of the bus, they can hear Andi's snicker.

Madeline's brow wrinkles. "Company? I thought you and Justin worked in the U of C Labs, not corporate? Or is it via corporate grants? Please tell me you didn't sign away your IP rights."

Her eyes kind of get a faraway look when he describes the little he can do.

"I would think it should be possible... freezing the water out of the air. More possible in high humidity places. Easier when they are low temp. That reminds me of someone I used to know. Not sure where he went off to after, but about ten years ago, one of the gifted students could do something similar. I remember him throwing a blade of ice at Vincent...

"But not that Vincent," she quickly clarifies and indicates her younger son in the back. "His namesake.

"Hmmm, not sure how much we'll be able to test with snow on the ground, but I might have some ideas. Maybe you can test the fog bit when you get back to Chicago. I've heard the lake throws off some decent fog.

"Have you tried altering the air temperature around you? Freezing water is simply making it cold enough to become ice. Therefore, it follows that you should be able to make whatever is in the vicinity of your hand colder."

"We're always at the mercy of grant money. At least that's what we're told. Need results, need something to show the sponsors." he says, looking as though he doesn't enjoy that portion of the job.

"Honestly, I haven't tried much of anything, but everything you say makes sense. I'm looking forward to trying it all. I'll just apologize in advance." he says, smiling sheepishly.

"And if I try and throw ice swords, I'll warn everyone first."

# # #

Leon and Jenny seem to follow along with Andi's explanation of how she can modulate the output of qi from a mere tickle to something considerably more forceful. But they do attend a school for gifted children, so they've had numerous opportunities to develop their own skills as well as observe their classmates' skills grow and focus. And unlike Henry and Pablo, she's pretty sure they understand that she means "deadly" when she says "considerably more forceful."

They may not be part of the X-Men team yet, but they're both training for it.

"It's easier for me to think of the circulatory system, Aunt Andi," Jenny says. She's still a little shy about the 'Aunt Andi' part, but less so than even a couple of days ago. "I mean if that's okay."

"Hey, whatever works is fine! I can almost see the gears turning in this one's head..." She points to Leon, grinning. "...trying to turn it into some kind of mathematical equation."

"No, I'm, um... well, maybe."

She chuckles. "Whatever works for you. It's not like I can really understand how you can do your thing, Leon. I see how Rene does it, but maybe that's because he's a Spirit and your gift is considerably stronger." She shrugs. "I have to think of it as an old-style projector on a screen because I can't even see what you're doing. It's almost as if you've removed the images from the space-time continuum entirely."

"Well, um, not exactly. I mean, I could show you the equations, but so far only Professor Xavier and Professor McCoy kind of understand them."

Andi grins. "Nah, that's fine. I might not need to take my shoes off to count past ten, but that kind of math doesn't get me as excited as discussing the latest novels by YA authors. I'd actually describe it more like a holodeck simulation if I understood what the heck the Trek writers were trying to convey."

"Oh! But I think it might actually be more like that, Aunt Andi."

"Hmm. Well, I'll ask Moira about it then the next time I see her. That's her specialty — the holodecks."

"Wife, stop trying to confuse the young man with talk of your imaginary friend." Pablo grins at her.

"Good grief. This is going to go on forever, isn't it? She's not imaginary. I just need to figure out how to get you to her Overworld to introduce you."

The two teenagers are confused, the twins are far more interested in the poker game, and Henry looks like he's going to start down some crazy road that is even crazier than her having a friend in another universe. And she thinks the twins are cheating. Well, they have that telepathic vibe about them. Maybe they're just chatting; Pablo's tally sheet looks balanced enough so far.

Andi smiles at Leon and Jenny. "It's kind of a long story, but we'll have time for it eventually. Maybe not this weekend, but soon enough, I suppose."

Through all of this, she's been half-listening to the conversation up front and snickers at her brother's disappearance into the Science Cloud.

However, at Chris' comment about ice swords, she turns and looks into the front area of the bus.

"Don't you dare! How the hell am I supposed to figure out how you do what you do if you tell me you're going to do it?" She grins at him. "No, seriously. You try doing whatever you think you can do. I can keep up. Maddie and Logan can keep up. Rene might even be ahead of you, what with him being a Spirit and all. If the old man over there can't keep up..." She tilts her head in Pablo's direction. " will serve him right. He needs practice, too."


She laughs and looks at Pablo. "Well, you do."

He sighs. "At least I'm still a better shot than she is," he mutters. She's not sure if he's talking to the twins or just to himself.

"With a gun."

She chuckles and then turns back to Chris.

"How about if I promise you're not going to permanently harm any of us and we're not going to be even a little annoyed if you manage to hit us with your ice sword?"

"Speak for yourself. I might be annoyed."

Andi rolls her eyes. "Don't listen to Pablo. If you manage to make Henry slip and land on his ass half the time, he'll cheer up."

"Hey! That's mean, Andi."

Pablo laughs. "Nope. That would be funny."

"Deal. I suppose," Chris says with a smile. "I don't seriously think I can hurt you, but for all I know, I could send ice swords in a bunch of directions. Well no, I don't actually think I can do that, but you know what I mean.

"I'd much rather try here with lots of people who can possibly undo what I'm trying and also see if I can control things better so that when I don't have super help around, that I can manage to not hurt innocent people."

Chris is cautious by nature, but there is an excitement in his voice that lets on how much he is really looking forward to just trying things.

Madeline laughs at Andi and Pablo even though her mind keeps turning over ideas.

"Speaking of which, Pablito, you and I still need to get on the range together."

"Looking forward to it, Madeline."

He grins at his wife.

"Hey, if I had as many years to practice as Maddie has, I'd be better at using projectile weapons!" Andi harrumphs. "For a person who's only been playing with guns for three months, I think I'm doing very well, thank you."

He chuckles. "You do have gun safety nailed. I guess I expected you to learn the actual shooting part just as fast."

"Ha. That's because a lot of the safety part can be learned from books. And common sense. And watching you and Maddie and Mitch. The actual doing it is just muscle memory." She grins back at him. "And I managed to take your gun apart and put it back together. Correctly. The first time. Granted, not as fast as you do, but now I'm faster."

"Fine, dear. Now you just work on your aiming."

She shrugs. "Sure. It's important, especially if I'm going to be hanging out with those crazy people up front."

Rene nudges Maddie. Thoughts, my love?

Trying to think of anything you or Leon might be able to show Chris about potential abilities, but...


Madeline slides her hand into Rene's and squeezes. The only time I can remember is at Alkali, and neither of us wants to relive that day.

Rene shakes his head in agreement. Non.

She returns her attention to Chris. "I saw some of the things he could do, but I couldn't tell you how. I think a lot of it was instinctive for him. If we hadn't lost touch, I'd put you in contact with him. I guess you are going to get to experiment. But you're a science geek, and that's what you do for fun, right?"

She grins.

"And I know you got to chat with that part of the family, but do you have any questions for us? Myself, Rene or Logan?"

"Discovery is the fun part, testing ideas is the mundane, boring part," he says with a smile before addressing her last question.

"I don't think so. Honestly, I'm still trying to process everything I've heard. That and replaying exactly what I'll say when I get back home."

He hesitates for a moment, then looks at her again.

"Actually, I do have one. However, is was that you and Logan gained powers, do you ever regret it? Do you wish it had never happened and you were perfectly normal? I guess I'm asking, is it worth it?"

With a loving smile, Madeline looks towards the front of the RV where Logan guides it along the roads.

"Not a single second, not the event that brought it on or anything afterward."

That look is still there as she glances to the back before facing Chris again.

"It means my children still have their mother. I would think, though, for many people, the choice between life and death would be an easy one. Also, unlike the rest of this cast of characters, I did have a choice."

"And she rightfully chose her children," Rene interjects before picking up the thread of conversation. "I was born with my abilities, minor as they are, but having them allowed me to give Maddie a respite when she needed it most, so, no, I don't regret them."

From the front, Logan answers as well. "Never known anything else. Did I ever wish to not be what I was? Possibly. Don't remember much before twenty five years ago."

Pablo's expression turns into one of concern.

Did he just say that testing ideas is mundane and boring?

I'm pretty sure he meant the science stuff, Pablo. Even Justin says the repetition can get maddening.

Hmm. I hope you're right or we'll have to terrify him by having Rene show him some of my training from Q's prison world.

Oh, let's not do that. First, I don't need to see any more of it than I've already seen. Plus, thanks to my Curse being such an asshole, I have more than enough of your memories, thank you very much. Second, Justin would be very sad if we gave his friend a heart attack.

Nonsense! He's young! He'll survive.

Pablo grins again, and Andi rolls her eyes. But he looks toward the front, bending forward so he can see Chris.

"Just let the conversation go where it takes you, Chris. Trust me on this one — trying to figure out all the right words beforehand only makes it sound rehearsed. And if your family or friends are even a little bit like my sister, that's going to backfire big time."

Pablo rubs his shoulder where Blanca had slugged him more than a dozen times yesterday. It doesn't really hurt — his healing factor is enough to wipe away a few bruises, and he had admitted as much this morning. Andi thinks he's just trying to make a point.

She smiles.

"I hadn't planned to tell Pablo anything that day we finally had our little conversation. It still turned out just fine."

Pablo nods. "What she said."

"Hey, Pablo! Aren't you supposed to say 'That's what she said' instead of whatever you said?" Henry asks.

Leon and Jenny snicker, Pablo glares, and Andi pokes her cousin with a toe again.

"Stop it, Henry."

"Andi, you're no fun anymore."

She laughs. "Maybe my idea of fun is just different than yours."

He blinks and looks confused. Oh, goodie! She's broken Henry again! That might give them a whole ten minutes of peace.

Chris's question for Maddie and Logan — well, and possibly Rene — is an interesting one.

Andi smiles at their answers. She remembers events and people from Logan's past; they're tied to emotions that don't have much to do with being an Elder. And even the few that do? She has no idea what Logan might have been thinking.

"I'll add to that," Pablo says. "I'd like to think that Andi and I would still have gotten married without the interference of the Aztec demigods and the hell we went through because of them." He looks at her and smiles. "Maybe it would have been next year instead of this year."

Then he sighs and looks at Chris again. "Maybe it's still too new for me, but sometimes I do regret it. I didn't have any choice. Maybe that's what bothers me the most. Yeah, I know most of us didn't have a choice. But if these powers I have didn't help Andi as much as they do, I'd resent the hell out of them."

He shrugs. "I figure you deserve honesty."

Andi bites her lip and remains silent for now. They've had this discussion more than once, and she can certainly see things from his point of view.

"Tio Pablo?" Leon says hesitantly. "Um, a lot of kids at our school get that feeling. Sometimes it's every once in a while, and sometimes it's most of the time. Talking to the Professor might help." He smiles just as cautiously as he had spoken.

Pablo looks at Leon and returns his smile, but Pablo's is anything but cautious. "Thanks, Leon. Usually, Andi thumps me on the head and reminds me that I help keep her from turning the Front Range until a nuclear waste dump. And then she threatens to call Bobby and have him throw me a pity party. But if that ever stops working, I'll be sure to call Professor Xavier." He shrugs again. "There are better than even odds that I'm really just still ticked off at Quetzalcoatl."

"I know my sister hates it sometimes," Henry says, surprisingly sober for a change. "But she sees the future and bad stuff happens. I think I would hate that, too."

"I'm not sure she regrets it, though, Henry," Andi reminds him gently.

"No, I guess not, Andi. Sometimes she gets to help people, and she says that makes up for the bad stuff. She's still sad too much, though."

"You do cheer her up, you know."

Andi stands and leans against the pantry near Justin and look at Chris.

"I'm going to make a few people here roll their eyes because I'll get into the semantics of your question. I'm not sure anyone here could regret gaining our abilities. That implies there was a choice. Logan, Rene, and I were all born with latent abilities. We didn't have a choice. You were infected by the Virus, and Pablo endured the machinations of a stupidly crazed extra-dimensional being with delusions of adequacy who thought he was a demigod. You guys didn't have a choice either."

She looks at her Sister and smiles. "You say you had a choice, Sister, but I wonder if it really was as much of a choice as you think. You're a fantastic mom with three incredible children. The fact that you chose your children over staying with Rene and have no regrets about that decision proves my point. You're an amazing mother. So saying that you had a real choice is something like saying I really have a choice about teasing Henry here."

Henry interrupts with a belly laugh. "Hoo boy, Andi! The day you stop teasing me is the day I'm gonna have all these nice people lock you up in a padded room!"

She looks over her shoulder and laughs, then turns back to Chris. "See? It's my nature to tease Henry. It's Maddie's nature to have chosen her children. And we managed to get everything worked out eventually. Everybody wins.

"Do I ever wish I was normal?" She smiles. "Not anymore, but I did for a long time. I actually pretended to be normal for nine years after I got back to the States."

She shrugs and sighs. "Then a bunch of assholes killed a friend of mine."

"A friend of ours," Pablo whispers.

She nods. "A friend of ours.

"Like Maddie with Em and Vin, I had a choice then, too. I could have chosen to spend more years or even my whole life pretending to be normal. Except... except I could see that there was something I could do to help. And once I saw that I could help protect people — even in small ways — I had to help. It was the way I was raised, maybe, but that effectively took away the whole concept of choice."

She feels her connection to the rest of the Pentad and realizes Pablo was absolutely right earlier. Whole and balanced — now she needs to figure out how to stay this way.

"That black ice thing you do to make people slip? Okay, fine, maybe it's not actually black ice... I'm too used to Colorado's wily ways, I guess. But you could certainly use that in small ways if you see someone being bullied. It might seem like nothing much, especially compared to what the rest of the folks you've met can do. But to that person who doesn't get bullied that one day? Or two days?

"You'll be a guardian angel. You don't even need to let anyone know that you're doing something to help. I have a couple of communities of people I watch over, but I started small. Wolverine and La Loup Noir..." She nods to Logan and Maddie. "...have their communities, and I'm sure they didn't start off protecting most of Europe."

Then she looks at Rene.

"Rene here is literally a guardian angel.

"Pablo back there still needs to make his day job his priority."

She rubs her knuckles on Justin's head.


"And I suspect you need to do the same because if this one had a rotten labmate, I would never hear the end of it."

"I was in the zone! Don't mess with my buddy Chris."

She grins at her little brother. "Of course not. I'm supposed to mess with you, right?" She giggles at the look on his face.

"Have you told him Papa's favorite saying yet?"

"Um... no?"

"Figures. You're a dork."

"No, you're a dork!"

"I will slug you both!" Pablo calls from the back. "Knock it off, the two of you!"

Andi and Justin share a grin.

"He and Tita, and our parents and aunts and uncles and... well, pretty much the whole family now have a saying — Everything happens as it should happen and when it should happen, for the greatest good of all concerned."

"Justin mutters it at me whenever I get freaked out about things," Nicole says. "During finals, writing my thesis, interviewing for a job. You know, the ordinary things in life."

Justin nods. "The point is just, I don't know, trust yourself, trust your guardian Spirit if you're part of the family. God, the saints, whatever you think might be greater than you. Even gravity! Trust family and friends. Don't freak out. Ah... go with the flow."

He looks up at Andi. "Did I leave anything out?"

"Nah, I think you covered it. I might have added this more senior teacher that the first one mentioned, but that's probably covered in there somewhere."

"Cool." He looks at Chris with his characteristically cheerful smile. "And I'll tell you pretty much the same thing from the other side of the coin. Do I ever wish my sister and cousins were normal? Nope. Even though Andi probably scared me way worse than you scared Miranda, I never wanted her to be someone she isn't. Sure, I did wish she'd come home from China almost every other day, but Mom and Dad made sure I understood she was learning important things."

"Justin, stop making her all weepy! I can't take it!" Pablo calls out.

She laughs as she bends over to hug her brother.

"Pregnancy is going to be so much fun!"

"I heard that!" Pablo says. "I'm moving to... well, whatever is on the other side of the planet!"

"You're kidding, right?" Justin whispers.

"Maybe." She resumes her task of leaning against the cabinetry and looks back at Pablo. "You know I'm a librarian, right? And you know middle school kids just love that sort of thing, right?" She chuckles. "The closest landmass is Amsterdam Island, there's a science station there. It's a French territory. Well, it was in the spring, anyway. We'll assume it still it. There are only about thirty people there.

"And it won't help because I can find you anywhere you go."

Chris listens to their answers and nods, hearing pretty much what he'd expected.

"I guess I didn't mean regret as in 'do you wish you could go back?' since many of you never could. Well, really, all of us. I mean if you were granted a wish and you could be like you are now or the same person without the powers, then would you do it? That's more what I meant. But none of you need to answer that, I heard the answer loud and clear.

"I'm actually excited about this. It's strange and different, and I can look at it scientifically up close. I think I was wondering because I am excited. I was wondering if I was accepting of something that's going to ruin my life and it sounds like I should just go with the flow and work with it," he says, thinking out loud.

He looks back at Pablo and nods.

"And yeah, that probably goes with talking to my family. I think I know how they'll react and I can be prepared, but I really don't know. Maybe I'll have Justin go tell them first," he says, clearly joking.

Madeline laughs and shakes her head. "I've only been this way for ten years. Healing from anything is damn handy to have. No more scrambling for bandages while trying not to bleed on the food you were just cutting. The odd part for me was losing scars I'd had since I was a kid. Still catches me off guard sometimes. Who is that person in the mirror?

"Don't worry. You'll find your way through. There's plenty of help to be had right here. And if you want to be more academic about it, I can put you in touch with Leon's Headmaster. He's very accustomed to dealing with new, untrained and occasionally, surprisingly powerful talents."

# # #

Further down the road, Rene fades out, and Madeline wanders forward to sit on the steps in the cockpit. She'd driven this road this direction by herself a few days earlier. Logan asks her if she wants a turn at the wheel.

She shakes her head, "Oh, no, I leave that kind of transport to you and Mitch. I'm good with the Humvee being the biggest vehicle I've ever driven. It does ride nice, though."

"We should get one."

She raises an eyebrow at him. "Really?"

"If we move back to the Americas, anyway. It is nice, a damn sight better than that old pickup mounted camper I used to have."

"When was this?"

"Before Kayla, I think. Not sure, I just remembered."

"Okay. And I'll admit it is also a damn sight better than any troop transport."

"So, you think we can get one?"

"If we move to the Americas. Are you planning whole family trips, us and the kids or just the two of us?"

"All of it. Could drive down to Suriname."

"Oh, hell no. Paramaribo is surrounded by jungle, remember? There's no driving in anyway. By plane, boat or foot."

He chuckles then points to the petrol indicator on the dash. "Should fill up soon."

"Pick up dinner too. There's bound to be a diner or something."

"Sure, darlin'."

At the next appropriately sized gas station, he maneuvers the RV into place alongside the pump. Madeline chases everyone off for lunch at the coffee shop, everyone except Pablo. Logan holds him back to "assist" as well as to offer, "You want to drive the rest of the way up?"

Lunch is not a quick affair, not with eleven people. It's questionable whether the staff has seen that many people all at the same time with any regularity. As was her custom, Madeline makes sure the tip compensates for the insanity of her family as well as the attentiveness of the waitress, who wishes them a safe journey and invites them back should they pass that way again. With everyone back on the RV, Pablo is now at the wheel. Madeline and Logan take up residence in the very back of the RV and enjoy each other's company for the remainder of the trip.

# # #

Time keeps on slippin', slippin, slippin' into the future...

Andi really likes that song. She suspects at some point it won't be as enjoyable as her life goes slipping past everyone that she loves, but today isn't a day for such depressing thoughts.

Pablo has entirely too much fun driving the behemoth; by the time Maddie lets them know that Logan will take the wheel for the last few miles up to the Edmontons' ranch, he's grinning like Billy usually does when he's overly excited.

"We should get one!"

She just stares at him for what seems to be hours. Henry is far too interested in our exchange, so much so that even Justin is looking on expectantly.


And then she watches out the window at the flat plains of Wyoming rolling by. It's already dark, of course, but the moon is full, and the sky is clear, so there is plenty of prairie to be seen. In some ways, it reminds her of the lands around Aunt Sonia and Uncle Leon's home — there will be cows grazing out there come daylight while sheep wander the farms in New Mexico.

"Well, not right away. We would need to save up for one."

"We don't need one, Pablo," she says without turning away from the landscape. "Even Maddie rented this thing."

As she's sitting sideways on the couch so she can look out the window, he sits behind her and wraps his arms around her waist.

"You okay?" he whispers.

She nods. New land, new rivers of qi. It's gorgeous and amazing. Reminds me of New Mexico.

The bus is fun to drive.

She smiles and rests a hand over his. We still don't need one. But maybe when the kids are big enough to invite friends to visit Flagstaff, we could rent something a little smaller.

It's after 7:00 PM when they roll onto the Edmonton ranch. Logan had retaken the wheel and Madeline her place on the stairs. She pulls herself to her feet, holding on as the vehicle lurches as it moves from road to driveway. She smiles at seeing Sam saunter out and direct them to park by the barn.

"I think you two are going to get on, darlin'," she tells her Mate.

"I see you already do," he chuckles as he puts the vehicle in park and shuts down the engine.

Sam is there opening the door.

"You didn't need to bring your own hotel, Madeline," he drawls. "Suzi and I could put the lot of you up inside."

"Sam, we have our ten year olds with us. You're going to have enough chaos inside with the kids. We don't need to add to the mix. Although this might be a good hideout for you and Suzi if it gets to be too much. We're well-stocked with adult beverages."

"We'll keep that in mind. Is my daughter hiding?"

"No, she's being polite. There's a bunch of adults blocking her way who need to get out and stretch their legs. We both best move before we get run over."

Sam steps back out of the way to let Madeline down the steps. She moves aside and lets the others file out, introducing them as they appear.

Andi is content to watch as Logan parks and as Maddie gets out to greet our hosts. Chris has a vibration of muted excitement around him; she would guess that he's looking forward to learning more about what he can do with his gifts.

She remembers that eagerness — once she had recovered from the exhaustion of traveling to Chenjiagou, nearly every day was like that when she studied with Grandmaster Chen. It's only been the past two months — since forming the Pentad and becoming pregnant — that her powers have grown too quickly for her to comfortably adjust. She'd like to think that life will settle down now, at least a little. But she has a feeling those two are going to keep presenting her with new and unusual challenges for the entirety of this pregnancy.

Vin and Em contain their excitement and interest about Jenny's family well enough that she can't tell if they're actually nervous or spying out new ways to tease their older brother. Both Leon and Jenny seem more shy than she would have expected, given that he spent Christmas with them. Curious. She watches Henry follow her brother and his friend out of the bus, grinning as Justin and Henry start a familiar around of nonsense. It doesn't matter what they're saying, not really. It just matters that they're teasing one another and will continue doing so until either Nicole gets tired of it or someone who possesses more sense than either Henry or Justin asks them to take their game elsewhere. Of course, Andi usually starts singing to Henry before anyone can get to that point.

She stands and holds out her hand to Pablo. Only Leon and Jenny are left on the bus with them.

"Jenny?" she says as Pablo stands and wraps an arm around her waist.

"Yes, Aunt Andi?"

She smiles as she looks at the two teens. "I'm absolutely thrilled you're part of the family." Before either of them can say anything, she puts a finger to her lips.

"She's spooky," Pablo says.

Andi shrugs. "I see it, the connection you two have, I mean. I think your Mom can see it, too, Leon. Trust me, it's a good thing. I won't get mushy. I'm just going to go out and meet your family now."

She turns and looks up at Pablo. "Husband?"

He chuckles and takes her hand as he follows her out of the bus.

"Well, she's not as spooky as the Professor can be," she hears Leon say just before stepping out of the bus to greet Jenny's dad.

Jenny's family is delightful, of course. Her younger brother is excited to meet Maddie's twins — they're the same age, and he enthusiastically invites them to share his room with him. He is promptly reminded that Leon and Vin will be sharing his room and that Em will be sharing Jenny's room. After giving Justin and Nicole a stern look — to which Justin responds, "We really are engaged! We swear!" — the two of them are relegated to one of the spare rooms while Chris and Henry are assigned the other. Oh, poor, poor Chris! Then Sam and Suzi try to give away the best room in the house to Pablo and Andi because they're newlyweds or some such silly reason.

"Oh, no! No, no, no!" she says, laughing. "We are not taking your room!" She looks at Pablo. "You tell them."

He grins and nods. "Yes, dear."

Andi rolls her eyes at him. "Suzi, really, it's not necessary. My Aunt and Uncle's neighbors out in Nageezi raise sheep. Now, I know cows aren't the same as sheep, but I have to think you need to be up at the crack of dawn and ought to get a good night's sleep before doing cow wrangling things, right?"

She refrains from looking at Maddie because she's pretty sure she'll start laughing too hard to continue.

"And it's our honeymoon, as you pointed out. You know what I've never done before? I've never slept in a rolling hotel room before! It will be so awesome!"

Only those of them with acute hearing catch Timmy's comment to the twins.

"Your Aunt is really silly."

His tone makes it sound like that's a good thing. Dang, wait until Henry gets some rest and starts in on his antics! Em and Vin can't actually disagree with Timmy because they've seen Aunt Andi get plenty silly... especially Em when they visited the big cats. On the other hand, they've seen her when she's been extraordinarily not silly, too. Say, on that day she freaked their parents out by getting overprotective of Em at the Harmony concert.

And besides, Silly Aunt Andi works just fine for her!

Also, her logic is impeccable.

Before heading out to the bus, she gives Henry's ear a good yank.

"Hey! I didn't do anything, Andi!"

"Not yet. But I know you, Henry. Chris needs his sleep. You will not pester him all night."

"I wouldn't do that, Andi."

She looks at him for a few seconds before turning to Chris. "If he won't shut up, just start singing the second verse of A Bicycle Built For Two. Even Billy can get him to stop acting crazy with that one." Then she looks back at Henry and grins. "If I feel a disturbance in the Force coming from inside this house and you're the cause of it, I'm gonna come back in here with Pablo, and then we're going to sing three-part harmony at you."

As they take their leave, Coyote walks beside Andi for a moment. Your cousin understands the importance of the training for your brother's friend, Warrior. I will be sure to remind him that he knows this.

Thank you, Coyote. I'm sure we'll all appreciate it.

And while it's true that Andi and Pablo are on their honeymoon and the rest of the Pentad joins them in the rolling hotel, they not only don't set the bus on fire, but they actually get some sleep.

Ordinary folks need more than a couple of hours of sleep a night. In that regard, Andi used to be normal. However, thanks to the much weirder than usual path her life is taking at the moment, she's wide awake long before the sun rises. She didn't strictly dream about those two, but she certainly had the sense they had been hovering. Still are, in fact.

She slides out from under the blankets, away from the warmth Pablo provides, and into the slightly chilly air of the bus. She doesn't do much more than splash some cold water on her face before donning her loose practice outfit, hesitating only a few seconds before pulling on her boots as well. She can see Pablo's eyes are open and following her movements as she finger combs her hair.

I'm just going to practice for a little while. She smiles in the darkness. Go back to sleep, love.

Did you sleep at all?

1I did. I think the hellions woke me.

You can hear Em and Vin from here?

No, silly! Our hellions. If I had slipped into a dream, they would have tormented me, and I'd prefer to at least pretend I'm sane this morning.

Mmm. If you're still practicing when I wake up, maybe I'll join you.

He's already slipping back into sleep as she leans over to kiss him. She hurries outside as quickly as the bus door allows and stands in the quiet, starlit, freezing air of pre-dawn. She doesn't want to bother the cows — not that she expects her practice to disturb them, but Mother has been overly generous lately — so she does her warm-up stretching beside the bus and move to the dirt-packed driveway to begin her forms. She closes her eyes as she starts with the intermediate forms that Grandmaster Chen taught. While there are certainly differences between rural Wyoming and a small Chinese village, there are enough similarities this morning that she moves through the forms as she learned them, continuing through the advanced and then master-level routines before beginning the forms again — this time, modified for her particular Curse and style of fighting. Perhaps later, after they've worked with Chris, she can get in a serious sparring session with Maddie and Logan.

Andi merely notes Sam's presence when he comes out of the house. She doesn't think he's surprised to see her practicing in the driveway as much as he's bewildered and confused and worried that she's wearing what amounts to cotton pajamas when the temperature is still well below freezing. It doesn't stop him from going about his appointed duties, however. In his case, it's tending to his cows. Cattle. Whatever. He and Suzi have a lot of them. On the other side of the house, they have a stable for their horses. Andi is looking forward to riding later.

By the time Sam heads back into the house, she's been going through her forms for more time than she has since... huh, since Halloween, she believes. It feels good to be in the No Time place. It feels good to move and dance outdoors with the qi. Well, if those two are going to force her to do more Taiji just to stay at a level of sanity that most people would recognize, at least she'll enjoy herself.

Pablo pokes his head out the door of the bus. "You've been out here for more than two hours, Andi. Are you okay?"

She finishes her final stretch, looks at him, and smiles. "I feel great!" She jogs back to the bus and climbs aboard. "I need to do that more often."

Pablo is fully dressed; Maddie and Logan are just gathering up their jackets. They look ready to go riding, that's for sure. Andi digs in the bag Pablo left on the couch and pulls out her uniform.

"Okay, it will just take me a minute to change, and then we'll go fetch the gang."

"Uh, maybe we should have breakfast before we go into the wilderness to beat on Chris."

She snickers and glances at Pablo after pulling off her top and tossing it at him. "Suzi promised that she and her kids would provide a proper breakfast for us. Jenny is smart enough to know that's going to mean lots and lots of protein, even if her folks haven't let that fact sink in fully. And hey! I've heard that country breakfasts are something even Village Inn can't imitate. So... duh? Breakfast first!"

She's moving fast enough that her husband is pelted with her practice trousers, too, before he can get the top put away. Maddie and Logan have already left the bus, removing themselves from the line of fire. Andi can hear them laughing as they walk toward the house. Pablo is grinning at her instead of doing his job -- he may never get tired of watching her get dressed. It's not until she sits down to pull her boots on again that he folks her outfit and puts it away.

Suzi hadn't been kidding when she said she'd provide a proper breakfast. Justin, Nicole, Henry, and Chris are already seated at the large kitchen table. Em and Vin are helping Timmy set platters and bowls of food on the table.

Same comes into the kitchen, having obviously taken a shower. "Madeline, you might have mentioned your sister has a death wish." His smile is barely perceptible, but humor rings in his voice.

"I don't! I—"

"She grew up in Siberia," Pablo says.

"I'm pretty sure we spent more time in Japan," Justin responds.

"And Siberia is part of Russia, Pablo," Henry adds. "Andi was in China."

Nicole giggles. "She's a Taiji Master, Sam. I didn't believe it when Justin told me that Masters can regulate their body temperature, but it's true. I asked around, did some research. And Andi had one of the best teachers in the world."

"Right." The topic of conversation waves a hand in Nicole's direction as she sits beside Pablo. "What she said." Then she looks at the food laid out on the table, wondering how it wasn't creaking under the weight of it all. "Steak? For breakfast?" she blurts out.

Timmy gives the impression that it's the funniest thing he's heard all year. Considering the fact that the year is just about over, Andi is wondering how he's managing not to fall off his chair. Sam and Suzi chuckle; Jenny laughs.

"What do you eat for a protein-heavy breakfast, Aunt Andi?"

"Oh, various combinations of bacon, protein bars, different types of nut butters, eggs, sausage, cheese."

"We ate a lot of fish and tofu in Japan," Justin adds.

Andi nods. "Same in China, though the proportions were flipped."

"Back home on the rez — hush up, Andi — we eat mutton, even for breakfast sometimes." Henry smiles, and he sighs with happiness. "Got a copilot named O'Malley who turns green when I mention it. I don't think Irish people know how to cook it right. I need to remember to give him Tita's recipe."

Andi shrugs. "Okay. It's all good. I like new things that aren't like to get me killed, and no dead cow has ever tried to kill me. No live one either, for that matter."

"You could get mad cow disease," Pablo says, grinning.

She snickers. "Do you want me to go into excruciating detail about why that's impossible, or should I just Gibbs slap you?"


She grins as she cuts up the steak. Grilling a steak or two for breakfast... that's definitely something Pablo should do. Sometimes.

Breakfast is a lively affair in the Edmonton house. It reminds Andi of dinners with her family. Nicole is fascinated by the business side of being a cattle rancher. Andi reminds Chris to eat more protein. Henry and Justin are telling stories that have a dual purpose — entertain Em, Vin, and Timmy and take attention away from Leon and Jenny. Maddie and Logan chat comfortably with Sam, Suzi, and Nicole. Elder Brother is a conundrum Andi hops never to fully understand. For all the times he spends being taciturn, he's very nearly gregarious this morning.

"Hey, Andi."

"Yeah, Henry?"

"You don't need me and Coyote helping Chris this morning, do you?"

"Nope. I'd hate to have you fall asleep in a snowbank and die from hypothermia." She grins at her cousin.

"Oh, there aren't any snowbanks out in the west pasture, Miss Andi," Timmy says. "Probably just drifts along the fences."

She winks at the youngster. "Well, darn. Henry's awfully darn funny when he's pretending to fall asleep just when things get interesting around him. And it's okay to call me Aunt Andi if you want."

"Okay, Aunt Andi. Thanks." He smiles shyly. He and Maddie's hellions seem to be getting along splendidly.

"Hoo boy, Andi! I sure did fall asleep when you and Madeline and the Ghost were doing who knows what on Halloween!"

She chuckles. "Yes, so Coyote informed me. Do you plan to fall asleep somewhere else today?"

"Nah, I thought maybe I could go riding with these nice folks and watch them move their cows around. It might be as interesting as moving rocks!"

Pablo rolls his eyes, and Justin reaches over to pat Henry on the head. Andi just shrugs.

"And it sure would be nice to get to know our new cousins better. My little brother likes them more than he likes me. Gotta know why!"

This time she rolls her eyes. "Henry, Billy loves Em and Vin just as much as he loves his goofy big brother — that would be you, by the way — and everyone else in the family, for that matter. They just appreciate his cartoon characters more than most."

"Oh. Hey, sure, I get that." Henry nods. "The only one I really like is Sonic the Hedgehog."

"Uh huh." Then she grins at him. "I like that one, too."

Suzi marshalls the whole gaggle of youngsters to help clean up. Jenny and Timmy fall to it naturally. Seeing all the joyful, colorful interweaving of qi in the kitchen, Andi doesn't think Maddie even needed to remind the twins to offer their assistance.

"The rest of you get ready for riding," Sam says. "We'll meet you and the youngsters at the stables, hon."

Andi gives Pablo a quick kiss and nudges him along with the rest of the group. "Just need to fetch my staff. I'll catch up."

The only point in her mission that she needs to slow down to a normal speed is when she opens and closes the door of the bus. Her scabbard is at the bottom of the bag that she and Pablo had brought; she shrugs it on and adjusts it quickly. She fetches her staff from the pantry and waits until she gets out of the bus before flipping it over her shoulder into the scabbard, then runs around the house to catch up to Pablo. Although Sam, Maddie, and Logan have already entered the structure, everyone else is still lagging behind.


"you know, some of us don't move nearly as fast as you do, dear."

She laughs. "I know. Only Logan and Em do. And they're actually faster. Well..." She pauses a moment, considering Em's age and physical development. "Unless she isn't already as fast as her dad, which I don't think she is. Yet. But she and I should have a race. For fun and science, of course."

Pablo sighs and shakes his head. "You won't be happy until you're as fast as Logan."

"Dingbat. I don't think I'll ever be as fast as Logan. But Em is still growing, and my powers are still wonky. How long will it take for them to settle down? How will I know I'm improving my time unless I'm working with someone doing the same?"

"Yes, dear."

She chuckles and then looks around the Edmontons' stable in wonder. While her rational brain keeps telling her that it makes perfect sense for them to have well more than a dozen horses, another part of her brain marvels at the fact that it's every bit as clean and modern as Dale's Hitchin Post outside Flagstaff. And it's much nicer than the few places where she and Pablo have ridden in Colorado since August.


Pablo just nods his agreement. Maddie and Logan are already making friends with a pair of horses. Well, knowing Maddie, she's probably just reintroducing herself. Andi grins.

"Let's get you folks heading to the far pasture on the trail first, shall we? Have you all ridden before?" Sam asks.

While Justin, Pablo, and Andi nod, Chris shakes his head and his qi flares with a momentary panic. He tucks it away before it ever shows in his stance or on his face; Andi wonders if he even realizes the tiny spike of fear ever happened. Sam nods and looks over at Jenny, who's just entering the building.

"Introduce him to Greta, will you, Jenny? Go ahead and get her ready... we'll let Chris make a new friend this once without forcing him to learn everything about caring for a horse. Are the rest of you familiar with the tack?"

"Yes, sir," Pablo says.

Justin nods. "I don't get to ride as often as Andi does. She can spot me."

Before she can say anything, Andi notes the semi-suspicious look Sam is giving her and raises an eyebrow. Then he stares pointedly at her feet.

"Those are not riding boots, Andi."

She sighs. "They are! Honest. I wear them when I ride; therefore, they're riding boots. Does it help to know I've been having this conversation for a decade with the stable owner in Flagstaff? And nearly as long with the do-gooder bikers down in the Denver area?"

"Nope, not really."

She nods. "Well, I didn't want to dupe you with the mojo I recently learned for creating illusions and always use at the stables where Pablo and I have been riding in the past few months. Would it help if I told you I have a Doctor Doolittle aspect to my gift?"

Maddie had mentioned that Jenny's family called it that — a gift — and that they were incredibly supportive of their daughter. Sam studies Andi for a minute before nodding.

"I'll accept that. Go on down past Madeline and Logan. Hannah, Chester, and Pinhead are the least likely to spook if you folks are planning any activities that might be outside their experiences."

"Nay, we're just going to do some running around and help Chris figure out how his gift works. But, ah... Pinhead?"

Sam laughs, "We let the kids name the horses. Timmy had a fight with his best friend the day before the colt was born."

"Ah. So Chester and Pinhead are geldings, and Hannah is a mare."

Sam smiles broadly as he shakes his head. "I told you the kids named them. Hannah and Pinhead are geldings. Chester is a mare."

"Okaaay. I'm making a mental note to teach my children about gender differences in whatever stray cats or dogs that might follow them home before they start naming them. Although, I could catch a break and they'll choose names like Lampshade and Bungee Cord."

He gives her an odd look before accepting her nonsense at face value and heading back to the larger group of cattle rustlers. Well, no, wouldn't they be cowhands? Andi shrugs as she heads down the aisle between the stalls. As she walks past Jenny and Chris — noting the superb job she's doing making sure Chris is comfortable with Greta, introducing him to the mare in a way that's soothing and thoughtful and respectful of Chris's intelligence — Andi also makes a mental note to ask Maddie about Jenny's gift. She's never heard of a projecting Empath, but that's the thought that passes through her mind. Well, Moira did broadly hint that such a thing was possible, although it was considered highly unethical in her universe.

Andi gives the matter no further thought as she introduces herself to Chester, speaking softly as she allowed the horse to become accustomed to her. Pablo is doing well with Pinhead. As she starts getting Chester ready for their ride, she notes that Justin is acting a little more timid with Hannah than she would have expected from him. She shakes her head and smiles. He probably hasn't forgotten how to ride — he's just forgotten that horses can be nearly as stubborn as his big sister.

They eventually manage to get out of the stable, into the yard and mounted as Suzi and Timmy are leaving the house. She waves; Maddie and Logan are already moving out along a patch of earth that might be considered a trailhead if there was much of a trail beyond a few dozen feet. Justin is urging Chris to relax, exaggerating a more comfortable posture than the one he's holding at the moment. Pablo watches them and smiles. Andi waves back to Suzi.

"Justin, you two want to get going? Greta will follow Hannah."

"Oh yeah? How do you know?" He gives Hannah a nudge with his heels; as the gelding starts out after Maddie and Logan, Greta and Chris fall in beside Justin.

"Because I told her to?"

Justin turns around to glare at his sister before whispering to Chris, "You know, I can't tell when she's kidding about that stuff or being serious."

As Pablo and Andi follow them, she chuckles.

Don't tell Justin, but I was just kidding. The horses are very well trained and know what they're supposed to be doing.

He grins at her. "Oh, I figured that out the first time I met him in Flagstaff — that the two of you take great joy in teasing one another. I would never interfere with that."

Because they're just walking the horses, it takes about twenty minutes to reach the pasture at the edge of their property. And it's not a warm day — they may need Pablo's weird light manipulation skill to warm things up a bit until the temperature gets above freezing. Andi glances over at him and shakes her head.

"Pablo, you really should be wearing gloves. Or mittens. Or something."

"So should you. In fact, shouldn't you be wearing something over your uniform?"

She sighs. They were actually going to play this stupid game to see who's tougher?

"Do you remember that first winter you knew me and kept freaking out about my light jacket?"


"Which means you do! And what did I tell you every time you lost your mind?"

He sighs. "That you lived close enough to Siberia that it made no difference."

"Uh huh. And in the past several months, what have you learned about my Curse?"

He just gives her a dirty look as he pulls his ski gloves out of his parka pockets and yanks them on.

"I love you, dear, but you'd be very unhappy if you got frostbite," she says. "And then I would be unhappy if the weird healing thing caused me to get frostbite so I could heal it. But how about you do that bizarre warm the air thing you do later?"

"It takes a lot of energy, Andi."

"Well, it's a good thing I have a lot to spare and share! It doesn't need to be much — just enough that ice and snow will melt so that Chris has something to work with."

He nods. "That should easy enough. Well, as long as I don't need to keep it up all day, that is."

"Nah. I think the weather forecast mentioned low forties by mid-morning."

As Timmy has suggested, there are indeed drifts of snow along the fence. That's probably a good thing. While Andi might be able to coax some moisture from the air, Chris might need to figure that trick out and practice before he can manage efficiently, so it's better to have a ready supply.

Leaving the horses along a relatively snow-free section of the fence, they jog a dozen yards or so up to one of the more significant drifts.

"Okay, Chris, this is all about you and your gifts." Andi nods to Pablo. "Pablo can supply you with water until you feel like you can use the snow and moisture in the air to do your thing. How do you want to start — creating bigger things than you already have, working on instinct, something else?" She grins at him. "We're just here to beat on you and hopefully trigger your sense of self-preservation, which ought to unlock a bit of your potential."

"And I promise you won't have anywhere near as terrifying a time as I did," Pablo adds. "No flying buzzsaws, no unnatural creatures with more teeth that ought to fit in a head, and no dying!"

"Well, I'm absolutely relieved to hear that," Justin mutters. "I don't care if the whole bunch of you are superheroes — I'm going to find a way to hurt you if you mess with my friend."

Andi walks over to Justin and places both hands on his shoulders, looking up at the worry in his eyes. Sometimes she forgets that he's even taller than Pablo.

"I love you, little brother. I love that you care so much about your friend. I swear by everything we hold dear that we're not going to let him get hurt — just as you won't let your young soccer players get hurt. Okay?"

"Not really, but kind of."

"I grok that. And I'm glad you're here. I think it will help Chris when you guys go home that he has someone who really understands what he'll have gone through this weekend."

She turns and steps back between Justin and Pablo, then gestures to Chris.

"It's your show, Chris."

Chris has been enjoying this time with Justin's family, watching the various interactions. His own family has their brand of craziness, too. Well, nothing like this — sheer size makes the comparison unfair. He knows attention will shift to him once they arrive at the far side of the field, and it makes him nervous.

When they all look at him, he takes a deep breath.

"Well, let's start with some non-offensive things. I already know I can make ice on the ground. How about if I try to make an ice wall or shield? Something that might keep someone from attacking me. Then maybe move up to seeing if I can make it fast enough to stop someone shooting. Then we can work towards offense.

"I'll take that head start, Pablo," he says with a smile.

Pablo chuckles. "I'm not going to start shooting you on your first day out. I think my brother-in-law over there would try to hurt me."

"No, I would hurt you, Pablo," Justin says casually.

"You could try."

Andi laughs. Both Pablo and Justin look at her; Pablo is slightly confused, but Justin has a wicked grin on his face. Hmm. Now that she's noticing it, she'd be willing to bet that her brother was her inspiration for Ninja's grin.

"You didn't tell him, did you, Sis?"

She shakes her head, smiling happily.

Pablo looks at her and then Justin, then back at Andi again. "Okay. What am I missing."

"You know that Andi's got the highest rank black belt in Aikido, right?" Justin asks.

Pablo nods.

"Justin is only a step behind me — eighth rank black belt," she says. "Testing for ninth rank in a couple of months."

"Oh. Well, now I'm definitely not going to shoot you, Chris."

"Thanks for not being overly excited to shoot me," he replies.

Once Chris has something to work with, he concentrates on making ice grow from the ground into a wall before him. He tries a few times, seeing if he can control the speed and shape of the ice. Once he gets the hang of it — not yet! — he'll try for a shield he can hold.

While Andi lets the others watch the ice, she watches the qi. Chris is able to create a wall of ice that's as tall as he is, but it's incredibly thin and fragile — as they learn when a gust of wind shatters it. He's game to try again, though. This time, he creates a thicker wall, but it barely reaches his shins. She has to give him a lot of credit, he keeps on trying.


"Sis?" Justin is giving her a look she usually gets from Maddie.

"Well... it doesn't look quite right. The qi, I mean."

She pauses and studies the latest wall: waist-high, and it would stand up to average gusts of winds. Pablo's concussive blast would shatter it as readily as the breeze destroyed Chris's first attempt, and it probably wouldn't hold up in a storm. But for freaking people out? It would probably be great.

Chris is, of course, used to failure — not in the sense that he is a failure, but the trial and error that was the way of life for a scientist.

Andi taps her chin for a few seconds before directing a gentle blast of qi at the wall and melting it.

"I'd like to know how other folks see what you're doing, but first I'd like to know how you see what you're doing, Chris. What I mean is... do you feel like you're running on instinct? Or are you focusing your attention on any part of the exercise?"

Justin laughs. "Just pretend you're defending your thesis, buddy. Maybe you'll overwhelm her with information."

Maddie snorts, and Andi just rolls her eyes.

"I'm with Maddie on this one, Justin," Pablo says. "I'm not sure it's possible to overwhelm your sister with information. But I would like to see you try, Chris."

"It used to work," Justin mutters.

"Probably before her brain started competing with Wikipedia."

"Pay no attention to the jealous ones," she says to Chris. "You're doing great, but I think there's something missing. If we know how this looks from your side, maybe we'll have some suggestions on how to add whatever's missing."

"To be honest, like the first time I did something, I just thought about it, and it happened. I really didn't think of how or any real detail. I just picture it, and it forms.

"So, maybe you think I should approach it more scientifically. I could think of it at the atomic level. Or at least I can think of it in terms of building it up in layers?"

Andi shakes her head and looks over at Maddie and Logan. Maddie gives her sister that look that says 'Seriously?' and Logan shrugs as he smiles. She grins at both of them.

"Right. If it works, who cares how? I don't know why I even think to ask you in these situations."

"I don't either," Maddie says with a smile.

"How about you, Pablo?"

He shrugs. "From my perspective, it looks like Chris needs to practice."

She sighs. "Well, yes. But..." She turns and looks at Justin.

"What? I'm just a Normal science nerd over here. My job is moral support. And keeping you crazy people from hurting my friend."

The way he grins, Andi half expects him to stick his tongue out at her. But then he looks at Chris.

"Knowing my sister, she'll expect you to think at the subatomic, quark level, not merely atomic."

She shrugs. "Well, you're not entirely wrong. But maybe way off base, too."

"You know, I don't think Pablo is going to stop me from slugging you," Justin says. "Come on, Andi, if you have to be the Shaman kind of weird, you need to translate the metaphysics into something the rest of us can understand."

This time, Maddie and Pablo burst out laughing, and Logan says, "I don't know if Andi can manage that."

"Traitors. The whole lot of you are traitors," she mutters. "Good thing I love you."

She looks back the way they had come, toward the east, and something tickles the back of her brain — but not the way Tommy used to tickle it when he uses telepathy. It's a memory of... a dream? Well, maybe it was a dream.

"Energetically, what Chris is doing isn't much different than what I did to build my shields," she murmurs. "So..."

She turns to look back at Chris.

"Your instincts for doing this are every bit as good as mine for doing what I do. Moira and Great Spirit seemed surprised that I had the power to affect the Crossroads like I did. So I think it's about power."

She pauses and worries at her lip as she contemplates that and studies Chris's aura.

"You wouldn't happen to have studied any martial arts or maybe yoga or even meditation, would you?" she asks him. "It would help, but Justin can give you a mini-lesson on intention and power. I could probably kick start your engine, so to speak, without hurting you.

Then she grins. "Nah, it wouldn't hurt. But it might feel like everything in your body is being tickled. Waking up from being numb? Who knows? Everyone is different."

Chris looks from one to another as they speak. He understands some of what they're talking about, but not most of it. He just shakes his head and laughs.

"No. No meditation or anything like that. Though I think when I'm focused at work, Justin probably thinks I've gone into a trance."

He shrugs.

"I trust you won't kill me or cause lasting damage, so I'm for anything."

She chuckles. I'm glad we're on the same page. I'm not a fan of killing. And I'm not big on letting my brother beat on me for hours if I hurt you. Which I wouldn't."

Justin rolls his eyes. "Just ignore her for now." He glances at his sister, shakes his head, and looks at Chris. "I'll explain it because she'll just go off on some weird metaphysical tangent.

"Without getting into history, philosophy, sociology, and probably anthropology lessons, you just need to accept that living beings have souls. That's a shorthand way of describing the animating force, by the way. Andi calls it other things, but she's not going to open her mouth now if she knows what's good for her."

Next to her, Pablo snickers and whispers, "I'm going to be one of Justin's biggest fans before this is over."

She just sighs. Justin is pointedly ignoring the whole lot of them.

"That's where your power comes from, and it gets recharged..." Justin shrugs. "Well, whatever works for you. Could be getting lost in your work for all I know. It would make sense. I go running."

"Hey, so do I!" Pablo says.

"The peanut gallery will be quiet.

"Andi does Taiji. Nicole does yoga, her brother sings. Some people pray. The point is that it's a personal preference."

Justin pauses and smiles while bouncing on his toes. "Let's see... so you're a battery, and you need to recharge yourself. Next, you figure out — or maybe just decide — where your primary storage area and your discharge points are. Different folks think of the major storage areas differently. That one..." He gestures in Andi's direction. "...uses the lower dan tian, also known as the sacral chakra. Others use the solar plexus chakra."

He tilts his head. "Hmm. Well, the first is in the lower abdomen and closer to a person's center of gravity. It might be best for active people. The second is just under the diaphragm. That's good for people who talk or sing for a living, I suppose. Oh, and some people hold their energy in their hearts. That's the best place for caregivers in my not at all humble opinion."

Grinning, Justin nods to himself. "Yep, gonna recommend the lower one but it's up to you. Now for discharging? That's part of visualization as far as I'm concerned, although Andi actually shoots energy out of her hands and feet. I've never heard of anyone else who does that, though. But imagining your power pouring out with the ice is the crucial thing. Or imagining it as part of the ice? Sure. Either way, ought to work.

"Make sense?"

"Nothing like taking a whole lot of shortcuts," his sister mumbles.

"Hey, if I understand half of what you've said, he hit all the essential points," Pablo replies. "And Chris isn't catatonic."

She jabs him in the ribs with an elbow. "Brat."

Chris keeps smiling and taking in everything his buddy is saying.

He kept smiling, but he was taking in everything his buddy was saying.

"I hear what you're saying. So, I should try and project from my core instead of my head. And not just think about ice, but ice and a part of me?

"Now the recharging part, I have no idea. I don't have anything I really do to relax. I work, I sleep, I spend time with friends. I think that's why Miranda and Brad are afraid to move out. I think they believe that I'd either work or sleep more if they weren't around. I sure can't sing, and I've never done any running.

"So should I try again, projecting differently or do you think I'm drained now? Can you tell if you're drained or close to it, Andi?"

She laughs wryly at Chris's question.

"These days? I don't think it's possible to drain myself. Mother Earth seems to delight in trying to turn me into a nuclear power plant."

She looks up at Pablo. "When was the last time I wore myself out? It was after we got back from Flagstaff, wasn't it?"

"When we were practicing your healing thing without the benefit of Rene's brand of magic, I think." He grins. "That's more fun anyway."

She swats his arm. "I am not going to recommend that Chris rushes back home and find a girlfriend before doing anything else."

"Hey, that wasn't my point."

She raises both eyebrows and just stares at him.

"Well, not exactly. But shouldn't everyone be as happy as we are?"

This time she rolls her eyes. "While the stories I've heard about Miranda are tame compared to what my best friend subjected me to, no one is going to play matchmaker. Right?"

Pablo laughs. "Yes, dear."

She gives him a stink eye. "There's only so much of that I'm going to tolerate, Señor Garcia."

"Lo siento, Señora Yazzie." He pauses. "That doesn't sound right."

She just sighs and turns back to Chris.

"You're definitely not drained. Right now, this is all so new to you that you're having fun, so I think you're going to be depleting your battery, as Justin put it, a lot more slowly than if you were... oh, stopping a mugger from grabbing a little old lady's purse. Although if Justin's tales of Chicago hold any truth whatsoever, little old ladies out there are beating muggers about the head and shoulders with their suitcase-sized purses."

"I said that?" Justin asks, his eyebrows going up.

"Well, I think it was the delivery."

"Uh huh. Right. Sure."

She grins at him before answering Chris. "Sure, go ahead and give it another try! Don't worry, I'll watch out for you. Oh, and that whole working and sleeping to the exclusion of everything else?" She shrugs. "If your job gives you a lot of satisfaction, it could very well recharge you — at least to some extent. Sleeping isn't bad either. Just don't forget to keep fun in your life.

"Let's see how you instinctively use your own power. It will give me a baseline to see how much work you'll need to do to stay charged."

The difference between Chris's easy acceptance of his powers and Pablo's early reluctance to accept his... well, they aren't quite polar opposites, but they aren't anything alike, either.

The mention of a girlfriend instantly makes him think of Claire and Miranda, both of whom believe he'd be happier with a girlfriend. Like a lot of things, he isn't against the idea... he just doesn't think about it much.

"And how do I know if I'm depleted? I won't just pass out, right? I mean, you can't go negative and do yourself harm, can you?" He's asking this as if it's all perfectly normal. Clearly, he's accepted the whole thing — Spirits and all.

Andi shrugs. "Yeah, you might just pass out. I nearly did. I suppose that's a good reason not to work alone on big things or new things. It's really just a matter of knowing the best ways of making sure your battery is always charged and knowing the best ways of charging it fast."

Then she smiles. "But no, you can't actually go negative and kill yourself. It's like breathing — you'll pass out before you can hurt yourself."

Justin sighs. "Yeah, I never did manage to hold my breath until Mom or Dad let me do some crazy thing. I'd start feeling dizzy and start sucking in air."

"Let me guess... this was while I was in China."

"Of course. I wanted to visit you. I had a couple of temper tantrums."

She just looks at him for a minute before walking over and hugging him tightly. Then she goes back to her place at Pablo's side.

"Okay. Let's see what happens," Chris says, stepping back a bit.

He thinks of a wall again and, like last time, he's envisioning the final product. But this time, he figures he'll also concentrate on himself and pushing it out through his core.

He takes a deep breath, focuses on power, on the final product...

Wall of solid ice... he thinks in a rush.

As Chris attempts to create another ice shield using Justin's suggestions, Andi looks back over at her brother and smiles. She can tell just from watching the beginning of the process that Chris understands at an instinctive level what his friend has said. Chris's qi is sluggish, but she thinks it's more a factor of not ever having to think about things like this as opposed to the sorts of blockages she's seen in some of her friends lately.

The wall is constructed considerably more slowly this time, but it's definitely more stable. Chris is a bit disappointed that it isn't thicker, and that it took longer to build.

Standing opposite him with the wall of ice between them, Andi can see that the shield is very nearly a part of him.

"You have a real knack for this, Chris. I think once you get comfortable with the idea of your personal power being part of the equation, that's going to become as intuitive as actually creating something.

"This isn't going to stop a bullet, but if you could bring it up fast enough, it would slow down one of those pesky muggers. Make it stronger, and you'll knock him on his ass."

She touches the wall with her palm, melting it.

"So. Two things — did you feel anything when I melted the wall and do you want to try again?" She grins. "Since the wall was, to a large part, an extension of you, I attempted to separate your energy from Mother's and return them both to the appropriate places. If you didn't notice, that's fine. I'm just curious about how fine-tuned your instincts and self-awareness are."

Practice... or understanding? he wonders before turning his attention back to Andi. She had dismantled the wall with apparently less effort than it had taken him to put it up. And a whole lot faster, too.

"I'm not sure. Maybe a bit of tingling feeling. I'll think about it a bit more next time."

"Or maybe less thinking," Andi remarks. "Almost everyone who knows me will tell you I practically overanalyze things to death—"

"Practically?" Maddie says. Andi doesn't need to turn around to know her Sister has a big shit-eating grin on her face.

"And some people will tell you that I absolutely overanalyze everything. That said, sometimes going with the flow is the right answer."

Chris nods. "Let me try something smaller to see if I can do it quickly. You said I wouldn't hurt, right? How about if I make something like an ice fist or bolt. Something that strikes out?"

She considers his question for a few seconds and then nods.

"Sure. Turning your hand into a block of ice and trying to hit me won't hurt me, but I'm too fast and react to attacks so instinctively that I might hurt you." She shrugs. "I have a feeling some of that is due to the pregnancy, but you'd be better off trying to punch Pablo or Maddie. Well, maybe just Pablo." She chuckles. "He's nicer than my sister."

She takes two steps back.

"A dart, knife, icicle — something like an ice bolt would work, though."

"Are you sure, Andi? Your uniform doesn't stop knives," Pablo says, sounding very worried. "Just bullets."

She reaches over and pats his shoulder. "I'm sure. I'll be fine." She looks at Maddie and Logan, then back at Pablo. "You should back off and hang with Justin. If Chris's aim is atrocious, I don't want him hitting you. Logan can move fast enough if Maddie's in danger."

"I don't like it."

She shrugs. "I'm not saying you should. I'm just saying that Chris isn't going to hurt me."

Pablo sighs and joins Justin off to Chris' side.

Andi nods to Chris. "Aim for center mass, middle of my torso. Trust me when I say you won't hurt me. Trust yourself that you can do this."

Everyone else's nervousness — well, Pablo's nervousness is starting to make Chris nervous too. But Andi seems confident and continues to reassure him. He glances over at Justin, who smiles and nods.

Okay. He'll trust them.

He doesn't have the faintest idea about his aim. Sports were never his thing. Still, he doesn't want to hit her in the abdomen... she is pregnant, after all. He decides he'll try to aim for her chest.

"If you're sure..." He's still nervous.

"Yep, I'm sure," she says. "I trust both of us, too."

This time, however, he takes a moment to calm himself. He knows that if he becomes a superhero — which is a ridiculous idea at the moment — he'll have to do this under a lot of pressure.

You're just learning, he tells himself.

"Okay. Here's we go."

Focusing on himself first, he wills the air to freeze into a solid fist-sized ball of ice, then he uses the air to push it away from him... straight at Andi. The ice didn't come from his palm or anything cool like that. It just formed, then moved toward his target. Since he didn't want the ice ball to fall short, he puts his mind into pushing it all the way to her, even through her. And then trusts her to know what she's doing.

Although she can't keep herself from intently watching the movement of qi, she can wait with a remarkable imitation of patience, if she does say so herself.

Either being a scientist is a more demanding job than homicide detective, or Chris is really good at getting out of his own way. While it isn't as simple as flipping a switch, she'd say his ability to go from moderately nervous to very calm is more like manually turning down the volume on a stereo. A quick metaphorical flip of the wrist and he goes from eight down to nearly zero in no time.

She can see the energy in the air around him, the rippling of his aura, and the way it all coalesces into the sense of a push. What's utterly fascinating is that the chunk of ice forms as the force begins to reach toward her. Now, there's a trick that will keep people off-guard — the push beginning before the actual weapon is formed.

As the chunk of ice hurls toward her, she studies it. As she turns out if its path, she studies it. As it glances off the arm she raises to block it, she studies it. Ice and even bits of dirt — as if Chris had scooped up a handful of dirty snow, shaped it quickly into a snowball, and then threw it. Except that isn't at all what he did.

Fascinating! It's exceptionally well-crafted.

However, as the ice shatters from its impact with her arm, begins falling to the ground, and she turns back toward Chris, something slams into her hard enough to hurt. If Rene hadn't appeared behind her and become substantial, she would have fallen on her ass. Well, no... probably her back. Side? Side, yes, because she would have twisted to protect the staff.

What the fuck?


"Um, hi?" she says to the Spirit standing between her and Chris. She shrugs Rene's hands off her shoulders.


Nope. Maddie is not happy. Logan's growls don't sound overjoyed either.

"You get yourself into all sorts of trouble, don't you, Sister?"

She doesn't take her eyes off the Spirit woman. She's holding a bow with a nocked arrow. Said arrow is pointed at Andi, so... nope. She's watching that one.

"Shouldn't you expect it by now, Rene?"

"Are you okay, Andi?" Pablo isn't happy either, but he sounds more worried than pissed off.

"Yep. I'm fine."

She nods to the Spirit, who looks like she's... maybe trying to protect Chris.

"Not talkative? Okay. I am. Especially with Spirits staring at me, unless you're a crazy one like Raven and Quetzalcoatl. Please don't be crazy. I'm Andi."

That would explain why the rest of us can't see whatever you and probably Chris see, Maddie says. Do we need to worry?

I hope not. She has an arrow pointed at me, but she's not making any other aggressive moves.

"I am Skadi. He is mine."

"Oh, sure, absolutely! All yours, and nice to meet you, I guess."

Chris had said something about her, a Norse goddess or maybe demi-goddess — what is it with deities, anyway?

"He is mine."

"Yes. Yours. Got it. We're just friends. Just helping, okay? I promise not to adopt him."

"I'm going to play the role of Henry here," Justin says. "Who you talking to, Andi?"

"And does it have anything to do with the fact that I seem to be stuck over here?" Pablo asks.

"Skadi, Chris's... ah... yeah, I'm not sure. And maybe, Pablito. Fine. Probably."

The Spirit lowers her bow slightly; now, the arrow is pointed at Andi's feet. She hazards a glance at Chris, who looks like he's in a trance. Or possibly just overwhelmed.

"He is mine."

"Okay, Lady, please stop. If that's the only English you know, I'm sure I can find someone who speaks Old Norse. Well, no, you'd probably have to try Swedish; I'm pretty sure I could find someone who speaks Swedish. Between Raven and the psycho Aztec twins, I really can't take much more lunacy from other Realms."

"Aztec?" The look on her face goes from bland to annoyed. Andi is going to take that as a good sign because her expression looks a lot like that every time she thinks about Quetzalcoatl and Tezcatlipoca.

"Raven? I know two. Hugin and Munin speak to the Allfather."

"I've heard that story, too. Apparently, there are a lot of Ravens, and my version was trying to be all of them. I think. The point is, that's not a sane Spirit."

"Identify your allegiance."

Andi raises an eyebrow. "Be more specific."

Is there some reason the rest of us can't see her? This isn't helping us relax, Maddie says.

Probably something like the Spirits. They can't be seen by people who aren't me, or the Shamans unless they want to be seen.

The fact that Andi can barely detect Maddie's level of high alert is a testament to the strength of the shields she's been working on. So that's a good thing.

"Does your loyalty lie with Asgard or Vanaheim?"

Andi blinks and tries to determine if she just heard what she knows she just heard. Mother and Father both laugh at her, which doesn't really help as much as they might think.

"Okay, don't take this the wrong way, but you can't go talking about Asgard without me taking my brain off to the place where a Stargate actually exists under Cheyenne Mountain, and the Asgards are little gray alien people with big, buggy eyes and sometimes help the poor humans in their fight against the Goa'uld. However, I have neither Norse nor Germanic ancestry, so... none of the above?"

"You speak in riddles."

"Oh, is that what that was? Good for me. And I'm getting snarky, which never ends well — at least for anyone who isn't part of my family and in this case, I'm going to include Chris. Probably."

"You see me. You speak to me. You are one of the Shamans." She relaxes and lowers the bow to her side, and she returns the arrow to her quiver. "But your tone speaks ill of Asgard."

Andi shrugs. "I don't have anything against any of you. I remember hearing something about Odin... that he can see souls that split before birth or some such. Other than that, I only know what I've read."

"But you are a Shaman."

"I'm the Warrior."

"Ah, a Warrior-Shaman. Are you berserker or ulfhethnar?"

"Neither? And would you mind too terribly much showing yourself so my Sister and Brother — who are much closer to being either berserker or ulfhethnar, or both — can relax?"

She almost but doesn't quite smile. "I will grant you that boon."

"Whoa," Justin whispers. "Cool."

"Thank you. So, maybe you'd also be kind enough to tell me why you hit me."

"You attempted to harm one who is under my protection."

Andi's brows furrow and eyes narrow as she looks at Skadi. She tried to hurt Chris? No. She totally didn't. Except...

"Do you mean when I blocked the ice chunk he tossed at me?"

Pablo arcs back in her direction, practically walking along the perimeter of an invisible circle drawn widely on the ground around Skadi.

"Yes. It is his creation. You harmed it."

She nods slowly. "Okaaay. I'm not sure how he's supposed to learn and get better at this stuff if he doesn't practice."

"I did not know you were his ally then. Now I know you are."

"She's only moderately more sane than Q, I think," Pablo whispers.

"No, no, maybe a lot more," Andi replies softly. "I read that the Norse deities have been gaining a lot of followers since Thor showed up last year and The Avengers tried to trash New York in their version of saving the world this year. We don't trash big cities when we save the world."

"You speak of Thor." Somehow the Goddess makes the name sound like something disgusting.

Well. Someone has acute hearing. Besides her. And Logan.

"Just explaining to my husband that more humans have been taking an interest in the Gods of Asgard in recent years."

She stares at the two of them long enough that Pablo starts getting a little nervous.

"Would it help to know that Loki is actually more popular?" Andi asks.

"As it should be. Thor is a fool."

Andi shrugs. "I've met bigger ones."

Skadi stares again, but after a few seconds turns to Chris, ignoring the rest of them with the sort of disdain that only a deity can exhibit. Andi looks at Maddie and shrug.

"Christoffer, I see that my Messenger taught you enough to seek allies to further your training. Have you become sufficiently adept to take up the mantle of Warrior in Midgard?" Skadi's gaze rakes across Justin before returning to Chris. "You have chosen this one to be your shield mate?"

"What?!" Justin squeaks. "No, no! No fighting for me. No, ma'am." Chris's friend is so unnerved, in fact, that Pelican appears beside him.

Behind them, the Pentad has arrayed themselves in a semi-circle in their usual configuration — Maddie and Andi on either side of Rene, Logan and Pablo on their other sides.

"I've been meaning to ask," Andi says conversationally to Rene, "are your Siblings still afraid of me?"

"Thoroughly and utterly terrified, yes."

"Well, that's lovely."

He shrugs. "It's more the children than your powers, believe it or not. If we really need them, they'll show up."

She's not sure that's as comforting as it ought to be. But as long as Chris won the Sane Patron Deity lottery, they should be fine.

She hopes.

Chris had been taken aback by his ice ball. It really hadn't seemed to amount to much, but Andi had reeled from... something. The timing was off. He had known immediately that it wasn't his ice ball — well, snowball, really — that had done it.

Then he sees her... with a bow.

He barely follows the conversation and is almost, but not quite, surprised when Skadi addresses him.

"Ready?" He grins and shakes his head.

"No. As you saw, I made a snowball. I can't defend myself, and I can't attack. I'm new to this, but I'm pretty sure that would make me a poor Warrior. I want to keep practicing, but it's going to take a while.

"And, um, it's nice to see you again. I was beginning to think I imagined you when I was sick. These are my friends," he adds, gesturing to the group around him.

"You still doubt yourself." Bright blue eyes regard Chris intently. "Do not doubt me. You made this same argument many times as you wandered in Jotunheim. I facilitated your return to Midgard because you persuaded me that you could do a Warrior's work here with help from your friends." She nods very slightly. "You spoke of your family and friends with an intensity one does not often find in Asgard.

Interestingly, it doesn't sound like she's a big fan of Asgard. Well, Andi supposes the politics there could be even more convoluted than whatever nonsense the Spirits have going on in their Realm.

Skadi turns and looks at the Pentad. She isn't as intimidating as Grandmaster Chen. How weird is that? Andi guesses she's gotten so used to being a Magnet for Weird that meeting new Goddesses is all in a day's work.

"You have allied yourself with Warriors, Christoffer. You often spoke of your friends, assuring me that they were faithful friends, the likes of which the Gods have never seen." Once again, she very nearly smiles. "Although this is often not an especially difficult feat in Asgard, I have seen genuine friendships elsewhere."

Then she looks at Justin. That seems to make Pelican nervous — so nervous, in fact, that it keeps opening and closing its mouth.

"I admit to having reservations about your certainty; however, I see now that you were correct. Your friend has devised a plan to bring you here — to this place of cold, though not enough snow — where I might find an entry to Midgard as well." That icy blue stare of hers shifts to Pelican. "What manner of being are you?"

"Ut oh," Andi whispers as she is reminded that the inside of a pelican's mouth is not an attractive place.


"And here I thought only you had that effect on the Spirits, dear Sister."

As difficult as it is, she does manage to ignore Rene, mostly because it's the only way to keep from bursting out laughing at this ridiculous situation.

Justin runs his hand over Pelican's head as he addresses Skadi. "Most of the plotting and planning was done by Andi," he says, nodding in his sister's direction. "All I did was invite Chris to her wedding reception. And Pelican is my guardian Spirit."


"Oh, calm down, Pelican," she says. She sounds cranky to her own ears. "She's not going to hurt you."


"Then go away?"

"No. Do stay. I am intrigued," Skadi says.

Andi is sure Maddie is laughing. If she isn't laughing out loud, she's definitely laughing inside her head and, therefore, inside Andi's head. She stares at Skadi until Pablo nudges her, then she turns to stare at him.

"I think that's your cue to do your Librarian thing for the nice Lady."

"No." She looks at her brother's guardian Spirit. "Hey, Pelican, you want to go tell Eagle that we have a visitor from another Realm who'd like to know more about you guys?"

"No, no, no, no, nooooooo!" That last bit was definitely sung as the crazy bird — all birds are obviously crazy — spreads its wings out. It reminds her of an opera singer.

"How about you, Rene?"

"Hell no."

Andi shrugs. "I don't think there's a Norse equivalent. Hey, you said Chris was in Jotunheim. That was when he was sick, right?"

"His body was ill, yes."


Maddie doesn't sigh. This isn't the right time and place for that. But if this particular situation weren't so damn weird, Andi's pretty sure she'd be sighing.

"What crazy thoughts are rattling around in your head now, Andi?"

"I think it's only moderately weird, but it sure sounds like the place where I met Moira. She called it the Overworld, Great Spirit called it the Crossroads." She looks at Skadi and gestures to Chris. "Danu said it was the place where the deities could talk to their acolytes, for lack of a better term. Why not call it Jotunheim if you're walking out of Norse mythology?"

"And your point is...?"

"Just that it's definitely not the weirdest thing to have happened to me this year, that's all."

Pelican is looking agitated again. She barely manages not to glare at both it and her brother.

"Hey, don't look at me in that tone, Andi. We came out here to help Chris, right? Well... let's do that."

She looks at Chris and grins. "Sure. I'm still game. Now that I know I'm not going to get smacked down by your protector for deflecting your snowballs, let's try a few different things, okay? Not all at once, of course," she says with a chuckle. "No sense wearing you out in the first ten minutes.

"But working on speed — not just of one, but how many you can get off before Justin—"


She scowls at Pelican. "Go home. Please. I'm not going to let anyone hurt my little brother."

I am too frightened of THAT ONE.

Well, then go where you don't have to be near her!

The Spirit does that disconcerting disappearing trick that they do, and Andi rolls her eyes. "Is your guardian always like this, Justin?"

"Only around you, sis."

"Wonderful. Good thing you decided to stay in Chicago for graduate school. Now, what was I saying? Oh, right... see how many snowballs you can get off before Justin runs over and tags you. We can see if you can hit moving targets, maybe a couple of them." She smiles cheerfully at Chris. "It would be all kinds of fun if you could wear me out, but I suppose I can spar with Logan later."

"I honestly don't remember my time in Jotunheim, but I believe what you are saying. And yes, I truly do believe my friends and family are quite loyal."

He listens to the exchange between Andi and Justin's Spirit, and it's hard not to smile. Finally, Andi is looking back at him.

But first, he looks at Skadi.

"This is just for my practice, so no shooting anyone. I trust them all."

Skadi merely inclines her head and steps to the side.

Then he looks over at Justin.

"Ready to come at me?" he asks with a sly grin on his face — a sure sign, one that Justin will probably recognize, that means Chris is up to something.

Justin signs and mutters under his breath at the look in his friend's eyes.

"Come at me when you see the first ice ball," he says, then turns to Andi.

"Here we go," he says, looking directly at her.

Andi grins. This will be fun!

"Um, Pablo, you might want to move off to the side. Just in case some of his shots go wide."

"You're not worried about the rest of them?" he asks, gesturing to their Brothers and Sister on her other side.

"Rene can go insubstantial, and Maddie is probably far enough away."

Pablo mutters under his breath, too, as he moves a few yards away.

Then she fixes her attention on Chris.

He takes a deep breath and concentrates on his core, then focuses on the task. He's positioned himself in a way so he can see both Andi and Justin. All of a sudden, an ice ball flies at her... then another and another in rapid succession. To Justin's surprise, an ice wall forms as best Chris can make it between him and his friend. He continues to toss ice balls at Andi.

Skadi's pep talk has undoubtedly helped his confidence. He's pulling energy a lot more efficiently, although Andi suspects it's going to drain him as much as her first healing attempt on Pablo did to her.

As he tosses his first ice ball, Justin starts running toward Chris. He's got three chunks of ice in the air before the first one reaches Andi; thanks to her increased speed, they're not especially difficult to block. As the next few fly toward her, Chris starts building a wall of ice between himself and Justin, who grins broadly... taking it in stride after the initial surprise.

Well, he's only a step lower than his sister is in Aikido. Their teachers were always trying to surprise them.

The curious thing is that the creation of the wall seems to mess with Chris' aim. Only one out of every four chunks of ice comes close enough that she needs to block them. They still pack a punch, though.

"Go through the wall, Justin!"

He doesn't look at her, he doesn't hesitate, but he does have some misgivings. He has three steps, then two steps to alter his trajectory... then a single step before he commits to plowing through the wall of ice Chris has erected. Or, from his point of view, attempting to plow through the wall of ice.

Chris has spent a couple of months figuring out what he can do with his gift and gaining some measure of control over it. This morning, they added the element of power to the equation. This isn't actually a whole lot different than what Andi has been going through the past few months. She's just been doing the opposite — learning to control the massive amounts of power she's been channeling.

Thanks to prior training, she's managed not to kill anyone she shouldn't have killed while also managing not to kill herself. It took a Celtic Goddess and her priestess to give her the key to locking the last bit of the puzzle into place.

Justin hits the wall with his shoulder. Andi can see his intention — hit with one shoulder, twist with his back sliding across the wall so he can take the final step to reach around the wall. Unfortunately for Justin, he can't see the structure the way she can. It might look like ice, but it has the density of lightly packed snow. Therefore, instead of twisting to take another step, Justin winds up tucking and rolling on the ground.

He reaches out and slaps Chris' foot.

"Dude, that was both awesome and incredibly rude."

The moment Justin touches the wall, all the remaining ice balls fall to the ground.

"Woo! That was great!" Andi calls out. "You okay, Justin?"

He jumps up and pats Chris on the back before looking at her. "Yeah, but you could have warned me the wall wasn't a wall, you brat."

She shrugs. "And point out a flaw in the opponent's defense while there are still men in play? No, no. I don't do that."

Logan growls something, a comment to Maddie, and she looks at him for a minute.

"I still don't understand much of your Elder speak, Brother, but I didn't learn that from Maddie. That was—"

"Doshu Ueshiba," Justin says. "Yep. I should have remembered." Then he grins at Chris. "You were totally pelting her with those snowballs. Great job!"

Chris grins back at him. "It was supposed to be a solid wall. Obviously, I have a long way to go. But I know... baby steps!" he says, looking over at Andi and winking.

She chuckles. "The next time, I'm going to pull out my staff and get some practice in myself. Just because I heal so fast that no one else could tell I was getting bruised doesn't mean I didn't feel every one of those ice balls."

As Andi takes a few steps toward Chris, Pablo comes in closer, too. Maddie and Logan stay where they are. Rene takes up a position between Andi and Maddie. Ah, ever the balancing point in their little group! Well, given that Skadi has moved within touching distance of Chris, it's as much strategic as it is metaphysical.

She merely glances at the Goddess before addressing Chris.

"You definitely grasped the concept of using your power with your gift. I'm a little surprised you have enough energy to stand..."

She looks at his aura and then at his protector. Hmm. Well, maybe not all that surprised. She looks back at Chris, smiling with encouragement.

"You assured me that I wouldn't go unconscious, but I'm definitely feeling it," he says, smiling."

"Whatever way you visualized tapping into your power seemed to be the right call. You'll need to practice that until it becomes second nature, with no thought or hesitation. Now, I think what threw your aim off was dividing your attention between Justin and me. You absolutely need to be able to do that, but maybe work up to it.

"Don't worry about trying to do it all in one day. If you grok the concepts and have a firm grasp on the basics, you'll just need to practice. Oh, and figure out how you're going to recharge your battery."

She turns to Justin. "Maybe you can show him some of the exercises Doshu Ueshiba taught us, and a couple of the Qigong exercises I taught you."

He nods. "Sure. They're not athletic and don't involve the contortions of yoga," he tells Chris. "And they're relaxing too! When Miranda tries to drive you crazy with the matchmaking or the mothering, just bust out a couple of breathing exercises." Justin chuckles. "You can even chant La la la, I can't hear you if you want."

"You're such a dork, Justin." She pulls her staff from the scabbard and grins once more at Chris. "Ready for another round? Just keep tossing the ice, one target at a time. Justin, you call out who he's supposed to aim at."

She turns and looks at her Brothers. "Rene, Logan... you wanna play?"

Logan smiles and holds up a fist, the back of his hand to her. She nods.

"Sure. Slice and dice 'em. Rene?"

"The things I do for you, dear Sister."

"Oh, please. It's not like Chris can actually hurt you."

"True. How about if I play the moving target?"

"Yeah, that sounds like a good plan. Maddie, you and Pablo hang back, for now, okay?"

What are we watching? Maddie asks.

She looks at Chris as she takes a few steps back. "Ready when you are."

Skadi. I'm not sure either of you will be able to see what I suspect is going on — nothing to worry about, by the way — but your impressions would be appreciated.

Gosh, and here I thought you were treating us like the wimps, Pablo says.

Feel free to Gibbs slap him if you want, Maddie.

"I really need to get better before I could call myself a warrior," he begins, looking over at the Goddess. "After all, if someone is really trying to attack me, I don't think snowballs will do much. I was hoping that if I could make a wall, a real wall, that I could make something that encircled someone to trap them. I seem to be a long way off from that.

"And tell me honestly Andi," he says, addressing her, "what would one of those ice balls do to a normal person? It's hard to judge effectiveness when you're the target."

She tilts her head and leans her staff against her shoulder, considering Chris's question.

"There are a lot of variables, as I think you could imagine. But based on the kind of morons I find skulking around in alleys..."

She grins... or rather, Ninja grins.

"The amateurs won't stand a chance, especially if you surprise them. A well-placed chunk of ice — something about the size of your fist, right? — to the solar plexus will knock the wind out of a Normal miscreant. You might need two or three if they're the football linebacker type. Then a punch or two to the head to disorient them."

She shrugs.

"Carry some zip ties with you, string 'em up, call your cop friends... that might be enough. Obviously, the more clothing they're wearing, the less potent a punch to the gut is going to be. Go for their knees instead if they're visible. We can sit down later and talk about tactics. Between the six of us — and yes, I'm including Justin, who's got a top-level black belt in Aikido and is going to help you — I'm sure we can come up with some good ideas for you."

"I'm going to what?"

"Justin." She sighs. "He's your friend. No, you can't go out on patrol with him. But between you and his two roommates, you're going to keep him from getting completely overwhelmed. You're going to patch him up when he gets hurt and call his mother if it's more than you can handle. You said she's a nurse, right?

"The three of you are going to give him what I didn't have when I started — an anchor. Pablo didn't know what I was doing, so there wasn't a whole lot he could do when I fell apart."

"Because you never let me know you had fallen apart," Pablo says softly.


She looks at Chris, gives him a crooked smile. "If I could go back in time, I might be tempted to tell myself to let Pablo in sooner. The whole lot of us wouldn't be standing here right now like this if I had, and I understand that things needed to play out the way they did. Just... well, just learn from my mistake."

She shrugs.

"Now, getting back to business..."

From the corner of her eye, she can see Justin shaking his head.

"If you work yourself up to doing two things at a time, it's an excellent idea to wall people off if you've got multiple opponents. But I've found it more efficient to just knock everyone down and sit on them until the Patrol folks show up."

"Seriously?" Pablo asks. "I've heard some of your stories, and even the same stories from Wright's point of view. You run the gamut from taunting the bad guys until they turn themselves in at the local station house to leaving them in a pile for Patrol to pick up. Where the hell are you getting all those zip ties?"

"Hey, did you know you buy things in bulk online? It's neat!"

"Oh, good grief," Pablo mutters.

Chris listens to Andi's advice, nodding. He enjoys the banter, too. But finally, he turns back to Skadi.

"You're going to have to be patient with me. I'm not a warrior by trade, I'm a sci— in your world, I'd be a scholar. So any advice would be welcome. I'm not shooting arrows like you are, but perhaps the tactics would be similar."

Andi smiles at the interaction. It's surprising how much she and Chris have in common, despite the overwhelming number of differences. But a Shaman is a Scholar, and she had resisted the Warrior's call for close to a decade.

"Look at the mountains," Skadi says kindly. "Do they not have patience? Long ago, the Gods killed my father. They set his eyes in the heavens as stars and thought it to be some manner of recompense. It was so long ago that I don't even know what stars they are. They made me one of them, a Goddess, and believed this was atonement for their sins. And yet I still patiently await the day when Loki pays for what he began. It will not be at his kinsman's hand, but Thor does surround himself with powerful allies." She shakes her head. "They may all be as foolish as he is, but they are powerful."

Then she gestures to the rest of them. "You have done the same. However, because you are a Scholar, you surround yourself with people who are not fools. Be at peace, Christoffer. Your allies' gifts are similar to that which you possess, while the skills I can teach are more suited to other Warriors." She points to Madeline and then Andi. "And I do not believe they need my help."

Justin looks at Skadi, more than just a little suspiciously.

"Begging the Lady's pardon, but just how are you helping Chris?" he asks.

If anyone ever doubted that the two of us are related, Justin definitely dispelled those doubts right there, Andi comments to the Pentad with a hint of a laugh.

Skadi studies her brother for a moment then nods slightly. "Can you set aside your doubts for a while longer? Some things take longer to demonstrate than others. "

He takes his time answering, looking first at his sister — she merely smiles at him — then at Chris who's exuding trust at the moment. Finally, Justin nods to Skadi. "I can practice patience, too."

When Chris is ready to try again, Skadi once more stands back. Justin is reluctant but moves behind and to Chris's side.

"Okay, I think I'm ready to try again."

As Justin calls out names, he fires a flurry of ice balls at each person.


He fires, aiming for center mass. This time, Andi dodges and blocks them easily. He's definitely a lot better when only doing one thing at a time. Each thunk of ice against her staff is solid; she can feel the vibration in her hands and wrists.


When Justin calls out Logan's name, it's obvious that Elder Brother wouldn't have a problem making snow cones from the ice shavings. The result is pretty much the same the second time around. Chris is pretty sure not a single ice ball got through to Logan. But Andi can see the power behind each projectile. She's pretty sure the ordinary criminals running around Denver wouldn't be a problem for him. Hmm, now that brings up some other interesting thoughts...


A moving target is more of a challenge for Chris, though. When Rene moves predictably, when he telegraphs his moves, Chris doesn't have a problem hitting him. Well, he doesn't have a problem getting the ice chunk to reach Rene, that is. Spirit Brother merely absorbs the energy of the ice about a handspan before it would touch him if he were fully corporeal. When Rene zigs instead of zagging, though — well, a lot of them go in unexpected directions. Andi swats a couple out of the air, Logan slices one, a few just drop to the ground, and the remainder sail over their heads. From the surprise she feels coming from Pablo, she suspects one of them might have nearly hit him.

Before anyone can say anything, Chris holds up his hand.

"Give me a moment. Then I want to try it again. I have an idea," he says, taking deep breaths.

Chris calls a halt, resting, heaving in gulps of air. Andi would have thought he'd be flat out on the ground by now. She's happy to be wrong.

Maddie, Pablo... see anything?

I don't actually see anything, Pablo says, but I feel like I should.

There's a hint of a shimmer there, says Maddie. Vaguely familiar but I can't place it.

Okay. It's a similar qi signature to Great Spirit's when we were in your memory, Sis. That would explain the familiarity, I guess. And maybe what you're sensing, Pablo.

What Andi finds most interesting is the way both Skadi and Justin are very deliberately not hovering over Chris. She understands why Justin would be worried — the importance of friendship in their family is second only to the importance of family. But Skadi reminds her a little of seeing Danu in Padraig's memories before he and his sister rejoined their soul together.

Just how long has this Goddess been watching Chris?

While Chris recovers a bit, he thinks of this fight the same way he'd go after a problem at work. When he believes he has the start of a solution to each problem, he stands up and nods.

"One more time, okay?"

There's no time for her to consider that bizarre equation; Chris is ready to try again. Gotta love the guy's persistence, that's for sure.

"Call them out, buddy..."

Andi and Logan give him similar problems — they're too fast. He has to surprise them, so when Justin calls out Andi's name, he lets go a couple of the ice balls, but when he throws the third one, he concentrates on it. Focusing on the ball, he changes its shape as it gets closer to Andi, causing the ball to dip suddenly... hopefully surprising her enough to make solid contact with her leg.

She grins when she realizes what his plan is. Using a change-up pitch and aiming for her shin probably would have worked on someone who can't see the energy of nearly everything. Although she knocks that piece of ice away with her staff just as readily as all the others, it's good to see that Chris can think outside the box. That's just as important as physical training.

For Logan, Chris has a different strategy. He reasons that the balls aren't coming from his body, rather from the moisture in the air, so there's no reason they have to start where he's been starting them. As with Andi, he lets go two of them as usual and, for the third, he puts all his focus into a spot about thirty feet behind Logan — where the ball forms and flies at his back where he wouldn't see it coming.

When he sends the third ice ball at Logan's back, even Andi can't tell if his preternatural speed or a warning from Maddie is what causes him to turn just enough to catch the ice ball. Logan grins at Chris and rolls the ice ball across the ground to rest a few feet in front of Justin's friend.

By now, Rene is going to be ready for such things, Chris reasons, and his movement will make the last two ideas less effective.

So if his movement were predictable, then he'd be an easy target, he surmises.

So he lets go of one ball and as soon as Rene begins moving, he makes the ground under his feet a sheet of ice — something he's good at. Assuming the man will just slide, he aims the ball in front of him, expecting him to slide into it.

When he's done, he bends to one knee, looking considerably fatigued.

This last attack on Rene is something that would have probably worked against Andi if she wasn't in uniform and might have even worked on Logan. Maybe. Not only has Rene been moving around, but he's been fluctuating between eighty and a hundred percent corporeal. When Chris creates the sheet of ice in front of Rene, the entire bottom half of his body becomes invisible.

Damn it, Rene, that's disgusting!

Andi chuckles. Pablo isn't wrong. It's so very disconcerting.

Maddie's comment is, as always, pragmatic. Put your pants on, Jacobs.

Needless to say, the freaky Spirit does not slide on the ice, nor does the ice ball hit him. It nearly hits Pablo, however.

"Rene!" Pablo complains as he jumps out of the way.

Andi leans her staff against her shoulder again and applauds Chris' efforts as he takes a knee.

"Against Normals, that would have all been utterly fantastic, Chris. Justin, make sure your friend doesn't beat himself up for not being able to outdo the Warrior, an Elder, and a Spirit."

"Uh, yeah, sure. Damn, that was some slick work." Justin looks at Rene, who is fully corporeal now. "You know, I'm just going to chalk that up to Andi's bad influence on Spirits."

She shakes her head. "Nah. Rene is wicked. As is his sense of humor."

Chris looks at the results of his second attempt and grimaces.

"You know, you guys are really not any fun to play with. You could let a guy occasionally succeed, you know," he says, forcing a tired smile.

Skadi, meanwhile, has walked over to Chris and merely rests her hand on his shoulder.

She's smiling.

And while her smile doesn't hold a candle to Great Spirit's or even Mama's smiles, Skadi gives the impression that she's quite pleased with the work Chris has done.

He feels the hand on his shoulder and looks up at the Goddess, noticing her smile.

Huh. Well, maybe it wasn't a failure, after all, he thinks. Then he notes that he feels less tired — a lot less tired, in fact. He stands, faces her, and bows his head.

"Thank you. I needed that."

He turns back to Andi.

"Well, I have a plan of attack now, I guess. Doesn't help much with defense though. A gun would probably finish me long before any ice balls landed. I wonder what would happen if I filled the barrel of a gun with ice? Would take a lot of accuracy and speed."

She laughs. "We'll let you have some fun. Well, for varying definitions of fun, I guess. Now that you have an idea of your limitations, though, I'd say it's time for some success. If you don't have a lot of experience with guns already, I'd say to leave that idea for the future. I could show you how to throw a shuriken; that might be a better angle. I'm lousy with guns — unlike those four." She tilts her head toward the rest of the Pentad. "But the shuriken are as deadly as the guns Pablo has and as accurate. For me." I smile. "And you wouldn't even need to get a special utility belt made to carry them!

"But honestly? Against a gun? I'd say your best bet is getting your shields solid enough to be bulletproof.

"Let's run a scenario that's based partially on my experiences with Eaters, and a dash of crazy from television shows my best friend makes me watch."

Pointing to Justin and Pablo, she says, "These two are innocent bystanders for purposes of this scene. Maybe they're in the wrong place at the wrong time, maybe someone is out to get them — but they're the good guys, and you need to protect them."

She glances at her brother and then at her husband, grinning at both. "Stick close to Chris. The so-called bad guys here are very sneaky."

She turns to Maddie, Rene, and Logan, then chuckles. "Pablo's going to blame you for this, Maddie, but I'll remind him about the Jimmy T case later if he does. You and Rene are working against Logan to get those two. Your hypothetical employer won't be happy, and therefore you won't get paid if Logan wins. Logan, you're doing this for whatever reason you want to make up, but no teaming up with Mate and Brother. No going insubstantial, Rene."

She smiles as she turns back to their trainee.

"Chris, you have three people — but two factions — after those guys. You can try to deal damage to them if you want — good practice, so why not? But your primary goal is to keep the innocents safe until the cops arrive. If you direct-dialed your police contact, you'd need to hold them for five minutes, but no more than ten. If you dialed 911, I'm going to be adding up the Dewey Decimal numbers of my favorite books to see how long they take to show up."

"Want to use the dice rolling app on my phone?" Justin asks.

"Why do you... Never mind. You're still playing D&D, aren't you?"

He grins, pulls out his phone, unlocks it, and tosses it to her.

"You're weirder than I am, little brother." "He isn't," Pablo says. "Your best friend definitely might be in his own special way, but you're the world champion of weird."

"Thank you, dear!"

Pablo just rolls his eyes as he joins Justin behind Chris.

"You already know something of Logan's defensive capabilities," she says to Chris. "Maddie and Rene are unknowns, they're working as a team, and I should warn you that they've been working as a team for a very long time. You're going to be learning while doing your job." She shrugs. "Welcome to the club!"

She nods to Chris' protector. "Lady Skadi and I will watch and make sure things don't get out of hand." She gives the Goddess a pointed look. "And could I have a word with you before we start?"

They walk out of hearing distance, and Andi comes right to the point. "You're helping Chris keep up his energy stores."

"I am doing my best, yes."

"How will that help him when he goes home? Don't get me wrong, all of us are happy to have whatever edge we can get. But you can't follow him around all the time, can you?"

"No, I cannot. However, I believe I can leave a talisman of sorts that will help. It will need to be a precise thing, so I will wait until the time is right."

"Okay. Let me know if you need some help." Andi shrugs. "I'm not sure what I can do, but I like him. I want to make sure he goes home as prepared as possible."

Skadi's hesitation makes her nervous. "Perhaps you can help. Christoffer has another gift that he has not yet unlocked."

"Oh?" She isn't suspicious at all. Nope. Not her!

"I am hesitant to speak of it."

"That's not comforting."

Skadi leans closer and whispers — the specifics of the gift and how she believes it could be triggered. When she steps back, Andi gives Skadi a long, hard look.

"All right. If I can help, I will. It's better than he learns about it here and now than after he returns home."

She watches as the Goddess walks away; the two of them are equidistant from Chris and not likely to be in the way of the action. Her aura isn't like anything Andi has seen before. She doesn't look like the Spirits, she looks nothing like Great Spirit and only has the slightest... vibration, she would term it, in common with Danu.

"Okay, Chris, start your show. You've just seen these three in the distance, so you have the initiative." She looks over at her Sister and Brothers, specifically at Maddie. "He's got a fifteen-second head start."

As Chris listens to Andi explain the scenario, his mind races. His walls have been next to useless and his attacks easily negated, although he supposes that if Rene can't go insubstantial, then he'll be an easier target.

"Is one out of two good enough if Justin doesn't make it?" he asks, smiling, to buy himself a few more moments of thinking and to have a bit of fun with his friend.

Justin merely rolls his eyes.

"And they aren't just trying to kill these two, right? At this point, I really don't have an answer if all Logan and company wanted to do was shoot them. And me for that matter."

Obviously, he has to keep them away from Justin and Pablo. If there were hills out here, he might be able to do something to move them.

"You two, stay behind me but close," he orders his two protectees, stepping towards the trouble.

Madeline's lips press together as she eyes Chris, Justin, and Pablo. Rene tilts his head to observe her and the three people she's looking at while Andi concludes her directions.

Madeline rolls her eyes at Andi. Fifteen seconds. It might not sound like a lot, but in combat, it can be a lifetime.

"No eavesdropping, Mate," she warns Logan with a grin.

Logan shrugs. He isn't concerned in any case.

At first, Chris concentrates on a hail storm big enough to cover the three attackers. Nothing that will hurt them, but it will make it hard for them to aim anything at his small group. He finds he can do this will very little energy because it isn't all that well-directed.

As soon as any of the group have to cover their eyes, he alternates making the footing treacherous and firing ice balls at them, always aiming for their center. He attempts to add a cold wind to the hail, reasoning that it might keep them away from him and on the ice.

Then he watches to see what the trio will do to counter his actions since they have to know the icy ground and ice balls will be coming.

Chris starts his mini weather storm, and bits of frozen water sneak down their collars. Rene registers it. Logan doesn't notice, having originated from considerably farther north.

Madeline frowns as she counts backward from fifteen in Malay.

You owe me for this, Sister. I don't have my own internal heat source like you do.

Andi shrugs and smiles wanly at Maddie.

It's no consolation, but give me a decade, and I could teach you how to do it. And he does need a head start against you three. I'll make it up to you.

Madeline pulls her hood forward and shivers a bit. Logan just ducks his head and squints, as does Rene. They notice the change in the ground but no one so much as twitches, at first. Madeline and Rene both twist to avoid the projectiles.

Logan just stands there like a wall and lets them hit him, waiting until zero is reached. Once it is, he just moves, faster than anyone who doesn't know him would expect. He goes right past Chris and snatches up Pablo into a fireman carry and careens off with him.

"Show off," Madeline calls after him.

That leaves Justin for Madeline and Rene, at least until Logan makes a return.

Madeline and Rene start running towards Chris together, but Rene quickly splits off, angling away.

Pablo sees precisely what is going to happen in the second Logan starts moving. He tries to avoid his Brother's grab by curling tightly into as compact a target as possible. It doesn't really help. He hadn't actually expected it to, so he doesn't fight Logan.

"Well, that wasn't supposed to happen. How far out are you going to cart me, Logan? Might as well set me down. You have to go back for Justin, don't you?" He chuckles. "That was a mean trick Andi played. Think Madeline's going to slug Andi? I hope not. This is our honeymoon, after all. Well, if you don't get involved, I have a feeling Andi could more than hold her own against Madeline and Rene. Good thing she doesn't want to fight her Sister."

Meanwhile, Justin stares slack-jawed as Logan moves like a blur and snatches Pablo. He can't believe how fast his brother-in-law can run.

"Oh, crap. That isn't good. Chris! Logan grabbed Pablo!"

He can see Madeline heading right for Chris, and Rene angling around toward him. This is Chris's show — absolutely, no doubt about that. Unlike Pablo, however, he isn't just going to give up and give in. Justin watches Rene's every move as his weight shifts slightly from side to side, always perfectly balanced. It is evident that he and his sister had shared a teacher in their pasts.

Well, that was pointless, Chris thinks. It isn't as if he had expected to stop Logan, but if it's not possible, why bother trying?

He's not a quitter though and concentrates on the other two.

He lets the storm continue, but most of his concentration is toward Madeline first — with the assumption that if something happens to him, then he'll never have a chance to deal with Rene. With renewed focus, he concentrates on making the moisture form ice around Madeline's feet. He's trying to lock her in place.

Madeline gets slower and slower then comes to a stop altogether — definitely not close enough to reach anything and anyone. Those with acute hearing are treated to a string of multi-lingual invectives. Rene doesn't need to hear her with his ears. He can hear her in his mind and chuckles to himself. They had both known this was a possibility. Didn't mean his wife is happy about it.

He redirects his steps to take him towards Chris.

Finally, some success! This seems to help Chris's confidence and the power of the storm he's been creating rises a bit. With Madeline seemingly under control, he sets his attention solidly on Rene.

He begins building a wall that, if he's honest with himself, he assumes Rene will just dodge. Then he waits a moment and fires ice balls on each side of the wall, as well as attempting to freeze the ground on each side. His thinking is that most people would go around a wall rather than try to burst through it.

"Buddy, do you see Logan? I'd bet he'll be back for you."

"Yes. But he hasn't put Pablo down yet." Justin watches the wall form between Rene and the two of them. It's taller than they are but barely as wide. Maybe... seven or eight feet tall and four to five feet wide. "You know, I might be able to deal with Rene — at least for a minute — but Logan? Damn, he's too fast. Hell, even Andi wouldn't be able to hold him off for more than a couple of minutes."

He's not going to show it, but this whole test is making him nervous — and Justin doesn't like that feeling one little bit. It's foreign to him. He's a lot like Henry in some ways, and taking things at face value and going with the flow is one of them.

"Your wall looks different. I'm not sure it would stop Logan. Hell, I'm not sure anything would. Andi should have told him to at least slow down. Maybe it's enough to stop Rene. Okay, shutting up now."

Not knowing how much concentration Chris has to put into doing all the crazy things he's doing, Justin merely watches around the edges of the wall for Rene to make his appearance.

Well, Andi hadn't said they couldn't try to save themselves. Justin suspects that Pablo will scamper off the minute Logan let him loose, so... yay?

How did he get mixed up in this crazy stuff anyway? Oh, right. Andi. And his own damn curiosity.

"I have another idea. Stand still, buddy."

Chris steps back from the wall so he can see it and Justin.

"Don't move," he said as he quickly forms a circular wall around Justin. It isn't at all thick, but no one can see him any longer. Then he makes another and another so that there are three cylinders behind him. Then he faces the wall again, waiting for Rene. His thinking is that at least this way, he'll have a two in three chance that, should Rene or Logan go for one of the circular walls, they'll get the wrong one, and he'll be able to attack.

He doesn't realize it now, although he will when he reflects on this experience, but things are coming to him easier. It takes less concentration and more just directing.

Madeline eyes Chris Chris as he builds his wall to thwart Rene's advance. For a heartbeat, she merely watches.

Then her invectives stop, and she smiles. It isn't a very nice smile. She crouches down and starts gathering the ice and slush that has accumulated around her from Chris' ice storm and starts crafting golfball-sized ice balls that she then chucks at Chris. She certainly has the strength to hurt him if that was her intention, but no — she's merely distracting him.

Thwap. Thwap. Thwap. Thwap. Thwap. Thwap.

As long as the hail keeps coming, she has ammunition to pelt Chris. Once or twice, she tries pulling her feet from the ice containment Chris had constructed. One foot is loose enough that she could probably escape if she stands up and works at for a minute or so. But she just keeps lobbing ice balls at Chris, grinning the whole while.

Andi sees the glint of madness in her Sister's eyes but doesn't seem concerned. It isn't as if Maddie is actually trying to hurt Chris. And the pillars he's constructed keep Justin from being caught in the crossfire, so...

When the wall cuts off his immediate access to Chris, Rene just smiles and continues on the trajectory that will take him wide of, and eventually bring him behind, Chris where he'll be able to grab Justin.

Logan finally stops and drops Pablo on the ground. He manages to twist enough that he lands on his side and a rock jabs him in the knee.

"Ow. For God's sake, Logan, I don't heal like the rest of you. I'm going to need an Ace bandage for that."

Logan just gives him an enigmatic look before chuckling and smiling. "Oh, toughen up, Brother."

Then he heads back toward the central group at a slow jog — well, slow for Logan.

Pablo shakes his head as he rubs his knee vigorously. He has enough of a healing factor with Eagle's help that it won't take more than a few minutes to be back close to normal. Standing, he puts enough pressure on the leg to know he has two choices: stand here for five to ten minutes in the cold or take to the air. Either way, he'll be cold, but it would be easier to use his power of light to warm himself when he's flying. So he takes to the air and watches the show from about thirty or forty feet above the ground.

When Andi looks up and raises her eyebrow at him, he just grins at her. It's somewhat satisfying to see her rolling her eyes.

And from his vantage point, he can see where Justin is. He can also tell that Chris's control is waning, likely because Madeline just does not miss when she tosses the ice or snowballs at Chris. Pablo isn't sure if it's a hundred percent talent on her part — after all, they had never worked together and never did crazy sparring like this — or if Rene's gift of Luck is helping her. Well, Andi had only said he couldn't go insubstantial. And he is Madeline's guardian Spirit. And Luck is one of his gifts. So... Pablo shrugs to himself as he hovers over the group. It seems fair to him.

Husband, what are you doing up there?

Pablo looks at Andi and smiles at her. Our Brother dropped me, and a rather large rock tried to crack bones in the vicinity of my knee. Ouch, by the way. I'm waiting for it to heal — partially because it's a fascinating view, but mostly because it's warmer up here.

She narrows her eyes at him, then shakes her head. I still can't see how you're doing that, but give me a few months. I'm sure I'll be completely insane and will be seeing every ribbon of qi in the universe.

I thought the children were behaving themselves.

I said they haven't invaded my dreams lately. But they're doing something.

He can hear Madeline's laughter through his bond with Andi.

Of course, they are, Sister. They're growing. Have you forgotten that you're pregnant?

Pablo would have sworn his lovely wife just growled — and sounded an awful lot like Em. That probably isn't good.

The first and then the second snowball had hit Chris before he knew where they were coming from. He smiles and lets the hail die dow since he's struggling to maintain it anyway. He refreezes Madeline's feet, then quickly puts up a wall near her to block her view of him.

Then he begins looking for incoming trouble.

He can tell that he's getting tired. Dropping the hail helps. He gathers up power, ready for a bigger blast of cold when he finds his attackers.

Madeline starts swearing again as her feet are refrozen — Andi recognizes the English, French, and Dutch, and assumes the other is Malay.

This is fucking cold, Sister!

Sorry! I said I'd make it up to you.

With no more hail flying at her, Madeline is running out of ammunition, but that doesn't stop her from lobbing what few ice balls she can gather at the wall Chris has constructed. The last one she throws at Andi, who doesn't even move. It bounces hard off her Sister's shoulder.

Ow. And I'm not sure I deserved that, but I'll take it if it makes you feel better.

Madeline just grins as she goes back to the task of freeing her feet from their containment.

While Rene heads for Chris, Logan jogs over to the pillar containing Justin, lightly punches it and picks Justin up in a fireman's carry, too.

Justin sighs expressively. "You're not going to interfere if I decide I need to kick my sister's behind, are you?"

Logan chuckles as he walks away from the group. "Of course not. And good luck with that, little brother."

"I dunno. She keeps up with the Taiji more than the Aikido. It could be interesting."

Meanwhile, Chris faces off against Rene. The grin on Rene's face can rightfully be called 'shit-eating.' That's when Chris's blast of cold hits him. He shrugs it off and keeps going.

"Hey! Is that fair, Rene?" Pablo asks from above them.

"I can't help that I'm a Spirit, Pablo."

A gust of wind pushes Rene back.

"You're cheating, Brother!" Rene says. "Aren't you supposed to be a helpless civilian waiting to be rescued?"

Pablo laughs. "I don't remember Andi saying anything about being helpless."

Rene disappears and a moment later reappears — very substantial and definitely weighing as much as a living, breathing man would — hanging off one of Pablo's ankles.

"GAH!" Pablo and Rene dip close to the ground before the former can regain his height.

That's about when everything goes to hell in perhaps the most hysterical way possible.

As Logan sets Justin down on his feet and heads back toward the group, Andi grins at Maddie and breaks up the last of the ice encasing her Sister's feet. Judging the angles and distances, she knocks down one of the ice walls then nods to Maddie and shifts her eyes to the two men in the sky.

Logan, give Maddie a boost up, hai?

In a glorious display of cooperation and athleticism, Maddie runs full out toward Logan who stands ready and immovable. As she approaches, he crouches slightly with fingers interlaced, Maddie places one foot in the waiting cradle, and Logan launches her upward.

She grabs Pablo's other ankle and exchanges a quick kiss with Rene.

"Jesus Christ, Andrea!"

"Yes, dear?"

It's probably a good thing he'd been gaining altitude when Maddie latches on — he takes another short dive before adjusting to the additional weight.

"Are you colluding with the enemy? You're trying to get them to rip my legs off?"

"Maddie and Rene aren't the enemy, and they aren't going to rip your legs off, silly." She pauses, watching the three of them. Sister and Spirit Brother are having way more fun than her Husband. She giggles.

"Really? You're really going to laugh at this situation?"

Logan is watching as well. Andi suspects he's trying to decide if he can reach them. She's pretty sure Pablo is out of reach. Maddie and Rene probably are too.

"Oh, come on, Pablo! It's funny."

Logan half growls, half chuckles.

"See? Even Logan thinks it's funny."

When Maddie is tossed up into the air to grab Pablo, Chris finally gives up. He's tired, and he's tried his best. He thinks he might have surprised them somewhat, but stopping the likes of these people is out of the question. He has weaknesses for sure, but perhaps against ordinary people, he'll be a lot more effective. And he knows that in time, he'll get stronger. Right now though, he'd love nothing more than a long nap.

Pablo narrows his eyes and grins. He's been watching Ninja too much. She can see the beginning of a green glow in his eyes; she can feel the power he's gathering through their Bond.


She wraps her brother in a bubble of qi as she shields her own eyes, though not before seeing Maddie tuck her face in the crook of her elbow and Rene... Damn, the headless horseman look is creepy! She has to hope Chris takes her advice. Or that his protector will do her job.

The flare of light is intense, but at least Pablo didn't add heat to the blast. Well, not much anyway. Maddie might notice — and appreciate it. The rest of them? Not so much.

"That was mean, Pablo!" Justin calls out. "And let go of me, Andi."

She looks over at him and shrugs as she drops the shield. "You'd find it hard to do your job if the flying ninny blinded you."

He gives her a dirty look as he heads back to Chris.

Other than looking a little confused, Chris seems fine. Skadi, on the other hand, has her bow at the ready again with an arrow nocked. This time she's pointing it at Pablo.

"Ah, kids? Maybe we can finish playtime later. No sense getting Lady Skadi upset, right?"

There's no way Andi is going to let her shoot her Husband; from the way Mother is trying to turn her into a nuclear power plant again, she'll assume Mother feels the same way.

Interestingly, Skadi seems to sense what Mother is doing and is somewhat surprised by it. She lowers the bow and looks at Chris. Apparently satisfied, she glances back up at Pablo and his passengers before turning her gaze on Andi.

"How is this helping Christoffer?"

She shrugs. "It's not. Well, except as an example of teamwork and tactics. Mostly, though, it's just us having some fun."

At that point, Rene once more becomes insubstantial, unbalancing Pablo.

"Damn it, Rene!"

First, he darts up and to the side, as Maddie is absolutely not letting go of his ankle. Andi senses that she's laughing, too. Then he starts swearing, mostly in Spanish.

Rene reappears next to Andi.

"He needs more practice."

"Pablo? Yeah. He does."



"That you recognize it and aren't willing to cover for him."

"Ah. Yes. Well, that whole weakest link thing and all. Right now, in the Pentad, it's him. There are only so many ways I can push him. He knows me too well and anticipates almost anything I can throw at him that won't hurt him badly. Even working with Perry doesn't help much — the man is just too nice for his own good."

She looks at Rene, grinning. "You need to come by more often, and I don't mean so you can help us burn down our house. Going up against Maddie and Logan is good for him, too."

"Sparring with Logan is going hone anyone's skills."

"Why do you think I love it so much when everyone is in the same town? I'm getting better at what I do." She smiles slyly. "The after-sparring sparring ain't bad either."

"I might start agreeing with Pablo. Maddie has been a bad influence on you."

She slugs his shoulder. "Asshole. That's your doing, Rene Jacobs. Stop trying to blame my Sister for everything."

Rene just laughs.

Pablo is hovering at a lower altitude now. And Andi watches Maddie as she gauges the distance from her current position to the ground. With absolutely no warning at all, she lets go of Pablo's ankle, sending him zinging upward again. Maddie hits the ground and executes one of the best tuck and rolls Andi has seen in quite a while.

She winds up at Logan's feet, and they grin at one another.

"God damn it, Madeline!"

Andi snickers. "Oh, come back down here, Husband. You can try again later to fend off our Sister and Brothers."

Skadi has returned the arrow to the quiver on her back and now stands a few paces in front of Chris. She isn't entirely ignoring the fact that Justin is standing next to him. She just doesn't see him as essential right now.

Andi wonders if Skadi can sense just how defiant her little brother is at the moment. The whole lot of them managed to piss him off. Oh, fine. She'll own it. She's managed to really piss him off.

"Although I do not agree with the plan used by the Warrior-Shaman, it has had the desired effect."

For a moment, her eyes linger on the scarf Chris wears under the collar of his jacket. Justin had said earlier that it was a Christmas present from his sister. Andi would say he's got an incredible sister because even she wants one like that — and she's no fashionista.

"If you will accept a gift from me, I believe you will find your destiny as my Warrior will be made less onerous." She pauses for a second to merely look at him. "If you accept this gift, the Warrior-Shaman has agreed to facilitate the discovery of one last ability you possess."

Chris lets the smile fade from his face and holds her gaze.

"A gift?" he asks, not understanding. However, despite usually being clueless about such things, he can see the solemnity in her stance and words. He nods his head in a slight bow.

"I gratefully accept the gift," he says with all the seriousness he can muster, as well as curiosity about what this gift is and how it might help him.

Yeah, the Warrior-Shaman is absolutely thrilled to help in that little endeavor. Dang, she sounds extra snarky even inside her own head. She'd tell Ninja to go the hell to sleep except that she seems to be on high alert.

This fact does not escape the notice of the Pentad. Maddie eyes Andi with suspicion — well, it would probably look that way to an outsider, except she can feel that Maddie is worried about her unease. Pablo comes up behind her and wraps his arms around her waist.

Hmm. He rarely did that before they met Maddie and Logan. And now she has something to tease him about.

He has no idea what's coming next, but he's agreed to jump down this rabbit hole, so he watches Skadi approach him.

When Chris agrees to accept her gift, Skadi merely reaches out a hand and touches the scarf he wears. The miniature explosion of qi is damn impressive as it flies from her fingertips, becomes enmeshed in the scarf, and finally settles as pinpricks of color in Chris' aura.

His gaze follows her finger as she touches the scarf Claire made him for Christmas. He takes a sudden intake of breath as her power flows into him. His fatigue instantly fades, but there is more than that. Skadi confirms it with her words. A part of him wants to test it out, but he suspects everyone has had enough of this game.

I can test it on my own, he thinks.

She smiles as she lowers her hand to her side once more. "While this cloth — fashioned for you by one who loves you — can be used as a talisman of protection, it is merely symbolic. I have placed my mark of favor on you, and from that, you may draw strength and power. Do not be concerned about it, however. Very few humans will see it."

He looks down and sees what she did, but doesn't say anything to anyone.

Then she looks over at Andi, raising one of those frosty white eyebrows.

Naturally, she sighs. Then she slips out of Pablo's embrace, turning a bit so she can flip the staff over her shoulder into its scabbard.


"Oh, just need to chat with Mother." Nah, she doesn't sound unhappy at all!

Fortunately, she doesn't really need to talk to Mother; she understands what Andi needs — which, by the way, is creepy as hell because how does she even know? Andi's not going to get freaked out. Nope. She's just going to assume Mother understands Chris's Goddess; Andi is just going to walk closer to the fence and...

"Hey! No playing tricks on Andi!" Mother just laughs. So does Justin. At least him she can glare at. She kneels on the ground and spreads out her hands so she can form a dome of qi in front of her. Then she waits while Mother does, well, whatever she's doing.

"Is it my turn to play the part of your cousin?" Rene asks as he hovers over her shoulder.

"No." She doesn't take her eyes off the ground. "And why aren't you over there with the other people who think I have a few screws loose?"

"Because I suspect you're doing something that would cause my Spirit Siblings an abundance of agitation."


"I have to live with them."

"Hmm. Well, spend more time with your Wife and Brother then."

"Or you and Pablo."

She just shrugs, which is a pretty good indicator that even she know this would be over the top when contemplating ways to get even with them for making her life so chaotic.

"Is that a ferret?"


"Should I ask?"

"Don't care. Won't answer now."

As they converse, Mother has been guiding one of the small burrowing animals toward the qi Andi is using to pull it to the surface. She absolutely hates the feeling it gives her — worse than what she'd imagine a bushel of spiders crawling all over her body would feel like. Oh, and toss in a bit of nausea, too, just to make everything more fun. Once the badger is entirely free of the ground, she rests her hands on the ground and just tries to regain a semblance of equilibrium.

"Sister." Maddie isn't ticked off. Yet. But apparently, the uneasiness caused by whatever Andi just did is rippling between them.

"Yeah. I know. Hang on." She just breathes and concentrates on the shields Moira taught her how to make. It still isn't as instinctive and instantaneous as the priestess's work was, but it doesn't take more than a few seconds to wall off a majority of the weird Andi has going on at the moment.

Rene holds out a hand and, for once, she's actually grateful for the help. Because damn! That was fucking hard work!

"By the way, that's why we're going to need you and Masterson's TK kids on the Solstice. Even if those two keep tossing new gifts and more power at me, it's going to take a lot more than whatever I have to do what needs to be done."

She looks into his eyes, knowing that is a day none of them are looking forward to. "We'll all be there, Brother, doing everything we can."

As she glances over at Skadi, she gestures to the badger. "Here's part of your request. I don't know how to get you the rest of it without pissing off my family here so much that they'll beat the snot out of both of us."

"Thank you. Although I doubt you could cause me harm—"

"I wouldn't be so sure about that," Pablo mutters, garnering an icy stare from the Goddess.

"—I will provide a way to accomplish the other half of this... demonstration."

As Andi shrugs and then tucks herself close to Pablo, Skadi gestures for Chris to walk with her toward the dead badger.

"You need only touch this small creature. It matters not if you merely rest your shod foot against it or pick it up with your bare hands. The effect will be the same."

Chris hasn't the faintest idea what Andi is doing or why. He waits until he sees the badger but doesn't move until Skadi urges him to join her.

He looks from it to her, then he bends to one knee and lays a hand on the creature. To the others, that's it... that all he does. He stands after touching it then he looks between Skadi and Andi, hoping one of them will explain what this is about.

All she can do is shrug at Chris. Andi hasn't a clue what Skadi is trying to convey to him, just that her requests were... Ah, who is she kidding? They're weird enough to be par for the course in her life.

"There is another demonstration that will provide a further understanding of this gift," Skadi tells him before shifting her attention from Chris to Andi once more.

She just shakes her head.

"Sorry, there aren't any animals nearby and, to be honest, I'm not keen on taking an innocent life just so you can prove a point to Chris."

She takes a moment to once again ponder the bizarre reality of her life now. There was a time when she would have been appalled by her own temerity these days concerning beings from other realms. It's surprising how quickly one can get an attitude adjustment when it comes to the Spirits and various Deities when too many of them aren't the most helpful of sorts. Or even sane. While Skadi is sticking a lot closer to sanity than Quetzalcoatl ever did, she is starting to get on Andi's nerves.

"If you will indulge me, I believe I can change your mind."

As she started to raise her hand, Andi flatly says, "No."

"No? You did vow to assist."

"I said I'd help if I could. The closest living, non-hibernating animal is..." She pauses and then shakes her head. "Outside my range. Killing Logan or Maddie... having Logan kill me...

"And stop grinding your teeth, Pablo.

"...are not on the list of acceptable deaths today. So, no. I can't help you."

Skadi looks at her in a way that seems all too familiar. The Spirits have that same tinge of confusion to their energy patterns when she goes off and does something they don't expect. As much as her bewilderment might bring some satisfaction and pleasure to a far corner of Andi's brain, she can't really enjoy it. Skadi is getting over the confusion too fast and heading right on down the mischief-making road.

Oh, just wonderful.

Andi doesn't even sense an energy fluctuation — not a damn thing — before an immense tawny wolf jumps out of literally nowhere, teeth bared, and rushes toward her.

That damn thing is too fucking close is about all she can think as she elbows Pablo away from her while instinctively reacting to the threat. She pulls energy from Mother through her feet as Mother is pushing it at her — bet that feels just marvelous for the rest of the Pentad — raises both hands, palms toward the wolf, and just blasts the hell out of it. Damn thing looks like it outweighs her by a good forty or fifty pounds.

And the truly terrifying thing? The wolf doesn't drop immediately. It manages one more lunge at her beyond what ought to have turned a living, breathing animal into a crispy critter.

"Jesus Christ!"

"What the fuck?"

"Mon Dieu!"

Logan just growls. Nope, wait... there's the telltale snikt of his claws.

"Yes, all of the above," Andi says, staring at the wolf with her hands still in a position to do plenty of damage if necessary. "I hope you didn't think that was funny, Skadi."

"I believe it was necessary, Warrior-Shaman." She motions Chris toward the wolf.

"What the hell just happened?" Justin asks.

"Lady Chuckles over here sicced one of her wolves on me." She relaxes slightly but keeps her hands trained on the wolf.

"But..." Justin looks around the group. In almost any other situation, his sister might have said he looked adorably confused. "One second you're talking with Lady Skadi and the next you're practically knocking Pablo over so you can..." He gestures to her stance. "Stop a runaway train? Then that!" He points to the wolf.

"If it's any consolation, I suspect the four of us," Pablo says, indicating himself, Maddie, Logan, and Rene, "all saw the same thing you did, Justin. We just got the extra pleasure of feeling Andi's attack."

"If that's how you feel every time you do that, I understand why you have a preference for your big stick," Rene says as he brushes energy from himself. To someone who can't see the qi, it would look like he's trying to wipe dirt from his arms and shoulders.

"No, that was overkill with an emphasis on 'kill,'" she says. She's sure her outside voice sounds every bit as cranky as her inside voice. "I was pulling energy from Mother while she was pushing it."

When she's as sure as she can be that the wolf isn't going to spring back to life, Andi relaxes and shakes out her arms and hands as she looks over at Chris.

"I still have no idea what the point of that exercise was, but you go right ahead and have fun."

Pablo returns to his place behind her and rests his hands on her shoulders.

"You're tense."

"Ya think?"

He just chuckles.

Chris had watched in shocked surprise as Andi knocked Pablo away and the power flowed from her. He'd stepped to the side himself, not sure who she was fighting. Then, almost out of nowhere, a huge wolf is lying on the ground. He stares at Andi for a moment, then at Skadi. He can tell — though he isn't sure how — that the Goddess did this.

When she urges him forward, he kneels again and touches the wolf's fur. He stares, sensing the scene that just played out from the wolf's point of view... and it's very different from that of the badger. When he takes his hand away, he shivers from the intense cold.

Hot for a peaceful death, cold for a violent one maybe? he thinks, not sharing that random tidbit with anyone. For now.

He stands and looks from Andi to Skadi.

"I think I understand. And this?" he asks, pointing to the scarf around his neck. "Will I cause this to happen?" He gestured to the wolf.

He really just wants to know if he can summon a wolf like that. Mostly. He had intended to test it out, but he doesn't want to summon a wolf in his parent's family room as a test.

Well, it's good that somebody understands what's going on. Andi will probably piece it together at some point by doing a simple compare and contrast of Chris' energy as he touched each animal, but the real question is: Does she even want to know? Probably not.

Skadi looks at Chris the same way Great Spirit looks at those in the Pentad, the same way Danu looked at Moira in her... dream. Or not dream. The point is, well, Chris is one fortunate guy. Even if his Goddess is more of a smartass than Great Spirit and her Sister. Hmm. Andi wonders how Skadi is related to them.

"No, Christoffer," Skadi says with a chuckle. "Only I can call and command the Wolves. That mark is what connects you to me. It will allow me to aid you, to provide you with strength when you need it most. But if that aid should be in the form of the Wolves, then that is how I will aid you."

When she smiles at Chris, Justin looks at his sister with surprise written all over his face.

"Yeah," she says, nodding and grinning at him. "Mama does have the smile of a Goddess. Third one I've met, and they all smile like that. And I have Padraig's memories of his Lady. Same smile."


Skadi notes their exchange and seems to find it amusing for some reason.

"If you concentrate on the mark and your need is dire," she tells Chris, "I — or possibly one of the Wolves — will find you. I will trust that my Warrior will know when your need is truly dire."

Because she's smiling and he's not the focus of attention at the moment — which suits him just fine! — Chris relaxes.

"Thank you. I'll use it responsibly." It's a rather obvious thing to say — she probably already knew that or she wouldn't have given it to him in the first place.

Then Skadi whistles a short, high-pitched trill that likely pokes the inside of Logan's head even more than it jabs Andi's. The wolf leaps up and starts bouncing around Skadi like a puppy — a two hundred pound puppy. Skadi snaps her fingers and points at Andi, which causes the puppy wolf to spin around and head in her direction again.

Pablo moves away without any prompting this time, and she just holds her hands at her side with the lao gong points facing the wolf. That confuses it, and it skids to a stop about ten feet from her. It looks so much like a sad puppy as it looks at her, then Pablo, and then Andi again that she's tempted to let down her guard. Barely tempted.

Then the wolf drops down to the ground and belly-crawls toward Andi until its nose is practically touching her forward foot. It looks up at her, looking utterly miserable, and she raises an eyebrow. It whines.

"Oh, jeez, fine! I forgive you. You were just doing your job."

The second she relaxes, the wolf is up and bounding around all over the place, yipping at Andi and making sure that everyone knows just how happy it is.

Skadi laughs; Andi gets the feeling that isn't something that the Goddess does very often. "Ylfr rarely finds a human who understands her communications."

"One of my gifts." Andi shrugs. "Or maybe it's because she's as big as a pony?"

"Ponies are bigger, except for the Shetland ponies," Pablo points out. "More like Great Dane. We should get a dog."

She stares at him as he's petting the wolf, scratching her behind her ears, and generally making her happy.

"Gee, I'd kind of hoped we could be married for a week before I divorced you." She turns her head to look at Rene, who shouldn't be choking but then again, he shouldn't have been laughing either.

She raises an eyebrow at the smile her Sister is not trying to hide at all. "Really? Et tu? I don't recall that you have any pets in that mansion of yours in Paris unless your Seneschal was hiding them away during our visit. Which I suspect I might have noticed, seeing as I have the Doctor Doolittle thing going on.

"And besides," she says, turning back to Pablo, "we already have cats to care for. Big cats. They're out in Jefferson County. No dogs. There are some coyotes out there, though, if you'd like to meet them. Sometimes the wolves come close enough to Golden in the summer to get noticed. But not often."

Ylfr runs over to Logan and growls playfully. Andi's no expert on wolves, but the wolf looks and sounds almost apoplectic with joy when Logan growls back at her.

She sighs and looks at Skadi. "Let me guess... she hardly ever gets out to play anymore."

The Goddess shrugs philosophically. "The area of Jotunheim where we reside is sparsely populated. Once it was larger, more readily accessible — but humans forget. So our worlds fragment and shrink."

"Huh. Well, some of the Celts at least know where Odin is. They seem to be pleasant enough folks. The Celts, I mean. I haven't met either of the two Asgardians who hang out in New York, and I'm not sure I want to."

"You would not enjoy the experience, I suspect. And I would prefer to avoid the Allfather. Ylgr and I make do with what we have."

Once more, she sighs then gives her brother a stink eye. "This is your fault, Justin."

"What did I do?"

"You involved your buddy Chris in the kindness that is our family and the madness that is my life. Because of that — in a weird, roundabout way — now I feel like I need to have another chat with Moira and her Goddess about helping out Skadi and Ylfr here."

He rolls his eyes at her. "Has anyone ever told you that you have a savior complex?"

"Not yet. But I did contemplate the possibility when I was in the Crossroads place with Moira."

"I've heard that recognizing the fact that you have a problem is the first step in dealing with it."

This time, she doesn't even look at Rene when she sighs and rolls her eyes. "Oh, shut up, Jacobs," she mumbles.

Justin is paying more attention to Chris and Skadi again.

"Do you think scaring Doctor Vancavage enough that he stays away from our lab is a dire need?" he asks Chris. "We'd sure get more work done if he didn't stop by to babble about whatever his pet project of the day is." His eyes follow Ylfr as she plays with Logan. "That guy should have stayed at Stanford."

Justin's comments make Chris laugh.

"Sorry, no, buddy. We'll have to put up with him like usual."

Justin shrugs. "Oh, well. It was worth a shot. You'll save people from bad guys, and that's a bigger deal than rescuing your pal from a truly annoying man."


"What? Don't you help your friends out with your superpowers, Andi?"

Pablo bursts out laughing. "Justin, your sister threw her best friend over her shoulder and hauled him out of a bar to keep him from being arrested by my colleagues. Does that count?"

Justin looks at his sister, stares at Pablo for a few seconds, then looks back at Chris. "Okay. No problem. You're right. And I promise not to get into any trouble you need to bail me out of."

Andi chuckles. "You wouldn't get into trouble anyway. Like the rest of us in our generation, you're afraid of disappointing Tita. And our respective mothers."

"Why are you always right, Andrea?"

She shrugs. "I'm not, but I think I kind of like it that you think I am."


Andi tries very hard not to laugh or even smile. In fact, she refuses to even look at Maddie.


This, too, appears to amuse Skadi.

"You serve well as Christoffer's kertilsveinr," she tells Justin. "This is... Ah, squire is one word that you might know. But the meaning is deeper than that — it can translate to 'one who lights the way' in your language. You are steady and possess a good sense of humor. These traits are necessary, for the portents show that there is still much darkness in this world. You are a Light Bringer."

Skadi turns to regard those of them in the Pentad once more. "While in Midgard, I can sense what I did not know from Jotunheim — the presence of many Warriors of diverse patronage. This is good, although I doubt the presence of the two Asgardians bodes well for the Warriors in that vicinity. I see that you will not be satisfied with the deeds you have already accomplished, even though you have faced the greatest darkness and prevailed. You are the favored Warriors of the Eldest One, but you need not battle alone.

"Ask your family, Justin," Skadi says to him, "to explain exactly why your strengths will keep Christoffer steady in his battles."

He smiles and shakes his head. "I don't need to ask, Lady Skadi. Helping out family and friends is just what our family does. And I already told Chris that I'll help him out in whatever way I can." He claps a hand on Chris' shoulder. "If I need to take more improv classes to keep you of good cheer, so be it. Maybe Miranda and I can work up an act."

Chris rolls his eyes at Justin.

"No, buddy. One actress friend is enough for me. You can just help me stay sane. I don't think more craziness is what I really need."

"If you think my brother isn't crazy, it's just because you haven't known him long enough, although I'll grant that he's probably more sane than I am," Andi says.

Skadi nods and looks at Ylfr, who is still enjoying Logan's company.

"Come, Ylfr. We must be away."

Nothing is ever dull with Justin's family. Craziness, seriousness, danger, and clearly love. It's all mixed together.

Not sure I'd last in an environment like that for long, I like my order and normalcy, Chris thinks but still smiles at them all.

"Thank you, Skadi. For everything. I'll try not to disappoint," he says to the Goddess before she leaves.

The enormous wolf looks between her mistress and Logan, then sits down, stares at Andi, and whines pathetically.

"Well, I don't know what you want me to do about it. He doesn't live up here. But if Logan doesn't mind you tagging along when he and his children go on walkabout, and you play by his rules, you can check in with me every once in a while to see if he's got a trip planned."

Ylrf leaps ups, circles Logan and Maddie a couple of times, does the same with Skadi, then whirls around Pablo and Andi before stopping to do an entirely too dog-like thing: she licks Andi's face before running back to Skadi's side.

"Eww! Doggie slobber!" She wipes her face with her sleeve while preemptively elbowing Pablo.

Skadi's laughter rings through the air even after she disappears.

Justin snickers. "You know, we never had pets when we were growing up," he tells Chris. "I can't wait until her kids get to the phase when they're continually begging her for a pet."

She raises an eyebrow at him. "They'll be at Uncle Charles' school by then."

"Not unless Charles takes in students younger than Leon was when he started there," Maddie opines.

"I was thinking of asking him to open a preschool."

"Oh, good luck with that!"

"Fine. I'll have Missy and Jocko babysit them."

"In our neighborhood?" Pablo asks. "How are you going to explain that?"

She narrows her eyes at him. "I will think of something. I'm smart and resourceful."

Pablo sighs and rolls his eyes. "Aren't you being a little ruthless for someone who's going to be a mother?"

"I'm glad you noticed, dear. It's a good thing you'll be a calming influence in their lives."

"I'm going to have a long chat with your mother and grandmother," he mutters.

"Good luck with that!"

Justin is full-out laughing at this point. "I'm going to want regular updates, Pablo, so I can enjoy the show from afar."

Calm down, Sister, Maddie says. I suspect you might be slightly more maternal than I am, but it doesn't appear to be by a statistically significant amount. You'll protect your hellions with your life, but no one's ever going to accuse you of smothering them. And right now, you're letting your brother and husband get to you because you can't control your hormones. I don't care how good you are at what you do, that's a fact you're going to need to accept.

Andi looks over at her, and they lock eyes for... well, probably only a few seconds, although it feels like forever.

The next six months are going to be the opposite of fun.

That's true, she agrees. Use Amanda as a resource. She can help you if you let her.

Andi nods, takes a deep breath and lets it out slowly.

"Sorry," Pablo whispers. "I forgot how erratic Rosalia's emotions were, and you probably have it worse."

She nods again.

"I will probably still want to get some sparring sessions in over the weekend, especially with Logan. But right now..." She looks over at Chris. "You up for more practice, or is it time for a break? We could ride for a while before heading back to the house. Up to you."

She grins at him. "We have all weekend, and I have a feeling you'll be more than prepared for ordinary ne'er-do-wells, miscreants and scumbags after putting up with the five of us."

"Don't worry, buddy," she hears Justin whisper to him. "Next time, we'll bring Henry along, and he'll talk everyone to death."

"I heard that, Justin."

He smiles almost wickedly at her. "I know you did, Andrea."

Finally, Chris looks at Andi.

"Actually, thanks to our departed Goddess, I feel as rested as ever. Some real-world work with a big-time safety net sounds like a good idea, to be honest."

Andi chuckles. "She's your Goddess, my friend. I just collect them as acquaintances, it would seem."

They spend another half hour testing Chris's skills before Pablo and Rene start acting like a couple of lunatics again. Andi has to admit that it's pretty damn funny watching the two of them dipping and swooping through the air.

Hey, Rene! Ask Coyote where the rest of the family is riding.

The momentary interruption gives Pablo the upper hand, so to speak, and they shoot up about fifty feet.

About a mile southeast of here. I'd be able to see them if Pablo would stop spinning in circles.

I'm not going to stop. It keeps you from adding more weight around my legs.

She rolls her eyes and looks at Justin and Chris.

"Why don't you take the chance to go riding with the family? Henry misses seeing you almost as much as I do, little brother. We'll meet you back at the house later." She rolls her shoulders to relieve some of the hormone-induced stress. She hates this. This is not normal. "I need to spar with Logan, and you probably don't want to watch him beating the snot out of me."

Justin gives her a stink eye. "Some days I just don't understand you, sis."

She shrugs. "That makes two of us." She smiles and shoos them off. "Go on. Have fun!"

# # # The weekend is as much a reminder that family and friends are the cornerstones of Andi's life as it is a chance to relax, have fun, and once again take on the role of teacher.

Maybe Pablo is right... maybe she should go back to work. Or at least look for a job.

They spend several hours each day working with Chris, allowing him to push the boundaries of his skills. By the end of the weekend, Chris is able to erect and maintain a wall of protection that only she and Logan can shatter. A full clip from Pablo's service revolver causes cracks in the wall but doesn't get it to collapse. Despite Maddie's observation that she has weapons that would obliterate it, Pablo's point — that the criminal set of Chicago wouldn't have her resources — is valid.

Chris tries to create a handheld barrier that looks suspiciously like an old Viking shield, except made of ice instead of wood. Although Andi suspects Chris finds that particular exercise as frustrating as their first session, she does point out — repeatedly — that his shield survived our combined efforts to break it a lot better than his arm did. Pablo just nods, claps him on the shoulder and whispers, "Free weights." Justin, standing on his other side casually mentions that the University has an excellent gym and that he'd be willing to keep Chris company during the long, tedious, painful sessions of building upper body strength.

He works hard at the training, listening to every bit of advice, filing it all away. He trusts Justin's family and knows that they know a lot more about all of this than he does. It's a lot to take in, but practice and more practice makes some of it come more naturally. His aim and power control aren't perfect, but they've improved a lot since they'd started.

I certainly feel a lot better about being in a real fight, he thinks.

His hail storms become more forceful, with pinpoint focus. Logan just shrugs everything off, and Rene is a Spirit. Both Pablo and Maddie have a higher tolerance for pain than the average person, so Andi volunteers to be the sitting duck for his target practice.

"Ow, damn it, and I'm really glad I heal fast!" she says after their last session. "You can keep working on throwing daggers at people if you want, but the pummeling from the hail pellets is already as effective as my shuriken flinging. I have a feeling I'd be bleeding if my uniform wasn't stopping the ice pellets. That tells me two things — one, those things are moving fast enough that the fabric stops them, and two, the common criminal set is going to find that fucking painful. Work on accuracy. You're pretty good right now, but I don't want you to accidentally kill someone unless it's the absolute last resort. Aim for the hand or arm holding a weapon. Keep the attack low, below the spine, to trip them up and temporarily disable them if they're running away. You could probably turn them into a paraplegic with the force you have. And if you honest to god believe your life or an innocent person's life is in danger, aim for the center mass. It's a bigger target, and the adrenaline rush during the fight or flight response can affect your aim unless you've got the experience the other four in Pentad have."

She shrugs.

"I haven't had as many years of practice as even Pablo has, but my training tends to counterbalance the adrenaline.

"And if they're wearing Kevlar, it's going to be like trying to hit Logan. Widen your focus if you have to, and take off the arm holding the weapon." She smiles wanly at his suddenly ashen look. "Or beat the weapon out of their hand. Whatever works for you."

She looks at Justin before turning back to Chris. "Not all of us deal well with killing another human. Even now — with the strength of the Pentad to ground me, and Mother Earth to support me — I hate it more than anything else, and it really gets to me. Even when someone deserves to die. Lean on your friends to help you through whatever pain your heart feels... the backlash of killing affects us all in some way. Don't hold it in, don't try to suppress it. I hope you never have to kill anyone, Chris, I really do. But as long as you can still feel pain or remorse when you do eventually kill a bad guy, you'll be on the side of the angels — even when you're not on the right side of the law."

At that, Pablo nods. "I've had Andi to help me for a long time. Denise would help me through those rough spots, and I'd do the same for her. After Denise was killed, even before I knew what she did at night to help the City, Andi would always listen. Some things are too horrible to put into words. That doesn't mean you don't still need a compassionate human to sit with you while you deal with the horror. For far too long, Andi didn't even let me in and tried to shoulder that burden all on her own.

"Don't be as stupid as she was, okay?"

She wraps an arm around his waist and looks at her brother.

"Don't let your friend be as stupid as your sister was, okay, Justin?"

Any confidence or musings come to a quick end when talk turns to killing. Chris has no idea how he'd react to something like that. He certainly doesn't want to kill anybody. And if he kills an innocent bystander, he isn't sure he'd ever be able to go out again. That thought, more than anything, helps him fight through fatigue to keep training. He wants to be the best he can be. He doesn't want a lack of effort to cost someone their life.

Although Justin can't feel the emotions rippling through the Pentad, he's adept enough to see the echoes and shadows of pain and guilt in all of their eyes. He nods slowly.

"Okay. I think that's what Skadi meant anyway." Justin looks at Chris, smiling as only someone who's never looked into the abyss can smile. "Get Miranda and Brad on board, and we'll tag team you."

Chris laughs at Justin's enthusiasm. "Well, I'm used to that. Might as well add Claire to the list. She'll be more than happy to tag in."

As Pablo hugs her, as she watches her brother's aura swirl with colors unique to him, Andi knows they've helped Chris take up this new role of his as much as they can. The rest will be up to him once he gets back home. But she knows he has good friends who will help him as much as they can. There are practically fireworks in his aura when he talks about his family; she's confident they'll love him every bit as much as her family loves her. They might be scared. They'll certainly worry. But they'll ground and support him.

He's as ready as he'll ever be.

# # #

Suzi's art is beautiful, and it's not hard to see that she infuses it with her culture and her love. Andi suspects most people would only see the cultural overtones. Those two are making sure she can see qi even when she's not trying to. This pregnancy can't be over soon enough, and she just hopes Amanda has as much patience as Maddie claims because Andi has a feeling she's going to be leaning on her. A lot.

Of course, every time she wonders about Amanda and her well of caring, Mother laughs at her. Of course, Amanda will have all the patience in the world. She has Mother supporting her as much as Andi does. Well, Mother might be trying to share a little too much. Ah, who is she kidding? Mother is definitely oversharing her happiness.

Even Andi needs a break from all the weird sometimes.

And for the most part, she gets that break. That first day, after meeting Skadi, once they all made it back to the house, it was apparent Chris hadn't been riding as often as even Justin had — and Justin doesn't get out as much as he'd like. Even Pablo could see Chris was trying to hide the stiffness and sore muscles he had after half a day in the saddle. And Chris' look of shocked surprise and relief would have been comical if his pain hadn't slammed into her so hard.

Fucking kids. She's going to strangle whichever one of them is doing this to her.

Pablo has his hand under her elbow in an instant when she stumbles in Sam and Suzi's kitchen.

You okay, Andi?

Yeah, yeah. Those two are playing around again. Somehow. Chris was in pain after riding. Then all of a sudden he wasn't and I was. Give me a sec... I don't know why muscles that I stretch out multiple times a day decide they ought to seize up like I'm an invalid.

Wisely, he doesn't laugh.

Sorry. I know there isn't a way to take some of this burden off you. I would if I could, though.

I know. Just keep me from strangling them after they're born.

You won't do that. They'll be so adorable that your hormones will make you fall in love with them.

Please don't count on that, Pablo. They've been tormenting me since we went to Paris. I have six more months of this to go. I'm not going to rely on the usual human physiological responses to temper my ire at what they're putting me through. You shouldn't either.

He only smiles and says, Yes, dear.

She's not usually one for celebrating the end of one year and the beginning of another. It's an arbitrary thing, this calendar they use. But having known Bobby for years now, Andi can at least pretend to enjoy the festivities... at least when she's not out working.

This year is different. Jenny's family doesn't make a big deal about celebrating the new year. Sure, it's an excuse for the youngsters to stay up past midnight, but the festivities only amount to bowls of popcorn and old movies.

Andi thinks she's found a new tradition to start for their little family. Well, it would be a lovely tradition if Mommy wasn't a superhero who should probably be spending the last several hours of an outgoing year and the first few hours of the incoming year wandering around town making sure her people are safe.

Still, it would be nice.

It's surprisingly difficult to say goodbye on the morning they see Leon and Jenny off on the plane back to school, and the rest of them pile back in the behemoth to go back to Denver. As hard as it is, it's also reassuring. Jenny and her family are now Andi's family, too. And their ranch is even closer than her parents and grandparents are.

"You're always welcome to visit," Suzi says as they pack the twins' belongings back in the motorhome. She and Sam have their arms around each other and smile with a serenity Andi finds enviable these days.

She looks at Pablo, and they grin.

"I have a feeling we might just take you up on it," he says. "It's not a long drive even in my car. Though you probably shouldn't be surprised if my lovely wife decides to ride her bike up and arrive an hour before I do."

They laugh. "Whatever works for you two... or four, I should say," Suzi replies. "Come up to ride or take a break from the big city or help with the cattle."

Andi hugs her again. "Whenever the criminal set down in the big city gives us the chance to take a break, we'll be delighted to see you again."

Sam nods at the two of them. "When the little ones are old enough, they're welcome to spend long weekends or summer breaks up at a working ranch. It's important for parents to have a little time to themselves, you know."

She bites her lip at the overwhelming amount of emotion that hits her then. Andi knows it's just the damn hormones, but that's some top-level generosity right there.

"Thanks. And you sealed the deal there, Sam. There's no escape for you guys — you're family now."

The drive back to Denver is more... well, Andi will have to say sillier than the drive up. The twins have had an entire weekend to learn more about their cousin Henry. This is both a good thing and a bad thing. It's good that Henry manages to entertain them, it's good that they can — for the most part — discern the nuggets of truth in his outrageous stories. It's a bad thing because he kind of eggs them on in their desire to go to school with their older brother, and it's a bad thing that he starts ruminating on the possibility of getting a new route that will let him visit them at the school regularly. Of course, the ruminations are frightening — they include a move to Denver and frequent stopovers in Chicago on his flights to Newark. Thankfully, either Pablo doesn't hear him or is actively ignoring him.

Vin and Em love Henry as much as their mother does. Charles would actually be more patient with him than Andi usually is... and far more patient than she suspects Pablo will ever be. Someday, he's going to be a great dad. Until then, he's playing the role of uncle for all its worth.

Damn it, it's just impossible not to love Henry.

Once again, Justin and Chris attempt to get into work-related discussions. Nicole, Pablo, and Andi take turns interrupting with nonsensical comments that derail any chance of them accomplishing anything useful. She reminds Chris more than once to enjoy the opportunity to rest before their night out on the town, each time eliciting a theatrical sigh from Justin and a chuckle from Pablo.

Pablo is the one who talks Logan into just driving to the Golden and parking the behemoth. The way he sneaks out behind the bus and glances furtively around before taking off makes Andi laugh.

What are you laughing about, Wife?

Oh, just the way you're pretending to be a spy in a bad movie. Or a bad spy period.

Andi thinks he flew at top speed back home and possibly exceeded the speed limit on the trip back out to the hotel because he joins them before they can order more than drinks to accompany their late lunch.

"Our neighbors are conspicuously missing," he says as he sits down next to her. "I hope they're not getting into mischief."

"Nah. The chorus has some big party and sportsball watching thing on New Year's Day. That's probably where they are."

Knowing she's going out on patrol tonight, she goes heavy on the protein. It's probably going to be a quiet night — last night would have been the height of madness. She did tell Perry to give them a call if he needed our help — Pablo could have flown them home in under an hour — but things must have been quieter than usual because he didn't call.

# # #

Andi and Pablo had made arrangements to pick Chris up at the Brown Palace at around 10pm. Justin lent him a pair of khakis — given that Justin is a few inches taller than Chris, Justin graciously allows Pablo to duct tape up the hems of the pant legs; Pablo gives up his white web belt and an old off-white sweatshirt.

When Chris walks out the door with Pablo, he looks like his only thought is about how ridiculous he feels. But by the time he and Pablo walk up the block back to the bikes where Andi is waiting, he looks... relaxed and apprehensive at the same time.

She grins as they walk up and leans over to pat the seat of her personal bike.

"You'll be fine, Mister Freeze. Justin says you've taken the two-month safety course back home, but haven't ridden much. That's okay. You've still got the muscle memory." She gestures for him to get on the Harley. "She's got a light touch, so you don't have to work hard at it. I'll take it slow, and we'll stay off the highway."

She looks over at Pablo. "I'll give you a call when we get back here, love."

He chuckles. "You two kids have fun. I'll be at home watching some lame movie with Justin and Nicole." Then he shakes his head. "Make sure you take him around to see your people, too, Ninja. If he's going to fight the good fight, he ought to know the kind of people he's fighting for."

"You got it, Chief. Catch you on the flip side."

Then she looks back at Chris. His friend's sister is tucked away, and Denver's snarky kickass Super is smiling wickedly, a mischievous twinkle in her eyes.

"Welcome to Denver, Arctic Blast. Ready to tour my town?"

Chris had enjoyed the downtime with Justin's family. He is actually proud that he now knows everyone's name. Finally, it's time to go out on the streets with Andi.

No, not Andi... Ninja, he thinks to himself as he looks at her. He gets on the motorcycle and nods.

"As ready as I'll ever be. And thanks for going slow. Riding should come back, but it's been a while. No movie scene chase scenes, please," he says, giving her a thumbs up to indicate that he's ready to go.

She laughs. "Nope. No movie scene chases. We only did that once, and I wasn't even involved. Good times, though."

Pablo pauses to roll his eyes at her. "You gave my boss an ulcer."

She grins wickedly at him. "He'll get over it. Now get out of here, Garcia. I have work to do."

Ninja can hear Garcia chuckling as he walks toward the nearest alley so he can take off unnoticed.

She leads Chris along an indirect route from the edge of downtown through Five Points to the far side of the neighborhood. These are some of her people, and in the past few months, they've gotten used to seeing her walking their streets with companions. Peacekeeper, Peregrine, and Black Wolf have all been welcomed simply because Ninja vouches for them — although Old Mama will probably take umbrage at Perry's name until the day she walks on. She keeps to the speed limit on these surface streets, which is counter to her usual way to travel anywhere. But tonight's activities are for Chris's benefit, so she foregoes her typical speed demon travels.

She chooses the west side of the neighborhood for a couple of reasons. Primarily, it's so Chris can get a good look at the other end of the spectrum here. It's barely a stone's throw from the posh hotel where he's staying. It's a far cry from the upper-middle-class neighborhood where Perry lives; it's nothing like her more modest neighborhood. The other reason is that the gentrification encroaching from the east along the new light rail line on Welton kind of freaks her out.

They pull into a lot off Arapahoe Street near 30th Street, behind one of the few office buildings in the neighborhood. The rest of the block consists of abandoned buildings and what looks like the beginnings of a construction site. It's been like that for almost two years now. She studies Andi's bike for a moment after Chris dismounts. It seems to take no energy or effort to cast an illusion of invisibility around the bike. If not for the existence of the Pentad and the soul integration work she and Maddie did, she suspects she'd be freaking out again about the amount of power she has access to.

The illusion is similar to Pablo's ability to refract light away from himself, rendering him very nearly invisible. The chances of anyone accidentally tripping over the bike are minuscule — Ninja's bike is distinctive, and she doubts there are any fools left in Denver that are stupid enough to go near her bike. Plus, this isn't her usual parking spot. Still, better safe than sorry.

She gestures for Chris to accompany her up Arapahoe Street. She's been walking these streets for nine years now. They're comfortable, familiar, and safe. But looking with fresh eyes, she can appreciate why outsiders call this area a slum. The buildings are not well-maintained, the streets are dark and dirty. Broken windows and boarded up entries are prevalent on the empty buildings. Even on the buildings she knows are occupied, there are as many boarded windows as those with glass panes. Street lights aren't replaced quickly down here, even when she pesters Sanchez to do something about it. Street cleaning might happen once a year. Further in, the residents take more care of their properties — whether they own the building like Old Mama does or they just rent like Jethon and his family does. But here on the perimeter, the world looks pretty grim.

There are days when she believes the residents of Five Points prefer this barrier, particularly on the east side. Other days, she wonders.

Just after turning the corner onto 28th Street, she sees movement in the inky dark shadows of the bushes along the front of the apartment building.

"This job isn't just about fighting bad guys," she whispers to Chris. "Just stay behind me, so you don't scare him."

Ninja crouches down at the edge of the sidewalk and peers into the bushes.

"Houston, I thought you found yourself a place to stay." She speaks softly and clearly. He's not as old as Old Mama, but he's certainly not young. And he's a Vietnam vet with a whole host of mental, emotional, and psychological problems.

"Hey there, Ninja. How are ya?" He lifts his head to look at her and gives her a big near-toothless grin. "Got you a new angel following you tonight. This one's white, like a proper angel."

She chuckles. "That smart aleck Jacobs is the only angel that follows me around, Houston. This is a friend of mine from out of town, Arctic Blast." She looks over her shoulder. "AB, that disembodied voice you hear is Houston. He's the shy sort." She winks at Arctic Blast before turning back to her recalcitrant resident. "I'm just showing him around, so he knows what he's getting into when wanders the streets of his town."

Houston laughs, though it quickly turns into a cough. "Arctic Blast, huh? Cold and freezy stuff would be a mighty handy trick down in Texas."

"No need to go fishing, Houston. I'm not telling you where he's from. It's a good thing I never got the rule book because I'd find out I'm really not supposed to talk about my Super friends, and you know how I am with rules. I'd be blabbing everything to anyone who asked."

He tries laughing again. "You're a wild one. You know... I never thought I'd see you give up your loner ways, girl."

"Who says I have?" she replies, smiling through her worry. "A loner can still be a teacher every now and then. And I'm over here talking about you, my friend. Why are you out here in the cold?"

He waves a hand in her general direction. "Don't you worry 'bout me. I'm fine. Tell me 'bout your new friend."

"Oh, no, you don't, buster. Don't go trying to change the subject on me. You sound like crap and you like look worse." She pauses and points a finger at him. "And you know damn well I'm not talking about your interesting fashion choices either. Where's your niece?"

"Moved. Her man got a job in one of those middle states. Kansas, Nebraska... I don't remember."

"Hmm. Well, good for them, but didn't she help you find a new place to live before she left? She didn't strike me as someone who'd just toss you back in the street."

"Don't be thinking poorly of her, Ninja. She tried. Found me a place and they were nice enough 'til she left town. Then they got mean. Folks out here are more helpful."

"You're going to tell me who these mean folks are, aren't you, Houston." It's not a question, of course.

"Oh, sure. If I could remember."


He looks at her with rheumy eyes. "You'll go crack their heads. I don't wanna cause any trouble for anyone. You know that, Ninja."

She rolls her eyes and sighs. "Good grief, Houston, I just want to report them to the good people downtown that watch out for you homeless folks. There are a few of them, you know. I even know some of their names. It's so they make sure those mean folks don't do the same thing to anyone else."


"On my honor, Houston. No heads getting bashed this time."

He coughs again — it sounds like he's traveling toward pneumonia. A deeper look at his qi confirms it.

"Place out near the commune, off Colorado."

It's a little funny, that name. After the incident at Halloween when the Five Points community helped look after her people from Commerce City, folks around here started calling the walled-off city the commune.

"Uh huh. Okay, I know which one that is. The halfway house behind the U-Haul Center?"

"Right, right! I remember all those trucks."

"You still need to get inside and warm up, Houston," she says, reaching for one of the pouches on her belt that holds the Ninja phone. "I'm gonna call Mama. She'll take care of you."

"Oh, lordy, no! Don't you call that dear lady this late at night!" He makes a rude noise. "I'll be fine here tonight. I'll mosey on over to her place in the morning."

She shakes the phone at him. "You are one stubborn and ornery old man, Houston. But I'm more stubborn. You're not staying outside tonight. It's too cold."

She has to scroll through her contacts list to find the right number. It's not one she uses very often.

"You better not be calling those Mission folks, girl! I won't go with them."

Ninja shakes her head and smiles at him. The phone only has a chance to ring once before the man on the other end picks up.

"Hi, Reverend. Think you could help me out with one of my flock?"

She chuckles at his answer. "Potato, potahto and all that jazz. You know my buddy Houston, right? Well, he needs a warm place to spend the night. He's being downright stubborn, Rev. Trying to out-stubborn me!"

She nods as he replies. "The apartments on 28th and Arapahoe. Houston's in the bushes, you probably can't see me in the dark, but I have a friend with me. He's wearing white. Should be pretty obvious even if I haven't coaxed Houston out yet. And a pot of your wife's chicken soup ought to be medicine enough until the stores open. I'll ask Mama to pour tea down his throat all day tomorrow."

She pauses as emotions well up at his response and tucks the phone away.

"The Reverend is going to come pick you up and let you sleep in the fellowship hall tonight. You remember him, don't you, Houston?"

He makes another rude noise. "You're getting as dotty as I am, Ninja. I was helping the folks from the commune that night you and your friends brought them all down here."

"So you gonna come out of there? You're not going to make me come in and carry you out, are you?"

"Ninja! I can't believe you'd even think that! Making you cart me out would be downright rude."

The two of them laugh, then she stands as he starts packing up his belongings. She looks at Chris and shrugs.

"This kind of thing takes years — getting to know people, letting trust and friendships build on both sides. I just walked the streets down here at night looking out for folks, doing the things that the police probably should have been doing but weren't. It took months before I had enough information for Garcia to pass along to the Narcotics unit, and they could bust up the ring of dealers that were making life miserable for folks around them. Even then, Old Mama wasn't so sure about me. Asked if I arranged the raid as a publicity stunt."

She half-smiles at the memory. "She's something else altogether, that's for sure."

"You talking about Mama out there? That woman is a bona fide saint, Arctic Blast, sir." He pushes one of his canvas bags out onto the sidewalk. "You don't even have to believe in that stuff to know it's true."

"You're right about that, Houston. And how much stuff do you have in there?"

"Just a shopping cart worth. Except some punk took my cart."

She tsks at the news. "What's the world coming to?"

"Well, I can't move around very well without one."

"I know, Houston. I know."

She looks at Chris again, mischief in her eyes. "Something similar happened when I went up to Commerce City... the commune, as folks have taken to calling it down here. They just couldn't believe anyone wanted to help. I have a soft spot in my heart for the underdog.

"It's about building relationships and making connections. But you need to do it your way. You can find your own community of forgotten people back home. Or you could just stop little old ladies from getting mugged. When you talk to your family and friends, they're going to have opinions. Definitely listen to them. But ultimately, if you don't do this job for your reasons and in your way..." She shrugs. "It won't work."

She sees the lights of the church van coming up 28th Street.

"You need help packing in there, my friend?" she asks Houston.

In response, he pushes four more canvas shopping bags onto the sidewalk, then crawls out from under the bushes with an old but warm sleeping bag wrapped around him. She holds out a hand to help him up.

"Oh, I can manage, Ninja."

"Of course! I wouldn't expect any less from a Green Beret. But we all get by with a little help from our friends, right?"

He stares at her for a good thirty seconds before reaching up and taking her hand, allowing her to steady him as he stands. And he needs the help, as she discovers when the pain of a broken tibia engulfs her left leg. She barely has time to breathe before Mother is trying to make her glow in the dark again. Fortunately, Houston is looking at Chris as he stands, and other than a surprised glance at his own leg, he makes sure to give his attention to the newcomer.

"You'll find your place. I can tell." Houston nods as the Reverend pulls the van to the curb on the other side of the street. "Here you are in this rundown neighborhood in the middle of the night with this crazy woman. But you're paying attention — to me, to her, maybe even to smell of snow in the air."

Then he hobbles off, waving to the Reverend. If she squints, she might just be able to picture him as royalty greeting a peer of the realm. Then she looks at the bags he left for them to carry and laugh.

"And sometimes we wind up doing the same kind of stuff we did for our folks when we were kids." She picks up three of the five bags. "Come on. Let's get Houston on his way. By now, the word has spread, and Mama will be expecting us."

Chris is both excited and nervous about being out with Ninja. He half expects to travel a mile and be in a battle for his life. Instead, he finds himself listening to Ninja and the homeless man. For some reason, this makes him happy. Helping people — any people — is his number one motivator for doing any of this.

He does listen to the man and how Andi, err, Ninja handles all of this.

"Good to meet you, sir," he says as he picks up some bags to help the man into the van.

When it's just him and Ninja again, he looks at her.

"That was really nice. It's definitely a part of the job I could get used to," he says, smiling.

As we continue walking up 28th Street, after getting Houston settled with Reverend Osborne, she smiles back at Chris.

"Honestly? It's my favorite part of this job. I love helping people. I think our folks kind of baked that into both Justin's and my personalities from birth. Garcia isn't entirely wrong when he keeps suggesting I need a job for my other identity. It just isn't practical at the moment."

Ninja waves to the few people out this late on a chilly night. In the summer, there are quite a few more folks out on their porches and in their yards. Tonight, only the folks who like the cold are outside.

"If I can avoid smacking folks, I prefer it. But my smartass taunting of jerks probably won't work for you. It's a skill I've honed over the past nine years, despite what Garcia says about Black Wolf being responsible for my potty mouth. Oh... no potty mouth around Old Mama, not that I'd expect you to start swearing."

She lets Chris get a feel for the neighborhood as they walk toward California Street. Justin's told her about the area around the hospital and the neighborhood where he lives. He's never mentioned anything about Chris's neighborhood; it's not an unreasonable guess, however, that it's a better neighborhood than this. But it's also a safe bet that Chris' neighborhood isn't as tightly knit and friendly as this one. Justin's isn't. Maybe it's the difference between a big city and a medium-sized city. And maybe it's just the difference between having Old Mama to hold the people together like a family and having no one in that role.

As they cross Stout Street, one of the neighborhood children comes around the corner up ahead and runs toward us them fast as her legs will carry her. Shayla is seven or so and one of Old Mama's many great-nieces, great-nephews, and great-grandchildren. It's definitely past her bedtime.

"Ninja! Ninja! Mama says come quick! Auntie's having her baby and needs help!"

Ninja glances at Chris first, a puzzled look on her face because, well, yeah... this is well outside her area of expertise. Then she scoops the child up and lets her ride her hip as they talk. She reminds Ninja a lot of Monica, except that Shayla is a Normal child and doesn't mass as much as Monica.

"Which Auntie, Shayla? You only have a hundred."

She's worried — her aura looks like a fireworks display — but that makes her laugh. "You're silly, Ninja! I only have four Aunties. And only Auntie Carla is having a baby."

The black-clad woman grins at the child, and increases her pace, making sure she doesn't start moving too fast for Chris to keep up. Carla is married to Lee, one of Mama's grandsons.

"I forgot. Maybe I'm the one with a hundred Aunties. I don't suppose you know what the problem is?"

Shayla shakes her head. "Nuh uh. Just that sometimes babies have a hard time being born and Mama thinks you can help."

Interesting. Fortunately, Lee and Carla live practically across the street from Old Mama, and she sets Shayla down in front of the house. She runs in while Ninja pauses and looks at Chris again.

"This is a new one on me. Just go with the flow... sure as shit, that's what I'm going to be doing." She smiles once more. "Other people's babies are always nicer than my own." She reaches over and squeezes his shoulder before leading the way into the house. "Come on, Newbie, let's see how we can be heroes."

While Lee and Carla's house is similar to Old Mama's — living room, a long hallway down to the kitchen, and two bedrooms and a bathroom off the hall — it seems a whole lot smaller. That probably has a lot to do with the number of people in the living room and the general disarray.

All the furniture has been moved to the edges of the room except for a futon in the middle. Carla is leaning back against Lee, both of them have their backs to the newcomers. Old Mama is acting as the midwife tonight. That doesn't surprise Ninja; she just wonders how the elderly woman is going to get up again. Oh. Right. Ninja's here.

Shayla is perched on the sofa by the front door.

There's a lot she can see just by looking at the qi in the room. Lee is scared, Carla is scared and worried, Mama is just worried. She focuses on Carla and her baby.

"Oh, shhhh...ootin' bananas," she says, barely managing to keep from swearing.

"It's okay to swear at a birthing, child," Mama says absently. "We got ourselves a reluctant one tonight."

Reluctant isn't the word Ninja would have used. Freaked out would probably be more appropriate. And to add another level of complications, the baby isn't Normal.

"You know more about unseen things than this old woman," Mama says without looking up. "I sure could use your wisdom here."

She blinks in shock. Damn. Mama asking her for advice? Well, there's another first. Oh, she's asked Ninja's opinion before, but generally as a courtesy because Mama already has all the facts and has made up her mind.

"Um. I think you're going to need more than my wisdom. This is a friend of mine, Arctic Blast, from out of town. Newbie, Mama knows what's what all over the neighborhood.

"And I think the two of us are going to have to work together here." She steers him toward Carla's right side. "Just... well, sit, kneel, crouch right here by the baby. Get comfy."

Ninja walks to Carla's other side and kneels, placing her hands on her thighs. Anyone who knows her would think she's about to spend a chunk of time meditating. She gives Lee and Carla — who's in a lot of pain at the moment and trying to just breathe and not scream — a reassuring smile.

"Well, it's a good thing you decided to have your baby early, Carla. Don't you worry. We're going to take good care of both."

Then she looks at Chris. "Two things are going on, and each of us can deal with one of them. But we need to work together, and you're going to have to work delicately — nothing like the training we've been doing the past few days, okay?

"The baby has a gift that's the opposite of yours. So you have to keep her cool so that she doesn't kill her mama, all right? Imagine keeping her wrapped in a cold blanket — just not too cold. She's also terrified and doesn't want to leave her cozy home. My job is going to be to calm her down and convince her to come out and meet her mama and papa. Neither the baby nor I are inherently telepathic so..." Ninja takes a deep breath and lets it out slowly. "I'll be working as hard as you."

She reaches out both hands palms down to hover about eight inches over Carla's extended belly while maintaining eye contact with Chris.

"Left hand between mine, right hand on the outside. You're cradling the baby. I'm holding her and her mama. Close your eyes if it helps you concentrate. Papa and grandma are going to be taking care of mama, so we just focus on the little one."

For a moment, she flashes back to that night in Paris when she was honored to help in even a small way bring Ynona's little cubs into the world. She smiles.

"You ready?"

This night isn't turning out to be what he had expected. No chases, no blasting cold, just walking and talking. The little girl running up to them seems to fit perfectly with the night... until he's at Carla's house and he's about to help deliver a baby. A fire baby.

What have you gotten me into? he thinks, noting that he's never seen a live delivery in his life.

He tries to sit on the side and get comfortable, but he's nervous and sweating. He takes a moment and closes his eyes, concentrating on cool and calm. Then he looks up at Ninja and gives her a slight nod as he places his hands beside hers.

From there, he concentrates on a slight chill, just enough to return the temperature inside the womb to what it would normally be — slow, gentle, a cocoon of cool.

As she kneels quietly with eyes closed and attention focused on the unseen world, Ninja takes a moment to ponder the fact that this is absolutely not her area of expertise. Aside from being able to see and manipulate qi, the whole birthing process is something she's managed to avoid her entire life — there are no sheep out on her aunt and uncle's property in New Mexico, someone else dealt with the goats in Chenjiagou, and she's never even had pets. Sure, she has Moira's memories, and the Captain Priestess probably delivered at least half as many babies as Amanda has, but it's definitely not the same thing. It makes her wonder how Amanda manages to deal with the not quite Normal babies she delivers. The thought no sooner crosses her mind than Mother reminds her. Right. She should trust Mother tonight, too.

Chris's blanket of coolness seems to surprise the little one. Can unborn children be surprised? She's already surprised her, but they're so far beyond Normal that there isn't even a scale for it. Not that it matters.

Carla's baby calms down a little, going from seriously freaked out to merely distressed by this whole Being Born process.

Hey, sweetheart, it doesn't look like it's much fun for your mama, either. But I promise you'll like having her and your papa holding you close.

This, too, startles the child. It isn't the words so much as the qi that Ninja is weaving around the cold that Chris is wrapping around her that she notices. Chris manages to fluctuate the amount of cold he's using, responding to her inability to control her power. This part, this helping to make things better for someone, seems to be instinctive on his part, which is good. She remembers Grandmaster Chen, Tita, and Tommy all saying the same thing about her.

She doesn't think the baby actually understands what she said, but she does seem to recognize that their combined effort to help her isn't a threat. Interestingly, the calmer she becomes, the less intense her heat is.

It reminds Ninja of Elise, Lisa and Aaron's daughter. It took her over a year to be able to control her telepathy after she was born, and it was only possible because Mamu has been helping her every step of the way. Who's going to help Carla and Lee's little girl?

Of course, that prompts Mother to tickle her again.

Yes, Mother. I worry too much. I know. Most of the time, I have a good reason to worry, though.

She's not paying much attention to what Old Mama is saying, or how Carla is doing other than tired. And she's in pain, but Ninja is going to hypothesize that manipulating the qi around her is part of why she's not inadvertently taking that pain and crippling herself. Or maybe whichever one of those two is responsible for sharing that lovely gift realizes it could endanger them, too. Fortunately, Lee is reassuring and supportive; it allows Chris and Ninja to concentrate on their job with relatively few distractions. At one point, she thinks Old Mama tells Shayla to put all the baby blankets in the freezer, which sounds more like the start of a practical joke than anything else. Still, she's reminded once again just how sharp, attentive, and analytical Old Mama is.

Spooky scary. She's another person Ninja wouldn't want to cross.

Working with qi to this extent always sends her to the No Time place, so she has no idea how long it is until a wrinkled, wiggling, mewling bundle of qi is placed on Carla's bare belly.

"Ease off, just a little bit at a time," she whispers to Chris. As long as the little one is calm, it would appear that no one is any danger of being singed. Her mama's arms are holding her; her papa is gently cleaning her; she's falling asleep. That's all good.

This impromptu act of kindness puts Chris' abilities in perspective. Although he needs to keep training on his fighting skills, he's reached a point where he isn't a danger to himself or others, and he can make a real difference when he goes back home. At the other end of the spectrum, using those same skills gently and instinctively makes Ninja realize that his self-deprecating joke about making snow cones actually has more than just a kernel of truth to it. It's the other side of the superhero coin. They all need to cultivate both sides of their nature to maintain a balance and stay sane. Maddie is one of the most ruthless and deadly people she knows that works on the side of good. Her philanthropy more than balances her cold-blooded nature when hunting down and eradicating the evil in this world. Ninja suspects that she'd see things in a different light, but they're mirrors of one another in some ways. Maddie's pragmatism balances Andi's tendency toward the metaphysical — one soul, two Sisters.

"Well, Mr. Iceman, I sure hope you're planning to move here to Denver," Old Mama says, her bright smile and twinkling eyes evidence of the teasing she's giving Chris.

Ninja laughs and opens her eyes, flipping her hands over and taking Chris' in her... just for a moment. "Thanks. You did good."

Returning her hands to her lap, she looks at Old Mama.

"Carla and Lee are going to need more help than most new parents..."

"I'm gonna stay here when I'm not in school!" Shayla interrupts. "Mommy says I should."

Ninja smiles at her. "And I know you'll be a big help, Shayla. But your new little cousin is going to need some special help."

Shayla looks at the adults around the room, finally deciding that maybe she should ask about confusing things later.

"Zuri," Carla whispers as she looks at her daughter.

"It means 'beautiful' in Swahili," Lee adds.

Zuri is enfolded in so much love right now that Ninja isn't worried about her... at least not for the rest of the night.

"Imala would probably be the most qualified person, but she's still out in New York," she muses.

"Oh, Lord, bless her for helping that poor child," Mama says. "Does that nice doctor friend of yours think she'll get well?"

She shrugs slightly. "They don't really know, Mama. Doctor Hank and Imala and Clarise are doing everything they can. I know that you and the folks here and up in Commerce City are praying for her. But it seems like her mind and spirit don't want to come back to her body."

She looks down at her hands, resting comfortably on her thighs — so powerful, so fucking useless.

"I'll stop by to see her while I'm out of town. I'm not sure if there's anything I can do to call her back, but I have to try."

After taking a deep breath and holding it for a moment, she exhales slowly and then looks up at Mama again. "Don't you go making me get all sad on this happy day, Mama!" She gives the old woman one of her naughtier Ninja grins and shakes a finger at her. "It's a good thing I'm going to be taking a vacation. Seems like my bad habits are rubbing off on you."

She laughs heartily, enough to rouse Zuri from her slumber for a second. "Oh, you're just funnin' with Mama now!"

She chuckles. "Maybe so. I'll phone Mamu first thing in the morning to see if she can suggest someone. I know Ross and Trish have two girls who are learning to be healers. One of them is even about Shayla's age. Or possibly one of the heart-sensitive folks who stayed with the Reverend during that little kerfuffle back in October would like to visit."

She considers the possibilities, tilting her head so she can look at Zuri and her parents.

"You know, that might be exactly what Zuri needs. As long as she's calm, she'll be fine. The whole process of being born is pretty scary, I guess. There's more than enough love in this house to make her feel safe and happy. And with some extra hands around to help mama and papa, there ought to be enough peace to get her through however long it takes her to understand how to control her fire."

"We won't have to move out to Commerce City?" Carla asks. "Not that we don't love those folks, but Lee's job is right close by here."

She shakes her head. "If one of the empaths is willing to come down and if you're willing to have a lodger for a while, I don't see why you shouldn't stay right here. And they're used to the Monks getting riled up every now and again, so you normal folks shouldn't be a burden to their hearts." Ninja reaches over and lay a hand over Carla's. "On the contrary, Carla. All this love is a balm for anyone's heart."

"But it could be a long time before she learns how to control whatever this gift is that she has," Lee says. He sounds a lot more worried than his wife.

"Well, there are all kinds of factors we can't account for, but I don't think it will be as long as all that."

She nods toward Chris and taps a finger against her breastbone.

"Those of us who have new gifts thrust on us later in life have a harder time learning to use them and control them. Heck, all kinds of crazy things have happened since Halloween, and I'm still trying to adjust. But for the little ones like Zuri — and a half dozen little ones up in Commerce City — it's all just part of who they are. Elise took longer to learn not to talk in everyone's head because children don't typically learn to talk until they're a few years old. Matthew was born with an ability to Shift; even though he still isn't mature enough to fully shift to another form, he very likely learned to do small shifts as he was learning about his body — playing with his fingers and toes and face and such. Zuri's gift of heat could well be something as intrinsic as breathing. And even a month-old baby can hold her breath, get freaked out by it, and then start wailing. By this time next month, that baby will have figured out that holding her breath isn't a good idea. Of course, in a few years, she'll be threatening to hold her breath until she turns blue, but I suspect her parents will know exactly how to deal with her."

Lee smiles. "You're telling me not to worry so much."

"Yes, sir, that's exactly what I'm telling you." She returns his smile. "Just do the things a new parent ought to do. You'll be fine tonight. Newborns don't get colicky, do they? Mama has already made sure you have support for the normal things; I'll make sure you have some help for the not quite normal things. But not until tomorrow." She nods toward Chris again. "The Newbie and I still have places to go, people to see, maybe some crimes to foil."

She looks over at Shayla. "Would you fetch one of the kitchen chairs for Mama, sweetie?"

"Oh, don't you be silly!" Mama says. "Just help me up, and I'll fetch my own chair."

Ninja stands and watches Shayla skip down the hall to the kitchen before helping Mama up. It would take two people with average strength — maybe three — to help the heavyset woman up off the floor. Fortunately, she's stronger than two or three of the neighborhood folks combined. It's probably a good thing they came by this evening; otherwise, Mama would be sitting on the floor until Lee's brother or one of his cousins showed up.

"I'm not being silly, and you know it. And yes, I'm going to keep a good grip on you until Shayla gets back with a proper chair for you. Good heavens, Mama, what were you thinking, crawling around on the floor like that?" She chuckles. "Half the reason you sent Shayla out looking for me was to help you up off the floor, wasn't it?"

Her qi looks precisely the way Ninja would expect it to look for someone suffering from postural hypotension. With a hand under each elbow, she looks down at Old Mama with a fond smile. After a moment, her dizziness passes — just as Shayla returns with a sturdy chair — and she chuckles.

"I suspect that thought might have occurred to me once I sat myself down. I'll just sit here for a bit... watch over my great-grandbaby and make sure Carla's doing well."

"I feel fine, Mama," Carla says sleepily. "Maybe I'll just take a little nap right here, though, before getting up and going to the bedroom."

Shayla has already brought over a pillow and blanket. It seems to Ninja that the foot end of the futon might be messy, but the large bundle of sheets and towels off to the side allay some of those concerns. Lee is going about making sure Carla is comfortable — in fact, his fussing over Carla reminds her that she will have precisely this same sort of nonsense to look forward to from Pablo. Once he has Carla and Zuri tucked in, Lee stands and holds out his hands to Ninja, unable to speak, as Mama beckons Chris over to her.

No longer needing to worry about inadvertent downloads of memories from the people of Five Points — she's known them long enough, that's for sure — she wraps Lee in a hug.

"You're welcome," she whispers. "I'm happy to help."

He returns the hug and just nods; after a moment he steps back to look at Chris... whose attention is being demanded by Old Mama. The woman is a force of nature.

"Now, child," she says to Chris, holding her hands out to him, "you come visit any time you'd like. You'll be welcome here just like all of Ninja's friends are. Even that Bird Man..."

"Grandma," Lee says with a tone of resignation. Ninja manages to repress a giggle. Poor Perry... she swears he'd probably change his name if he weren't already Sponsored.

"Hush now, Lee. As I was saying, Mr. Arctic Blast, even that friend of Ninja who picked the wrong name is welcome down here. You did a mighty fine thing for our family. Little Zuri there is gonna know the story of her birthday, and we're gonna remember you. Ain't that right, Miss Smarty Pants?"

"Yes, ma'am. I'll be sure to tell her there's no way I could have managed this all on my own."

Old Mama gives Ninja one of her looks, then shakes her head. "There she goes doin' that thing of hers again," she says to Chris. "She ain't once ever taken credit for anything all on her own. Always has to share the good that comes her way."

She winks at him and lowers her voice, knowing full well that the local Super can still hear her... and knowing that she won't acknowledge that she can. "It's one of the ways we know we can trust her, you see."

Arctic Blast smiles at Old Mama and shakes his head. "I can't stay. I have family and friends back home, but I do think I'll visit again. I'd love to hear about how baby Zuri is doing.

"This is something I'll never forget. I promise whenever I do come back to Denver, I'll visit you. And it wouldn't surprise me if Zuri will be able to teach me things!" he says with a smile.

"I don't know how to thank both of you, Ninja," Lee murmurs.

She turns to whisper to him, "Just be yourself, Lee... a good husband, a good father. That's all the thanks I need. I promise."

Looking back at Mama and Chris, she nods to the door. "Everyone here needs rest, so we'll get out of your hair. Expect a call from one of the folks in Commerce City tomorrow, okay?"

As they walk back toward the bikes — past small, well-kept homes and larger apartment buildings that had until recently been the bases of meth and crack dealers — she watches Chris. Rather, she scans the qi all around him.

He's a very different man from the one who sat in her living room a week ago, and exactly the same, too. He's more confident about his powers, and there's a sparkle of acceptance about doing this job that even Pablo hasn't achieved yet.

He's silent for a while as they walk, then looks over at her and smiles.

"That was amazing."

She returns his smile as she flips her staff over her shoulder into its scabbard on her back. "Amazing barely covers it. I've done a lot of good in the last nine years on this job, and that's definitely one of the best things. I'm really glad you were here to help." Then she chuckles. "I wish I could take credit for planning all this for you, for making sure you see more of the good side of this job than the bad. But it's all been on Karma or Serendipity — take your pick."

"I had this picture in my mind of flinging ice around, dumping a load of bad guys at the feet of the police. I never thought of saving a mother and baby. That was something I'll never forget. I know now that I'll never regret having this ability. All I'll have to do is think of that beautiful baby and the look on Carla's face to appreciate what I can do," he says softly, obviously thinking back to that particular moment.

"Thank you," he says, looking over at Ninja with a smile.

She looks up at the clear sky full of stars. The lights of the city obscure a lot of the dimmer ones she's accustomed to seeing when she visits her Aunt and Uncle's home in Nageezi, but there are still more than she could see when she and Pablo went out to Los Angeles to visit his family. She knows they'll be able to see the rising moon when they ride east up Colfax. The peaceful quiet of the night brings to mind the stories her Catholic friends and relatives like to tell of the first Christmas. And that brings up the memory of the Spirit who stood watch in that terrible warehouse at Halloween — Great Spirit's grandson, who took on the mantle of humanity on that long-ago night in Bethlehem.

"You're welcome."

They walk in silence to the bikes, keeping their feelings and observations unvoiced. Silent night, holy night... all is calm, all is bright. Those words mean something a little different to her than to most people. They're a reminder that even in the darkest night, she walks in the light. They're a reminder that she stands against the Darkness and the Great Foe.

But sometimes, it's enough to just bring kindness to the people she watches over.

"That took up more time than I'd planned to spend in Five Points tonight, not that I'd have missed that for anything." She grins as she starts up the Ducati. "So instead of heading up to Commerce City, I'm going to introduce you to some others folks I do my best to protect. I have a feeling a nice guy like you wouldn't even notice them."

Rather than her usual bat out of hell trip up Downing Street with a total disregard for such pedestrian things like stop signs and lights, she leads Chris on a leisurely ride in the opposite direction up 27th Street to Broadway. This route takes them through what was once one of the most accident-prone intersections near downtown — where Broadway, 20th, and California Streets create the center of a spoke. Once the City decided to make all three streets one-way, the accident count dropped. Of course, frustration and cursing increased as people tried to figure out the labyrinthine ways of getting where they needed to go. All that happened long before she came to town, but folks who've lived here all their lives love to tell stories about how it takes them five times longer to get where they're going. She suspects they're exaggerating. And it's a small price to pay for safety.

As they ride by the 1999 Broadway building, it isn't possible to see that the California Street side of the building is an unexpected deep concave, seemingly carved out by a giant ice cream scoop. She wasn't here when that building when up either, but the stories about its design are far more believable — Holy Ghost Church sits in the shadow of the skyscraper, a testament to the faith and the will of the congregants who refused to let developers push them from their place of worship.

Two blocks after passing the Brown Palace, they turn left on Colfax Avenue. Liberty Park, the expanse of brown grass and bare trees between Civic Center Park and the State Capitol, and then the Capitol Building itself are on our right. During the day, this is one of the business areas of the city. Even when the legislature isn't in session. She should know... she used to work only a couple of blocks over at the library. At night, it's not quite as busy, but it's assuredly not a ghost town. The fancier restaurants are closing down, but the smaller eateries will be open for several more hours — some of them stay open all night to lure both the patrons of the many bars after they close and the early birds heading to work before the usual business hours start.

Beyond the Basilica, she pulls into a parking spot just beyond the alley between Pennsylvania and Pearl Streets and turns the bike off. When Chris pulls up behind her, she swings a leg over the handlebars to sit sideways with her feet propped on the curb.

"I'm not sure any of the kids are out tonight..." She tilts her head as she senses waves of curiosity coming from the alley. "Never mind, at least a couple of them are out. Don't be surprised or offended if they pretend you don't exist. You're new, they don't know you. They still do the same thing to Peregrine and Peacekeeper. All you need to do is... well, witness."

A young woman — definitely in her teens and probably not of legal age yet — almost skitters out of the alley and stands against the building in front of them. Most nights, her coat would be open to reveal a camisole tucked into her miniskirt, and her hands would be in her pockets or fidgeting at the hem of the jacket. Tonight, it's zipped up, and her arms are crossed. She's actually wearing a pair of gloves Ninja had passed out to the homeless kids last month, and that's good to see. She has to have a great sense of balance to be able to stand on one booted foot with the other tucked up and pressed against the wall — a stiff wind off the mountains ought to knock her right off those stilettos. Her fishnet stockings look new.

"Keeping warm, Gigi?"

"Sure, warm enough. TJ and I have a blanket."

"Good to know. How is everyone?"

She gives the impression of shrugging. "Pretty good. Tink and her friends found a place to stay nearby. Seems like a nice family, but kind of strange, you know?"

"Strange in a good way or a bad way?" If Tink, Ivy, and Charlie are safe, she's pretty sure they can deal with a good kind of strange. The other sort? Ninja will track this family down and have a few words with them.

"Good, I think. Like, I'm not sure how they're all related, except that one of them is Ivy's aunt or maybe her aunt's best friend. But I see them sometimes when they go over to Pete's." She nods toward the diner up the street. "They sneak us food. They're scared of the trial. But they seem good."

She nods. That was one of the cases DPD managed to solve without her help.

"They're going to that fancy school out by the airport."

Ninja raises an eyebrow. This is news to her. "There's a fancy school out by the airport? Who puts a school way the hell out there?"

Gigi laughs, and her face lights up with joy. They all love it when they can pass along a tidbit, no matter how insignificant, that Ninja doesn't already know.

"Yeah. The Marlow School or something like that."

Connections slam together — the name, the family, the work they do. She grins back at Gigi.

"Well, if they're out at the Marlow School, the family they're staying with is why the detectives of our fair city didn't bother to consult yours truly to track down the assholes going to trial. And your friends are in good hands. Oh, and they're not sneaking you the food; I'd bet twenty bucks that the family knows exactly what they're doing. And are aiding and abetting said sneakery," she adds with a smile.

"You know them?"

Ninja shakes her head. "I know of them. Our paths haven't actually crossed."

However, she thinks about some of the more unusual qi patterns she's seen in City Park and surrounding a particular house up on Race Street.

"But I know which family you're talking about, and they have really good vibes."

"Yeah, they look pretty happy together."

"You'll let your friends that know I'm rooting for them, will you? And I can get some of the folks from BACA to watch over them if they'd like."

Gigi smiles at that. "I'll find a way to let them know, sure. I'm not sure the girls would feel comfortable with BACA, but maybe Charlie would like that."

"Okay. I'll pass the word around. Is there anything I can do for the rest of you?"

She glances back toward the alley then shrugs, lowers her leg, and walks with preternatural grace on those impossibly tall heels. The boots aren't the best quality, and although they almost reach her knees, they probably aren't warm enough for this weather. She slides her hands in her pockets as she stops a couple of feet away from Ninja.

"TJ's got a real bad cough, and he won't go to the clinic. I'm worried. Can you get something for him?"

She looks over at the alley herself, but TJ's got himself tucked far enough back that she can't get an accurate reading on him from here. It's enough to know he's sick, but not deep enough to know what might help.

"He's not going to come out here, is he?"

Gigi shakes her head.

Ninja looks at Chris and sees all the hope in the world in his qi. She smiles as she stands up.

"I'll only be a minute. Two tops. You'll be fine here."

Then she looks at Gigi again. "You want to stay here?"

Gigi looks at the ground and shifts her eyes to Ninja's old bike for a second, then skitters back to the safety of the brick building.

"I'll wait here."

Ninja nods.

Chris had accepted her warning that these people might ignore him — and sure enough, when he's alone with Gigi, she never looks up. He assumes he'll spook her if he gets any closer or tries to talk to her so he merely looks at her, taking in as much as he can from head to toe. Homeless, obviously, but there is probably more... but it's not something he'd ask her about. Noticing her very short skirt and boots makes him wonder if she does things she shouldn't. He can't bring himself to think 'prostitute' with someone her age. He really feels out of his element here.

She jogs around the corner into the alley, past two dumpsters, and crouch in front of TJ.

"Hey, buddy. Gigi says you're feeling under the weather. You mind if I give you a look?"

They know her, these street kids. Some of them are just runaways. Some of them, like Gigi, are sex workers. They know Ninja sees things that others don't, and they trust her. TJ is younger than Gigi by a year or two but doesn't even look his age. His dark skin is paler than it should be. He's been on the streets since the beginning of summer when his parents threw him out of their home because he's gay. He's smart, doesn't let himself get caught up in the lines older men feed him, and is usually one of the most cheerful people out here.

Tonight, he looks up at her with mucous-rimmed eyes and tries to smile.

"You look like crap, TJ. I know you hate the clinic, but you could have flagged down one of the Patrol cars before this."

"Came on pretty sudden," he says with a raspy voice. Then he coughs; it's a wet, rattling sound. But he reaches out one hand from the confines of the blanket to rest on her outstretched hand.

It doesn't take more than a few seconds to do what it would take the clinic half the day to determine.

"Honey, will you get yourself over to the shelter for a few days? I can wrangle a way to find you some medicine, but you need to be warm and dry and hydrated and safe. Right now, you just have walking pneumonia, but it can flip to full-out, knock you on your scrawny ass pneumonia in no time. And that shit can kill you."

He tries to laugh, but it comes out as a cough. "Ninja, that shelter only takes women and their babies. I'm not going over to the mission."

She warms his hand between hers and snorts. "You can be such a dope for a smart guy, you know that, TJ? You're fourteen, and you look twelve. That makes you a kid to the shelter folks. Do I need to tell Gigi to change her shoes and carry you over there?"

He does smile at that and shakes his head. "No, ma'am."

"Okay. Good. She loves those boots, and I'm never going to understand that." She stands and regards him for a few seconds. "I'm serious, TJ. If you really can't make it over there on your own, I'll send Martinez or Wright over this way to give you a ride."

"No, ma'am. I can get there. It's only a few blocks, and if Gigi goes with, I'll be okay."

"I'm going to check back here tomorrow night, you know."

"Yes, ma'am. I'll be at the shelter if you check there. I promise."

"I'll make sure you get the medicine you need. Gigi will take care of you until you can take care of her again."

"That's what friends are for," he says.

"Damn right."

She jogs back out to the street, winks at Chris as she walks by him, then leans on her bike with arms crossed.

"So, you and TJ are going over to the shelter. They'll let you stay with him if they're not too crowded. You're going to make sure he drinks a lot of tea, preferably not black tea. I'm going to see about getting him some medicine. It might be the usual stuff people are used to. It might be one of those Chinese tinctures I know all of you hate." She grins at Gigi. "Depends on who's available to get me something for walking pneumonia on short notice." Then she nods toward the alley. "The day after tomorrow, one of my nurse friends is going to check on him. She's not going to let him leave the shelter until he's well. Got that?"

Gigi looks relieved and nods. "Sure, got it, Ninja. He'll stay there, and I'll stay as long as they let me. But if I have to come back out without him, I'll hook up with Jolene. I'll be okay."

"You're a tough one, Gigi. Is there anything else anyone needs? More blankets, clothes, food?"

She smiles and shakes her head. "No, you've been making sure we have all of that. You know we really appreciate it, right?"

"Of course, I do, sweetie." She taps her chest over her heart. "I've only got a block of ice in here when I deal with the scum and villainy of the city."

"Well, I've never seen it." She hesitates as she looks up the street, and continues looking away from the alley as she speaks again. "There's a new team on mid-patrol..."

Just the way she says it raises Ninja's hackles.

"Names... and what have they done?"

She shrugs. "I've only heard, haven't seen them myself. They want to take advantage, you know? Guy's name is Bestler. Woman's name is Bianchi."

She takes a deep breath and lets it out slowly.

"The names will reach the ears of someone who can get them out of this neighborhood," Ninja says, the ice in her voice colder than anything Chris could toss out right now. But between one heartbeat and the next, her focus is back on Gigi and warmth returns to her personal space. "Now, go on, Gigi," she says with a hint of a smile, "go take care of your friend."

Gigi gives her a quick look and nods, then she watches the girl hurry back down the alley, once more surprised that a person can not only move on those stilts but move quickly. She pulls out her work phone and dials a number that she's managed to memorize because she works with these kids.

"Hey, it's Ninja. Got a kid heading over to the shelter on Logan who needs some meds. Male, fourteen, walking pneumonia." She pauses and laughs at the response. "Well, of course, I'm practicing medicine without a license! And no... no allergies." She nods at the question. "Yeah, after your shift is fine. He'll be warm and alternately sleeping and being forced to drink a lot of tea until then. Thanks, Joan. Let me know if you have any problems getting over there. I can call Doctor Gao first thing in the morning, if necessary." She chuckles at the reply. "I know. That's why I always call you first. Later."

She snaps the phone closed and returns it to its proper pouch on her belt before looking at Chris.

"And there you have an advanced lesson on how we do our jobs. Getting to know the people in whatever neighborhood or subculture you decide to work with is half the job. Sometimes it doesn't take long for people to trust you, sometimes it takes getting the trust of the right person, and sometimes it just takes showing up week after week until they realize you really do want to help them." She gestures up and down the block. "The street kids were the least trusting and, to be honest, they all have good reasons not to trust anyone. It took six months before they trusted me even a little. It took them a year to trust Wright." She chuckles then. "It was less time for Martinez and her partner because they remembered when she rode with Wright and they'd finally gotten to the point where they'd believe me when I vouch for someone.

"That's the second half of the lesson — building up your list of people that you trust who can help with things you can't do. That's an ongoing project, by the way. But let's say your mom says that she'd love to help you in any way she can. You reply by promising that she'll be the first person you call in the middle of the night in a situation like this. You'll either have the first person in your network of contacts, or she'll decide getting involved with your extracurricular activities is more than she bargained for."

"Again, not what I expected," he replies. "Gaining trust, making contacts makes perfect sense. They can probably be a good source of information at times, I'd imagine, as well. If it matters to them, it would be a way to repay your kindness.

"I don't know what to say really. They have you, which is great, but you can't look after every kid in a city this size. I guess it's really tough when they've learned the hard way not to trust people. What's BACA? Gigi didn't seem to like whatever it is."

She shrugs.

"Contrary to what some of my detractors will say, I do go looking for the good in people. So if I can lend the kids an ear when they want to talk or bring the adults a meal, well, that's a pretty easy thing to do. And thanks to Black Wolf, I can do a little more to help with basic necessities like clothing and food.

"And no, I can't help them all. I wish I could. They do have their networks and a lot of the homeless folks know who I am — but if they don't want help because they're too scared to trust anyone, I can't force help on them. It kind of defeats the whole purpose of being the person out here they can trust, no matter what.

"And BACA is a motorcycle club — Bikers Against Child Abuse. The Rocky Mountain Chapter almost perfectly mirrors my territory. They do sometimes overlap with the Twin Peaks Chapter in Boulder County and the Pikes Peak Chapter down in Douglas County. Gigi likes them, despite what you heard. She's just worried about her friends who went through a truly horrific experience. It's a wonder the girls have managed to be around any men, to be honest. There are a few women in the Chapter, but I think what the girls need are less intimidating folks than tough folks in leathers as they go through the ordeal of a trial."

She looks toward the alley, listening to Gigi taking care of TJ and helping him get up.

"He really ought to get a ride over to the shelter. Gigi is going to have her hands full, even though the shelter is only four blocks away. And they're short blocks, too. He's too stubborn, though." She shakes her head. "Where there are homeless people, there are people who will fall through the cracks. A lot of them are kids... too many, really. Some are runaways, some got tossed out by their families. A few, like Gigi, came out here thinking she had relatives to stay with after her folks died, but the aunt and uncle had moved and left no forwarding address.

"Don't get me started on the morons in whichever Carolina she's from that just put a kid on a bus without making sure she had a support system in place.

"The System — the one that's supposed to take care of kids, anyway — is broken. Maybe it's just in urban areas, or maybe it's everywhere. I see it from this side, from the street side. I hear about it from David because he tries to take care of the kids that do make it to his office."

She gives Chris a sad smile. "Gods know the kids want to help when they can. The adults seem to be too beaten down, although the vets are usually an exception. And every once in a while, they do pass along a tidbit or two of information I didn't already know that Garcia's buddies in the other detective units can use. But usually, it's just a connection the kids want. They have a basic human need to feel like they matter to someone. The vets... well, they're a different story altogether. They're observant but less likely to share if they don't think the information is important. I understand that, for the most part, anyway. I just ask how I can help them. More than one of them has said they're sick to death of being thanked for their service — they'd like more people to just bring them a sandwich, which is something I can do no matter what I'm wearing."

"Involving family and friends will be a tough one for me," he says. "I hear you, and I believe you, but that's going to be a hurdle for me."

She nods.

"Garcia and I were unofficially working together before he knew both sides of my personality — he's only known this side of me for about five months. None of my other friends in the area have a clue, and my family is too far away to help much. But my cousin Charlie does help me with my bikes when we both happen to be in the same place at the same time. And I listen when my friends talk about the people they work with. One of the women in David's chorus is married to the nurse I just called. I've seen her in passing at concerts, I know what David thinks of her, so I lurked around the University Hospital parking lot and talked to her one night when she got off shift. Sometimes Captain Sanchez will suggest that I talk to a particular person. My liaisons for the other counties are wells of information. Hmm, except for Markensen out in Arapahoe," she says, gesturing toward the east. "That man is slightly deranged. A genius, true. But definitely not one for sharing. Fortunately, Dennison up in Adams County knows half the sheriffs in Arapahoe, and he fishes for information."

She smiles; she likes all her contacts — even the madman Markensen — but she's got a soft spot in her heart for Dennison.

"It's probably going to be easier to make contacts as Arctic Blast and leave your family to the job of moral support — unless they insist. Family members can be incredibly persistent. Eventually, you'll need to find people you know in your gut you can trust, but in the meantime, you can probably trust anyone your local Sponsored Super vouches for. Justin and Nicole and your other friends might know folks you could approach in this persona."

She gestures to his mostly white outfit.

"I have no idea how exactly my sister Claire will react, but being an attorney, if she's supportive, then I can see her turning all kinds of contacts my way. I'll have to remind her to not mention that I'm her brother or that kind of defeats the point of a disguise," he adds with a smile of his own.

She grins at him.

"You up for one more stop? You can meet the folks who hailed me as their personal hero on my first night out doing this job."

"Sure, let's head on. Always glad to meet your fans," he says, grinning.

"Oh, I wouldn't call these guys fans... they're more like devotees. However, as I often tell Garcia and Wright, I do have an actual fan club — it just happens to consist of people who hate my guts." She returns his grin. "The so-called Friends of Jesus from down in the Springs have an extreme, enthusiastic, and unhealthy desire to do me in. It seems they take exception to the fact that I won't let them hurt folks, and don't let them get away with it when they do manage to sneak by me."

Then she chuckles.

"But for now..." She gets seated properly on the bike and starts it up again. "...let's visit some friends of mine," she says over her shoulder.

Almost immediately her phone vibrates; because she's taking it slow for Chris' sake, it's easy enough to pull out the phone and check the text. She frowns at the message and makes a right on Washington instead of staying on Colfax, then left on 14th Avenue to Emerson so she can come up to Charlie's from the darker residential street. She pulls the bike over in front of the middle of the three houses that face the bar's parking lot. She doesn't much care that she's technically parking on the wrong side of the street. She cares about the view she has of the bar.

It's not a good one.

She sends an acknowledgment text in response, then puts the phone away again as she assesses the situation while Chris pulls up behind her and turns off the bike. This time, she stands and walks over to him, keeping an eye on the people outside the bar.

"According to Charlie, there's only one troublemaker inside," she murmurs to Chris. "No weapon and his bouncers are sitting on him. But it looks like the rest of them..." She points to the eight men outside — three near the front entrance, five near the back. "...are less inclined to be friendly."

She studies the qi and what she can see of the men's body language from this distance.

"You take the three near the front entrance. All you need to remember is not to let any civilians get hurt, keep those asswipes outside, and don't get hurt yourself... in that order. Looks like the only weapons they have are knives. Two of the shitheads out back have guns, so I'll keep their attention away from you.

"DPD has been called, but they're gonna be a while mopping up an accident on Colorado Boulevard. Charlie will keep his patrons in the bar, so you don't need to worry about them."

She looks at Chris, this time with a deadly serious expression.

"Fun and games are on hold. Those guys are all on drugs, and they're not the drugs that make people loopy and easily confused either. My guess is PCP, but it doesn't much matter because they've got hate in their hearts right now and want to hurt anyone and everyone they get their hands on.

"This is a new tactic. I've never seen them send more than four guys up here at a time. They know I'm fast, but the way they've split the group means I'd never knock them all down before someone with a weapon got inside. So I'm doubly glad you're here."

Chris is getting off the bike when Ninja explains the situation. He can feel his heart rate increasing, and there is a definite nervous feeling, but he nods to Ninja.

"I'll be careful, and they won't get away," he said, just as solemnly in response to her. The fact she's leaving him alone with them gives him confidence. He's pretty sure she wouldn't do that if she weren't completely confident he could handle it. Justin would never forgive her.

She nods toward the dark parking lot.

"I can sneak up on those five... at least get close enough to them to divert their attention from you. You start up the street as soon as I get past that car there," she says, pointing to a late model light-colored sedan almost directly across from them. Then she lightly thumps his shoulder. "Time to go to work, buddy."

She takes advantage of the buildings' shadows and the lack of streetlights to sprint across the street, then into the parking lot itself. She glances back at Chris to see him moving, then turns her attention to the unpleasant fools who've decided to be rowdy on this beautiful night. She slides her staff from its scabbard as she winds between cars, moving closer to the doorway.

Crouched behind Terry's pickup truck, she watches Chris move out of view toward the front of the bar. She grins, stands up, and steps away from the vehicle.

"Howdy, boys!" she calls out. "Up to no good, are you?"

She's startled them, which pleases her immensely. But one of the jerks with a gun raises his weapon and points it at the sky, getting off one round without taking his eyes off her. His grin is as vile as his aura.

"Got it. Definitely up to no good."

The Knife Triplets rush at her, and she almost sighs. So stupid. A spin close to the ground with the staff knocks one of them off his feet, the end of the staff to the solar plexus of the next one as she stands sends the second one sliding on his ass, and an overhand flip of the staff against the last noggin sends him down for the count.

Hmm. She's getting stronger. That move used to just make them wobble. Cool.

All of this takes so little time that the other two are still raising and lowering their guns, respectively, in her direction.

"Now, boys, you know you don't want to shoot me. That's just going to piss me off. And you kids ought to know by now that pissing me off isn't good for your health."

"Right. Like we care," says Gun Guy Number One, the one who'd warned the three up front that she was back here.

"Right. You don't. Except you really should."

The first of the Knife Triplets is moaning; he's got a shattered shin on one leg. The second one is still trying to catch his breath, but he's just the kind of idiot who'd get up again once he can breathe. The third guy is going to need an ambulance, too; he's unconscious.

She doesn't spare them much attention as she works on holding all the energy Mother is pouring into her. Sheesh. She doesn't even have to ask anymore. Shouldn't she have to ask for this kind of power? They're going to have a talk one of these days. Soon.

"You want me to shoot her while you head inside to help the other guys?" Gun Guy Number Two asks Number One.

"Sure," the first says, grinning once more in his thoroughly hateful way. "Go ahead."

As he starts to lower his weapon and move his finger off the trigger, the second moron smiles and squeezes the trigger.

Chris waits until Ninja passes the indicated car, then he starts walking up to the bar as if he was just going to go inside.

He hears the gunshot and their reaction. He isn't going to let them go inside.

"You guys hear that. Probably not safe to go inside," he says still approaching them, his hands loose at his sides.

The nearest of them starts toward him.

"Yeah, not safe for you. Beat it," he says, hold the knife menacingly as he faces Chris.

In a moment's time, he debates being cool and witty but quickly decides that fooling around isn't a great idea on his first night out. Still, he isn't trying to kill anyone, so he attempts something that might just knock the guy out.

He calls on a bit of his power, one hand making a rising motion and the other a pushing motion. Unseen to the guy in front of him, a foot-high block of ice forms behind him and then a powerful wind with some hail mixed it hits him from the front. It isn't enough to really hurt him, but it does make him stumble backward, his heels catching on the block. He falls backwards hard, his head hitting the not so soft concrete, the knife falling from his hand. This first thug drops like the proverbial ton of bricks. If he makes it to a holding cell with a miserable headache rather than the ER with a concussion, he'll be lucky.

This draws the attention of the other two men. Chris has no idea if they'll run away, or charge him, or try to get inside the bar. He really doesn't want any of those options to happen, so he again waves his hand, and the surface under their feet becomes an incredibly slick area of ice — which makes coming or going very difficult.

They both swear, arms pinwheeling. One guy regains his balance and holds the knife as if to throw it at Chris. In an instant, he has an ice shield formed in his hand to block it, and his other hand shoots out, a fist-sized ball of ice flies at the guy's chest knocking him to the ground. Before the last guy can try and throw his knife, Chris hits him as well, not really caring that not only the ice ball is going to hurt like hell, but so is the ice on the ground.

The other two appear to be performing a scene from a Charlie Chaplin movie. One of them does manage to throw his knife. But because it's a reflexive action — a stupid one at that, what with a switchblade not being the most effective throwing knife — it bounces harmlessly off Chris' shield at the same time his ass, then back, followed by his head in quick succession crash into the slick concrete.

What was the old joke? What's the hardest thing about learning to skate? The ice... flashes through his mind as he lowers the shield, locking their legs in ice so that they aren't going anywhere. He encases the man's knife and hand in ice as well. Chris assumes Andi has things in hand, so he waits out here with them.

He can feel his heart rate slowing, and he'll deny it later, but he has a big smile on his face.

As the last one struggles to free his ice-encased hand from the block gluing it to the ground, the wail of sirens and flashing blue lights pierce the air. Time doesn't exactly stand still — it's more a matter of Denver's finest driving like Ninja rides her bike, but without the advantage of her quick reflexes. Tires squeal as the car turns left off of Colfax onto Emerson and comes to a screeching stop, just barely missing the fire hydrant and tree nearest the corner. There's a shrub, however, that probably won't survive as the front bumper edges onto the sidewalk between the two thugs near the door and the unconscious one near Chris. The car barely stops before the passenger door flies open, and a young officer leaps out with his weapon drawn.

"Denver Police! Freeze, both of you!"

Although his weapon is trained on the downed man, he does eye Chris suspiciously.

The other door of the squad car opens more slowly, and an older officer steps out, surveying the scene with one hand on his still-holstered weapon. Chris might remember him as one of Pablo's friends from the wedding reception.

Chris had been about to start toward the police cars, but the call to freeze stops him before he can take a step. He half considers raising his hands in surrender, at least until the older officer — he recognizes him from the wedding reception — steps out of the car.

# # #

Ninja has no idea what kind of gun the second asshole is holding, but it looks like it belongs on the television in a news clip... from some war-ravaged place in the Middle East. In other words, it's a weapon of mass destruction, albeit on a small scale — all the destruction is intended for the mass of her person. And she takes umbrage to that.

She drops her staff and is already diving and rolling to the side before Moron Number Two has fully engaged the trigger. At least he isn't trying to hit his own alleged friends, so he decides to kill one of the regulars' cars instead of her, at least at first. As she comes out of the tuck and roll onto one knee with the other foot firmly planted on the ground, she lines up one hand at each of them. Mother hasn't let up her torrent of energy, so all she needs to do is let go. The jackass with the... whatever the fuck that thing is gets lucky and clips her shoulder, knocking off her aim. But a blast of energy hits his gun a split second later and, um, well... he starts screaming and can't seem to let go of the weapon. She hits the other guy square in the chest — she has been aiming for his gun hand as well — and he goes flying back against the outer wall of the building.


That's when she registers the pain.


Three bullets have actually hit her. One has gone through the fleshy part of her upper arm and probably hit the car behind her. The other two are lodged in her chest near the shoulder. She leans her forearm on her raised knee, and the fingertips on the injured side rest on the ground near her other knee. She looks at the winded member of the Knife Triplets, and her eyes flash golden in anger and pain.

"One wrong move, asshole, and I'll break both your legs."

She's inordinately pleased to realize she's scared him enough that he might just pee on himself. It's the only thing that's keeping her happy right now.

Dear gods, how can Logan stand this revolting sensation of bullets pushing themselves out of one's body?? Damn, it's got to be the grossest thing ever! Definitely surpassing Rocky Mountain Oysters by a country mile. And, of course, they both get lodged inside the uniform.

Gods be damned fucking itching!!

She unzips the top of the uniform enough to scoop the bullets out. She supposes they're evidence and whichever set of officers she hears in the distance — wait, two sets? Well, that's special. Anyway, She guesses they'll want them. She zips the uniform up again and clenches her teeth as her shoulder and arm finish healing.

It seems reasonable that the weapon was chosen because these Nazi-loving non-friends of Jesus want her gone. They underestimated how fast she can move. This time. They know she heals; they don't know she can heal from dead. Yet. What's to stop them from shooting first next time and skipping the usual insulting banter?

She has a burning desire to kill every last one of them. It's the pain and the horrendous itching that's pushing her down that road right now, but she's also so fucking tired of playing this game. Tonight was meant to be a bloodbath — the only thing that prevented it was the pure dumb luck that her brother's friend, just learning how to use his powers, was willing to go on patrol with her tonight. She's not even going to bother with all the "what if?" nonsense.

Maybe it's time to take the fight to them. With a higher percentage of the Colorado Springs police force suspects in their own right — at least to her mind — she'll need outside assistance. Guess she'd better talk to Sanchez about a contact in the State Police, too.

And why the hell didn't her brand spanking new uniform — the one she got to stop bullets from hitting her esteemed person — STOP THE BULLETS??

She sighs as the squad car pulls up near the downed Knife Triplets. Villanueva gets out of the passenger side to check the bad guys, shakes his head, and radios for a couple of ambulances. Martinez gets out and heads toward her.

"You okay, Ninja?"

She nods as she looks up at the police officer. "Yeah. Well, give it a couple more minutes, and I'll be right as rain."

"The headlights are a new feature," she says, pointing to her face.

Ninja sighs again as she closes her eyes, then takes a deep breath, holds it for a few seconds, and lets it out slowly. She feels less ragey; on the other hand, Mother poured more energy through her than she's ever done before. Yay, good for her, she can handle it. At least she's not glowing in the dark. She opens her eyes and looks at Martinez.


Martinez nods and stoops to pick up Ninja's staff, holding it out for her as she stands.

"What the hell happened?" she asks.

She looks at the carnage around her. "I think they were trying to eliminate me. Again. That one," she says, pointing to the merely winded member of the Knife Triplets, "can go with you guys. The quiet one has a concussion, the wailing one has a shattered tibia. Those two?" She looks at the Gun Guys and shrugs. Ooh, look at that! Her arm feels mostly fine. "They had guns. I hit them. So maybe second degree burns for the noisy one and electrocution for the quiet one?"

"I think these might be third-degree burns," Villanueva says from his crouch beside Moron Number Two. "I'm just going to make sure there aren't any bullets nearby by and let the medics try to separate this thing from his hand." He sounds almost as unnerved by what Ninja did as she had been at pushing the bullets out.

"Speaking of bullets..." She holds the two bullets out for Martinez in exchange for her staff. The police officer quickly puts on a pair of latex gloves and takes the bullets from her. "These two were lodged in my chest. The third went through my arm and is either lodged in the car here or lying on the ground. It'll be the only one with blood."

"These were lodged in your body." She stares at Ninja, stopping in mid-motion of pulling out an evidence bag.

"Yeah. Upgraded healing factor did that, I guess. Every other time I've been shot, there was an exit wound. Ah, shit!" She looks at the holes in the uniform and frowns. They're barely noticeable, but she's going to have to give Martha a call in the morning. She suspects the more significant issue will be the amount of dried blood that's hiding under the uniform. Pablo is going to be so pissed.

Then she shrugs philosophically. Nothing she can do about it.

"I'll go talk to my partner for the night and see if I can spook Dorr."

Martinez smiles hesitantly. "Sure. You're going to give the poor kid a heart attack, but... sure. Whatever."

This is the first time she's managed to freak out the usually level-headed Martinez. It says something about tonight. She glances at the two Gun Guys as she turns and heads for the sidewalk. She can hear Wright talking to Chris, and he seems to be taking everything in stride. That's normal. She's so glad that something is normal about this incident.

# # #

"Dorr, you need to relax. See, this is why Ninja always manages to sneak up on you. You're too tense, kid. And two of these guys are sleeping. Seems we have a little extra help tonight, and Ninja's picked up another stray." He raises his voice so he can be heard by the officers around the back of the building.

"Martinez! Report!"

"All clear, boss!" a female voice responded. "Already called the ambulances."

"Of course. Ninja's involved," he mutters. "Of course, we're going to need an ambulance. Wait. Ambulances? Jesus, she's gone postal."

He looks at the two men on the ground. "Stop moving," he says to the conscious one. "You're annoying me, and I really hate the hassle of paperwork." Raising his voice slightly, he calls to his partner, "Dorr, put your gun away. The Super has done our job for us."

Wright looks over at Chris and smiles. "You're picking up one of Ninja's finer habits. The more folks who wind up in the ER, the less paperwork for me." He glances briefly at the whimpering man on the ground before asking Chris, "You think that's going to cause frostbite?"

Ninja pauses next to Chris and leans her staff against her shoulder.

"Wow, nice job. Two sleepers and a wailer."

"And nobody I need to take with me if the suspect making all the noise develops frostbite," Wright notes.

"You okay?" Chris asks, looking over at her. "I heard shots." It's not his job to protect her, but he would still have felt bad if she'd been hurt.

She pokes at one of the holes in her uniform and shrug. "Oh, sure. I'm peachy. There's going to be an annoyed person who isn't me in my lair later, but I heal fast." She wonders if it's her imagination or if the holes are shrinking micron by micron.

"You have a lair?" Wright asks.

She looks over at him and smiles slightly. "The FBI contact Sanchez set up for me seems to think I do. Of course, he also believes it's his sacred duty to find it, so it's a good thing I don't really have one."

Wright looks back at her impassively for a couple of seconds. "Definitely above my pay grade. I prefer to remain ignorant of anything you do when you're not in my presence."

She grins at him. "See, Wright? This is why you're my favorite. Well, you and Dennison... it's a tie, really. Of course, there might come a day when I pop that happy bubble of yours, but today is not that day."


She studies the qi around the man's hand and shrugs.

"I could remove the ice easy as pie, but I'm not feeling particularly charitable tonight. And I'd like a repeal of the Second Amendment if we could manage it."

"The frostbite works for me," he replies. "And I'd be happy with almost any kind of gun reform. We'll probably need an alternate universe for that, though.

"The presence of multiple ambulances is enough excitement for one night."

"Hmm, yes... about that." She looks at the three Very Bad People on the ground. "It was an ambush, plain and simple. You might have surprised them, Blast, but they were prepared to do maximum damage." She gives him a rueful smile. "I've seen your ice shield; if they'd had normal guns, you'd have been fine... and you'd have been in a world of hurt if they'd had that machine gun out here. On the other hand, just having knives let you slam their asses down hard."

"Honestly, I think I surprised those three. Still, I'm glad they only had knives."

Wright facepalms and groans. "Machine gun?" he asks without looking up.

"Guns are not my thing, Wright. Many bullets flew at me at a high velocity. I can identify over twenty types of swords and two types of guns: regular guns that I can usually dodge and machine guns that cause multiple bullets to wind up inside my person. Ergo, the perp back there had a machine gun."

The ambulances have been running silent, and Ninja hears them pull up in the back as she's explaining her extensive knowledge of guns to Wright. And yes, she fudges a lot here — thanks to Pablo's and Maddie's tutelage, she can identify the most commonly used firearms. Moron Number Two back there had a weapon I had never come across before.

Wright looks up and sighs. "Oh, good grief! Get a crash course from Garcia, will you?"

She laughs. "What? The internet isn't good enough? Besides, if I want to see the real thing, I'm about a hundred percent certain Black Wolf has a much broader inventory of weapons than Garcia does."

"Wonderful," Wright repeats. "Introductions are in order, aren't they?"

She grins. "Indeed. This is Arctic Blast, visiting from out of town. AB, meet Officers Jim Wright and Brad Dorr, two of Denver's finest."

Chris holds out his hand to each man in turn. "Nice to meet you, officers.

When Chris shakes hands with Dorr, the rookie blinks and looks at both his hand and Chris' before almost reluctantly grasping the latter, causing Wright to laugh and me to snicker.

Wright is not the least bit timid, on the other hand. "Nice to meet you, too. You look kind of familiar. You must have a doppelganger in town."

This time she chuckles. "How was the wedding reception, by the way?"

He raises an eyebrow at the tangent. "Lovely. Garcia's new wife is charming and gracious. Kendra and the Captain's wife are sucking her into their book club nonsense. Garcia and his lady both have some very strange friends, but it's about what I'd expect from Garcia." He narrows his eyes. "Why?" Suspicion wafts through the air.

"Blast probably looks familiar because he was there... Garcia's wife is also a sap for sad stories, one of which her brother apparently spun about this one's alter ego, which in turn wrangled him an invitation to the reception."

The aura of suspicion grows more brilliant around Wright, while Dorr just looks confused. If Wright weren't so annoyed tonight, he'd put two and two and three together to come up with seven. But his mind is focused elsewhere at the moment.

"How do you know these things? Were you there?"

She laughs. "If I had been, you'd never know it because I would have been disguised."

"Huh. Not as that anxiety-ridden gay man, I hope. Or the blue walking rug."

She winks at him. "I'll never tell."

Just then, the front door opens, and the DJ pokes his head out.

"Hey, Ninja... Hey, Officer Awesome... Hi, Officer Cutie..." This last comment causes Dorr to blush a deep crimson. Mike looks Chris up and down appreciatively. "Oooh, and hello there, new guy!" He chuckles. "Charlie says you might want to come fetch the bad boy we have in here. Donny and Terry are still sitting on him, but all the drag queens have pulled out their bags of tricks and are tarting him up." His megawatt smile is definitely on the mischievous end of the spectrum tonight. "He may never get all this glitter off!"

Ninja returns the grin. "Oh, gods, you should just send the asshole home like that, Wright. His good ol' boy cronies will do worse to him than our justice system up here could."

Wright looks from Mike to Ninja. "You are an evil woman, Ninja. I like the way you think, though. Problem is... he'd need an escort to make sure he made it home without disturbing his finery."

"Hold him for a few hours? I'll ask Peregrine or Peacekeeper if they'll fly cover in the morning."

He toggles his radio. "Martinez, if the medics have things in hand, fetch the miscreant from inside the bar. You might want to lay a tarp down in the back seat first."

"We've still got an unconscious body blocking the door," comes the reply. "And do I even want to know what that's all about."

"No, Martinez, you don't. Just do it."

Then he looks back at Mike. "The kids out back will be with you as soon as they finish cleaning up the mess Ninja made. Then you fellas can go back to your revelries."

"Thanks, Officer Awesome. Oh! Charlie says y'all should come in for some sassafras before you head off to your appointed rounds." Then he disappears back inside.

"Every time I drop by, Nelms wants to ply me with sassafras. What the hell is sassafras?"

"Your lack of education about the finer non-alcoholic beverages of the world just breaks my heart, Wright. However, in this case, we're only talking about root beer."

One of the paramedics comes around the corner, sees the three men on the ground, and mutters, "Jesus. How many ambulances do you think we have in this city, Ninja?"

"Thirty in operation at any given time. Four more rotated out for maintenance, the last time I checked."

The paramedic glares at her before checking the unconscious man nearest them. Then she sighs and toggles her radio. "Base, this is Unit Fifteen. Request additional support at West Colfax and North Emerson."

There's a quiet squawk before the reply. "Unit Fifteen, please say again."

"We need another ambulance over here. Ninja got carried away. Again."

"Did not," she murmurs.

"Roger that, Unit Fifteen. Base out."

The paramedic stands and looks at Ninja, fists on her hips. She's more than a little annoyed with the Super.

"What the hell, Ninja? I understand the concussions and broken bones, that's just how you roll, and you haven't killed anyone. But electrocution?"

Ninja has the decency to look at least a little sheepish. "They were trying to kill me? Self-defense? I didn't mean to zap them so hard, Sami. I had two bullets lodged in my chest, so I was kind of distracted. Sorry. My bad."

She immediately drops her attitude and returns to her usual concerned and professional demeanor. "Are you okay?"

"Yeah, yeah, I'm fine. Insane healing factor and all that." She nods toward the other two men. "The one who looks like he wants to cry might be getting frostbite. You should check on him."

She glances over at the Very Bad Person who still has a hand encased in a block of ice.

"Ah... that's new."

"Oh. Right. Not me, that was my friend here. I suppose you want me to melt it, huh?"

"Aw, gee, would you?"

"Oooh, sarcasm sounds good on you!"

One of the ambulances rolls out of the driveway behind them with the passenger side window rolled down.

"Hey, Jepson! Lafrenz and I are taking the two worst ones over to Pres-Saint Luke's. I helped Vlahovic get the shattered tibia loaded up in your rig. The two of you can sort out the rest of this when whoever else shows."

She waves absently at him. "Got it. Thanks, MacKay!"

Meanwhile, Ninja has flipped her staff into its scabbard and crouches beside the Very Bad Person glued to the sidewalk, with Wright peering over her shoulder.

"That's some interesting work," he says. "How long is your friend sticking around?"

She gives the miscreant her most unpleasant grin. "Not long enough. Now, let's see... am I going to turn this hand into a flaming torch while trying to melt the ice?" The trapped would-be assailant whimpers, which warms the cockles of her heart. Not that she has mollusks in her chest. She just likes the phrase.

"Should I get Jepson over here to keep you honest?" Wright asks.

"Nah, I'll behave. Oh, and the sleeping beauty behind you is starting to wake up."

She places her hands on either side of the ice brick and just lets qi flow between them. After a few seconds, the ice goes from the solid state directly to the gaseous state, skipping liquid entirely. Interesting. Ice has never done that before.

Chris is content to watch and learn now that things seem to be under control. He does his best not to smile at Ninja's quick comments. He can only imagine what the cops think of her. Clearly, they have respect for her, though.

She wraps one hand around the man's wrist. "Now, I know your hand is cold, but unfurl those fingers and let go of the knife."

Jepson kneels next to her and examines the man's hand, slowly opening the fist from around the knife, at which point Wright leans over to snag it. He folds it, puts it in an evidence bag, and tosses the bag to Dorr before stepping over to the guy waking up from his nap.

Dorr fumbles the catch, knocking the knife in Chris' direction. If Ninja didn't know better, she'd think he was trying to play volleyball. Jepson brings her attention back to the Very Bad Person.

Chris sympathizes with Door. He feels pretty nervous as well, so when the evidence bag flies out of his hands and toward Chris, he caught it and handed it back to the officer.

"Here you go," he says without any other comment. Clearly, he isn't going to be completely like Ninja.

"Did you warm up his hand when you melted the ice?"

"No, not really. Why do you ask?"

"I don't see anything wrong here. At the very least, the nail beds ought to be white. Any pain or tingling," she asks him.

"Just this bitch squeezing my wrist."

Ninja merely sighs and rolls her eyes. Sami forgoes the sigh but does roll her eyes.

"Well, I'd almost be tempted to say that wasn't ice if I hadn't seen it." She runs the back of one gloved hand along the patch of ice near the Very Bad Person's arm. "That's ice, but... it's not as cold as I would expect ice to be. Weirdest damn stuff."

Ninja tilts her head toward Chris. "His work. We're a weird bunch, we Supers. So I'm not surprised by much. Oh, yeah... and I'm a Magnet for Weird, so there's that."

"I thought you were busy getting shot."


"Well, then this isn't your basket of weird." She looks over her shoulder. "This guy can go with you," she tells Wright.

"You sure know how to take all the fun out of a quiet evening on patrol, don't you, Sam?"

Jepson's comments surprise Chris. He's so immune to the cold that he'd never notice anything about the ice he creates.

"Really? Not cold at all? So no frostbite likely?" he says, mostly to himself, his scientific mind considering the information. He is already thinking of experiments he'll have to try so he can understand things even more.

Sami chuckles at Wright and stands, pulls off the gloves and tucks them in a pouch at her waist, then puts on a fresh pair.

"That isn't what you said half an hour ago. Go ahead and cuff him so Ninja can stop 'hurting' the poor thing. I'll take a look at this last one."

She lets go of the asshole once the paramedic moves away, then she grins at him. "Go ahead and move. I'll make Officer Wright happy by knocking you out like your buddy over there. While we're waiting, why don't you tell me who the mastermind of this little caper was."

He attempts to spit at her, but he's a bit dehydrated. Still, she flicks a finger lightly against his chin. "Don't act like a three-year-old."

"Dorr!" Wright says cheerfully. "Stop playing catch with the Super."

Ninja grins at the Officer Trainee. He's mumbling incoherently to himself.

"Less caffeine, Dorr. That might help.

"So... who's in charge of this outing?" she asks the asshole. "My money is the guy out back with the handgun. He seemed like a shining beacon of intelligence compared to the rest of you."

He doesn't say anything, but even a casual glance at his aura tells her that she's right.

"Okay. Don't talk. One other question... you guys from the Brotherhood? Or the Knighthood?"

His reaction is once again instructive... and terrifying. These idiots are members of the Aryan Brotherhood. This one in particular certainly is, but likely most or all of the others are as well. The guy in charge? He's from the Knighthood, and he scares the living daylights out of the rest of them.

She probably should have expected something like this. But she didn't. Her eyes flare with anger for a second, then she pats the asshole's cheek before Wright pulls him up to cuff him.

Then she stands and looks thoughtfully over Sami's shoulder as she examines the last miscreant, shining her penlight in his eyes and making sure all his parts are still working. He's going to have a headache from the lump on his head, but there's nothing else wrong with him.

"How many fingers?" she asks, holding up two of them.


Ninja nudges his foot with the toe of her boot. "Don't lie to the nice paramedic."

He glares at her. "Two."

"Great." She pulls a card out of a pocket and tucks it into his jacket pocket. "See your family doctor if you start having any of these symptoms." She stands, sheds the gloves and looks over at Dorr. "This one can go with you, too."

The third ambulance pulls up and blocks Emerson Street. "What are we looking at, Jepson?" the driver asks.

"Just the concussion," she says, pointing to the still unconscious man near Chris. "Vlahovic and I will take the last two from the back."

He gets out of the cab, thumps the side of the medical unit, then shakes his head at the Super.

"Just how do you manage this level of mayhem, Ninja? I'm pretty sure this a record."

"I'm blessed, Sowardo. And I had help." She nods in Chris' direction.

"Well, all these bad boys are lucky that it's a slow night." He goes around to the back of the rig and helps his partner with the stretcher.

She shrugs as she walks over to Chris. "Oh, they'd have been fine if they had to wait longer."

Sami stops and stares at her. "Your definition of 'fine' is oddly skewed. Two of them are going to be in ICU for a while."

"No argument from me. They have black hearts and had a bloodbath planned for tonight. So, yeah... my definition of 'fine' is undeniably skewed. And speaking of the ICU..." She turns back to Wright. "Would you make sure someone calls me when the twit who got electric shock therapy wakes up? I have a couple of questions for him."

"What, you don't trust Garcia's colleagues to ask the right questions?"

She pauses to rein in her anger. She's not pissed at Wright. She might be angry at herself. Hard to tell at the moment.

"If Garcia and his pals had the information I do and a map of the big picture, I'd absolutely trust them. But they don't."

"And you're not going to tell them?"

"Wright, I'm not even going to tell Garcia." At least not until she gets the answers she needs. Pablo is not going to be happy about any of this.

Wright sighs. "Your wish is my command. But you cause any more trouble tonight, I'll shoot you myself. Let's go, Dorr."

Chris has been watching and listening... good traits. There's too much that he doesn't know for some of it to make sense, and Ninja would like to keep it that way.

"Come on," she says as she tilts her head toward the front door. "I promised you a meeting with my devotees."

Ninja is feeling more than a little cranky, so she stays quiet as they walk to the front door. She doesn't even make one of her usual quips upon entering... she just holds the door open so Chris can follow her in. That's not because she's become accustomed to Pablo's gentlemanly behavior or gives a rat's ass about all that 'ladies first' nonsense. Nope. She's just playing the part of temporary shield for her brother's friend — Charlie's regulars can be a wild bunch sometimes.

There are three chairs grouped together protecting a spot on the floor just to the left of the entrance. She raises an eyebrow at Charlie as he hurries over.

"This the crime scene?"

"It is. I thought it safer to keep people from tracking it all over the place."

"Jesus, there's got to be half a pound of glitter there. And more makeup than I've seen in my entire life... never mind all in one place."

Charlie laughs. "Drag queens are prepared for anything."

"Clearly! But you might want to get that cleaned up before everyone — including me — needs to spend the next ten years deglitterizing themselves."

"Oh, sweetie, you don't need to worry!" says one of the aforementioned drag queens. "We doused the whole area with hairspray. Just don't step in it and you'll be fine!"

At the same time, Charlie turns and holds out his hand to shake Chris's. "Charlie Nelms, proprietor in these parts. Glad to see the marshall rustled up another deputy."

Charlie is entirely in character as his idol, John Wayne. Right now, he's relaxed and charming. She has no doubt that he was cool and calm under pressure when the trouble started; that's just how he is. It's this quality that no doubt encouraged the drag queens' little act of terrorism.

She shakes her head and grins. She has to look up because adding platform boots to a person who's already over six feet tall will get nearly anyone to crane their neck. Ninja knows for a fact that the drag queen's wig brushes the ceiling in the back hallway. Doorways are even worse.

"You amaze me, Auntie. How many of your sisters helped you out here?" There is an entire squad of Aunties — Auntie Bacterial, who is the ringleader tonight, Auntie Biotic, Auntie Fungal, Auntie Bellum, Auntie Dotes, and at least another half dozen Ninja has never met.

She waves a hand regally toward the DJ booth. "Oh, just Auntie Biotic and Auntie Fungal. Eva Lotion helped, too."

She snickers. "I'm just a little sad that Martinez and Villanueva hauled him out of here. It would have cheered me up to mock him a bit."

The regular at the bar leans over and taps Chris on the shoulder. "You the one who gave us the entertainment tonight?" he asks, nodding toward the windows along the Emerson side of the room. "Son, that was better than the Three Stooges! "

"Oh, no, Miss Ninja, Terry had to help Officer Olga with the man." She shook her head. "Officer Raul just couldn't stop laughing. That poor boy nearly fell into the crime scene, as you put it... that's how hard he was laughing. But we did take plenty of pictures! Let me just fetch my phone!"

With Chris' attention claimed by Charlie and Walter — and Walter's husband Zach smiling and nodding — she takes stock of the situation.

They're safe. Her people are safe. The dipshits from the Springs are in police custody either at the station or the hospital. She has a big problem on her hands, and she's going to need more information before she can figure out what to do about it. Other than that... it's business as usual at Charlie's.

# # #

The twins were long since abed. The only sound in the cabin was the crackle of the fire. Logan lifted the wine bottle and asked a question with a look. Madeline nodded and held her glass close enough for him to fill up. He topped his own off as well. They touched their glasses together and sipped. Madeline sighed contentedly. Logan kissed her temple. They enjoyed the quiet and each other's company.

She felt something in her shoulder and furrowed her brow then sighed again, this time not contentedly. Logan chuffed in question.

"Andi," she said softly in answer.

Mijn liefde?

Oui, mi amor?

Will you go look in on our dear Sister? Let her know I expect a full report.

Of course. Any reason you're sending me instead of a text?

My phone's way over there. You're easier.

I feel so used.

And you love it.

Guilty. Wasn't she taking Chris out tonight?

Yes, perhaps you should spend some time and keep an eye on things.

Will do. Au revoir.

# # #

Chris pauses inside the doorway and lets his eyes adjust, then he takes in the people and the atmosphere. The sight of the "crime scene" makes him smile.

Served him right, he thinks, taking his eyes from the glitter-infused disarray to offer up his hands to John Wayne. "Nice to meet you, Charlie."

Then he turns to the man at the bar.

"Yeah, that was me. They deserved worse, but Ninja said something about paperwork if I killed anyone, so I went for that," he says with a sheepish grin. "I'm just glad I was able to get them before they got inside," he adds in all seriousness, thinking about what these guys had intended.

He turns back to Charlie.

"I'm just a deputy for the night. Just visiting town; I'll be heading home soon. Ninja was just trying to teach me the ropes.

"And I'd love a sassafras," he says with a smile.

A scruffy fellow in a leather jacket comes in shortly after Ninja and Chris have entered. Rene takes stock of the scene in the bar, having noted the ambulances and police vehicles outside. He looks amusedly at the glitter pile as he sidles up to Ninja and casts a weather eye at Chris.

"Bonjour, mon ami. The rookie seems well."

She raises an eyebrow at both Rene's presence and appearance.

"Are you trying to start a riot?"

Rene tries a look approximating innocence at the accusation. "Far be it from me to do such a thing. That is my wife's forte. One of them anyway."

She shakes her head but smiles as she slips an arm around his waist and steers him toward the far end of the bar — as far as possible from the pile of glitter without getting out on the dance floor itself. Once he's noticed...

A squeal from somewhere in the gaggle of drag queens tells her it's too late.

"Yes, he's handling himself rather well. I think it helps that our first two stops were just community relations outreach. Oh! We got to help deliver a baby! That was kind of awesome."

"Another delivery? Does this mean you are going to start apprenticing with Amanda?" he half teases with that oh so charming smile of his.

She slaps Rene's arm. "I will not be apprenticing with Amanda! It was bad enough that I was tapping into Moira's memories through most of that. Besides, Mama was the midwife. That one," she says, nodding to Chris, "and I just kept the baby from hurting herself or her mom."

She looks at the five drag queens heading in their direction and sighs.

"You'll reassure my sister that I'm perfectly fine, won't you? And that the Knighthood is behind the attack tonight."

"And I will relay the message. She did say she wants a full report."

"Your usual, Ninja?" asks the bartender.

"Sure thing, Nate. One for my friend, too."

"Ooooh, Ninja!! You brought another adorable friend! Girl, you need to stop hoarding all the good ones!"

She laughs as she leans against the bar. "Auntie Jen, you've admitted on more than one occasion that all it takes for a man to be considered a 'good one' is for him to still be breathing."

She feigns surprise. "I said that?"

Auntie Fungal slaps Jen with her clutch. "Only with every other breath, you bitch."

Ninja snickers. "Ladies... Steve. Steve... the ladies. Now, where are these pictures you promised me?"

Nate slides two glasses of ginger ale across to them as they're surrounded and shown dozens of pictures on each phone depicting the progress of turning a skinhead into... well, a work of art. Maybe. The ladies flirt shamelessly with Rene. It's all she can do to keep from laughing as he shamelessly flirts back.

"It's no wonder Villanueva couldn't stop laughing. Damn, I'd love to preserve the specimen in resin and leave him with his friends in the Springs."

Eva Lotion laughs. "We've done ya better, sweetie. These are posted all over social media! I'm sure some naughty person will leak his real name in the next few days."

She glances at Rene, and her smile slips just a bit.

When is Maddie planning to head back to Paris? This is a keg of dynamite that can't be left lying around while Pablo and I are out of the country. It's too much for Perry to handle on his own on top of his regular work.

As the drag queens descend, he turns on his effervescent charm. Having been surrounded by the high maintenance divas of high fashion both on and off the catwalk for a large portion of his life, the queens are positively refreshing. He absolutely flirts with them, even to the kissing of any hands that might be proffered. He continues the banter even while answering Ninja.

She doesn't have a set return date in mind yet, but it has to be this month. The fashion house can pretty much run itself, but people, the wrongs ones undoubtedly, will start to notice the absence of La Loupe, even with the imposter riding around.

But Rene's words spin around in her mind like a kitten chasing its own tail.

I know those absolutely delightful egghead friends of hers back east have their own theories about mutations, and I also know that those arguments don't account for the reality I see out here. Charles talked about kids whose gifts manifest young — like Leon. I see babies whose gifts manifest at birth. Or in Zuri's case, before she was born. My own hellions would be driving me to drink if I drank, although they've been remarkably quiet the past few weeks. I might wind up working with her and Mamu in Commerce City after all.

She's not exactly keen on the idea. Watching Rene interact with the local royalty is a hoot, though, so that cheers her up. Chris seems to be having an interesting conversation with one of the regulars.

Well, I did mention that I might be able to spend some extra time in Paris — maybe before the party for Leon — to help her out. Pablo has already grumbled about it, but apparently, I get into trouble when I'm bored. I have no idea what he means by that, but I'm sure he'll use tonight's incident as an example.

She grins at him and finishes her ginger ale.

# # #

Walter laughs as Charlie swaggers around the bar to get Chris' drink. "Oh, from what I've seen, Ninja doesn't care about paperwork. She leaves it all to the patrol officers. Now, they truly hate the paperwork." He glances at the mess on the other side of the room. "Three ambulances... that's what I heard. They're all good folks, the ones who look after us here. But even the new guy... Well, a more easygoing fella you'll never meet, ain't that so, Zach?"

Zach smiles and nods.

"Right. So even he's going to be up to his ears in paperwork with all the evildoers in town tonight."

"Lucky you were here," says a young man about Zach's age sitting on his other side and around the curve of the bar. He waves rather than reaching across Zach and Walter. "Tony, by the way. Been coming here since I had a fake ID back in college and I've never heard of anything so bad as tonight." He looks down at the other end of the bar. "She just takes it all in stride, you know? Like it's no big deal. I guess that it's not much of a big deal for you Supers, huh?" He raises his glass of beer in a toast. "Thanks, man."

Chris nervously accepts the attention he's suddenly getting.

"Not a big deal? Oh, I'd never say that. This is the first time out for me, so everything seems like a big deal. I don't want to see anybody get hurt by accident."

"I'll drink to that," Walter says, lifting his own glass that looks like it should have an umbrella sticking out of it. After a sip, he regards Chris for a moment, during which time, Charlie slides a frosty mug of root beer across the bar to the latest deputy. "I'm dying of curiosity to know where you're from, but I know you're not going to tell us."

Chris shakes his head and smiles at Walter. "Sorry, probably best for friends and family if nobody knows me," he says apologetically.

The man grins. "She's slippery that way, too. Her two other fellas aren't as talkative. That new one? Can barely get anything but his name out of him."

Tony chuckles. "That's Peacekeeper. At least he seems pretty comfortable visiting, though Mike over there..." He nods toward the DJ. "...says he was flustered on his first visit. The Sponsored guy, Peregrine? I think we still make him kind of nervous."

"Do you mind if I ask a question?" Zach asks. He's hesitant and quiet; Tony looks surprised while Walter smiles proudly. "Is there some special property to the ice you manifest? From watching the way those men reacted, it seemed like there was less surface tension than normal ice at this temperature."

Walter gets up and urges Zach to switch seats with him. "Zach's a big deal scientist at the University. You two talk shop. Tony and I can complain about the Broncos."

Zach shakes his head and smiles at Chris as he changes his seat. "Walt exaggerates. I do environmental and climate research over at CU-Boulder. Important work, right? But I'm not a big deal." He glances back over his shoulder for a second before turning back to Chris with a bemused look. "I can't convince Walt, though. I everybody is somebody's hero, right?"

"To be honest, I'm not sure," Chris replies. "There was so much going on that I hadn't noticed. Ninja said something about it being different. It was something I was going to look into when I got home."

"You're kidding!" Tony says. "Your first time out?"

"No way!" Walter agrees. "I mean, sure, I know she shows the new guys around town and all, but..." His drink is forgotten as he stares at Chris.

"But it's damn awesome, that's what it is!" Tony finishes for him, raising his glass again.

Chris looks more than a little embarrassed at the attention.

"Well, she did put me through a rigorous test first. Didn't want me to freeze the whole neighborhood or anything like that," he says, his cheeks reddening from the attention.

Zach rolls his eyes slightly at their enthusiasm. "You'd think seeing her doing her thing fairly regularly would get old." He smiles almost shyly. "Guess not, huh?" Then he checks several pockets in his jacket and fishes a card out of one, handing it to Chris.

"I'm not expecting anything, okay? But if you have any science-minded friends that you work with, pass them my card. Maybe I can help out... long distance, you know? I collaborate with folks all over the globe."

Zach looks away for a few seconds, then takes a sip of his drink. He is clearly embarrassed.

"I know you do this because you want to save the ordinary folks like us from the scum, but it just makes me wonder if there might be some scientific breakthroughs you can help facilitate.

"Like I said, I don't expect anything." After another sip of his drink, he smiles more broadly and his eyes seem to sparkle in the dim bar. "But science is so amazing!"

Turning back to Zach, he takes the card and pockets it.

"I've been kind of caught up in the whole thing. I'll have someone let you know when I get back home. Maybe we can work something out," he says, offering his hand.

The friendly neighborhood DJ is looking over in her direction with that special glint in his eyes that means he's less than five minutes away from the predictable teasing about dancing. Ninja drapes an arm around Rene's shoulders and kisses his cheek, prompting a chorus of 'oohs' from the royalty around them.

"Stay as long as you'd like, Stevie, my pal. I need to take the kid off for a debriefing."

Then she looks around for Charlie, catches his eye, and points to Rene.

"Take care of my friend, okay, Charlie?"

"You got it, Marshall," he responds with a grin. "Is he going to need help fending off his new fan club?"

She pats Rene's arm, then turns to head down to the other end of the bar.

"Steve can take care of himself, and he's mentally, emotionally, and spiritually incapable of forgetting that he's married and crazy in love."

She watches Chris pocket what she assumes is Zach's business card and shake his hand. It's impressive to see that Zach has worked past his profound shyness and chatted with Chris. She catches Chris' eye and tilts her head toward the door.

"C'mon, Blast... I think our work here is finished!" She grins at him and Zach. "If you two start up with the Geek Speak, Walter and Tony are going to be forced to talk about the Nuggets after they analyzed the Broncos' season." She shakes her head. "It's ugly... just ugly."

Walter twists in his seat as he and Tony laugh. "She ain't wrong, Mister Blast. The Nuggets are awful this year. Why... I'll bet Manual's team could take 'em!"

"Oh, no, you don't! Do not try to suck me into a debate about sports." They make it to the door, and she even opens it to let Chris go ahead of her before turning back to the trio. "DU's hockey team could mop the floor with the Nuggets this year."

Once the door closes behind them, she sighs heavily and heads toward the bikes. She is in a shit load of trouble. But it's not Chris' problem. As she goes over the events of the evening in her mind, she smiles with genuine happiness. Part of it is remembering what her first few months on the job had been like. And the other part...

"You did great tonight." She holds his gaze as they reach the bikes and nods. "You're going to get back home and probably be freaked out by the magnitude of possibilities and the size of your city. But you're ready for this."

He takes Andi's compliment seriously but still shrugs.

"I just wonder, once I get back home, if I'll be the guy who walks to the rear of the building — will I not walk out like you did? Or do I panic and blast so hard that I kill a kid with a BB gun? It got real fast. I just knew that with only knives they'd never get close to me, so I wasn't worried. Makes me half wonder if you didn't stage this, but I know you wouldn't get yourself shot to help me learn. Nobody is that crazy," he says with a smile.

He isn't really looking for answers, but in case Andi thinks he might get cocky after tonight, he wants her to know that he isn't even close to that stage yet.

She shakes her head.

"We never know, Chris. I don't take the risks Maddie takes. Pablo doesn't take the risks I take. You can't take the risks Pablo takes."

She looks back at the bar, thinking about all the times she's been here over the past nine years keeping her people safe.

"Maddie's that crazy, for what it's worth," she whispers. After a few seconds, she shrugs.

"But we'd never put innocents in the line of fire. Certainly not to teach anyone a lesson." She takes a deep breath and looks back at him. "And getting shot fucking hurts."

She can only shrug once more.

"No matter how much we train or how much support we have, we all need to figure out for ourselves how to best do the job. We have to prove to ourselves that we deserve the 'hero' part of the Superhero mantle. I hope it doesn't take you as long to figure that one out as it took me," she says with a smile. "For a genius, I can be pretty dense."

She chuckles with more than a little self-deprecation. Truth be told, the idea of being a hero outside her circles here in Denver and Commerce City still seems bizarre.

She pulls Ninja's phone from its pouch and speed dials Pablo's Department issued phone, putting it on speakerphone.

"We're on our way back. You ready?"

"I've been ready since ten minutes after you left. How long does it take normal people to get over the urge to kill Henry?"

She snickers. "I don't know. As far as I know, he's never met anyone who's normal by whatever standard you're using. We'll be there in less than ten minutes."

She laughs as she puts the phone away and gets on her bike. "The funniest part of all that is Henry only works Pablo's nerves that badly. Most folks love the lunatic. Come on, let's get you back to the hotel."

It's well after midnight at this point, so traffic is almost nonexistent even on Colfax. Pablo is waiting in front of the Brown Palace, glaring at the entrance with his arms crossed. While her husband takes possession of her personal bike, Andi walks across the wide sidewalk with Chris, pausing just outside the invisible line doormen seem to have to shake his hand.

"Thank you. Now, my cousin is going to try to talk your ear off and wring every tiny bit of information out of you. Here's where you practice keeping secrets and telling little white lies: feign exhaustion or a headache or any other excuse that strikes your fancy. Just get yourself up to your room."

She smiles sympathetically. "Even if you share this part of your life with your friends, there are still going to be things you won't want to share or things you just can't tell them. Believe me, I know how hard that is."

"And it's no easier from the other side of the lies," Pablo says, "especially when your loved ones know you're lying. Be a better liar, that's all I can say." He gives Andi his version of a stink eye.

"Oh, stop it, Pablo. I was just trying to keep you from running off before we were married. You're stuck with me now. And all my truths."

Then she gives Chris a little nudge. "Go on. Someday, you're going to meet someone you can share all this with, but tonight you need to get some rest. The adrenaline crash can be wicked."

"Thanks, Ninja. That was an eye-opener of a night. I have a lot to think about."

She waits until he's inside before turning back to Pablo, kissing him soundly, and getting on her bike.

"Let's go home, Husband. I have secrets to tell you."

He groans. "I'm not going to like this, am I?"

She shakes her head. "Nope. But you need to know."

As they start up the bikes and pull away, she makes one last request.

Coyote? Rein your charge in tonight, would you? Chris needs some time and space to think about his first outing as a warrior.

Of course, Warrior.

© Kelly Naylor and ividia kt