Yo, Carlos, man . . . there's some chick at the door talkin' about she know you-like in a real up close and personal kinda way," Phat G said in a low tone.
Big Mike leaned forward with Inez.
"You bestbe glad D's in the bathroom with Momma," Inez said under her breath.
Phat G gave them a sidelong, glance. "Damn, you did say you have audios on your team. But here's the thing, man. This chick seems real outta this world . . . she knew to ask forthe Neterus, and said she's fromNod ."
Carlos was out of his seat, gaining curious looks from the rest of the team that couldn't hear."About five-seven, five-eight, gorgeous dark skin with platinum locks?"
"That would be the one," Phat G said, ushering Carlos to where the woman was. "And did I mention had the body of life?"
Carlos pounded his fist. "I ain't supposed to know all that-I'm a married man."
"True dat," Phat G said, laughing. "But you ain't blind."
"Not at all," Carlos said, rounding the bar to find the small office in the back.
"Oh, thank the heavens," Val said, dropping to one knee and crossing her chest with her forearm.
"Damn, bro, you got it like that?" Phat G said, truly amazed.
"Naw, Val, c'mon, sis-we family," Carlos said, embarrassed, helping Val up quickly and then giving her a hug. "I know if you rolled up on us like this, it's bad. Talk to me."
He stared at her. He'd felt the wings, felt her strapped with all sorts of weapons, but couldn't see them. She stared back at him, her eyes silently begging him not to give away her secret in front of the man she didn't know. Carlos gave her a subtle nod, and Val's shoulders relaxed.
"Carlos, it's horrible," she said, tears brimming. "Yolando said to take this message from my mind and put it in silver and then shield me once you got it."
"You want me to fall back, man, and give you space?" Phat G glanced from Carlos to Val.
"Yeah, man, and do me a favor . . . if my wife comes out of the bathroom, send her back here, too. In fact, can you ask Inez to handle her mom and send my wife in here, stat?"
Phat G looked at Carlos for a moment, and hesitated before nodding. "Brother, when I grow up I wanna be just like you."
Carlos waited until Phat G had left and then he held Val's hand. "I can pull the message out, but I don't trust my silver," he admitted. The truth stabbed at his pride, but Val deserved no less. Openly admitting it made the reality sucker punch him. "Damali will have to silver-coat your mind and prayer-barrier you. I got hit with something from the ultimate darkness . . . I'm not even sure if I can go in to pull Yonnie's transmission without affecting you."
Carlos walked away from her, dragging his fingers through his hair. "If Yonnie sent you, then I know where he was . . . and right now, I'm real susceptible to losing it-if I see any more shit today that's gonna take my mind down a black hole."
"What if I just tell you what I see . . . explain what Yonnie sent into my mind?"
Carlos closed his eyes and dropped his head back, frustration eating him alive. "Yeah, cool, till Damali gets here-then she can pull it." He rubbed his temples and opened his eyes. "But I gotta askyou, even though Yonnie is my homeboy . . . did he nick you?"
Carlos let his breath out hard. "Bite you?"
She looked away. "No . . . he gave me the message and made my wings invisible, as well as my weapons."
"He doesn't seem evil," Val countered, her eyes haunted. "We ate a meal together . . . pancakes, he called them. He even advised me to hide in your home, for safety. But after he slipped behind enemy lines, he came out with an urgent message. It just so happened that I was searching the beach for my fallen weapons, and he found me to give this important news to you."
Carlos wiped his palms down his face. Yonnie had to be near the breaking point. He'd gotten a daylight elevation from Lilith, eaten food for the first time, obviously fought Val if she was searching for weapons, and gotten close enough to bust a dematerialization move on her and then mind-lock her.
"He's not evil," Carlos said, walking over to Val and taking her jaw in his hand. He turned her chin first to the left then the right, trying to see through any vamp illusion with silver. "He's just a man, pure male. But he is my best friend; that he didn't lie about." He stared at her body outline, silver-scanning her, now able to see her wings and all her weapons.
Val touched his hand before he removed it from her jaw, and then let it fall away. "He is a good friend, Carlos. The man's heart is pure. The risks he took to get these scenes . . . I cannot fathom."
"Yeah," Carlos said quietly. "My boy's in real deep." He held back telling her more, not sure why.
She nodded. "I have his back, too . . . is it wrong, Neteru, to feel attracted to one's fellow warrior? Is that taboo?"
Carlos shook his head and walked away from her. "Yonnie, Yonnie, Yonnie . . ." He released a hard breath. "Val, he's good people, but the man has issues. That's all I can say."
"You are disappointed that I have lost my focus as a soldier." She hung her head and swallowed hard. "I stand before you, ashamed."
"Naw, sis," Carlos said quickly. "Don't even go there.I just . . . no. It's cool." He came to her and landed a hand on her shoulder. "But you make him tell you more abouthimself before you take things to another level, feel me?"
She smiled a bashful smile and looked down. "You are like the father or big brother I never had. Now I am truly honored."
Carlos chuckled. "He may be my homeboy, but if he does anything foul to you, I'll kick his ass myself. Hear?"
Without warning Val hugged him so hard he almost lost his balance, making him laugh.
"Please tell me I can stay, Carlos. I am a brave warrior, will fight to the death with honor. I can sleep outside and guard your compound, whatever you say-but I've never felt like this before."
"Oh, my, God . . ."
She stepped back, her eyes frantically searching his until he walked away. "There is muted sensation there . . . refugees who live in fear and half lives. I won't eat much, can earn my own rations, if my burden is too much. There's no one left to guard, to protect, and just for a small portion of my life, I need to feel-"
"Done," Carlossaid, his back still to Val. His eyes were closed, his head hurt. "Now I'm gonna get my ass kicked because I didn't ask my wife."
"Ask me what?" Damali said, opening the door. But Carlos never got to answer. The moment she saw Val, she screamed and barreled into her arms. Then within seconds, she drew back, trying to understand feeling something she couldn't see.
"Yonnie concealed her non-human traits and weapons, which is a real good thing in a firefight, D . . . but we just got one more added to the compound-I know we shoulda discussed it, but she can't go back to Nod."
"Oh!" Damali said, jumping up and down, holding Val's arms. "That is so cool!"
Carlos looked at both of them. "Yonnie, uh, likes her, you know . . . and she's got his back, and whatnot."
Damali held Val out, making her blush. "Noooo . . . Yolando?"
Val just nodded. "He is a valiant warrior and I respect him," she said, lifting her chin.
"That is perfect!" Damali's voice hit a soprano decibel that sent a shiver down his spine.
"You approve, Queen," Val said, her voice excited and reverent.
"Do I approve?"
"D, bring it down a notch," Carlos said, rubbing the chills from the nape of his neck. "We've gotta break this to the house, too."
"Rider oughta be cool with this," Damali said, hands on hips.
Carlos raised an eyebrow. "Let's hope everybody else is."
Damali's eyes got big as Val's attention went from one Neteru to the other.
"Oh, yeah," Damali said quietly.
"Uh-huh," Carlos said, walking across the room to lean on the desk. "You know how that shit goes sometimes."
"Yeah, but, she can't afford to go there-even mentally."
"People do things they can't afford every day."
Damali held up her hands and waved them in the air. "Enough. I don't wanna think about team drama. Right now, Val's in the house, which should make our two newest additions very, very happy. She looks like another angel when her wings are out."
Val's attention bounced toward Damali and she smiled, hugging herself. "Yonnie made me look like a full-human. He's amazing."
"Which leads us to the dilemma of whether or not to lift the prayer-barrier to the house." Carlos folded his arms over his chest."And explaining a . . . Yolando to Mom Delores and Ayana."
"He does look frightening when in battle," Val said, interjecting. "So I would expect him to be able to upset any sensitive members of your team that may have demon battle flashbacks. If you were so generous to allow me refuge in your sanctuary, I would not do anything to violate that honor."
Damali waved her hand. "It ain't you, girl. Your honor is intact. Hell, everybody on the team is gonna have to make adjustments now that we've got a toddler around-plus Inez's momma."
"Sheeit . . . Big Mike's gonna have to make the adjustment," Carlos muttered. "Last I checked I was grown and married."
Damali gave Carlos a glare but spoke to Val in a gentle tone. "A three-year-old human baby in the house . . . one of the Guardians-"
"A baby is on the team, in your army?" Val's eyes got big as she took two steps backward and then dropped to one knee again. "The prophecy child . . ."
"No, we don't have the Messiah up in our camp, girl-be serious!" Damali raked her locks and walked in a circle."Just my niece."
Val looked up. "You do not know of the prophecy?" Valkyrie stood slowly, appearing confused. "The Messiah is coming this time as-"
"A lion, not a lamb," Carlos said, finishing her sentence."Full grown-the fire this time.Yeah."
"But the Neteru baby . . ." Val looked at Carlos and then Damali."The precursor.The promise that could possibly avert the Armageddon before one-third of the earth's multitudes is destroyed."
"Whoa, sis," Carlos said, holding his hands up and then staring at Damali. "I didn't hearnothing about that. Did you, D?"
Damali shook her head violently. "Uh-uh.Never heard it."
Val hugged herself. "Maybe because we were in the early days . . . before there were lost books of the Bible? We have the full texts of all the religions up there." Her gaze again went between the nervous couple. "We read so much . . . that was all we had to do for pleasure . . . that and debate the philosophies, speculate on all things."
"The Queens ever say anything to you about this, D?" Carlos's expression held quiet panic.
"Uh-uh-the Kings ever, you know, tell you something after our honeymoon?"
"Naw, I woulda told you."
They both looked at Val at the same time. "We gotta get that missing volume."
"Do you want me to go back and retrieve it now, or give you the message Yonnie sent first?"
"The Yonnie message," Damali and Carlos said together.
"Okay, okay, you go in, get the message and then seal her in silver-then throw it to me."
Damali hesitated. "Baby, why didn't you just go in?"
Carlos rubbed his jaw. "I'm dirty-might be carrying a black-charge residue from the hit Father took earlier today. I went in and tried to drape him."
" 'Nuffsaid," Damali murmured. She turned to Val. "Depending on how bad the news is from Yonnie, all this might be a moot point."
"Yeah," Carlos said in a surly tone. "Just like the tour that's supposed to kick off six months from now might be moot. The future is real tenuous around here, Val."
Damali monitored her husband's escalating tension and the rage embedded in it as she laid her palms gently against Valkyrie's temples. The mere mention of a baby, and the loss that she knew they'd both never forget, had suddenly taken Carlos's mood to a very dark place. She closed her eyes, trying to concentrate, having difficulty with the task. There was no doubt about it, as soon as everyone was settled down, safe, she and Carlos needed to make a Neteru Council run to be sure he wasn't carrying anything toxic that could grow legs and bite them.
But as the images careened through her mind, she knew that might have to wait. "Oh, shit . . ." she murmured, pulling more and more until Val began to shudder."How you holding up, lady?' Damali asked.
Val held Damali's wrists tightly. "Yolando coated it . . . so it wouldn't be so horrible."
Damali opened her eyes for a moment, dazed.
"Translation," Carlos said, folding his arms over his chest."He pleasure-packed it."
Val bit her lower lip and closed her eyes, nodding quickly.
"Oh . . . yeah," Damali said quietly.
"What, it's been so long you forgot how this works?"
Damali simply gave him a look. Something was definitely wrong with her husband.
"It won't affect the receiver, since he was sending to me-and me and him don't have that kind of relationship," Carlos said in a sullen tone. "So you'll get a clean transmission, but this is gonna drop girlfriend to her knees in about thirty seconds . . . got a daylight topspin on it that I can feel halfway across the room!"
"Chill . . . I can't do this with a divided mind," Damali said, trying to keep her focus. "Why're you so pissed off about Yonnie doing whatever?"
Carlos walked away from them with his hands on top of his head and his eyes closed. "I don't know."
Val gripped Damali's wrists and spoke through her teeth, in a low, urgent whisper. "No disrespect, Queen . . . but can heleave ?"
Damali leaned her head on Val's damp forehead. "I have to transmit whatever I learn to him, girl. You know that."
Val nodded roughly and sucked in a deep inhalation through her nose and bit down harder on her lip. Instant understanding slammed Damali.
"Carlos, do me a favor-take a walk."
He looked at her and headed for the door. "That's why I'm pissed at my boy-he didn't have to send her in here all messed up like that. Darkside bullshit gets on my last nerve!"
The door slammed with a rattle just as Val collapsed into Damali's arms, almost making them both fall. Helping her to the desk, Damali caught Val around her waist as Val stumbled forward and sat on the edge of it with a thud.
"I can never look at the King again, I am humiliated beyond all understanding," Val whispered. "And before you . . ." She covered her face with her hands.
"Girl, Carlos can't say shit about this. He did it to me in front of my whole team-even my mother-seer and a coupla clerics."
Damali smiled when Val's mouth opened and no sound came out. "Yeah, brotherman has a dark side, too . . . but that's what they're exploiting." Her smile faded. "We've gotta get him out of here, away from the team so he isn't a bullshit magnet-and then to the Neteru Councils for a serious purge." She put a hand on Val's shoulder. "Mi casa es su casa-you come live with us, all right. Thank you for bringing serious word. Let me get you sealed up in silver, then give me a minute in here with Carlos alone. I'll send Marlene word so you can just squeeze in at the table like everybody else."
Val hugged Damali as she silver-sealed her mind, just rocking."A true home.A true family. How can I ever repay you, Queen?"
"By staying alive and healthy," Damali said, holding Val away from her."Seriously. My heart can't take it."
Val nodded and gave her a warrior's handshake.
"Yo, Rivera!"Damali hollered. "It's safe!"
Carlos opened the door and peered in, keeping his gaze to the floor. "Okay, what's the word?"
Val slipped past him and Damali simply chuckled.
"Marlene has on purple, silver locks, you can't miss her. She knows you're coming. I just sent it to her."
"Bless you," Val murmured and then closed the door.
Carlos folded his arms. "How bad is it?"
"C'mere," Damali said. "It's real bad. Like, so bad that I'm beyond hysterical. You know that point where the absurd just takes over and you have to laugh to keep from crying?"
"Been there," he said with a weary sigh and walked over and hugged her.
"Let me show you how bad." She looked up and touched the side of his face. "And it's not you-you have to get a purge, and probably so do I."
"Damn! I knew it!Been off all day!"
"Yeah, well, it was for a good cause . . . was there any other way? Ask yourself, would you be you if you didn't try to step in and take a bullet for Father?"
Carlos closed his eyes, resting his forehead on Damali's. "Sad part is,it didn't do any good."
"The man is still alive, Carlos. He has a fighting chance. The moment you give up hope, they got you-you of all people should know that."
"And here again my wife has been exposed to some toxic shit I dragged in the door."
"Not because you weren't where you were supposed to be. This is what we do, baby. You were in a cathedral trying to get between the Devil himself and one of our family . . . you don't think I respect that?"
He pulled her in closer and rested his cheek against the crown of her head. "I just needed some of your light after it all went down, D. Something to make me see that silver lining, because what's inside me right now is so angry I can barely see straight."
She rubbed his back and kissed his Adam's apple. "I know . . . that's why I haven't been arguing with you." She could feel him smile against her scalp. "I love you. That's the one thing that always chases out the darkness. It may be hard, but until we get to the Neterus of Light, I want you to concentrate on loving Father Pat more than you hate the Nameless. This doesn't mean you ain't mad at them for what they did, or that you don't have the right to be fired up . . . but if Father Patrick needs your love, your hope, your strength; mess the dark-side up by doing exactly what they don't expect you to do."
He nodded and swallowed hard, then sucked in a shaky inhalation. "It's hard to shift gears and not hate 'em like I do. When I saw that old man in a hospital bed I thought about my moms . . . Alejandro, Juan, Miguel . . . everybody they came for and took, you know. Damn, they got Padre Lopez . . . I mean, when does it end, D? Got Hubert and Sara, the whole fuckingBrazil team, brothers and sister Guardians from that whole ambush inMexico . . . your mom and dad, start there." He held her tighter. "Even took what woulda been our firstborn."
Her body swayed in a gentle rocking motion as her hands traced his back, soothing, healing,trying to staunch the pain. "I know, and when we get somewhere safe and peaceful and protected, me and you are both gonna let all this rage and pain and hurt out. But right now, I have so much to show you, and what feels like so little time."
He drew back and nodded. "You'll now be the sender, and you're female. In a minute you're gonna know why I was so mad at my boy. I know he didn't realize that I wouldn't just go take it from Val without an intermediary . . . but this mind-lock is sender-loaded.You following me?"
"Aw, man . . ." Damali rested her forehead on Carlos's chest. "We ain't got time for this!"
"Yeah.My point exactly."
"All right.Shit. Well, you can talk me down later." Damali reached up and held Carlos's skull. "You ready?"
He smirked. "Making this clinical ain't gonna change things . . . maybe give you a five-second lead on sensation, but my boy took over my old throne, and I know what was in it."
"Just be quiet and let me send you the images." She held his head harder than was necessary and focused on a file cabinet.
"You havegot to be fucking kidding me," Carlos said as she hard-thrust images into his mind. "Lucrezia . . . we ain't gonna see Nuit for a month!"
Damali didn't speak. She bit her bottom lip and focused on the cabinet harder, noting the tone of gray in the paint, the dull fixtures on it.
"Oh, so they LoJacked me, huh . . . put a tag on me. Wait till Nuit's grimy ass resurfaces. Yeah . . . oh, it's like that-and went after Ayana like wha? See, D, this is what I'msay -" Suddenly Carlos burst out laughing. "Sebastian is gonna get his stupid ass bumped off for sure. Drac's woman-beserious. That-"
Damali crushed the words from his mouth with a kiss. "Remind me to kick Yonnie's ass when I see him." Breathless, she found his jugular with her tongue.
"I don't know whether to kick his ass or genuflect . . . but, uh, D, we can't even begin to go there, till I get a purge."
She backed off and walked in a circle for a moment."Right, right, compromised silver, bad toxin, bad situation."
"Was that the end of the message?"
She looked at him, squeezed her eyes shut, and squeaked out the answer. "No."
"Okay, baby, just finish it . . . and, later . . . we'll get everybody home, make a run . . ."
She held up a finger. "I can't think that far in advance right now. Let me dump thisintel and then go put some water on my face."
He stepped in close and allowed her to gently hold his head again. "Take your time."
She offered him a scowl. "Just be quiet-you're enjoying this, aren't you?"
"Will you be mad if I say, slightly? Rare that I get the tables turned on me so lovely these days."
"Man, hush." She closed her eyes and shot him the rest of the images and then backed away quickly from him. "Damn. Is that what you guys go through all the time?"
"Pretty much, but only if the sister is hot."
She cut him another glare but had to smile.
"You know I'm never,eva gonna rest until I step to Nuit about slamming Inez's mom and throwing that baby, right?"
Damali folded her arms over her chest."You?Sheeeit. I was there, bro."
Carlos nodded. "See how a little violent anger can just kill your libido and make everything all right? I like my anger, not sure I wanna part with it. Gets me up in the morning, helps me manage my day.Wouldn't know what to do as a peace and Zen representative. I just want the Light to burn off a little bit of the super-toxin so the darkside doesn't hot the house. Worst of it is,I hate being LoJacked like a thoroughbred dog. But other than that, the darkside can kiss my ass."
She chuckled. "I don't think the Light is ever gonna be able to burn this level of rage outta my system, and I know there's nothing they can do with you. Thing that messes me up is, they can keep this bullshit going now twenty-four-seven.At least before we had a twelve-hour window of daylight. Damn!"
"Then let's go eat dinner. What else is there to do at the moment?" He wiggled his eyebrows and hurried out the door.