"I was trying to find work here," Inez said, hugging Damali hard. "Oh, God, D, what's happening?"

"Where's the baby?" Damali said fast, almost forgetting there was a team. Her best friend, her girl from back in the day, was trapped in this nightmare with her-the only other living soul she knew and would have spared from this life.

"With Momma while I tried to get my finances together. Oh, my God," Inez wailed. "Oh, God!"

"I know, I know," Damali said, soothing her, rubbing her back. "But we have to get out of here to somewhere safe."

"I got her," Big Mike said, extracting Inez from Damali's hold. He glanced in the direction of Jose's light. "But our boy don't look so good." His line of vision settled on Rider and then Tara. "Mar... tell me something good."

Marlene shook her head. "Need to get him back to hallowed ground and get to my bag." She looked at Tara and narrowed her gaze. "You're more lethal now that you're stronger. I don't know if I can purge this."

"They're bloody, man," Yonnie said, beginning to shudder. "I've got enough juice left to take 'em to the edge of that property line, then me and Tara gotta do what we gotta do."

"Just take us up to the surface and then go to my house," Gabrielle said. "I have top shelf in there, and my girls will reseal the barriers. It's almost dawn and you have to get inside the vaults."

"Get 'em topside, man," Jose said, looking at Yonnie. "Let's not fuck around with my man's health."

"There's too much adrenaline..." Yonnie walked away from the group.

Big Mike held Inez firmly. "Don't freak, be cool. He's all right, just needs-"

"Fresh air!" Yonnie bellowed, and turned to look at Carlos. His eyes were solid red orbs within the darkness, his fangs lowered to attack length. Inez screamed and hid her face against Big Mike's chest. Her fear made Tara and Yonnie's heads jerk toward her.

"I can't transport 'em like this. I'll come out of the cloud with a throat, I know me," Yonnie whispered.

Tara was shivering so hard that Yonnie pulled her to his side and closed his eyes. Rider didn't protest as she tore into Yonnie's throat.

"She's flat-lining," Yonnie whispered, swallowing hard. "She's never fed right, and has to now." He rubbed her back and stroked her hair. "But baby is draining me dry-make a decision."

"You have to pull the cloak," Damali said, touching Carlos's arm. "Now."

He shook his head. "I can't even raise shields."

She grabbed his hand. "Together."

"I've only moved one, me and you, not a whole fucking team, D!"

Yonnie slowly removed Tara from his throat. "Gabrielle, sweetheart," Yonnie said, walking toward her slowly as Tara wiped her mouth with the back of her hand. "Your place is so far away... and-"

Carlos's hand reached out and grabbed air. A current ran through Damali's arm, jolting her arm to full extension as her head flung back. The stunned team watched Yonnie make a lunge forward as the drape closed. He fell forward grasping nothing. They landed on the street in a heap.

"Nothing like an emergency to show you what you can do," Damali said, pushing herself up with a grunt.

Carlos's hands were shaking as he stood. He glanced as the sky was becoming light blue-gray. "I hope my brother makes it to the vaults in time," he said quietly. "Been there. Damn he's so low on fuel."

Too stunned too comment, the team slowly stood and brushed themselvesoff . Jose crouched beside Rider who had begun to go into a mild convulsion.

"Medic!" Jose hollered from the sidewalk. "Dan, J.L., get in there and get Berkfield out. 'Bazz, some-fucking-body go get Marlene her black bag!"

"WHAT DO you want from me?" Gabrielle shouted as the team that had been hidden in the sanctuary gathered around Rider.

"You tried to bring my children intothis ?" Marjorie shrieked and walked away as Rider raked the floor with his nails. "This is the outcome!"

"Shut up," Marlene said while the clerics kneeled beside the team's fallen man. "Gentlemen. Talk to me."

Imam Asula stood up and shook his head, unsheathing his machete quietly. Father Patrick began performing last rites, as Marjorie forced the teenager's face to her shoulder. Father Lopez guided the new members of the group to faraway pews.

Carlos was on his knees next to Jose. "Oh, shit, man. C'mon. You can shake this thing."

"Let Berkfield try," Jose said, his voice cracking.

"Berkfield's touch will scorch him. It's a weapon, now that the virus is all through him," Marlene said, glancing at Berkfield who was beside Rider on his hands and knees. "He's turning too fast."

Damali walked away and closed her eyes. "No, not Rider," Damali whispered.

Monk Lin touched her shoulder. "We will do it, Neteru. Your affiliation is too close," he said gently. "It will forever haunt you, so let us. That is also why we're here."

Damali shook her head no and went back to Rider when she saw Marlene stand.

"No, Mar! We've got to try-"

"Baby, we've done all we can do." Marlene wiped her face as tears continued to stream down it.

"Damn!" Shabazz said and walked away. He held Big Mike back as he rushed forward to stop Imam Asula.

"Let me do my own man!" Mike hollered, his voice fractured by emotion. "Me and him go back to the beginning. Me, Rider, and Jose-that's the minisquad."

Shabazz released his hold on Big Mike as Imam Asula nodded and passed the weapon to him.

"Get the kids out of here," Damali said with her back to the team. "All the newbies, Dan, too. Nobody will be right after this. Especially not me."

"Aw, shit, Rider!" Carlos said, slapping his hand on the slate floor. "You was supposed to pull through till the end,hombre ." Carlos stood and paced back and forth. "Not another brother like this."

Slowly the team drew back. Marlene stayed near with Jose.

"I won't let you die alone, old friend," she murmured, stroking Rider's hair as he opened his eyes. But when he presented glittering yellow orbs and hissed at her, new fangs ripping through his gums, Marlene sobbed without censure. "Do it, Mike. Look at him. He's suffering on this church floor. Dawn is going to fry him slow-so do it neat."

She stood up and Carlos and Damali came near, holding up Jose. Shabazz drew Marlene into his arms. Imam Asula put a firm hand on Big Mike's shoulder, nodding that it was time and it was best. Father Patrick's face was stone but marred by streaks of tears. Sunlight was beginning to peek through the clouds, causing the side of Rider's face to sizzle. When he rolled out of the light beam, Rabbi Zeitloff closed his eyes, kissed the Star of David Dan had given him, and whispered, "Shalom, friend."

Berkfield braced himself over Rider's body as Mike lifted the machete. "Please, let me try once! What have we got to lose?"

"You taking a virus into your system that your own blood will attack and torch before it can pass out of your system," Shabazz said flatly, his emotions too raw to cope with. "This is part of the gig. The ugly part that takes your mind one loss at a time."

"What if he just treated the wound site," Damali said, going to her knees beside Berkfield. "He doesn't have to lay on hands, his blood-"

"Baby, stop it. Get up.Now ," Marlene whispered as Rider writhed in agony on the hallowed floor. His body began to smolder as he searched blindly and tried to follow the scent of human blood all around him, fangs lowered. "Let him go. We don't know where she bit him, can't even see the puncture marks. She-"

"I can see," Carlos said, his hand hovering over Rider's throat.

Berkfield reached up and Mike lowered the edge of his blade to his wrist. He winced as he slit it. "Show me where," he said, grabbing his wrist as blood spilled and Rider nearly sat up to find it.

Carlos felt his hand go hot over the throat wounds. Shabazz and Jose held Rider steady as he slashed and bit at the bloodied wrist that Berkfield held away from him. He snapped at Carlos's hand and groaned as he pulled it away. All assembled stared at the deep puncture wounds that rose on Rider's throat.

Swollen flesh with bruised, black and reddish-blue rings circled the deep holes in Rider's throat. The unmasked punctures slowly oozed a yellowish blood that gave off the stench of puss. Berkfield held his fist over the foul, torn skin and pumped his fist. As each drop splattered against Rider's throat he cried out and turned away. His skin instantly began sizzling and burning as the blood made contact, emitting crimson smoke as the strongest of the Guardians held him down and kept their distance from his distended mouth and clawed hands.

"It isn't working," Damali said, closing her eyes and beginning to rock. "You're just torturing him."

"Throw me a bowie knife," Carlos said fast. "Hit all the sites." He looked at Shabazz as Jose flipped him a blade. "The femoral arteries before we give up on our brother, okay?"

Damali looked away as Carlos ripped the blade down Rider's pants legs. His cries had turned into beastly shrieks and screams that made the hair stand up on her neck. As she heard a low, demonic voice come out of Rider's throat, she glanced up and for a second her gaze locked with Jose's. He didn't have to say it. She'd allowed her lover to do no less to her, turn her into this abomination for a brief time. But two seconds like this was too long. It wasn't until she watched Rider go through it that the full horror of it gripped her.

The reality made her nauseous, and she sat back on the floor as she watched Carlos and Berkfield work on her fallen brother.

"Damali, make them stop," Rider said in an unnatural voice that made her heart skip.

She couldn't answer him or speak as Big Mike and Imam Asula had to join in holding Rider down. Every cleric in the house of worship had formed a ring around the ordeal, saying prayers out loud in their own religion while new team members sobbed loudly from their fortunately blind positions at the far end of the sanctuary.

"No!" Rider shouted, as Carlos ripped open his shirt and scanned his body, looking for any wound that hadn't been treated. Then he became calm and chuckled low in his throat, his eyes glowing in the shadows as he stared at Carlos. "Mr. Councilman, I'm in your line. You made Yonnie. Yonnie elevated Tara. The sins of the father..." Rider hissed and bit at Carlos's searching hands. "You fathered me!" he shouted. His line of vision instantly went to Father Lopez. "Forgive you father for you have sinned." He grabbed the edge of Jose's coat. "And you and I are also in the same line. Make them stop!"

Damali stood up and paced, feeling Rider's eyes on her.

"Baby sis, make them stop," Rider said in a chilling singsong tone. "Do you know how many times she's bitten me over the last twenty-plus years?" He laughed as Berkfield continued to squeeze his wrist over newly erupting puncture marks. "About as many places as Carlos bit you... in all the forbidden spots," he said shrieking. "They don't understand what it feels like-not like you and I do... so sweetie, make them stop for old Rider. She's right around the corner."

"Keep him talking," Carlos ordered, stripping Rider's shirt off. "He hasn't gone to ash and it's daybreak."

Damali squatted down. "You've got to get the bites out of your system."

"Is it out of yours?" Rider said in a low, threatening rumble. "Is it?" he yelled, his voice suddenly escalating as his eyes nickered brown.

"Let Carlos work on you, honey," Damali said softly. "Tell me where she bit you."

"Everywhere," Rider said, laughing and closing his eyes. "Every-fucking-where."

Berkfield weaved and Jose caught him.

"This man is losing too much blood. Rider needs a freaking transfusion."

"What I need," Rider whispered, as his fangs slowly retracted, "is to be with Tara in a vault before it's too late."

"Shush," Damali said, stroking Rider's hair, tears making his image blurry as she felt human temperature creep back into his flesh. "It's gonna be all right."

Rider stopped struggling. Berkfield pulled back his arm. Guardians relaxed but kept their hold on him firm. Rider didn't open his eyes, just breathed deeply as two tears slipped from beneath his lids and coursed down the sides of his face.

"It's already too late," he said quietly in his normal voice. "He took her back to a lair under battle-feed-then-fuck conditions. She's gone."

Carlos stood and ran his hands through his hair. Jose covered up Rider with his coat and walked away. Big Mike let his machete fall to the floor. Shabazz let go of Marlene and found a vacant pew and sat down. Berkfield went to find his traumatized family. J.L. walked three steps and dropped to his knees, breathing hard. Damali looked at the ceiling, closed her eyes, and asked why.

Damali sat quietly at the long wooden table in the church kitchen. Tea cooled in front of her, but neither she nor the others had any interest in the lukewarm liquid. She placed the three stones she had on the table before her. "So, it has come to this." Her voice was monotone and far away as she made the idle comment. She couldn't even look at Rider as he stared out the window, wrapped in a ragged blanket. Even if they were to get out of New York, where would they go and how would they get there?

The roads were virtually impassable by car. Gridlock ruled as people tried to get out of the powerless city by car or truck or bus. Everything was on the road, and nothing was moving. Trains were dead, the airports shut down, and they couldn't tote an arsenal of weapons through the streets. The compound was gone, and there was nowhere to hide. Even if they could get to Rider's cabin, she doubted he would enter it, given Yonnie and Tara had been there. She couldn't blame him.

Daylight gave them maybe only ten short hours of respite before the next siege.

Carlos was to be rebuilt in seven days, plus seventy days, and the forecasted full team of twenty-one was to be gathered and strengthened within seven months after that, per the old grandfather-seer. But in the last seven days, Carlos had only come into a portion of his power, and they didn't have seventy days to figure out the rest of it. Nor did they have seven months to build a solid squad that was ready. Just like they didn't have time to visit the thirteen countries that had flickered in the lit flags. Time had truncated and run out. Lilith was on their asses. Hell had opened her gates and forced their hand early. Smart move.

"As this team's senior Neteru, what are you thinking?" Marlene asked quietly, making the defeated group momentarily look up.

"I don't know," Damali said, her gaze going around the demoralized faces in the room. "We can't sit here, we have to move, but where?" She sighed and ruffled her perspiration-dampened locks. "Everything that I thought I understood, I don't. Everything that was supposed to be, isn't. Every place that we were supposed to go, we didn't."

"I have a flat roof," Gabrielle said softly. "I have some very influential clientele-human-" she added, glancing at her sister "-who can get you a chopper." She sighed and glimpsed Rider. "That's the least I can do. But we'd have to walk to my place... it's not that far."

Gabrielle took off her ring and slid it across the table toward Damali when Rider stood and went to the window. "This is like a pass. The pilots will take you where you wanna go. But I don't think all of you can ride. Maybe just the core team, I don't know how big a helicopter they'll send."

Damali stared down at the tiger's eye stone that was set in platinum. The irony made a bitter smile come to her face. Tiger's eye... a cat's eye from a cathouse, but it ruled protection and truth, practicality and courage. She'd also been a cat-a huge one. Now she'd gotten another stone from a very unlikely source. "Thank you," she murmured and added it to her growing collection as Gabrielle sat back.

"Anybody got any suggestions?" Damali asked, absently drawing on the table with her finger. No one answered and she kept swirling the pattern that stuck in her head on the tablecloth. "What are we gonna do with twenty-one beat-up, tired, defeated, scared Guardians, half of whom are new, anyway?"

"How do you do that?" Inez said, her weary voice holding enough fascination to cause the others to look at her.

"Do what?" Damali asked.

"Make that pretty pattern on the table with lights. I always knew you were special, from the first time we laid eyes on each other, but I didn't understand," Inez whispered. "Now that Mike explained, everything you told me and went through makes sense."

Marlene leaned forward and reached across the table to hold Inez's hand. "Honey, what lights?"

"It's the way the lights from the stained glass almost seem to chase her finger," Inez said and yawned. "I'm so sleepy, I'm bleary eyed."

"Get her some paper," Marlene said quickly, looking at Father O'Dwyer. "Please."

The hosting cleric shot out of his plastic chair and rushed to the cupboard drawer, extracted a pencil, and a flimsy telephone notepad. He thrust it toward Marlene, who slid it down the table to Inez.

"Show me what you see when Damali doodles."

Inez chuckled. "I'm no artist."

"Try," Carlos said, coming to stand and peer over Inez's shoulder.

Seeming embarrassed, Inez began to roughly sketch three circles, and then she put arrowsnext to each direction and looked up.

"Can I see that?" Damali asked in an awed whisper. She studied the paper and closed her eyes. "It's the formation," she said, filling in the blanks. "The riddle makes sense. It's everyone that was to come together." She marked off where each person stood, but couldn't figure out the team excess.

Gabrielle smiled. "I'm not one of yours, just supposed to help along the way. Maybe the rabbi is like that, too. Maybe he was just supposed to tell us about Lilith, and his job is done."

Damali nodded, but she glanced at Marlene and Carlos, and then over to Father Patrick, who all shared the same frown of uncertainty.

"I'm going home," Gabrielle said, kissing her niece and nephew, and then slowly touching her sister's hand. "I may not have gone down the acceptable path, but I am what I am." She hesitated. "I have backup generators over there, in case the power ever failed. If they made it to the vaults, the vaults will automatically seal on timer locks and light sensors." She gazed down at Marjorie. "No matter what, I love you. I'll get you out of here... but life as you knew it can never be the same now."

Marjorie nodded and stood. She faced her sister and slowly hugged her. "You saw these things when you were a kid, didn't you?"

Gabrielle nodded. "Your son hears them and uses the music to drown them out. Your daughter's gifts are like mine, she can see beyond the grave... just like you can, dear sister. Be well."

"Thank you," Damali said, going to Gabrielle to give her a hug.

Carlos stood and extended his hand. "We owe you. Thank you."

Gabrielle just smiled. "Mr. Councilman, you know better than to tell a witch something like that."

Carlos chuckled. "Debt paid in full in the subway, then. We just thank you."

"That's more like it," she purred, slinking away. "Gotta keep you on your toes-words have power. Remember."

Lilith clapped her hands and laughed, rounding the table in council chambers. "Dante, look at the newspaper headlines. They said I have a cascading effect on the power grids in the city." She laughed and shook her head.

"Seems like you have a global effect, too. Your portal openings sent shock waves through London and China-"

"I know, but the best part is the competition did exactly what we thought they would-cannibalized themselves. The level-one and two phantoms sent their best and got smoked right in Rivera's vault. They were only supposed to send one, but sent many through the portal instead. It shows that their discipline is weak; their border controls are shaky. Even lower-level ghost gangs have slipped out, forming little cells of uncontrollable bandits that are a nuisance to contain and sweep away. Therefore they lost their shot by a breach of agreement that my husband has taken serious exception to. He hates to be cheated."

"And I'm so sure you told him all." The chairman smiled, his fangs lengthening as he watched her sashay around his table. His need to murder her where she stood was so devastating it gave him an erection. But all he offered her was a sly smile.

"It would be remiss of me to do otherwise."

"And our old friends, the Amanthras?" He made a tent with his fingers in front of his mouth to quell his anxiety.

"Botched the hit, sloppily, just like the were-demons. Their senators couldn't even pull it off." She slid against his throne and whispered in his ear. "So, darling, that leaves just me and you to finish the job."

This was not how he'd ever pictured spending his birthday, much less his life. Carlos stared out of the chopper window as it came to a slow descent over the pier on Delaware Avenue. His family was all gone, he had yet to bury his mother and grandmother and there was no way to access his money from New York during a blackout. The emotions that Damali stirred within him were too numerous to name. He was proud of her, yet furious with her. What she'd pulled off was nothing short of remarkable, but it made him grieve his inability to have done that, too. Everyone said they were equals, she most of all-but at the moment, he sure didn't see it that way. She was the seasoned general. He was the first lieutenant. He hated it.

He couldn't even look Rider in the face; they both knew the deal. Yet he couldn't be mad at Yonnie, either. It was what it was; shit happens and sometimes goes down in a foul way without that being the intent. The thing that truly troubled him, though, was Damali's cool remoteness. True they'd all be wrung out emotionally, but her distance worked his nerves. Never before had she kept secrets-not from him. He had been the one with the black box around portions of his mind; hers was always an open, innocent book. But having a guarded area in his head, he could spot another one a mile away. The stunt she pulled in Hell had caught him blind-side, and it told him that there were layers of her he didn't know. He held her hand a little tighter.Baby, what's wrong? Talk to me .

So much was going through her mind right now, that all she could do was squeeze Carlos's hand back as the chopper found ground. The riddles were now clear, and she dared not reveal them in front of the group. Big Mike was the tree that a new bird, Inez, would nest in. It was all over the brother's face. Damali sighed. If it was gonna be anybody, then that was cool, she just hated that Inez was part of this insanity. J.L. was already pushing the envelope, having taken too much of an interest too quickly in Berkfield's seventeen-year-old, computer-whiz daughter. The man was a cop. Damali closed her eyes.

Pure drama would shatter the ranks. But with a pending battle, the situation brewing with Father Lopez and Juanita was making her climb out of her skin. There were disapproving brothers of the Covenant on one side, warning dude to honor his vows, Jose on the other, eyeing the new available chick on the team-who, she had to admit, was pretty... and who made her bristle when Jose had cozied up to her, which made her really feel weird about too many things to even begin to name them. This new chick was like d�ja vu all over again. Damali opened her eyes slowly. Dee Dee.

She would have gasped if Carlos hadn't been sitting beside her. Dee Dee was a tactical sensor. Had she felt something brewing between her and Jose all along? Had she been the thing that had driven the jealous spikes that sent Dee Dee out into the street on her own one night to get nicked?

Guilt stabbed Damali in the side as she wondered if Jose had jumped the gun and messed with Dee Dee as a diversion. She already knew the answer before the thought finished forming, and it only made her shoulders slump. But this time this woman was someone who also used to sleep with Carlos-who, in turn, was trying to be stone-faced about it all... while their best buddy, Rider, was literally in mourning.

Truly, she could feel Carlos mourning, too. Not just for the loss of his family, but for the loss of his powers. How long would it take him to see the new ones as an asset, now that she'd just rolled on the chairman like she had-even strangled the old bastard in hand-to-hand combat... like she knew her man had wanted to do. Damali cringed. The fact that he'd seen her wheeling and dealing when he couldn't game like that any longer made her stave off a shudder. How did one do damage control on a situation like that?

Damali glanced out the window, wondering how everyone else was faring. Everyone was at the breaking point, mentally. Their own quiet struggles were undermining the whole reason they were here. How were they supposed to go to war as a united front with all this quiet chaos eating them up alive? What if a dag-gone Guardian squared off with a priest over a woman in the heat of battle? Oh, right, and she was supposed to keep a trigger-happy rabbi who wanted to go out in a blaze of glory chilled out. Insane. This is why the ranks had to be tight, and God help them if Yonnie showed back up with Tara at his side. Rider might set off machine-gun rounds trying to kill a master vamp on their side, who could flat-blast everybody before dude wigged and took a clip in the temple by his own hand. Yeah, right, and she was supposed to school a whole new team without even her Isis in her hand!

"You all right?" Carlos shouted as they touched down.

"No," Damali shouted back over the whir of the chopper.


She laughed. "Understatement."

He nodded and watched the pilot for the signal that it was all right to exit the craft.

This was the most jacked-up set of circumstances he'd ever lived through or even died through. This was the most raggedy-assed team of beat-up warriors he'd ever had the misfortune to have to share a command with-oh, yeah, right, he was a Neteru. If this was what a Neteru was about, they could have the gig, truthfully. Hole up in an abandoned waterfront warehouse space that some witch's John owned and hadn't developed yet, so dude didn't care if they blew it up, or whatever, until he was ready to go condo. Carlos scanned the busted-out windows, weather-chapped exterior, and darkened interior, knowing without having to look that not only was the place impossible to totally secure like a lair or the Guardian's previous compound, but rats, roaches, and every pest in the exterminator's guide also lived there.

And what was wrong with the clerical brothers? What in Heaven's name would make them argue to go to Philly, especially since it had biblical references to the last days? It didn't make tactical sense at all. Their strategy was warped, but he and Shabazz had been outvoted. He hated this democratic bullshit. Nobody took a half-ready team to the fight. The game was to lay low, get strong, then move on whatever had tried to move on you. But, noooo... the so-called seers had prevailed. Damali and her impulsive shit had prevailed, which is probably why she didn't have anything to say-girlfriend had made a tactical strategy error and her Leo ass was too prideful to admit it.

Plus, everybody's head was jacked up. Nobody was focused. It was a perfect way to get the whole team smoked.

Carlos watched the white, unmarked delivery vans pull up to the empty warehouse and preapproved drivers begin unloading the equipment and ammunition that Father Pat had ordered. When the clerical team fanned out with Marlene and began setting up prayer barriers, Carlos let out a slow sigh and kept walking.

He wasn't feeling this at all.

"Look, it's late afternoon," Damali said, her voice rising despite her resolve to stay cool. "We could do the loop and get walled back up here by sundown. I think we should go back to where I was, physically go to those same places. If time has truncated on us, then we take everybody back to the art museum, down the steps, past the statues that moved up the parkway-"

"Yeah, and move twenty-two people through the city in this ragtag group, packing concealed weapons like we're some freakin' tour group?" Carlos leaned across the metal table and stared at her. "No!"

"We've got all sorts of talent on this team. Somebody will pick up a trail, one or many of us could track it, and then-"

"What about no don't you get?" Carlos shouted, as the team looked back and forth between their warring Neterus.

Damali's arm snapped out and shook as she pointed her finger hard. "What about this don'tyou get? They are hunting us already. We are on the run, not on the offense, which I seriously do not like. There is no place on the planet to hide, Carlos, when Hell comes looking to beat your ass down. We have got to make a stand, find its sweet spot before it finds ours. Period. End of story. We do this like I said. I'm not sitting around, lying low, and shaking in my boots while they blow in the front door. Fuck that. I'm trying to find that bitch and smoke her before she comes for me."

"Hold it," he said, rounding the table that was between them. "Are you saying I'm afraid to bring the noise to them? Is that what you're saying?"

She picked up a long blade from the table and threw it to him and picked up a broadsword. "I'm saying that just because you aren't fully ready, doesn't mean that we have to wait-or can wait."

"Oh, Lord..." Marlene muttered and pushed back from the table.

Marjorie closed her eyes for a moment and sent her gaze out of a broken window.

"What?" Carlos shouted. "In the subway-"

"You fucking choked, dude." Damali squared off with him. "Yonnie said he couldn't transport, you had seconds to make up your mind, and-"

"I know what the fuck Yonnie said, and I got us out of there-"

"Correction,we got us out of there, and that's what's messing with your head. You'd better get used to it: We have to fight together. This is a team, and it's not about-"

Carlos slammed the sword down on the table. "No team went to Hell with you, D! You did that shit solo! No heads-up to any of us, so don't tell me about teamwork, hear?"

"Pick it up," Damali said through her teeth. "Go back-to-back and tell me if you can sense my moves and do so at a split-second pace without lopping off my head or my arm. Because down there, as you well know, you have to be on your best game, and you weren't!"

"I don't have to prove-"

"Do it now! We don't have time!"

Carlos walked away from her. "Fuck you!"

"Oh, so it's like that? You hear some shit you don't wanna hear and it's fuck me? Punk!"

"Damali." Marlene was on her feet. "Let's me, you, and Marj take a walk."

"Unproductive," Shabazz said, picking up the castaway blades. "Dangerous, too, since you're concerned about time factors. Becoming a good teacher means you have to be a good student." He shook his head and followed the path Carlos had left.

"Your nerves are fried, mine are fried, the team is going through a virtual meltdown along with a realignment," Marlene said.

"You were right, but they can't take it delivered like that," Marjorie said, glancing over her shoulder. "In front of the younger Guardians was like doing it in front of kids."

"You didn't leave him a way to save face-"

"Fuck his face, Mar," Damali shouted.

"Whatever," Marlene said in a near growl. "Facts being what they are, we need you two working as a well-oiled unit to do this thing. We're wasting time turning on each other. Can't have it."

"Figure out a way to smooth his ruffled feathers so we can do this day trip," Marj said nervously. "It would be best. Been done that way for years. It's practical."

Marlene chuckled. "More efficient than head-to-head-that's why her sister gave you that stone of practicality with the truth." Although Damali could feel steam coming out of her ears, the old dolls made her laugh.

"I ain't got nothing to say, 'Bazz," Carlos said, walking a hot path across the wide parking lot. Freezing November winds blew off the Delaware River and Carlos set his sights on the Ben Franklin Bridge in the distance when Shabazz's hand landed on his shoulder.

"I came to agree with you, man."

Carlos nodded and walked back and forth, kicking up gravel dust with his Tims. "She makes me so damned mad sometimes I could slap her-but then it wouldreally be on. She's so damned stubborn! Always has to have her way, and even when she's wrong, won't admit it!" Carlos slapped his chest. "I know somebody is gonna get hurt like this. I'm no punk,hombre . She called me a fucking punk-do youbelieve that shit?"

"You know you ain't no punk,I know you ain't no punk, and we all watched you walk through the fire."

"Oh, so you're saying she still, after all that, thinks I'm a punk because I'm patient and can wait for the right time to go after the target?" Carlos folded his arms over his chest, the muscles working in his jaw as a new wave of fury threatened to give him a stroke.

"Nope. I'm not saying jack about what she's saying. What I know is this. Her instincts are dead on and-"

"Mine ain't?"

"No," Shabazz said calmly, studying the sky. "Didn't say that, either. You're both right."

"That's some fucked-up logic."

"It's fact," Shabazz said, making Carlos look at him by using a curt tone. "She's right and you know it. To track something, you have to go over a warm trail. We can't go back to the more exotic places we've been, but Philly gave her the lead-so we start there." Shabazz nodded toward the river. "Water will be at our backs, and the museum area is near water. If the lady has a solid hunch, we always play it. That's all I'm saying."

When Carlos looked away and didn't argue, Shabazz pressed his point. "But we need to do that in broad daylight, then use your strategy, namely, to get strong, make sure we know what we're dealing with."

Carlos nodded and unfolded his arms, shoving his hands in his jeans pockets.

"This team is nowhere ready to battle anything," Shabazz said. "I know it, you know it, and she knows it-but have you ever considered that girlfriend might be scared?"

Carlos looked at him.

"Yeah, that's right. Scared. I said it. Everything around her is changing, the people she could depend on are nuttin' up. Rider almost bought it, and they took her security blanket, her blades, man. You think she rubbed your nose in it back there in front of the newbies, hell... I know Damali. When she came back without her blades, dressed down by the Queen's Council, girlfriend ain't been right ever since. Her confidence is as raggedy as a bowl of yock. Plus, now, the clock is ticking on something that could present itself as her demon child. She's wigging, rightfully so. She ain't got no diplomacy left in her. Damali is about motion, right through here, and trying to minimize casualties-you being one of the primary ones."

"I didn't like the way she was all up in my face, though, man." Carlos raked his fingers through his hair and let his breath out hard. "Down in the subway tunnel, I just had a few seconds to think. I was worried that maybe I try this transport thing, that's still a little new, and what if it messed up, landed us in a hot zone, or I dropped somebody? Yonnie's ass was sweating me and-"

"For two seconds," Shabazz said, looking him in the eyes, "you got scared." When Carlos looked away, he placed his hand on his shoulder. "This is me and you talking, nobody else on the team-not even Marlene who I sleep with. Man to man, let's be real, this shit is really fuckin' scary."

Carlos looked up at him and nodded grudgingly.

"It's like having a new car with all these new gadgets on it and having to do a high-speed chase to get away from the cops."

Carlos chuckled with Shabazz.

"C'mon, man, give yourself a break. You can do a lot of the same shit, just in a different way, and your ass is used to being so smooth that what's making you mad is that you don't want to break it out until you know how to use it to the bone. I can dig it, that's a man thing-I understand."

Carlos pounded Shabazz's fist and they smiled.

"Plus, you being a Scorp-y'all are secretive and sly any ole way, dead or alive, and not to be feelin' in total control-to y'all-is a fate worse than death."

"No, lie..." Carlos said, letting his breath put hard.

"You're a brother with a lot on his mind," Shabazz said, slinging an arm over Carlos's shoulder and walking him back toward the building. "Been there, ask an old dog how this goes. Your people just crossed over and you ain't even there to bury them proper, you just got out of jail-so to speak, your powers changed, all your friends are either dead or new, your woman is kickin' up the bo bo, your money jacked-that right there would make the average brother intolerable. You've got this new job that you wanna do right, because it's all you got and she's sweatin' you about it. Then, your boy is all messed around by a woman he won by default... your other boy is ready to jump off the bridge down the street and you just got pulled into this very wild family that you didn't bargain for. You're in temporary housing that ain't secure or like your old spot, in a brand-new neighborhood-'cause you had to leave all the old people, places, and things in a cosmic twelve-step program, with counselors breathing down your neck, just waiting for you to go back to your old ways... and there's times when the old life seemed so much easier, simplistic, despite all the bad-because you knew that game like the back of your hand. Meanwhile, your body is going through changes because you're about to apex. Sound familiar?"

"It's a lot, all at one time." Carlos said quietly as he stopped walking. "It's total fucking chaos."

Shabazz laughed. "Welcome to married life, my brother." Shabazz shook his head and walked ahead of Carlos. "And y'all wanted a baby right now, too. Madness."

WHEN CARLOS walked back into the ragged warehouse, all eyes were on him. Shabazz monitored the vibe as Damali cut a glare at both of them, but saved the most lethal portion of it for Carlos.

"Since you wanted to step outside," Carlos said evenly, "let's do that."

Stricken glances passed around the group.

Damali flung down the bowie knife and it lodged in the earth with a thump. "Yeah, let's do that."

"Yo, yo, yo," Jose said quickly. "Listen, we're supposed to be fam-"

"This is between me and her," Carlos said through his teeth. "Long overdue, too."

"Definitely long overdue," Damali snapped, her hands going to her hips.

Dan and J.L. started to walk forward, but Shabazz held up his hand.

"They need to get this out of their systems," Shabazz said coolly, his stare forcing the younger Guardians to stand down.

Rider nodded. Big Mike leaned casually against the wall. Berkfield shook his head and let out a breath as he swiped a palm over his balding scalp.

"Girl, don't be crazy," Inez said, her voice a quiet plea for reason.

Damali ignored her, eyes blazing in a challenge as she stared at Carlos. It was on,for real . He'd come back in to physically challenge her in front of her team? Had literally squared off on her? Was he outta his mind! She'd wax his ass, if it was the last thing she did-and even if it came to a draw, he'd know he'd been in a serious street fight with someone not to be played with.

"This shit is between man and wife," Berkfield said, and gave his children the "do not move or get in it" eye. He glanced at his wife, Marjorie, who had an unreadable expression of tension on her face.

The clerics all eyed each other, seeming mortified. But Father Patrick slowly shook his head for the others not to intervene. His glance said it all; this had to play itself out.

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