C arlos stood quietly alone considering the dawn. The crystal-blue waters of Los Islotes, right off La Paz, seemed so serene, something his spirit needed right now. The cruise ships sat idle in the distance, buoyed by gentle waves. Gentle, just like he'd tried to be with Damali's heart. The pulse of the environment was that, gentle, and he'd hoped she'd feel it here on the Baja peninsula.

But Damali had missed the irony of his choosing La Paz, which simply translated meant, the peace. He was trying to tell her that by the destination. Didn't she care that he was trying to pick up the lost thread of what had once been their very private connection to weave it into the torn fabric of their relationship, mending it back together?

There was nothing Yonnie could say to him about this. Be cool? What was that, when it came to her? Another man had bitten her right in the throat... her soft, beautiful, Neteru throat that was only his, until now. It didn't even occur to her that he'd picked this place just for her, because of its name, what it represented, and because it reminded him so of the blue Caribbean she thrived in... near a beach with a white blanket of sand, thundering waves, where she'd given him back a heartbeat. Then she practically took that away, stopped his heart with a gentle gasp for another man. Waves... Yes, waves of hurt now represented the beaches.

There were no words. He'd experienced being a dead man walking, but never like this. Pain constricted his chest until he could barely breathe, but the torturous part of it was he'd live. Carlos kept his back to the sprawling, beachside hacienda and shut down his sensory sweep of the new, makeshift compound. He didn't

want to even consider where Damali was, what room she might be in, or have to face Cain's smug mental expression. It was bad enough that he'd had to look at him as he'd returned to the family compound, slightly winded from the seduction feed.

The sensations ran through Carlos's body again and he quickly jettisoned them from his mind. But the haunting images pried their way back in until he could hear the kitchen conference explanations, logical ones, but infuriating, plain as day.

Yeah, right, they were too exhausted to do the transfer. Oh, sure, if Cain ate regular food he'd be hanging around for days until it digested and replenished his body. Now he had to still have Cain in his space until he fully rested after the feed? Yeah, right, only Damali's blood had enough silver in it to recharge his battery. Bullshit that venison wouldn't have worked. Kiss his ass that Cain had to take a hit from her throat and not her wrist. What about putting it in containers, saving it in cold storage, refrigerators, in packs--like he'd had to endure? Then the SOB had laughed at the suggestion? Now back on his old stomping grounds in La Paz, he'd see about all of that.

Carlos let the water lap at his boots. And yet there was no denying he still loved her. .He was ready to go down on his hands and knees to get her back, if it would make things right. Sad reality was, it wouldn't. What good was being a free man when he didn't want to be free?

Damali was freedom personified... the freedom to laugh, love with his whole heart, wake up every morning with a reason to live. She was indeed the elements... the air that allowed him to breathe, the earth that grounded his wild side, the fire that burned him up day and night, and the cool water that chilled him out. Mercy, woman, don't you know I care? Without her, he was pure, raw ether uncontained, an unrealized, free-floating radical, nothing to anchor him, no way to feel this gift of new life. She was his wife, no matter what they said, no less than Marlene was Shabazz's or Marjorie was Berkfield's... Damali was his. Period. He didn't need to w3it for Father Pat for that. But if she didn't think so, what did it all matter?

Carlos swallowed hard and kept his gaze on the sea's horizon as rose-orange dawn kissed it. If this was what heartbreak felt like, never again. She'd brought the Light into his life like the dawn and had now incarcerated him in perpetual night. Why? For a few indiscretions that meant absolutely nothing? He couldn't wrap his mind around it. Didn't she know, she was the one? There was no emotion in any of that. Carlos closed his eyes. But Damali was all emotion... so if she gave her throat, there was something more than the physical involved. Trust, caring, friendship, loyalty, probably love... Carlos shuddered. When did that happen? God, give me an answer, please! Send a sign , . . anything . . .

He opened his eyes and clasped his hands behind his back, remembering a friend who had spared him ultimate humiliation in front of Damali and the whole family. Another friend behind bars, someone who wanted and deserved freedom, had helped him twice in his most panicked hour. With his world in shambles, the least he could do was honor the promise to a friend.

Her name came to his mind, and pushed past his lips in a soft whisper. "Zehiradangra... thank you. Baby, if you can hear me, I'll set you free. Lock in."

Slowly, he could feel a gentle presence enter his mind, and then in small waves of tingling sensations become embodied next to him.

"Oh," she exclaimed quietly, her hands covering her heart as she glanced at him and then the beach. "You didn't forget your vow. You called!"

Carlos nodded and gave her a hug. "Yeah... and you don't know how much I appreciated your helping me heal." He stroked her hair absently, staring at the sea. "Marlene is like a mother to us all; if she would have died, a part of me would have, too, and it would have killed Damali. Shabazz would have died of heart failure on the spot. The rest of the team would have never been the same. What you did meant more to me than helping me bust out of Nod. Giving you your walking papers is the least I can do."

She squeezed him tightly and then released him. "My dear friend, I said that I would help you, and you have been a man of your word. That is so rare." She paused, kissed him quickly, and stared at him. "I love being your friend, thank you for being mine," she whispered, brushing his mouth and drawing away. "She's angry about my biting you, isn't she? I can feel it." Carlos looked at the gorgeous creature for a moment, but there was no reason to keep up the ruse. He nodded. "Yeah."

"Oh," she murmured, her jewel-green eyes becoming genuinely sad. "Then, I have to give her a gift... an exchange. I must let her know I meant no harm."

"Naw, that won't be necessary," Carlos said with a weary sigh.

"Yes it is," Zehiradangra said, smiling widely as her gaze went to the waves. "Don't let her stay angry." She clapped her hands excitedly. "A pearl. That is it--"

"No, Damali doesn't need--"

"Oh, yes, Carlos. What goddess can resist? Pearls are mystical. Teardrops of the moon, thought to be the passage of angels through the clouds... I insist. It is your mystical birthstone, too."

He chuckled. "I'm a Scorp. Topaz is my stone."

She wagged her finger playfully. "No, no, no. That is your zodiac stone. Your mystical birthstone, oh man of deep passionate waters, is the pearl... In my culture, it is your Ayurvedic birthstone. It is the oldest known organic gemstone worn by brides, a symbol of purity and innocence--which she is. Do not allow Cain to make her his wife. He has had many; you have had none but her. This is unfair and unbalanced. She must know that you two are linked through your mystical birthstone to her innocence. This will be my gift to quietly tell her, I meant no harm. Let me do this, please?"

She didn't wait for him to answer as she walked toward the water, beginning to skip like a child as she approached it. She bent down and touched the sand, feeling the grains of it as the water's attention tickled her feet. She stood, spun around, and laughed. "Carlos, it is so different from Cain's pool! I had forgotten how alive and how vast the sea is... oh... I shall find something magnificent for her, do not worry!"

She ran into the waves and splashed about. Carlos watched her from a faraway place in his mind. He remembered Damali's communion with the surf at night in St. Lucia, how she laughed and splashed as though seeing waves for the first time.

A deep sadness weighed on his soul. A creature as lovely and good hearted as Zehiradangra had been captured and kept in a large fish tank devoid of full sensation? Cruel. He now better understood why Cain had water everywhere in his palaces... it was for her. He would have offered her no less, if that was all he could do. It was also clear to him now that she was Cain's main woman. He knew it like he knew his name as he watched her dance with the rolling tide, sliding in and out of it, and then finally transforming into the elongated, pearl-scaled beauty that could no longer resist the pull of the sea.

That's where she belonged, a free spirit open to the seas of the world.

Laughing, alive, ignited by nature. Mystical, wondrous, unbridled, no boundaries. Cain could capture all the sensations he wanted within his still, artificial tanks, but he couldn't give this odd beauty what she needed... room to stretch her wings and fly.

"Fly away, baby," Carlos whispered. "Find the roof of the world, the depths of the sea, and never look back."

There was no resistance in him as he watched her gleaming body form rising and falling flashes of dawn-lit scales, each hump surfacing to quickly submerge in a sea serpent dance. Dance with the waves... forever, my friend.

"Are you mad?" A deep male voice thundered, almost knocking Carlos down.

Cain instantly appeared by his side. Nonplussed, the territorial outrage made a half-smile tug at Carlos's mouth. "Fair exchange is no robbery, my brutha."

Cain glared at him and then the sea. "Zehiradangra, I forbid you to go any farther!" Cain paced a hot path back and forth along the water's edge, and then he spun on Carlos when her body disappeared under the blue-green surface. "You young, stupid fool," Cain spat. "Hey, like you told me," Carlos said with a casual shrug, "if you can't keep your woman contained . . ."

"Call her back," Cain demanded.

Carlos chuckled and spit on the sand. "Fuck you. No."

"You have made her something that will be hunted on this plane! She was my closest friend and did not deserve to have her heart shattered to the point where she will not heed my warnings. I would have brought her experiences and touch through the veil, that she might not languish."

"Does Damali know that?" Carlos asked, studying his nails.

Cain raked his hair and walked back and forth between the water and Carlos. "Her heart is filled with compassion. In time, she would come to understand that--"

"You don't know my baby at all. Damali doesn't share or do sloppy seconds."

"There is nothing sloppy about a creature as exquisite as Zehiradangra!"

"Yeah, well, lemme ask you this," Carlos said, thoroughly enjoying Cain's agitated state. "Would you be able to deal if Damali decided to keep dealing with me, while with you? Because, the way I see it, when you're with Damali, I could hang out with Z... then, hey, when uh, you have to go put in some time with Z, you know, a brother could back off and go home, get up with Damali, chill.... We can work it out, man. We cool--since you already bit her."

Cain made a tent with his fingers in front of his mouth as though summoning calm. "That would not pose a problem for me," he said, forcing smugness into his tone. "If she felt compelled by pity to occasionally resurrect an old, sentimental visit, I would honor that."

Carlos refused to allow Cain to best him on the beach, so he scavenged his mind for anything to make Cain drop fangs and start the rumble. "I appreciate that... maybe she'd come see me, sing to me like old times, and I could accept the loss a little better with her sweet voice making the bullshit medicine go down my throat a little easier. Yeah."

Cain bristled and his eyes had begun to flicker.

"Yeah, I thought so," Carlos muttered, vindicated. Every muscle within him was keened, waiting for the battle to begin, but instead, Cain's attention snapped toward the sea.

"Call her back," he whispered, his tone so gentle that Carlos stepped back to avoid a potentially sudden lunge.

"I told you, no, man. If she's yours, and you got her on lock like you think you do, then--"

"You are so foolish and so young," Cain said, his eyes holding the sea. "Zehira, please, I beg you, come to me!"

Carlos folded his arms and shook his head in triumph. Damn, and he'd been all worried about Damali? For what? Not even twenty-four hours in the damned sun and this bastard was already--

"She does not know the densities of this plane! Her body has not had time to adjust or strengthen to match it!" Cain shouted, panic in his eyes.

"And how is that my problem?" Carlos said, glaring at Cain, waiting for him to make a false move.

"She's a sea dragon!" Cain bellowed, his arm extended as he pointed toward the water. "Her kind once plundered wooden Viking ships, Roman ships, Greek vessels made of wood! That is why humans put false dragons on their mastheads and tried to ward off a feeding attack by making the dragons think another dragon had already claimed it! She is new to flesh, hungry, in a quest for sensations denied. Call her back. She is headed for suicide, a steel cruise ship, the hull impenetrable to organic flesh matter. She will snap her neck. The turbines will grind her up into bits!" Carlos raced to the water and went in waist deep. Cain didn't have to tell him twice, as he began shouting. "Zehiradangra!"

Damali soaped the natural sea sponge until it burst with lather, and then made soft swirls on Marlene's arms and shoulders. Every so often she'd kiss Marlene's temple as her mother-seer reclined in the huge, old-fashioned claw-footed tub. White adobe walls, mud-sculpted so finely that the designs seemed like lace, created a safe haven, a sanctuary for healing.

Pretty yellow curtains blew away from the window on a balmy sea breeze, the surf a distant rhythm of peace. Only the sound of the bath being disturbed filled the room around them. Terra-cotta tiles, with blue and yellow and white flowers were underfoot, helping to generate an echo each time the water was gently poured over an almost lost body that was badly in need of tender nursing. Damali devoted herself to the task as though making oblations at the shrine. of Isis. "You don't have to baby me," Marlene said weakly. "Yes, I do," Damali whispered, collecting warm bath water into a small porcelain cup and allowing it to chase away the suds. "How many times did you do this for me when I was all hurt up?" Marlene smiled. "That was what I was supposed to do." "Loving you back, ain't that what I'm supposed to do?" Damali said, fighting against the tears and then smiling. "Why are you always so stubborn?"

"Because my children make me that way," Marlene said, smiling through the tears.

"I know we do," Damali sighed, beginning to softly soap Marlene's locks. "So, close your eyes and let me be the mom this morning... even if I can never, ever fill your shoes."

"That's 'cause my feef are too big, chile. Not because you can't hold your own," Marlene murmured with a self-conscious chuckle, closing her eyes as tears fell. "That was some mighty powerful juju you did out there for this old broad. Couldn't have done it better myself."

"Who you think taught me?" Damali whispered, kissing the soapy crown of Marlene's head and then pouring cleansing rosemary water over it, careful to keep soap out of Marlene's eyes.

"Ah... well... but some of the new things you're learning, even I couldn't teach."

"You gave me the foundation. Without it, anything new wouldn't have a leg to stand on."

"You always answered me word for word, child. Umph."

They both chuckled softly as Damali finished rinsing Marlene's hair.

"So, what are you gonna do?" Marlene asked with a smile, keeping her eyes closed as Damali soaped her hair again.

"Marlene, the last thing I'm worried about is any of that. You are my primary focus, as is this family. From this point forward."

"You're a Neteru, not a nun. The family is a big burden, one you don't have to take on all by yourself. Me and Marj can hold up a couple of those sides of the pyramid. Chile, you've gotta distribute the weight or it'll crush you. The family's too big now for you to be trying to carry it all alone on your back."

"You've been holding up this pyramid all by yourself for years, Mar. It's time for you to rest, and let--"

Marlene opened her eyes and stared back at Damali with a gentle but firm gaze, stopping her words. "That would kill me, to see you retreat from life and happiness, if nothing else would."

When Damali sucked in a shuddering breath trying to be strong, Marlene's wet hand sought Damali's cheek and she cupped it. Damali immediately kissed the center of it.

"We're not supposed to leave all this on our children, honey. The generation that goes before is supposed to pave the way through the bushes so the ones following behind don't have such a tough road ahead of them. Why would I leave sticks and stones and boulders in your path to trip on, when I love you like I do, sweetie? I'ma help you and be your mother until the day I close my eyes, and move every stone I'm strong enough to lift out of your way, no matter what. You can't stop me. It's in my blood, my cells, my mother DNA." Marlene sighed as two new tears rolled down Damali's cheeks.

"That's right, child. You go on and cry. Let it out."

"I thought I'd lost you," Damali whispered, sniffing, unable to lift the sponge so much pain had suddenly wrapped around her chest. She squeezed the sponge, forcing white lather between her clenched fingers. "If... Lord, Marlene . . ."

"I know, baby. Hurts my soul how many times my suga-girl-child gotta go to Hell and back, even if it is her job. My heart leaps right the pit with you every time. Know that, darlin'. You ain't never alone. Mar and the angels are right there with you."

Marlene nodded and traced a tear on Damali's cheek until it plopped into the white bathtub water. 'Yeah, you're grown, but you still have a lotta life left to live. Advice is probably hitting you from all sides by now. I'm sure. Now, your heart is heavy, I'm still living, so state your bizness. This don't bother me--talking. Seeing my grown girl child all twisted up, that bothers me. So, whatchu gonna do about these crazy men?" Marlene smiled, which brought out a sad smile on Damali's face with it.

"I don't know," Damali whispered.

"You still love him?"

Damali stared into the suds. "Yeah."

"This new one. You know him? Really know him?"

Damali shook her head and began rinsing out the sponge.

"Seems to me, you and Carlos go way back."

"We do," Damali said, twisting the sponge. "But things change... he did a lotta stuff, Mar."

Marlene nodded and took the sponge from her hands. "Every relationship is different. Every man is different. All advice aside from your girlfriends and bystanders, you follow your heart. Just remember, keep true to that. Never kill anything that you want to get up and live one day. Don't injure or cripple it, either. If you all argue, and draw blades, which is bound to happen from time to time, make sure you cut with a practice, blunt edge... something dull, so he can get back up and recover without bleeding." Marlene stared at her hard. "Don't use the Isis in your mouth to do that. Hear? I don't care what anybody else told you." Marlene continued to stare at her without blinking. "Other situations are tainted by bitterness. That ain't a part of your soul, so don't let it slither in there, no matter how good a friend the advisor is. It doesn't mean the counsel wasn't well-meant, or the person evil, just that the method was flawed."

Damali went still. "Your third eye, Mar... how is it?"

"Sore, but still a laser, and can see nonsense around corners, through shadows, and written all over your face. Don't need it. This is age and wisdom, not magic or telepathy. I know my child. That's all I have to see to know what I'm talking about."

Marlene drew herself up to stand with a grunt, and Damali helped her and got a towel. She wrapped Marlene in it as she stepped out of the tub and hugged her, drying her, petting appreciation into her as she wiped water from her fragile body.

"I just wanted to let him know how it felt."

Marlene sighed and twisted water out of her hair over the tub. "Oh, baby... I think he knows. Now it's a matter of damage control."

"But what about. . ." Damali let her words trail off as she helped Marlene to sit so she could begin to apply healing creams to her skin.

"You dance," Marlene said simply.

"Dance?" Damali chuckled. "Yep. You dance, you investigate, you take your time to decide. You learn, you cry, you laugh, you sample--I ain't telling you what you should do with your body, you're grown. Lord knows," Marlene chuckled, "I sampled. Uhmph, uhmph, uhmph, did I sample in my day."

They both laughed.

"You find out what you need to know, then if you want to, you come on home," Marlene murmured. "Just know that if you take the risk, home as you knew it might not still be there. So you ask yourself, are you ready to put it all on red? Whatever you do, you're gonna still be mine. Whatever you do, you're gonna still have options. I just don't want to see you do whatever you do, brazen, tacky, spiteful, or mean. Even if you switch dance partners, there's a way to do it respectfully."

Marlene made Damali look up by finding her chin with the soft pad of her index finger. "That's not for them, honey. That's for you. So you can sleep at night without any negative karma adding to the weight of your world. That's not weak, that's quiet, serene, regal, goddess strength. Understand? Always be a queen, even while quietly sampling... with discretion."

Damali covered Marlene's hand with her own and allowed her eyes to slide shut as she sat at Marlene's withered feet on the tile floor. Slowly her head went to Marlene's lap, in tribute, in homage for the wisdom that had been imparted. Quiet tears added to the white bathwater that had absorbed into Marlene's towel. Older, gentle female hands stroked weariness and confusion from her mind without magic.

"There is no one on the Neteru Council who compares to you, Queen Mother," Damali whispered. "Thank you."

The sound of Carlos's hysterical voice oddly fused with Cain's belting out a foreign name made Damali leave Marlene and Shabazz's side. "I have to go," Damali said quickly.

Shabazz stood up fast from the wicker bedroom chair, but glanced at Marlene, who remained relaxed in bed.

"I'll be all right. This is where you should be, not down on the beach," Damali said, trying to keep her voice even and calm.

Shabazz nodded once Marlene had nodded.

Damali exited quickly, shut the door quietly, and then tore from the room, her bare footfalls echoing against the Spanish tiles. White walls, terra-cotta, brilliant yellows within the massive hacienda became one blur as she headed for the beach. Sleepy teammates opened bedroom doors, but she held up her hand, saying nothing, just signaling for them to stand down. This was personal.

Two male backs stood on the shore with outstretched arms, voices pleading toward something in the distance. They turned in unified slow motion, both holding an apology in their eyes.

"She'll die," Cain whispered. "I have to go get her."

Carlos was already waist deep in the surf. "D, it's not what you think. She doesn't deserve to go out like that!"

Damali watched, remaining very still as Cain closed his eyes, balled up his fists, and an orb of strobe light entered it. The muscles within his massive shoulders contracted, and rippled down his forearm as he drew it back and then hurled the light in his fist.

Awe claimed her as the orb went out from him, becoming a tiny-speck, then he snatched the air, and a blue-white energy line appeared between the faraway orb and his palms. Instantly, he wound it around his fist several times, and turned to Carlos.

"Grab the line and hold her, she's strong," Cain ordered, yanking on the beam of light.

To Damali's utter fascination, a huge, pearl-scaled serpent leapt from the waters, twisted like a snared marlin, its pinkish iridescence gleaming in the bright rays of the orange dawn. Her attention immediately to Carlos, who was holding the line with both hands, being dragged deeper into the sea, his feet digging into wet sand as Cain went farther. out, planted his feet, and grabbed a section of the light line and pulled hard. Then both men fell as the line snapped. "I did not feed properly! I cannot sustain her weight in this infernal atmosphere," Cain shouted, his hot glare on Carlos as they both jumped up sputtering. "She no longer trusts me. If she dies, it is on your head!"

Damali ran to the water's edge. "Who is she? If I can--"

Before she could get the statement out, Cain winced, his head jerking to the side, and then his shoulders slumped. Both she and Carlos watched in horror as he backed away from the water and wrapped his arms around himself.

She'd never seen an expression as stricken as Cain looked at her, silver tears forming in his eyes, and then his gaze left hers for the water.

Cain sucked in a huge, trembling breath and stepped backward until he was on the dry sand, just shaking his head. Carlos was still in the water as Cain dropped to his knees, opened his arms, and a slow, gentle vibration exited his body.

Carlos stumbled to the beach and went to Damali's side, she only yards from Cain. Then slowly a limp, battered dragon filled Cain's arms, weighing them down as he stroked its head and buried his face against its still chest.

"Why did you not listen... I was still your friend." Cain's soft sob became muffled against the creature's breast. His wide shoulders shook as he tried to lift her heavy body from the sand.

"Aw... shit, man... I'm sorry," Carlos said quietly, tears now filling his eyes as he left Damali's side to squat down. "Maybe we can feed her... get her over to Nod to regen. Man, she's good people, I never--"

"Do not speak to me," Cain whispered between his teeth, his gaze deadly, as Carlos slowly withdrew. "Do you know how many years she has been my friend? Do you understand how hard I tried to always keep her safe and unharmed? I know she is good. I know her gentle heart. I know her inquisitive mind." He looked down at the creature in his arms and kissed her forehead. "I know."

A pearl rolled out of the dragon's mouth and stopped at Damali's feet. She and Carlos stared at it.

"Pick it up," Cain whispered, nuzzling the fallen creature. "A gift from the sea from Zehiradangra. An exchange for her invasion of what she believed to be yours. A dragon's apology, Damali. Accept it, she meant no harm." Cain looked up at Carlos. "Your seduction did this to her. You could have had her without her death on your hands. I am going home to bury her as she should be in Nod."

Damali grasped the pearl and held it tightly in her fist, dropping to her knees beside Cain. "The Caduceus. Take it with you. See if once she's ether, maybe? Try," she urged in a desperate whisper. "Just like Marlene. I showed you. Hurry before she's not been breathing too long." She materialized the golden staff in her unclenched fist and held it out for Cain to accept.

Cain nodded, gently lowered the she-dragon to the sand, and stood over the lifeless serpent body, a leg on either side of the huge beast. He quietly accepted the staff, his eyes holding Damali's, lingering for a moment, and then he drove the golden, healing rod into the sand near the fallen. "If it works, I will hold this gift as a debt to you in my soul for a lifetime, Damali. I will return it to you with everything else that I own."

She nodded, wiped her face, and stepped back as a blue-white brilliance made her and Carlos squint. She watched Cain grab the edges of nothingness, fold it around him, the staff, and the dragon at his feet like a cloak, and disappear.

For a long while she and Carlos said nothing as they stared out toward the sea trying to comprehend all that they'd seen. But the moment she heard him draw a breath to speak, she spun on him.

"Don't even say it," she said in a low, threatening tone. From some unknown place within her, a master switch got flipped, the slow, steady whine of turbine rage began to spiral within her, gaining velocity until it made her limbs tremble with repressed fury--she knew any moment, she was likely to blow. Don't let him take me there, Jesus, I'm not responsible. Not today.

"It wasn't supposed to go down like this," Carlos replied solemnly, merely shaking his head as he glanced at her and then at the seashell-strewn shore. Damali opened her fist and almost wept as she stared at the strange, pinkish-white, iridescent pearl in her palm. "What did you do . . ." she said so quietly that he looked at her and became nearly paralyzed, "to make this woman feel like she had to fucking die, Carlos, to go after an apology gift like this?" She shook her head and closed her hand over the pearl, not sure if she should keep it out of respect for the sacrifice it contained, or just pitch it back into the turquoise blue sea.

"Damali, it's not what you think, and I feel more awful about it than you'll ever know. She was good people, D. She wasn't just some stray... it all happened when I was trying to get out of Nod. I wasn't--"

"You played with her mind and broke her heart, Carlos. That's what had to--"

"Naw, that's not it, not what happened," he said quickly, trying to defend himself as he raked his hair, unable to withstand her gaze. "She was his main woman and--"

"No," Damali said coolly. "She was his friend. She was no less friend to him than Tara is to you. They weren't lovers, but yes, he loved her dearly. She was family to him. Did you see the look on that man's face?"

"D, wake up! That was his main woman in Nod, that's why the brother was so broken up. Aw'ight. I feel like shit about what happened to her, but if we gonna talk facts, let's put it all out on the table."

"Yeah, let's do that," Damali said, her tone brittle enough to snap. Her voice had escalated to a level she hadn't intended, but so help her, if Carlos Rivera told her another lie... "Because I'll tell you what happened. The short version, since I'm not blind. You finally do some foul shit that I just can't live with. So then I decide that maybe it's time for me to go see what else, is out here in the world, because I don't have to take this crap from you--so you get all jealous, jacked up, start sweating me, and have a problem when some other man, an honorable one, I might add, steps to me--and then you get mad because I don't back him up as hard as you think I should. Yeah, I said it," she added, her head now bobbing with her words as her arms slowly folded. "So you run that old 'fair exchange is no robbery' vamp bullshit, and pull this girl, a dragon no less, and do her in the man's house, then put her in harm's way for spite, just to let him know you still got it like that, and--"

"You are so off base, Damali, it ain't even funny!" He walked away from her and spun on her, pointing when she dashed behind him in fury. "You got a helluva nerve, anyway. In the throat! In earshot of me and the family? What was that shit, D? Are you crazy? I've never--"

"What! You never what? Oh, puhlease, I know you ain't going there!" She held up her hand. "We're done. Period. End of story. Ain't nobody ever died because I slept with 'em. I don't have a string of suicidal men pearl diving for me, okaaay! What I need is somebody older, stable, not crazy, not off da hook, not--"

"You think that motherfucker is stable and I'm not? Are you crazy?"

Carlos shouted back, sputtering, his blood pressure spiking so hard and fast it made his ears ring and his face burn hot. "Does he know that you're the one who took off his old man's head? Do you realize who ha family is on his daddy's side, girl? You--" "Who are you calling a girl?"

Before he could speak, she'd slapped the taste out of his mouth. Before he could turn his head back to look at her, she'd unsheathed her verbal blade and was going for more blood.

"How many bitches, Carlos?" She shrieked. "How many? What variety? What did you make out there in the street that I don't know about?" She was screaming so hard, her voice became hoarse. Spit was flying with every word. Internal fury imploded, became flashpoint mist, zigzagged through her gray matter at maximum velocity, arced over rational synapses, slammed a mental wall, burned up her windpipe and vocal cords, cracked a heart valve and blew. "How many? Tell me! When does it end? The Light didn't fry the bullshit out of you, did it?"

The presence of Guardians gathering at the front of the hacienda didn't matter. The train wreck was unraveling before their eyes in slow motion, but she didn't have the emergency breaks to stop herself. The box cars just kept piling up, skidding, sparking along twisted logic tracks. "The last time I had to go through this with you, Carlos, it was a Guardian that I now have to live with! Before that, it was something on four legs in the Amazon! Damned vampire hoes up in the clubs--who knows where you and Yonnie go? Probably to lay some snake booty up at Gabrielle's! I don't trust your ass as far as I can throw you! No, cancel that, I can throw your ass farther than I trust you!"

She wasn't rational as she screamed, but didn't care. Too much sly Scorpio water had gone under her bridge to hold it back. She could feel rage bubbling, practically turning to steam within her so quickly she feared she might evaporate.

"Now a fucking dragon bit you," she railed, leaning forward so far that she almost fell as she fussed, fists raised. "So you think I'ma let you drop fang on me before your sneaky ass gets tested, huh? Girl. Girl? Oh. I got your girl right here in my fist--you no good, lying, pussy-chasing. Neteru-frontin' vampire bastard!"

He backed away from her, sniffing up the blood that tried to ooze out of his nose after the hard blow she'd landed and licked his split lip, his eyes pure silver rage. "Hit me again, hear? I'm tired of that shit, D. Least I ain't fall in love with nobody... what was that? Huh?"

"That's the best you can say to me? That's all you have to say? Yeah, and I'ma tell you why, because I ain't doooo nuthin' like you did!" She opened her arms, screamed, stomped her feet on the sand, and began walking in a circle. "Father God, help me, stay my hand, oh Lord, I'll kill him!"

"I don't have to explain nothing, D! You're the one who needs to tell me what's going on! I ain't have my shit all up in the family house, ain't get busted--"

"What, whaaat? Wait, wait, wait a damned minute," she said, singing it out, waving one hand with the pearl clutched in the other as evidence. "Oh, whose house didn't you have what in? Oh, you didn't get caught wrong, dead, busted, up in nobody's house? Right? Come again?"

"No, see, see, uh uh, you going backward into the past, D! We talking about today, right here, right now, the bite--explain that to me!" he shouted, slapping the center of his chest hard. "Me. Your husband! The man who loves you. Tell me how in the hell some man who's supposed to be energy-depleted can do what we just saw Cain do on the beach and go home at will--unless his ass got a little more than a sip. Tell me-- the man who walked through Hellfire for you and back--what? No words? Now you ain't got no comeback? No explanation, right? I ain't crazy, ain't blind! What the fuck went on out there in the woods, Damali?"

"Oh, you want an explanation, I got your explanation," she said in an unnaturally calm voice. Rage within her mind had gone so far over the top that she was standing outside her own body, speaking, witnessing some other crazed woman eviscerate some guy she used to know--she was going for his scrotum this time, so help her God. It was like watching a stage play.

Damali stared at the man before her. Carlos was nearly snorting fire as he waited for her to say .something. Then she thought of the she-dragon's bite and almost blacked out from the fury spike.

"Unlike you," she said, seething, her words so loaded they quaked as they slipped between her teeth, "my explanation is sound, not a buncha rhetoric mixed up with a pack of lies."

"Den say whatchu gotta say, woman," Carlos replied through a silver glare, his arms wide, his expression arrogant, as he leaned forward and his voice took a falsely calm, sarcastic dip. "You're right, you ain't no little girl no more--you all woman now, so be a woman and say whatchugotta say You grown, sho' you right. So don't be all dramatic, stalling for theatrical impact--spit it out, since you gonna tell me something about how that bite went down and make me understand the unthinkable."

"That," Damali said coolly, her eyes narrowed, her tone slow and dangerous, "was a woman, making new choices, because she finally got tired of drama and dumb shit and she decided to let your ass twist." Her statement had come out so evenly and so cold that for a moment he froze then slowly lowered his arms.

"That thing out there that happened, the unthinkable--as you call it--was what happened when this woman finally got to see that your ass ain't the baddest mutha in the valley, ain't got the smoothest game or fang entry, and now knows that there's somebody else out there who can obviously whip the power better than you--you've seen him work. The brother's got skillz, baby. And honor to go along with it. He knows how and when to put his hands on a woman, has patience, discipline, and doesn't have to tag everything that gets in his face. So when he brings something down, he brings it down righteous. Doesn't cuss... is smooth. Can be a female's friend without doing her, but if he wants to be more than a friend, saying no is a hard word to dredge out of a woman's vocabulary. Okay. Is that enough of an explanation for you? Did I mention he can sing? You've seen his spot; is there something else you need me to clarify? 'Cause if there is, lemme know."

She sucked her teeth and straightened her back. "Sorry, my bad, baby, I couldn't help myself 'cause I'm only human. So, when I got out there, hey. It didn't mean nothin', though. Don't dwell on it. You know I love you."

She waited patiently for him to say something else to her. Yeah, bring it. But to her surprise, Carlos's shoulders relaxed, the silver left his eyes and tears filled them instead, but they didn't fall. He just straightened his posture, nodded, and walked away.

Uh, oh... She knew there was this invisible line that the old girls had all told her about, but until this very moment, she wasn't sure where it was. She had no map, but now that she was here, she was inadvertently standing in the middle of the land of "never say certain things to your man."

Older married female Guardians had warned her not to go there; but her female vamp friend had said check it out, and she did-- thought it might be a day trip, not a place of no return. Both sets of advisors had been right in their own way... but this strangely quiet, eerily serene place bordered on the perimeter of "never throw it in his face," another man's prowess.

She now saw with her own eyes that the river that flowed through it was the river of "you can't take it back, girl, once it's been said." Hell's Sea of Perpetual Agony was a wading pool compared to that muddy river, or maybe just a tributary that fed it. She wasn't sure which as she watched Carlos drowning in it. He went down without breathing, each cement-weighted step a thud as he walked toward the hacienda and saw that the family had witnessed it all. That's when he submerged and lowered his head.

Oh, Lord, this place where she'd tripped to was a bountiful terrain, with trees of knowledge, weeping willows, that dropped the fruit of "girl he's cut to the bone--are you crazy," at your feet. The road back was blocked by boulders, heavy words, pride, wounded ego, the air supercharged by scorching glares and deep hurt. No extraction team possible, once there you were on your own. Steep mountains surrounded this very surreal frontier: Mt. Say You're Sorry Before It's Too Late, Mt. He Ain't Neva-Gonna Be the Same, Mt. Why'd You Go There... while female buzzards circled crushed male bones in the valley... his. Damali cringed.

Oh, shit... This no-man's zone didn't have atmosphere, no air for a woman's lungs, not if she was still in love but just angry. This was no place to be stranded if you still cared. She struggled to inhale slow breaths and began to feel weightless. Heaven help her, she'd gone too far.

This place was a very small speck in the cosmos, but loaded by mines that could nova and terminate a once-fertile world. Damned if she didn't tap dance over all it. Big border breach. Oh, shit... mortal wound. Okay, okay, okay... yeah, he'd had it coming, but why did she feel so awful once he'd dropped his blade in total defeat? Her heart pounded as her mind hollered after him: Fight your way out of it, baby, you know how we do! This one just got a little rough, I was pissed off, that's all.

The sweet taste of verbal victory was bitter and the TKO hollow, just as Marlene had promised. Damah briefly closed her eyes and sheathed her sharpest blade behind her pursed lips.

"All right," she finally shouted at Carlos's retreating back as he loped toward the house. Why did she suddenly want to cry? "My bad. Maybe

I went too far, but you have, too, and you have no right to be getting an attitude about anything I do, after all you've done!"

He didn't turn around. Didn't hold up his hand to stop her words, like old times or old fights. Didn't defend himself or hesitate or stop plodding toward the house. Her legs almost functioned on autopilot from her heart, but her pride kept overriding the bleating command to go to him and apologize on her knees. During the seconds of internal battle, while her wounded ego replayed all that he'd done wrong, her heart cancelled out each offense. But the contest was relentless, his wrongs leapt up, her rights stood to meet the challenge, his offenses versus hers dueled for dominance in her mind. Yet it was a draw. Still this wasn't a practice bout with dull blades, or a sparring match with head gear and mouthpieces. This time somebody got hurt.

Damali watched in quiet panic as Carlos quietly slipped into the house to bleed to death alone.

Stricken team Guardians stood on verandas. Marlene hung her head and closed the shutters to her window. Shabazz solemnly went back into the house. Rider sat down heavily on the steps like he'd been punched. Berkfield and Big Mike simultaneously ran slow palms over their bald scalps. The youngbloods shook their heads and disappeared without a word. Jose just looked at her as though his throat had been cut. Female teammates stood in shock, seeming unsure whether or not they should go toward her or let the mortally wounded rest in peace. The two new females quietly retreated as though they'd seen it all before and were ashamed to witness it here. Juanita's eyes held silent horror as she turned like a zombie, passed Jose without looking at him, and numbly walked back into the house. Sudden knowledge. The family would never be the same.

Marjorie stood like a statue, her wide eyes brimming, her hands twisting the bottom of her blouse. The cornerstones of the family had shifted out of place and crumbled. The entire pyramid was in jeopardy of fatal collapse. There was no mortar left between any of the bricks. The Caduceus was in Nod, but there were bodies all over the beach here that needed healing... yet she was no healer, she'd been fire, raw fury, a tongue tempest. Carlos had been no healer, he'd been a raging ocean, a nonrespecter of the fragile flora and fauna of emotions within the delicate ecosystem of the house.

How could they close a rip in the fabric of the universe, when they couldn't even close what had begun as a series of small tears until it became an energy-diffusing gulf that just sucked everyone in the household through it into a void? She didn't even know where to begin. Damali took a walk down to the water line and simply stared at the sea.

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