Malibu, California Damali stared into the bathroom mirror as she brought the towel down from her damp face. Suddenly, out of nowhere, the past slithered through her. Everything that Carlos had ever done wrong came to life within her mind like a hot coal burning the good memories away.

"You can run but you can't hide," she told herself quietly, and took her time puttering around in the tiled sanctuary with the door closed.

She didn't feel like making love to Carlos this morning. Not after what she'd finally come to understand, and not after it had had time to fully sink in. Things like this took a minute to germinate in one's soul. The awareness left her feeling like doing nothing at all. Numbness threaded through her and left her very sad. Weary. In fact, all she wanted to do was to go home--back to her own place in Beverly Hills.

The emotion had crept up on her by degrees. In the midst of battle when she'd faced her man's other half, the dark side of him, she'd seen horrible images hurling at her. But she'd paid them no mind, then. Going up against a serious demon presence would send every, and anything, into one's mind, so a sister had to be strong, ignore it, laugh at the bullshit. That's what she'd done. Then.

Once she and the team had handled their business--and thankfully all of them had made it out of that madness alive--it was about a party, a celebration of life. They'd won.

Damali peered at the shut door as she sat down slowly on the edge of the wide, midnight-blue porcelain Jacuzzi and began applying the butter to her skin. Suddenly she wanted to cry as much as she had a fight surge roiling inside her.

After the party came a month of pure indulgence in her apexing Neteru's arms. Heaven. Heart-stopping, mind-melting, time- altering, mad-crazy lovemaking day and night until it didn't make any kinda sense. What was there to think about, then? The powerful jolt from his sexy pheromones kept anything out of her head, except getting with him and enjoying every moment of it. She'd almost eloped with him, being so swept up in the passion of it all. They'd only waited a few so that Father Patrick could get back from Rome and they could do the thing proper with their beloved priest, who was like a real father to Carlos.

Damali closed her eyes. Tears wet her lashes. Maybe she should have just gone ahead and married him and not waited. Time was kicking her ass now. The cold light of day was real ugly and she could no longer escape the fleeting impressions that had gradually become too clear and full blown within her mental sight.

It was so unfair, and the rational part of her had diagnosed her problem with logical detachment. By all rights, she knew she couldn't blame him. He'd been under the influence. For several days she'd repeatedly reminded herself of that fact. But the emotional part of her being still had major issues. Her unspent rage seemed to come out of nowhere, which was the crazy part.

And it all. happened in a slow dissolve of her reality as Carlos's apex ebbed, and the spiking hormone levels in her body dissipated to a dull roar. Snatches of information had come back to her third eye with a vengeance. Things no woman should ever see her man do, foul behavior that had been previously blocked within her head was loosed. This was worse than the were-demon incident, to her way of thinking. Oddly, she could live with that and she didn't really go there in her mind. But this thing with a Guardian sister... family, such as it were, was too messed up. Too close to home, literally.

The thing that hurt so much about what she'd witnessed was the fact that the only reason it had happened at all was because he'd defied a direct angelic command... which had tethers to the fact that he'd been so resentful of her command, her position, and the fact that for even a little while, she'd been the one in charge. That hurt. That was how he'd been seduced to prematurely act, contagion or not, it was at the core of his being. That was what had put him in a position of being nearly compromised beyond redemption. And once his brief possession by the unthinkable occurred, he did things under the influence that were horrible.

More than anything else, she also knew that, even possessed, the dark side worked with what was already looming within the shadowy sections of the human spirit. All it did was bring those things to the fore with a vengeance.

Carlos had been angry at Yonnie, way down deep, for making a pass at her. He'd been conflicted and upset with Tara, for Rider's sake and for Yonnie's, and all the dark possession did was elevate it and bring it out in its worst form; he'd wanted her to choose clearly and decisively to end the drama between two of his closest friends. He owed Jose and loved him like a brother, but had still been pissed off at Jose's attention, his silent love-jones, and the blanket--going after Juanita made sense while possessed. Nasty Scorpio bastard.

Most of all, Carlos had been furious with her for still being the team's most seasoned Neteru, and not wanting to get married or to conceive right away... so, while "under the influence," as Carlos called it, he'd set out to punish her--even though he loved her... even while possessed. The demon had a stranglehold on him through his deepest, darkest insecurities, much the same way a man who loves his wife beats her to be sure she stays with him. Insanity.

His twisted goal while possessed had been to break her back, spiritually. Paralyze her ego, stomp what he perceived as her arrogance, and snuff out her inner light. Making a baby with Juanita would have done that until the end of time. The more she really thought about it, that he would go there, even under the influence, rubbed a raw spot in her heart until it bled.

Damali drew a shuddering breath as she applied more cream onto her body with harder strokes. That was worse than the physical act of Juanita giving him head on her back deck, oddly enough. She could rationalize that as the actual demon, not Carlos. But what she couldn't forgive at the moment was that he'd had so much quiet rage toward her within him that he couldn't control the demon--hellfire notwithstanding... because she could. Had done it for a long time, had sucked up all his mad-crazy drama, but never had Succumbed to doing anything, for any reason, that would have carved his heart out of his chest... even when she could have, even while she'd been fully infected with demonic contagion and standing on a beach in Jose's arms. She'd backed off and made a choice, and said no.

An eerie sense of betrayal had filled her. Over the last three days, nagging bouts of insecurity had coated her inner being with a new, virulent level of anger and jealousy like she'd never known. She'd found herself becoming clingy at times--something so not her that it frightened her more than any demon she'd encountered. Her? The Neteru? Clingy? What was up with that?

If she'd brought this to Marlene, and she never would, she knew Mar-lene would tell her to focus, get still, and meditate on the sensation not the incident, to see if there was some new threat that she and the team should be aware of. Marlene would also tell her that forgiveness was divine, and to pray on it. She'd done that.

Her sensory awareness didn't register any immediate pending doom. The Divine wasn't lifting the burden from her heart, either. It sat there like a dull, heavy stone, making her occasionally sigh for no reason, out of the blue. Her inner vision had become a mental torture chamber, providing no answers, just a rehashing of what had happened. What she saw instead of a demonic threat was nothing that she could kill or justifiably beat down without violating every law of Ma'at. That's when the arguments had started in earnest.

A light tap on the door made Damali jerk her focus up to stare at it. Damn straight, Carlos had better not just waltz in or blow into the bathroom on her without permission to enter.

"Yeah," she said, becoming surly at the invasion. Damali went back to applying the cream to her calves. The man needed to stay out of her face this morning, if he knew what was good for him.

Carlos peeked in and then slowly came into the large, brightly sunlit room with her. She watched him lean on the sink and send his line of vision toward nothing in particular. He had on black silk boxers. Whatever. His ass needed to get dressed. She wasn't interested.

For a moment, Carlos hesitated by the sink. He stared at Damali, seeing the light around her body as a dull, gray covering that was growing darker by the second. Pure alarm filled him. Something was wrong with his woman. Then he watched as a dark orb exited the base of her skull and dissipated. He started at the sight of it. She was looking down and furiously slathering cream on her legs. Maybe it was the final contagion purging out of her system... or maybe it was the final dark blockage he'd placed there leaving. It could be a good thing that it was finally gone, or a bad one--the problem was he wasn't sure. But her darkening aura couldn't be a good sign.

"You still leaving today?" he asked quietly, trying to feel her out before launching into his observation. "I can take you home so you don't have to drive."

"The road will do me good," she said, not looking at him as she put shea butter on her elbows. "Fresh air will clear my head."

He didn't say anything, and then let his breath out hard. The room seemed to be growing darker around them; hopefully it was just his imagination. He glanced out the window, quickly studying the clouds to see if that was all it was. The last thing he wanted to do was to set her off again about what had happened in Arizona, but as his mind tried to take a different path and his mouth tried to form a different sentence, the subject he vowed he'd never bring up came out instead.

"Listen, D, that thing that happened between me and Juanita in Arizona--"

"Oh, you mean that foul shit that went down in my house?" Her tone was salty as she stared at him hard for a moment and then went back to her original task, serving him pure attitude. "I know. You were under the influence. You told me, I got it, we discussed it to death. There's nothing more to say about it."

"That wasn't me--"

"Right. I keep forgetting that it was your evil twin," she said, sucking her teeth.

He rubbed his palms down his face and sighed, frustration adding tightness to his voice. What was wrong with her? What was wrong with them?

"You know what happened when I made that attempt to get the book. I got possessed for a few, but if that hadn't gone down, I wouldn't have... baby, what I'm saying is, the shit wouldn't have gotten crazy... and I know you're still feeling some type of way about it and--"

"Oh, yeah," she said with a brittle chuckle. "I am definitely still feeling some type of way."

"So am I," he said quickly, feeling his pulse race and not sure why. He glanced around the bathroom and then focused on her aura. It was now almost blackened with flecks of eerie, static-charged filaments running through it. "Baby, your coloring is off, so is the light around you. This isn't us, not how we roll. I need to get you diagnosed by Marlene, or something... just like you told me back then, when I had my run-in with Level Seven."

She didn't move or speak; he didn't move or speak. All he wanted to know was where this conversation was going and what the darkness was that entombed her. Okay, she didn't have a blade on her. Good.

However, he could see her losing control of all reason second by millisecond. Fury radiated in her aura the longer he stood in the same space with her. It was as though black lightning was coursing through her normally silvery glow, making it take an unnerving dark turn. Her tense expression and jerky movements while applying cream to her body said everything. What had happened?

As he tried to think of what he could say to her, he knew the change within her had occurred in painful waves over a course of days. It was as though the sudden awareness hit him all at once.

At first she'd been stunned numb when the full memory came back again, and had then cried bitter tears when it all washed over her as sensations. They both did when he confessed, only after she knew for sure and wouldn't let it rest. She'd soaked in his explanation too hurt to even speak. Having to tell her something like that, and to see the look of horrified disbelief on her face, was the thing that had brought him to tears. Sobs, to be exact. She'd taken his vampiric turn better than that.

Then she became somber, as though someone had died--maybe they had. Then she asked fifty million questions, trying to understand and wrap her mind around the phenomena... made him relive it in excruciating detail, impression by impression until he was almost ready to walk. But he couldn't; she had the right to know. Then she had become calm and psychiatric and seemingly resigned over breakfast. He'd thought the storm had passed. Thought the poison was out of her system and the stone between them had rolled away. Thought it was over. She'd even made love to him once after that... he was sure, then, that she was cool... even though she was a little more subdued than he would have liked--which made him wary and a little nervous. But it was all too clear now, her ass was still mad as hell.

"I knew it would have to come out, surface, sooner or later," he finally said.

"You know what they say," she replied casually and still not looking at him. "A lie will always out, Carlos. The Light has a provision to ensure that happens sooner or later." "It wasn't a lie; I just didn't speak on it because I didn't want to--" "An omission of truth. Oh, that makes a difference." She looked up at him for a moment before glancing back down at the shea butter.

"I knew you'd have to let it run its course to get out of your system and all, and once it did we'd be back to normal. You know I wasn't trying to hurt you, baby." His voice was near pleading as he mentally fought with the harshness in her eyes. Yeah, there was something else going on than a regular argument. Had to be. Damali had never looked at him like that, and he'd never found himself feeling so totally unable to explain his position.

"I'd never intentionally do that, and you know it," he said after a pause to find the right words, his tone logical but containing hurt. "It wasn't supposed to go down like that. Of all the battles we've been in together, I know that more than a blade, something like this would cut your heart out and drive a wedge between us--so you know I wouldn't do that to us, boo. Right? You know that. So, this was their side just going for our foundation, our Achilles' heel, D. Don't let 'em mess with your head like that, all right?" He slapped the center of his chest to make his point. "It's me and you, baby. Always has been, right? Always will be, right?"

When she didn't answer the last and most critical questions he'd asked, he really began to sweat. "Damali, baby, listen, you can't stay mad about this forever. It was a demon transgression. You and I have a lot of road ahead of us... we can't be allowing nonsense to get between us like that. I didn't actually sleep with her--I mean, it was sex, but it wasn't sex, you feel me? It was more like foreplay, not real sex--"


She'd looked up at him so slowly and had spoken so softly that he began talking faster and backing up.

"It wasn't the Full Monty, boo, like you know it can go down, and uh, what I'm sayin' is, mi tresora, you're my heart and treasure, girl, and you can't be concentrating on a lapse that wasn't really me. Right?"

"I'm cool," she said in a falsely upbeat tone. "It all checks out metaphysically. A dark entity overtook you, it was a spirit attachment, a parasite that made you do things to a lot of people you shouldn't have. The thing is over, so, hey. I'm cool."

He stared at her hard, knowing she was anything but cool. "Then why are you still leaving?"

"Because I've got things to do--like get back to my music? for one. For two, I don't live here and need to be in my own, unadulterated, unblemished, never transgressed by a foul deed, house. My space." She set the shea butter down hard on the edge of the tub and stood, bringing her hands to her hips. "And, three, because I feel like it and I'm grown. Do I need any more reason than that?"

"The Bible says to forgive and forget," he replied quietly, pain shimmering in his tone. "Don't do this, Damali."

"Now you're going to go biblical on me? About this? Puhlease." She shook her head and strode toward the door. "What does it say in the Bible about letting some sister suck your dick on my back deck after you defied a direct order from On High? Forgive and forget? Okay. I ain't mad, and it wasn't sex--so we cool, ain't nothing to discuss. Right?"

He was on her heels as she shrugged away from his attempt to grab her by the elbow. "How you gonna hold me accountable for-- "

"Don't touch me," she said quickly, holding up both of her hands and glaring at him. "Not until I say so."

"Aw'ight, aw'ight," he said, holding up his hands to match her stance so she could pass. "I'm sorry. I just want to talk to you. Okay, baby? There's something dark around you that I just saw come out in this--"

"You can cut the 'baby' crap. My name is Damali."

"Aw'ight, my bad." He had to get through to her, get her mind focused on the, potential threat. "Let's just talk, for real. Let's get this thing worked out, girl," he said, his voice faltering as he watched her cross the room. "I don't want you blaming me for something that I really couldn't control. You've got something trying to attach to you--been there, and I know what I'm talking about. This time, D, you need to listen to what I'm saying." Carlos folded his arms over his chest. "You have to stop blaming me, get past the hurt, and stop thinking this was--"

"I'm not blaming you," she said, snatching up her underwear and trying to step into them without removing her towel.

He just watched her. She was covering her body from him? After all they'd been through and done with each other? Now she didn't want him to see her naked? This was really bad and had kicked it up a dangerous notch. Whatever had come out of her head, had taken something with it.

"Baby, listen--"

"No, you listen," she said, her voice beginning to escalate. "What would happen if I had an aberrant moment and lost my damned mind, huh? What if some tall, fine, ridiculously sexy brother opened my nose for a minute while under the so-called influence, and let's say, I had sex

that really wasn't sex because I didn't go all the way, but would have if I could have--and mighta gotten pregnant, too, if my Guardian brother hadn't walked up on me, and I had nearly busted a nut for him and did it in your house or your lair, and whatnot, and was ready to have a baby for him but didn't have time to really get my swerve on correct, so I postponed that vibe only because of time, not commitment? Feel me?"

"I was possessed, baby, I swear," he said holding his hands out in front of him, imploring her to relent and to give him another chance to explain. "I just saw that dark smoke exit you, so it's got your thinking jacked! That's why I cut that motherfucker's head off, all right? I'd never make a baby with nobody but you, mi corazon. C'mon, now, D, this is me you're talking to. You sound crazy. You ain't making sense, girl; don't go there. Let's just calm down, discuss this rationally. We'll work this out, together, and go see Mar to purge you righteous, and things will be fine."

Damali began walking around the room to put the bed between them so she could yank on her jeans and shirt under the shield of her towel. She gave him her back as she pulled on her tank top and snatched off her towel in one deft move without allowing him to see her breasts. "Say he was a warlock and put a spell on me, or it was a fine voodoo priest that whipped down some dark ritual that blew my mind. Would you be okay with it when I came out of the haze?"

"Yeah," Carlos said, louder than he'd wanted, "because it wouldn't be your fault!"

"If you saw it, you could just shake the image out of your mind with no problem? It wouldn't take a little while for the impressions to fade, for the thing eating at your brain and your heart to go away?" She nodded and chuckled angrily. "The Carlos Rivera would just be smooth, wouldn't care if his woman arched her back and called another man's name? Gave up the cold-blooded puss--"

"Damali, it wasn't like that and you know it! You're not being fair."

She glared at him, wanting to just unload a full clip of verbal obscenities at him like rounds from a semiautomatic, but was so suddenly enraged that for a moment she couldn't speak. His eyes held a frantic quality that she oddly enjoyed. Let him twist. She knew it was sick, but hurt fury had a grip on her logic that was unraveling by the second. She wasn't sure what about any of it hurt her more, the fact that he'd ignored an angelic command and once again had gotten himself jacked up in a situation that they'd all had to figure out how to live with, or the mere fact that he hadn't been strong enough at the core to not do something to their relationship that would damage the one thing that had been rock solid between them--trust. Instantly she decided that it was all of the above.

"Fuck you trying to tell me about some black smoke coming out of my head. It's probably coming out of my ears, too, from being so damned mad at you, Carlos! If the same thing happened to me, you'd be off in a lair somewhere, alone, licking your male ego wounds, with me having to beg you to come back to me. You'd have me on my fucking hands and knees groveling to make it right, explaining over and over again every detail of how it happened, why it happened, swearing on a stack of Bibles that it would never, and could never, ever, ever happen again."

"No, I wouldn't," he said, now pointing at her, "because that weakness that got me fucked around in the first place is gone, D!" He stepped toward her, head tilted to the side, ready to go to war over the principle. "I know who I am now, the male Neteru." He pounded both fists against his chest. "No bullshit is ever gonna make me doubt the Light again. I'm not ever gonna be unclear about my powers, you got that? I refuse to go backward, I'm going forward, and this time there's something messing with you--but your ass is too arrogant to accept that just maybe you ain't invincible." He leaned in toward her. "You ever consider that, D? Ever think about the fact that that's how I got messed up? Your best bet is to learn from my big mistake, rather than try to rub my nose in it. I ain't no puppy, or no newbie, D."

She pointed at him and then drew her hand away quickly to press her palm against her stomach while willing her voice not to crack. "You'd be so hurt, Carlos," she whispered. "You'd wanna know, 'Baby, how'd it take your mind like that--how'd it get inside the black box of me and you?' And . . ."

Damali briefly closed her eyes and two huge tears rolled down her cheeks without her consent. "And you'd want to know what was already resident within me that would have allowed it to get its claws under the lid to lift it enough to take me there." She stared at him. "The Chairman and the Harpies couldn't get into it, because at that time, the seal was tight between me and you--unbreakable. But once you felt like I was the team leader, your ego gave the core of us right to 'em on a silver platter. That's what I can't forgive. Juanita being dragged into a trance by a Level-Seven demon using your body, nah," she added, shaking her head. "That ain't what's making me put my clothes on and leave. It's not about her; it's about you. Period. I don't trust how you really feel down deep. So, tell me I'm lying. Isn't that how you'd process all of this?"

When he didn't respond fast enough to her liking, her voice took a dangerously low dip as she spoke between her teeth. "And then you'd make me TWIST, my Scorpio brother, and you know that. Don't try to confuse the issue and get out of this by talking about some black smoke you supposedly saw in the bathroom. Be real. Things would never be the same between you and me again. If we both lived to be a hundred years old, you would whip out your 'right as a man,' " she added, making little quotes around the words in the air with her fingers, "to fling a transgression of this nature in my face whenever the mood hit you. It would be the perpetual ax over my head until the end of time. The blade of Heru!"

She paced back and forth in a tight line, raking her locks. "You'd be telling me that, possession or not, I shoulda loved you so hard that something like this couldn't have happened. Then you'd be telling me some male Latino-based yang about how it's different for a man than a woman, and I'd have to give you time to sort it all out. Tell me I'm lying?"

Part of what she was saying, he knew in his soul, was the stone-cold truth. But he also knew what he'd just seen. There was black smoke. Yet for the moment, words failed him.

She stopped pacing and looked at him hard and folded her arms over her chest, breathing in hot bursts as another fury spike jolted her system. "You know that's how it would go down if the shoe were on the other foot--that's why nary a female in the house--or on the planet for that matter--can just have a lapse without having to seriously think about the chain-reaction consequences to her relationship! A woman can't just claim to have been under the influence, possessed, or whatever! But a man? Sheeit. He's a man and prone to go there anyway by nature, right! A little demon topspin to make the offense allowable; a sistah should have a heart and understand, right?"


"Save it!" Her arm snapped away from her body as she pointed at him so hard that her hand shook. "Women from fifteen to well beyond fifty, like Marlene, and Marj, and Tara, as well as Krissy, all know, don't even think about going there under any circumstances, unless you want your entire world to change--even if your man has taken a walk on the wild side for whatever reason! They didn't even forgive Eve--and that sister had encountered the fucking Duke of Darkness... but noooo.... She was wrong. She lost her career, position, powers, all sorts of jacked-up shit--they talked about her bad for one lapse, blamed her for misjudgment for centuries, and if you'd ever met her, she's the most refined, regal, def-defying lady I know! Girlfriend is awesome. But if it had been Adam, they would have said, 'Oh, he's a man--go in peace my son. You couldn't help yourself, you were possessed, tricked, lured.' Whateva, Carlos. So don't sweat me about having days or nights like this. So fuck fair--it ain't fair-- and today I ain't feeling reasonable, understanding, or fair, hear me!"

"I'd forgive you, Damali," he said quietly. He didn't know what else to say. Even in her fury, her logic was indisputable, which really worried him. "Under those circumstances, if something stronger than you'd ever run up against got into your system, I'd have to suck it up and let it go." She scowled at him and nodded. "I suppose you would," she said with a sarcastic bite. "Yeah, if you got to play the hero and save me from myself. Then your paradigm of innocent, helpless female versus the seductive monster that took my mind would hold up and you could live with that. Right," she said, nodding and rubbing her jaw like a man to rub her words into his open wound. "Sho' you right, man. Blow the motherfucker up, if it was on yo' woman. But if she was kinda sorta turned on and curious, then she's a whore. Right?"

She walked to the window and gave him her back, rolling her shoulders like a guy about to mix it up for a bar brawl. "I was raised by brothers; know how y'all think. Seen it in the house. It goes like this--if it was a dark entity and you got a chance to lop off its head, then cool. That would be different. Like a Fallon Nuit--type of thang."

Not waiting for him to respond, she spun on him when she heard him draw a breath to speak. "So, I guess the real problem I'm having is just pent-up aggression. I need to chill, right? Suck it up and let it go. Is that it? 'Cause I can't just cut off Juanita's head to make myself feel better, can I? The supposed one who did that was you or looked like you-- and you got to kill it, not me, remember? It'll be all in my face, daily, once the team gets back to business. The only thing saving my sanity is the fact that the poor woman doesn't know and doesn't remember... but she feels it. Why?"

"Damali, baby, I'm begging you--"

"She still feels it because there's something still there for her subconscious to nurse and work with--within both of you! That didn't die. Never will. It's in every glance. You looking at her, hoping she doesn't recall it and wanting to protect her from sudden, brutal knowledge-- because you defiled her and still love her down deep; her looking at you feeling a burn she can't explain... and she's more attached to you now that the old flame got fanned one mo' time. My poor damned brother, Jose, is helpless, not knowing exactly what went down and quietly praying it wasn't his worst fear... doesn't want to deal with even thinking about what mighta happened when the Devil's spawn was in you and his woman was by herself for too long. Hurt him, and I'll kick your ass for it!"

"Damali, do you hear yourself?" Carlos said, looking at her without blinking. "You're talking about kicking my ass over Jose... after what I haven't spoken on between y'all?" He walked toward her slowly, the threat in his stance implicit. "Now I know you done lost your mind."

Damali let her breath out hard as new tears rose to her eyes and her voice faltered. She lifted her chin, seeming not the least bit concerned about his outrage.

"Jose looks at me so hurt sometimes, Carlos, because he knows I have fierce second-sight, with a question in his eyes every time I see him, a question that says, 'D, we're tight, family, you would tell me if you knew, wouldn't you?' And I have to look away from those innocent eyes and play it off. I know in my soul that every time Juanita makes love to him she's still thinking about you! Jose's subconscious can feel it, too."

"Naw, Damali," Carlos said, dragging his fingers through his hair and shaking his head. "That's you projecting your own stuff onto them." He stared at her. "But if you think I need to talk to the brother that can be arranged. I'm tired of this bullshit anyway. Let's just clean house, say what's gotta be said, get everybody clear about--"

"Just stop it," she ordered, more tears coursing as she spoke. "When the two of you are in the same room--"

"Who, D? Me and Jose?" He walked in an agitated circle of disbelief.

"You and Juanita! Don't play me, Carlos. Shabazz bristles like an electric shock is running through him every time you two are in proximity--even though he never saw it! While you were apexing, I had to get you out of the compound! We couldn't even go over there to eat with everybody. The magnetic draw to you was too strong, woulda opened her memory banks, the sensuality oozing off of your ass was that bad. Freakin' Marlene just calmly shut down her third eye and is in denial, hoping this will fade back into the darkness from whence it came. I'm a tactical, and I can feel it all! Fuck you for this, Carlos. I need my space to get my head together, now that your apex rush is out of my system."

"So, the time you spent with me was purely carnal? Just because of my Neteru apex? Didn't have nothing to do with how much we love each other? Didn't have anything to do with the fact that I could forgive what freaked you out and sent you onto the damned beach and into Jose's arms for a minute?" Carlos folded his arms over his chest. "I was possessed; you weren't. I could understand and forgive that old emotions had been brewing for a long and quiet time, ran hot while your head was messed up and--" "And I didn't blow him... when he probably needed me to do that in the worst kinda way... after all those years, like you said. Don't change the subject and play with me this morning."

She folded her arms. He looked away.

"He respected you. I respected you. Both of us always have." She shrugged. "It was a kiss. Yes. We were both infected. Yes. But even with old vibes, even with all the drama of woulda, coulda, possibly shoulda-- it stopped there. Can you say the same thing?"

"That was different, Damali, and you know it. That hurt, too, because I know down deep the man loves you, and there's a part of you that loves him--always will. So a kiss meant way more than what went down during a demon possession moment. Be honest. If, with all that inside of either one of you, had you taken a tumble in a dark throne--the main one--it coulda happened. Don't act like you're so above it. So, I'ma ask you again... wasn't there anything to your staying with me these past weeks more than just an apex?" His eyes silently searched her for affirmation.

She looked away. "What did how much I love you mean when whatever you resented about me went with you and allowed them to open the box--our box, that was once lined with pure silver and filled with nothing but light?" she asked quietly.

"It's still lined with silver for you, baby," he whispered. "Still filled with pure light... now more than it ever has been." He moved to go near her, but her body tensed and he stopped where he stood. "I took its head off. Nothing like that can violate what we have again," he added quietly. "Nothing."

She smiled, but it was an angry, tight expression, not her normally dazzling one. "Only problem is, like I said, I can't just lop off Juanita's head. She's human, and on the Guardian team, at that. Lives in the compound house. And I still have to see her, and she still gives me her ass to kiss when--"

"She doesn't remember what happened, fully," he said, panic in his voice. Yes, they'd argued before, but never like this. "Baby, I've been over it a thousand times."

"If that skank reaches for you in my presence... if I even sense it, I'll--"

"She ain't gonna reach for me, D. Listen to yourself. She don't even remember what happened, and you shouldn't call her a skank. It wasn't her fault. Like you told me, we were all under the influence and reeling from the charge! She might be feeling some mild aftereffect vibe, but she's unaware of how deep it got, so don't call the sister a skank, all right. She's one of us, cool peeps, and took care of my moms and grandmom." The moment the sentence came out of his mouth, he knew he was in deeper trouble. He could feel turbine energy zinging through Damali as she cocked her head to the side.

"Wait. Let me get this right," Damali said coolly, quietly holding up one hand and then closing her eyes. "Are you standing here defending her in my face?"


"This old lover, one that still has the hots for you, even before you got possessed, and you have the nerve to question me about a guy who literally saved your life, mine, and who I'd never slept with but kissed only one time--after all he'd been through?" Damali's hands went to her hips as she leaned halfway across the bed.

Carlos backed up farther in the room. "See, now, D, that's--"

"This woman," she said, her voice rising on each word until she was

shouting in rapid-fire, broken sentences, "who, regardless of what she remembers or not... the same one who balked at my command of this team from the moment she set foot in our compound, gave me nothing but attitude way before you got possessed, and then went down on you, easily I might add, with no resistance in her. This is the chick I'm not supposed to feel any type of way about? When I could easily throw up every one of Jose's honorable deeds in your face, too, tit for tat, but this man never crossed the line, never challenged your position with me or your authority, and never went beyond the established limits! Even after you told him he could be with me, asked him to if you died, you selfish sonofabitch!"

"That's enough," Carlos hollered. "You need to watch your mouth and stop cussing at me!"

Damali wiped her palms down her face as rage made her body tremble. "Oh, shit, Carlos, you did not go there and tell me not to even talk about how I feel about her way down deep because you don't think I should? Are you fucking crazy! When conversely, she never respected me, you never demanded it from her, just let the bullshit fall where it may, never checked her quietly, discreetly, for the sake of Jose's pride, and left me to always have to suck it up when I should have kicked her narrow, disrespectful ass right after we did Philly! Oh, my God, oh, my God! I can't call this chica out of her name, even in here with you-- in the bedroom, supposed to be our sanctuary--and you're defending her to me? Oh shit! I have to respect her when she's always got something snide to say to every command I give this fucking team! I'm supposed to be cool, always, not lose it, not even knowing you seduced Juanita into doing something she wanted to do for your horny ass anyway and in my house and was gonna make a--"

"Damali, sweetheart, please, for real--"

"The onliest reason I haven't yanked her out of the compound by her hair--the same hair you were running your hands all through when she was on her knees--to beat her ass in the yard is for Jose's sake. Every time that heifer cuts me dead with her eyes, every time she makes a side-out-the-neck sarcastic comment, every damned time she gives me her ass to kiss like she knows a secret that I don't, I am ready to draw blood. Do you know how dangerous this shit is and how close to the surface it is under my skin?"

Damali paced back and forth like a trapped panther, visibly so angry

that a shape-shift was not out of the question. "If Hell was to snatch me now, they wouldn't have to pry to get to this emotion out of me. I'm so mad at you, Carlos, I'd slap that bullshit you just tried to hand me on the table and would tell 'em, 'Gentlemen, let's deal'--that's how angry I am! Own it! She's working my nerves, so you'd better fix this and get her straight!"

"Juanita acts the way she does sometimes, not because she remembers what happened in the house in Arizona, D, I swear," he said quickly, beginning to pace in front of the bedroom door. "It's, it's because she and I used to deal, and she's jealous of what Jose used to feel for you, maybe stills feels a little bit--plus, you got to both of us, him and me, and she's feeling--"

"Fuck what she feels!" Damali pulled her hair into her fists as she glared at Carlos. "She can feel any way she wants to in the quiet of her confused mind--but she's gonna feel my foot squarely up her ass if she challenges my command in front of this team ever again! Got it?" Damali let her hair go, folded her arms, and took in deep breaths with her eyes closed. "When she's feeling scared, girlfriend is all about feelin' me out there kicking demon ass--ask her how she would feel if one night I wasn't feeling up to my Neteru self and stepped aside to let something horrible yank her ass down to Hell." Damali opened her eyes. "Ask her that for me, will ya?"

"You know that's wrong, D," he said, new worry hitching his voice. "You wouldn't do that, baby, would you? That would compromise your soul. You know that's wrong and dangerous to even allow a mind as strong as yours to think something like that."

"Then you could come down there and get my soul, if I lost it, right? Or you could go rescue her out of the jaws of a huge, dangerous, feeding Amanthra. You da man. After you saved us both, we'd be so grateful we might hook a brother up with a three- way... you could definitely hang, and she and I could sing two-part harmony--too bad you're not still apexing, but it would still be awesome, and then she and I could kiss and make up right there on your fucking lap," Damali said between her teeth, coolly appraising his groin for the slightest twitch of interest.

"Damali, don't even play like that. Come on now, you have to let this old relationship me and Juanita had go." "Why?"

Carlos paused and drew in a shaky breath. "Because I let what you and Jose had blooming go, D, when you put his blanket in your cedar chest--which, by rights, you shoulda given back, but I let that go because all of us are cool now, and, see, baby... c'mon, now. She don't remember. She just acts funny sometimes because she's probably wondering what mighta happened if she and I coulda stayed together, or if Jose hadn't had a jones for you once, which I know she can sense, so you pop off her deep-down emotions, is all it is, and sometimes that gets the better of her, and--" "Total disrespect," Damali said in a near whisper. She looked up at him, pressed both hands over her heart, and leaned forward, eyes blazing. "But I'ma let it ride. Not for you, not for her, but because my Guardian brother would die a thousand deaths if he knew, and the team has to function as one. This mess with you and her goes to the grave with me and beyond it,for him--not your ass. Hear?"

Oh, he'd heard her all right, and her tone scared him. Everything between them now hung in a fragile balance, and he didn't know how not to trip over the thin filament that was wired to emotional C4. Yeah, he knew exactly where she was right now. The problem was, he didn't have an answer or any smooth bullshit to tell her to bring her down, and all her points hit too close to home. Plus, it had been confirmed in his mind, something more than Damali's temper was at work here.

"It was out of my control, something had me, baby," he said, fatigued. "I don't know what else to say to make this right."

"Then if I ever go there, and tell you something had me, and it was out of my control, then this conversation will be moot--since you've been here more than once. Since I've sucked it up, more than once. And if I ever happen to accidentally get myself into a compromising position, you'll be able to forgive and let live, like nothing ever happened, right?" Damali's hands were on her hips again as she nodded and went back to staring out the window. "Okay. Fair exchange is no robbery. Duly noted, Mr. Councilman. Peace."

"I wish you wouldn't call me that," Carlos said in a quiet, urgent tone. "I'm not in that life anymore, and I'm a Neteru with just a little of the old vamp in me, but not like before. I work for the Light, and we're on the same team."

"Yeah, right," Damali said flatly.

Her words trapped him in the bedroom; he might as well have been hanging on the Chairman's torture wall getting his guts ripped out. "You know I love you, girl."

"And what dat mean?" She walked a hot path before the window. "Oh, you love me. Wasn't thinking about that when Juanita was on her knees between your legs, did ya? Oh, you love me. Didn't think about that shit when you lured her to my house. Did ya? You really didn't think about that when you asked her if she wanted to make a baby, did you?"

If Damali would just take a breath and stop... He began gesturing wildly as he tried to say what needed to be said. "No, baby, see, I didn't lure her to the house. She was still feeling the charge from the night before when I'd just come back up from the pit--and, what had happened was--"

"But you love me. Right. All right. Then I love you, too. I guess she's also still head over heels, literally, even though she doesn't know why. I got it." Damali's hands went back to her hips as her gaze narrowed on him. "I'm cool. It's squashed."

"If, if--listen--if there's anything still resonating in her, it isn't from that--it was from before when I was with her and human." For all the fluent, smooth vamp still lingering in him, or just general regulation street smarts, as a man he knew inherently within his soul that no male entity on any level could go up against and come out on top of a female verbal beat down. He'd almost started stuttering as he'd spoken, which wasn't him at all under any circumstances.

"Her recall had been erased when it went down--in fact, it's not her fault at all. For real, D. Don't carry that back to the house and start no mess with 'Nita--"

"Oh, so now she's 'Nita, not Juanita. My bad. I stand corrected. Why don't you just call her your boo from now on? You can tap that ass whenever the mood strikes you, and I won't have a problem with it. Bite her, too, for all I care. Serve her two inches in the jugular and let Mar purge her after you're done. We ain't married. Right? The vamp bond don't count in the Light, so hey. What it mean?"

He could feel beads of sweat begin to form on his brow. His palms felt moist. "The girl was under the influence, like I've been trying jp get you to understand. She's only human, and--"

"Well so am I!" Damali shouted, losing it as new tears of rage formed in her eyes. "I might be a Neteru, but I'm also human. And female. That shit keeps replaying itself in my head, Carlos. All I can see is the chica giving you a blow job on the porch of my house. Fuck all this Jerry Springer shit, demon-inspired or not. I'm out."

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