Marlene stood very still in the compound kitchen in silent meditation. She held onto the sink breathing slowly, watching the steel grates lift by timer just as dawn broke. She kept her eyes on the new rose-orange-hued horizon, and didn't turn when she felt a massive male presence at her back cast a shadow in the doorway.
Then she closed her eyes and waited. A pair of male feet would hit the hallway soon. She could feel the weight of the heavy heart coming toward her. The air got denser, literally thickened around her before she heard the first footfall. There was only one guardian in the house that she knew held such private pain. He had a black box around his emotions that was so hidden even she couldn't reach into it.
"Good morning, Rider," she murmured over a sip of mint tea without opening her eyes.
"Yeah," he grumbled and plopped down in a chair.
"You want some coffee?"
She didn't wait for the response as she heard the flask hit the table. Marlene simply went to the counter, and brought back a steaming mug as she came back to sit with Rider. She appraised the cloudy colors around him, noting that his aura had a roiling anger tingeing it. His normal turquoise and light earth tones were dark, smoldering, swirling furiously, and growing, unlike Mike's tight gray line. All of the guardians had gray in their auras now.
Rider's white T-shirt was so crummy and so raggedy that it might as well have been the same color as his beat-up, cut-off shorts - gray. Marlene let out a long, weary sigh.
He gave her a sheepish glance and unscrewed his flask. "Tryin' ta bite the snake that bit me," he said, pouring a healthy jigger into his mug, nearly overflowing it. He leaned over and slurped down the coffee and Jack Daniel's concoction without lifting the mug.
"Oh, shit, Mar," Rider said, taking another sip, making a noise like he was clearing his sinuses while he shut his eyes tightly, then he abandoned the mug and went straight for the flask. He turned it up to his mouth and winced when he pulled it away, swallowing hard. "Getting too old for this."
"I know, baby." Marlene covered his hand, then patted it before drawing it back to reach for her teacup.
"My boy, Jose, is all messed up. Got a newbie, Dan, that's totally battle-freaked - I mean, the kid's real first time out was in Hell... c'mon, Mar. Kid's got nightmares like he's been to 'Nam. The prep time to get these kids ready is spinning by us fast like an out-of-control top. Now, Damali? Our Neteru gets her heart ripped out in Hell? It ain't fair, Marlene, I'm telling you."
"I know. But she'll have to work through the anger and the grief on her own - just like everything else. We can't help her with that, all we can do is support and guide her, now that she's grown. Good people die every day. That's why we do what we do, to trim those numbers back."
"She's not going to get over this, Marlene." He looked at Marlene hard. "This ain't like when we lost the others."
"That's all you can say, 'I know'?" Rider stood up and walked over to the sink to lean on it. "Big Mike's hearing is off, and the poor bastard doesn't even want to eat. He ain't about chasing tail with me... I couldn't even tempt him with a little day trip to New Orleans." Rider sighed hard and rubbed the gray-and-blond stubble on his jaw. "I tried to get Jose to ride with me, like old times, go watch a few ladies dance the poles..." He shook his head. "Young buck wouldn't even take the bait. Sits by Damali like a hurt puppy until she gets up and leaves, then waits till she gets back. It ain't healthy. Dan's scared to even leave the compound. That boy is young, he needs to get out before he snaps."
"And Damali ain't far behind him. She comes in here every morning smelling like sulfur and demon innards - not like she's been out having fun." Rider pointed to his nose and glared at Marlene. "I may be old, and my nose may be off, but if she'd found a diversion, I'da smelled him on her. This shit ain't healthy. But she's probably afraid to risk being with an innocent, if there's still master vamps out there hunting her down. The child might as well be living in a convent, Marlene! And, who knows, after losing Rivera, she just might do that."
"Will you stop with the 'I know,' Madame seer? What're we gonna do?"
"I don't know."
Rider took another chug from his flask. "Marlene, you are making me nuts this morning. I swear I don't know how Shabazz deals with it."
"I know," she said, chuckling. "Give everybody some time. We lost a guardian down there," she said, her voice growing quiet. "That's a hard loss. But she'll come around."
"No, Mar," Rider said, wiping his mouth with his forearm. "We lost our Neteru's soul mate. That's not a loss, that's a cosmic catastrophe."
"I know," she said very calmly, but very carefully. "How's your nose? You said it was off."
Marlene nodded. "And Mike's hearing?"
"Jacked." Rider pushed off the sink. "Jose's nose is, too. Dan can't shoot the broadside off a barn - his tactical senses are fried. JL, and I could always count on JL, but our little brother got caught counting cards and almost got iced at the casinos in Vegas... if JL can't do mental sleight of hand, then..."
"I know. Shabazz ain't exactly right, either - "
"But I bet his ass sleeps at night!"
Rider walked a hot path between the sink and the door, took a hard swallow of liquor, and glared at Marlene. She just stared at him, keeping her voice a murmur as she spoke to him, trying to heal him while not addressing what he'd said about Shabazz. It was the truth, and it suddenly disturbed her. She and Shabazz had been the first ones to shake off the grief, and she'd chalked it up to the fact that they were the elder guardians in the group.
But as she studied Rider's very personal reaction to Damali's inner pain, she wondered why. Something didn't jive. Rider had been in battles before; they'd lost crew before. All of them loved Damali like a daughter or a sister, except Jose, who perhaps felt something more. And they'd all seen Damali bounce back, too. But that Rider's head was so twisted about the incident, horrible though it was, gave her pause.
"Rider," she said, her voice as gentle as she could make it, "my third eye is nearly blind. All I get is impressions, no sharp images. We've all got a lot on our minds. As long as the masthead of the ship is broken, we have no way to raise sails. We're dead in the water until her aura lifts, the gray goes out of it. We're all connected, Rider, that's why I keep saying, 'I know.'"
Marlene sighed when he didn't respond but took another drink from his flask, glowering at her. "If you take the fellas to a hangout, go find some entertainment, bring back lighter energy... who knows? You have to shake the horrible images you saw down in the pit, maybe it will help her?" She had to give him something constructive to do. Rider had no patience, never did.
Rider looked out the window. "It wasn't the horrible images that we saw that are messing us up, Mar. It's the beautiful ones that are a bitch."
She studied his back. "Talk to me." A shiver ran down her spine.
"You're the seer of this group, and if you didn't see it, then your senses must really be off big-time... I guess I can't be mad at you for being so blind. Third eye or not, you have no frame of reference and like all of us, you're human." His tone became gentler, resigned, as though beaten down by sudden fatigue. "My bad, Mar. I'm just rambling. We all take everybody's skills for granted, and we've just gotten used to you being the all-seeing Marlene with the answers. I'm sorry. That's not fair. I'm going to bed."
She stood and came to him, resting her hand on his shoulder so he wouldn't leave. "Rider?"
"You wouldn't understand - you have Shabazz." He looked at her; his voice was gravelly but held no judgment or sarcasm in it. "You and Shabazz are the only guardians on the team that have paired up. We saw it in Hell."
"What are you talking about?" Her hand left his shoulder and her arms went around her waist. He was scaring her. "We fought just as hard as anyone down there. You think because he and I are paired that we would have let any of you get harmed without a fight, would have saved ourselves and let you fellas die?" She was incredulous.
Tears filled her eyes. Rider's accusation had hurt her to the bone. She flinched away from him when he reached to cup her cheek.
"No, Mar. You read me wrong."
She began to slowly relax, watching his pained expression and the quick moisture that had formed in his eyes. The way he looked at her made her nervous to hear the raw truth for the first time since the team had come together. That terrible seesaw of emotion was further eclipsing her ability to read him. She practically held her breath as she waited for him to explain.
"There comes a point in every man's life, Mar, where he wakes up and doesn't want a gorgeous thing that dances the pole beside him. It ain't enough. Feeds the body, but doesn't feed the soul." His eyes held hers and he kept his voice gentle as he pushed a stray lock over her shoulder and sighed. "Comes a point where you just don't want an easily interchangeable somebody, you want a woman who you'll call by name... who you'll, as a man, walk through the fire for... will lay down your life for, if you have to."
He shook his head and walked away from her, raking his fingers through his tousled hair. "Mike saw it, and the big guy is done with New Orleans's finest. Jose saw it, and... he's messed up. He came close to having that with Dee Dee, even though I suspect she was never the real McCoy - but at least the boy had hope. Dan saw it, and knows that at his age, living like this, he can't bring anybody home and set up housekeeping. JL saw it, and wigged." He eyed Marlene carefully, but there was no malice in his expression. "JL headed right for the casinos. And, if I were a bettin' man, I'd say he took a month's salary to the blackjack table to double-down on a way out."
"What..." Marlene's voice caught in her throat on a horrified whisper.
"Yep. Was probably trying to figure out how to win enough to finance then set up a small safe house with every piece of electronic-surveillance and high-tech weapons-launching gizmos available, so if he did find somebody - "
"Oh, no..." Marlene closed her eyes. "I thought he was just letting off steam, like you guys always do after a battle."
Rider shook his head. "Why you think JL got in trouble, couldn't concentrate, when of all the guardians, save you and Shabazz, JL has laser focus? That's why he's our equipment man, our weapons' room expert. Have you seen him tinkering with his gadgets and computers lately?" He paused and waited for Marlene's nonverbal response. "My point, exactly. He just takes his post, stares at the monitors, looking right through them, and then goes to bed at daybreak." Rider took a slow swallow of Jack Daniels and then let his breath out hard. "The only brother that's straight in here is Shabazz."
Marlene felt for the side of the sink and found it so she could lean against it to keep herself from falling down. It was all so clear, and she'd been so blind. It wasn't just Damali who was grieving, or the team just grieving for her...
Rider nodded, his lopsided smile holding hollow triumph. "You following me? These guys are all reevaluating their entire lives. It wasn't the demons they saw and killed. It wasn't Damali's battery going down from grief. They are grieving their choice to become guardians, because after the adrenaline subsided, and they had time to think, their reality is fucking them up. Won't be no wife and kids. Won't be no regular life. Nobody special, and unless she comes packing with ammo, she's shark bait - and they know it. They also know, for the first time, having visited Hell, just how helpless they are to protect a regular woman, especially after coming so close to losing a Neteru on their watch. The whole thing spooked 'em, and fucked them around good."
He looked away from Marlene, studying the sun. "I've accepted my fate... did when Tara turned. I don't even take myself there anymore - which is why I watch the ladies dance the poles, indulge myself stupid, and numb any useless thought when I start going down memory lane."
"Rider, you've gotta stop drinking... and if the guys are looking for real life-mates, they won't find them in the clubs or hoochie bars, brother." She wasn't scolding him. Her voice was filled with so much hurt for him and the others that it was hard to speak.
He chuckled and kept his gaze on the horizon. "Solves a short-term male problem. But the fact that that's getting old... hey. The long-term solution is very complicated. My boys and I are caught between a rock and a hard place," he said, his chuckle hollow and waning. "Literally. And this shit is gonna go on for the next twenty-five years. Might as well tell these boys to join up with Father Pat's Covenant. They've accepted their fate, too, for different reasons. But, hey, a monk is a monk."
She was going to walk toward him, but thought better of it. He needed space. So, instead, she spoke softly, trying to dispense hope and healing with her words. "Somebody will come along for each guardian... I mean..." Her own lack of confidence in what she was saying just made the sentence trail off. What could she say?
"You got a vision, a bead on this, Mar? A gut hunch? Or are you just trying to make this old warrior feel better?"
It took her too long to answer him. They both knew she wouldn't lie straight to his face. All she could do was shake her head. "My visions have been off... I haven't specifically seen... but that doesn't mean - in the future, it may not have materialized yet, but - "
"Ain't your fault. Even you can't conjure up what's not out there." He took another swig and winced. "I already found my somebody once and lost her to a vampire turn. That was it for me. Had a name I used to call, don't want the heartbreak of losing another one. I know what the girl is going through, Mar. But Damali never even got to..."
Rider took another fast sip, but his hand was shaking as he brought the flask away from his mouth.
"I'm done. But a lotta guys in here aren't. They still want that. And, Mar, you've got a whole team of young bucks about to be all screwed up like Damali is now. Me and Mike, we're older, and can hang. We've crossed the line and ain't sitting up at night thinking about a future wife and kids and shit."
"Oh... Rider... but, you said in Hell... in the battle... why would being there - "
He chuckled sadly. "In all the places in the universe, where you'd least expect to see it - I'da lost that bet, if you'da told me. It's a man thing, and Marlene, you definitely wouldn't understand."
"Try me," she whispered, her voice tense with worry. "Because, Rider, I really need to know how to heal this team, if possible."
"You can't fix this, Marlene. That's what we all know, and what's fucking up every man in here." He began slowly pacing, raking his fingers through his hair, looking at the floor, his voice so thick with emotion that she almost couldn't hear him.
"All right. Here we are, Mar, strapped to the nines, standing in the middle of a battle. Shells flying, fucking demons everywhere, green gook exploding, all-out mortal combat... a damned master vampire in our midst, serious battle hazard close by, adrenaline kickin' like a mo'fo, everybody in there ready to go down, knowing any of us could at any time... the priest's squad is getting slaughtered, we had to do some of our own to keep them from turning, got a Neteru going through changes... dragging bloody wounded that's drawing Hell sharks, almost out of ammo. Rivera had a firestorm coming his way, was hungry, exhausted, and should have used all twelve of us that were left standing to feed." Rider looked up at her. "We were in Hell, Marlene. Right? We weren't in Kansas, Dorothy."
She could only nod and stare back at him.
"If he'd snapped our necks, tranced her out, and fed well, he would have had enough energy to transport her out of there and start a damned empire." Rider paused, letting the silence in the kitchen envelop them. "But he didn't, did he?"
Rider pulled a hair out of his head fast with two fingers and thrust it toward Marlene. "The line of choice made within seconds was as thin as this," he said, gesturing with his hand, "and could have gotten snatched in the wrong direction as fast as I just pulled this hair out of my head, Mar. And the one who had the fragile balance of choice was a damned guardian that had turned. A male vampire. Not just our Neteru. If the dude had decided differently..."
Rider sucked in a shaky breath. "I done seen a lot of battle, Mar, but even for me, that was deep. In seconds he could have done us and saved himself, and took a bride."
"Right." Rider nicked away the hair and crossed his arms over his chest, biceps bulging as his body tensed. He looked down at the flask he was clasping with disdain.
"Rivera begged her to leave him, made us pull her out while she was ovulating, turned around and watched our backs - not just hers, but the whole family, just because we mattered to her. Fought on low fuel, and got fucked by whatever was coming through the tunnels. Just for her. Even if he wanted her away from the battle zone, he could have snatched one of us to feed on just to even his odds and perhaps save his own ass - but he didn't."
Rider held Marlene's gaze captive, his expression grave. "We all saw love transcend Hell, Marlene. Saw the most advanced predator in the demon food chain give up a prize that he'd battled another master for, and won... just so the girl could live a normal life topside. That shit right there would give any man pause... will make you reevaluate your entire existence. And, if you're a believer, it'll make you have a loooong conversation with the man upstairs about all the shit you've done wrong."
He nodded and took another swig from his flask when Marlene closed her eyes.
"Will make you argue with Him about justice, too," Rider said, renewed rage at the unfairness of it all keeping his voice a low rumble. "Rivera was one of ours, wasn't supposed to turn - definitely wasn't supposed to go out like that. And we had to leave him, just because of what he was. But judging by the way the man fought... yeah, he was one of ours. By rights, who knows, maybe we shoulda stayed? That's part of what's tumbling around in that girl's brain, just like it's tumbling around in all of ours, causing survivor's guilt, too." Rider saluted Marlene with his flask. "Respect. He went out with honor. Just like a guardian. This is man-type shit, Marlene. Don't try to figure it out or heal it. This conversation stays A and B."
He glanced at her again as he moved to the kitchen door. "Shabazz got a second chance to get out of prison and find somebody, I got a second chance not to die... Mike got a second chance not to dieŚwe all did, so did you. That's why we're here."
"I know, but Rider, the kids have time."
"The young bucks on the team never even got a shot off," he said, pure frustration in his voice that turned into bitter defeat. "Where's Rivera's get-out-of-jail-free redemption pass, huh? Where's Damali's? Where the fuck is Jose's? Dan and JL ain't even smelled love, let alone felt it - and in here, under these circumstances, they probably won't. Our entire younger level will not replace itself, won't heal. This shit is not right, Mar, and that's why the team's not right. The trinity of energy is the masthead that broke, Mar, when this crap broke our girl's back and we had to watch it. We won the battle down there, but the dark side is winning the war - our spirits ain't right. Everybody is losing faith. Hope... shit, that's history. Love," he said, shaking his head, "is really fucked up for almost everybody around here. Not even a possibility. If we saw those two connect, woulda gave the rest of us hope, renewed faith, and maybe a little encouragement to keep looking for the one."
"Rider," she said, her voice as gentle as she could make it, "in time... with patience..."
"Whatever. All I know is, I'ma kill Rivera for dying on my watch in front of my team. Every man, not just guardians, I mean regular average Joes, are searching for his own Neteru, Mar, even though we're human." He looked at her, his eyes hard. "Every man is looking for the one that will make him walk through fire."
Marlene closed her eyes and continued to lean against the sink. What was there to tell the man? Shabazz wouldn't even talk about it. Now she understood why. Double survivor's guilt... he'd made it out alive, and still had a life mate. As a blessed man, he was grieving his heart out for his brothers, knowing they didn't have what he did, but he couldn't fix it. Shabazz always had profound philosophy, wisdom to impart. But, this time, there were no words he could offer. They'd isolated him from their grief, he couldn't share their pain over a beer - it would be like a wealthy man telling a homeless person he understood his pain, not credible... salt in the wound.
Her soul was so heavy that she couldn't even cry. It took another male to explain what even a mother-seer couldn't see. And damn it, it all made so much sense now why her lover wouldn't come to bed with her at night, or touch her in the compound with the other guardians still home. It was beyond worry for Damali. It was beyond post-battle trauma or introspection. The family was disintegrating around them.
Her voice was just a slow whisper as she formed words to respond to Rider's truth. Didn't matter that it was. Rider was already gone. So she spoke to the empty kitchen.
"Oh, God, it isn't fair. I know."
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