The Bitten / Chapter Twelve

Chapter Twelve


Chapter Twelve

"I'm going to bed," Marlene announced as the teams entered the compound. "Tomorrow, with fresh minds and renewed spirits, we'll move out." She motioned to Father Patrick's crew. "There are spare rooms down the hall, food in the fridge. Gentlemen, make yourselves at home."

She was too weary to stand on ceremony, and the thoughts rattling around in her skull made her need to lie down. No matter how many times she had witnessed the miraculous, so-called coincidences of the universe, it still always amazed her how tightly woven the threads were within the grand design. So odd, but not, that they'd been offered a brief one-night-only concert gig in Sydney, only to find out that that was where they were destined to go. It had happened so many times that she would have thought she'd be used to that by now - then again, how did anyone get used to any of it?

Marlene didn't even look back to wait for a response, but headed to her private sanctuary. When Shabazz appeared in the bedroom doorway, she almost ordered him to get away from her. She didn't have an ounce of strength to argue with him, but his eyes held such worry and hurt that she conceded, sitting down heavily on the bed.

He closed the door behind him softly, and walked in a bit to lean against her dresser. "Marlene," he said, his voice so quiet that it made her look up. "The team is changing, too, not just our baby girl."

"I know," she murmured.

"This thing with Carlos and Damali has shifted the whole dynamic... and that's dangerous."

She nodded. "It will either make us stronger, or split us apart."

Shabazz rubbed his palm across his jaw, and studied the steel grates at Marlene's window. He looked so tired, battle-weary, like he wanted to just lay down and weep but was too proud to ever allow that to happen.

"She's like a daughter to me, Mar, too," he said in a ragged voice. "And, what she let homeboy do to her... and the shit with Jose - he ain't never gonna be right."

With her last ounce of strength, Marlene stood and went to her embattled partner. Tears glittered in his eyes, and she touched the side of his dark, walnut-hued face, admiring the handsome, regal quality of it. This was some man-shit, she knew. The inability to accept that a female from his inner circle had made a choice to take a lover against the clan, had done what was natural, what was a part of the cycle of life. "She's gonna be all right, honey. And that girl never stopped loving us."

"But, what if he bites her again, Mar?"

His eyes held a fervent need for her to understand. She did. So, she allowed her voice to soothe, become a balm, as she drew from every source of wisdom she had.

"Mike got nicked in New Orleans, and after a hard purge, he came back. Right?"

Shabazz looked away, but didn't shrug out of her hold against his cheek. "That was different."

"Why?" Marlene waited and offered him a tender smile. "Our brother got caught up, and staggered back to the hotel, collapsed in Rider's arms, and went into a convulsion. Rider had to take him to a local root worker just to ensure he'd live till he got him home to me."

Shabazz chuckled, despite his determination to stay morose.

"You know, every member of this team has had their turn at delivering drama," she said, her voice containing rich amusement. "Rider would go off on a Jack Daniel's binge and be AWOL for days, only to be found in a titty bar when Jose went on a search and rescue. Dan had us scramble battle stations to bring him in from a six-vamp attack. J.L. almost got whacked by some guys in the casinos for card-counting that time, and Jose took us through major yang behind Dee Dee."

When a slow smile tugged at his cheek, she kissed it. "You almost had a whole team of weres jump us in Bahia, flaring up on Kamal - "

"And you almost stopped my heart when you went down in battle against the Amazon's mother-seer," Shabazz murmured, tracing her eyebrow with the pad of his thumb. "That's the point," he said, his voice dropping, "I don't want to lose anybody to no dumb shit - especially not you, Mar. And if Damali breaks your heart, our heart, a part of you will die inside... which will kill me... because you and I are connected there, too."

He took her mouth so slowly, so tenderly, that only the balm of touch could close the wound he'd exposed to her. Marlene allowed her hands to stroke the thick, magnificent locks that graced his kingly head. His family was changing, purging itself, morphing, and it frightened him - a man who'd already lost his family to this austere life of being a Guardian.

In her arms she held a man who'd wanted nothing more than to have his lion-pride, his family, always safe, protected, and to be in control of its destiny... this man moved against her for comfort because he saw so much of Carlos in himself that it gave him flashbacks... and because she was a woman, not a seer, she knew that the hardest challenge for a man was to let a higher authority be his guide on sheer faith alone.

Rider stood in the garage inner door and watched Jose throw the tarp dustcover off his bike, then stoop to begin polishing the chrome wheels. There was nothing like motion, a man and his Harley, to cure the blues... and what was ailing his best friend was beyond words.

So, he took his time, before encroaching on Jose's private space. "Wanna go take a ride, like old times? Me and you, and a bottle of our old friend Jack Daniel's... hit the desert, look up at the moon, tempt fate on the plains with just a crossbow between us, and get snot-slinging drunk?"

Jose just shook his head no and kept polishing his bike, moving to the exhaust system.

"She's sweet, man," Rider offered. "Integrated header and collector heat shielding, Pro-Pipe... sweet thunder, man. Gotta use her, or lose her, feel me?" When he didn't get a response from Jose, he walked deeper into the garage and gave his own bike a wistful glance, then threw the cover off her. "This is the Easy Rider, custom edition, hottest iron on the planet, and she's almost as old as me... but I take care of my girl, even when she needs an overhaul."

Rider stroked the leather tribal inlaid seat like he was touching a woman's behind, gentle and with deep appreciation. "Almost lost her a few times to a blowout when she slid out from under me on the wet road, when I was younger - before I really knew how to handle her. Then I learned patience and how to baby her... ripped out her engine, modified her for some serious horsepower and torque, installed new inner needle bearings and put on a set of Rinehart duals. Now she purrs. But she's still all Harley, man. Black, silver, and beautiful."

Jose finally looked up and gave Rider a nod of respect. "You've worked her to the bone, man. I'm just learning how."

"Whaduya say we ship these ladies over to Australia with us, man? We can show the Aussies what an all-American chopper can do."

Jose smiled sadly and went back to polishing the elaborate exhaust system on his bloodred bike. "Don't know if I feel like riding her anymore. Not even sure I can look at her, yo. Might fall and get busted up real bad on a new road."

Rider leaned against his monster bike and folded his arms over his chest. "That's why you wear leather when you ride, dude. Keeps you from getting tore up to the bone. You know that. You also know what a rush it is going down new dirt you ain't never touched before."

When Jose gave him the silent treatment again, Rider let his breath out hard. "You've already fallen, man. You know what it feels like, and you didn't die. Your ass hit the ground hard before with Dee Dee, then you got up. Let it go, and get yourself a new lady to ride - "

"But that was different, man," Jose said quietly. "Damali had never made a choice before... so..."

"I know, I know," Rider said, his voice mellow. "It kept hope alive."

"I was willing to follow her to Hell and back, man. In fact, I did."

For a moment, neither of them spoke.

"We all were. Still are," Rider said quietly. "And, she's probably the only one in here who couldn't see you eating your heart out for her... even Dee Dee could tell."

Jose wiped his palm over his chin and stood. "I know."

"All right, youngblood," Rider said, forcing a matter-of-fact tone into his voice. "So, she loves you like a brother, and - "

"She doesn't need me," Jose nearly whispered. "She's got Rivera - the best nose on the planet and..." His words trailed off as he swallowed, staring past Rider to the garage wall.

"And what you felt for those brief moments will last you a lifetime. Ride it in your dreams, dude, but don't lose focus." Rider raked his hair and let out a slow stream of air through his mouth, not sure what else to say.

"He might be dead, but he's the luckiest man on the planet, too." Jose's line of vision went to Rider's to hold it hard. "I don't think I can be in here anymore, brother. It's time for me to push on and take my chances - let the chips fall where they may. I'm out. Solo. Like I said, she don't need anything I've got to give her now. I'm not even straight-up human."

Jose swung his leg over his bike, and reached for the automatic door opener.

"That's why she needs you," Rider said fast, making Jose slow his reach to engage the door.

"How you figure?"

Rider took his time answering. He desperately wanted to keep his friend from doing the night alone on some kind of suicide mission. No Guardian could make it alone once identified as a core member of the Neteru team. The dark side would hunt him down and hold him for ransom just to draw the Neteru - knowing she could never leave her own. Jose would be vamp bait, but he also knew that Jose didn't give a rat's ass about any of that right now. The man was bleeding from a wound that he didn't have a cure for.

"You ever think, maybe, that like Shabazz always says, there's a purpose for every one of us being here?"

Jose let his breath out hard. "Save it, man."

"We all have crazies in our family, dude. There's an uncle who likes little girls, a momma who drinks too much, a cousin who would steal you blind. So one of your people got nicked, maybe became an ax murderer, or serial killer - who knows, but that ain't you, dude. You made a choice to walk away from all of that, just like I did, no matter what was in your blood." Rider pushed off of his bike and rounded Jose's, holding it by the handlebars. "So, if the universe sent you to be with us, then there's a very divine purpose in it."

Jose set his jaw hard, but at least he was no longer reaching for the escape hatch.

"Listen to me," Rider said more firmly. "You and Lopez didn't come into this equation linked to Rivera by accident." He looked at the younger Guardian hard, and wiped his hands on the back of his jeans, then hitched them up. "I know I talk a lot of shit, but this time I say it isn't some freaky coincidence, and Jose, you and I have been best buds - the noses together - long enough for you to smell one of my fish tales if I was full of crap."

The younger Guardian shrugged casually, but his line of vision was riveted to Rider's, hurt pride and hope for answers making his eyes glitter under the UV lights. Rolling the tension out of his shoulders, Rider stared at the young man, then backed away from Jose's bike, fairly certain he wouldn't bolt.

"Much as I hate to finally admit it, much less accept it - Rivera was our twelfth man. Creepy, but you, Lopez and Rivera form your own little trinity, a core within the larger group core, with, as is always the formation in battle, the Neteru in the center." He sighed. "And I'm pretty sure Father Patrick is upstairs talking a young cleric off the ledge of our compound. If it fucked you up, what do you think it did to Lopez?"

Embarrassment gave rise to false bravado as Jose sat back on this bike seat and folded his arms, looking off in the distance and focusing on nothing. "Aw'ight, say you're right about the trinity. What's that got to do with D?"

Rider walked the perimeter of the garage as he spoke, making Jose follow him with his eyes. "Three guardians linked, the strongest of the three became her lover; one, her brother, was filled with hope; one, a priest, brought his faith," he said calmly. "Faith, hope, love - like the old priest said before. All three tactical sensors of the highest ability, one from each team - each side of the equation... The Covenant, the guardians, and the darkness itself, another ring of three... and they're all around her, connected by love - the most unbreakable bond of all... and the wider circle of the team is tapped into that. None of us is willing to break the circle... we won't leave our own, out of pure love, man. This is some big shit, Jose. Don't blow it off because your ego got hammered."

Jose was off his bike, now pacing in an agitated circle. "Oh, shit... oh shit..."

"Yeah," Rider said, "you're beginning to feel me. And maybe, just maybe, she had to take a walk on the dark side with Rivera to truly understand what she was up against so she could fight it - so he could fight it. That's why you can't punk out now, just because she accidentally made your dick get hard."

Jose stopped walking and stared at Rider, shoving his hands in his jeans pockets. "I didn't deserve that, man."

"All right, all right," Rider said, waving his hand. "I apologize. But do you see that that's what it boils down to? This is serious, and we're going into maybe the last fight of our lives... you have to have your head on straight, and cannot allow the little head to do any thinking for the big one. Got it?"

Grudgingly, Jose muttered an assent. "Still, if she's got the baddest mother on the planet protecting her... I mean, if - "

"You and Lopez are the only ones on our side who can track him!" Rider hollered, his voice bouncing off the cement walls. "You triangulated on his signal, not hers. Get your head out of your own ass, Cipointe. If Carlos gets into trouble, we might need to go find him and pull him out of wherever he is - because, by now we know, he ain't leaving Damali and she ain't leaving him. We can't always count on Marlene or Father Pat, and Damali won't be with us, so if the two of them get into some Bonnie-and-Clyde-type shit, the only available trackers are you and Lopez!"

Rider slapped the center of his forehead hard when Jose didn't even breathe. "Geez Louise, man. You and Lopez are genetically designed to locate a master under eminent threat. Don't you get it; don't you see your purpose - your team value, dude? Heaven is about to turn this bullshit upside down and has been using every move the dark side has made to possibly make the ultimate weapon of mass destruction - two Neterus, a male and female in the same freaking millennium as soul mates - lovers... of breeding age, to make more!"

"Oh, shit, this is way profound."

Rider blinked twice and Jose stood in the center of the garage floor, dazed.

"Yeah," Rider murmured. "I'm scaring myself, this makes so much sense... I have to tell Marlene. We need a weapons-room meeting, pronto."

This time, Jose shook his head, no. "Shabazz went to talk to her. Tell her in the morning."

"Yeah, but - "

" Tell her in the morning, Rider." Jose went to his bike and threw the tarp back over it. "Yeah... we should ship these overseas with us, yo. Get some dirt in our faces."

For a moment, Rider didn't move, then nodded and went to cover his bike. "If we're gonna go out in the big one, man, let's load up the side bags with some colloidal silver grenades and go find a good bar where the girls dance on the pole. Get you a tall, Aussie blonde, and me a redhead with jugs this big," Rider said, chuckling and demonstrating a heavy load with his hands.

"Your old ass ain't gonna get no redhead like that."

Rider laughed. "Fantasy, youngblood, ain't nothing wrong with it. Keeps hope alive." He extended his fist, and gave Jose a bear hug when he came over and pounded it. "It's gonna be cool, man."

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