Prologue        Gathered Together        Sisters        The Tempest-Tossed

Daisy        The Rescue Mission        Reunited        FS        Saints and Sinners

Listening        A Father's Love        Zmaray        Hurted        Neamh-mairbh

Aftershock        True Love        Valentines        Word Spreads        Family

In Remembrance of Her        Mother's Intuition        Being Jesus

Memento Mori        Revelation        Answered Prayers        Transformation

Epilogue

Chrysalis

"Love is the sister of the soul."
~~John O'Donohue's Anam Cara



Prologue

Wednesday, January 6th, 2016

Emma beamed at Gayle as she entered Dr. Amber-Marie Sayer's office.

"Good afternoon, Gayle!  How's your day been going?" she inquired.

The receptionist smiled at Emma but her gaze was locked on the man who stood behind her.

"Very well.  You've brought a guest today?"

Emma nodded and waved to Joshua.

"Gayle, this is my friend, Joshua Davidson."

Gayle smiled warmly at the visitor.

"Joshua!  Emma's mentioned you so often but... you seem so familiar to me now that I see you..."

Joshua took the woman's proffered hand in both of his.

"Peter and I came with Emma the first time she visited this office," he explained.  "And you probably saw me at St. Genesius' last Christmas revue.  It's wonderful to see you again, Gayle."

"Ah.  Yes.  That must be it," Gayle agreed though she wasn't convinced.  She turned to Emma.  "Are you all right, honey?  Amber-Marie and I were worried when you called and asked for an emergency appointment."

Emma patted the other woman's hand. 

"I'm just fine.  Truly.  But... I do have something I need to tell you both so I'm really grateful that you could sneak me in at the end of the day."

"It's no problem at all," Gayle assured.  "I'll let Amber-Marie know you're here."

"Too late.  Already know.  Joshua!" 

The psychiatrist stepped out from her office and embraced Emma then squeezed Joshua's hands.

"Emma mentioned last session that you were still in town!  I had hoped you'd come visit.  It's not every day we have a member of the Trinity join us.  Well, not in the flesh.  Just kidding, of course!"

Emma suppressed a giggle.  Though warm and sympathetic, Dr. Sayer was always dignified... except when she went into theatre geek mode.

Joshua responded with a smile.

"It's a pleasure to be here, Amber-Marie."

Gayle cast a sidelong glance at the fellow.  She was surprised he hadn't addressed her friend as Dr. Sayer.

"Well, come on into my office.  And Gayle, too?" the doctor checked with Emma.

"Yes, please."

With that, Gayle forwarded the phone to voicemail and joined the other three in her boss' office.

Once everyone was seated, Emma began to speak.

"The truth is... it's not really a session that I was hoping for.  Gayle, Dr. Sayer... there's something Joshua wants you to know.  And... and it's really important."

Dr. Sayer blinked and looked at Joshua.

"What's going on?  Is it something with the theatre?"

Joshua shook his head.

"No, Amber-Marie.  It's not about the theatre and the truth is... I'm not an actor."

Amber-Marie shook her head.

"But... you are!  I saw you in Superstar.  You're a phenomenal actor!  And singer, too!  And I'm sure you can dance... Jesus just doesn't really dance."

Joshua chuckled.

"Oh, trust me, I dance often.  But, you're right, I don't dance in Superstar.  Well, except for twirling Emma."

Emma hugged his arm.

Gayle gripped the arms of her chair.

"Amber-Marie just said Jesus doesn't dance... and you answered in the first person.  It... it was just a role," she reminded.

Joshua calmly shook his head. 

"No.  That's why I'm here actually.  It wasn't just a role.  Not for me."  The carpenter devoted his attention to the doctor.  He had to get through to her first.  "That... Amber-Marie, you responded so strongly because that was really me up there.  Do you understand?"

Amber-Marie jolted.  With tear-filled eyes, she turned to her patient.

"Emma...  Emma, he... he's not well."

Joshua cast a tender look on the two stunned women.

"I try not to do it this way... I know it's alarming... but, right now, we don't have a lot of time.  So..."

Emma bowed her head as Joshua pulled up the lengthy sleeves of his sweater and revealed scars and holes through his wrists.

"Oh, God!" Gayle cried.

Amber-Marie began drawing in quick, shallow breaths. 

Next, Joshua lifted the corner of his sweater to reveal a healed gash on his side.  He gave a wavering smile.

"I'd take off my boots to... to show you my ankles but I've been wearing them all day so I don't think that would be very pleasant."

The scientist coming out in her, Amber-Marie shook her head.

"But... but I saw you shirtless!  That wasn't there!"

Gayle stared at her.

"I mean during the scourging!  And the Crucifixion!  It wasn't there!  And... and your wrists weren't..."

"The scars aren't always visible.  I hide them sometimes, so I can go about my business without drawing attention.  But I need you both to know because I have work for you.  Emma, could you please step outside for a moment?" Joshua requested.

"I want her to stay," Amber-Marie countered.  "Please."

"What I have to say is personal... about both of you," Joshua explained.

"It's okay," Gayle agreed as the doctor nodded.

Joshua patted Emma's shoulder, indicating for her to stay.  Then he knelt in front of Amber-Marie and took her hands in his.  In spite of her shock, the woman didn't fight him or pull away.  She only stared into his gentle eyes... after noticing that the scars on his wrists had disappeared.

"Amber-Marie, that night during your freshman year... when you sat in that police station... waiting to file your report, you told me that you would do everything you could to ensure other survivors didn't feel the lonesomeness and undeserved shame you felt."

The doctor's head lurched forward, her brow resting on her and Joshua's hands.

"Yes..." she whispered.

"Dear heart, you've done so much.  Emma here is a testament to that."

With tears streaming down her cheeks, Emma nodded and patted the woman's shoulder while Gayle gently stroked her back and peered at Joshua.

"So much..." Emma echoed.

Joshua released one of Amber-Marie's hands, kissed her hair, and then took one of Gayle's hands.

"You were behind your computer, typing up files, Gayle.  You saw Amber-Marie and you showed her the first bit of warmth and understanding that she had felt all night.  You asked yourself how you'd want your daughter treated.  And you acted accordingly.  You gave her your own sweater and a cup of chamomile.  You let her cry on your shoulder.  But you didn't stop there.  You truly stepped in as a second mother, cheering Amber-Marie on as she got her bachelor's degree and then her master's and, finally, her doctorate."

Joshua tilted his head towards the door.

"I can remember when you first hung the sign outside this office.  Gayle, you were snapping pictures.  So proud!  Amber-Marie, you were vexed because you couldn't get it straight."

Amber-Marie used her free hand to swipe at her tears and laughed.

"I... I guess I needed a carpenter."  She sighed.  "It... it was really you all... all along."

"Yes," Joshua answered, releasing her hand only so he could caress her face.

"Now... now we know why Emma always speaks of you as if... as if you are above reproach.  You are," Gayle concluded.

At once, the two women moved from their chairs and embraced the still-kneeling Joshua.

"Is there room for me?" Emma checked.

Amber-Marie lifted her head from Joshua's shoulder and laughed.

"Of course!"

Beaming, Emma made room for herself in their group hug. 

After enjoying the closeness for a few moments, Amber-Marie let out a deep breath and squeezed Joshua's hands.

"I... I prayed last night that... that you would hold me especially close.  This isn't the answer I was expecting.  It... it's better."

Emma and Gayle both noticed that there was a trace of sadness in Joshua's smile.

"I'm glad you think so.  You're going to be just fine, my girl."

"Is something going on?" Gayle checked.  "I mean... beyond the Lord God Incarnate being here?"

Joshua smirked then rested his other hand over the doctor's and nodded.

Amber-Marie sniffled before meeting her old friend's gaze.

"Paul told me last night that... that he'd fallen for a co-worker and he... he moved out.  He wants a divorce."

"Sweetheart!" Gayle cried, circling an arm around the younger woman's shoulders.

"Oh, Dr. Sayer...  I'm so sor..."

Amber-Marie shook her head at Emma and managed a smile.

"After this," she waved to Joshua, "we're done with the Dr. stuff.  Just Amber-Marie."

Emma returned her smile.

"I am sorry, Amber-Marie."

"Thank you.  I... I suggested counseling, naturally, but... but he's not interested.  I... I know I work a lot but that's why the office has always closed at 5:00.  So... so I'd be home when he was and we'd have time together but... he kept working longer and longer hours... so he said."

Joshua gave her a fierce hug.

"Paul has made a very poor choice... a series of poor choices, really.  You and I both know that you put your heart and soul into your marriage, Amber-Marie.  Don't you carry around his guilt."

Amber-Marie smiled as she heard the words she so often spoke to her patients.

"I won't," she vowed.  "And now... now I'll have more time for this work you have for me."

"And I'll give it everything I've got," Gayle added.  "But... I would be curious to know what it is."

"It's amazing," Emma opined.

"It's difficult work but the rewards... they will be amazing," Joshua averred.  "I've bought an old building, formerly a hotel, not far from here.  With a lot of dedicated work from some of my angels and my human children, it's been turned into an apartment building... of sorts.  Emma, Peter... everyone from St. Genesius' has been helping with this project.  Within a month, we want to make it available as a safe house for victims of human trafficking."

Gayle clucked her tongue and shook her head.

"Such a heinous, awful thing...  But it does me good to hear about this effort, Josh... Jes..."

"Joshua is fine," he assured.  "And thank you.  After much discussion, we've decided to name it the Chrysalis Court."

"Like a butterfly...  And... and a court for the King of all kings.  Perfect."  Amber-Marie praised.  "I'll do anything to be part of this, Joshua!  Please."

"I'm so glad to hear you say that.  So... the Chrysalis has five floors.  The main floor will house various services: a health clinic, counseling rooms, a gym, a library, a rec room.  The other floors are made up as apartments with a few common rooms and one houses a very large dining room.  One entire floor is the Friends... those would be the people affiliated with St. Genesius' who came to know me... a group you two now belong to.  They've agreed to help me with staffing the safe house, getting it ready for our guests, cooking, etc.  Because they'll all come in contact with survivors, I'd like them to have some basic counseling training.  I could think of no better people to provide it than you, Amber-Marie and Gayle.  That's why I asked Emma to set this up.  So I could make this request," Joshua finished.

Amber-Marie nodded eagerly.

"Of course I'll help!  You know I've only worked with a handful of trafficking survivors but..."

"But I also know all the papers you've read, all of the seminars you've gone to," Joshua finished.  "I know the passion you have.  Both of you."

Gayle returned Joshua's encouraging smile.

"I do care about this, Joshua.  Deeply.  But you know I don't have the training, the education that Amber-Marie does."

"No.  You don't.  But you have years of experience at tending to those who sat tearfully and nervously in your waiting room, Gayle."

Amber-Marie hugged her friend and kissed her cheek.

"You know we've had people call and ask if they could meet with you.  And you've gone to many of the same seminars."

"I know you can do this, Gayle.  My sessions with Dr... with Amber-Marie have been so helpful but so have my visits with you," Emma stressed.

Gayle moved to hug Emma.

"Thank you, Emma.  It feels good to hear that.  So..."  She reclaimed her seat and looked to Joshua.  "What's next?"

"Well, if you're interested, Emma and I would love to take you to the Chrysalis Court right now for a tour," Joshua offered.

After a quick glance at each other, Gayle and Amber-Marie both turned back to Emma and Joshua and eagerly nodded. 

When they all stood, Joshua received another round of hugs.  He held onto Amber-Marie for a few extra moments.

"If you want, we can stop by your apartment, grab some things, and you can stay with us," he whispered.

The psychiatrist let out a ragged sigh, thinking of how she had passed a lonely night in a bedroom that no longer seemed like her own. 

"I'd like that a lot," she murmured.

Joshua smiled reassuringly, kissed her cheek, and, after Gayle had locked up the office, the four departed to start their mission together.


*~*~*

Gathered Together

Saturday, February 6th, 2016


Joshua stood in the doorway of the Chrysalis Court's dining hall.  He surveyed the faces of those clustered around the three large tables and mentally reviewed the progress they'd made.  At last, their month of preparation was over.  That Wednesday, the last of their painting had been completed and, only hours before, the final pieces of furniture had been moved into the apartments.  Earlier in the day, Amber-Marie and Gayle had finished leading one last session of therapeutic role-playing, giving each of the Friends a chance to practice how they would react and what they would say in response to behaviors and admissions they might see and hear from their clientele.  The pantries were filled as were two rooms that were being used as no-charge stores.  Stanley and Behnam had brought over all the books that were being removed from their library's inventory while Vincent had scavenged the Tunnels library for duplicates and turned up several dozen.  Mick and Beth had donated exercise equipment while Josef had gifted the Chrysalis with security cameras, all of which Logan had dutifully tested and retested.  The youngest vampire had also gladly parted with his older game systems and five computers, citing that he no longer had the time for marathon gaming or pointless tinkering.  Logan had set up the game systems, with carefully selected games, in the rec rooms and the computers were housed in the library.  Andrew and JenniAnn had brought along some of the plants from Willowveil's greenhouse, transplanting them into the greenhouse in the Chrysalis' courtyard which had been cleaned and landscaped.  It would be a touch of spring in the dead of winter, a comfort to those who sought refuge.

As early as the next day, the group would be ready to welcome and serve those who came to their door. 

Joshua beamed at the room's many inhabitants.  Nick, Reuel, Eleora, Cody, Zaila, Freya, Michael, Azrael, and Elazer were no longer gathered together at one section of a table.  Now they were interspersed among the Friends, enjoying easy and friendly banter.  Thandie and her girls had also become fast friends with the others with the former growing especially close to Maryam, Emma, and Amber-Marie.  Anika could often be found with Shelby, Jacob, and Liam while Nya could spend long hours gleefully singing and playing with Aiyla and the house pets.  At that moment, Zizi sat with Belle, Omar, and Manny at a tiny table of their very own, giggling and hanging all over each other as was their wont.

Together, they reminded Joshua of another devoted band... those who had followed him all over Galilee and beyond.  Though the mission he had given to the two groups differed, Joshua was confident that the Chrysalis group would be as successful as his earliest disciples.  After all, both missions had been rooted in love and the Friends had plenty of that.

Spotting his son, Yosef rose from his place beside Maryam and joined Joshua.

"Everyone is here now.  Except Josef, of course.  Were you speaking to him?"

Joshua nodded.

"His efforts in Atlanta were successful.  The raid's over and the FBI is scouring the place for files and more evidence as we speak.  The traffickers will all be held accountable and the victims will receive services... if they accept them."

Yosef pulled Joshua into his arms and kissed his cheeks.

"Praise God!"

Joshua returned his father's hug and kisses and managed a smile.

"Thanks, Abi."

"You are thinking of the others," Yosef guessed.

Joshua nodded.  He brightened when he saw his mother approaching.  She immediately encircled him in her arms.

"You have news?"

"Josef and his partners have brought down a trafficking ring in Atlanta," Joshua conveyed.

"I am so glad," Maryam replied as she stroked his hair.  "So he will be back soon?"

"Well..."  Joshua heaved a sigh.  "As soon as he can be but not as soon as he intended.  The victims... most of them are teenagers and young women.  A handful of men.  The shelter is well-equipped to see to their needs but there's a little girl.  She's taken to Josef."

Yosef stared down at his hands, tears welling in his eyes.  Maryam's closed briefly before she looked directly into her son's eyes.

"And so he is staying longer?" she guessed.

Joshua nodded.

"He... he looks like her daddy who died when she was three and I couldn't tell him over the phone but... there's a reason for that."

Yosef's head shot up.

"You meant for them to meet surely?"

"Yes but I... I meant for them to meet months ago before... before she'd suffered so.  But people wouldn't listen to the Spirit's pleas and..."  Joshua shook his head. 

"They are together now," Maryam reminded.  "Josef can help her now, my own. 

"Yes.  And he will.  He'll stay there for a few more days then commute as needed, I'm sure.  But he's sending us help in the meantime.  They'll arrive around 7:00 tomorrow morning.."

"They?" Yosef prodded.

Joshua's smiled stretched across his face.

"Isolde and Marco."

*~*~*

A pale faced girl with raven-colored hair trembled as she sat on a motel room bed in San Francisco. 

"Please... please, sir...  I... I don't want to do this.  That ma-man out-outside... he's forcing me to..."

Silent, the man in the room only pulled his shirt over his head and unzipped his jeans.

"I know ya've got to have a good heart in ya.  Please, just let me go and..."

Her pleas were rewarded by a hard slap across the face.

"Shut up.  Now."  The man sat on the bed and reached for the waistline of the girl's jeans.  "I like my girls quiet when I..."

The man didn't notice that the girl's eyes had begun to glow blue and fangs were protruding from her upper gums.  He only noticed that something was awry when he found himself hurled onto the floor and pinned there.

"AH!" the man bellowed when he looked up at the transformed girl.  In spite of her slight form, he wasn't able to move an inch.

"I gave ya a fair chance," she growled.  "I appealed to your sense of decency and kindness only to find both sorely lacking.  For Christ's sake, man!  I look all of fifteen years old!  Like them young, do ya?  PERVERT!"

The man groaned when her knee jammed into his groin.

The girl grinned.

"If only you knew how old I am...  I've seen your like before.  You're goin' to go away for a while now.  My detestable pimp outside?  He's really my best mate and he's just out in that hallway with a couple of cops.  So we'll see to that.  But when they finally let your sorry arse go, remember my face as it is right now every time you even think about hurtin' a little one.  Or anyone.  Do you understand me?"

Whimpering, the man nodded.

"Very good.  Because if ya don't... I will find you.  And next time, I won't restrain myself.  Now... let's see if we can't get ya some lovely silver bracelets."

The man still didn't move even when the girl rose and went to the door, allowing two uniformed officers into the room.  A third man stood just behind them.

"A demon!  She's a demon!" the john screamed, pointing once the men had heaved him off the floor.

"Right, buddy.  Anything you say..." one of the cops replied.  "So here we go...  You have the right to remain silent..."

After they left, the third man closed the door and hugged the girl.

"You okay, Isolde?"

"Ah, yeah.  Same old ting.  How many more have we got on the list?"

"Never mind the list.  Josef called.  Change of plans."

"Marco!  Never mind the list!" Isolde cried.  "We've got at least two dozen names of perps who are right here in this motel!"

"I know, I know.  But Josef has others from FS working on that.  He's held up in Atlanta and..."

"Is he all right?"

"Yeah, he's fine.  Just helping with recovery."

"Their bust was successful!" 

Marco smiled and nodded.  He loved it when Isolde's face shone as it did in that moment.

"A pretty big one.  Which is why he needs us to go to Manhattan."

"Oh right.  That other group he's partnering with..."

"Yeah.  He booked us the last flight outta town so we need to skedaddle."

"Skedaddle..." Isolde repeated.  "I love that word.  Ske-dad-dle."

Marco chuckled and shook his head.

"Sometimes I have a very, very hard time believing that you're over 500 years old."

"No respect for your elders!"

"You're only a year older than me, Isolde."

"A year's a year!  And my birthday's next week.  You better have gotten me something."

"I always do.  A man knows better than to forget his wife's birthday."

Isolde smiled and gave Marco a peck on the cheek.

"I know."

Hand in hand, the two vampires left the motel, returned to Josef's apartment where they'd been staying, packed up their things, and began the journey to Manhattan.

*~*~*

Back at the Chrysalis Court, dinner was finished and dessert was being dished out.  Once everyone had their cobbler and ice cream, Joshua moved to the head of the tables.

Nick tapped on his glass and a hush fell over the room.

Joshua smiled at the crowd and began to speak.

"Before we part for the night, I wanted to take this opportunity to thank you all for being a part of this.  The love, devotion, passion, and compassion that I've seen from you all this month... the Father and I couldn't be more pleased.  We love you all so much and I... I've treasured this time together."  Joshua wiped at a tear that was tickling his beard.  "The days ahead will bring challenges but I ask you all to continue to lean on each other... and me.  Remember, we're all in this together and while we need to take care of our guests, we also need to watch out for each other.  Eating, sleeping, confiding in each other... those are needs.  Don't be afraid to indulge in them.  Trust me, there will be times I'll need to eat, sleep, and talk, too.  Not at the same time, of course.  Not even I can do that."

The group laughed.

"My point is that there are a lot of us.  I know we'll be able to keep up with all our work without anyone making themselves sick.  I'd also like to keep up with our weekly Bible studies because I think we'll need that.  Nick, Azrael, Zaila, Reuel, Elazer, Freya, Michael, and several others who will be coming and going have all agreed to take turns monitoring the other floors so we can do that."

The Friends cheered and those who were near enough clapped Nick and the angels on their backs and squeezed and patted their hands.

"I want you to know, too, that it's okay to feel sad or angry or frustrated," Joshua continued.  "You're going to hear some tough, tough things.  It's normal to have emotional reactions.  Please, please don't hold it all in.  Finally, remember that my door is always open.  Any time, day or night.  And even when you decide not to come to me... I'm still there and so is our Father.  I'm so proud of you all and I love you so much."

In an overlapping chorus, the others replied.

"We love you, too, Joshua!"

"Love ya, Josh!"

"Ove oo!"

"Oooh!"

"I love you, my own."

Joshua blew them kisses and then, after John had shoved a dish of cobbler into his hands, he made the rounds hugging each and every one of them.  With each embrace and kiss, Joshua prayed for his children.

*~*~*

Andrew stared up at the ceiling, absently twirling a strand of JenniAnn's hair as she slept.  Once he noticed, he startled and stilled his left hand. 

"It's okay.  It wasn't pulling.  Just kinda... tingly."

The angel of death smiled and rolled his head to the side.

"You're up."

"Mmm hmm.  You're nervous." 

Sitting up, JenniAnn took Andrew's fidgety hand and brought it to her lips.

"Sorry.  I didn't realize what I was doing."

"It's okay.  I knew you had that tic before I declared my undying love and affection so I can't rightly complain about it."

Andrew chuckled as he, too, moved to sit up.

"So what's the deal?" JenniAnn questioned.

"I was thinking about how... how now you're going to be directly exposed to some of what I see out there during assignments.  You'll hear things and... and, well, you'll know that I've stood by while similar..."

Andrew was muted when JenniAnn kissed him.  He sighed when she then rested her head beneath his chin and softly stroked his chest.

"My feelings won't change, my love.  I know about free will.  I know about the rules angels need to follow.  And further... I know that Joshua stands by, too.  And sometimes that can be very, very hard to understand.  But I know at least something of how hard it is for him.  I saw him when Emma was struggling.  I saw the toll it took.  And I've seen the aftereffects in you for years now.  I can't be angry at you, Andrew.  Well, not about that.  Some other things... socks not quite making their way to the hamper and the like..."

The angel of death laughed and shook his head.  He tightened his arms around the woman and kissed her shoulder.

"Thanks."

"Welcome."

JenniAnn moved so she could look into Andrew's eyes.  After a few moments, she frowned.

"There's something else..."

"Sometimes I think you've developed the ability to read my mind."

"No.  Just to read you... nothing specific."

"Good.  If you could read my mind, I'm not sure what we'd talk about.  Your mind, I guess."

JenniAnn laughed and scrunched up her nose.

"Frightening thought!  But seriously..."

"Seriously...  I got to wondering about how long I have before it really sinks in for Belle what exactly Daddy does when I'm not at home.  Will... will she ever get mad at me for just standing around?"

JenniAnn's own face clouded.  It was easy enough to account for her own emotions... the emotions of a grown woman not filled up with puberty hormones.  Her face flushed as she recalled a few thoughtless exchanges she'd had with Andrew as a teenager and young adult.  And Belle was definitely spirited!  That much was obvious.  And not shy.  And very emotional.  It seemed to her that it truly was a matter not if Belle would ever get so angry at her Daddy... but when.

"It's so hard to say...  I maintained my naivete for quite a while.  Belle may not have that option.  When it does happen, I just hope I do right by you both.  I love you both so much...  It... it'd feel like being torn in two and..."

JenniAnn traced the contours of Andrew's face.

"Maybe it'll just be a matter of taking turns sitting with us, Laja.  Sometimes that's the best comfort, you know.  Just having you near," Andrew counseled.

JenniAnn gave him a sad, sweet smile.

"I really hope so.  No matter what, I know that, in time, Belle would come around.  She could never stay mad at her 'pitty Daddy' for too long."

Smiling, Andrew buried his face in her hair.

"Thanks.  That helps.  Now maybe for some sleep?"

"I think so."

The two got into their favorite sleeping position, her head resting on his shoulder with her hand over his heart and his hands joined at her hip, and drifted to sleep.

*~*~*

Sisters

Isra and Behnam lay in their bed, entwined in each other's arms.  Though drowsy after a passionate few hours, sleep remained elusive.  Isra smiled as Behnam's hand curved around her bare stomach.

"I hope she didn't mind that," Isra teased.

"She?" Behnam queried.

"Or he.  I suppose it's just a feeling...  Or maybe a wish.  Not that I wouldn't welcome and love another little boy.  As long as he or she is healthy."

Behnam nodded.

"And I don't think he or she minded.  Surely Joshua would have said something..."

Isra's eyes went wide.

"You think he knew that we, umm..."

"He announced he was babysitting Aiyla and Omar for the night.  You don't think he suspected we wanted... some time... before everything starts at the Chrysalis?  God knows all.  He's known all the other times we came together."

Isra nodded.

"Yes.  This is true.  I suppose I'm not used to then seeing him at breakfast the next morning, though... knowing he knows."

Behnam laughed.

"It is different.  But good."

Isra snuck a kiss.

"Very good."

"So why do you think... or hope... our baby is a girl?  I will not judge no matter what your reasons."

"I suppose I would like for Aiyla to have a little sister," Isra began.  "I'm sure it would be pleasant for Omar to have a little brother.  But I've never had or been a big brother.  I... I know sisterhood."

Behnam gently stroked his wife's face.

"Yes, you do.  It brings me joy to see Aiyla care for Omar... even sometimes too much.  I see Badriya and me in them.  I would like for you to have that feeling, too."

"I think... maybe tomorrow I'll ask Joshua about Salma.  It seems right... on her birthday.  He's spoken to you of Badriya so... so maybe..."

Behnam nodded.

"I think that would be a good idea, my star."

As Isra nestled against him, Behnam wondered if, this time, she would actually make good on her intent.  For over a month, Isra had brought up asking Joshua about her sister's fate.  Already she had asked about her father and been told he'd been happily reunited with her mother.  But her questions about Salma always seemed to die on her lips.  Sometimes Behnam was sure that Joshua wanted to say something more but he always remained quiet.  Clearly it was up to Isra to make the inquiry.  Behnam wondered if, perhaps, his wife hung onto some hope that her sister was still alive on Earth.  Asking Joshua would take away all doubt... and, maybe in her case, doubt was comforting.

"I think I'm going to sleep now," Isra murmured. 

"I think that's a very good idea.  I love you, Isra."

"I love you, Behnam."

Behnam turned off the bedside lamp and listened quietly as his wife's breathing settled into a quiet, steady pattern.  The sound soothed him and reminded him of how sleepy he, too, was. 

In his last moments of wakefulness, Behnam prayed that Isra would find the peace she needed.

*~*~*

February 6th, 2004

The two sisters snuggled together in their bed, the younger of the two trembling.

"Is... is Mor going to... to die?"

The older girl clasped her eyes shut as her mother's violent coughing resumed.

"Isra?"

"No, Salma.  Mor is not going to die," Isra lied.  She prayed it would not be that night.  Salma's birthday was the following day.

"Isra, will you tell me the story about how I was born?" Salma requested.

Welcoming the distraction, Isra smiled at her sister and began.

"Plaar had gone away, searching for work, and Mor and I were staying with Anaa and Baabaa.  Mor thought there would be more time but you were impatient."

Salma grinned.

"You began pushing, trying to get out.  Baabaa paced outside praying and Anaa tended to Mor."

"What were you doing, Isra?"

"I was singing.  A silly song.  'Bad baby, mean baby.  Do not hurt my Mor, baby.'"

"I did not mean to!" Salma protested.

Isra tweaked her nose.

"I know that now.  But I was little then.  Mor knew.  Suddenly, she was not screaming any more.  Baabaa let me back inside and Mor was sitting in Anaa's bed, cooing and smiling.  Baabaa asked me if I wanted to see the baby.  I nodded so he sat me down beside you and Mor and, suddenly, I started screaming.  Anaa picked me up and tried to soothe me.  She asked me what was wrong and, sobbing, I told her that Allah had made a mistake and sent us a little old person instead of a baby."

Salma giggled.

"Because I had no hair."

"Yes.  Because you had no hair.  All the other babies I had ever seen had lots of hair.  But not you.  Bald baby!  Anaa explained that it happened sometimes and you would get hair... and she was right."  Isra stroked her sister's long tresses which matched her own and their mother's.  "Then Mor let me hold you and I decided you were not mean or bad... or old.  I thought you had pretty eyes and a cute little nose.  And a few days later, Plaar came home.  He was sad because he had not found much work.  But then he sat beside Mor who was holding you and he pulled me onto his lap and said he was a very rich man."

"Because we made him rich..."

"Yes."

Salma let out a contented sigh.

In the hush, Isra could hear her parents from beyond the curtain.  Her mother's labored breathing, her father praying.  The crisis seemed to have passed.

Salma rested her head on her sister's shoulder.

"Isra?"

"Hmm?"

"Will you take care of me when... when Mor dies?"

Isra winced as she realized Salma knew all too well how dire their Mor's situation was.

"Yes, sweet sister.  I will take care of you."

Feeling safe and protected, Salma kissed her big sister then cuddled beside her and went to sleep.

*~*~*

Sunday, February 7th, 2016

She stared up at the ceiling, counting the tiles.  Thirty six.

She began to count them backwards, anything to keep her mind off what was happening to her body.

She tried not to look at the man.  She didn't want to remember any of their faces. 

Suddenly, the door was flung open.

"Get up!  Out now!  The feds are coming!"

"Damn it!"

The woman bolted to her feet and hastily redressed.  Her "client" was already halfway through the window.

"Out now!  Get in a van!"   

She nearly hit a wall when Damien tossed her into the hallway.  Stumbling forward, she ran into another girl.  Thankfully, she was a friend.

Zelda.

"Let me help you there."  Zelda took her arm.  "We'll ride together."

Soon they were both crammed into a van with a dozen other women. 

She'd vowed to never let them see her cry but with none of the johns or pimps around, the woman bowed her head and began to weep.  She'd been through this too many times before.  Always just minutes away from help, from rescue...

Zelda wrapped her arms around her friend's shoulders.

"We'll get away from them somehow.  Some day."

Another woman scoffed.

"We will," Zelda vowed.  After a moment, she brightened.  "I saw the clock in the room I was in.  It's after midnight.  So it's February 7th.  That's your birthday, isn't it?  I thought you told me that once."

There was only more weeping as a response.

Zelda kissed her friend's hair.

"Happy birthday, Salma."  She lowered her voice.  "Next year... we'll have cake and ice cream and be free.  You'll see."

Though she didn't believe her, Salma was touched by Zelda's optimism.  She rested her head on her shoulder and listened to her softly sing as they were driven to an unknown future.

*~*~*

The Tempest-Tossed


Back at the Chrysalis Court, Joshua was pouring cereal for Omar, Aiyla, and Belle as they sat in one of the kitchens.  His eyes filled as they said their sweet, innocent prayers.

"Thank You for the cereal."

"Tank You for mik."

"Tank You for bo."

Joshua laughed when Belle grinned and lifted her bowl up.

"You're very welcome but maybe let's sit that down before..."

"Oops..."

Belle bit her lip and peered up at Joshua after some cereal and milk sloshed to the table.

Joshua helped her set the bowl down.

"No problem."  He wiped up the milk and tossed a few damp Cheerios into the dogs' bowl.

"Aren't you gonna eat, Joshua?" Aiyla asked.

"I'll eat later.  I'm not hungry quite yet.  I have to leave in a little bit to go pick up two more helpers from the airport.  I'll eat after that."

"Nice helpers?"

"Yep."

"Osua?"

"Yes, Omar?"

"Osua sad?"

Joshua moved to hug the little boy.

"I'm okay.  Just a little sad but being here with you three makes me happy."

Andrew and JenniAnn entered the kitchen, smiling when they saw the three little ones.  Their expressions changed when they saw Joshua.  He looked like he hadn't slept well. 

"Hey.  How's everything going in here?" Andrew asked.

While the three kids excitedly told him about the movie they'd watched with Joshua and his mommy and daddy the previous night, JenniAnn took Joshua's hand and led him to the other side of the room.  She poured two cups of coffee then set her hand on the man's forehead.

Joshua smirked.

"Ama would be so proud."

"She'd probably be doing the same if she was here.  Are she and Yosef still asleep?"

Joshua shook his head.

"They're in the greenhouse, tending to the flowers."

"Aww.  Now as for you...  You look a little..."

"Cruddy?"

"I wasn't gonna say that."

Joshua hugged her.

"I know.  But I really am fine.  I just didn't sleep well.  During the night, the ring we're waiting on got found out... but too late.  By the time the officers got there, the place had been cleared out.  Now they're headed here."

"But that's a good thing, isn't it?  We'll get them once and for all here.  Or... we'll try, anyway."

Joshua nodded.

"It's just scary and upsetting for the victims.  And uncomfortable...  The way they cram them into those windowless vans..."

JenniAnn squeezed his hands.

"I'm so sorry."

"What's wrong?"

Emma, with Rose beside her, drew nearer.

Joshua smiled at them.

"I was just telling JenniAnn that the trafficking ring is on the move.  They're headed to us... which is good.  But it's frightening for those we're hoping to save."

The two newcomers enveloped Joshua in a hug.  After pulling away, Emma took a chair from the table and motioned for Joshua to sit.

He chuckled.

"Okay..."

Once he was seated. JenniAnn handed him his coffee and Emma moved behind him.  Joshua let out a contended sigh as Emma began to massage his shoulders.

"Just playing to type," she kidded. 

"Mary, mmm, that is good," Joshua quoted, still smiling.

"I should get you some bon-bons or something," Rose suggested.

With a laugh, Joshua shook his head.

"Maybe later.  Right now I'm content."  He smiled at the three kids.  "You know, I bet that after you're finished with your cereal and milk, Uncle Andrew and Daddy would be very happy to read you a story."

Belle and her cousins cheered and Andrew winked at Joshua, knowing it would be a convenient way for him to sneak out of the safe house without upsetting the little ones. 

"So what can you tell us about the people Josef's sending?" Rose asked.  Joshua had seemed excited about the impending arrivals the night before and she hoped talking about them would cheer him.

"Well, their names are Isolde and Marco.  They're Irish... although only Isolde has an Irish accent these days.  And... they're vampires."

"I wondered..." Emma mused.

"But take about every stereotypical thing you've read or seen about vampires and flip it," Joshua advised.  "Neither Marco nor Isolde has ever taken blood from an unwilling human.  And they've certainly never killed one of us."

"So they must be fairly young.  Post-blood banks, at least," JenniAnn surmised.

Joshua shook his head.

"Both are over 500 hundred years old."

"But how?" Rose questioned.

"I'll leave it to them to tell you," Joshua replied.  "As much good as they'll do our efforts, it'll do them good to make friends here, to have people to talk to."

"More Irish people.  Monica will be thrilled.  And Kemara, too.  They can swap stories!" JenniAnn enthused.  "Can they sing?"

Joshua chuckled and nodded.

"Very well."

"And their... needs will be seen to, I presume?" Rose checked.

"Yeah.  Mick brought some... beverages... last night so we stocked the refrigerator in their room.  Got some celery, too," Joshua answered.

Emma laughed.

"Wait... what?  Celery?"

"They like to pretend they're drinking Bloody Marys."

"Aww.  Well, I look forward to meeting them.  Are you sure someone else can't go get them so you can rest?" JenniAnn offered.

"I'm sure Max could.  I'd ride with him," Rose offered.

Joshua patted her hand but shook his head.

"I really do want to go and, actually, I should head out as soon as..."

"Let's go pick out a book to read!" Andrew shouted. 

The three kids clamored from their chairs and ran towards their playroom.  Andrew waved to Joshua before hurrying after them.

"Now," Joshua finished.  He rose and hugged the three women.  "I won't be long.  I'm sure Isolde and Marco will be exhausted and eager to get back here."

"I'd tell you to drive safe but I can't imagine you do any other sort of driving," Emma teased.

Joshua laughed and shook his head.

"Thank you for the thought, anyway."

After a round of kisses, Joshua left the kitchen.

"I really hope this all works out like he wants it to," Rose murmured.

JenniAnn and Emma squeezed her hands and nodded.

*~*~*

"Should we grab some sort of host gift?" Isolde asked as she and Marco wheeled their bags through LaGuardia.

"Maybe give them a rain check?  Wait until we have a better feel for their tastes?" he suggested.  "Besides, I don't know about you but..."

"I'm beat."

"Yeah."

"I hope we find this Joshua fellow quickly," Isolde offered as she scanned the crowds in the arrivals area.  "I'm glad Josef gave us a photo.  Striking sort, isn't he?"

"Very... rugged."

"Josef said he played Jesus once in Jesus Christ Superstar.  And another fellow we'll meet has, too.  Maybe if we're able to stick around long enough, we could even see their show."

Marco smirked.

"When that first came out, you were ranting that it was sacrilege and worse."

"Well... it just sounded bad!  Jesus!  Rockin' and rollin'!  I didn't think they'd take it seriously but..."  Isolde sniffled.

"Once I finally got you to the film version, you cried through all of Act II."

"It was so moving..."

Mindful of the swarm of people and their seeming age difference, Marco settled for merely patting his wife on the back.

"Maybe they have a recording we could watch," he hoped aloud. 

"That would be lovely!  Oh..." 

Isolde's eyes found the olive skinned man with unkempt black curls and a beard.  He was holding a colorful sign with her and her husband's names on it.  To her surprise, her dead heart seemed to beat for a few seconds.

"Are you okay?" Marco checked.

Isolde nodded and pointed him towards Joshua.  She studied his face.

Marco involuntarily let out a sigh when he spied the man.  There was something about him...  Something wonderful.

"Let's go meet him," Isolde whispered. 

Weaving around other passengers and their welcoming parties, Isolde and Marco hastened to Joshua who smiled as they approached.

"Isolde!  Marco!  Welcome to New York."  Joshua lowered his voice.  "My name's Joshua and, on behalf of everyone at the Chrysalis Court, we're so happy to have you.  And so grateful."

"We haven't done anything yet," Isolde shyly answered.

Joshua squeezed her hand.

"You will.  Now... I'm sure you're both exhausted and hungry so let's head on out.  Here, let me help you with your bag, Isolde."

Marco winked at his blushing wife when Joshua took her bag, leaving her with only her purse to manage.  Marco always appreciated finding another fellow who hadn't completely abandoned old-fashioned chivalry.

Once they had made their way to Joshua's gray car, the carpenter ushered both of his passengers into the back seat.

"Oh, we don't want to make you feel like a chauffeur," Isolde protested.

With a chuckle, Joshua shook his head.

"Don't you worry about that at all.  I just thought you'd be more comfortable this way."

Isolde patted his arm before climbing inside.

"Thank you, Joshua."

"Thanks," Marco echoed.

"My pleasure.  So... radio or silence or yours truly singing?" Joshua kidded.

"Singing would be wonderful!" Isolde chose with complete seriousness.

"Oh, well, okay!"

Once they were out of the parking lot and on the road, Joshua began to sing.

"'Near Banbridge town, in the County Down, one morning in July, down a boreen green came a sweet colleen and she smiled as she passed me by.  She looked so sweet from her two white feet to the sheen of her nut-brown hair.  Such a coaxing elf, I'd to shake myself to make sure I was standing there.'"

Pleased to hear a song of their homeland, Isolde smiled at Marco and the two joined in on the chorus.

"'From Bantry Bay up to Derry Quay and from Galway to Dublin town.  No maid I've seen like the sweet colleen, that I met in the County Down.'"

Isolde and Marco were so into the song that neither noticed Joshua go silent as they passed a windowless van.  He knew the driver and knew he had nothing inside except camping equipment.  However, the van's presence made Joshua think of other windowless vans that were, at that very moment, making their way across the country.  To him.

*~*~*

By the time they reached the Chrysalis, both vampires were wearied from their travels.  Promising proper introductions later, Joshua showed them to their room.

Isolde paused outside.

"We'll share a room?" she queried.

Joshua cocked his head.

"You don't want to share a room?"

Isolde's face flushed and she looked up at Marco.

"Well, no.  I mean yes.  I mean I do.  We just... don't want to upset anyone..."

Joshua realized then that their sing-a-long had prevented him from giving the couple a proper rundown.  He ushered them into the room and closed the door.

"You don't need to worry at all about anyone thinking poorly of either of you.  We've met Josef and Mick and Logan.  Everyone feels safe with them and they will with you.  And because we skipped introductions, if you'd like, while you're resting, I can get word out that you're married and, in spite of appearances, you're a year older than Marco, Isolde."

After a silent check with his wife, Marco beamed at Joshua.

"We'd really like that.  Thank you.  It, umm, gets really tiresome to not be able to act like husband and wife.  That being said, I can't help but be grateful when people do see us together and cause a fuss.  If everyone did that... spoke up when they thought a girl was being wronged..."  Marco sighed.  "Well, we'd be out of jobs.  But happy."

"Very happy," Isolde echoed with tears in her eyes.

His eyes also glistening, Joshua smiled tenderly at them.

"It's my constant prayer," he murmured. 

After letting out a deep breath, Joshua briefly hugged them both. 

"I'll let you get settled in.  When you're ready to meet everyone, and there's no rush, just make your way to that common area I showed you, okay?"

"Okay.  Thank you so much, Joshua."  Isolde flashed a grin.  "I enjoyed singin' with ya."

"As did I," Marco added.

"We'll do it again sometime," Joshua vowed.  "Oh...  The fridge is stocked.  Mick saw to that.  There's some celery, too.  And if you need cooling off, I made sure that you were closest to the ice machine."

Isolde paused in opening her bag and again smiled at Joshua.

"Thank you!"

"You've really thought of everything!" Marco, in awe, commented.

"Like I said earlier, we're grateful," Joshua replied.  "Oh and don't worry about getting to Mass.  We've got a priest friend, Fr. Mike, coming in at 2:00 for that.  If we don't see you before then, I'll make sure someone comes around to rouse you."

Knowing how much Mass attendance meant to his wife, as well as himself, Marco squeezed Joshua's hand.

"Thank you.  I'm sure we'll be up and around by then but it's good to have a Plan B.  We'll see you there?"

Joshua nodded.

Isolde smiled sweetly at him.

"Thank you for telling us.  I'm very grateful to have that option and look forward to meeting Fr. Mike."

"You're very welcome," Joshua replied.  He returned Isolde's smile before turning to the door.

Just before he stepped into the hallway and closed the door, Joshua saw Isolde pull a crucifix and a candle from her bag.  He knew they would soon be joined by a statue of his Ama and a dozen paintings and statues of saints and angels.

Isolde never settled in a place for long without setting up her little shrine.

*~*~*

Not long after Joshua's return from the airport, Isra and Behnam arrived at the Chrysalis Court.  They caught up with their son and daughter, shared lunch with the Friends, received Joshua's report on Isolde and Marco, and then looked for an opportunity to speak with the carpenter alone.  It was Joshua, however, who approached them.

"How are you both?" he asked after greeting them with kisses on their cheeks.

"Very good," Behnam replied.

"And you?  You look tired.  I hope Omar and Aiyla didn't keep you up," Isra fretted.

Joshua took her hand after she placed it on his forehead.  He gave it an affectionate squeeze and shook his head.

"Not at all.  I probably would have gotten even less sleep without them there.  It did my heart good to see them and Belle all snuggled together."

"You have so much on your mind," Behnam observed.

Joshua nodded but said nothing.

Isra began to second guess her intent to ask about Salma.

Sensing this, Joshua leaned closer.

"I know this is a difficult day for you, Isra.  Perhaps you, Behnam, and I could talk privately in my room?"

With tears in her eyes, Isra nodded.  Hand-in-hand, she and Behnam followed Joshua to his room. 

After seeing to it that the couple were comfortably settled onto a loveseat, Joshua pulled an ottoman in front of them and took Isra's hands in his.

"I've felt, several times, that you've wanted to ask me about your sister, Isra.  And I've wanted to tell you about Salma... but not before you were ready.  Now though..."

"I'm ready," Isra murmured.

Joshua released one of her hands which Behnam promptly took.

"Isra... Salma is alive.  Here on Earth but... her life hasn't been a happy one."

After a few moments of utter shock, tears rolled down Isra's cheeks. 

Behnam let go of her hand and looped his arms around her waist.

"But... but I can find her," the woman replied.  "Help her to have a happy life going forward!  I will find her!"

Joshua's smile was both tender and proud. 

"You will help her, sweet Isra.  But you won't need to find her.  Isra, Behnam... this next part is going to be very difficult to hear a-and I want you to... to be honest with me.  To not... try to protect me."

The couple gave solemn nods.

"Salma survived the attack you thought you'd lost her in.  But barely...  A kind couple found her and were able to nurse her back to health.  She was still quite weak when the situation around their home worsened.  The three fled, joining so many other refugees.  Tragically, the couple who had befriended Salma were lost at sea.  Once Salma reached the shores of Greece, she found herself alone... but not for long.  Because Salma knew some English, some of the men viewed her as very useful.  They figured an English-speaking wife might make it easier for them to resettle.  Salma didn't want to marry but she realized her options were few.  She accepted one man's offer and they were married.  He was not a cruel man but there was no love between them."

More tears filled Isra's eyes.  She thought of her poor sister, married to a man she didn't love... sleeping with a man who viewed her only as "useful."

Behnam focused on only one word.  Was.  Salma's husband "was."  Past tense.  He shuddered to think of what a young girl, alone, might face.

"While they were in Greece, Salma's husband got into a fight with another man.  He was dealt a fatal blow and Salma was, once again, alone," Joshua continued. 

Behnam noted that the carpenter seemed to be steeling himself.

"Salma met a woman who took her under her wing.  At first, the woman was very kind to her.  Then she introduced Salma to her 'husband.'"

The pained look on Joshua's face made Isra feel queasy.

"Isra, my beloved, the couple... they were traffickers."

Horrified, Isra let out a wail. 

Tears streamed down Joshua's cheeks.  He tried to console the woman but she hurried away and crumpled in a corner.

His own eyes filled, Behnam looked to Joshua for direction.

"Go to her.  She... she doesn't want me right now."

Feeling as if his heart was torn in two, Behnam nodded and went to his wife.  He cooed and rocked as she clung to him and sobbed.  All the while, he peered over her head to Joshua whose head was in his hands.  His shoulders shook as he, too, wept.

"Why... why didn't you do anything?" Isra cried after several moments.

Joshua rose and knelt a yard away from the couple.

"I tried.  The Spirit spoke to so many...  Pleaded...  But the people... they either wouldn't hear or... or wouldn't act.  I never let Salma go, Isra.  Never.  I was... and am... with her.  Always.  And... and she's one of the reasons I came back, Isra."

While Isra remained disconsolate, hope rose up in Behnam as he continued to study Joshua's face.

"The... the trafficking ringleader in Greece was killed by a rival some time ago.  The rival took over and decided to move the ring to the States.  Dallas, Texas, most recently.  Early this morning, they got word of a pending raid.  Now they're on the move again.  Isra, Behnam... it's the same ring we're going to try very, very hard to bring down.  Salma is one of the people we're trying to help."

Isra lifted her head from Behnam's shoulder and peered at Joshua.

"Salma... she's coming here?"

Joshua nodded.

"They should arrive tomorrow."

Isra brightened.

"And then someone can go get Salma!"

"Isra..." Joshua started.

The woman crawled towards him and gripped his hands tightly.

"I... I need my sister.  She needs me!  I... I promised to take care of her.  I know you can bring her to me.  Please, Joshua!"

Behnam's eyes again flooded.  He sympathized with both his wife and his Lord.  He tried to imagine how it would feel to not be able to give Aiyla something she desperately wanted and needed.

"Isra, I don't know exactly where they're going to settle.  We may need some time to track them down."

The woman's face clouded.

"Salma could be... be raped a-again in the meantime!  Several times!" she shouted.  "Can't the Father tell you where they'll be?"

"Isra, please..."  Behnam stroked her back and tried to calm her when he saw how her anger was affecting Joshua.

"She... she's my baby sister," Isra whimpered.  "My Salma..."

Joshua's eyes were brimming when they met hers.

"They're all my children.  If... if we do something hasty to rescue Salma and it scares those running the ring... I'll lose my chance to save the rest of them."

There was silence, interrupted only by sniffling.

Isra heaved a sigh.  She realized then, through all the pain she felt, how deep Joshua's must be.  She grieved for the trauma inflicted upon one sister.  He grieved for the pain of countless daughters and sons.

"Soon, Isra.  I... I promise we'll get to her as soon as we can.  Please, believe me," Joshua pleaded.

To Behnam's relief, Isra closed the distance between herself and Joshua.

"I... I'm sorry," she whimpered.  "I be-believe... you."

"Thank... thank you," Joshua choked out as he held Isra.

Behnam knelt behind the two and wrapped his arms around them as all three wept.

*~*~*

Isra left it to Behnam to tell their friends about Salma.  She sequestered herself in their room at the Chrysalis where Maryam was her first visitor.

Joshua's mother said nothing.  She only settled beside Isra on the bed, wrapped her arms around her, and stroked her back and kissed her hair as she wept.  In between crying fits, Maryam used one of the handkerchiefs she'd made for Isra to wipe the tears from her face. 

"I... I'm trying to keep calm for... for my baby but..."  Isra peered into Maryam's eyes and shook her head.  "I... can't."

Maryam smiled sadly and patted Isra's belly.

"Your little one is fine.  If crying were detrimental to babies in the womb, my Yeshua would have been quite damaged."

Isra sighed and rested her head on Maryam's shoulder.

"I was unkind to him."

"I know."

"You're not angry?"

"Yeshu is not angry.  Why should I be angry?  You are in pain.  You have learned something terrible has befallen someone you love.  I know the feeling... I know the anger."

"You were angry at... at God?"

Maryam nodded.

"I accepted His will for Yeshu... but that does not mean I was not angry.  Less so on Saturday.  And not at all come Sunday.  But on Friday?  Yes.  I understood that Yeshu is His son... but he is my baby."

Isra hugged Maryam's arm.

"Salma was such an adorable little girl.  Her smile... I... I was so... so happy whenever I saw it.  I... I worry I will never see that smile again even when... when we get her back.  I think of... of how I felt the night Behnam and I were forced to marry.  So afraid a-and heartbroken a-and lonesome... but... but he was beautiful and now I love him so.  There... is no... no love... no beauty in... in what... what Salma is... is being made to... to do."

"No, there is not, dearest Isra.  But you... Behnam... your precious little ones... you will bring that love and beauty back to Salma.  I believe with all I am that, one day, she will smile.  Even when he has gone from your sight, Yeshu will remain with her.  He will whisper to her of love, of joy.  And she will have so many friends.  We will all help Salma to find her smile again.  I promise you this."

Isra closed her eyes as Maryam kissed her forehead.  She felt as if she was enveloped in her Mor's arms.

The tenuous serenity was interrupted by a knock on the door.

"I will see..." Maryam began before a voice came through the door.

"Isra, it's JenniAnn... and Catherine, Thandie, and Isolde.  We have some snacks... and Isolde has news." 

"Come in," Isra called in a weak voice.

The door opened and the four other women stepped in.  Having never met Isra, Isolde hung back.

JenniAnn swooped down to Isra's other side and embraced her.

"I'm so sorry!"

Isra nodded and squeezed her hand.

"It is still so... hard to... to believe," Isra confessed.

Thandie pulled up a chair.

"I won't stay long, Isra.  But I just wanted to come in here and remind you that... that there's so much hope.  When Nick first brought me here, I saw it only as a place to keep my girls safe.  I couldn't imagine that I would ever feel valued or loved or... worthwhile again.  But in so short a time, I already feel all those things.  I have every hope that your sister will find the same peace."

Isra smiled at Thandie.

"Thank you.  That does help."

"I'm so glad.  And, please, if you think it would help, talk to me.  Ask me anything that would help you.  But right now... I have to go.  I left Nya styling Azrael's hair.  I know he's an ang...  He's a patient sort but surely even he only has so much patience."

In spite of her sorrow, Isra laughed and nodded her assent.

Catherine settled into the empty chair and patted Isra's knee.

"Vincent asked me to tell you that you should take as much time as you need.  Don't worry about classes to..."

Isra shook her head.

"No.  I want to go to classes tomorrow.  Maybe when... when Salma is here, I'll take time off.  But... it would do me good to see the children a-and I want to see Vincent.  But I am thankful."

"I'll tell him," Catherine assured.  "You let us know if there's anything we can do."

"I will.  I promise."

"Good.  Can I get you some tea and scones?" Catherine offered. 

"Yes, please."

"Maryam?"

"That would be very nice, thank you."

Catherine and JenniAnn both got up and took the tray from Isolde.

"Do you think I should tell her now?" the vampire whispered.

"Yes, I think so," JenniAnn replied.  "Catherine?"

"Definitely."

"Okay."

Maryam smiled up at the girl as she approached.

"Isra, this is Mrs. Isolde Crocetti.  Isolde, Mrs. Isra Al-Mitra."

Isolde smiled gently and shook Isra's hand.

"I'm so pleased to meet you, Isra.  And your husband, too.  We were talking earlier.  I haven't properly met your little ones yet but I saw them.  They are such adorable, wee things!  What are their names?"

Isra beamed.

"Thank you.  Our little girl is Aiyla and our baby boy is Omar."

"Well, I can't wait to get to know em.  And Behnam told me you're expectin'?"

Isra glanced down at her belly and nodded.

"Almost sixteen weeks along."

"Congratulations!  Babies are so special."

"Yes... thank you.  A-and you have news for me?"

Once Isra and Maryam had their tea and scones, Isolde nodded and began.

"When Marco... my husband... and I awoke, Joshua and Behnam told us about your sister.  I am so sorry, Isra.  But please know that we have already begun to plan.  Marco and I have mostly worked with FS to... that's Freedom's Sanctuary, Josef's group."

Isra nodded.

"Good.  Anyway, Marco and I have worked on some of the larger busts but we mostly work on smaller cases.  Either sting operations or rescue operations with a limited number of victims... survivors.  So in discussin' things with Joshua, we have a plan.  He's got Logan huntin' the web, lookin' out for the ring to re-instate their web site.  As soon as they do, Joshua will make contact and pose as a john.  He'll request your sister and a friend of hers and direct them to a hotel not far from here.  Behnam will go with him."

"Behnam!" Isra cried.

Isolde nodded.

"Joshua thinks it best.  As soon as... as the pimp leaves Salma and her friend with them, Behnam will reveal himself.  So Salma will know, right away, that she is safe."

Isra squeezed Maryam's hand.  She felt the tension in her body easing slightly.

"Meanwhile, Azrael, Nick, Zaila, Freya, Marco, and myself will rent the three rooms adjacent to the one Joshua will be in.  We'll unlock the connecting doors, whisk Salma, Behnam, Joshua, and the friend through the rooms and out of the building with the pimp none the wiser.  Andrew will be waiting in a nearby alley with a Mr. Maxwell, is it?"

Catherine nodded.

"Joe."

"Good then.  They'll have an unmarked car and get your sister and the others away from there then bring them here."

Tears of relief bathed Isra's face.

"Salma... she... she really will be here!"

Isolde patted her arm.

"I may have just met Joshua but I can tell he's a man of his word and this plan seems very solid to me."

"It... it does," Isra agreed.  She drew in and let out a deep breath then smiled at the newcomer.  "I'm glad you're here, Isolde.  Not only because of your help but also..."  Her face flushed.  "Joshua told us that you are not really as young as you look and not at all younger than your husband but that you have dealt with people's distrust of your marriage.  Behnam and I have faced similar."

Isolde smiled tenderly.

"It's a hard thing.  Defending your man when people think he's no good for you.  Although... a little empowering, too, don't ya tink?  It shouldn't always be the man doin' the defendin', ya know?"

Isra nodded in ready agreement and soon the two were swapping stories and becoming fast friends as JenniAnn, Catherine, and Maryam looked on, glad that the first crisis had passed.

*~*~*

That evening, the Friends gathered together for dinner.  Isra was heartened by the support and well wishes from them all as well as the reports that were given after the children had been ushered to the playroom for dessert.

"I feel like more than the usual amount of people asked for the special sandwich wrappers today," Monica shared.  "As best I could, I got word out that I'd personally been to this safe house and still volunteered here.  I think that helped."

"I'm sure it did," Arthur encouraged. 

Joshua beamed at his angel.

"Thanks, Monica.  As for the wrappers, both Dusty and Moishe have agreed to start using them, too.  Thank you to Emma and Samson for going with me to visit with them about this."

"It was my honor," Samson replied.  "Dad's very proud to be involved with this.  And, Tiva, Mom said she's going to be calling you.  She wondered if your ladies' group at the synagogue might be able to do a fund/awareness-raiser?"

Tiva squeezed her husband's hand and nodded.

"I'd planned to bring that very idea up myself.  And Yakov intends to do a sermon series on trafficking."  She turned to Thandie.  "Our thanks to Thandie for volunteering to speak."

"I'm grateful for the opportunity!  And to Fr. Mike for the same.  Tomorrow evening, right?"

The priest nodded.

"It's the feast of St. Josephine Bakhita.  She was a former slave and Sister.  I thought it was the perfect opportunity to get the word out to parishioners."

"St. Josephine!  She's one of my very favorites for that reason." Isolde cheered.  "I have a little painting of her in my shrine.  Right by St. Nicholas.  And..."  She withdrew a chain from her neck.  "I wear their medals, too.  They're my picks for patron saints in the battle against human trafficking."

Directly across from Isolde, Nick smiled.

"I think St. Nicholas would be very pleased with your designation.  I'd like to see your shrine some day, Isolde, if you'd be willing."

Isolde eagerly nodded.

Marco smiled and patted his wife's back.

"It is a sight to behold.  Isolde is Catholic to the max.  I'm just normal Catholic."

Joshua chuckled.

"It takes all kinds," he remarked.

Isolde smiled at him and then at all the others.

"I think it's so wonderful that, with your varying religions and denominations, you've united around this cause."

"Jewish, Christian, Muslim... we all share a common history, common ancestors," the rabbi observed.  "Ancestors who were enslaved for a time.  We believe this is God's own cause."  He quickly glanced at Joshua.  "And so we share it."

"And we want to do everything we can to ensure this mission succeeds," Andrew added.  "So maybe you could give us some pointers, Isolde and Marco?  You've had a tour now.  Anything you think is lacking?"

"Lacking?  Not at all.  I'm astounded by how comprehensive this place is!" Marco remarked. 

"There could be enhancements, though," Isolde added.  "What you have... all the services... they're wonderful.  Eleora showed me the class list and there are several I'd love to take part in!"

"We hope you do," Diana encouraged.  "We all plan to.  We want those who come here to truly feel that we're all in this together.  That we're teaching each other, not simply us teaching them."

"And that sounds wonderful!  My only concern is that some of the people who come... they may prefer to be on their own," Isolde explained.  "At least at first.  I wonder how word will get to them?  Perhaps one of the classes will spark their interest but they may not be comfortable simply showing up."

Kemara, who had been gazing down at Joy, perked up.

"What about a newsletter?  Every morning we could slip one beneath the doors, giving the day's schedule.  Maybe a few blurbs highlighting particular offerings."

"And with the arts and crafts classes, we can always leave supplies out.  Maybe even treat it like room service.  Deliver a coloring book and markers to their door?  No problem," Owen suggested.

"That would be perfect!" Isolde asserted.  "And while that bit of contact... handing something off to them... might not seem like much, it would be a good start.  I can still remember, at Josef's Russian shelter, there was a girl who very nearly barricaded herself in her room.  We'd drop food off, she'd open the door, grab it, and that would be it.  Then, about two weeks later, she finally called to someone to ask if she could get a notebook and pencil.  Of course, Josef saw to it that she got them.  Then she started leaving little notes as thank yous.  Finally, about three months into her stay, she stepped outside her apartment, picked up the tray, carried it to the dining room, and ate with everyone else.  Now she teaches poetry classes there."

Hearing this, Behnam clasped his wife's hand.  She responded with a wavering smile.

"No matter how long it takes, we'll work with Salma," he promised.

Isra brought his hands to her lips and nodded.

"Perhaps we could also have a book listing distributed," she suggested.  "Behnam and I know how freeing books can be."

Stanley, who had come as soon as he'd heard the news about his protege's sister-in-law, gave an eager nod.

"Keep a listing, too, of books they might ask for but that we don't have on hand.  I've grown very familiar with online used bookstores as I've had to replace library books over the years.  Sometimes they come very cheap, especially with my discount."

"Excellent ideas!" Joshua praised with glistening eyes.  "This... you all... really wonderful."

As John clapped his emotional cousin on the back and several of the others crowded nearer to Joshua, Isolde and Marco each wondered who this fellow was who held such sway.  Josef was universally admired and respected by the FS crowd but this went beyond company loyalty.  It was as if Joshua's emotions impacted those of the whole group.

Isolde again thought she felt her heart beating.  When Marco hugged her arm, she looked up at him and knew she wasn't the only one who felt so enlivened.

*~*~*

"Care for a glass of wine?"

Marco tore his gaze away from where his wife was visiting with some of the ladies and met Andrew's gaze.

"Yes, please," he replied as he accepted the glass.  His eye brows rose after taking a sip.  "What is this?  It's divine!"

Andrew stifled a chuckle.

"It's from the True Vine Winery... another of Joshua's many projects."

Mick, who had been patiently answering Marco's many questions, grinned.

"It's so good, sometimes I think I could live on that alone.  I tried.  No dice.  But if I could have only one wine for the rest of my life, it'd be Joshua's."

"A real Renaissance man, that one, huh?" Marco observed.

"And you would know, having lived through the Renaissance.  You and And..."  Mick, realizing that he'd nearly exposed Andrew, feigned a cough.  "You and Isolde."

Marco laughed.

"Yeah, I guess we would.  But really... safe house operator, carpenter, I hear, vintner, singer, actor...  What doesn't he do?"

Mick and Andrew exchanged a fleeting glance.

"He's definitely multi-talented, our Joshua," Andrew complimented.

"Definitely.  So how long have you all been together?  Josef told me that you were friends before this venture."

"Some of us have known each other for years.  Andrew and JenniAnn, for example, will be celebrating the sixteenth anniversary of when they met on St. Patrick's Day," Mick bragged.

Blushing, Andrew smiled at JenniAnn who was among those making friends with Isolde.

"Sometimes it's hard to believe it's only been that... and sometimes it feels like I've known her for so much longer."

"I think I know the feeling," Marco offered.  "Mick, how far back do you and Beth go?"

It was Mick's turn to blush.

"Well... Beth was kidnapped when she was 5 and her mother hired a PI to find her.  That was me.  Then we completely lost contact until she was well into her twenties.  I wasn't, like, creeping on her or anything."

"No judgment here," Marco assured. 

"Thanks.  So then we fell in with Andrew and JenniAnn and their crowd about what?  Eight or nine years ago, Andrew?"

"Yeah.  And then it was 2014 when our group really came together.  A bunch of us worked on a production of Jesus Christ Superstar here in town.  So that brought us in contact with Zeke, Diana, Emma, Peter, Kylie, the Romano boys, Eric, and we just kept growing from there."

"And that's also when you met Joshua?" Marco checked.

Mick remained mum, content to let Andrew reply.

"Well, some of us knew Joshua but, yeah, some people really came to know him then.  Oh boy.  I think my daughter's trying to give your wife a makeover."

The three men looked over to where Belle was petting Isolde's hair, a bag of "pitties" in her other hand.  Isolde gamely sat down and let the little girl do her work.

Marco laughed.

"Don't worry about it.  Isolde loves kids.  I'm sure she doesn't mind."

Mick glanced over at his fellow vampire and noted the familiar wistfulness in his eyes.  He wished Marco could know about Joshua and the impending cure. 

Andrew caught his glance and gave a calming smile.

"Soon," he mouthed.

Mick nodded and then he and Andrew led Marco away to properly meet their significant others.

*~*~*

Daisy

Josef sipped his wine and stared out the window of his apartment in Atlanta.  He was trying to decide how and when he could get back to Manhattan.  His employees were doing a fine job of tending to their most recent clients.  Counseling, legal help, job skills...  They offered it all.  Vampires and humans both, they were a dedicated, skilled bunch.  They didn't need him lingering.

But she did.

Josef rested his forehead against the cool glass and closed his eyes.

He wasn't like Mick who, pre-Joshua, battled the occasional and then more frequent bouts of angst about his childlessness.  He also wasn't like Logan who bought two of every collectible.  One for him, one for the kid he hoped to one day have.  And Josef definitely wasn't like Isolde and Marco who got dewy eyed whenever a baby or small child was near. 

Even when Sarah was alive, Josef had only been consumed with longing for her.  Never for the children they might have had.  Only for her. 

He was fond enough of Belle and Liam and Jacob and all the rest.  They were adorable, naturally.  It was amusing to watch them play.  And, sure, in a pinch he would volunteer to babysit.  Thankfully, no one had ever been that desperate.

But Daisy was different.

Maybe it was simply that, in her confusion and pain, she had called him "Daddy."

Josef's empty stomach churned as he remembered it.

He'd been running through the brothel, ensuring the rooms were cleared.  Their informant had told them that the traffickers kept a lone child.  She'd been abandoned there by her mother.  But Josef's staff hadn't found a child...

*~*~*

Saturday, February 6th, 2016

"Josef!"

The vampire halted in his search when Jolie, his assistant, hissed in his ear.  Turning to her, Josef saw a pain he wouldn't soon forget in her eyes.  Silently, she took his hand and led him, quietly, down the hall.  They entered a room that was barren save a mattress on the ground and scattered clothes.  Misty, Freedom's Sanctuary-Atlanta's intake counselor, was on her knees and seemingly speaking to a closet.

"It's okay now.  You can come outta there.  We're the good guys.  We're here to help you, sweetie."

Only a child's wail replied.

"We gotta get her out of here, Josef," Jolie whispered.  "What if they come back and..."

Josef nodded.  Frightened people, even children, could be surprisingly strong.  Sometimes it fell to him to forcibly remove them and carry them to the ambulances. 

Josef set a hand on Misty's back.

"Let me give this a try."

Misty nodded and backed away.

"Hi there, honey.  My name's Josef.  Misty, who's been talking to you, is my friend.  We have a place... a home... not far from here.  It's filled with nice, good people who will never, ever hurt you.  We'd like you to go there with us but we have to hurry so..."

The child screamed again.

Knowing time was of the essence, Josef threw open the closet door.  He blanched when he saw a skinny, naked, little girl with wild hair.

Mid-scream, she quieted.  Then, suddenly, she was hugging his knees.

"Daddy!"

Taking advantage of the lull, Josef took the colorful fleece blanket Misty had been holding and wrapped it around the child.

As her sobs gave way to faint whimpering, he scooped her up and carried her outside.

"Daddy..." she repeated as she nuzzled his chest.

Josef said nothing, not wanting to disrupt the delusion if it was going to keep the girl calm.  However, all hell broke loose when he tried to hand her off to the ambulance crew.

The little one began to kick and scream, all the while maintaining her hold on Josef.

"I think you better go with her," Misty advised.  "We'll see you back home."

"Maybe you should go with us?" he asked Jolie.

She shook her head and patted his back.

"You've got this, boss."

With a reluctant nod, Josef climbed into the ambulance.

"It won't take long at all until we're settled in, honey.  I think you'll like it where we're going.  There are lots of bright colors and books and toys.  New clothes.  Good food."

The girl simply peered up at him.

"Not Daddy," she finally said.  "Like Daddy.  Daddy's in Heaven."

Josef felt his chest tighten.  He ached to think of the child going from grief to terror in her short life.  But at least her words told him she knew he wasn't her father.  Now maybe he could get some answers.

"Can you tell me your name?"

"Daisy."

Josef smiled. 

"That's a very pretty name.  It reminds me of a song."  He glanced at the doctor.  "Do you think Dr. Mia here could listen to your heart and take your temperature if I promise to sing for you?"

Cheering, Daisy nodded.

"I'm just going to stick this thermometer in your ear, sweetheart.  It won't hurt a bit," Dr. Mia promised.

"Okay, here goes...  'Daisy, Daisy give me your answer do.  I'm half crazy all for the love of you.'"

Daisy clapped and grinned.

"Daddy's song!"

Patting her hair, Josef continued as Daisy hummed along, unbothered as the physician did her work.

"'It won't be a stylish marriage, I can't afford a carriage.  But you'll look sweet, upon the seat, of a bicycle made for two.'"

*~*~*

Sunday, February 7th, 2016

Josef brushed at a tear before downing the rest of his wine.  He needed guidance.

Now.

Grabbing his cell phone, Josef began to type away.  Thankfully, the answer was soon in coming.

John's phone.  John typing.

Josef chuckled.

How's everything at CC?

Good.  No takers yet.  But Joshua thinks soon.  Monica handed out several wrappers.

Good.  Is Joshua there, by chance?

Right across the hall, talking with some of the Friends in the library.  Should I get him?

If he's busy then I can wait.


He's always busy and never busy.  If you need him...

I do.

I'll have him call you.

Thanks, John.

You bet, Josef.  Take care.  Praying for you.

Josef smiled at the string of praying hands emojis.

Thank you.  Hope to see you soon.

Likewise.

Only a minute later, Josef's phone rang.

"Joshua..."

"Hey there, Josef!  How are you?  What's going on?"

"It's good.  Really, really good.  Most of our clients are settling in really well and, for the others, we've got some volunteers from the hospital working with them so... we're doing good."

"Josef...  What's wrong?"

The vampire's eyes flooded.  He should have known he couldn't pull one over on God.

"There's, umm, this little girl.  Daisy."

"Daisy..." Joshua lovingly repeated.

"Strange thing...  She seems to have really taken to me.  I mean she's doing okay with the other caregivers but when she gets really upset..."

"It's you she wants," Joshua finished.

"Yeah."

"I don't think that's strange at all, Josef.  You're her hero and..."

Josef began to sob.

"Josef..." Joshua cooed.

"I... I can't stay here.  I need to... to see you.  Be there.  I feel like I'm cracking up, Joshua.  But to... to leave her..."

"Bring her."

Josef scoffed.

"I don't think Child Welfare's going to let me just abscond with a kid who isn't mine.  She says her dad's dead but they're searching for living family and..."

"They won't find any."

"So... she'll go into foster care after her time here?"

"Don't worry, Josef.  Let me see what I can do from my end.  Just..."

"Josef?" a voice called from the hallway.

"Hold on a sec, Joshua.  Jolie just called for me."

"I'll wait."

Josef hastily wiped his face then opened his door.

"Hey, Jolie.  I'm on a call what..."

A wail cut Josef off.

"It's Daisy.  A nightmare.  Misty's trying to calm her but..."

Josef nodded and brought his phone back up to his ear.

"Go to her," Joshua directed.  "We'll talk more later."

"Sounds good.  Thanks, Joshua.  I... I love you."

Jolie's eye brows crooked upwards.

"I love you, too, Josef.  Good night."

"Night."

Josef ended the call.

"Joshua... isn't that the guy from the shelter you're partnering with in New York?" Jolie asked as they hastened towards Daisy's room.

Josef nodded.

"He's... like a brother."

"Oh.  I see.  Good.  You need that."

Entering Daisy's room, they found the little girl in fetal position on her bed.  As soon as she saw Josef, she held her arms up.

Josef picked her up and settled into a rocking chair, wrapping Daisy's blanket around her.

Misty patted his shoulder then left to check in with her other charges.

"There now, honey.  You're okay.  You're safe now.  No one here is going to hurt you," Josef assured.

"Hurted..."

"I know, Daisy.  But never again.  I promise."

Josef eyes filled when he felt her clasp the shoulder of his shirt.  Such a powerful, desperate little grip.  He so badly wanted her to feel safe.  He waved to Jolie who knelt beside the rocking chair.  She crouched so her ear was level with his lips.

"Can you please get the bag just inside my closet?" he requested.

"Sure."

A few moments later, Jolie returned.  She smiled as she handed the bag over to her boss.

"Thanks," Josef whispered as he took it.  Carefully, he readjusted Daisy on his lap so he could hold the bag on his other knee.

"Daisy, I got you something when I was out earlier.  A little friend to watch over you."

Daisy watched, nervous but interested, as Josef removed a doll from the bag.  Her face lit up when she saw the toy.  She had dishwater blonde hair that matched her own and a colorful polka dot dress.  A glorified rag doll, she was entirely soft to the touch and, as Daisy soon discovered, utterly huggable.

Josef smiled as Daisy loved on the doll.

"What are you going to name her, honey?"

Daisy, who had buried her face in the doll's hair, pulled back and studied her.  Suddenly, her face lit up.

"Sarah!  Her name is Sarah."

Taken aback, it was a few moments before Josef could reply.

"Sarah...  A beautiful name for a beautiful doll.  You've chosen well, Daisy."

"Sarah..." Daisy murmured before planting a kiss on the doll's forehead.  "My dolly?"

"Your dolly," Josef averred.  He watched as she traced the doll's stitched on features and kissed her hands.

"My Sarah..."

Josef gently stroked the girl's hair.

"Song, Josef?"

"What song?" he teased.

"Daisy song!"

"All right then...  'Daisy, Daisy...'"

*~*~*

Monday, February 8th, 2016

New York City district attorney Joe Maxwell had met a lot of powerful people in his day.  However, none inspired the awe that the humble, plainly dressed carpenter sitting across from him did.

Of course, it helped that a month before, Cathy had given him and Angie a tour of her friend Joshua's new shelter for trafficking survivors.  The couple had been amazed at all the work that was being done.  However, that was nothing compared to the shock that came when the four, five once Vincent had shown up, were sequestered in Joshua's office.

"Joe, there's something you need to know about Joshua," Cathy had begun.  "We need you to know because we're going to need your help... and your trust."

"Okay...  Let me guess.  Joshua's God," Joe had teased.

Joshua had chuckled.

Catherine and Vincent had bowed their heads.

Angie had gaped, her fingers tightening around his.

"Bingo."

And, with that single word, Joshua had revealed his divinity.

It was a very different Joshua who sat across from Joe now, flanked by Cathy and Amber-Marie.  This Joshua was careworn with a beard that was a little too long and bags under his gold-flecked eyes.

"What do you need, Joshua?  Anything I can do, I'll do it," the district attorney promised.

Joshua smiled at him and reached across his desk to take his hand.

"Thank you, Joe.  I appreciate that.  What I need is help getting a little girl named Daisy transferred from the custody of Atlanta's Child Protective Services to New York City's.  She's bonded, very strongly, with Josef.  But he needs to come back here, among friends."

Joe nodded.

"I understand.  But Atlanta won't.  I know that the best place for little Daisy is here.  After all, she'll be near you.  But how do I tell Atlanta that?"

"You'll tell them that you have an ideal foster care placement for Daisy," Catherine replied.  "Amber-Marie is registered as a foster parent.  They're not going to find better than a psychiatrist who specializes in helping clients cope with the aftermath of being sexually abused.  And Daisy's current caseworker has seen how strongly attached she is to Josef.  So a psychiatrist who could also keep Daisy in regular contact with the one person who is able to comfort her?  The choice is obvious."

"I'm willing to fly down there, let them meet me," Amber-Marie offered.  "And then I could fly back with Josef and Daisy.  She'd never be alone.  And, at the Chrysalis Court, she'd be able to play with other children.  Always with supervision, of course."

"Josef told me that Daisy's currently the only little one at his safe house in Atlanta.  That's not healthy.  But it also wouldn't be good for her to wind up in a group home where she may not get the one-on-one attention that she needs," Joshua explained.

"All great points and if compassion and common sense were the law of the land, we'd have an airtight case.  I'll give Atlanta a call and I'll plead our case as best as I can.  I promise you that.  But I am worried that they'll shoot me down," Joe admitted.

Joshua heaved a sigh then smiled at Catherine and Amber-Marie. 

"Ladies, would you mind giving Joe and me a few moments?" he requested.

For his part, Joe began to fidget.  He felt like a child being called into the principal's office.

"Sure," Catherine agreed.  "I'd like to say hello to some of my old colleagues, anyway.  Amber-Marie, I'll introduce you around.  They're a good group to know."

"Great!  Thanks, Catherine."

Once the door was shut behind the two women, Joshua turned back to Joe.

"Joshua, please know that I'm sorry I can't guarantee..."

Joshua adamantly shook his head and patted Joe's hand.

"I'm not angry at you, Joe!  Far from it.  I'm grateful for your help.  I only asked for this time alone because I don't want Catherine and Amber-Marie to know what I have to tell you.  Not yet."

Joe let out a sigh of relief and settled back into his chair.

"Go on."

"Daisy... she's in some of the photos."

Joe's stomach churned when he noticed Joshua's gaze drift to the thick file on the credenza behind him.  The color drained from the lawyer's face. 

"Does she remember them being taken?" Joe asked, his voice heavy with emotion.

Overcome with the torturing memories, Joshua could only nod.

"We, umm, we have a pretty solid case.  But there's always the chance that a jury member would believe his story that a former co-worker put those images on his computer.  If we had a witness..."

Joe's voice drifted off.

"She's not ready.  Not yet."

Joe replied with a nod and squeeze of Joshua's hand.

"We'd never force Daisy, Joshua.  I promise you that.  But... I could use this with Atlanta.  I'm guessing that's why you told me?"

"Yes."  Joshua looked to Joe with a teary, grateful smile.

"I don't mean to second guess you but... don't you think Amber-Marie, at least, should know?"

"I do.  But I need to talk to Josef first.  And I don't want to put Amber-Marie in the position of slipping and being the one to tell him.  She will, after all, be spending a couple days in Atlanta."

"Good point.  Well... no sense waiting.  Is there a particular person I should speak to?"

Joshua nodded and handed over a slip of paper.

After taking it, Joe rose from his desk and moved to Joshua's side.

When Joshua stood, the two men embraced.

"All those hours I spent as an altar boy... listening to first Fr. McMurtry then Fr. O'Reilly... Fr. Sullivan... all of them talking about how Jesus carried the weight of the world on His shoulders.  I... I think I really get it now," Joe murmured.

Joshua tightened his embrace.

"We'll get Daisy here," the district attorney vowed. 

"Thank you, Joe," Joshua replied as he pat him on the back.

After they'd stepped apart, Joe returned to his desk and picked up the phone.

Joshua bowed his head and prayed as he listened.

*~*~*

Later that afternoon, Joshua and Gayle dropped Amber-Marie off at the airport.  By that evening, she was comfortably settled into a room at FS-Atlanta with her heart already captured by little Daisy.  A smiling photo that Josef texted of Amber-Marie and Daisy, with Sarah, enjoying sundaes lent Joshua some peace and happiness as the day came to an end.  The mood was conveyed to all the Friends who enjoyed a convivial dinner together.

When it came time for dessert at the Chrysalis Court, Andrew and JenniAnn were surprised to discover that the sweets-favoring Belle was no where to be found. 

Knowing the safe house was secure, neither parent worried over the mystery.

"Let's see... she was sitting with her usual crowd at dinner and then...  Ah.  She came at Isolde again with her pitties," JenniAnn recalled.  "I led her away... I didn't want Isolde to feel obligated... and tried to distract her with a book and then she played with cars with Liam for a bit but..."

Andrew scanned the library where many of the Friends were hanging out.  Marco was visiting and laughing with Edward and Caleb but Isolde was absent.

"I'm guessing our intrepid little elf went to find Isolde," Andrew surmised.

"I'll go check Isolde's and Marco's room."  JenniAnn hugged Andrew then went in search of their daughter.  She was still several feet away from the Crocettis' room when she heard the vampire's lilting voice and Belle's animated vocalizations.

"And this here is St. Mary Magdalene.  She was one of Jesus' very first followers, you know."

"Ah!  Osua!"

"Do you mean Joshua?  Well, I spose he does look quite a bit like Jesus probably did.  Now here's St. Patrick.  He's very important.  He brought Christianity to Ireland.  Without him, I might be worshipin' a tree.  No offense to my pagan ancestors, of course, but... a tree?"

Belle giggled.

JenniAnn peeked around the corner of the room and grinned at the sight of Belle balanced on the vampire's hip.  Both seemed to be mutually enchanted.

"Mama!" Belle called.

Isolde startled when she spied JenniAnn.  Though she could usually smell people approaching, she'd been so intent on telling Belle about the saints that she hadn't noticed.

"I'm sorry to interrupt you... although I think I'm not the first one," JenniAnn apologized.  "Andrew and I noticed that Belle had wandered off and we figured she was literally in your hair again."

Isolde laughed and kissed the toddler's cheek.

"I think that was her intent.  I didn't mean to sneak off and be unfriendly but it's been a couple of days since I prayed my rosary and..."

JenniAnn reached for Belle who willingly moved into her mother's arms though she continued to smile at Isolde.

"I'm sorry!  She interrupted your prayers!"

Isolde shook her head.

"It's okay.  Truly.  I enjoyed tellin' her about my friends here."  Isolde waved to the saints' icons and candles.  "I hope you don't mind but I saw you at Mass with Belle and I assumed you were Catholic so..."

"Oh no.  I don't mind at all.  And, yes, we are Catholic.  But you deserve your privacy so we should head out."

Isolde rested a hand on JenniAnn's shoulder when she turned.

"No, please.  I'd really like for you to stay.  I'm sure Our Lady will listen to me later, too."

JenniAnn thought of Maryam and Yosef, sitting in a corner of the library.  She nodded.

Isolde stroked Belle's back.

"It... it's just nice to be allowed to spend time with a... a happy wee one.  I actually wouldn't have minded Belle doing my hair again."

JenniAnn squeezed the woman's hand.

"Then let's do that."

While Belle and Isolde settled onto the foot of the bed, JenniAnn pulled a chair near.  As the toddler busied herself with Isolde's brush and her barrettes, the two women began to talk.

"If you don't mind my askin', does Belle know she's a-d-o-p-t-e-d?" Isolde inquired.  With everything involving Salma, she and Marco had been given a rundown of the Al-Mitra/Chandler/Darcy family tree.

"I don't think she knows the word yet.  But she knows how her Daddy and I found her.  Owen and Kemara made her an adorable book about it."

"That's wonderful!  And, ah...  Sorry, I'm being nosy."

JenniAnn shrugged.

"No other way to catch you up than answering questions."

"So could you and Andrew not have children naturally or..."

"We're actually both asexual so... short answer: no."  JenniAnn hesitantly offered.  As Catholic as Isolde was, she wondered if she'd be told there was no such thing.

"Interesting!" Isolde enthused.  "Sometimes I wonder if I'm demisexual myself.  I mean five hundred years and only wantin' one man?  I mean he is a very handsome man..."

JenniAnn giggled and nodded.

"And maybe Marco is, too.  At least I don't tink he wants anyone else..."

"I'm sure not."

"Yeah...  Ya know, I was very conservative in terms of s-e-x in my youth.  I spose I still am in some ways.  I'm ashamed to say that I was very judgmental about gay people for some time... the old Catholic position," Isolde admitted.  "But, over the years, you see and hear and experience too many things...  Marco and I had some friends... two men... this was, oh, three hundred or so years ago.  Hal and Henry.  They were some of the very, very few humans to know the truth about us.  They, umm, found us feeding off of their sheep.  They were so kind to us, though, when we begged forgiveness and discretion.  Then they told us their story.  Both had been rejected by their families, nearly forced to marry ladies of their parents' choosing.  They'd fled to the moors to be together.  How could I judge them after they'd been so compassionate with us?  Marco and I stayed nearby for several years, helping them with things around the cottage as they grew older and weaker.  We watched them care for each other.  We were there when Hal buried Henry."  Isolde swiped at a tear.  "We buried Hal only a month later.  If that's not love...  If I ever get to Heaven, I fully expect to see Hal and Henry there.  They were good, kind, prayerful men."

JenniAnn squeezed Isolde's hands.

"I'm sure you will."

"Thank you.  And I'm sorry to be blatherin'.  It's only that I don't have much of an opportunity to talk like this with another lady these days.  We're always so busy with FS...  Anyway, I only asked about you and Andrew because, well, I think that's the worst part, for me, about being... this.  To not be able to have children.  Not even to adopt because we wouldn't pass a background check.  People are generally horrified by the idea of a vampire being near a child.  I can remember when Marco and I went to see Coppola's Dracula...  Goofy Marco!  He loves those Godfather movies.  I never knew why.  It's not like they make his people... he's half-Italian... look very good!"  Isolde wrinkled her nose.

JenniAnn laughed.

"Anyway, so he wanted to see Coppola try his hand at Stoker and I'd heard that, visually, it was quite sumptuous.  And the dresses in the commercials...  So we went.  We made it to the part where Vampire Lucy steals that little child.  I went hysterical and we had to leave the theater.  That's not who we are!  I would die before I'd hurt a little one!  Marco, too!"

Isolde craned her neck to look at Belle who was intent on her barrette-laden hair.

JenniAnn rested her hand over Isolde's.

"I know.  When Andrew and I figured that Belle was likely with you, neither of us was afraid.  We were only concerned she might be pestering you.  Those of us here, we trust you, Isolde.  Joshua likes you very, very much and you'll learn that Joshua's a very good judge of character."

Brightening, Isolde turned back to JenniAnn.

"He does seem awfully special.  And I couldn't help but notice... Joshua, Maryam, Yosef.  Jesus, Mary, Joseph.  I take it they're very Christian?"

"Oh... they definitely believe whole-heartedly that Jesus is the Son of God, born to save us."

"And they even have a cousin named John!"

"Yep.  He's quite the character!"

There was silence for a few moments.

"Do you all happen to have a recording of your Superstar show?" Isolde shyly inquired.

JenniAnn's eyes lit up and she gave an enthusiastic nod.

"That we do!  Actually, we have one of the Joshua version and one of the Peter version."

"Peter seems amazing but... do you think I could borrow the Joshua one?"

"Of course!  As soon as we're done here, I'll grab a DVD for you.  Do you and Marco have a laptop?  I could lend you mine if..."

"We do have our own laptop but borrowing the DVD would be great!  Thank you!"

As Isolde began to hum "Superstar" and Belle vocalized along, JenniAnn prayed that the show would help the couple see who Joshua truly was.

*~*~*

That evening, after the others had gone to bed, Joshua and Logan met in the computer room.  Logan smiled when Joshua made a mug of wine materialize for him and another of coffee for himself.

Logan took a long sip of the wine then sighed.

"Thank you.  Hits the spot.  But... I think coffee is the last thing you need, Joshua.  I can do this on my own.  You should try to get some rest."

Joshua patted Logan's arm and shook his head.

"No.  I want to be with you for this.  It won't be easy, Logan."

"I know but..."

"I'll be fine.  Really."

"Okay.  I guess I can't argue with someone who's infallible."

Joshua chuckled.

"Well, you can.  You'll just lose."

Logan laughed and then, with no notice, pulled Joshua into a bear hug.

Tears welled in Joshua's eyes as he patted the man's back.

"I'll be fine," he whispered. 

"I... I just can't imagine what this will feel like for you.  Un-until we find their site, we'll have to search a-and you'll see things...  Your daughters and sons... like that."

"It'll be very, very hard, Logan.  But I have one of my sons right here to help me through it.  And I have my Father.  We both do."

"Yeah..."

"Let's start, okay?"

"Okay."

For over an hour, the two scoured shady web sites.  Utilizing some of his hacking skills, Logan got up-to-the-minute notifications of domain registrations in the area.  After sifting through several for businesses, aspiring artists, blog-obsessed folks, churches, and schools; Logan paused.

"This one, you think?"

Joshua looked at the domain name and nodded.

"It usually takes an hour or more for the domain company to prepare the web space.  Assuming they kept their old files, they'll likely have the site running within minutes afterwards," Logan explained.

"So now we wait.  But let's keep an eye on things.  Just in case that's not them."

"Okay."

"But that doesn't mean we can't have fun while we wait," Joshua tantalized, tilting his head to another computer which switched on and opened to Super Mario Brothers.

Relieved to have a distraction for them both, Logan grinned. 

"A classic.  You go first!"

Joshua smirked as he settled into the chair and took command of the keyboard.

"Okay.  And no going easy on me."

"I wouldn't dare!"

While they periodically paused to check on new domain registrations, Joshua and Logan took turns playing for two hours.  Finally, around 2:00, they sat back down in front of the original computer.  Logan entered the suspected web address and, seconds later, glossy images of scantily clad women appeared. 

"Escorts..." Logan scoffed as he read the text.  "Is... is this it?"

Bowing his head, Joshua nodded.

"Same images, same layout as their previous page.  Only the locations and contact information are changed.  They're here."

Logan dutifully took down a phone number then closed the browser. 

"I can call for you, if you want," he offered. 

Joshua gave Logan a small, grateful smile but shook his head.

"I'll make the call.  But not until later.  I need to talk to Behnam first, arrange a time with Joe, make the hotel reservations."

"Got it."

"How are you doing?" Joshua asked as he peered into Logan's eyes.

The vampire sighed.

"It hurts... knowing this is going on.  But it helps knowing we're doing something to stop it.  And by this time tomorrow... Salma will have her family back."

Logan hugged Joshua tightly.

"She'll be with you."

Joshua nodded and let out a sigh.

"Yeah.  And thank you for being with me tonight."

"I'm glad I could be.  But now... I think it's time for you to get some rest.  I don't want your mom to get mad at me."

Joshua chuckled.

"All right then.  Are you staying here?"

Logan gave a nod.

"I'm not tired and Super Mario is fun on one player."

"Enjoy then.  Good night, Logan."

"Good night, Joshua."

With another embrace, Joshua left the room.  He smiled when he heard the familiar video game music.  He silently said a prayer of thanksgiving to his Father.  Logan had touched the darkness and yet retained his inner light.  Joshua knew they would both need it in the days ahead.

*~*~*

The Rescue Mission


Tuesday, February 9th, 2016

At breakfast, Logan and Joshua announced their discovery.  After the cheers had calmed down, planning began.

"I'll reserve the rooms under my name... with financial backing from Joshua, of course," Nick relayed.

"We're going to tell them it's for a group of us coming in for a family reunion," Freya explained.  "Then we'll call a few hours later and say two of our cousins canceled so we need to drop one room.  Joshua will then call immediately after we've hung up and, because the operator will have just canceled one of our rooms, he or she will likely turn around and give it to Joshua."

"Nick, Freya, Zaila, Isolde, Marco, and myself will arrive at the hotel around 3:00, looking like we came straight from the airport," Azrael continued.  "But all we're going to have inside our suitcases are changes of clothes for the two ladies, Joshua, and Behnam.  Some food, too.  And a letter from Isra."  He smiled gently at the young woman.

"That's a lovely touch.  Although I might suggest that we also bring a video one of us could play on our phones," Isolde recommended.  "A letter can be forged.  A video of that sort can't be.  Isra, would that be okay?"

Fighting tears, Isra nodded.

"I would love that."

"Good.  We'll stay in the rooms until after 7:00 so that it's dark when we leave.  For added protection," Nick stressed.

"Isra, would you like us to have Salma call you?" Zaila checked.

"If... if she wants.  But if she feels it would make the wait more difficult.  I... I only want whatever she wants."

"All right.  That's very good of you.  We'll leave it to Salma then."  Zaila's smile shifted to Behnam.  "Has Joshua spoken to you about what to wear?"

Behnam glanced at the carpenter and nodded.

"A hoodie.  I'll keep my face hidden from Salma until the four of us are alone.  So she doesn't react in any way that might alarm the... the man with her," Behnam finished with difficulty.

"Very good.  And then Isolde and I will stay after you've all left, making noise in the room so the scum doesn't suspect?" Marco asked.

"That would be very helpful," Joshua replied.  "Thank you."

"How will you two get out?" Isra queried the Crocettis.

"It depends," Marco replied.  "We might sneak through the other three rooms ourselves, leaving just before Joshua's allotted time is up.  Or... we could jump out the window if that seems wiser."

Some of the Friends gasped.

Isolde smiled and shrugged.

"We're like cats.  We always land on our feet."

"Very good.  Then what?  Andrew and Mr. Maxwell will have already driven the van away, won't they have?" Behnam questioned.

"Yes.  We'll take off with the rest of the group as soon as they arrive then come straight here," Andrew verified. 

"Tyron will be on duty so will 'arrest' Isolde and Marco. 
Even supposing the pimp saw Isolde and Marco leave and followed them that long, he's not going to go up to a policeman so... the chase ends there.  Tyron will then drop Isolde and Marco off at True Light," Arthur added.  "And either Zeke or I will take them through the Tunnels and get them back here."

Isra looked to Isolde.

"You are okay with this?"

Isolde and Marco both gave ready nods.

"It's much more planned out than some of our stings.  And not to toot our own horns but... there's no way the cretin's going to be able to outrun us," Marco averred.  "At worst, he'll be out of breath and hunched over when he sees my lovely wife and me get arrested."

Isolde rose and hugged Isra.

"We'll be fine.  We all will be.  I promise."

Her tears beginning to fall, Isra returned the embrace.

After they drew apart, Isra moved to where Joshua sat.  He was immediately on his feet, holding her.

She wept freely and clung to him as he sang his Ama's lullaby to her.

*~*~*

Salma awoke to someone shaking her shoulder.

"Get up!  Lazy girl!"

"I'll get her up, Gunnar.  Please stop shaking her.  She doesn't feel well."

"She better start feeling well.  I got her a gig.  They specifically asked for a Muslim girl.  Only got one of those.  They want her to bring a friend.  How about it, Zelda?"

"No," Salma groaned.

"I'll go with her," Zelda countered.

"Good.  Be ready in 30."

"Okay."

When they were alone, Salma peered up at her friend.

"Why..."

"Because I'm worried about you.  I don't want to leave you alone."  Zelda put her hand against Salma's forehead and frowned.  "You don't feel hot but... I think you caught something during the trip.  Or maybe it's just all the pollution here.  Anyway... it's not like I was going to get to enjoy a leisurely evening with a box of chocolates and some champagne."

Salma smirked then her face darkened.

"I don't like it when they specifically ask for a Muslim girl."

Zelda stroked her friend's hair.

"I know.  I don't either.  They usually have an ax to grind.  I won't let them hurt you."

Salma knew that, in truth, Zelda would be helpless.  Gunnar had said "they."  Two men.  Maybe more.  Part of her wished they'd be the violent type.  Deadly, even.  Then she could die and never have to do this again. 

"I don't like it when you look like that," Zelda murmured.

"Like a whore?"

"Salma...  You're not a whore.  I mean when your face darkens like that.  It scares me."  Zelda embraced her friend.  "Don't leave me.  Please."

Salma sighed and wrapped her own arms around her friend.  After a few moments, she pulled back, nodded, and began to dress.

*~*~*

At the Chrysalis Court, the day had been spent in a flurry of activity.  While many of the Friends had gone to work and school as usual, others had been present when it became clear that the sandwich wrappers were doing their work.  Shortly before noon, a woman named Kisi called seeking deliverance from domestic servitude as a nanny and maid.  No sooner had Reuel and Eleora been dispatched to pick her up than another call came in.  Gayle had listened, with tears streaming down her face, as a sixteen year old girl named Ruby told her about how her stepfather forced her and her younger sister to "entertain" him and his friends.  Switching to her cell phone, Gayle had stayed on the line with the girl right until the moment she, Elazer, and Emma had shown up at their door and whisked the teenagers away.  The rest of the afternoon had been spent getting the newcomers as comfortable as possible in their new quarters.

By 4:00, things had quieted and many of the Friends had returned from work and convened in the library.  All of them were awaiting a call from Nick whose group had headed to the hotel an hour before.

John jolted when his phone, resting on a table, rang.  He immediately scooped it up and answered.

"Hello?  All six of you?  And can you tell if anyone's in the fourth room?  No.  Good.  Okay.  I'll tell them."  John took the phone away from his ear and gave his cousin and Behnam a wavering smile.

"They're ready for you."

Joshua nodded and turned to Behnam.

"I think we should head out.  It'll give us a little extra time to convene with the others, just in case we have to make any changes."

Behnam gave Isra a squeeze and kissed her temple then stood.

"I'm ready."

Andrew rose and hugged him.

"Joe and I will be waiting for you.  Anything you want us to have ready?"

Behnam considered the question then shook his head before thinking better of it.

"No.  I mean yes, actually."  He looked to Isra.  "Is there enough time for you to bake those pastries Salma loves so much?"

Her eyes lighting up, Isra nodded. 

"They take very little time.  Yes, I can do that!"

Joshua smiled proudly at Behnam, recognizing that he was seeing to it both that his wife would have something to focus on and that his sister-in-law would have an added bit of comfort.

Andrew clapped his friend on the back.

"Then we'll be there with pastries."

Myriad hugs were quickly exchanged between Joshua, Behnam, and the others.

Maryam and Yosef sandwiched their son in a joint hug.

"We will be praying for you, my own," Maryam promised.

"Unceasingly," Yosef added.  "And we will look forward to meeting Salma and her friend."

Touched by their complete confidence in him, Joshua kissed his parents' cheeks.

"Thank you.  Please... do what you can to help Isra while I'm gone.  I know you will."

"I will not leave her side unless she asks me to," Maryam replied.

"I won't," Isra offered before slipping an arm through Maryam's free one.

Joshua brought Isra's hand to his lips then gave it a squeeze.

"I will be fine," Isra assured both Joshua and her husband who stood to his side.

"We will be back soon, my star," Behnam vowed.

With a solemn nod, Isra embraced her husband and her savior once more before they left the Chrysalis and made their way, via subway, to the hotel and to her sister.

*~*~*

After arriving at the hotel with Behnam, Joshua was
relieved to discover, upon checking in with Nick's crew, that everything was going according to plan.  Better even.  Not only had the hotel ensured that Nick's key unlocked the adjoining doors on the three "family reunion" rooms but they had also mistakenly given him access to Joshua's room. 

"And I was so looking forward to picking the lock," Azrael had joked. 

Following a final rundown of their plan, Behnam and Joshua had returned to their room to wait.  After a few silent, strained moments, Joshua took Behnam's hand.

"Pray with me?"

"Of course."

"Our Father, Who art in Heaven," Joshua began.

"Hallowed be Thy name," Behnam picked up when the carpenter's voice shook.

"Thy kingdom come.  Thy will be done, on Earth as it is in..."

The two men were interrupted by a knock on the door.

"Is this Leon's room?" a harsh male voice asked.

Joshua squeezed Behnam's hand then went to the door.

"It is.  One second," he shouted back, going to the adjoining door and giving it a swift, light knock to alert the others.  He turned around and saw that Behnam had his hood up.  Joshua went to the door and opened it.  He stared at the man, Gunnar.  He knew if he looked at either Salma or Zelda, he would crack. 

Gunnar pushed the two women past Joshua then closed the door behind him.

"We require payment up front."

Joshua nodded and handed over a wad of bills.

Gunnar did a quick count.

"You have em for four hours.  Exactly four hours.  No more."

"Got it."

"I'll be by later to pick them up."

"Sounds good."

With a final nod, Gunnar left the room. 

As soon as the door was closed, Joshua hastily locked it.  He rested his forehead against the jamb and took a few deep breaths before turning around.

"So, umm, what is it that you're into?" Zelda asked once Joshua was facing her.  "And... your friend?"

Joshua allowed himself to look at the two and tears clouded his eyes.  He waited for the signal.  A knock on the adjoining door.  He sighed when it sounded.  Azrael had peeked into the hall and made sure Gunnar was gone.

"My friend," Joshua began, "is named Behnam Al-Mitra."

Salma gasped and spun around to face the other man who was seated on the foot of the bed.  Behnam stood, lowered his hood, and held his arms out.

"I... I don't un-understand..." Zelda stuttered.

"Salma..." Behnam murmured.

Salma half fell and half walked into her brother-in-law's arms.  She began to sob.

Joshua gently took Zelda's arm when she started to shake.

"My name isn't Leon, Zelda.  It's Joshua Davidson and I run a shelter, the Chrysalis Court.  It's for survivors of trafficking.  I have several friends helping me, including Behnam... who is married to Salma's sister, Isra."

"Isra..." Zelda repeated as she stared at her friend.  Salma sometimes spoke of Isra.  The reality of what was happening suddenly hit the girl.  They were being rescued!

"This... this is real?" she choked out.

"Very real," Joshua reassured.  "A few of our friends are in the next three rooms over.  They have some food and fresh clothes.  We're going to wait here for a couple of hours, until it's dark, and then we're going to make our escape and join Salma's sister and the others at our safe house.  Okay?"

Zelda nodded before flinging her arms around Joshua and, like Salma, dissolving into tears.

"Isra will be so happy when we get you back to the Chrysalis," Behnam murmured to his sister-in-law.  "Aiyla and Omar, too.  We have all missed you so much, sweet Salma."

"Isra's sent you a letter, Salma.  A video, too, if you'd like to see them," Joshua offered as he continued to console Zelda.

While she still kept a grip on Behnam, Salma turned to Joshua and nodded.

Joshua gave Zelda a gentle pat on the back and turned her towards the adjoining door. 

"Let's go in the other room.  The letter and video are there.  And you're probably hungry.  We can have dinner."

"Do... do you think I could shower first?" Zelda inquired.

"Of course.  You can do whatever you want," Joshua replied as he knocked on the door.

Zaila promptly answered.

"Welcome, Salma and..."

"Zelda," Joshua introduced.  "Ladies, this is Zaila.  And that's Nick just over there.  And Azrael and Freya just coming in from the other room and Isolde and Marco behind them.  They all work at the Chrysalis Court."

Not wanting to crowd the two young women, the others hung back and only smiled and waved in greeting.

"Zelda would like a shower," Joshua whispered to Zaila.

"Of course!"  Zaila held her hand out to the girl who tentatively took it.  "We brought some clothes so how about you pick something out that you like first?"

Zelda looked down at the skin-tight, flaming red dress she was wearing.  She would be grateful to never set eyes on it again.

"I... I would like that.  Thank you." 

She followed Zaila into the next room where Isolde and Freya had laid out their offerings.

Joshua's attention shifted to Salma who refused to relinquish Behnam.  Azrael held Isra's letter out which Joshua took and brought to the siblings.

"Here's Isra's letter, Salma.  Maybe Behnam could read it to you?" he suggested.  Salma could read fairly well, he knew, but now was not the time to tax her.

"Please."

Behnam led Salma to a couch then sat down beside her and took the letter.  He drew in a few deep breaths then began to read.

"My dearest sister, my heart and soul rejoice to know you're alive although I ache knowing what you have suffered.  I long to put my arms around you and hold you close, never to part from you again.  I dream of seeing my babies once again reunited with their beloved auntie.  Oh Salma...  I love you so much, sweet sister.  I am counting the minutes until you are with me again.  All my love, Isra."

"Isra..." Salma cooed.  After Behnam handed her the note, she began to trace the letters.  "And video?" she asked after a few moments.

Isolde stepped nearer, holding out her phone. 

"Would you like me to start it?"

Salma nodded.

Isolde pressed play then gave the phone to the girl.

Fresh tears welled when Salma saw her sister. 

"Salma...  My Salma," Isra murmured.  "I... I am not sure what to say other than what's in my note.  There is so much I want to say... but with you here.  I... I want to say 'I love you' over and over again.  For right now... I have this."

Salma's fingers caressed the screen as her big sister sang a lullaby that their Mor had soothed them to sleep with.

When she had finished, Isra gave the camera a teary smile.

"I'm here, Salma.  At the Chrysalis Court... waiting for Joshua and Behnam to bring you to me.  Do not be afraid, my sweet sister.  You are safe now.  You are almost home.  I love you, Salma.  So much."

Salma rested her head on Behnam's shoulder and wept as Isra blew her kisses before disappearing. 

Behnam softly swayed.  He soon realized that Salma had drifted off.

"Poor Salma," Zelda whispered when she returned.  "I don't think she's feeling well."

Behnam looked up to Joshua in alarm.

"Probably allergies," Joshua posited though he knew this was true.

Behnam relaxed.

"Zelda, let's make you up a plate," Freya offered.

"Oh...  Yes, please," Zelda replied when she saw the spread of crackers and cheese and fruit and vegetables. 

Once she was seated, Freya brought her a pamphlet about the Chrysalis and a couple of the newsletters Kemara had prepared.

"I thought you might want to know about where we're going."

"Sure.  Thank you.  I... I still can't believe..."  Zelda picked up a newsletter.  "Maybe this will make it more real."

The others were quiet as the girl read, her eyes misting. 

"It... it sounds like a dream.  Will Salma and I be able to share a room?"

"Sure.  And we have a storeroom set up where you can pick out decor so it'll truly be your own," Nick told her.

"And... the police?  Will they be there?" Zelda asked, her anxiety evident.

Joshua crouched in front of her.

"After we leave here, we're going to a Suburban where two friends are waiting.  One is the district attorney.  If you're willing, eventually, he'd love for you to talk to him or, if you'd prefer, a female officer.  Just to share any information you might have about those who kept you and Salma captive.  But that's it.  You're a free woman, Zelda."

"Free..." she echoed.  Zelda cast a gentle look on the sleeping Salma.  "Her birthday was on Sunday.  I... I told her that we'd have cake and ice cream next year a-and really celebrate."

Joshua took one of her shaky hands in his.

"We'll get you cake and ice cream as soon as you're both up to it."

Zelda peered into his eyes and shuddered.  But not from fear... it was shock over the absence of fear.  For the first time in years, she had looked into the eyes of a man and felt no fear.

*~*~*

After an hour's worth of rest, Salma had awoken.  Like her friend, she chose a shower over eating.  Behnam couldn't help but smile when he realized that, without her knowing it, Salma had chosen Isra's cast-offs from among the array.  With both girls dressed and showered, Behnam and Joshua took their turns changing.  Though they thought it unlikely that Gunnar would spot them, a change in attire offered an extra layer of security.

Isolde approached Salma as she snacked, holding her phone out.

"You're welcome to use it to call your sister, if you'd like."

Salma stared at the phone for a few moments then shook her head.

"I... I have so often dreamed of her voice.  I will wait now.  Until we are together and I... I know it's not a dream."

Marco checked his watch.

"6:40.  Not long.  Anyone heard from Andrew?"

Freya nodded.

"He texted about five minutes ago.  He and Joe are in place."

Joshua lifted a curtain and peeked out. 

"It's already pretty dark.  If everyone's ready, we can go now."

The others murmured their agreement.  While Nick stepped outside to do a quick survey and make sure Gunnar was no where nearby, the others packed up what they'd brought.

Joshua hugged Isolde and Marco.

"Thank you so much for staying.  I appreciate it more than you know."

Isolde squeezed Joshua's hand.

"It's our pleasure."  Her eyes twinkled.  "We've decided we're going to jump on the beds."

Marco chuckled.

"She decided.  I didn't have the heart to say no."

Joshua beamed at them both.

"I'll look forward to having us all together at the Chrysalis tonight."

"Me too!"  Isolde raised her voice when she saw Nick re-enter.  "Nick, you could come see my shrine later tonight if you'd like?"

"I'd love that!"  The saint approached and bestowed his own hugs on the two.  "It's been a blessing to spend this time with you.  God is assuredly very proud of you both."

"Aww.  Thanks, Nick!" Isolde replied as Marco bowed his head and shook the man's hand.

Joshua wordlessly nodded his assent, afraid of giving himself away if he spoke.

"Is everything clear, Nick?" Zaila checked.

"All clear!"

Joshua turned to Behnam, Salma, and Zelda.

"Are you ready?"

The three nodded.

"Then here we go," Joshua replied before opening the door in the room farthest from the one where Gunnar had brought the girls.

As they climbed down the staircase, the angels and Nick nonchalantly made small talk.

"Augh.  I wish we didn't have to lug this suitcase clear to Aunt Anne's hotel.  But she insisted we bring all the family photos."

"And then she'll make us lug it back.  You know she will.  Her and her unhealthy phobia of 'clutter.'"

"It's a wonder she and Grandma grew up in the same house.  Grandma always had stuff all over the place."

Joshua smiled, amused that his angels were so talented at lying.

Once they were outside, the chatter stopped.  They all focused on looking for the gray Suburban that Andrew and Joe would be driving. 

"There.  Parked by that trash can," Azrael whispered once he'd spotted it.

Walking at a swift but normal pace, the eight hurried down the sidewalk.  When they approached the car, Andrew hopped out of the passenger seat.  He opened the back door then rushed to help Nick, Azrael, and Zaila load the suitcases.  At the same time, Joshua and Behnam ushered the girls into the van.  The others crowded in from the other side and, soon, everyone was in and the doors and windows were again closed.

"First stop, the Chrysalis Court," Joe announced before steering onto the street. 

Andrew smiled at the others in the rear-view mirror.

"I'm so glad you ladies are here.  My name's Andrew and our driver is Joe.  Salma, I brought you something from Isra."

Surprised, Salma accepted the covered plate.  She began to cry when she saw what it contained.

Behnam squeezed her shoulders.

"Isra asked me to tell you that there's more where those came from.  She'll make you all the pastries you could ever want."

With a shaking hand, Salma picked up one of the treats and took a bite.  She closed her eyes, imagining she was back home with her sister... long before the disgrace and the pain and the sorrow.

"Take some... please."  Salma held the tray out to Zelda then passed it around.  "My... my big sister made them."

As the others enjoyed the pastries, Salma rested her head on Behnam's shoulder and counted the minutes until she was with her sister again.

*~*~*

Reunited

Isra paced as she waited in the Chrysalis' main lobby. 

7:05...  Her sister and the others had been in the car for over twenty minutes.

JenniAnn approached and set a hand on the younger woman's shoulder.

"Andrew just texted.  They got caught up in a traffic jam but are freed up now.  He thinks ten, maybe fifteen minutes more."

Isra gave a wavering smile.

"Thank you.  I appreciate the updates.  I... I have waited years and now..."

"Ten to fifteen minutes is unbearable," JenniAnn finished when Isra sighed.  "I think that's a perfectly normal way to feel."

The two embraced.

"I... I wish Vincent was here," Isra murmured.  She bit her lip and pulled back.  "Not that I'm not comforted by you but..."

"I more than understand.  Vincent... he just has a special way about him."

Isra nodded.

"I am so glad that we have people joining us... but I will miss him being able to come and go as he pleases."

"Me too.  But Joshua made sure he'd have access to the private elevator to our floor.  We'll still see him there.  Tonight even, if you want.  I'm sure he'd come.  Isolde and Marco would be the only ones who haven't met him and I don't foresee them being anything but friendly... well, maybe after a moment of surprise."

Isra considered.

"I... I am unsure of how much attention Salma will need... or want.  I would feel bad asking Vincent only to ignore him."

"Well, regardless, I won't ignore him.  And neither will his grandchildren.  I'm gonna ask him," JenniAnn decided.

Isra smiled and clasped her hands.

"Thank you."

JenniAnn spied Maryam coming around the corner.

"Actually, I'll go do that now.  I'll be back as soon as I can."

"Thank you, JenniAnn."

Maryam and JenniAnn exchanged hopeful smiles as they passed each other.  The former joined Isra.

"Would you like company as you wait, dear Isra?"

"I... I would like that very much.  Thank you."

Maryam waved to a nearby rattan bench and the two sat together.

"Maryam?"

"Yes?"

"Did you ever feel..."

Isra shook her head.

Maryam took her right hand in both of her own.

"Go on.  Please."

"I... I think of Salma and I... feel so guilty.  All that she has suffered a-and I have only ever been with one man who I love tremendously and who... who I know would do anything for me.  Despite how our time together began, I chose Behnam and he chose me.  Salma... she did not choose this.  I know she didn't!"

Maryam released Salma's hand and wrapped both arms around her.

"Guilt implies that you have done something wrong, dear Isra.  You have not.  And I had not in marrying Yosef.  But, yes, I did feel deep sorrow in knowing that my experience was not universally shared.  I feel it still.  I grieve for what has been taken from Salma and others.  But her pain would never have been lessened by you feeling such pain, too."

Isra let out a shuddering breath.

"Already your love for Behnam and his for you has helped Salma.  He is with her now.  In seeing him, she was spared any more worry or fear.  Yeshu alone could not have done that.  She would not have recognized him nor trusted him.  But her beloved sister's caring, sweet husband... him she trusts."

Maryam leaned back and cradled Isra's face in her hands.

"It may be that, as she tries to heal, Salma could grow angry at you and at Behnam.  I have seen it before.  But you remember that she is speaking, acting from pain.  You let the love you and Behnam share be like a shield around you.  You remember that it is a mirror of the love Yeshu feels for us all."

"I... I will, Maryam," Isra vowed.  She leaned forward and rested her head on Maryam's shoulder.

Maryam enclosed the woman in her arms.  She softly swayed and hummed.

After several minutes, Isra jolted and pulled away.  She smiled and rested her hands on her abdomen.

"I... I felt her!" Isra cried.  "This is the first time!"

Maryam beamed.

"Maybe she is reminding you that you will get to see her next week."

After staring at her belly for a few moments, Isra met Maryam's eyes and smiled.

"Yes, I think so."  Isra's eyes filled.  When she had scheduled her first ultrasound, she could not have imagined that she'd get to share the video and photos with Salma.

Upon hearing approaching footsteps, both women looked up and saw Cody approaching.

"Reuel sent me.  The Suburban's pulled into the garage.  Your sister's here, Isra."

Isra could only manage a mute nod.

Maryam linked her arm through the young woman's.

"Our thanks, Cody.  And to Reuel, too."

"You bet, Maryam."  Cody rested a hand on Isra's arm.  "Eleora and I are praying for you and your family."

"Th-thank you, Cody."

The man nodded then turned to rejoin his pseudo-grandfather-in-law as lookout. 

Maryam and Isra walked, together, to the center of the lobby and waited.

*~*~*

Joshua was surprised but pleased when Zelda took his arm as soon as they stepped out of the Suburban.

"It looks... nice," she lied.

Joshua smiled.

"It looks bland and imposing.  But that's on purpose.  We didn't want to attract interest.  Trust me, the inside is much nicer."

Zelda returned his smile.

"I'm sure it's beautiful."

Joshua peered over his shoulder to see that everyone was out of the Suburban except Joe who would be returning it.  He waved to the district attorney then led the group to the Chrysalis' door and hit the buzzer.

"Joshua..." Reuel's voice greeted.  "Come in, please." 

Joshua waved to the hidden camera as the locks whirred and clicked.

"Thanks, Reuel."

Zelda and Salma looked around curiously as they entered an anteroom.

"These are our guards... and friends," Joshua explained as they passed Henry, Eli, Elazer, Michael, Tess, and Makena.  He smiled at each of them as he spoke to the women.  "We always have guards here when someone enters.  Just in case someone else would sneak in.  We'll do proper introductions soon."

"Welcome!" Eli greeted as he and Michael held open the doors leading into the lobby.

"Thanks!" Zelda replied.

Salma was silent.  She was peering into the lobby... looking into her sister's eyes.

Behnam's own eyes filled as Salma released his arm.  He watched as the sisters dashed to each other.  Isra and Salma clung together, weeping and speaking to each other in Pashto.

"Oh..." Zelda murmured.

Maryam approached and handed her a handkerchief.

"Oh... thank you." 

Joshua tore his gaze away from Isra and Salma and turned to Zelda.

"Zelda, this is my mother, Maryam," he introduced.

"You have the same eyes!" Zelda observed.  "So beautiful."

Maryam smiled proudly.

"Thank you very much.  Perhaps we could give you a tour so Salma and her sister can have a few moments to themselves?"

"Yes, please.  I'd love that."

Joshua cast an adoring glance at his mother as she linked her arm through Zelda's and led her away.  He, Nick, and the angels followed, leaving the Al-Mitras and Salma alone.

Behnam stood a few yards away as Isra and Salma remained in each other's arms, their foreheads together.

"My Salma," Isra murmured, lapsing into English, as she stroked her sister's hair.  "You... you are so beautiful."

Salma ran her fingers along the contours of Isra's face.

"I... I have dreamed of you... so often... hoped you, Behnam, the children were... were  alive."

Isra's face lit up with pride.

"Your English...  It is so good!"

Salma's face clouded and she bowed her head.  Her skills had improved in the past years though her teachers had been of the worst sort.  She banished the thought, wanting to be happy in this moment.  As she raised her head, she caught sight of her sister's waist.  Her eyes shot up to Isra's.

"You are... pregnant."

Isra nodded.

"Sixteen weeks along."

Fresh tears welled in Salma's eyes.

"He or she is... is healthy?"

"I believe so, yes.  Our first ultrasound is next week.  It has been an easy, uneventful pregnancy.  I... I am so glad you will be here, Salma... just as... as you were when Omar was born."

Salma continued to eye the bump, smiling slightly when Isra took her hands and rested them there.  After a few moments, she turned to Behnam.

"I'm sorry that we are ignoring you."

Behnam smiled through his tears and shook his head.

"I'm not.  It is a pleasure to see you both together."

"A-and seeing you..."  Salma began to cry in earnest again.  She took one of Behnam's hands in her right and Isra's in her left.  "When I saw you, I knew I was safe... for the first time since we were altogether... with Plaar.  And then when... when you told me that my sister... Aiyla... Omar... were alive, too...  So ha-happy."

Isra and Behnam circled their arms around their sister as she sobbed.

Once Salma had calmed, Isra cradled her face in her hands and kissed her forehead.

"We will always keep you safe from now on," she vowed. 

Salma rested her head on Isra's shoulder.

"Could I see my niece and nephew now?" she murmured.

"Oh, yes.  They are so excited."

"I'll go ahead and tell them you are coming now," Behnam offered.

Isra beamed at him.

"Thank you."

Behnam nodded and squeezed his wife's hand before leaving.

"Omar won't even remember me," Salma lamented.

"But we've told him so much about you.  And Aiyla... she was so happy when we told her you were alive a-and coming here."

Salma stiffened.

"What did you tell them about why I was away?"

"We told them that you were separated from us when we left Afghanistan and that you had been hurt but we... we were wrong in believing that you were dead b-but now... now we have you back.  For always.  Was that all right?"

Salma nodded.  She didn't want the children to know anything about what had happened to her.

"Then let's go."

Isra took her sister's hand and led her to where Behnam was waiting with his son and daughter.

While Omar hung back, Aiyla rushed at them.

"Auntie!" she wailed.

Salma knelt down and caught the little girl in her arms.

"Auntie Salma..." Aiyla murmured as tears poured down her little cheeks.

Overcome, Salma could only cling to her and softly rock.

"Aiyla..." she finally cooed.  "Such a... a big girl now."

Keeping hold of his father's hand, Omar approached wearing a fretful expression.

Salma held her hand out to him.

Relieved, Omar grinned and hugged his aunt and sister.

"Auntie..." he echoed.

"Omar..."

Salma smiled through her tears as the boy kissed her cheek.

Behnam went to his wife and linked his arms around her waist, holding her tightly as they watched the reunion.

*~*~*

FS

"And then we put three scoops of the cake mix in each, two scoops of water, stir, and then one minute in the microwave..."

Daisy looked on with keen interest as Amber-Marie loaded two mugs into the microwave. 

"Now for two glasses of milk..."

"That's really going to be cake?" Daisy asked with evident doubt as she eyed the microwave.

"Sure is."

No sooner had Amber-Marie gotten the carton of milk back into the refrigerator than a beep sounded.

"And there it is..."

Daisy perked up when the woman opened the microwave which let out a sweet aroma.

"Mmm..."

After spraying a bit of whipped cream into the mugs, Amber-Marie sat one down in front of Daisy then took one for herself.

"Okay, dig in and tell me what you think!"

Grinning, Daisy loaded up a spoon.

"Ummy..." she replied through a mouthful.

"What's going on in here?"

Daisy turned and smiled at Josef as he entered the kitchen.

"Cake."

Josef laughed at the girl's chocolate-y grin.

"Josef needs cake!" Daisy declared. 

Amber-Marie crossed over to Josef.

"Can you have cake?" she whispered.

"It'll be tasteless to me but yeah.  I can put on a show for her."

"Okay, good."

As Amber-Marie supervised, Daisy prepared a mug cake for Josef.  When they withdrew it from the microwave a minute later, both Josef and Amber-Marie were moved by the proud smile on the little girl's face as she presented her hero with his cake.

"For you!"

"I can't wait.  Thank you, honey!  It looks delicious."  Josef took a bite.  "And it tastes delicious.  Who knew you could have cake in one minute?"

"I know!" Daisy cheered before helping herself to another bite of her own cake.

Josef politely took another bite then set the mug down.  He glanced over at Amber-Marie who nodded.

"Daisy, there's something Amber-Marie and I want to talk to you about."

Daisy set down her spoon.  Her lower lip began to tremble.

"Are... are you going to Heaven?"

Josef gawked.

"Why would..."

"Maybe that's how her daddy started to tell her he was dying," Amber-Marie whispered to him.

"Oh!  No.  No, Daisy.  I'm not going to Heaven.  I'm staying with you.  Amber-Marie, too.  What we want to tell you is that the day after tomorrow, all three of us are going to get on an airplane and go to New York City.  That's where Amber-Marie lives and a bunch of our friends are there.  So we'd like to get back to them.  It's nice to be with friends, right?" Josef asked.

Daisy cocked her head.

"What friends?"

"Many, many friends," Amber-Marie answered.  "Some are right around your age even.  You'd have other kids to play with."

"What kids?"

The two adults looked at each other, unsure how to reply, until Josef had a flash of inspiration.

"You know how earlier we watched videos of cats and dogs on my phone?"

Daisy nodded.

"So cute!"

"Yeah, they were.  Well, we could ask our friends to make a video to introduce themselves and show you the fun place where we're going.  How about that?"

"Okay.  Can Sarah come?"

"Sarah is definitely coming with us," Josef vowed.

Daisy hugged the dolly that was sitting on her lap.

"What if I get hurted there?"

Fighting tears, Amber-Marie patted Daisy's shoulder.

"No one will hurt you there, Daisy.  I promise.  And if you ever get scared, you tell me or Josef, okay?"

"You won't hit me?"

Amber-Marie and Josef stared at each other for a moment.

"Honey, we would never hit you.  Why would you think that?" Josef gently questioned.

Daisy stared into her mug.

"We don't have to talk about it if you don't want to," Amber-Marie assured.  "We just want you to know that we would never hit you, Daisy.  And none of our friends would either."

Daisy nodded then, after a few silent moments, she took a sip of her milk and resumed speaking.  Her eyes were locked on Sarah's as she played with the doll's hair.

"I cried when the man hurted me.  I was scared.  Then Katrina came into the room and she hitted me and told me to stop crying.  She did it a lot."

Josef rested his head in his hands.  That Katrina, the madame, was currently locked up and facing a litany of charges offered no comfort.

When Josef looked up, he saw that Daisy was clinging to her doll, her face buried in its yarn hair.

"Daisy, would you like to sit with Josef?" Amber-Marie offered.

Daisy sniffled and nodded.

Amber-Marie picked her up and placed her in Josef's waiting arms then handed her the remainder of her cake.

"You will never be hit or hurt like that again, honey," Josef vowed as she nibbled at her dessert.  "Never."

"Good."

Josef kissed the girl's hair and began to softly sing. 

Daisy finished off her cake then handed the mug to Amber-Marie.  Only a few rounds of her song later, the little girl was asleep.

Together, Josef and Amber-Marie settled Daisy into her bed and tucked Sarah in beside her.  They hovered nearby for a few moments, watching over her, before returning to the kitchen to clean up.

"That was a good thing you did, eating the cake," Amber-Marie praised.  "Daisy was so proud."

"It may not have tasted like much... but it felt good," Josef demurred.  "I have a feeling that might become a nightly ritual.  It wouldn't be a bad thing.  Mia says she's underweight."

Amber-Marie nodded. 

"We're going to have to work on food all around.  Those are only 80-100 calories... that's why I took to them.  A quick, low-cal dessert after busy work days.  Now I'm glad I started with them... for Daisy.  But I think she'll do fine, especially once she's with the other kids and sees them chowing down on their spaghetti and macaroni and TLS sliders and sweet potato fries... all that good stuff."

"True."  Josef poured himself a glass of wine.  "Can I get you some?  It's Joshua's."

"Yeah, I'll take a glass.  Thanks."

The two moved to a sitting area near Daisy's room so they'd be nearby in case she awoke.

Josef took a sip of his wine then let his head roll back.

"Tough day... or just thinking about what Daisy said?"

"Both."

"That... it broke my heart, too," Amber-Marie confided.  "I hope I never come face to face with that Katrina.  I know this is probably sexist but you're no client of mine so I'm going to say it.  It seems so much worse when it's a woman pulling the strings on something like this.  Like I expect her to know better...  Like I think something in her genetic makeup, as a woman, would stop her from doing that.  But I know better.  Most of my clients were abused by men.  But not all.  And even among those who were abused by men, there were often women who knew and allowed it to happen."

The psychiatrist shook her head.

"Actually... that's part of why I'm so desperate to get back to New York."  Josef rose and peeked into the hall, ensuring no one was nearby.  Once back in his chair, he continued.  "I'm holding it together but that's why today took such a toll.  I want to help each and every person here... but I can't help being angry at them.  They had to know about Daisy.  Had to!  To not try to get help...  And I know that's wrong.  So wrong.  They were being victimized themselves, after all!  But... the thought is there."

Amber-Marie reached over to squeeze Josef's shoulder.

"Daisy's very special to you, I understand.  After only two days, she's completely captured my heart, too.  Sometimes love isn't rational."

Josef managed a smile.

"True.  So given I may continue to be irrational...  I think it'd be better if Mia, Jolie, Misty, and the rest handled things here.  The Chrysalis Court is a better fit for me right now.  And..."

"You want to be near Joshua?"

"As he reminds us, we're always near him... but it's not the same.  So yeah."

"I completely understand," Amber-Marie averred.  "So... speaking of Joshua...  Last night I told you about how I learned the truth about him.  Your turn.  But only if you want."

Josef considered.

"I do, actually.  It occurs to me that I never told anyone else.  I mean Mick was there for part of it.  But yeah... I do.  It was two days before this last Christmas.  Beth and the others had convinced me to take a break and come home for a few days to celebrate.  First stop... Dyeland.  I'd promised Andrew a game of pool.  But it was Joshua who was there.  Andrew was otherwise detained... watching The Muppet Christmas Carol with Belle."

Amber-Marie laughed.

"Suddenly, Joshua's going on about this anti-trafficking effort.  Keep in mind, all I know about the guy is that he's a carpenter who acts and sings... not someone who should probably be involved with organized crime.  I explode on him, he answers me... in Chinese, Russian, Greek... a couple others.  Mick... semi-good Catholic boy that he is... jumps right to Jesus.  Beth comes in and verifies this... which actually explained a lot about Beth's and Logan's behavior over the past year and a half.  Mick's crying and looking like a saint in ecstasy.  But as for me...  I demanded to know why he couldn't cure us."

"I think that's a fair question, to be honest," Amber-Marie admitted.  "And I've been wondering about it."

"He can cure us... and he will.  But in his time and his way.  He said it would be bigger than simply laying his hands on the few of us you know.  Sometimes we talk about it... Mick, Beth, Logan, and me.  But mostly we just trust.  To be honest, finding out about the cure wasn't the most important part of that meeting for me."

"What was?"

"Knowing he... he understood," Josef admitted through the lump in his throat.

*~*~*

December 23rd, 2015

After explaining to Josef what he had in mind for the Friends' battle against human trafficking, Joshua squeezed the vampire's hands.

"So what do you think?  You're the expert."

Josef laughed.

"No more expert than you.  You're omnipotent."

"Sure.  But I'd really like to get your feedback.  And I'm not totally omnipotent right now.  I can't hear your thoughts or anyone's for that matter.  So it's possible I've forgotten something."

Josef replayed everything Joshua had said in his mind.  It was an incredibly solid plan.  But he did wonder about a few things.

"So the angels have run into this before, surely.  Maybe not on this scale... maybe bigger, maybe smaller.  But the humans?  I imagine this will be new terrain for most of them.  Are you going to do any training?"

Joshua gave a nod.

"I am.  And Reuel and Co. can give a lot of good, solid advice.  But I also have a psychiatrist in mind who I'd like to bring in.  I think she'd do a great job with a sort of month-long workshop on aiding trafficking survivors."

"Sounds good.  That's what we usually do with new FS recruits."

"And you do it well.  Not that I'm surprised... it's For Sarah, after all.  I knew you'd give it everything."

Fresh tears welled in Josef's eyes.

"I hadn't told anyone that that's what FS really stands for."

"But the Father and I know.  And we think it's beautiful.  And so does Sarah."

Josef let out a ragged sigh.

"Are you angry at me for... for what I did to her?"

Joshua's own eyes filled.

"I was saddened.  It wasn't what I wanted."

"That's why you sent Andrew..."

"Yes.  I know you did it out of love, though.  You and Sarah both."

"Why... why didn't it work?"

"Because that's not the life Sarah was meant to live, Josef.  It isn't the life any of you are meant to live.  But you, Mick, Logan, Isolde, Marco, all those you work with through FS... you can bear it.  Sarah couldn't have.  She thought she could... but she was wrong, Josef."

"I... I should have known.  She was young b-but... I... older... wiser, supposedly."

"And in love.  You'd been lonely for so long, Josef.  I understand why you were so desperate to never be lonely again.  I only wish that you'd realized you were never alone.  Not for one moment."

"I... I wish I had, too.  Sarah... JenniAnn told me that... that she's happy."

"Incredibly happy."

Josef heaved another sigh.

"Then... then I can be happy for her."  The vampire shook his head and laughed.  "I gave Isolde and Marco such a hard time about the Jesus thing...  Turns out they were right."

Joshua grinned.

"They were... are."

"I have them scheduled to cover California after the holidays, so they'll be there for the Super Bowl.  But we have to get them here to meet you.  Even if they don't know... it'd mean so much to them."

"I would love that," Joshua enthused. 

"The cure... when it comes... what will it do?" Josef questioned.  "I mean... Marco was dying of TB before Isolde turned him."

"The vampirism wiped out all other disease in those of you who were infected.  It also healed, in a manner of speaking, any and all damage caused by the disease.  The damage... it won't return.  But diseases will, once again, be lurking.  Marco's TB was dormant for some time before he began showing symptoms.  So he'll be back to that stage.  Thankfully, it's easily treated nowadays.  He'll be just fine."

Josef let out a relieved sigh.

"Good.  So... reproduction?"

Joshua's eyes gleamed.

"Back on track."

Josef's face lit up.

"So Mick and Beth and Isolde and Marco..."

"I already know the names of their children," a beaming Joshua replied.

The long-forgotten feeling of utter joy welled up in Josef.

"A-and Mick... does he know this?"

"I'm sure Beth is telling him.  She knows.  So does Logan.  When we're finished here, I'll check in on my St. Johns and answer any questions they have."

Josef leaped to his feet, pulled Joshua up, and gave him a bear hug.

After a few moments, he released him and smiled shyly.

"Sorry."

Joshua clapped his shoulder.

"Don't be.  That felt great."

"For... for me, too.  Although..."  Josef's face clouded.  "Now I... I wish I hadn't thrown away the cross necklace my... my mother gave me.  But when I stopped believing after I was turned..."  He shook his head.  "Stupid fool..."

"Luckily..."  Joshua's voice cracked.  "I'm really good at finding that which was lost."

Josef watched as the carpenter removed a small, wooden box from his pocket and held it out to him. 

When Josef's hands shook too badly, Joshua opened the box for him.

"A-and there it is..." the vampire reverently whispered.

Joshua helped him put on the simple, silver pendant.

"I like it," Joshua complimented.

Josef squeezed his hand.

"I... I like it, too.  Thank you."

The two men embraced again.

*~*~*

Tuesday, February 9th, 2016

Josef held the cross out for Amber-Marie to see.

"'I once was lost but now am found, was blind, but now, I see,'" Josef quoted with a teary smile.  "And now you know what FS really stands for, too."

Amber-Marie admired the cross then looked to Josef, her own eyes damp.

"I never knew Sarah, of course, but I can imagine how wonderful it feels to her to have such a legacy."

"Thank you."

"So did you name Daisy's doll after her?"

"Not at all.  She came up with it all on her own.  I keep meaning to ask her why she picked that but I was also worried it might bring something up."

"Good point.  I think once we get home... back to New York, I mean... we can talk to her more and..."  Amber-Marie reached into her pocket.  "I just got a text."

Josef withdrew his own phone.

"Me too."

"Isra has her sister back..." Amber-Marie murmured as she read.

"And four others have arrived at the CC," Josef continued.

The two smiled at each other.

"If only they knew about the saints and angels and God who are surrounding them..." Amber-Marie remarked.

"I think they will... all of them.  In time.  There's just something about Joshua...  You pick up on it even when you're not looking for it."

"Exactly."

"I can't wait until Daisy meets him."  Josef smiled as he thought of it.

As they finished their wine, Amber-Marie and Josef planned out all they wanted to do for little Daisy once they were in Manhattan.

*~*~*

Saints and Sinners

Having exhausted themselves from jumping on the beds, Isolde and Marco lay snuggled together as 9:00 approached.

"So what do you want to do for your birthday?" Marco asked as he traced the design on his wife's shirt.

"Well... I was tellin' Kemara and JenniAnn about how it's kinda hard to have a romantic evening given we get the side eye when we check into a hotel... if not police involvement.  So they said they knew a place where that wouldn't be a problem.  Then the twins started cryin' for their mama's milk and we never got back to it.  But I'd like to ask them more about it."

"I'd be interested to know what they have in mind.  You've really hit it off with them."

Isolde nuzzled Marco's shoulder.

"I dunno why, really.  I just feel so comfortable with the whole lot.  And I love ya to pieces, mo chuisle, but... you are a boy.  I miss girl talk sometimes."

Marco kissed her hair.

"I understand.  It's been nice chatting with the fellows."

"Well, you'll have a chance to do that yet tonight.  Unless something's changed, Nick'll be stoppin' by to see my shrine."

"We better get going, actually.  8:56.  Window or go through the rooms?"

"Let's go through the rooms.  Less suspicious."

Marco helped Isolde up from the bed and, once she'd grabbed her purse, they dashed through the three empty rooms and then nonchalantly walked down the stairs and exited the hotel. 

Just in case someone was onto them, they walked quickly down sidewalks and alleys until a voice shouted.

"Hey!  You two!  Stop right where you are, buckos."

Recognizing the code word... buckos... Isolde and Marco turned around with their arms raised.

"I've been looking all over for you two," Tyron sneered.  "Thought you'd get away, did you?"

He loosely cuffed them both then got them into his car.

As soon as the door was closed, the officer smiled into his mirror.

"Hi, I'm Tyron.  Pleased to meet you."

"Hi there, Tyron!" Isolde giddily replied.

"Pleased to meet you, too," Marco greeted.  "I'm glad you found us."

Tyron chuckled as he began to drive.

"Me too.  I had a moment of doubt earlier.  JenniAnn told me Isolde was wearing a cerulean shirt.  I had to Google cerulean.  You can slide those cuffs off, can't you?"

Marco and Isolde held up their freed hands and nodded.

"Good."

"Andrew texted us to tell us that the group was back at the CC and all was going well.  Have you heard any more?" Isolde asked.

"Just the same.  Did you happen to see the trafficker?"

Marco shook his head and glanced at the clock.

"We didn't.  But I imagine he's not having much fun right now."

The three grinned at each other as Tyron continued to head towards True Light.

*~*~*

Gunnar stepped off the elevator and glanced down the hall.

Empty.  Good.

He checked his phone.

9:00 on the dot.

Approaching the door, he knocked.

"It's me.  Time to go."

He waited.

No answer.

He knocked again.

"Come on, now.  You don't want to be late."

More silence. 

Gunnar pressed his ear to the door.  Maybe they were too into it to notice the time.

Nothing.

Gunnar pounded on the door.

"Open up!  Now!"

It occurred to him that he hadn't tried the knob.

The door opened and Gunnar found himself staring into an empty room.  The beds were rumpled though still made.  The only indication that Salma and Zelda had been there were two dresses lumped into the garbage can.

Gunnar tore down the hall, stumbled down the stairs, and ran onto the sidewalk.  He peered around, searching for the two women.  Across the street, he spotted a woman with long, black hair. 

Salma.

Dashing between stalled cars, Gunnar made his way to the woman and grabbed her arm.

"You're coming with me," he growled.  "Where's Zelda?"

The woman... who was not Salma... let out a shriek.

Suddenly, Gunnar found himself sprawled on the sidewalk with two men staring down at him, each with a foot stomped on his shoulders.

"What the hell do you think you're doing?" one of the men demanded.

"Miss, you don't know this man?" the other asked.

"No... not at all."

"Let me go," Gunnar demanded.

The men scoffed and one pulled his phone from a pocket.

"Hi, yeah, a friend and I are at W 57th and 10th and this guy just grabbed a woman and tried to abduct her.  Yeah, we've got him incapac..."

Using all the strength he could muster, Gunnar wrestled away and began to run.

"Damn!  He's running now!  Okay, dark wash jeans, brown coat.  Ummm..."

The woman knelt down and picked something up off the ground.

She smiled as she opened the wallet and spotted an ID... and a wad of bills.  She tapped the man on the phone's shoulder and held up the wallet.

"I have what I need.  Thank you both, so much, for your assistance."

"Oh, great!"  The man smiled then returned his attention to the phone.  "She's got his ID."

"Please tell them I'll bring it to them," the woman requested.

"She says she'll bring the wallet to you.  Thank you."

After another grateful smile for her protectors, the woman made her way to a subway entrance.  Once she was seated, she withdrew a cell phone from her purse and began to text.

I'm on a subway.

And?

I don't think I care for them.  Donkeys are cleaner.

AND?

And... Mr. Impatient... I have the wallet. 

YAY


The woman smirked.

I miss your eloquence.

Fantastic!  The lousy swine shall soon pay!

Better.  But not kind to pigs.

Point taken. 

Please tell Yeshu?

Of course.

Thank you, Yohannan.

Thank *you,* Mary.

Give him a hug for me?  And Maryam and Yosef, too?

Will do.  And?

::sigh::  And hug yourself, too, I guess...

8-)

<3  Good night, Yohannan.

Good night, Mary.

With a smile, Mary of Magdala, lately of Manhattan, returned her phone to her purse.  She opened the wallet and shook her head at the photo on the ID. 

"I have met your like, Gunnar," she thought.  "You and yours will fall..."

After tucking the wallet back into her purse, Mary closed her eyes and remembered when her Rabboni had rescued her.

*~*~*

The room Salma and Zelda had chosen was painted a soft shade dubbed "Radiant Lilac."  While Zelda stood in the center of the room and spun, Salma rested her hand on a wall and blinked back tears.  Her surroundings were a far cry from the drab motels and dingy backrooms of her recent past. 

Isra softly stroked her sister's back. 

"Maybe we should wait until tomorrow to choose decor?" she suggested.

Salma shook her head.  Zelda had been thrilled by the idea of doing some shopping and she didn't want to deny her that.  Further, her adrenaline was still rushing.  Sleep wouldn't soon come to her.

"I would like to go."

"You can change your bedding, too, if you'd like," Thandie informed the two women.  "We just wanted to have the beds made in case anyone wished to immediately go to bed but you don't have to keep these."  She waved to the pale yellow and bright pink beds.

Zelda ceased spinning and plopped onto the pink bed.

"I'm really liking this one, actually."

Salma smiled at Thandie.

"I'm pleased with the yellow."

"Well, good then!  Would you like to go to the store now?" Thandie offered.  "You'd have it to yourselves.  The others have already gone through."

Zelda glanced over at her friend who nodded.

"Yes, please!" Zelda answered with a wide grin.

Salma smiled.  There was a light in Zelda that had refused to go out even under the harshest of circumstances.  Sometimes it had dimmed.  A shiver went through Salma as she thought of those times.  But never had it been extinguished.  Always it had been there to rekindle the dying embers of her own spirit.  A bit of strain left Salma as she realized that now she wouldn't have to worry about ever losing that life-sustaining light.

"Will you go with us?" Salma questioned Isra.

Pleased to be asked, Isra gave a ready nod.

"If you would both like me to."

"You have to!" Zelda cried.  "I want to hear more about you and your husband and your kids!  They're so cute!"

"Thank you," Isra replied, reaching out to squeeze Zelda's hand.  "I would like that."

"Then let's go!" Thandie enthused.  She pushed open the bedroom door and led the other three women to a large room lined with shelves.  Inside, the Albany set were unloading boxes.  Seeing the newcomers, Kylie and Zadie hurried forth and welcomed them.

"Hi!  My name's Kylie and my friend here is Zadie.  You must be Salma and Zelda," Kylie greeted.  "Sorry for the mess.  We had a drive at our church and are just unloading."

"This is amazing..." a dazed Zelda commented as her gaze traveled all over the room.  She snapped back to Kylie and smiled.  "Thank you!"

"You... you are all so very kind," Salma added.

"We love helping."  Zadie beamed at the two then waved to the others.  "That man right there is Kylie's husband, Clay.  And right next to him is Caleb.  And the man who looks very much like him..."  The young woman's face flushed.  "That's Edward.  My boyfriend.  And the older couple are Dot and Randall.  They're Edward's and Caleb's aunt and uncle.  And that silvering fox is Adam."

Kylie giggled.

"Adam's a good friend to all of us.  He was my man of honor at my wedding, actually.  Would you like to come meet them or would you prefer to start shopping?" Kylie asked.

"They're all very, very nice," Isra assured when Salma looked to her.

"I would like to meet them," Salma decided.

"Me too!" Zelda echoed.

As they walked towards the others, Kylie spoke in low tones.

"Just a heads up...  My husband, Clay, was wounded while serving in Iraq.  One side of his face is pretty scarred up.  But he's beautiful," she bragged with an enamored smile.

Salma and Zelda both nodded.  Their captivity had taught them that physical beauty could hide immense internal ugliness.  Physical "flaws" didn't frighten them near as much as those flaws in empathy.  And, after all, two of their rescuers, Nick and Joshua, weren't much to look at.  Neither woman so much as flinched when Clay turned away from some shelves and smiled at them.

"Everyone, this is Salma and Zelda," Kylie introduced.

"I'm so glad you girls are here!" Dot exclaimed. 

"We were so happy when Andrew texted us and told us you'd arrived safely," Randall added.

"Thank you," Salma and Zelda murmured in unison.

"Would you like some graham crackers and frosting?" Clay offered, gesturing towards a tray.

"Clay felt we needed box unpacking snacks," Adam teased.

"They're good shopping snacks, too," Clay assured after elbowing the angel of death.

With grateful smiles, Salma and Zelda selected some graham cracker sandwiches then were encouraged to peruse the offerings.

"So how exactly does this work?" Zelda asked.  "We don't have any money.  It doesn't feel right to just take stuff."

Thandie patted her shoulder.

"I only had a few dollars when my girls and I came here.  Everyone is here to help and, I'm sure, you'll find some way to lend a helping hand in turn... something as simple but important as befriending someone else here.  That's all the payment we need."

Isra squeezed her sister's hand. 

"Let's go look at picture frames.  I can make you a copy of the photo I have of us with Plaar and Mor."

"You still have a photograph of them?" Salma asked, incredulous.  "I... I thought they must have all been lost."

"Not all.  It was a miracle how it came to me," Isra answered.  "I will tell you about it soon, I hope."

Zelda followed the two sisters to where some frames and knick-knacks were displayed on a table.  While Salma chose a brightly colored mosaic frame, Zelda picked up a ceramic angel.

Thandie smiled at her. 

"A very good choice.  If you like angels, our friend Owen has some paintings over there you might like.  Your walls are pretty bare."

"That'd be really nice.  Thanks!  I do like angels," Zelda verified.  "I used to have a little collection but..."

Thandie patted her back when she drifted off.

As Salma hugged her picture frame to her chest, Isra steered her after the other two women.  While Thandie talked Zelda into taking two angel paintings, Salma absently flipped through a stack of prints.

"What is it that you like?" Isra questioned.  "Do... do you still like floral things?"

"Yes."

After some searching, Isra pulled a painting of lilies out of a bin.

"How about this?"  She smiled when she saw the artist's signature.  "Little Jacob did this.  He is Vincent's and Catherine's son.  I hope you can meet them soon.  They have been so incredibly kind.  Aiyla and Omar think of them as grandparents."

Salma nodded and accepted the artwork.

"And here's one of daisies.  They look nice together."

Salma gave another nod.

Isra could tell her sister was growing tired.

"Perhaps we should pick out some pajamas and clothes for tomorrow then get you to bed?" she suggested.  "We can come back here tomorrow."

"Yes, please."

Overhearing, Zelda stepped closer.

"That sounds really good to me, too."

It didn't take long at all for the two women to make their selections.  Then Thandie caught Zelda staring at something.  The girl blushed and looked away when she noticed.

"Is there something else you would like, Zelda?" Thandie checked.

"Oh, no.  It... it would be silly."

"I think that if you see something that would bring you joy, it's not silly at all," the other woman countered.

"Well..."  Zelda walked across the room and picked up a plush toy.

Isra looked up from folding her sister's clothes and smiled. 

"It's just... I always liked her," Zelda explained.

"Who is she?" Salma asked.

"Princess Zelda from the Mario Brothers video games."

Thandie laughed.

"I think she has to be yours, Zelda.  I doubt we'll get another Zelda in here."

As Zelda hugged her small namesake, Isra made a mental note to tell Logan that his donation was very much appreciated.  Then she turned to her sister.

"You should have something to snuggle, Salma."

"Oh...  No, I don't need..."

Isra had already taken her hand and was pulling her towards the toys.

"There's nothing wrong with having one.  I have a little elephant that Behnam bought me for my birthday.  Please, if you see one you like, take it.  We have so many."

After a smile for her sister, Salma perused the selection.  She felt silly looking at children's playthings.  She was far from a child.

Then she saw him.

Salma's fingers brushed the soft mane of a lion.  She let out an involuntary sigh.

Isra kissed her temple.

"I think he's yours," she urged.

"Zmaray..." Salma murmured as she pulled the lion from the shelf.

Isra stroked her hair.

"Good.  Now to bed?"

Salma nodded.

Feeling dazed, she allowed Isra to lead her back to her room. 

After Salma had changed into pajamas, Isra sat behind her on her bed and brushed out her hair.

"I think she fell asleep," Zelda whispered from her own bed after a few minutes.  "It's so good to see her so peaceful."

Isra smiled at the young woman then carefully settled her sister back against the pillows and tucked her in.

"It's so good to have her here," she murmured as she placed Salma's lion beside her. 

After kissing Salma's forehead, Isra moved to stand beside Zelda's bed.  She patted the girl's hand. 

"I'm so glad that you're here, too... glad that... that Salma has had a friend even when... when things were so awful."

Zelda rested her other hand over Isra's.

"We helped each other through the awful times.  Now we can have good times."

Isra gave an eager nod.

"Yes, many good times."  She tilted her head towards the door.  "I am staying just next door tonight.  In Thandie's room.  If either of you should need anything..."

"We'll let you know," Zelda promised.  "Good night, Isra."

"Good night, Zelda." 

Isra went to the door and, just before closing it, smiled at Zelda and her beloved sister.

*~*~*

While Isra was tending to Salma, Behnam had made his way to the study just off of Joshua's room.  Glancing inside, he saw Joshua, his parents, John, and Andrew.  He was just about to turn around when Joshua called out.

"Behnam, come on in," he invited.

Behnam gave the group a weary smile as he entered the room.

"Thank you.  Isra is with Salma and Aiyla and Omar are with their grandparents so I wasn't entirely sure what I should do with myself."

Maryam approached and took the man's arm. 

"Come.  Sit down.  You have had a very long and trying day."

"Th-thank you, Maryam."  Behnam smiled appreciatively at her when she guided him towards a chair.

"I think you and Yeshu could do with some spiced milk, yes?"

"That would be wonderful, Ama."

"Yes, please, Maryam."

"Andrew?  Yosef?  Yohannan?"

"Yes, please.  Sounds delicious," Andrew replied.

John nodded.  "Please, Maryam."

"And I would like some, as well," Yosef added.  "And I would also like to come with you to make it, Maryam."

Joshua smiled after his parents as they left the room, arms linked.  He sobered when he looked to Behnam.  Reaching out, he took the young man's hand.

"How are you holding up?"

Behnam opened his mouth to speak but, instead of words, a sob came out.

Joshua moved to perch on the arm of Behnam's chair.  He gently stroked his back.

"I... I know it was a lot to deal with.  I would have gone without you but Salma needed to see you.  I know, though, how hard it was for you to see her like that.  To... to see me hand over money for... for her and Zelda."

Unbeknownst to the two, John and Andrew exchanged a meaningful look.

"That... that was not Salma," Behnam whimpered.  He drew in a deep breath and, after slowly letting it out, his voice grew stronger.  "And to think of... of how long she lived like that... not as herself.  Made to do things not of her choosing...  And now... how she must feel..."

Joshua brushed some tears from his own face before cradling Behnam's in his hands.

"We will all help Salma to heal, to confront those feelings."

Behnam continued to cry but nodded.

"Maybe now we confront your feelings, though?" Joshua suggested.

"Behnam, would you like John and me to step out?" Andrew offered.

Behnam looked up at the two and shook his head.

"No... it's not necessary.  I like that you're here but if JenniAnn..."

"JenniAnn is with Catherine, Vincent, and the kids.  She won't miss me," Andrew assured.

"And my lone anam cara is here."  John waved to Joshua who smiled.  "So you have my full attention."

"Thank you.  Perhaps we could wait until your parents are back, Joshua?  I would like a woman's view," Behnam explained.

"A woman's view is always a very good thing to have," Joshua averred.  "Of course we can wait."

"Thank you.  How are you faring?" Behnam questioned.

Joshua let out a ragged sigh.

"So many feelings... elation that we have five more people here.  Sadness that so many others are still out there, feeling friendless.  Frustration over the fact that I needed to give that man money, money that will now be used to further their operation."

John cleared his throat.

"Actually... I think I can give you some comfort on that account, cousin."

Surprised, Joshua looked to John.  An amused expression crossed his face when he noticed Andrew was fidgeting. 

"How so?  And what part did Andrew have in it?"

"Well, you see, I knew how greatly the matter of the money plagued you," John began.  He grinned.  "I wanted to do something for my little cousin."

When Joshua rolled his eyes, Behnam at last laughed.

"So...  I contacted an old friend.  Andrew and I spoke and reasoned that the trafficker would probably be quite panicked when he realized the two ladies were lost.  Surely he would run outside and look for them.  And perhaps if he saw someone he took to be Salma... his zeal to grab her and cover his tracks might cause further problems for him.  And, from a distance, Mary of Magdala bears a striking resemblance."

Joshua rose from the chair.

"Mary was here..." he murmured.  "In Manhattan?"

John nodded.

"She stood across from the hotel and, as we suspected, garnered the miscreant's attention.  He seized her and was immediately set upon by two Good Samaritans who were nearby.  Mary wasn't harmed in any way.  We had hoped the trafficker might be arrested from there but, unfortunately, he wrestled away.  Thankfully..."

John's recollection was interrupted by his phone.  He smiled when he saw who was calling and handed the phone to Joshua.

"I think he would much prefer to talk to you."

Curious, Joshua took the phone.  He glanced at the caller ID and smiled.

"Hi, Joe!  Thank you so much for your part in...  His wallet?  But... how?"

John beamed and elbowed Andrew who smiled and settled an arm around the Baptist's shoulders. 

"Oh, Joe...  That's wonderful news!  Thank you so much.  I will.  Please give Angie my love.  Thanks.  I love you, too.  Bye."

When Joshua ended the call, tears were trickling down his cheeks though he was smiling.  He gave John and Andrew bear hugs then sat down by Behnam and embraced him.

"Joe just told me that when the trafficker fled Mary and her helpers, his wallet got left behind.  Mary then took it to the police.  So... so the money didn't get back into their coffers and... and..."

"They have that man's ID..." Behnam realized.

Joshua gave an enthusiastic nod.

"So now they're keeping their eyes out for him.  They'll be looking for him and, with Mary's complaint, can arrest him on sight and if they bring him in...  He's the type who would hand over all the information he has if it'd lessen his own sentence."

Behnam smiled.

"That's wonderful...  Our thanks to your Mary."

"Mary?"

Joshua looked up to see his parents re-entering, each carrying a tray.  He rose and took the one from Maryam.

"Yes, Ama.  It seems John was scheming behind my back.  Andrew, too."

"Good scheming, I take it?" Yosef checked. 

"Would you expect any other kind from me, Yosef?" John questioned.

After setting his tray down, Yosef clapped the younger man on his back.

"Two thousand years ago... yes.  But since you are a saint now... I suppose not."

John laughed and, once the mugs had been dispersed, retold the story to Maryam and Yosef.

"How wonderful!" Maryam cheered.  "I am confident that Mary was very honored to be involved.  Such a lovely girl..."

"Will we see her here, Yeshu?"

Joshua patted his father's hand.

"I hope so.  In time.  We'll let Nick enjoy being the new saint on the block for a little while longer."  He smiled then turned to Behnam.  "We're all here now.  Ready to listen."

Behnam heaved a sigh and nodded.

"I... I suppose I am not sure now what part I'm supposed to play in helping Salma.  I wish I knew what of our old life she still clung to."

"What do you mean, Behnam?  Do you mean if she still considers herself Muslim?" Andrew checked.

"In part.  More than that... less than that.  From what Isra tells me, her parents were very good and kind and faithful."

Joshua nodded.

"Never blinded by their beliefs... but traditional," Behnam continued.  "They spoke with some frequency to the girls about the importance of their virtue and purity.  They told them how important that would be to their husbands.  Isra confided this to me the day after we, ah,  ceased to be virgins.  She was glad that she had lost her virginity... silly phrase I've long thought... to someone who valued her for much more than it... and... and who she valued.  She also..."  With tear-soaked eyes, Behnam silently beseeched Joshua.

Joshua held Behnam's right hand in both of his.

"Isra wants for you to be at peace, Behnam.  She would want you to speak freely if it would help you.  None of us here would ever betray either your confidence or hers."

Behnam managed a grateful smile before continuing.

"She told me... sometime after we'd settled in Florida... that what she feared most when my uncle attacked her was that he would rape her and... and then I would no longer love her.  Because she would be impure.  I told her that nothing my uncle could have done would ever have made me cease loving her.  She... she is my guiding star, after all.  Well... she was until..."  He rested his free hand over Joshua's.

"Yet she still remains a very bright star in your life.  Rightly so," Joshua affirmed. 

"Yes..."  Behnam let out a soft sigh as he thought of his wife.  "And... and so I wonder how many of those beliefs Salma still holds.  As the sole remaining male in Salma's family... not counting Omar who is, of course, far too little to know anything of this... I wonder if I should try to speak to her of this?  To tell her that they are wrong?  That her value is based on so much more."

Maryam discovered the man was sneaking glances at her.  She offered a gentle smile and took his hands.

"I think that would be a very good idea... in time.  I, too, was raised in a culture and religion that taught me the importance of remaining pure for my husband.  It did mean a great deal to me to know that Yosef still valued me... as did my father and Yosef's father... even when so many spoke ill of me.  Knowing how you feel will help Salma.  But, right now, she needs rest.  For some time, her main focus has simply been survival.  She may not have had much time at all to contemplate her own thoughts and feelings.  She will need that time first, Behnam.  You understand, yes?"

Behnam nodded.

"I... I do.  Of course you are right.  I suppose I only wish there was more I could do now."

"There is, Behnam.  Salma will see you at meals, throughout the day.  Your smiles and your kindness will relay your message of love and acceptance even when she's not yet ready for the words," Joshua counseled.

"I can do that much," Behnam vowed.

Joshua gave him an encouraging smile.

"I know you can.  And you can also be there for Isra.  Right now, she is elated over her sister's rescue.  But there will be difficult times ahead.  Knowing you're there to listen, to hold her... that'll mean everything, Behnam."

"Her face... when she saw Salma..."  Fresh tears welled in Behnam's eyes.

Andrew's face was soon tear-streaked.  He knew... felt in himself... that Behnam's own happiness also contained a strain of grief.  Salma had been delivered from her tormentors and could yet lead a full and happy life.  Only death had freed Behnam's own sister from her pain...

While Joshua wrapped his arms around Behnam, John consoled the angel of death as Maryam and Yosef prayed.

*~*~*

As Nick waited for the Crocettis to return to the Chrysalis Court, he let his mind wander over the past weeks.  In particular, he recalled the day his identity had become known to those beyond his fellow saints and the angels. 

It had been a few days after Joshua had introduced the Friends to the Chrysalis.  Thandie and her girls were overjoyed at the prospect of more company, particularly Nya who longed for friends her own age.  She and Aiyla had immediately hit it off and soon were inseparable.  Whether it was something Aiyla had innocently said or simply a bit of childish wisdom, no one was sure.  All they knew was that, in the middle of dinner one night, Nya had parked herself in front of Joshua and asked a big question.

"You Jesus?"

Nick chuckled to himself as he remembered what had followed.

*~*~*

Tuesday, January 5th, 2016

The little girl's question, more shouted than spoken, hung in the air.

"Nya!"  Thandie hurried up from her seat and took her daughter's hand.  "We don't shout at people and why would you ask that?"

Nya remained rooted to where she stood.

"I wanna know if he's Jesus!"

Joshua, who had just popped some chicken-like substance into his mouth when Nya had approached him, finished chewing.  He smiled at the girl and then at all the Friends who were staring at him, wondering what he would say.  He rested one hand on Thandie's arm and took Nya's hand in his other one.

"Yes, Nya.  You're right.  I'm Jesus," he answered simply.

"What?!" Anika, Nya's older sister, shrieked.

Thandie remained rooted where she was and shook her head.

"But..." she shook her head.  "How..."  Thandie peered at Maryam and Yosef.  She had instantly liked the couple.  They didn't seem like the type who would merely smile serenely as their son spouted nonsense.  And John...  He'd been introduced as Joshua's cousin.  He gave the impression of someone who didn't suffer fools.  John returned her smile and nodded.

Finally, Thandie spun and looked to Nick who had risen from his own table and approached her.

"Nick... is he..."

Nick embraced Thandie and patted Nya on the back.

"Joshua speaks truthfully," he averred.  "He is Yeshua of Nazareth, Jesus Christ, son of Maryam and Yosef, the only begotten Son of God the Father."

"You know..." Shane murmured.  He and many of the Friends had been trying to suss out what exactly Nick knew.

Joshua hugged Nya and stroked her hair.

"I am Jesus," he echoed.  "And I am so glad that I can be with you and your mother and your sisters and everyone here right now."

Thandie, still dazed, shivered slightly when Joshua took both of her hands in his.  Her own eyes filled when she saw the tears in his soft, gold-flecked eyes.

"I came because I want to work alongside you all as we free those who are imprisoned and heal those who are unwell, in mind, body, and spirit."

Openly weeping, Thandie rested her head on Joshua's shoulder.

"My heart is heavy with grief over what befell you after Taye died.  Drake is already answering for what he did to you and so many others, Thandie.  Please know that nothing that has happened and nothing that will happen will separate you from my love or the Father's."

"Oh..." Thandie murmured as Joshua began to sing the lullaby her grandmother had sung to her back in Africa.  Each grandchild had been given their very own lullaby.  No one knew Thandie's except herself, her grandmother... and God.

When the song was finished and Thandie released Joshua, Nya leapt at him.

Laughing, Joshua picked the little girl up.

"You are very smart.  Do you know that?" he asked before kissing her cheek.

"Yup," Nya answered before beginning to play with his hair.

The others all watched with tears in their eyes as Anika approached Joshua and received a hug and kiss.  Not wanting to be left out, Zizi toddled up and wrapped her arms around Joshua's knees.

After admiring her girls in the arms of their Savior, Thandie turned to Nick.

"But how did you know?" she questioned.  Her eyes traversed the table.  "You all knew?"

Shane nodded.

"We have a lot to tell you.  But we don't know how Nick knew."

"I thought you were just a like-minded man of goodwill who Joshua put in charge of this," Zeke mused as he approached Nick and studied him.

Nick laughed.

"Well, that is true..."

Joshua released Thandie's daughters then clapped Nick on the shoulder.

"Thandie, girls, I want you to know that since you came here, you've been in the presence of angels.  To save some time, would those of you who are angels please raise your hands?"

Giddy and with tears still streaming down her face, Thandie laughed as several hands shot up.

"But some of you have kids..." Anika observed.

"We'll explain that very soon.  I promise," Monica vowed. 

"Nick didn't raise his hand," Kemara murmured.  She raised her voice.  "So... you're human, Nick?"

The man nodded.

"Tell them," Joshua whispered in his ear.

"Yes."  He glanced at Joshua who nodded.  "And I've been human for over seventeen hundred years.  I was born in a village called Patara... although I am most associated with Myra."

The room erupted in shrieks and laughter and cries.

"St. Nicholas!" Fr. Mike shouted.

"Santa?" Liam asked.

Nick and Adam exchanged a quick look then merely chuckled.  They would have to get their stories straight on that note very soon.  Thankfully, Liam was taken in by the shared excitement and contently left his question unanswered.

As the Friends crowded around Nick, Thandie and her daughters were left to focus on Joshua and his family.

*~*~*

Tuesday, February 9th, 2016

Nick brushed at a tear as he recalled Maryam taking Thandie into her arms and holding the woman so tenderly. 

"We're here!  We're here!" Isolde cried as she ran into the library with Marco just behind her. 

The vampiress cocked her head when she saw the saint's misty eyes.

"Are you well, Nick?" she checked.

Nick swiped at his eyes and smiled.

"Oh yes.  Those were happy tears as I recalled a very good memory.  How are you both?"

"Dazed," Marco replied.  "The Tunnels...  Amazing!"

"The people!  Vincent!  I feel like I've met the Tuatha Dé Danann!" Isolde exclaimed.

With a laugh, Nick hugged the enchanted girl.

"So you've met our Vincent..."

"Just down the hall, actually.  But he explained that he comes from the Tunnels.  Little Belle and Aiyla had gotten to his hair so he did seem to have a bit of the fairy about him," Marco replied with a grin.

"Very masculine!  Even with wee butterflies and daisies in his hair," Isolde contemplated.  She shook her head in amazement once more then took one of Nick's hands.  "Are you still wantin' to see the shrine or would you rather wait?  I know it's late."

"That's entirely up to you.  I'm not tired but if you..."

Isolde resolutely shook her head.

"I feel like I won't be able to sleep for weeks!  So much excitement!"  She sobered.  "I saw Maryam briefly.  She told me that our ladies are settling in well.  I am so glad."

"As am I," Nick responded.  "I look forward to seeing them in the morning.  Now... shall we?"

Isolde and Marco cheerfully led Nick to their room.  The former lit some candles then smiled at Nick.

"So this is it.  I usually light some incense, too, but I don't want to be a bother to anyone.  Some pieces we ordered from the modern wonder that is the Internet.  Others we got in our travels."

Marco picked up a statue and held it out to Nick.

"Your namesake."

Nick smiled as he took the statue.

"That we actually got in Myra.  I love it because St. Nicholas is a bit... swarthy.  Not the snow whiteness you see so often."

"Swarthy is good," Isolde murmured as she kissed her husband's tanned cheek.

Once Nick has replaced his likeness, the woman chose another statue.

"This one is probably not so accurate," she admitted.  "I'm sure Our Lady looks far more like Maryam or Isra than like this.  But I love this.  She looks so serene and lovely.  We got her in Lourdes.  I so love it there."

"Lourdes is very beautiful," Nick agreed.

"We went hopin' the waters might... well, cure us," Isolde confessed.  "We've gone to several shrines for that reason.  Eventually we started goin' solely to worship.  Perhaps our cure is not meant to be."

Marco squeezed her shoulders and kissed the top of her head.

Nick stared down at the pale Maryam and blinked back tears.

"Perhaps it's simply not time yet," he countered, his voice soft and husky.

"Perhaps," Isolde echoed with a nod before taking a string of beads from atop the bureau.  "There's not much to be gotten for St. Josephine so I just have my medal and this.  A decade rosary."

"It's beautiful," Nick complimented.

Marco selected a regal-looking fellow.

"I chose him.  St. Castulus of Rome."  Marco smiled at the soldier.  "Patron saint against blood poisoning.  There isn't one for vampires and so..."

Nick squeezed the man's shoulder.

"I'm sure Castulus would be pleased to take you on."

"Thanks.  I like him, too, because he was married to St. Irene.  There aren't enough married saints for my tastes.  Marriage is a very good thing."

Nick's heart warmed when he saw Isolde blush and beam.

"I've never been married myself but I agree with you, Marco.  And even if I hadn't before, you two are ample evidence."

"Aww.  Thanks, Nick!  Speakin' of..."  Isolde waved to a candle.  "St. Valentine."

"And, of course, lots of our man, Jesus."  Marco smiled at the crosses, crucifixes, and statues. 

"I should show Yosef and Joshua this one."  Isolde picked up a small framed painting.  "It looks a bit like them, don't ya think?  You don't see too many images of Jesus and Joseph.  Well, at least not as many as Jesus and Mary together."

"There's definitely a resemblance," Nick agreed. 

"We still haven't gotten around to watching Joshua's Superstar performance," Marco reminded.

Seeing an opportunity, Nick feigned a yawn.

"Perhaps you could watch it now?" he suggested.  "I'd love to hear more about your travels but I'm afraid sleepiness has arrived very suddenly."

"Sure!" Isolde agreed.  "Thank you so much for visitin'.  We'll definitely do it again soon."

Nick smiled as he received hugs from both husband and wife.

"Then it's a plan.  Enjoy the video and have a very good night, my friends."

"You too, Nick!"

"Sleep well!"

With another wave and smile, the saint left and closed the door behind him.

"Shower and then jammies and then movie?" Isolde suggested once she and Marco were alone.

"Sure.  Do you want first or second shower?"

Isolde's eyes twinkled.

"Why waste time?  I want to get to the recording."

Smiling, Marco took his wife's hand and followed her into the bathroom.

*~*~*

Listening

Wednesday, February 10th, 2016


JenniAnn awoke, as she did with increasing frequency, to the sound of a knife scraping against wood.  For a few moments, she remained quiet and gazed at Andrew.  She couldn't quite tell what he was working on.  Something winged, she thought.

Andrew paused and met JenniAnn's eyes.

"Sorry.  Did I wake you?"

"No, I don't think so."

Andrew set his knife and the carving on a nearby table which was invitation enough for JenniAnn.  He sighed as she settled onto his lap.

"I think you could have done with more sleep," she murmured into his ear before kissing his cheek.

"Probably.  I tried.  I was certainly comfortable." 

JenniAnn blushed and smiled when their eyes met again.

Andrew's head lurched forward and rested on her shoulder.

JenniAnn thought of how Andrew had come to bed quite late the night before.  He'd clung to her so fiercely that she was surprised he'd later managed to extricate himself without waking her.

"You were with Behnam?  Joshua, too?"

Andrew sat up and nodded.

"Behnam... he was putting on a good front for Isra and Salma but... last night shook him.  To see 'little Salma' like that..."

Tears filled JenniAnn's eyes.  Zelda, the more conversant of the two, had mentioned at dessert how freeing it felt to be rid of the makeup and "trashy" clothes. 

"It... it was more than the look, Laja," Andrew explained, seeming to read her mind.  "What's there in her eyes... haunted, hurting...  He... he wondered aloud if that was how his sister, how Badriya looked."

JenniAnn softly stroked Andrew's back and brought one of his hands to her lips.

"And Joshua...  He knows this isn't happily ever after.  He knows of the struggles looming."

"And so do you?" the woman guessed.

Andrew met her eyes.

"Not as specifically, I'm sure.  But yes.  I've seen survivor's guilt, I've seen misdirected anger.  You've felt the guilt yourself, Laja.  You've mentioned how sometimes it seems unfair to you that you're spared some worries."  He caressed her face.  "You know I would never physically hurt you.  You know I would never cheat on you.  You know I'd never walk out on you and the kids.  You know I won't die.  But, as I've told you before, you have other concerns on account of me that very few women have.  Still... you don't always see that."

"No... I don't.  Isra will feel badly that she and Behnam have known so much happiness and mutual respect when Salma has known despair and abuse."

The angel of death nodded.

"A-and just as Bennie lashed out at me..."

"Salma could lash out at Isra."

"It could break Isra's heart," JenniAnn lamented.

"And so we all need to be ready to mend..."

Their conversation was interrupted by a soft knock on their door.

"Who is it?" Andrew called.

"Sy."

Andrew and JenniAnn exchanged confused looks.  They couldn't imagine why Sy would come looking for them at 6:15 in the morning.  JenniAnn stood, allowing Andrew to do the same. 

"I'm coming," Andrew replied as JenniAnn hurried into her robe.

When the angel opened the door, he found the teenager still in his pajamas and looking confused himself.

"Hey, Sy.  How are you this morning?"

"Fine, thanks.  Sorry if I woke you but... Ivy sent me."

JenniAnn approached the two.

"Is Ivy okay?"

"Yeah but... something's up with Violeta.  I got a text from Ivy about fifteen minutes ago asking me to come to their room.  When I got there, Violeta was still in bed and Ivy was sitting by her, stroking her back and talking softly.  They need to start getting ready soon because they have an early study group.  Violeta's not budging, though.  So... Ivy asked me to come get you."

Andrew and JenniAnn looked to each other, both feeling clueless.

JenniAnn squeezed Sy's hand.

"Thank you, Sy.  I'm sorry you got woken up.  We'll go check in with Violeta."

"I'll go with you if it's okay.  I'd like to see if Ivy needs someone to talk to."

"Good idea."  Andrew smiled at the teen then the three made their way to the girls' room. 

Upon entering, they found the scene unchanged from what Sy had described.  When Ivy saw the two, she bent to kiss Violeta's forehead then moved away.

"Hon, what's wrong?" JenniAnn asked when she claimed the spot Ivy had vacated.

Andrew grimaced when he saw his protege's face.  Hair was plastered to her damp face. 

Violeta sat up and rested her head on JenniAnn's shoulder.

"I... I don't want to... to go to classes to-today.  P-please don't m-make me?"

JenniAnn embraced the girl and peered up at Andrew whose eye brows were arched.  She tilted her head towards Ivy and Sy.  Andrew approached the two.

"Hey, thanks for sending Sy after us, Ivy.  Any idea what's going on?" he questioned.

Ivy looked over at her friend, sympathy evident on her face.

"I have no idea.  I thought maybe a nightmare but she said no.  Maybe..."  The girl's face flushed.

Sy gave her an affectionate, encouraging squeeze.

Calmed, Ivy smiled and shrugged.

"Sorry.  I was being silly.  It's just... it's my time of the month.  Which, lately, means it's JenniAnn's time of the month.  And we've both noticed that Violeta...  Well, she's like an emotional sponge, you know?  When that time rolls around... she seems to get especially emotional and clingy."

"Well, that's something!" Sy exclaimed.  "Sorry," he apologized when Violeta looked over at him. 

Andrew sighed.

"JenniAnn's brought that up before.  I can't say it makes much sense to me given Violeta can't have a period but..."  The angel of death peered over at his protege who was still crying on JenniAnn's shoulder.  "I can't deny the evidence.  Still... neither you nor JenniAnn get like... well, that."

"I know.  And Violeta doesn't, either.  Usually.  So I think she was probably already in an increased emotional state and then something happened," Ivy posited.

"Did she talk much to Salma last night?" Sy asked.

"No.  Actually, I'm not sure they spoke at all.  At least not when I was around.  But... I do remember seeing Violeta talking with Ruby and Opal."

Andrew let out a sigh as he thought of the two sisters who Gayle, Elazer, and Emma had rescued.  He wondered if, perhaps, they had confided in Violeta about some of the trauma they'd experienced.  It would make sense.  Violeta looked to be around their age and she did exude sweetness and friendliness.  Poor Violeta...  She wouldn't have been prepared for something like that.

Back at the angel's bed, JenniAnn was softly swaying. 

"Can you tell me what's wrong, Violeta?" she quietly asked.  "I want to help you."

"Can I st-stay with you to-today?"

"Honey, what's going on that you think staying with me will help?"

"Don't make me go..." Violeta whined.

Peering into the girl's eyes, JenniAnn felt chilled.  Violeta had her moods but this was something else.

Smiling softly, JenniAnn stroked some hair behind the angel's ears.

"Can I just go talk with Andrew for a little bit?" she requested.

Violeta nodded then flopped onto her pillows and pulled a blanket over her head.

JenniAnn patted her back before joining the others.

"I... I've never seen her like this!  Well... not since..."  JenniAnn shivered.  "Nen."

"I think maybe Opal and Ruby talked to Violeta," Ivy relayed.

"Oh dear...  Well, she definitely doesn't want to go to classes today."

"I don't see how skipping would help.  If Ivy's right, which I'm guessing she is, spending all day here probably won't help," Andrew advised.

JenniAnn looked back over at Violeta who was just a lump beneath her quilt.

"Actually, she asked if she could stay with me today.  And I have classes to teach Below.  So... we can't stay here."  JenniAnn studied Andrew, hoping Violeta's words hadn't hurt him.  "Or maybe she meant 'you' in general terms."

Andrew shook his head and took JenniAnn's hand.

"No.  She probably meant you in particular.  Still..."

"I'd keep an eye on her today," Ivy vowed.  "But... I'd feel really badly for Violeta if she got upset during a class and everyone stared at her."

"Thanks, Ivy.  Good point.  Just one minute..."

JenniAnn nodded then took Andrew's arm and led him a few paces off.

"I think we should let her skip.  This would be the first time all year.  I missed way more than that during my college days.  Ivy can take notes and, actually, we need to think about Ivy, too.  She shouldn't have to spend today distracted from lectures and whatnot cause she's worried about Violeta."

"True...  But this is going to be a difficult assignment for all of us, Laja.  Assuming Ruby and Opal did confide in Violeta, it's probably not going to be the only time during this that she'll hear something upsetting.  She can't keep missing classes each time," Andrew pointed out.

"I know.  But this is the first time...  Maybe just this first time..."

Andrew sighed and dragged his hand through his hair.

"I think you want her to stay."

"You say that like it's a bad thing..."

"Laja..."  Andrew embraced her.  "No, it's not a bad thing but..."  He sighed.  "Sometimes I get a little concerned that the two of you... you sort of..."

"What?" JenniAnn implored, looking up into his eyes.

"You both want her to stay a little girl."

"She's never been a little girl!" JenniAnn countered defensively.

"Not literally... but inside?  Yeah, Laja.  She has been.  Violeta was a little girl when she first came to us but that was four and a half years ago.  And, yes, she has matured some but..."

"I don't think this has anything to do with maturity... or any attempt to stall it further!" JenniAnn persisted.  "I... I think this has to do with... well, with being female."

"You mean the whole 'time of the...'"

"No!  I mean going through life dealing with catcalls and seeing parts of the female anatomy used to sell this, that, or the other.  Violeta's not a woman but she is female or feminine or something like that and so... so that's part of her life in a way it's not for you, my love.  And I know you understand that more than most but... you haven't lived it."

As JenniAnn continued, Andrew bowed his head.  The angel of death stared down at his hands which his soul mate had clasped as she grew more impassioned.

"I... I don't know what those girls told Violeta or if they even talked to her but if they did and if they got at all explicit... it's hard to think of those things happening to a body like your own.  And I am NOT saying it would be at all easy for you to hear something like that.  I know it wouldn't be.  I... I've seen, felt proof of that.  But it is..."

"Different," Andrew finished.

JenniAnn nodded.

The angel kissed her forehead.

"You're right.  I think Violeta should stay with you today.  I told Behnam I'd go to Brewster with him but if..."

"I'll call if she gets worse," JenniAnn promised.  "You're not upset, are you?"

"Not with you, Laja.  And not with Violeta.  Just...  I need some time to think."

"Andrew..."

He pulled JenniAnn to him.

"I love you."

"I love you, too, Andrew, but... are you sure you're not angry?"

"Because you spoke the truth?  No, Laja.  I'm not angry.  Let's go tell Violeta she can stay and then get some breakfast together, okay?"

"Okay."

The two approached the younger couple first.

"Violeta won't be going to classes today.  Are you okay to ride the subway by yourself, Ivy?" Andrew checked.  "Because I can drive you."

"Actually... that would be nice.  Normally I would go alone but... I guess I'm a little jumpy."

"Then we'll do that.  Sy, I might as well take you and Kendra.  We'll be driving right by your school."

"I'd like that.  Thanks, Andrew."  Sy turned to Ivy.  "Let's go tell Kendra."

"Okay."  Ivy smiled at him then rested a hand on JenniAnn's arm.  "Please tell Violeta that I'll take really good notes."

"I will.  Thank you both for your help this morning."

Once the two teenagers were gone, Andrew and JenniAnn settled on either side of the lump that was Violeta.  JenniAnn gently peeled back the quilt and smiled.

"Hi.  Andrew and I have talked and decided that you can stay here... or go Below with me.  Ivy will take notes for you."

"Thank you," Violeta murmured.  "I want to go Below."

"Then you'll go back to classes tomorrow?" Andrew checked.

"Yes."

"Good.  Now let's get some breakfast."

Violeta shook her head. 

"I just want to stay here."

"Sweetheart, you have to eat," Andrew protested.

The young angel again shook her head.

Andrew heaved a sigh.

"Is it that you don't want to eat or that you don't want to go to the dining hall?"

"Just want to stay here..."

Andrew frowned.

"Okay.  JenniAnn and I will bring you some breakfast."

JenniAnn looked up at Andrew when Violeta gripped her hand.

"Fine.  I'll bring you and JenniAnn breakfast."

"Thank you, love," JenniAnn replied.

The angel of death nodded then headed for the door.  The last thing he saw before closing it was Violeta crumpling against JenniAnn and sobbing.

*~*~*

Behnam awoke to a weight settling onto his chest.  Soon another was on his legs. 

Then came the giggling...

Opening his eyes, the man saw his son curled up on his torso and his niece straddling his knees.

"Up!" Belle shouted.  "Up, Unca Behnam!"

Omar patted his father's cheeks.

"Up, Daddy."

A few feet away, Joshua chuckled.

"It's almost 7:00 and I know you need to be getting up so when I discovered these two were already up and about...  Adorable alarm clocks, huh?"

Behnam sat up and snuggled both children then smiled at Joshua.

"Very adorable.  Thank you for letting me stay here."

"It was no problem at all.  Isra's up.  She and Salma and Aiyla are already having breakfast."

Behnam kissed his son and niece then set them down on the floor.

"Let's go get breakfast, shall we?" he asked.

"Toast!" Omar cried.

"Waffuhs!" Belle chirped before they fled the room.

Laughing, the two men hurried after them.

"Have you talked to Isra?" Behnam asked.  "How did Salma sleep?"

"We talked only briefly.  She slept well, I think.  Zelda, too.  She's still asleep, actually."

"Good.  She needs the rest, I'm sure."

"Yeah, she does," Joshua affirmed.  "Hey, I got a request from Josef.  Daisy's a bit anxious about the plane trip and coming here.  He and Amber-Marie thought it might help if the kids here recorded a video welcoming Daisy.  Do you think your kids could take part?"

"Of course.  That's a wonderful idea.  Maybe we could do it before JenniAnn takes Belle, Aiyla, and Omar Below for their classes with Vincent?"

"Good plan.  Especially since that's delayed."

"Delayed?"  Behnam halted and rested a hand on Joshua's shoulder when he saw the man's grave expression.

"Violeta had a difficult time last night," Joshua relayed.  "Ruby told my Duckling her story.  It's shaken Violeta."

"Poor girl.  Is JenniAnn..."

"With her now.  Andrew took Ivy, Sy, and Kendra to school but he'll be back any moment.  He's still planning to head to Brewster with you today and JenniAnn will take Violeta Below with her and the kids."

"And you?"

"I'll stay here.  What Violeta needs, JenniAnn is more suited to give.  And...  Dad told me to expect more people today."

"Good.  If you need either Andrew or me then Stanley has said he understands."

Joshua nodded.

"I know.  He told me.  But you and Andrew need to keep yourselves well.  A day at the library will do you both good."

"Yes, it will," Behnam admitted. 

They came to the dining hall and entered.  Omar and Belle were already making eyes at the assorted breakfast foods that were laid out.

"I'll help them get their breakfast dished up," Joshua offered. 

"Thank you," Behnam called after Joshua as he raced ahead to keep Belle for pulling a pitcher of orange juice onto herself.

"Behnam!"  Isra leapt up from the table and embraced her husband.  "How did you sleep last night?"  She kissed his cheek.  "Baby and I missed you."

Behnam returned his wife's kiss then patted her belly.

"I missed you both, too.  Very much." 

"Come say good morning to Aiyla and Salma.  She slept so well that I would like to come back to our room tonight.  How did you sleep?"

"Well.  I stayed in Joshua's study.  I suppose I'm not used to being entirely alone at night."

"My Behnam..."

After another embrace, Isra took Behnam's hand and led him to where Aiyla and Salma were.  The little girl was eating with gusto while Salma picked at her food.

"Good morning," Behnam greeted.

Aiyla dropped her fork, slid off her chair, and hugged her father's legs.

"Morning, Daddy!"

"Good morning, my sunshine."  Behnam hoisted Aiyla up and kissed her.  Once he'd sat her back down, he smiled at Salma.

"How are you this morning, Salma?"

She replied with a weary smile.

"Well.  This food is very good.  Aiyla helped me choose it."

The child beamed at her Auntie.

"She has good tastes," Behnam replied.  Shyly, he reached out and patted Salma's shoulder.  "It was very good to wake up and know you're here, Salma."

"It... is good to be here."

"Later, Maryam is going to show us some natural remedies in the greenhouse and we're going to look around the library," Isra merrily reported.  "Then I'm going to bake a cake for Salma's birthday!"

Though Salma smiled at this, she said nothing.

"Those sound like wonderful plans, my star.  Now... I suppose I should get some breakfast and... help Joshua."

Isra followed her husband's gaze to where Omar and Belle were "helping" Joshua choose his breakfast.  Froot Loops were scattered over everything, including sausage and biscuits with gravy.  With a laugh, she nodded then sat back down beside her sister.

Shaking his head, Behnam approached the three.

"Omar, Belle, how about we go sit down now so you can start eating," he suggested.

"Helping Osua," Belle explained.

"I can see that but I think Joshua is doing well for right now," her uncle replied.

"Help, Daddy!" Omar cheered.

"Help, Unca Behnam!"

With a laugh, Joshua winked at Behnam.

"At least we can pick the Froot Loops off," he whispered.

"True..."  Behnam smiled after the man, hoping he would be able to strike up a conversation with Salma.  Then Behnam submitted to the little ones' culinary endeavors.

*~*~*

Later that morning, in the Tunnels, JenniAnn and Vincent stood at the back of the classroom as their students answered some essay questions.  Violeta sat beside Shelby doing the same.

Seeing that JenniAnn was troubling over something, Vincent slung an arm around her shoulders.

"Tell me."

"I'm just... it's been a weird morning."

Vincent looked over to Violeta.

"Yes.  It has."

"Appa, hep," a little voice interrupted.

Vincent crouched down to help Omar open a container of crayons. 

"Ank you."

"You're very welcome, Omar."

Once the little boy had gone back to the corner where Belle was waiting with a coloring book, Vincent refocused on JenniAnn.

"Psyche, I think you should take her to your chamber and have a talk," he advised.

"But you're already down one person with Isra staying with Salma and..."

"And Jocelyn is perfectly capable of helping me if I require it.  I might also point out that, as much as I adore having you with me, I did teach Literature alone for many years."

JenniAnn smiled at her godfather.

"That's true...  You didn't have Omar and Belle to tend to, though..."

"No.  But I had you and, later, Jacob.  And neither of you had a playmate to amuse you.  Psyche, please.  This will continue to weigh on you until you know what's so distressed Violeta.  And I imagine it will weigh on her until she speaks of it."

"Also true..."

"Any of the children could run for Owen if I needed assistance.  I doubt I will, though.  Look at them."

Vincent pointed to Belle and Omar who were trying their best to enunciate each color as they used it.

"Geen!"

"Pink!"

"Back!"

"Yeddow!"

Vincent chuckled.

"We will have to continue to work on our Ls and Rs, I think."

"Yeah.  But they've come so far."  JenniAnn let out a wistful sigh then stretched up and kissed Vincent's cheek.  "You're a very good teacher, Vincent.  And you never stop."  She briefly closed her eyes when the man enveloped her in his embrace.  Sometimes it felt good to feel like a little girl again.

Once Vincent had released her, JenniAnn made her way to Violeta and crouched beside her desk.

"How about we go sit in my chamber and talk?" she whispered.

Violeta set down her pen and nodded.

Shelby looked up from her paper.

"Will you be back?" she questioned.

"Yes, we will.  And probably stay for lunch, too.  Don't you think?"

Violeta nodded when JenniAnn turned to her.

"See you soon, Shelby," the teenager whispered.

The girl rose from her seat and hugged first the angel and then JenniAnn before resuming her work.

Vincent patted Violeta on the back when the two passed him.  As they retreated, he prayed that JenniAnn would be able to get to the bottom of the angel's despair.

*~*~*

JenniAnn studied Violeta as the two sat, side by side, on a settee in her chamber.  The angel ran her butterfly pendant back and forth on her necklace chain.  Finally, JenniAnn grabbed the angel's right hand and held it in both of her own.

"Violeta, please tell me what's wrong?"

"I... I don't think it's for me to tell."

The words all but verified Ivy's theory for JenniAnn.

"Did Ruby and Opal talk to you last night?"

Wide-eyed, Violeta turned to JenniAnn and nodded.

"B-but not Opal.  Just Ruby."

"Did she say things that you're not sure how to handle?"

With fresh tears welling, Violeta nodded.

"Was it about what happened to her and her sister?"

"Yes...  So... so awful.  I mean... really, really awful.  A-and they're such nice girls!  Not that anyone deserves that b-but..."

"Oh, Violeta...  I'm so sorry, honey."

JenniAnn wrapped her arms around the shaking angel and softly swayed. 

"I... I just wanted to... to be nice a-and welcoming and for most of the time it... it was just... just chit-chat with both Opal a-and Ruby and I really like them.  But... but then, in the middle of the night, I realized I'd forgotten my phone in one of the common rooms so... so I went to go get it because I... I wanted to look at my photo album.  When I went down to get it, though...  I... I heard crying a-and it was Ruby.  I sat with her a-and suddenly all this... awfulness came pouring out.  I listened to... to her and held her hand b-but I just wanted to... to start screaming and throwing things."

JenniAnn kissed the girl's hair.

"You did so good, Violeta."

"B-but I didn't have anything to say to... to make her feel b-better.  I... I did hug her."

"I don't think you needed to say anything.  I think Ruby just needed to feel listened to.  And I'm sure the hug helped."

"I hope so."  Violeta wiped at her eyes.  "It... it's really awful that it was her stepfather.  She... she said that her and Opal were so happy when he adopted them b-but after their mother died..."  She shook her head and began to hyperventilate.

JenniAnn softly patted her back as she held her.

"It's okay, Violeta.  You're okay.  Deep breath, honey.  Do you think maybe you should go Home for a little while?"

Though Violeta didn't audibly answer, JenniAnn felt her shake her head. 

When she'd finally calmed, Violeta grabbed a throw pillow, rested it on JenniAnn's lap, and laid her head down.

The behavior was so Belle-like that, in spite of the serious circumstances, JenniAnn smiled.

"Better?"

"Yes."

JenniAnn ran her fingers through the girl's hair and softly hummed, just as she did with Belle when she needed calming.  Mid-note, Violeta interrupted.

"If I tell you... you won't tell anyone, will you?"

"No, not as long as keeping it secret won't jeopardize anyone else."

"It won't.  Ruby said she and Opal told Kelly and Matthew the names of all the men who hurt them.  Matthew told them they'd send officers out to get them."

"Good."

"I... I think the betrayal is the worst part," Violeta began.  "Ruby said that one night, a couple weeks after her mother died, her stepfather came into her room a-and raped her.  He... he told her that as long as she didn't tell anyone and kept letting him do it then he w-wouldn't hurt her sister.  So... so she kept quiet.  A-and then... then it... it got worse.  One night, her stepfather hosted a poker party.  He let... let the men take... take turns with Ruby."

Tears streamed down JenniAnn's face as she thought of what the girl had suffered and what Violeta must have felt at first hearing of it.

"It... it happened more than once.  Then last... last week, Ruby found her stepfather in... in Opal's room.  That's when she decided they had... had to get away.  Yesterday, she saw one of the CC's flyers and... and called.  She's happy to... to be safe now b-but she said... said she can't for-forget the... the feeling of... of their hands on... on her breasts a-and them on top of her... grunting a-and laughing and... and smelling like alcohol a-and cigarette smoke.  A-and knowing now that... that they did the... the same to Opal."

JenniAnn clung to Violeta when she sat up and buried her face in her shoulder, sobbing again.  It was not lost on JenniAnn that the angel's arms were folded over her own chest, covering her breasts.  JenniAnn was overcome by a flash of memory.  Violeta in the alley, four vile men taunting her, approaching her.  JenniAnn saw again the terror on Violeta's face just before her own spirit had embraced the girl.

"I... I thought of... of the alley.  With Nen a-and those terrible men," Violeta croaked.

"I know, honey."

"A-and how they... they didn't even touch me b-but I felt... dirty somehow.  I... I knew I wasn't but... but..."

"You told me that you felt like they saw you as a thing, not a person."

"Uh huh.  A-and to think about having to feel that o-over a-and over...  To feel like a thing.  Over and... and over.  In... in your own room a-and your own family.  Sometimes..."

"Sometimes?" JenniAnn gently prompted when Violeta went silent.

"Sometimes I wish I... I wasn't a girl.  I know those things happen to... to boys.  But I don't think they have so... so much around to... to make them feel like things."

"Oh...  Violeta."  JenniAnn cupped her chin.  "I can understand why you say that.  But I'm so glad God made you a girl.  Because that's part of who you are and I love all of who you are.  I wouldn't change a thing about you.  And, besides, I need you to be a girl.  I need you to help me teach Shelby and Belle how to be tough, strong girls.  We need to fight all those things that tell them that they're less than a wonderfully-made, beloved person.  It's not us who need to change, honey.  It's the people who don't recognize God in us who need to change."

Violeta considered those words.

"Besides, if you were a boy then I might not be able to brush out your hair and braid it every week.  And I treasure those times, Violeta."

This comment made the angel smile.  She met JenniAnn's eyes and nodded.

"I do, too.  A-and you're right about the rest.  So... so now I guess it's our job to... to remind Ruby and Opal and the others of that?  That they're wonderfully-made a-and loved."

"Exactly.  And I think you already took a very big step in showing Ruby that her well-being was worth losing sleep over and sadness on your part.  What those men did to her was incredibly selfish.  You were selfless."

"I... I was just there."

"Sometimes that's all that matters."

Violeta considering how important it had been to her simply to be near JenniAnn, to know JenniAnn was listening.  She smiled.

"Yeah.  That's true."  The angel gave the woman a hug.  "Thank you."

"You're welcome.  You okay to go get some lunch?"

"Yeah.  I want to see Shelby.  I hope I didn't worry her."

"I'm sure she's fine."

JenniAnn rose and held her hand out.  When Violeta took it, she helped her to her feet.  Hand-in-hand, they left the chamber and made their way to the dining hall.  Shelby was waiting outside, her face lighting up when she saw them.

"Feeling better?" she asked Violeta.

"Much better," the angel replied before hugging the girl.

"Good."  Shelby hugged JenniAnn then took each of their hands and led them towards where Belle was waiting with Vincent, Jacob, Liam, Aiyla, and Omar.

As she ate, Violeta kept peering at Belle and Shelby and remembering JenniAnn's words.  She knew she would do whatever she could to help her sister and niece become strong, confident women.  She would also do her best to help her new friend see that there were good, caring men out there who wanted only the best for her.  And there was One who had died to give it to her.

*~*~*

A Father's Love

Joshua was waiting in the lobby for Nick, Zaila, Thandie, and Catherine to return with some new residents when it occurred to him that he hadn't seen Isolde or Marco all morning.  Concerned, he decided to check on them.

Joshua was still rapping on the door when Marco answered.  Instead of inviting him into the room, the vampire stepped into the hallway and hastily closed the door.

"Hi, Marco.  I just realized that I hadn't seen you and Isolde this morning and I was concerned.  Is everything okay?"

Marco responded with an uncomfortable chuckle.

"Define 'okay,' please."

Joshua's brows shot up.

"Isolde won't stop watching that DVD," her husband reported.  "She hasn't slept a wink.  The video ends, she starts it back up.  Sorry for my abruptness a bit ago but I don't know if it would help her to see you in the flesh or...  I mean she's happy.  I kind of don't want to burst her bubble.  I mean... this could be the closest she gets to Jesus for a long, long while.  You're really great, by the way.  We both cried the first time."

Joshua smiled when Marco squeezed his shoulder.

"Really great.  If... if I ever get to meet Jesus, I wouldn't mind him being like you, Joshua."

Joshua squeezed the man's hand.

"Thank you.  And I do think you'll meet Jesus, Marco.  You and Isolde."

"I hope so.  Well...  You're probably used to people getting really into your show.  Do you think seeing you would help Isolde snap out of it or..."

Before Joshua could answer, the bedroom door opened.  Red-faced and with puffy eyes, Isolde stepped out and threw her arms around Joshua.

"You are so wonderful..." she murmured.  "Do... do you think I could get a copy of that to keep?"

Joshua patted the woman's back.

"Of course.  And I think you should come see the show next month.  Peter's spectacular, too."

"Yeah, but... something about you."

In that moment, Joshua desperately wanted to tell Isolde and Marco who he was.  However, the door bell resounded through the halls.

Isolde swiped at the tears on her face.

"Have more people come?"

Joshua nodded. 

"Can we go with you to greet them?"

"Of course.  I think that would be very nice."

Beaming, Isolde followed her new hero towards the lobby.  Marco trailed her.

When Joshua and the Crocettis stepped into the lobby;
Catherine, Nick, and Zaila were just leaving the anteroom.  Thandie strode behind them, her arms around two women.  A small boy clung to one of the women and a slightly older girl looked around anxiously.

"Oh..." Isolde murmured.  "I... I hope those little ones..."

Joshua shook his head.

"Their mother was trafficked, not them.  But they've seen things no child should."

"Ladies, Wyatt, this is Joshua," Nick introduced.  "He's our founder.  And these are Isolde and Marco, two of our wonderful helpers."

"You'll love them all.  And being here," Thandie encouraged.  She released the women and hugged Joshua.  "I can't believe how much I've changed in my short time here."

Joshua beamed at Thandie and kissed her hair before returning his gentle gaze to the newcomers.

"Everyone, these are my friends, Lucia and Lizaveta,  and Lucia's children, Gillian... Gillie... and Wyatt," Thandie introduced.

"Lucia, Lizaveta, Gillie, Wyatt... welcome!" Joshua greeted, meeting each pair of eyes as he spoke.  "I'm so pleased that you're here."

From his vantage point beside Isolde, Marco watched as Joshua stepped closer to the newcomers.  He spoke in hushed tones to them, setting a gentle hand on their arms or shoulders after they had relaxed.

Marco glanced over at his wife.  She looked as awed as she had through the whole of Jesus Christ Superstar

Perhaps the bubble would never burst...

*~*~*

It was lunchtime at the Brewster Public Library and the three men had retreated to Stanley's office.  The old gentleman smiled as Behnam handed him a lunch sack from the small refrigerator they kept there.

"I swear...  I think I've gained ten pounds since you started, Behnam.  All in thanks to your missus... and I love her for it."

Behnam returned his boss' smile.

"Isra enjoys making lunch for you.  Although I will warn you, we may be in for some interesting combinations as her pregnancy progresses."

Andrew chuckled as he unloaded the lunch JenniAnn had packed for him.

"She has odd cravings, I take it?"

Behnam nodded.

"With Aiyla and Omar, I would sometimes find her eating fruit or pastries dipped in hummus."

Andrew and Stanley wrinkled their noses.

"I doubt she'd pack that for us," Behnam assured.  "But cottage cheese and pickle sandwiches, maybe.  Kemara told her about those."

"You know, JenniAnn actually started eating those, too.  With mustard."

"Anything you need to tell us, Andrew?" Stanley teased.

The angel of death smirked and shook his head.

"I don't think we'd be having any more babies right now even if we could.  We've got our hands full."

"Joshua mentioned that Violeta was having difficulties," Behnam replied.

Andrew let out a sigh, took a bite of his tuna salad, and then responded.

"One of the girls at the CC told Violeta about what she's gone through.  Violeta just couldn't handle it.  She stayed home from classes and went Below with JenniAnn.  Per JenniAnn's text, I guess things are better now but..."

"But?" Behnam prompted.

Andrew let out a sigh and dragged a hand through his hair.

"I felt really... helpless this morning.  I know Laja wasn't trying to hurt me... not at all... but what she said..."

Stanley patted the angel's hand.

"What did she say?"

"She thought that what Violeta heard was so upsetting to her because she's in female form.  She experiences it... the racy ads, the unwanted come-ons, the stories of rape... differently than I, in male form, ever can.  And JenniAnn, as a woman, can understand that better than I'll ever be able to.  She's right.  I know she's right.  It just made me think that, other than Max, I only have girls.  So does that mean I'll never be able to understand them?  Never be able to comfort them as well as JenniAnn can?"

Andrew's questions were met with silence until Behnam spoke.

"I feel the same.  As I told Andrew and Joshua's family last night, I do not know what my role is in helping Salma.  I can't talk to her as Isra does.  And Isra... she knows fear and anger that I do not.  Our first night together, I know she felt that.  Towards me.  But it wasn't reciprocated.  I only felt guilt and sadness for the poor girl my uncle had abducted.  And... and it makes me realize I will never truly know all that my little Aiyla feels.  Isra believes the little one inside her is a girl, too.  Will it be the same with her?  I fear it will.  And so... I feel like... like I'm standing outside."

Stanley thoughtfully chewed his sandwich before speaking.

"Behnam, I can only trust that, in time, you'll know what Salma needs from you.  As for your daughters..."  He eyed the two.  "Perhaps your ladies are better poised to help them cope with the trials girls and women face.  But that doesn't mean you have no part.  You have the ability to... well, it's almost like an immunization. "

Andrew and Behnam looked to each other, trying to judge if either understood what Stanley was saying.

The old man laughed.

"Let me try that again.  Your ladies and your daughters, you think they're beautiful, don't you?"

"Sure."

"Of course."

"Is that the only reason you care for them?"

"Of course not!"

"Hardly."

"And don't you think your girls pick up on that?" Stanley questioned.  "Every time you applaud your ladies' creativity or hard work or wisdom in front of your daughters, you're sending the message that you value women for so much more than their looks.  You do the same when you congratulate Belle for her coloring or Aiyla for her spelling.  And, right now, your littlest girls are too young to realize what everyone is doing at the Chrysalis.  But one day they will know.  And they'll remember that their fathers, uncles, brothers, cousins,  their Lord even... they didn't turn up their noses and turn away from 'defiled, disgraced' women.  They helped them and viewed them as neither defiled nor disgraced but as God's children.  They saw how worthwhile and deserving of help they were and are."

Tears had welled in both Andrew's and Behnam's eyes.

"You're right," the angel replied with an admiring smile for the librarian.

"Truly," Behnam agreed.

"I see and read a lot here," Stanley demurred.  "You're building a sort of armor around your girls.  Both of you.  But your roles don't have to only be proactive.  When your girls do struggle with what they see out there..."  Stanley waved to a window.  "You can listen.  And, no, maybe you can't speak from the depths of experience JenniAnn and Isra can.  But you can empathize.  And you can tell them that no matter how they feel the world sees them, you know them better than the world.  And you love them and know they don't belong in any box the world tries to put them into.  They'll listen to their daddies.  And I'll say one thing more.  You're also teaching your sons.  Andrew, your boy is soon to be wed.  He loves his Rose truly.  And, from watching you with JenniAnn, he's learned how to treat her.  That's no small thing.  Behnam, if Omar's meant to find a young lady, he will make a fine husband for her because his father is a fine husband to his mother."

Behnam hugged his boss.

"Thank you, Stanley.  That's exactly what I needed to hear."

"And me, as well," Andrew added. 

"I'm glad my words can bring you both some solace.  I, for one, think it's great.  God gave your kids mothers and fathers.  You can and do complement each other.  That's something to be celebrated, isn't it?"

"It is," Behnam averred.

"Definitely."  Andrew clasped his dog tag with the birthstones on it.

"And if you need anything further, we have a fine collection of Women's Studies books," Stanley reminded with a grin.

Andrew and Behnam both laughed at the good-natured plug then, feeling much more settled, conversation turned to plans Behnam and Stanley had for the library.  By the time their lunch break was through, the mood had become a merry one and the three men passed the afternoon easily.

*~*~*

Upon returning from the Tunnels, Violeta was reunited with Ivy who caught her up on what she'd missed at school.  Belle, Aiyla, and Omar ran off to the playroom where Nick and Azrael read stories and helped with light homework.  JenniAnn returned to her room to drop off her teaching bag.  Upon entering, she noticed that Harvey's cage was empty.  Fearing that the children's room would be too intense for the rabbit, JenniAnn and Andrew had kept Belle's smallest pet with them.  The shock JenniAnn felt upon seeing his empty cage was short-lived.  A note was taped to the door.

"I have Harvey.  Needed some cuddle time."

JenniAnn smiled when she saw the monogram that, all at once, looked like both JD and JC.  She made her way to Joshua's study but found it empty.  His bedroom door, however, was open.  Peeking her head inside, JenniAnn saw Joshua sitting on his bed with Harvey resting on his lap.  The rabbit appeared extremely content as he lazily chewed on a carrot while Joshua stroked his fur.  A flush came to JenniAnn's cheeks when she remembered a passage from a book.

Joshua looked up and grinned at JenniAnn.

"You're thinking of Lamb," he guessed.

Even though her blush was deepening, JenniAnn smiled and nodded.  In Christopher Moore's book, a beyond tipsy Josh, in the days before his Crucifixion, had cuddled a bunny and declared that, whenever anything bad should happen to him, bunnies should be around to bring cheer.  Thus, according to the novelist, was the Easter Bunny born.

Joshua patted the spot in front of him and JenniAnn sat down.

"I don't mind.  Sure, it's raunchy but it was written in a kind spirit and..."

"And I sobbed.  I'd never thought of you as... as someone's crush, someone's best friend.  I mean... you're everyone's best friend.  But not like a growing up together, best buddies thing.  Somehow that ridiculously fictionalized book made what happened to you more real than so many theological texts.  And I really liked Mary Magdalene in that... Maggie."

"I liked Maggie, too.  Barring the whole being madly in love with me thing, Christopher wasn't that off the rails with her.  Mary was a tough, opinionated, passionate girl."

"So she didn't... have a thing for you?"

Joshua laughed and shook his head.

"I was an old man to her.  She was born when I was fifteen, same age as her big brother."

JenniAnn tried to mask her shock.

"I'll tell you about her sometime.  I promise.  But right now... I think you came looking for me for reasons other than my bunnynapping."

JenniAnn bit her lip and nodded.

"I... think I upset Andrew this morning."

"Because of what happened with Violeta?"

"Yeah.  He wanted her to go to classes.  I disagreed.  And I think he realized I was right... and I still believe I was right.  But I may have said some things I shouldn't have."

"Like what?"

"Basically that he can't understand Violeta like I can."

"Well... that's true, dear one.  He can't.  That's why, even though Violeta chose her supervisor, I did a little deck-stacking.  She needed to be with Andrew so she could be with you and the other ladies, too."

"Yeah...  It's just... I was so intent on being sensitive to Violeta that I didn't handle things as sensitively as I shoulda with Andrew.  I get concerned, sometimes, that I'm not balancing the mom and anam cara things as well as I should be..."

Joshua squeezed the woman's hand. 

"Well, you're not perfect at it.  But neither is Andrew.  And, at this point, neither of you is expected to be.  The important thing is that you're trying.  Both of you.  You're growing and learning together and I think that's wonderful."

Mindful of Harvey, JenniAnn hugged Joshua.

"Thanks.  That's what I needed to hear."

"Then I'm glad I could say it."

JenniAnn beamed at Joshua then cocked her head.

"So how are you?  Gotta say, I'm kinda surprised to find you here alone.  Well, I mean except for Harvey."

Joshua heaved a sigh.

"I guess I just needed to be with someone who can safely know everything about me."

He nuzzled Harvey then squeezed JenniAnn's hand.

"I'm glad everyone's going to be back soon for dinner and Bible study."

JenniAnn nodded as her eyes welled.

"It's really hard for you to not tell the people coming here, isn't it?"

Joshua responded with a silent nod.  He drew in and let out a deep breath before continuing.

"And to not act like myself.  But if I get too familiar, they could become afraid... think I'm looking for something I'm not.  And if I tell them who I am too soon, they won't believe me and become scared.  Would you feel safe in a safe house run by a madman?"

"No," JenniAnn admitted. 

"At least they're safe here.  And Isra and Salma had a great day together.  Zelda was with them and Ama for a lot of the day but she's also branching out so that's great."

"It really, really is."  JenniAnn reached up to caress Joshua's hair.  As she was brushing back a curl, a strange look came over her face.

Joshua chuckled.

"Did you find a barrette in there?  Belle and Nya got to me this morning but I would have thought..."

"Not a barrette...  Maybe it's just the light but..."

"Ah ha."

"Ah ha what?"

"You saw a gray hair, didn't you?"

JenniAnn nodded.

"More than one?"

"I think so..."

"It happens.  I had a considerable amount of gray hair when I died.  In my beard, too."

"That makes sense but... I was literally all up in your hair when you did Superstar and, that whole time, I never saw a single gray.  What... what does it mean?" JenniAnn pleaded.

"Oh... dear one..."

Joshua readjusted Harvey and embraced JenniAnn when tears began to trail down her cheeks.

"It's okay!" he assured.  "It only means that I'm a little more stressed this time around.  But I also have a lot more people around who know who I am than I had that first time.  Besides... you think men with gray hair look distinguished."

In spite of her tears, JenniAnn nodded and laughed.

"I do...  I... I guess it was just a little shock is all."

"I know.  I promise you that this," Joshua patted the side of his head where JenniAnn had spotted the hairs, "is as drastic as my aging is going to get this time around."

"This time around?"

Joshua shrugged. 

"I may need to be an old man at some point.  Maybe when more of you are old, too.  We might have to infiltrate an assisted living home or something."

JenniAnn giggled at the idea.  A moment later, however, she sobered.

"It... it would be kinda nice to see you as an old man, actually.  You... you never got to... to be one."

Joshua hugged her again.

"Then we'll do that sometime.  But for right now, let's go be among the little ones.  It'll help both our moods.  And, besides, Josef wondered if maybe Daisy and the kids could Skype for a while.  I guess Daisy's been watching that video they recorded over and over."

"Aww, that's sweet.  Good idea."

After dropping Harvey off, the two made their way to the playroom where the children immediately took to the idea of visiting with their soon-to-be friend.  They'd only been overseeing the kids for a few minutes when Joshua nudged JenniAnn.

"Andrew."  He pointed to the door where her beloved and Behnam were entering.

JenniAnn squeezed Joshua's hand.

"Thanks, I'll go talk to him."

Once she crossed over to the angel, JenniAnn greeted him with a kiss and tight hug.

"Well, hello!" Andrew replied with a grin.

"I missed you."

"I missed you, too, Laja.  How's Violeta?"

"Much better.  She's with Ivy, doing her homework."

"Good."

"Andrew..."

"Laja..."

"I... I know you said you weren't upset with me but I think what I said this morning did upset you and... and I'm sorry."

Andrew looped his arms around JenniAnn's waist.

"It's okay, Laja.  Really.  I was upset but only because you spoke truthfully and it left me feeling like... well, like maybe I was going to be less helpful to our girls than you are."

"Andrew, no..."

The angel cradled her face in his hands.

"I know.  Stanley helped me see that.  Behnam and me both, actually."

Andrew smiled as he relayed what Stanley had said.

From his vantage point near where the kids were speaking to Daisy, Joshua proudly looked on.

"Stanley really helped us both," Behnam reported as he settled beside the carpenter.

"He's a wise one, all right," Joshua praised.

"I'm glad he's in our lives."  Behnam beamed at Joshua.  "Thank you for that."

"You're very welcome.  So tell me about what's new at the library?"

While Behnam excitedly shared plans for a Spring Break book club for children, Joshua soaked in all the joyful activity around him.  As much as he wished for a connection with those newly arrived at the Chrysalis, he was buoyed by his Father's love and the knowledge that once he'd been a stranger to most of those in the room.  Now they loved him and knew how deeply he loved them.  There was immense hope in that.

*~*~*

That evening, after dinner and dessert, the Friends gathered in Joshua's study while Nick, Reuel, and their crew monitored the other floors.  They did their usual Bible readings and prayers then shared communion before Joshua opened it up for questions.

"Josh, there's something I've been wondering about," Shane began.

"What's that?"

"Well, it seems like we've been really lucky so far but I've read... and Amber-Marie mentioned in training... that substance abuse can be pretty common among trafficking victims.  If we get someone here who has an addiction, how will we handle that?"

"Great question.  As it happens, Graham has some experience."  Joshua smiled at the man and indicated for him to speak.

Owen beamed at his boyfriend as he addressed the others.

"Right.  I worked in a rehab clinic before I became an EMT.  So I have some experience with treatment and coping mechanisms.  Of course, so do Portia and Jacob."

Portia nodded.

"If it's beyond what we can handle here then we can admit them to the clinic," Graham explained.  "With Joshua's blessing, I've told a couple trusted former co-workers there about what we're doing.  It's possible a client could do a day program at the clinic and still come back here for the evenings so they feel part of the community and can get support here."

"Sounds great," Peter replied.  "Along those lines, when will general health screenings start?"

"Tomorrow," Portia answered.  "Graham, Father, and I will all be here.  We'll each claim an exam room and let them choose who to come to.  We're sensitive to the fact that I might get the most patients since I'm the lone female.  But at least this way I can get second opinions if needed."

"Father is looking forward to the opportunity to help," Vincent offered. 

"I'd like to help, too."  Joccy smiled shyly.  "I know there's not a whole lot I know how to do but I've been helping Mary in the nursery and I think I've gotten pretty good at babysitting.  I had a good role model."

Emma beamed as the girl hugged her arm.

"Anyway, I thought maybe I could watch some of the little kids when their mothers take classes in the evening."

"That's a wonderful idea, Joccy!  Thank you!" Joshua enthusiastically accepted.  "We'll get you an evening class schedule and you can decide what works best for you."

"I'd like to help my sister," Zoe volunteered.  "I really think I could do that and homework."

"That sounds like a great plan.  Thank you, girls.  So... other questions?" Joshua prompted.

Logan raised his hand before speaking.

"I, umm, I'd like to teach a computing class.  I know we talked before about how us guys should probably not be alone with the ladies for their peace of mind.  So if one of you ladies could volunteer to do that with me...  You wouldn't need to actually teach.  Just be there."

Beth squeezed his shoulder.

"I'd love to do that with you, Logan!  Sounds fun and I might even learn a thing or two."

"I love it.  I think that'll be really popular, Logan."  Joshua smiled at him. 

"Yeshua?"

"Yes, Ivy?"

"Is Amber-Marie going to keep staying here once she gets back tomorrow?"

"Definitely.  I asked her about that and she said she'd like to stay here at least until her divorce is finalized."

"And will little Daisy stay in her room?" Maryam queried.

"Yes.  When I talked to Amber-Marie and Josef this afternoon, they both thought that would be for the best."

"Aiyla is so looking forward to meeting her in person!" Isra shared.  "I think they'll be fast friends."

"I hope so."  Joshua smiled as he recalled the two little girls chattering away over the computer.

"I had a thought about Daisy's video," John started.  "I know we need to keep a low profile but what would you think about putting a video on our web site?  We wouldn't shoot anything identifiable.  Stay away from windows, of course.  But if people saw what we have to offer, saw the kind staff... maybe it would be the additional push they needed?"

"Another great idea!" Joshua cheered.  "Let's do that.  But we need to figure out who has the least public profile.  Emma and Peter, I'm afraid that means you're out with the press you do for St. Genesius'.  We don't want anyone trailing you from there."

Peter nodded.

"Very good point."

"And that means we're out."  JenniAnn waved to Andrew, Catherine, Max, and Rose. 

Owen rolled his eyes as he recalled the wave of press after Rex Remus' trial had started.

"Definitely no clergy," Rabbi Yakov offered.

Tiva nodded.  "Yakov and I are both listed on the synagogue's web site.  Mike, you have your blog.  Zeke, your sermons are posted."

"And I hate to say it but I think any of us who have been in a show are ineligible," Diana concluded.  "If you Google any one of us, a review will probably come up."

"And Kemara and I both have web sites for our freelancing," Sean lamented as he swayed with Joy.

"And our whole clan's on the farm's site.  What about Reuel?" Caleb asked.  "And Eleora and Cody?"

"That would definitely work," Joshua verified.  "Nick would be a safe bet, too.  He's got lots of press but none they'll be able to track!  And Zaila, Freya, and Makena could do it." 

"I'll work with them," John promised.  "We'll try to get something together as soon as tomorrow evening."

"Sounds good.  Thanks, John!  So anything else?" Joshua checked.

Kemara gave a weary nod as she held Ian.

"When are the parenting classes starting?  I think I need to attend one.  How do you get a baby to sleep for more than two hours?"

With a soft chuckle, Joshua took the precious burden from her.

"Ama, Abi, Diana, Zeke, what do you think?"

"Would tomorrow do?" Maryam answered with a gentle smile as she patted Kemara's shoulder.

"Thank God..." Kemara replied with a grin for Joshua.  "Hey, how did you..."

Joshua's eyes twinkled as he continued to cradle the now-sleeping boy.

"If only he could have done that with himself," Yosef teased.

Yosef's joking mood was contagious and soon the group broke into friendly chit-chat until yawning began and they all made their way to their rooms until only Joshua and his parents were left.

Maryam kissed her son's cheeks.

"Come wake us if you cannot sleep and want to talk."

"I will, Ama."

"We really do not mind it, in spite of my joking," Yosef assured in between claiming his own kisses.

Joshua laughed.

"I know, Abi.  I do.  But I'm fine.  It'll do me good to have some quiet time to talk with Dad.  Rest well."

"You, too, my own."

After more embraces, the couple left their son alone.  Joshua readied for bed then knelt on a couch placed near a window.  He gazed out at the night sky.

"How many more are out there now who will find their way to us, Dad?  A-and how many more will get caught up in that horror in the meantime?"  Tears flooded Joshua's eyes and he took in a ragged breath.  He turned towards the door through which his parents and the Friends had left.  "We have a strong army here.  The best sort of army, one who fights and protects with love and kindness.  Please, help us to save as many as we can.  Guide them to us.  And, if it's Your will, let them know me.  I long to gather them under my wings...  Just as I gathered her in my arms..."

Joshua wept for a few moments as memories from long ago hit him afresh, as if only a day had passed.

"Yeshua, I beg you not to go.  She tried to stab the last man who approached her."

"Master, whatever she was to you, she is too far gone now."

"We are not speaking of merely unclean, Yeshua.  This... woman...  They say it is beyond being possessed by demons.  They say she has become a demon herself!"

"Enough!  It is for such as her that the Son of Man comes.  If you do not believe this, you do not believe in me."

As Joshua's attention again turned to the window, his unseen audience shifted.

"Believe in me, please.  Believe that I'm here for you."  He looked down at the floor beneath which the current occupants were, hopefully, sleeping. 

"I'm always here for you," he murmured.  "I love you."


Joshua resumed his prayers to his Father and eventually fell asleep there on the couch.  He did not stir when Mary appeared beside him and gently laid his fleece blanket around him.  With a soft kiss of her Master's temple, the saint disappeared.

*~*~*

Zmaray

Thursday, February 11th, 2016

Salma smiled as she stared up at the perfectly blue sky peeking through the thick trees.  After enjoying the sight for a few moments, she laid on the soft grass, closed her eyes, and focused on the gentle breeze that smelled of lilacs and roses.  Soon, she felt the familiar vibrations along the ground.  When they stopped, she sensed a presence near her.

"Salma..." a deep voice called.

The woman sighed.

The vibrations started again but not for long.  Then the earth seemed to shift as a massive body settled nearby.

Salma rolled to her side and stared into the familiar brown and gold eyes of the lion. 

"He has your eyes, Zmaray," she murmured.

"He who?"

"Joshua.  He... he's someone who is helping me."

"Ah."

"His voice... it reminds me of yours, too."

"Hmm.  What about his hair?  Surely I have a much finer mane."

Salma laughed.  Her hand hovered in the air for a moment before digging into the thick, coarse strands of gold, auburn, and black.

"You have a much finer mane," she assured.

The lion smiled and tilted his head so Salma's hand fell deeper into his mane.  He let out a contented sigh when she scratched behind his right ear.

When Salma was finished their eyes met.  For a moment, the woman thought that the lion's eyes filled with tears. 

"I've missed you," he murmured.

Salma turned away, resting on her side and facing away from the beast.

A velvety paw landed on her back and stayed there.

"I... I was embarrassed," Salma explained.

"Why?"

"I am... n-not who I once was."

"You are mine.  Always."

Salma sniffled and shook her head.

The lion rose and ambled to the woman's other side.  He again laid down next to her and peered into her eyes.

"I'm here now.  I'm always here for you.  I love you, Salma."

Salma's body quaked.  Her arm slung around the lion.  She buried her face in his mane and wept.

*~*~*

Salma awoke with her face buried in the plush mane of her toy lion.  Peeking through the wisps of hair, she saw Zelda smiling at her.

"That is the most peaceful that I've ever seen you look!" the young woman gushed.  "That must have been some dream.  Were you dreaming about that awesome cake your sister made last night?"

Salma sat up, hugged her lion, and smiled.

"No.  But it was a very good cake.  She said we could have some for breakfast.  With fruit."

Zelda laughed.

"She's definitely a mom!"

"Yes."

Zelda saw the cloud come over her friend's face.  She left her bed and settled beside Salma, wrapping an arm around her shoulders.

"What's wrong?"

"I don't know..."

"Are you jealous of Isra?"

Salma jolted.

"I think it's okay if you are," Zelda assured.  "I am and I'm not even her sister.  But to have two adorable little ones and another one on the way and a husband like Behnam...  It doesn't mean I don't want Isra to have those things.  I may have only known her for a day but I can tell she's super sweet.  I just... I wish I had them, too."

Salma returned Zelda's hug. 

"Me too," she whispered.

"Some day?" Zelda asked hopefully.

Even though Salma was doubtful, she nodded.

"Some day."

"But cake now?" Zelda requested.  "It's almost 7:00."

With a laugh, Salma nodded.

"Cake now."

The two made their beds and, just before stepping away, Salma buried her hand in her lion's mane.  She sighed as she thought of her dream-friend.

Salma hoped that one day she would discover that he was no dream at all.

*~*~*

Amber-Marie looked curiously at Josef as they waited in the TSA line at the airport.  Daisy stood in front of them, chattering at Sarah.

"I would think you've done this so many times that you wouldn't be nervous," the woman whispered.

"I'm not nervous for myself.  I'm afraid Daisy's going to flip out if they ask her to put Sarah down so she can go through the scanner.  I have a bad feeling they will.  And what if she needs a pat down?  We could have a full-on meltdown on our hands and my heart would break for her."

"I doubt they'll give her a pat down.  And even if they ask to, I could show them the CPS paperwork.  As for Sarah... yeah, we might have a problem.  But it'll only be for a few seconds and I'm sure they're used to that."

"Maybe..." Josef grumbled.

The last few passengers in front of them made their way through. 

"Okay, honey, we need to put our shoes in this container.  Good job!" Josef praised when Daisy nonchalantly tossed her flats in with Amber-Marie's. 

"All your belongings in the crates, please," a TSA officer requested. 

Josef crouched down in front of Daisy.

"Daisy, we need to put Sarah in there.  Just for a..."

Daisy's grip on her doll tightened and she shook her head.

"My Sarah!"

"Honey, I know but..."

Another TSA officer approached them.

"Everything okay here, folks?"

"She's just a little apprehensive about setting her doll down," Amber-Marie explained to the man.

"Ah..." 

The man waved to the conveyor belt leading into the scanner.

"Well, here's the thing, sweetheart.  I've seen a lot of dolls go through that and they tell me that ride's a lot of fun.  I know you want to hold onto your doll but...  Hey, what's your doll's name?"

"Sarah," Daisy whispered.

"Well, I know you want to hang onto Sarah but how will you feel if Sarah meets other dolls who tell her how fun the ride is and she didn't get to go on it?"

Daisy bit her lip as she considered this.

"I promise you Sarah will be completely safe.  I'll keep my eyes on her the whole time."

"Okay..." 

Daisy set her beloved doll in a crate.

"Thank you.  So much," Amber-Marie murmured.

"Happens all the time," the agent assured.  "Now, if you excuse me, I need to get to the ride controls."

The trio were escorted through the remainder of the security measures with no trouble.  When they stepped through, Sarah was already waiting for them.

"Sarah!" Daisy cried, swooping up her doll.  She grinned at Josef and Amber-Marie.  "Look!  She got a sticker."

Amber-Marie and Josef noticed a smiley face sticker on the doll's dress.  They looked over to the agent who winked at them as he helped another passenger. 

"Did you like the ride?" Daisy asked the doll.  "Good!  Now we have a plane ride!"

As they sat down to get back into their shoes, Amber-Marie shook her head.

"They get so much bad press but that fellow...  Did you happen to get his name?"

"James," Josef answered.  "I'll be sure to write a letter to his supervisor.  He deserves something for that."

"Definitely."  Amber-Marie turned to Daisy and smiled at her.  "Are you excited for the plane ride?"

The little girl nodded.

"Then I see Aiyla?"

"Then we'll just have a car ride, much shorter than the plane ride, and then you'll see Aiyla."

"She's my friend."

Amber-Marie gently stroked a lock of hair away from Daisy's face.

"I know, sweetie, and I'm so excited for you to meet her."

"Can I watch the movie again?" Daisy asked.

"I think that's a great idea," Josef replied, grateful for an idea on how to amuse the girl in the hour until they boarded.

After he'd handed over his tablet, Josef and Amber-Marie smiled as Daisy excitedly rewatched the video of the little Friends greeting her.  They were relieved that, in a very short time, she'd be able to join them in their play and not merely watch from behind a screen.

*~*~*

"That's them!  That's them!" Beth shouted when she spotted Amber-Marie and Josef walking towards the baggage claim.  "I can't see Daisy through the crowd, though."

"She's probably between them," Mick guessed.  "C'mon."

Beth took his hand.  In her left hand, she clutched a lavender teddy bear they'd brought along for Daisy.

"Josef!" Mick called as they approached.

The elder vampire beamed and waved when he spotted his friend.  He knelt and pointed them out to Daisy.

"It's so good to see you three!" Beth enthused, hugging Amber-Marie once they'd reached them.  "And you must be Daisy."  She crouched down.  "My husband, Mick, and I brought you a little something."

Daisy's face lit up as Beth handed the bear to her.

"Pretty bear..." she cooed.

"What do you say to Mick and Beth, honey?"

Daisy smiled up at the couple.

"Thank you.  We going to see Aiyla and the other kids now?"

Mick chuckled.

"Just as soon as we get your bags, you bet!"

Mercifully, it wasn't long before the three suitcases appeared.  As they wheeled them out of the airport, Josef and Mick hung a few steps back so they could talk.

"How'd she do with TSA?" Mick asked.

"I think God may have pulled some strings.  We had the nicest agent.  He convinced Daisy that the scanner was a ride for dolls and it would be a shame if Sarah missed it."

Mick halted.

"Sarah?"

Josef smiled.

"That's what Daisy named her doll.  Something else, huh?"

"Yeah.  So... Joshua mentioned you and Amber-Marie are getting along pretty famously."

Josef shot his friend a look.

"I didn't mean it like that!" Mick protested.

"Right...  We don't all need an ol' ball and chain, Mick."

"I heard that!" Beth shouted, spinning around to wag her finger at Josef.

"Men..." Amber-Marie muttered with a grin.

Not understanding, Daisy nonetheless giggled.  Her good mood continued all through the car ride to the Chrysalis.

*~*~*

Knowing Daisy would want to see her friends as soon as possible, Vincent had granted an early dismissal.  Therefore, Shelby, Jacob, Liam, Belle, Omar, and Aiyla were all waiting in the lobby along with Anika and Nya when the St. Johns arrived with the travelers. 

While Daisy hung back as the group made their way past the guards, her shyness fell away as soon as she spotted the children.  Beaming, she ran towards them, only halting when she was within inches of them.

"Hi," she greeted.

The little Friends responded with a cacophony and, before the adults knew it, Aiyla had Daisy by the arm and was leading her away with the others clustered around them.

Josef laughed.

"Well, that was easy."

Amber-Marie brushed at a tear.

"That was very sweet.  I... I think this will be really, really good for our little Daisy."

"Definitely," Josef agreed as they hurried after the kids, catching up just as they had all crammed into an elevator.  The adults took another one and, by the time they'd arrived on the Friends' floor, Daisy had already been introduced to the playroom and several of the dogs and cats.

Amber-Marie whipped out her phone and took a photo of Daisy shrieking with laughter.  She showed it to Josef whose eyes misted as he clasped her hand.

"She's going to be okay," he murmured.

"She really is," Amber-Marie agreed.

For the next several minutes, they simply watched as the girl they were both drawn to frolicked and played with her friends.

*~*~*

Later that afternoon, Josef and Amber-Marie met with Joshua in his study.  The carpenter smiled as they related Daisy's first few minutes at the Chrysalis to him.

"I know that it doesn't mean there won't be rough waters ahead," Amber-Marie stressed.  "But the kids are so good with her!  Did you all talk to them before she came?"

Joshua nodded.

"We kept it very vague.  We told them that Daisy had some scary, sad things happen to her so we need to be very gentle and kind and patient.  I think Shelby, Jacob, and Anika have some idea and we've let all the kids know they can talk to any of us adults but they haven't said anything yet."

"Good.  We want to respect Daisy's privacy but we also don't want to treat what happened to her like a shameful secret.  The more people who can tell her she did nothing wrong, the better," Josef stressed.  His gaze intensified when he noticed Joshua's eyes cloud.  "Joshua, what is it?  You... know something?"

Joshua managed a soft smile and nodded.

"Two things.  I'm not sure what order I should tell them to you."

"Is one better than the other?" Amber-Marie asked.

"Yes."

"Then give us the other one first.  Please," Josef requested.

Joshua drew in and let out a deep breath.

"You know that Joe had to pull some strings to get Daisy here."

Her guardians nodded.

"The way he finally got Atlanta to agree was by telling them that he's building a case against a child pornographer.  Josef, Amber-Marie... I... I know who is in those photos and..."

Amber-Marie began to sob.

Josef patted her back as tears began to trickle down his own face.

"Daisy's in them... isn't she?"

"Some.  Yes."

"So... will... will she have to testify?"

Joshua rested a hand over Josef's quaking one.

"Joe would never make her if there was a risk of doing further harm.  If she can, that would help.  If she can't, he'll make do.  If you have any questions about that, he's happy to speak to you.  But know that he won't be pressuring either of you about this."

"G-good," Josef choked out. 

Joshua rose from his chair and hugged both Amber-Marie and Josef.

"I know this is incredibly difficult to hear.  I want you both to know that there couldn't be two better people to help Daisy recover, though."

"Amber-Marie I... I can see.  But... me?" Josef questioned.

"Josef, you're so good with her!" the psychiatrist insisted.  "How could you doubt that?"

"I don't doubt that I love her but... but I don't have the training you do.  I'm good at swooping in and out and rescuing people and hiring other people to care for them but..."

"Josef, you do have it in you to help, Daisy," Joshua encouraged.  "There's something you need to know about the connection between the two of you."  He withdrew a piece of paper from a nearby table and handed it to Josef.

"That... he looks like me.  Darker hair, darker eyes but..."

"It's uncanny," Amber-Marie agreed.  "Who is this?"

"Daisy's father.  His name is Benson."

"Is..." Josef began before remembering that, to Joshua, everyone was in the present tense.

"He is dead to this world, alive in our eternal Home," Joshua clarified.  "Until Daisy, Benson was the end of a very long family line.  Your family line, Josef."

"Oh... Oh!" Amber-Marie cried.  She turned to gape at the vampire.

"But...  Not direct.  I didn't have any children," Josef reminded after a few moments of stunned silence.

Joshua again took Josef's hand.

"Josef, Klara was pregnant when you got turned and fled."

"Klara..."  Josef whispered the name from his distant past.  "But... it was just once..."

Joshua let out a much needed laugh.

"You know, once is all you need sometimes..." 

Josef blushed and shot Joshua a look.

"So the baby..."

"A little boy named Pavel.  Klara told everyone you two had married prior to your unexplained disappearance.  It was a lie but an understandable one.  No one judged either her or Pavel."

"That's really great but... I had a little boy who... who had to grow up without his father," Josef mourned.  "I'm even more screwed up than I thought!"

"Oh, Josef..." Amber-Marie soothed.

"Josef, your son grew to be a fine man," Joshua assured.  "And, yes, your presence was missed.  One day, you will meet Pavel and Klara will be able to tell you everything you missed.  But right now is what we have.  And right now you have a chance to be there for the last branch on your family tree.  You can't go back in time and be there for that little boy.  But you can be here for this little girl who came from him and his children, from you.  Daisy needs you right now."

"She... she's mine?" Josef questioned.

"She's your great-great-and so on granddaughter, Josef."

"So remarkable..." Amber-Marie commented in a hushed tone.

Josef roused from his giddy stupor to look at her.

"You seem sad."

"I'm happy for you, Josef.  I really am.  But now... she's yours.  And I'm thrilled but... I was looking forward to..."

Josef smiled and hugged the woman.

"Oh no...  You're not getting out of this, Marilla."

"Marilla?" Joshua questioned with a confused look.

"Really?" Amber-Marie checked.

"Of course, really.  We're doing this together."  Josef turned back to Joshua.  "Yesterday, Daisy asked Amber-Marie and me if we were married.  We were taken aback and we both understood how a relationship between us would make Daisy feel more secure but..."

"No sparks," Amber-Marie reported.

"Nope, none," Josef agreed. 


Joshua chuckled.

"Can't say I'm surprised..."

"Although you are a fine, very attractive lady," Josef told his friend.

"Aww, thanks!"

"You're welcome.  Anyway, I suggested we do a sort of Matthew and Marilla Cuthbert thing.  Except we're... siblings by choice.  Well, same Father."

"I was surprised he even knew about Anne of Green Gables but..."

"I told her I'd read the series to impress Sarah."

"So that explained it."

Joshua smiled at the two who were smiling at each other.

Josef took Amber-Marie's hand in both of his.

"I'll take more time off.  I promise I will.  But I can't quit entirely.  When she's older, I think it would bother Daisy if she knew I'd done that."

"I agree."

"So... maybe after a while we can get a house here in New York?  Three bedrooms!  No, four.  In case we ever have company."

Amber-Marie laughed.

"Do you have any idea what a four bedroom house around here costs?"

"Yeah.  And I've also been saving since the 1600s."

"Oh right."

"So we get a house and I'll move my home base from L.A. to here and I'll come home to you and Daisy as often as I can."

"I love it!" Amber-Marie agreed before turning to Joshua.  "Sound good?"

Beaming, Joshua nodded.

"It sounds very good."

"Now that we have that decided..."  Josef held his hand out to Joshua.  "I'd like for you to meet our Daisy... your Daisy."

Choked up, Joshua only nodded before taking Josef's hand and going with him and Amber-Marie to see the little girl they all three loved.

*~*~*

That evening, with the teenagers in charge of the little ones, many of the adults turned up for the Wilsons' and Davidsons' childcare class.  Even those who had been parenting for a while were eager for tips from Joshua's own parents.  Joshua himself was in attendance for the sheer fun of it.

While Portia started the class off with a presentation on hygiene and nutrition, the four teachers passed around slips of paper and pens so people could anonymously submit questions.  They hoped to use them to build future sessions but also intended to answer a few that evening as a get-to-know-us ice breaker.

"So I've printed some materials about nutritional guidelines that you're free to take and if you don't now and decide you want them later, they'll be in the shelves just outside my office," Portia explained as she concluded her talk.  "And just a reminder that myself and Dr. Jacob will be here tomorrow at 3:00 to discuss immunizations.  Thank you!"

The students clapped as Portia took a place beside JenniAnn while the instructors moved to the front.  Yosef carried a box that had been used to collect the questions.

After settling into chairs, Zeke began introductions.

"Hi!  Glad you all could make it to our first childcare class.  Big thanks to Dr. Portia for starting us out!"

After waiting through more applause, the man continued.

"My name is Zeke Wilson and my wife, Diana, and I have four kids aged fifteen months to nineteen years old."

Zeke chuckled and Diana smiled when someone in the audience whistled.

"It's quite the experience!" Diana shared.  "In addition to that, Zeke helps out with our church's youth program, volunteers at True Light, a shelter that houses several children and young adults, and I teach elementary school.  So we both spend quite a lot of time around kids." 

When Diana smiled at her, Maryam spoke.

"My name is Maryam Davidson and this is my husband, Yosef."

Yosef smiled and waved.

"We have one son, Yeshu...  Joshua."

The ladies cooed when Joshua, seated towards the back with John and Reuel, blew kisses to his parents.

After blowing her own kiss, Maryam resumed speaking.

"I was a stay-at-home mother and Yosef is and was a carpenter."

Yosef nodded.

"In addition to our boy, we helped raise four nephews and two nieces after one of my sisters and her husband passed away.  I am also the eldest of four so I have never not had children in my life," Yosef concluded. 

"So that's us in a nutshell.  We plan to have more organized classes in the future and these," Zeke held up the box Yosef had given to him, "will help us plan content for those.  With our remaining twenty minutes, we'll answer a few of these now.  At random.  Maryam, you can do the honors first."

Maryam reached into the box and pulled out a question.

"'What are some ways to calm a child who is afraid of the dark?'" she read.

"Was Joshua afraid of the dark?" Thandie questioned, smiling as she glanced back at him.

"A little," Maryam replied.  "Generally only when something else was involved: a storm or a frightening incident earlier in the day.  When he was very little, Yosef and I would let him get into bed with us.  As he got a little older, one of us would lay with him in his bed until he got back to sleep.  And, later still, he simply stopped being afraid."

Yosef cleared his throat before adding his thoughts.

"I think it is important to consider the individual child, yes?  For some, a nightlight may be all they need.  Or a story.  For others, that close comfort may be vital."

Zeke nodded.

"Our first two children were completely unfazed by the dark.  Our third, however, often woke us up.  Diana eventually found Kendra a little bear that lit up.  We only let her have the bear at night.  So he would be special and associated with night and sleep.  We developed an entire ritual.  Brush her teeth, change into pajamas, Mommy and Daddy would tuck her in, she'd get her bear, we'd sing her a song, and then it was bedtime.  Because she loved the bear, her fear began to dissipate.  At night, it got dark.  She still didn't like that.  But, at night, she also got her bear.  Eventually, the bear won out.  Ironically, Kendra's now our only child who needs complete darkness to sleep."

"I think the key is to not get frustrated if your first attempt doesn't work.  Eventually, you will find something whether it be a nightlight or a special toy or a ritual or, yes, letting them stay with you.  It's important kids learn to self-soothe but don't get yourselves too worked up if they keep coming to you," Diana counseled.  "They won't be twenty and still in your bed.  I promise!"

"Diana's right.  For the record, I have my own bed.  My own room, even.  It's been a long time since I snuck into my parents' room.  A year at least," Joshua shared to the group's amusement. 

While the others laughed, Maryam and Yosef smiled at their son and recalled his nighttime visit two Christmases before.

"So there you have it!" Diana exclaimed.  "Again, we'll revisit these questions at greater length in future classes but let's try another one now.  Hmmm..."  She pulled a slip from the box Yosef held out to her.  "'
How do you get a baby to sleep longer than two hours?'"  She smiled at Kemara, remembering her remark during Bible study.  "Well, I think like our first question, each baby is different.  What works for one baby... works for one baby.  Although there are some common threads.  Routines are important for babies, too."

Zeke replied with a nod.

"With Manny, we have a book that we read every single time we lay him down so he associates it with sleep.  We've gotten plenty tired of that book, believe me!  But it usually works.  That's just getting him to sleep, though...  Staying asleep?  I think the hardest thing for me was learning to put the babies in their cribs when they were drowsy... not waiting until they were totally asleep.  Who doesn't want to cuddle a sweet, sleeping baby?  But by being in their crib while drowsy, the baby learns that, just because he or she is awake, that doesn't mean they need Mommy or Daddy right now."

"When they do need Mommy or Daddy right now... when they are hungry... then, as tempting as it is to rest just a few moments longer, it is best to pick up the baby as soon as possible," Maryam added.  "If he or she cries for too long, they will get agitated and harder to get back to sleep."

"Maryam and I also learned the hard way that you must always be loving with your baby but that does not mean you must always be entertaining.  When Yeshu would wake up in the middle of the night, Maryam would feed him and, if he was not yet back to sleep, I would rock him and sing to him.  He would fall asleep in my arms and then... back to the crying in an hour!"

John playfully elbowed Joshua.

"For shame!"

"Eventually, we concluded that Yeshu was not allowing himself to drift back to sleep because he knew that if he cried, Abi would sing to him.  After that, I learned to restrict my singing to the daytime and, miraculously, he started to sleep for longer periods."

"It was a free show every 1-2 hours, why wouldn't I take advantage of it?" Joshua kidded.

"Your Abi has a lovely voice so I do not blame you," Maryam replied before beaming at her husband.

"I don't either!" Zeke agreed.  "So I think the key is to be soothing but not stimulating.  You don't want your baby to think these nighttime episodes are fun.  If they do, they'll want more of them."

"That being said, there are always exceptions.  Babies can't tell us if they've had a nightmare but I always believed I could tell with mine.  In those cases, sing away, I think.  Anything to make them feel safe from those bogeymen," Diana counseled.

Lizaveta timidly raised her hand.

"Go ahead, Lizaveta," Zeke encouraged.

"I don't have any children and, umm, I'm not sure I will but Diana mentioned being able to tell when her babies had nightmares.  I wondered if it is really true that parents can tell the difference between types of cries?"

Diana considered. 

"Yes and no.  I don't know that I could have, say, listened to recordings of my little ones crying and known what each meant.  I think it's more... the whole package.  How they sound, how they act, what their face looks like."

Other parents in the room murmured their agreement.


After pausing for a few moments to see if anyone else wanted to ask a question, Yosef reached into the box and read.

"'How did you punish your kids when they misbehaved?'"

He glanced at Maryam, hoping for guidance.  Their son had never misbehaved... but they couldn't very well say that!  Hearing snickering in the back of the room, Yosef guessed who had submitted the question.  John was grinning while Joshua merely smiled beatifically.

Sensing what was going on, Zeke laughed and began his reply in order to give Maryam and Yosef time to come up with something.

"Well, it's the same refrain again: consider the individual child.  Their age, what they're able to understand.  Diana and I were both adamantly against corporal punishment.  We've never hit our children.  And we won't.  But that doesn't mean we couldn't be and won't be stern.  It's important to remember that you're the parent, not the best friend.  If you decide taking a material object away is the best punishment, stick with it.  Don't let tears and pleas wear you down."

"With the little ones especially, explain why what they did was wrong.  Don't simply say 'Don't touch the stove' and then freak out when they touch the stove.  Tell them that the stove is often very hot and they could get very hurt," Diana entreated.  "If they're mean to another child, help them to put themselves in the wronged child's shoes.  If you include these lessons in empathy from very early on, they're less likely to develop problems later on."

After consultation with Yosef, Maryam spoke.

"Yosef and I learned that it is very important to differentiate misbehaving from misunderstanding.  One day, Yohan... John and Yeshua decided to surprise me with a freshly decorated house and baked bread.  Unfortunately, they were not old enough to know how to properly do either.  Yosef and I returned home to a smoky house covered in paint splatter.  The boys simply did not know the difficulty of what they were trying to do.  They were trying to be kind and so it could have hurt very much had we yelled at them.  Instead, we taught them how to clean up and then how to bake bread and make mosaics.  It was a happy day."

"That's great!  And I happen to know that both John and Joshua are perfectly adept at baking bread and redecorating these days."  Zeke chuckled as he smiled at the two.  "Now..."  He reached into the box, his expression growing more tender as he silently read the question before doing so aloud.  "'How can I be sure I control my temper when I'm angry?  I don't want to hurt my kids...'"

Maryam momentarily glanced at Kemara who was pretending to pick at something on her jeans.

"I would like to say to whomever asked that, know that feelings of anger and frustration are normal," Maryam began.  "Every parent feels them.  What is important is acknowledging that and being prepared to ask for help.  Sometimes a good coping mechanism is stepping into one's own room for just a minute and drawing a few deep breaths, saying a prayer, or reading a reflection or poem or psalm.  At other times, calling a friend and asking if they can come over for a while and watch the little one or ones is best and completely acceptable.  You must never be afraid or ashamed to ask for help.  We all do at times."

"Absolutely," Zeke agreed.  "And as for friends...  Especially as new parents, we may find ourselves with less and less time for our friends.  However, we need to see that time as a need, not a luxury.  Maybe you can't make it to the cafe or pub as often as you used to.  But make time for a phone call or a visit at one of your homes.  Maintaining those relationships will help with your stress level."

"Do not feel guilty about it," Yosef advised.  "One day, it will be your turn to drop everything and come help your friend or be the listening ear on the other end of a phone call." 

"And, as I'm sure Joshua will agree, know that this place will always be here for you," Diana reminded.  "The people working here will rotate and change.  But someone will always be here, even long after you've left, and we'll help you.  I promise."

"So do I," Joshua added from the back of the room.  "All of you," he reiterated, making sure to catch the eyes of some of the Friends as well as the clients. 

"Sound good?" Zeke checked.  He waited for their listeners to nod before he moved on.  Just as he was about to speak, Emma, Peter, Shane, and the Levines entered with trays of sweets and a beverage cart.  "Well, I see our dessert has arrived so we'll quickly do one more question and then chat.  So let's see...  'What was the biggest parenting challenge for you?'"

"I think Zeke will agree with me that, for us, it was a difficult stage our oldest boy went through," Diana responded as her husband nodded.  "I think, by now, you've all at least seen Sy and maybe gotten to speak with him.  We are so immensely proud of him!  But, as he won't hesitate to tell you, he went through a rough patch where he wanted to be popular and cool and wealthy.  There was definitely an attitude issue.  Thankfully, and in a large part due to Joshua, Sy came to see and appreciate all the blessings he already had.  Our family became even closer.  But it really was a struggle, before that, for Zeke and I to feel like our sweet, precious boy was drifting away from us."

"For Yosef and I, it was determining how much to tell our little boy.  Where Yeshu grew up, there was much political turmoil and violence.  Our village, our family were poor and we would not have been able to protect ourselves if attacked," Maryam explained.  "We wanted him to have enough knowledge to stay safe... to know some would be cruel to him simply because of who he was and how he looked... but we also wanted him to have a happy childhood.  I think finding a balance between the two was the most difficult part of parenting our young son."

Lucia, Lizaveta, Kisi, Salma, and Zelda snuck glances at Joshua, seeing him in a new light.  While they all accepted that he was a kind man, he had largely remained an enigma and rumors had flown among them.  The most common theory held that his family were displaced Middle Eastern royalty and his apparent wealth came from what they were able to smuggle out.  Now they were hearing that he'd come from poverty and strife... much like many of them.

"Thank you, Maryam.  I... I can only imagine," Zeke replied.  He squeezed the woman's hand then looked to Yosef and his own wife.  When both gave him small smiles, he knew they had nothing more to say and turned back to the crowd.  "I hope we were of some help to all of you.  If you have anything you'd like to discuss in future sessions, please don't hesitate to let us know or drop another note in the box which we'll leave here.  For now... let's have some cookies and milk and whatever else Emma, Peter, Shane, Tiva, and Rabbi Yakov have brought us!"

The class dispersed to all over the room to enjoy their snacks.  After a few minutes, Joshua noticed that Salma, Zelda, Lucia, Lizaveta, and Kisi had sequestered themselves in a corner.  They were talking in hushed voices and, occasionally, peered over at him.

"Do you think I should go over there?" Joshua asked his mother and Isra who were standing near him.

"Yes, I think so, Yeshu," Maryam counseled.

Isra nodded.

"I think they are all very curious about you.  Salma asked me if you are an oil tycoon."

Joshua laughed. 

"I see.  Well, maybe I can go over there and shed some light.  Could one of you..."

Maryam shook her head.

"You are fine to go on your own, Yeshu.  We can all see you.  They will not be afraid."

Isra gave a resolute nod.

"I agree!"

"Well, then it's settled."  Joshua embraced the two and made his way over to the women. 

"Hi, ladies," he greeted.  "I'm so glad you came this evening.  I know it meant a lot to my parents and Zeke and Diana to have so many eager listeners.  Portia, too."

Zelda smiled.

"It was really interesting!  Even as a non-parent.  Maybe some day...  That was funny about you burning the bread!"

Joshua chuckled.

"And I can't even blame it all on John."

"Where is it that you grew up?" Kisi asked.

"Israel," Joshua replied.  "We spent some time in Egypt, too."

"How long have you been in the States?" Lizaveta queried.

"Long time.  Several years."

"You don't have any sort of accent," Zelda observed.

"I can fall back into it pretty easily.  So are you all enjoying your stay?  Is there anything I or anyone else can do to make you more comfortable?" Joshua offered.

"It's perfect," Salma assured.

"My children are very, very happy," Lucia told with tears in her eyes.  "It's so good to see them smile."

"I would like to feel more like I was earning my keep.  What happened where I was... it was very bad.  But I don't want to go from slave to sloth," Kisi explained.  "I was a good seamstress before... everything.  It's work I enjoy.  If there was a way I could use those skills to help here..."

Joshua gave an enthusiastic nod.

"Absolutely!  Emma and Peter co-own St. Genesius' Community Theatre."  Joshua pointed to the couple.  "Many of us who are volunteering here perform in the shows there.  We always end up with leftover remnants of fabric.  Monica does most of the costumes for our shows but she prefers to use her own machine.  I'm sure Emma and Peter will agree to moving St. G's sewing machine here for you to use, Kisi."

The woman's eyes lit up and she clasped Joshua's hand.

"I'd love that!  Perhaps I could make things to put in the store here.  Or even help Monica.  Since she, Emma, and Peter volunteer here, it would be nice to lighten their load elsewhere." 

"Both ideas sound perfect," Joshua encouraged. 

"Maybe I could visit with Monica about it now?" Kisi ventured.

Joshua could tell the woman was bursting with excitement.  His smile grew.

"I think she'd love that.  She's over there.  Red hair, blue tunic, sipping coffee out of the green mug."

"Yes.  I remember meeting her briefly the day I arrived.  Thank you!"

Joshua smiled after Kisi then turned back to the other four women.

"Anything else?" he prompted.

"I think we'd all like to find something to do," Lizaveta ventured.  The other three women nodded. 

"Well, let's see..."  Joshua considered.  "We could always use more help in the greenhouse.  Pruning and watering.  And there are the animals to tend to.  Azrael ensures they get food and water and, even though they get plenty of activity with the kids, it'd be great if you'd want to walk them around the courtyard sometimes.  I know Eleora and Cody would appreciate help unloading and putting away groceries when those come in."

"Maybe someone could post the tasks to be done somewhere and we could sign our names?" Lucia suggested.  "Gillie and Wyatt could help with simpler things."

"I think that's a wonderful idea!" Joshua praised.  "I'll make sure that happens.  So is there anything else that comes to mind?"

"Mine's kind of silly..." Zelda prefaced.

"I like silly.  What is it?"

"Well...  I saw the video games and I played a little but I seem to be the only one who likes them.  One player is great but I wondered... do you know if anyone else plays?"

Joshua's face lit up.

"As it happens... I do.  Logan, our computer guru, donated all of the computers and game systems.  He's an avid gamer.  I'll make sure to introduce you two the next time he's here, Zelda.  In fact, Logan plans to start a computing class soon."

"Ooh.  I'll be sure to attend that one!" Zelda enthused.  "Thanks!"

"You're very welcome."

"Joshua?"

"Yes, Lucia?"

"If you don't mind my asking...  Your mother said your family was poor so..."  The woman waved her hand.  "How did you make all of this happen?"

"I don't mind at all.  We have a very generous Investor who entrusted me with the money to buy this building... an old hotel... and refurbish it.  Because my Abi and I are both carpenters as are Andrew and Eliot, we got by doing that much cheaper than most would.  Everyone pitched in with cleaning and furnishing rooms.  Our churches and synagogues all gave donations.  Josef, who has several other safe houses around the world, gave us a whole lot of guidance and support.  So it all came together really well."

"That's amazing," Lizaveta mused.  "To do so much..."

Joshua gently patted her arm.

"We enjoyed it and we've enjoyed having you all here.  I hope soon more people will join us."

The women all murmured their agreement and, for a few moments, thought of friends and acquaintances they had left behind.

"We'll do everything we can to get word out," Joshua vowed.

After a brief, reverential silence, Salma abruptly spoke.

"Do you have any children, Joshua?"

Joshua was surprised by how intently she was gazing at him. 

"I never fathered any children, Salma.  But I have many children who I care for and consider my own," he replied with a tender smile.  "I believe there's so much more to truly being a father than the act of conception.  You know, my Abi isn't actually my biological father."

The four tried to politely mask their surprise.  Salma and Lucia snuck glances across the room to where Yosef stood with his arm around Maryam's waist as they spoke with Behnam, Isra, and Josef. 

"Never once did he make me feel like I was any less his just because he didn't supply half my chromosomes," Joshua continued.  He followed Salma's gaze to his parents.  Joshua knew that it was possible, likely even, that the women might form judgments about his Ama that were false.  She knew it, too.  Still she had urged Joshua to tell them the truth about his Abi.  They needed to know that not all men valued sexual purity and reputation above all else. 

Joshua turned away from his parents and smiled at the women.

"So did any of you have questions for them or Zeke and Diana?  Or I see Portia's still here.  I don't want to keep you if so."

"Actually, I did want to talk to Portia so if you'll excuse me..."  Zelda waved and wandered off.

"I wouldn't mind asking your mother or Diana something about my Gillie.  Thank you, Joshua, for visiting with us."  Lucia smiled and squeezed his hand.

"I enjoyed it.  Thank you, Lucia."

"I think I'll go with her," Lizaveta decided. 

"Have a good rest of the night, Lizaveta."

"Thanks!  You, too!"

To Joshua's surprise, Salma stayed near him.

"Did you enjoy the class, Salma?" he asked after several moments of silence.

The young woman nodded.

"I only came because Zelda wanted to.  She reasoned that it might be good for me with another little niece or nephew on the way."

"I think you weren't alone in coming for that reason.  I see lots of aunts and uncles in here."

The silence resumed.

"You... you have very beautiful eyes," Salma murmured after several moments.  She jolted, surprised that she had said so aloud.

"Thank you, Salma.  That's very kind of you to say and nice to hear."

"They... remind me of someone I know.  A... friend."

Joshua struggled to keep his composure.  He knew exactly who she was speaking of.

"I... I'm glad my eyes can bring you thoughts of your friend," he managed.

"I need to speak to my sister," Salma blurted before racing towards Isra and Behnam.

Seeing the blur of motion; John, Peter, and Emma quickly made their way to Joshua.

"What's wrong, cousin?  Why did Salma run off?"

"Are you okay?" Emma queried when she saw the tears in Joshua's eyes.

"Joshua, let's step into the storeroom," Peter suggested.

When the carpenter nodded, Peter led the other three into a side room that they were using for items they'd need for classes.  Peter gently pushed Joshua into a folding chair.  He knelt in front of him and clasped his hands.

"So often, after a show, someone has told me about difficulties in their lives," Peter began.  "Things that have made them feel unloved, forgotten.  And, every time, I tell them that God loves them and is with them.  Sometimes, I can tell they believe me.  But, other times, I know they have doubts.  And I want to make them know that I'm speaking with absolute conviction.  That... that I know because I wear the robe of the Man who calmed a stormy sea.  The sandals on my feet have touched the sands of Nazareth, Bethany, Jerusalem...  I've looked into the eyes of the Savior.  But I can't tell them that because it would only frighten them.  My heart feels heavy in those moments... but not hopeless.  Because I know you still whisper your love to them, Joshua.  You and the Father.  And, eventually, they'll listen.  They will, Joshua."

Joshua smiled through his tears and cradled Peter's face.

"They will..." he agreed.

Emma knelt beside her fiance and smiled up at Joshua.

"You told me about the nightmare you had about the Jesus statue... before I learned the truth about you.  Whatever their misconceptions are about God... I know you can knock those down, too, Joshua.  Just like you did for me in that dream... and in real life."

Joshua stroked Emma's hair, remembering how much he had once missed her.  Now she was right there, constantly talking to him.

"Thank you.  All of you.  I feel better now."  Joshua stood and hugged his cousin and the couple.

Together, they stepped back into the classroom where discussion and snacking were ongoing.  To Joshua's delight, the five trafficking survivors were now dispersed amongst the Friends, not clustered together.  Joshua smiled at John, Emma, and Peter.

"It reminds me of that first rehearsal with everyone at St. Genesius'.  Everyone talking so easily with each other..."

"I think, by month's end, the Friends will have grown in number," John prophesied. 

Joshua lifted his gaze to the ceiling.

"I pray so."

Emma took his hand.

"So do we," Peter assured.

The four mingled back amongst their friends and the group passed the rest of the evening in pleasant conversation.

*~*~*

After trying to sleep for several minutes, Zelda rolled onto her side and peered at her friend's bed.  She could tell Salma wasn't sleeping.

"Why did you run away from Joshua after class?"

Salma flicked on the bedside lamp.

"Do you think many people noticed?"

"I don't know... probably not.  Maybe I just did because I was keeping an eye on you."

Salma smiled.

"You don't have to watch over me anymore now.  We're safe."

"I know... but old habits die hard, I guess.  Joshua didn't say anything... weird, did he?"

Salma startled and adamantly shook her head.

"No.  If anyone said something weird... it was me."

Keenly interested, Zelda leaned nearer.

"What did you say?"

"I told him he had beautiful eyes.  It just... it came out."

"Salma...  I don't think that's weird!  He does have beautiful eyes.  Cool hair, too.  Anyway, what did he say?"

"He thanked me and said that was very nice to hear."  Salma left off mentioning her friend.  She'd never told anyone, not even Zelda, about Zmaray.

"So why did you run away?"

"Embarrassed, I guess."

"Well, I don't think you had any reason to feel embarrassed.  I'm relieved.  I've been nervous ever since then, thinking maybe Joshua isn't as good as he seems."

Salma blanched.

"I... I hope I didn't make any of the other girls think poorly of him."

"Just tell the truth if they ask.  Don't you think it's kind of funny, though...  Maryam and Yosef have got to be the same names as Mary and Joseph.  And Joshua sounds kinda like Jesus.  And then the carpentry..."

Salma stared at her friend.

"You think Joshua is a prophet?"

"Huh?  Oh right.  You told me Jesus is a prophet in Islam.  But in Christianity..."

"He is God.  I know.  Isra... my whole family... has converted."

"Really?  I noticed Isra was wearing a cross but I didn't realize they were all Christians.  Huh.  How do you feel about that?"

Salma responded with a shrug.

"You don't, like, think they're going to Hell or anything, do you?"

"No!  Whatever God there is, He can't really be a good God if He would send them to Hell," Salma opined.

"I agree.  The church I grew up in said anyone who wasn't 'saved' was going to Hell.  I used to wonder why God would send little children who just happened to be born a different religion to Hell.  That can't be right.  But back to Joshua...  I think he's some sort of... not a priest.  Some sort of holy man, though.  Like he made some sort of vow to live as much like Jesus as he can.  Emma told me he even played Jesus in one of their shows.  Anyway, it woulda really shot down my theory if he'd been creeping on you."

"He wasn't creeping on me," Salma stressed.  "He was very kind and gracious in responding to my outburst."  She wondered why she felt so determined to defend a man she'd only just met.

"Good!  So what do you think of my theory?"

"I don't know much about Christianity.  Is that a common thing?  Taking that vow?"

"Well, all Christians are supposed to do their best to live and love as Jesus does.  But...  Not all do."

The two girls were silent for a few moments.  They'd both had "clients" with cross tattoos or necklaces.

"I just... I think Joshua takes it further than most," Zelda explained.

"Maybe."  Salma felt like Zelda wanted her to say something more but she wasn't sure what.  "I'm getting tired now.  I think I'll try to go to sleep."

"Okay.  Me too."

Salma turned the lamp off and burrowed her face into her pillow.  Sleep came quickly.

In her dream, two faces hovered before Salma: one of a man, another of a lion.  Gradually, the faces overlapped each other.

The eyes were a perfect match.

*~*~*

Hurted

Friday, February 12th, 2016


It wasn't yet daylight when Gayle received the first call of the day to the Chrysalis Court's emergency number.  Within minutes, Reuel and Zaila were dispatched to pick up Ashlee and Bailey, two teen girls from Chicago who had gotten sucked into the sex trade after two pimps had feigned interest in them at a party.  Both girls were nervous as they entered the Chrysalis and, to Reuel's and Zaila's chagrin, their uneasiness wasn't helped when Tucker, a hulking rottweiler mix that Michael had insisted on adopting, came barreling towards the newcomers.  However, shrieks soon turned into laughter when the dog danced around the teenagers, behaving as if he was welcoming long-lost friends home. 

Michael gave a smug grin when Freya, who had voiced concern the day they'd gone to the Humane Society, approached him.

"I told you that I knew what I was doing," he reminded.

"You did... but you have to admit that was a scary moment."

"Actually, it reminded me of all of us when Joshua came Home," Michael observed.

Freya's eyes welled.

"Aww.  It did kind of, huh?"

"No matter what the world's done to them, to Tucker they are queens."

"They are..." Freya agreed as she watched the two girls sit on the floor to receive sloppy kisses.

It wasn't even a full hour later when the phone rang again.  For the first time, it was a young man on the other line.  Spencer, a homeless teenager, had become addicted to drugs and when he could no longer afford his habit, a trafficker had enticed him into his ring with promises of a never-ending supply of heroin.  When Graham and Freya arrived at the coffeehouse where Spencer was hiding out, they found another young man with him.  He, too, was being trafficked but was trying to convince Spencer to give up his plan to flee, fearing their pimp would hunt him down and kill him.  However, after speaking to Graham and Freya, both young men had agreed to accept their offer of shelter.  Spencer and his friend, Luis, had wept when they entered the Chrysalis and found friendly faces, warm, clean beds, and good food. 

While Graham and Freya were still at the coffeehouse, the phone had rung for the third time.  With Josef seeing to it that Daisy got breakfast, it was Amber-Marie who took the call.  She listened with tears running down her cheeks as a twenty year old named Brooklynn told her that she'd just discovered she was pregnant and feared her pimp would force her into an abortion just as he had twice previously.  Amber-Marie herself left with Nick to retrieve the girl.  They found her shaking in a booth at a McDonald's.  Brooklynn completely broke down, hugging her still-flat belly, as soon as she was in Nick's car.

The five new arrivals threw the staff into a flurry of activity.  Ashlee and Bailey, with Tucker always within reach, were lead through the store and aided by Thandie and Eleora in making their room their own.  Graham took Spencer to the rehab facility so he could enroll in their day program.  Luis chose and decorated his room and began to make friends with Michael, Reuel, Elazer, and Azrael who would share the men's floor with him and Spencer.  When Brooklyn arrived, Portia rearranged her lunch break at the hospital so she could swing by and speak to the girl, putting to rest excessive worries about her unborn child.

Through it all, Joshua weaved in and out of the newcomers' first hours.  He took care to come across as always reachable and yet content to give them their distance.

Before anyone knew it, 4:00 had arrived.  Little Daisy was overjoyed at the return of her friends who had gone Below for classes.  Josef and Amber-Marie had decided it wasn't quite time to spring the Tunnels or Dyeland on her so she only knew that Aiyla and company had gone to school.  In the break before dinner, the children were all gathered in their room to play.  While Liam joined Omar and Zizi in playing with a set of wooden animals Joshua had crafted; Aiyla, Belle, Nya, and Daisy sat in a little circle and tended to their dolls.

"What's your school like?" Daisy asked.

"Appa!" Belle bellowed.

Aiyla smiled at her little cousin then set down her doll's brush and looked to Daisy.

"Appa teaches us how to read.  And Aunt JenniAnn teaches us about God.  Uncle Owen teaches us about drawing and painting and..."

"Who is Appa?"

Aiyla was confused by the question.

"Appa is Appa...  Oh.  Appa is how we say Grandpa.  Belle started it.  I guess because she's too little to say Grandpa."

"Appa, Appa, Appa," Belle chortled.

"Oh."

"I like your Appa," Nya mused.  "He's cool!"

"What did you do today, Daisy and Nya?" Aiyla queried as she began to change her doll into pajamas.

"Josef and Nya's mommy helped me pick out clothes," Daisy reported.  She smiled at Nya.  "You have a nice mommy."

"Thanks!  I love my mommy."

Aiyla noticed Daisy look sad for a moment so hurriedly changed the subject.

"Maybe we can watch a movie with Joshua tonight."

"Why with Joshua?" Daisy questioned.

"Osua oves me.  Osua is pitty," Belle began to sing.

Aiyla and Nya exchanged glances.  Both had been reminded that Daisy needed to learn about Joshua on her own.

"We like Joshua," Nya replied.

"Joshua is nice," Aiyla added.

"Osua oves you.  Osua is pitty," Belle continued.  "Osua ikes Fuit Oops."

Aiyla giggled.

"Does she sing like that a lot?" Daisy whispered.

"Pretty much."  Aiyla patted Belle's curls then finished dressing her baby doll.

"Ooh.  Pretty..."  Daisy stood and wandered over to where Liam had gotten out a brightly colored puzzle for Omar and Zizi.

"Do you want to help?" the boy politely asked.

Daisy nodded and turned around to invite the other girls over.  Instead, she let out a sharp cry.

Aiyla, who had been preparing to change Sarah into a nightgown to surprise her friend, looked up to see Daisy running at her with a red face. 

Across the room, where they had been visiting with Isra and Behnam, Josef and Amber-Marie jumped to their feet.

"Don't hurt her!  Don't hurt Sarah!" Daisy bawled, snatching her doll away from Aiyla.

Tears began to leak from Aiyla's eyes and her lower lip trembled.

"I... I... wasn't... wasn't hurting her.  I was trying to... to be nice and..."

"Aiyla..."  Nya patted her friend's back, trying to comfort her.

Frightened, Belle made a run for Liam who held her as he solemnly watched the scene.

Daisy was on her way to hide behind a couch when Josef scooped her up.

"Not Sarah...  Not Sarah..." she cried.  "Hurted..."

"Aiyla, sunshine, come here."  Behnam picked up his own daughter while Isra knelt to hug Nya.

"I'm so sorry," Amber-Marie murmured to Behnam as he swayed with Aiyla.  "I... I think maybe seeing Sarah without her... her clothes just..."

Behnam's eyes filled when he met the psychiatrist's.

"Yes...  I'm sure you're right.  We'll take Aiyla to our room to talk.  I'll see if someone can..."

"Is everything okay in here?" JenniAnn asked as she and Andrew entered the room.

Isra hurried over to the two.

"The girls were playing with dolls and Daisy became very upset... which made Aiyla very upset.  Can you watch the others while we tend to them."

"Of course," Andrew readily agreed.  "Kids, how would you like for JenniAnn and me to read you a story or two?" he offered, hoping to cause a distraction.

The trick worked and the remaining children hurried to the bookshelf to make selections.

"I hope they're both going to be okay," JenniAnn whispered as she laced her fingers through Andrew's.

The angel kissed the top of her head.

"I'm afraid our niece is going to be learning something very sad long before Isra and Behnam ever wanted her to."

JenniAnn let out a shuddering breath and nodded.

*~*~*

Joshua was waiting for the Al-Mitras at the door to their room.  Spotting him, Aiyla let go of her parents' hands and ran.  Joshua knelt down and caught the child in his arms.

"I didn't mean to make Daisy sad!" Aiyla insisted.

"Oh, sweet girl...  I know.  Believe me, I know," Joshua assured.  "Let's go sit in your Mommy's and Daddy's room and talk about it, okay?"

"Am I in... in trouble?"

"Aiyla, you are not in the least bit of trouble.  I promise."

"O-okay..."

Joshua kissed her hair then waved her inside.

"I just want to talk to Mommy and Daddy real quick."

Aiyla nodded then crawled onto her parents' bed and curled up.

Joshua greeted Isra and Behnam with hugs.

"I was helping Abi with some cupboards when Dad told me.  I'm so sorry."

"What are we supposed to tell her, Joshua?  I... I don't know what to say to my little girl," Isra admitted.

"I don't either."  Behnam shook his head.  "Poor Daisy...  But how do we tell our girl that her innocent playing made her friend think of being raped?  Aiyla... she doesn't even know what rape means!  I don't want her to know!"

Joshua squeezed his shoulder.

"I know.  Would you like me to lead the discussion?"

"Yes, please," Aiyla's parents said in hurried unison.

"Then I will.  Please go sit with your daughter."

Behnam and Isra sat down on either side of Aiyla, leaving her snuggled between them.  She kissed her Daddy's cheek then buried her face in her Mommy's arm.

"Aiyla, I want you to know that I'm so proud of you for being Daisy's friend," Joshua began once he'd settled, cross-legged, on the foot of the bed.  "She likes you very much."

"I like Daisy very much, too, but... I... I scared her or made her mad or I... I don't even know."

Joshua reached out to take Aiyla's hand.

"Aiyla, some very sad things happened to Daisy before she came to Josef and Amber-Marie.  Your remember how Mommy and Daddy have told you that no one should ever touch you on your swim suit parts without your permission?"

Aiyla nodded.

"If they ask to then I yell and run away and tell someone," she reported.

"That's absolutely right."

A thought dawned on Aiyla.

"Did... did someone touch Daisy's swim suit parts?"

Isra and Behnam tightened their embrace of their daughter.

With brimming eyes, Joshua nodded.

"And... and she remembered when I was changing Sarah?"

"Yes, sweetheart."

"Oh...  Daisy..."  Aiyla turned into her mother's breast and wept for her friend.

As Joshua clasped Behnam's hand, he didn't take his eyes off the little girl.  He knew, in that moment, Aiyla's life had changed forever.  The woman who would one day travel the world, promoting girls' rights, was born in that moment.  Every time she held the hand of a rape victim, whenever she stood up against forced marriages, in every girls' schoolroom and makeshift maternity ward; Aiyla would think of the little friend who had all at once captured and broken her heart.  Pride and grief swelled in Joshua's heart.

Once she was cried out, Aiyla slipped out of her mother's arms and faced Joshua.

"Will Daisy still be my friend?" she asked, her eyes wide and hopeful.

"I think Daisy still very much wants to be your friend."

"I... I want to give her the nightie for Sarah.  She can put it on."

"I think that's a very nice idea.  How about we go get it and we can wait in the playroom for Daisy?" Joshua suggested.

"Okay," Aiyla agreed.  She looked to either side of her, smiling at her parents.  "I'm okay.  But I'm not going to let anyone hurt Daisy again!" After kissing both of her parents and hugging Joshua, Aiyla slid off the bed and hurried to the playroom with the adults trailing behind her.

*~*~*

While the Al-Mitras and Joshua were consoling Aiyla, Josef and Amber-Marie were trying to do the same for Daisy.  Unfortunately, several minutes had passed and the little girl was still crying so hard that she couldn't speak.  The two adults took turns holding her and whispering comfort to her.  Finally, sheer exhaustion quieted Daisy and she finally spoke.

"Is... is Aiyla mad at me?"

"Oh, honey, I'm sure she's not," Josef consoled.

"She... she's my friend.  I... I think she was just trying to... to be nice to Sarah.  Like when she put her baby in pajamas."

"Yes, Daisy, you're right," Amber-Marie agreed.

"But it... it made me remember...  I...  I didn't want them to take off my clothes!" Daisy cried.

As Amber-Marie clung to her, Josef clenched his fists, his whole body shaking with rage.  The doctor caught his gaze.

"Not what she needs," she mouthed.

Joshua began to slowly inhale and exhale.

"I didn't want them to... to touch me but they... they wouldn't listen to... to me..."  Daisy peered at Josef.  "They hurted me...  They won't ever hurt Sarah like that, will they?"

Josef kissed her little hands and shook his head.

"No, Daisy.  They'll never hurt Sarah like that and I'll make sure... Amber-Marie and me... will make sure that they never, ever hurt you like that again."

"Are... are you my Mommy and Daddy now?" Daisy hesitantly asked.

Amber-Marie peered into the child's eyes.

"Would you like us to be?"

Daisy gave a resolute nod and stroked the woman's face.

"Mommy..."

Amber-Marie beamed and covered the girl's face in kisses.

"I love you, Daisy," she whispered in the girl's ear.

"I love you, Mommy."  Daisy planted a kiss on Amber-Marie's cheek then slid from her knee and stood in front of Josef.

The vampire stared through his tears at the little girl who had no idea she was flesh of his flesh and blood of his blood. 

"Daddy?" Daisy ventured.

Josef swept the girl up into his arms, causing her to laugh.

"Always," he vowed.

*~*~*

Daisy re-entered the playroom to find Aiyla waiting for her.  Her lower lip began to tremble as she headed towards the other girl.

"Daisy..." Aiyla murmured.

Daisy quickened her pace and threw her arms around her friend.

Both sets of parents, Andrew, JenniAnn, and Joshua watched, blinking and wiping at tears, as the two girls clung to each other.

"I'm sorry, Aiyla."

"I didn't mean to scare you."

"I know you weren't gonna hurt Sarah."

"I'm sorry you got hurt."  Aiyla picked up the doll's nightgown.  "For Sarah."

Smiling, Daisy accepted the gift. 

"Thank you!"

She went to Amber-Marie who was holding Sarah and took the doll.

Aiyla and Daisy sat back down, laughing and chatting as Daisy prepared her doll for bed.

Observing, Joshua squeezed Amber-Marie's and Josef's shoulders.

"I think they're going to be just fine.  Better than fine, actually."

Josef nodded and looked over to Isra and Behnam.

"Thank you."

"For what?" Behnam asked.

"I think maybe other people would have decided that they didn't want their little one having to deal with Daisy's problems."

"They're friends.  New friends but good friends.  It would be wrong to interfere," Isra reasoned. 

"So sweet..." Amber-Marie murmured as she watched the two.

JenniAnn sighed and swiped at a tear.

"I'm so glad for them.  I..."  She looked up and spotted Isolde peeking into the room.  The vampire's face was splotchy and her eyes puffy.  When she noticed JenniAnn had spotted her, Isolde jolted and stepped out of view.

"There's something wrong with Isolde," JenniAnn informed the others.  "I'm going to go check on her unless..."  She looked to Joshua.

"I think it would be best if you did," he encouraged.

"Might be a good time for a premature visit to Dyeland?" JenniAnn suggested.

"I think so."

When JenniAnn left, Joshua told the others about the plans Kemara and JenniAnn had made for Isolde's birthday and Valentine's weekend with Marco.

*~*~*

Neamh-mairbh

JenniAnn knocked lightly on the Crocettis' closed door.

"Isolde, I saw you in the hallway.  Are you all right?" she called.

After a brief silence, the door opened.

"I... I'm sorry if it seemed like I was eavesdropping.  See, I... I thought maybe I could help with the kids earlier a-and when I was approaching the room, I heard what happened between Daisy and Aiyla a-and it was so... so sad and...  So I came back just now to... to see how things were and I'm so glad they're better but it's still...  A little girl...  Going through that..."

"I know..." JenniAnn commiserated.  "It makes me so angry and so sad all at once.  Do you want me to call the Romanos' and ask them to have Marco come back?"

Isolde shook her head.

"Oh no.  I want him to keep enjoying himself.  He's been away from the farming life for too long.  I can wait a couple hours to talk to him.  That portal thing is amazing..."

"Actually... it doesn't just go to Albany.  If you'd like, I thought a change of scenery might do you some good, too.  Would you want to see where Andrew and I live with our family?  Kemara's and Sean's, too?"

"I... I would.  Aiyla and Daisy are all right now, aren't they?"

"Oh yes.  They've said their peace.  When I left them, they were back to playing with dolls.  I think that friendship is gonna last a lifetime."

"I hope so.  Sweet... sweet girls."

When Isolde's eyes began to fill again, JenniAnn took her arm and led her to the private elevator.  They rode it to the Tunnels and then made a very short walk to the portal.  Isolde watched in amazement as JenniAnn stepped through just as Marco and Caleb, who had fetched him, had earlier in the day.  She paused only for a moment before following.

"Oh..." the vampire gazed around in awe after appearing in the gazebo.

JenniAnn waved to the icons carved into its pillars. 

"Unlike the Tunnel one, this portal goes to all sorts of places.  There's the Albany one.  Caleb woulda used it to get him and Marco through earlier.  But this... this is home.  Dyeland, also called Asteriana.  That's where Andrew and I live with Belle."

In spite of her lingering tears, Isolde giggled when she caught sight of the lavender and blue castle.

"Wow..."

"I know.  The color scheme seemed so great when I was a teenager.  Now it seems a bit overly Disney but it'd be a major pain to re-paint so...  Never mind.  Now, there's someone I want you to meet.  Two someones, actually."

Isolde followed JenniAnn to a stable behind the castle. 
JenniAnn opened the door and ushered the still-teary Isolde inside.

"Oh...  Look at them!  But maybe... maybe this isn't a good idea.  Animals don't always like us," Isolde fretted.  "I don't want to startle them."

"Don't worry.  Yoktan doesn't scare easily... not really at all, actually.  And Yonah's used to vampires.  He loves Logan."

"Really?"

"Really."

"Okay..."

Isolde stepped further into the stable.  While Mary and Silly ignored her presence, the two donkeys looked at the woman with interest.

"Oh...  They're beautiful!  Which one is that one?  With the poor, wee scars?"

"That's my Yonah."

"Yonah..."

Isolde tentatively reached for Yonah's snout.  She smiled when he let her pet him. 

"He looks a lot like my old buddy."

JenniAnn smiled.  Two days before, Isolde had caught sight of a photo of Yonah on her cell phone and told her about the donkey she'd had as a girl.

Not content to stand idly by, Yoktan stepped forward and sniffed at the vampire's ebony braid.  He let out an approving bray.

JenniAnn watched as Isolde laughed and nuzzled the two.

"Sweet boys," she cooed.  "Yes, you're both just big, ol' lovebugs, ain't ya?"

"Would you like to go for a ride?" JenniAnn offered.

"They wouldn't mind?"

"I think they'd be thrilled.  How about you take Yonah and I'll take Yoktan?"

"You're sure?"

"Absolutely."

Without any fussing from their asinine friends, JenniAnn and Isolde were soon settled onto the donkeys and leisurely exploring Dyeland City and the Mystical Mountains.

Isolde sighed when they entered a valley that was just beginning to fill with clover and early wildflowers.

"Oh...  I should come here whenever I feel homesick!  I have a feeling that, in a few weeks, this will be as green as dear, ol' Ireland."

"I've never been to Ireland but, trust me, it gets plenty green here.  You should come back once Spring is in all its glory.  With Marco, if you'd like.  He's from Ireland, too, right?"

"Partly.  His mother was Irish, his father Italian.  But, yes, he lived in Ireland.  You're wonderin' about his accent... or lack thereof?"

JenniAnn nodded.

"After a while, one's accent starts to get all muddled.  We've moved so much.  It sounds funny but I've actually had to work on keepin' mine.  Sometimes I wonder why it's so important to me."

"Well, I think it's beautiful.  I've always wished I had an accent.  Not this boring Midwestern nothingness."

Laughing, Isolde shook her head.

"You have a lovely voice.  It's not nothingness.  Tell Mommy she's wrong," she encouraged Yonah.

JenniAnn began to giggle when Yonah eyed her and let out a series of brays.

"Well, then!  I've been schooled," she admitted.  "And thank you.  So... were you and Marco friends before..."

"Before we became bloodsuckers?" Isolde teased.

"I wouldn't have said it that way..."

"Ah, I know.  Perhaps we could let the donkeys graze while I tell the Tragic Tale of Isolde and Marco?"

"Sure."

The two women dismounted and settled themselves beneath a tree so Isolde was shaded from the sun.

"So... the beginning?" the vampire checked.

JenniAnn nodded.

"Well, I first saw Marco when he was two weeks old and being baptized.  I don't remember this, of course, because I was only a year old meself.  But I'm sure he was adorable... and probably squirmy and crying."

JenniAnn smiled.

"So, yes, I really and truly am older than Marco.  Doesn't show, does it?  I'll get to the explanation for that in a bit.  So... Marco and I grew up together.  Our families were both poor which, in a manner, was a good thing.  They couldn't send us away to separate schools so we had ample time to talk and play when we weren't helping with the fields.  My family... we also had a goat and a cow and so we'd sell cheese to make a bit more money.  Since I was the eldest, it fell to me to deliver the cheeses and collect the money.  Nothing much ever happened.  Ours was a small village and everyone was in everyone else's business.  I... I always felt safe but then... then one day when I was fifteen, something really awful happened."

JenniAnn reached over and set her hand on the girl's arm as she continued.

*~*~*

Ireland, 1510

Isolde screwed her eyes shut and prayed it was all a horrible, terrible nightmare.  She hadn't really been nabbed on her way home from her deliveries.  A frightening looking man hadn't really held a sick smelling piece of cloth over her face, causing her to faint.  She hadn't really woken up to him on top of her, stealing her virginity.  She hadn't really seen fangs and glowing eyes and blood... her own blood... on his lips and teeth.  And it simply wasn't possible that he'd forced some of his own blood down her throat.

Isolde clasped the little cross necklace that Marco had given her on her previous birthday.  Her hand didn't burn.  Vampires couldn't tolerate crosses.  So there was no possible way she could be a vampire.  And, besides, vampires weren't real. 

So this was definitely a nightmare.

Except she craved the thick, red liquid sitting in the bowl in front of her.

Before he had left, her captor had told her to drink it.  She'd refused and said she'd never do such a thing.  He'd laughed.

"Ah, but you will, my prize.  When the hunger gets strong enough...  You will.  Embrace your new life!"

Isolde began to weep.  She'd starve before she'd drink it.  He'd probably murdered some other innocent person and she couldn't... wouldn't... drink their blood.

Resigned to death, Isolde began to use her fingers to count off the rosary.  Then a new terror hit her.

She would die locked away in this horrid place and God only knew what that monster would do with her body.  Certainly not give her a Christian burial.  And her family... Marco... they'd never know...

She had to get out. 

Again and again, Isolde threw herself at the locked door of the room the monster was keeping her in.  Finally, after at least the dozenth blow, Isolde heard a crack.  The door splintered and the top half fell to the ground.  She hurried over the remains of the door and ran into a dark corridor lit only by a few torches.  She prayed she'd find a door leading outside.  It proved easier than she'd thought it might be.  The corridor eventually led to a staircase and then Isolde found herself on the ground level of a decaying castle.  She could see the setting sun!  Knowing Marco's family's farm was to the east, Isolde followed the sun.

But she felt so weak and tired...

And hungry...

When her legs gave out, Isolde fell to her hands and knees and began to crawl.  Then her arms folded beneath her.

With tears streaming down her face, Isolde used what was left of her strength to roll onto her back and look up at the sky.

"Please... please, Jesus.  Let me go to Heaven.  I didna want any of this to happen.  Please, take me.  Please don't be mad at me.  Please..."

Isolde's eyes closed and her head lolled to the side as she lost consciousness.

*~*~*

Isolde awoke to the smell of hay and animals and... soap?

Opening her eyes, Isolde realized she was definitely not in Heaven.

But it didn't seem like Hell, either.

Purgatory... maybe.

She was definitely in a stable and while she could tell that animals had been there previously, there were none to be seen.

Also missing was the all-consuming hunger that had plagued her.

And her clothes.

Isolde began to shake when she realized she was wearing a nightgown, not the torn and bloodied dress she'd run away in.  Maybe the vampire had found her.  Maybe this was his stable.  Maybe he'd raped her again...  Maybe this was just another prison.

Suddenly, the stable door swung open.

Marco!

Isolde's eyes welled as she beheld her treasured friend.

"Marco..." she murmured.  She thought she saw relief wash over his face and, a moment later, he was kneeling beside her and enclosing his arms around her.

"Something really bad's happened...  Maybe..."

Isolde peeled herself away from her friend.

"Maybe you... you shouldn't get too... too close to me."

"Isolde..."

She jerked away when Marco again reached out to her.

"Isolde, please.  You're trembling.  Just let me..."  Marco took her hand.

"No!"

Isolde was horrified when she felt her fangs hitting her bottom lip.  She crawled away and crumpled into a heap in a corner of the stable.

"I found ye just down the road from our cottage," Marco began.  "We'd all been so worried.  And I... I feared ya were dead b-but then... there ya were.  Sweet Isolde...  But I... I knew some man had done something wicked to ya.  Your dress..."

Isolde wept into the dirt.

"I picked ya up and started to carry ya home but then... then I saw your teeth and... and for a moment your eyes opened and... so blue.  Beautiful.  But not right.  Not your eyes.  Like... like the Dearg-Due."

Isolde bolted up and shook her head.

"I am not!" she cried.  "He... he... the demon who... who took me... he made me drink his blood b-but when he tried to make me drink someone else's, I wouldna!  I swear to God, I didna, Marco!  I... I ran away and I was headed to your place so... so you could... could give me Christian burial.  But..."

Isolde suddenly noticed a bulge beneath her friend's sleeve.  Just below it was what seemed to be a spot of blood.

"Your arm..."

Marco's face flushed.

"I couldna let you die, Isolde..."  He shook his head.  "No..."

Isolde moaned when a sudden flash of memory came to her.  Marco slashing his upper arm and bringing it to her face.  Then her sucking greedily.

"I could have killed you!" she bellowed.

Marco moved closer and shook his head.

"When I began to feel too weak, I pushed you away.  You didna try to fight me.  Only laid there and, soon, you were asleep."

"That's the truth?"

"The absolute truth."

Isolde began to calm and hugged herself.  As she ran her hands against the arms of the nightgown, she froze.

"How did I come to be dressed in this?"

Marco's face bloomed redder than before.

"I... I couldna stand the... the sight of your... your dress.  Thinking of... of what that monster had done...  I thought of getting your mother but..."

Isolde whimpered.  Would her parents still love her like this?

"I... I truly tried not to look as I washed ye."  Tears began to stream down the young man's face.  "I wanted ye to be my wife, ye see.  I couldna let ye go, Isolde."

Moved, Isolde closed the distance between herself and Marco.  She rested her head on his shoulder and hugged his unmarred arm.

"But what happens now, Marco?"

The boy waved around the stable. 

"No one comes this way.  Not since the Daughertys abandoned it.  No one but sheep and I shooed em.  You can stay here until... until you decide what you want to tell your mam and da."

"A-and the hunger?  I dunno how often it'll come."

"I'll come every day to see..."

"No..."

"Yes."

"But it could sicken you and..."

Marco shook his head.

"Remember when we were eight and nine and Ollie accidentally cut himself on my da's saw?  He bled and bled and mam was sure he'd die.  But he didna.  Now you'd never know.  Blood... it must come back."

Isolde was silent for a few moments.

Marco cupped her chin.

"Can we just try it?"

"Aye.  But if it becomes too hard then... then I have to... go."

Marco winced at the way she said the word "go" but nodded.

After some hesitation, Isolde kissed his cheek.

"Thank you."

"You're welcome."

Isolde sighed when Marco embraced her. 

It still wasn't Heaven... but it was close enough.

*~*~*

Nearly a week later, Isolde felt far less strained.  It seemed she only needed to feed every three days and, thus far, the toll on Marco was minimal. 

"You're such a wee thing that I think it'd take ya a full year to drain me," he'd joked.

But now came another trial...

Marco reported that her mother had become sick with grief and taken to her bed.  Something had to be done...

"I'll go to my house," Isolde began.  "I'll tell me parents that... that I had a religious experience and have decided to take to the wilderness, to live as a holy hermit."

"A religious experience?" Marco questioned.  Isolde, ever truthful, had told him she didn't want to lie to her parents.

Isolde looked tenderly at her friend.

"Not... not what happened first.  But... you.  A man offers his own blood to save your life?  You don't think that's a religious experience?"

Marco looked down at his hands.

"I'm no Christ."

"No.  But ya did save me.  And... and it'll be kinder than continuing to let them think me dead.  But I... I do have to go.  It'd kill them to know what I've become.  If... if the legends are true, I'll be forever like this."

Marco shuddered and nodded.

"So better for them to think I'm spending my life with God.  And I'll make good on it.  Maybe I'll find one of those groups of monks and be able to attend Mass."  Isolde's face clouded.  "Sunday was the first time I've ever missed Mass in my life."

Marco squeezed her hand.

"I pray you do find a monastery.  But, remember, you can't go too far..."

Isolde nodded.

"You need to be able to reach me."

"Aye."

"I... I don't wanna say good bye," Isolde lamented.

Marco encircled his arms around her and kissed her forehead.

"Then don't.  Bid them farewell but tell them you'll visit.  They won't suspect a ting.  There are stories of saints who led very, very long lives.  Your youthfulness may just help them to believe you truly are working at becoming a saint."

Isolde laughed.

"A neamh-mairbh saint?"

"That's for God to decide.  I don't see how it's impossible, though."

"I love you," Isolde murmured.  With her finely tuned senses, she noticed at once when Marco's heart began to speed.  Panicked, she looked up into his eyes.

"I love you, too," he replied.

For the first time, their lips met.

*~*~*

Three weeks after Isolde had parted from her village, a storm raged.  The girl discovered that her empowered form did nothing to cure her of the phobia that had plagued her all her life.

Hugging her knees, Isolde crawled into a corner of her cottage and sobbed.

After braving the pouring rain and lightning, Marco found her there.  She was nearly catatonic and shivering.

"C'mon, poor love.  Look at me," he encouraged.

Isolde didn't respond.

In spite of her new preference for the cold, Marco started a fire and wrapped Isolde up in a blanket.

Once the fire was going strong, Marco rejoined Isolde and laid beside her, looking into her eyes which she quickly averted.

"Isolde, what's wrong?" he asked.

"Why... why did he do it?" she questioned in a child's voice.

Marco's eyes filled.

"Maybe he... he was just so hungry that he... he needed my blood but... but why did he rape me?"

"I dunno, Isolde.  Because he's cruel.  I'm so sorry..."

"It... it really hurt.  Sometimes... I... I have nightmares about it and I wake up hurting a-and thinking he's coming for me."

"Even if he was, I wouldna let him have you."

"What if he came when you weren't here?"

Marco thought for a moment.

"I could stay here.  I could tell my parents that I, too, had a religious experience and wish to be a holy hermit."

"Oh, Marco...  But it's so lonely."

"It wouldna be with us both here."

"No...  It wouldna be."

"Isolde?"

"Hmm?"

"Marry me?"

Isolde smiled and caressed his face.

"Marco...  How would that work?"

"I imagine it would work like you and me livin' together... which we're already discussin'."

Isolde nuzzled his shoulder.

"Marco, I can't give ye children.  My time this month... it's passed.  I don't think it'll be comin' again.  For the best... what would that child be?  But you... you could still..."

Marco shook his head.

"I want you, Isolde.  I've always wanted you.  Only you.  Do... do ya not feel the same way?"

"I do...  Very much but...  I... I'm not even a virgin."

"Have ya ever willingly given yourself to a man?"

Isolde bowed her head and shook it.

"Then you're a virgin."

"I... I don't think it works that way, Marco."

"I say it does."

With a start, Isolde realized that the storm was still blowing.  The entire time Marco had been there, she hadn't noticed.

"Please.  Think about it, Isolde."

"How... how would we even be married?  I think the monks would tell us that holy hermits aren't meant to be married."

Pleased that Isolde was at least thinking about his offer, Marco strove for an answer.

"Handfasting!" he declared.  "We could do it ourselves."

"But it's not proper...  It wouldn't be in a church..."

"We could go to a shrine.  Our Lady of Trim?  We could do it there.  On our own.  I like to think Jesus is a reasonable sort.  He knows we have obstacles.  I don't think He's as particular as priests and monks are."

Isolde smiled when she realized how badly Marco wanted this.  And she did, too...  Finally, she gave a nod.

Laughing and beaming, Marco held his beloved more tightly and covered her face in kisses.

*~*~*

True to his word, Marco took Isolde to the shrine where they performed their own handfasting ritual in sight of the Lady of Trim.  In spite of the peculiarities, Isolde felt like a proper bride in her blue dress and wildflower-strewn hair.  It was only on the journey back that she began to feel queasy.

Marco had said they didn't need to do anything that night except sleep if that's what she wished.  However, Isolde saw little point in putting it off.  She'd only grow more and more nervous.  Despite Marco's best efforts, Isolde remained concerned that she'd lose control and draw blood.  He had fed her earlier in the day and she was satiated.  Further, they hadn't had a single scare.  Her feedings were just like her first.  Marco only needed to give her a little nudge and she'd move away and fall asleep. 

Still...  Isolde was plagued by her memories of the monster.  He had been so violent, so out of control...

"I think it was because he was a bad person, mo cailin... not because of his condition," Marco had reasoned.

Isolde supposed that was possible but it didn't completely diminish her worries. 

Then there was the matter of sex itself.  Isolde was not looking forward to experiencing that again.  While she knew Marco would never behave as the monster had, the entire business seemed painful and disgusting.  Nonetheless, she was a wife now...

After they'd changed into their bedclothes, Marco and Isolde knelt on either side of their bed and said their prayers.  Then they lay beneath the sheets and stared up at the ceiling.  Unable to bear the awkwardness, Isolde rolled over and passionately kissed Marco. 

He wasted no time in returning the kiss.

*~*~*

Isolde groaned when she was awoken by sunlight peeking through the curtains.  A split second later, she realized that she wasn't alone.  Marco's arm was stretched across her waist.  And they were both as naked as Adam and Eve in Eden.

To calm herself, Isolde studied her lover's face.  He looked restful.  His cheeks had a lovely, rosy hue.  There was no blood to be seen.  Shyly, she lifted the blanket to ensure everything was as it should be.

"Peeking, are we?"

Isolde giggled.

"I was just checking that I hadn't torn you limb from limb."

"Everything's still there," Marco assured with a grin.  After a moment, he sobered.  "How are you this morning?"

Isolde settled back down and rested her head on Marco's bare chest, listening to his heart beat.

"Good.  You?"

Marco stroked her hair.

"Very good."

"I... I didna know it could be like that... pleasant... good."

Marco gently cradled his bride.

"From now on, I pledge to you that that's all you will ever know, mo cailin."

"Mo chuisle..." Isolde replied with teary eyes.

As she laid in Marco's arms, Isolde sent God a prayer of thanksgiving for getting her as close to Heaven as He could.

*~*~*

In the years that followed, Isolde and Marco made annual visits to their families' homes.  Each year, they found them prospering more and more.  That first year, they discovered that Isolde was credited with healing her mother and, inexplicably, the rheumatic tailor who lived down the road.  As word spread, pilgrims came leaving gifts of food and goods with her family.  A generous lot, they shared the gifts with Marco's family.  They also gave Marco and Isolde a portion of their burgeoning wealth.  Most of this the couple gave to the abbey near their home.  They kept only enough to keep themselves clothed and Marco fed... and one or two small luxuries every year.  In spite of their ascetic lifestyle, Isolde remained very fond of new dresses and, every year on her birthday, Marco presented her with a new one.

It was on her twenty fourth birthday, as Isolde sashayed around the cottage in her newest dress, that a shadow fell over their life and love.  Marco had been laughing at his wife's antics when he was seized by an uncontrollable coughing fit.  Isolde hurried over to him, patted his back, and handed him a handkerchief.  To her horror, there was blood on the cloth when he drew it away.


"Mo chuisle...  No..." she moaned.

Once he was fully recovered from his coughing fit, Marco clung to his wife as she wept in his arms.

*~*~*

A doctor was consulted but he only shook his head and said it was a matter of time. 

In spite of Marco's protestations, Isolde kept herself alive by feeding off of wild animals and stray livestock.  Their blood made her dizzy and sluggish but she wouldn't further risk his health.  She prayed for a miracle cure... the sort she was rumored to dispense.

In the preceding years, they had spent many of their days exploring the wilds around them and traveling to nearby shrines.  Now the couple was mostly bedridden.  Marco's coughing fits grew worse and more frequent.  Isolde blamed herself.  If only he hadn't gone into town for her birthday present...  Maybe he'd caught it there...  If only she hadn't relied on him for blood...  Maybe she'd weakened him.

Marco tried to maintain a cheery mood for his wife.  He pointed out that spending so long in bed with one's spouse wasn't necessarily a bad thing.  Isolde laughed but, in truth, it made her sad.  Their days of passionate lovemaking were behind them.

One night, Isolde couldn't sleep.  She listened to Marco's ragged breathing and wept.  Eternal life on earth now seemed unbearable.  She thought back on how strange she had felt in bed with him that first night.  Now she couldn't imagine how horrible and lonely it would be to have a bed to herself. 

Marco sat up and began to cough, his whole body heaving.  Isolde moved behind him and patted his back.  When the fit was over, he sunk against her.

"Mo cailin, we need to talk."

"A-about what?"

Marco moved just enough to look into her eyes.

"You need to make a decision, Isolde.  Whatever happens to me, you need to leave here.  I don't wanna think of you here alone with the trouble at the abbey."

Isolde let out a shuddering breath.  There'd been a great deal of turmoil and some were rising against the Church.  If those sorts got word of the cult that had sprung up around her...

"So here are your choices.  Either you need to take my blood... all of it... to give you strength to run."

"No!  Never!  I willna!" Isolde protested.

Marco reached up to stroke her face.

"Or... you need to give me some of your blood.  That's how it happened, didn't it?  He took your blood and gave you some of his.  That's what I want.  We can feed on the cows and sheep as you have.  We'll be wearied, yes, but two are safer on a journey than one."

"Marco...  But... Heaven..."

"I willna be at peace worryin' over ya.  I'll stand outside the gates tellin' St. Peter that I'm waitin' on my wife.  He'll tire of me, Isolde."

In spite of her grief, Isolde laughed. 

"Mo cailin... please," Marco begged.  He forced a smile.  "Maybe I don't want ya left to find yourself another husband."

"Marco..."  Isolde wrapped her arms around him.  "There will never be another."

"Good.  Now... please...  I... I don't think I have another night in me like this."

Isolde nodded before kissing her beloved passionately.  She propped up pillows behind him then straddled his waist.  She stroked his face and hair as she buried her teeth into his neck.  After a few moments, when she felt Marco weakening, she stopped. 

"Now, Marco...  Now."

With what little strength he had left, Marco kissed the nape of Isolde's neck then sunk his teeth into her.

Isolde jolted slightly when she felt her husband bite her.  She clasped her eyes shut and prayed as her blood spilled.

After a few moments, Isolde pulled away.  She knelt beside Marco and studied him.  His eyes were closed but he no longer looked ill.

"How do you feel?"

Marco didn't answer at first.  Then he took a deep breath and opened his eyes. 

When he smiled, Isolde saw two fangs.

Torn between sadness and elation, she collapsed into his arms and stayed there all through the rest of the night.

*~*~*

Friday, February 12th, 2016

"So...  Then we headed off to Italy.  Marco wanted to see his other ancestral homeland and how could I deny him that after... everything?  And Italy is so beautiful.  But I missed Ireland so much.  And our families.  We visited them once more before we left.  At least we got to say our good byes."

JenniAnn swiped at a tear.

"I can't imagine going through all you have but... to have stayed together for 500 years!"

Isolde grinned.

"It's a shame we can't write an advice book, ain't it?  Well, I suppose we could.  But people couldn't know our credentials.  Not fully."

"I spose not.  So how did you end up meeting Josef?"

"Well...  I swear to God on High that Marco and I... we never killed anyone.  Even with the animals, we tried never to kill them.  Sometimes... we... we made mistakes there but..."

JenniAnn set a hand on the woman's.

"Isolde, they woulda been just as dead in someone's stew pot or in a butcher's shop."

"True...  Anyway, I felt bad that Marco only ever knew this sickly, exhausting mode of being a vampire.  So it occurred to me that maybe if we moved near a hospital...  Off to London we went.  We'd scrounge around in the medical waste.  Yes, it's as ghastly as it sounds.  But at least we weren't hurting anyone.  And we felt better.  One night, Josef found us there.  We were terrified, sure we'd be jailed and exposed.  But then he told us he was a vampire, too.  Rather sarcastically, he said that there were easier and more pleasant ways to get blood.  I hope I'm not upsetting you by telling you that Josef was an all out hedonist at that time."

JenniAnn shrugged.

"I met him at the tail end of that phase.  I know."

"Ah.  Good, then.  Well, he had his 'bevy of beauties' who let him feed on them.  I think it was some sort of status thing for them.  I thought it was deplorable.  I think we amused Josef with our 'old-fashioned ways' and 'adorable Catholicism.'  He was a right jerk, come to think of it."

Laughing, JenniAnn nodded.

"I have to admit, he's not sounding very pleasant at the moment."

"He wasn't. Nonetheless, we kept in touch.  If we'd met any other vampires, we didn't know it.  Marco and I didn't want to cast Josef off entirely.  So, every few decades, we'd meet up.  Josef would talk about his latest and greatest harem.  He'd ask us if we were still answering to the Big Guy.  Yes.  I'd still maintained my record of not missing one Sunday Mass except, ya know, that terrible week..."

Awed, JenniAnn could only shake her head.

"After each meeting, we'd set a time and place for the next.  Then, in the 1950s, Josef changed.  He still had the same old bravado but we could see cracks."

"That's when everything happened with Sarah..."

Isolde gave a nod.

"Marco finally got it out of him.  That was the first time I'd ever seen Josef cry.  We met again in 1985 and then we weren't planning to see each other again until 2015 but by then cell phones were a thing.  In early 2009, Josef called us, asking if we could push our meeting up.  You see, we still tried to live plainly but we'd built up a good nest egg over nearly 500 years.  So it was easy for us to hop on a plane at any time and head off.  So we did.  We met Josef in Russia.  He brought us to what looked like an old, decrepit building.  We didn't know it at the time but we'd just set foot in the first Freedom's Sanctuary.  He told us about his work, told us that we were the most moral vampires he knew.  He asked us if we wanted to be involved.  We jumped at the opportunity!  It felt full circle.  This... it all started when I was raped.  When Josef told us about FS, it felt like maybe that was why God had seen fit to keep us alive for so long.  We had a reason to be exactly as we are."

"I believe that," JenniAnn averred.  "And you truly are an inspiration, you and Marco.  I've felt so blessed to get to know you these past few days.  Thank you for trusting me with your story."

"It feels good to tell someone.  Josef knows, of course.  But no one else.  Until now.  I just...  I tink of how awful I felt when... when that monster was raping me.  B-but it was only once.  I tink...  A-and I was fifteen.  A... a woman by the standards of my time.  I'm not sayin' that made it easy or... or less awful but... but Daisy's what?  Five years old?  A-and how many times did it happen?  I... I tink I could live forever and still not understand how some people can be so brutal!" Isolde seethed.

"It... it is unimaginable," JenniAnn agreed.  She bowed her head as she remembered Daisy sobbing into Josef's shirt.  But now she was comforted, now she was among friends who adored her and would help her to heal.  Now it was Isolde's turn to have the same.

JenniAnn got to her feet.

"C'mon, there's more I want to show you."

Sniffling, Isolde rose and followed JenniAnn.  While the donkeys continued to graze, the two women made their way to the edge of the valley.  JenniAnn pointed into some woods. 

"Kemara and I wanted to do something special for you for your birthday.  We took it to heart when you said it was hard for you and Marco to enjoy a romantic vacation when you look so much younger.  For a long while, Andrew looked considerably older than me so... I kinda know how it is.  That's why we want you and Marco to enjoy one of these cabins for the weekend, if you'd like.  If you're interested, pick the one you like best and we'll do a bit of decorating before tomorrow.  Happy birthday, Isolde!"

"You... you're jokin' surely?" Isolde asked in disbelief.

JenniAnn smiled and shook her head.

"Not at all.  They just sit empty most of the time.  When we go camping, we tend to head to the Fields of Gold.  We'll have to give you and Marco a grand tour some day.  But for now... please.  Pick one.  We want to do this for you, Isolde."

"Thank you!"  Isolde gave JenniAnn a strong hug then ran off to inspect a half dozen cabins. 

As they entered the sixth cabin, JenniAnn spoke.

"And there are actually another four or five in the clearing past here if you want to look at..."

"This is it..." Isolde murmured, waving JenniAnn to the window she stood near.  "This... it looks so much like the view from our first little house near the abbey.  I... I love it!" 

"I'm so glad," JenniAnn replied as she patted the other woman's back.  "Kemara will be very happy that you took to our idea."

"I want to thank her!  Do you think we could head back now?  Marco will be coming back with the Romano boys and I want to tell him how wonderful our new friends are."

JenniAnn giggled at the vampiress' childlike energy as she spun around the cabin.

"Sure.  Let's do that." 

The donkeys brayed happily when the girls returned to the valley.  Isolde felt so energized that they walked alongside the donkeys as opposed to riding them.  The two were just leaving the stable after getting the donkeys settled back in when they spotted a group at the gazebo.

"Marco!" Isolde shouted when she spied her husband.

"Isolde!" he called back.  "What are you doing here?"

A grin stretched across the man's face as he approached with the Romano twins, Clay, Kylie, Zadie, and Adam.

"This is amazing, isn't it?" he observed as he embraced his wife.  "Adam was just telling me that the portal connects to L.A., too.  I guess that explains why Mick and Beth were so evasive when we asked where they were staying."

JenniAnn smiled.

"It's not that we didn't trust you all.  But, when we can, we try to allow people to get to know us a bit more before swinging the whole 'we have a magical portal' thing on them," she explained.

Kylie nodded.

"It was actually weeks before those of us who met JenniAnn and company through the theatre knew about it."

"Probably for the best," Edward reasoned.  "I'm not sure we would have stayed on task with our rehearsals if we'd known all of this was waiting to be explored."

"And it keeps you all close by," Isolde realized.  "So you can stay in Albany overnight if you want but still spend time with us at the Chrysalis."

"It's wonderful!" Zadie enthused.  "I'm so glad Joshua did this for us!"

"Joshua..." Isolde intoned.  She could accept the portal as a miracle of God but what did Joshua have to do with it?

Zadie's face flushed.

"Hey, look at that.  We're going to be late for dinner!" Adam realized, showily displaying his pocket watch. 

"We best be on our way then," Clay replied, activating the portal and ushering the ladies through.

Zadie hung back with the twins, indicating for Marco, Adam, and Clay to go ahead of her.

When the others were through, she shook her head.

"I can't believe I did that!" she exclaimed.  "We've all been being so careful!"

"Don't worry.  You knew that Joshua created the portal before you knew who he was," Edward reminded.  "You still had to reach the truth on your own."

"That's true..."

"Besides, I think it's only a matter of time with those two," Caleb added.  "That girl's a straight-up Jesus freak... in the repurposed, 'we're proud of it now' sense of the term, of course."  He began to dance.  "'What will people think when they hear that I'm a Jesus Freak?  What will people do when they find that's it's true?'"

Edward chuckled and pushed his twin through the portal.

"It'll be fine," he reassured his girlfriend.  "What's the worst that can happen?  Two people who thought they wouldn't get to meet Jesus until the world's end will find out they already have.  And Joshua will have two more people to speak openly with."

"Good point."  Zadie kissed her boyfriend then took his hand and went through the portal with him.

On the other side, they found Isolde excitedly telling Marco about her birthday gift.  If she'd given any more thought to Zadie's slip, it seemed to be forgotten.

*~*~*

Aftershock

Saturday, February 13th, 2016


JenniAnn jolted as she woke up.  She felt as if her heart was going to pound out of her chest as she gasped for air.

Awoken by the noise, Andrew startled when he glimpsed the woman sitting up, clasping her chest, and struggling to breathe as tears trickled down her cheeks.

"Laja!  Laja, what's wrong?" he panicked.  "I'm calling 9..."

"No!" JenniAnn finally got out.  She sucked in some air.  "No.  It's just...  Horrible nightmare.  Our... our baby...  Someone... got her a-and...  Our Belle..."

Andrew clasped JenniAnn to his chest and softly swayed.  Just before bed, as many of the volunteers decompressed in Joshua's study, Isolde had again shared her story.  Kemara's and JenniAnn's gift had endeared her further to the Friends and, as such, she and Marco wanted to be honest with him.  Between JenniAnn twice hearing the devastating tale of Isolde's rape and witnessing the fallout of Daisy's meltdown, it was no wonder she'd had a nightmare about their own little girl.

"I want to see her...  Do you think we could go get Belle and have her stay with us tonight?" JenniAnn requested.

"Sure," Andrew agreed.

The two put on their slippers and robes then set off for the children's room.  Isra and Behnam, who had taken kid-sitting duty for the night, were asleep on a fold-out couch near the door.  Andrew and JenniAnn quietly crept past them and surveyed the collection of sleeping bags.  JenniAnn gasped when she realized Belle's, situated near Aiyla and Nya, was empty.

Andrew grabbed her hand.

"Relax," he whispered in her ear.  "She's fine."  He pointed a few yards away.

"Oh..."  JenniAnn's face softened when she saw Lulu and Fawn dozing near Conan and Liam's Minions sleeping bag.  Along with Liam's fiery locks, an abundance of black curls peeked out from the bedding. 

Andrew and JenniAnn crept closer. 

"Look at them..." the latter murmured.

Andrew smiled and kissed JenniAnn's hair.

"I don't think we can take her, Laja.  Not without waking Liam up and... she looks pretty comfy."

"Yeah..." she agreed.  "Can you try to take a picture?  I know it won't turn out well without the flash but..."

Andrew removed his cell phone from his robe pocket and did as he was asked.  The shot was grainy but acceptable.

JenniAnn smiled at the two cousins snuggled together.

After a silent prayer, the parents quietly returned to their room.

"Poor little elf must have had a nightmare and gone to Liam for comfort," JenniAnn guessed.  "She was in the playroom when everything happened."

"I'm glad Liam was a good sport about it.  Belle probably would have woken up Behnam or Isra otherwise and they need their sleep.  I'm sorry we couldn't bring her here like you wanted to, though."

"It woulda been nice to cuddle with Belle but selfish, too.  I imagine I'd be quite irritated if my parents dragged me outta our bed when I was sleeping so soundly in your arms."

Andrew chuckled.

"I'd be irritated, too.  Especially considering we're adults."

"Oh, I know it's not the same.  Darn cute, though."

"Darn cute," Andrew agreed.

"Pretty much banished the awful things in my head, too." 

"Good."  Andrew stroked the woman's face and smiled when she stretched up to kiss him.

"Still...  Not sure I want to go right back to sleep..."

"Understandable.  Maybe we can find a way to bide the time."

JenniAnn beamed as Andrew played with his phone.  After a few moments, the opening strains of "A Thousand Years" by Christina Perri began to quietly play.

The two danced until the last vestige of horror fled JenniAnn's mind, leaving them both in peace.

*~*~*

At breakfast, Andrew and JenniAnn couldn't keep themselves from showing off the photograph of Liam and Belle.

Sean chuckled when he saw it.

"Well, that settles it.  Kelly has no chance with Liam.  We need to tell her right now so she won't get her hopes up," he decided.

Kemara smiled and shook her head.

"They're all under 7.  It's a little early to be determining their romantic futures.  That is adorable, though."

"Very," Arthur agreed.  "Could you please text that to Monica?  She's already at the food truck.  It'll give her something to smile about."

"Was she upset?" JenniAnn asked with concern.

"Not exactly.  More... concerned.  She's all but positive a regular at the food truck is being trafficked.  She's given the girl wrapper after wrapper and on Monday even told her she was directly connected to this shelter but... still no call."

"Do you know if anyone has called today?" Andrew checked.

"When I got up to help Monica get going, Reuel told us that Nick, Zaila, and Joshua are gone.  Maryam and Yosef, too," Arthur reported.  "So I think it may have been a big one.  They took two cars."

"That's promising!" JenniAnn exclaimed.  "I wonder if it's any of the girls Salma and Zelda were with?"

"Why would you think that?" Kemara questioned.

"Well... Joe told Catherine that when Zelda and Salma met with him yesterday, they told him that sometimes, as a treat, the pimps would let the girls have a 'spa day.'"  JenniAnn shuddered.  "I'm sure it was just to make them more attractive to johns.  Anyway, Joe emailed Owen to ask for the CC's flyer graphic.  He was going to print a ream and ask cops to canvas their patrols and request that salons, nail parlors, etc. post them.  So... all it would take is for one girl to see the number and memorize it..." 

Andrew clasped her hand.

"I pray it happens."

The others murmured agreement.

Before any more could be said, Behnam and Isra entered with several of the children.  The kids made a beeline for the breakfast buffet where Eleora and Cody were waiting to assist them.  Behnam helped himself to coffee while Isra prepared a cup of tea.  The two smiled drowsily when they sat down amongst their friends.

"Good morning," Behnam greeted.

"Morning!" Andrew replied.  "You two look a little sleepy."

Isra patted her belly. 

"Someone was restless which made me restless which made Daddy restless."  She smiled at Behnam.

"Apparently we weren't the only ones who struggled with sleep, though.  We found Belle..."

"In Liam's sleeping bag.  We know."

Andrew displayed his phone.

"So precious..." Isra admired.  "But how did you get that?"

"I had a nightmare... about Belle."  JenniAnn sniffled.  "So we came to get her, apparently during one of the spaces of time during which you two were actually sleeping.  I wanted to cuddle but... we didn't have the heart to break them up."

"We should go thank Liam."  Andrew stood and, after JenniAnn joined him, they went to go speak to their nephew.  Arthur tagged along.  When they reached him, Liam was helping the smaller children open a bag of mini-donuts.  Seeing her parents, Belle launched herself at them and giggled when her father swooped her up into his arms.  Once the other kids had gone to their tables, JenniAnn spoke.

"Liam, sweetie, Uncle Andrew and I came to check on Belle last night and found her with you.  We wanted to thank you for comforting her.  She musta had a nightmare, huh?"

Liam shook his head.

"No, not Belle," he countered.

Arthur blinked.

"Then why was she in your sleeping bag with you, Liam?"

The little boy smiled up at his cousin who had begun to squirm in Andrew's arms.  Once she was back on the floor, Belle wrapped her arms around the boy.

"Ee-um..." she cooed.

"Belle's the one who was making me feel better," Liam told.

The three parents listened as Liam told his story.

*~*~*

Earlier that morning...

Liam tried to muffle the sound of his crying by burrowing further into his sleeping bag.  But then he felt hot and stuffy...  Popping his head back out, he screwed his eyes shut and tried not to think about his nightmare.  It had been a long time since he'd thought about Rodney but seeing Daisy so upset brought his own tormenter to mind.  Something told Liam that whatever Daisy had gone through, it was much worse than what Rodney had done to him.  The thought made fresh tears well.  Liam buried his face in the scruff of the sleeping Conan's neck.

"Bobo."

The little boy rolled to his back and found himself staring up at his little cousin.  Belle's lower lip poked out.

"Oh...  Ee-um..." she whispered, sounding forlorn.

Liam watched as she let go of the plush frog she'd dragged towards him.  Belle hit the frog's back and dancing lights appeared on the ceiling.

"Bobo," she repeated.  "No kye wif Bobo."

Liam smiled at her.

"Thank you, Belle.  Bobo is very nice."

The little girl nodded.

"Seep now," she announced.

To Liam's surprise, Belle plopped down beside him then slid into his sleeping bag.  Fawn and Lulu collapsed on the floor beside her.

"Belle, I dunno that..."

The toddler patted her cousin's cheek.

"Night, night.  Ove you."

Not wanting to upset Belle... and not minding the company... Liam quietly tucked the edges of his Minions sleeping bag around her.

Once he was laying back down, Liam smiled at the little girl.

"Night, night.  I love you, too."

Belle smiled then closed her eyes.  In no time at all, she was back to sleep.

Rodney's features began to grow indistinct in Liam's mind.  They were driven out by Belle's little snub nose and thick lashes.  Liam thought of how one day he had felt very, very alone and hurt and then, on the next day, he'd had Belle and Monny and Daddy and Uncle Andrew and Aunt JenniAnn and so many others.  Daisy had a Mommy and Daddy, too, now.  And aunts and uncles and cousins.

Belle smiled in her sleep, making Liam smile, too.  He kissed her forehead then laid his head back on his pillow and soon joined her in slumber.

*~*~*

A few moments after finishing his tale, Liam cocked his head as he peered up at his father and Belle's parents.

"Can we go eat now?"

Andrew was the first to rouse from the adults' shared reverie.

"Of course!  Enjoy!"

"Here, let me carry your plate so you can carry Belle's," Arthur offered.

"Thank you."

"Yummy!" Belle cheered as she took Liam's free hand and walked with him to the kids' table.

"Do you think she heard him cry?" JenniAnn questioned.

"Must have.  And then I guess because we let her stay with us when she gets really upset, Belle wanted to do the same for Liam.  She's always been very caring, Laja."

"Yeah..."

Andrew laughed.

"You're not letting what Sean said get to you, are you?"

"Of course not.  They're two and six.  It's just...  Liam started thinking about Rodney because of all of this.  And maybe Belle was up because she was upset about something.  I guess I am a little worried that the stress of all this... maybe it's getting to the kids," JenniAnn fretted.

"It might be.  A little," Andrew admitted.  "But I don't think we're ever going to be able to shield them entirely.  Arthur works in a homeless shelter.  Monica also works a lot with the homeless.  You work at a shelter for women fleeing domestic abuse.  I see war, pestilence..."

"I know but..."

"Think of the flip side, Laja.  Yes, Liam was upset.  And maybe Belle was, too.  But they comforted each other or she comforted him.  Whichever it was... look at them now."

JenniAnn smiled to where they and their friends were chowing down.  The excitement and happiness grew when Amber-Marie entered with Daisy who immediately ran to Aiyla and hugged her.

"Whatever they face, they face it together," Andrew counseled.  "They won't be like us... finding each other as teenagers or well into adulthood.  Sometimes really, really well into adulthood."

JenniAnn laughed and patted Andrew's cheek.

"My old, old man..." she teased.

"Oh, stop it," Andrew countered, feigning annoyance.  "How come you don't give Joshua a hard time about his age?  He's older than all of us!"

JenniAnn tilted her head and considered before grinning.

"Cause I love him better."

Andrew chuckled.

"Fair enough!"  He clasped his hands at the small of her back and tilted his head towards the children.  "But back to my point.  They're blessed to always have each other."

"And a very good point it is."  JenniAnn blinked and let out a little sigh after seeing movement near the door.  "Oh, Joshua..."

Andrew turned to the entryway to find that Joshua had returned and was headed towards Amber-Marie.  After he spoke to her for a few moments, the doctor nodded and squeezed Joshua's hands.  The other adults in the room drew closer.

Joshua gave them all a trembling smile.

"We're all safely back... with six new clients.  I'm afraid they're pretty rattled.  One... one of their friends..."

"Here, Joshua.  Sit down," Behnam suggested, pushing a chair closer.

"Thank you.  Her... her name was... is... Bianca.  The man who took her last night..."  Joshua shook his head. 

"Oh, Joshua..."  Isra sat beside the weeping man and embraced him.  "I am so sorry."

"Thank you.  She... she's at peace now.  A-and peace and love is all she will ever know... from this day forward," Joshua stressed.  "But the other girls... they're... horrified a-and terrified and...  And Salma and Zelda... they knew her but... but they don't know what happened."

Amber-Marie stroked Joshua's back.

"He's asked me to have an emergency counseling session with all the girls from that brothel.  We'll do that just as soon as they all get fed and changed."

"Who... who is going to tell Salma and Zelda?"

Joshua patted Isra's hand.

"Ama and I will.  Would you like to be there?"

"Yes, please."

"Okay."

"What's going on?" a little voice asked.

The adults parted to reveal that Nya was standing behind them.

"Joshua is crying..."  The girl stepped forward and climbed onto his lap, looping her arms around his neck.

Joshua smiled at the child.

"Thank you.  This helps."

"Okay.  Have some breakfast with us?"

Joshua withdrew a handkerchief from his pocket, wiped his eyes, and nodded.

"I'd like that.  Thank you."  He smiled at the others.  "Come sit with us?  It'll give me strength for what I..."  He turned to Isra and took her hand.  "We need to do."

With solemn nods, the others moved their chairs so they could be near as Joshua sat amongst the children and ate while they chattered and did what they could to lift his spirits.

*~*~*

A few minutes later, Isra knocked lightly on her sister's and Zelda's door. 

"Who is it?" Zelda called.

"Isra.  I'm here with Maryam and Joshua.  We'd like to speak with you but can come back if..."

"No, come in!" Zelda invited.

Isra pushed the door open and smiled when she found Zelda and Salma sitting together on the latter's bed with a book between them.

Salma smiled at her sister.

"We have been reading Narnia," she reported.  "Remember when Behnam would read it to us?"

Isra blinked back tears and nodded as she waved Joshua and Maryam in.

"I do.  The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.  He found it at a bazaar one day.  And, eventually, the six others."

As he passed, Isra lightly stroked the Lion's back.

"Yes, Behnam told me they were here in the library so Zelda and I found them," Salma replied.  She noticed her sister's teary eyes and Joshua's and Maryam's grave faces.

"What's going on?" Zelda queried.

"Do you mind if we sit on your bed, Zelda?" Maryam asked.

"No...  Not at all."

Isra settled to Salma's other side.

Joshua gave the two girls a wavering smile.

"Salma, Zelda... we got a call very early this morning from six girls who were being held at the same brothel you were."

Salma gasped.

"Six!  And they're here?"

Joshua nodded. 

"My Abi and Ama and Nick and Zaila and I went to get them."

"Who?" Zelda pressed.

"Tanya, Carmena, Lilith, Denise, Xinyi, and Enisa," Joshua answered.

Salma and Zelda beamed at each other and held hands.  Then, in the same instance, their smiles faded.

"But... why do the three of you seem so sad?"

Maryam reached over to pat Zelda's hand.

"We are so very happy that six more ladies have joined us and that you can reunite with them.  However, I am afraid that it was a very sad occurrence that prompted Lilith to call us and escape with the others."

"Wh-what is it?" Salma demanded.

Joshua wiped at his eyes and peered at the two.

"Bianca didn't come back to the brothel last night.  When Damien went back to where he'd left her with a john, he... girls... he found her body."

"No!" Zelda shrieked.

Salma buried her face in Isra's shoulder and wept.

"How?"

Joshua remained quiet.

"How?!"

Maryam moved to Zelda's side and embraced her.

"He... he beat her to death," Joshua answered, his voice raspy.   "I... I'm so... so sorry."

Zelda remained frozen for a few seconds before looking to Maryam as if she expected her to correct Joshua.

Maryam only nodded and reached up to stroke the girl's face.

Zelda crumpled against her and wept.

"She... she was the first girl to... to befriend me after... after I was... was kid-kidnapped," Zelda choked out.

Maryam gently ran her fingers through the girl's hair.

"Dr. Sayer is going to be having a counseling session for you both and the other six ladies if you'd like to... to talk," Joshua informed them.  "It'll start in about an hour but she's here all day if another time would be better.  And... and please know that I'm here to listen to you when-whenever you need me."

"Her... her body?  Where is it?" Salma asked.

Joshua sucked in a breath.

"Enisa said that she heard Damien tell Gunnar that he'd left her body in the motel.  Carmena thought she knew which one so I've called Officer Tyron and Detective Matthew and asked one of them to check.  I'm confident they'll find her."

"Then what?  I... I don't want her body ending up in some unmarked grave in... in Potter's Field!" Zelda protested.

"Neither do I," Joshua insisted.  "The other girls don't think she had any family so, as her friends, you could request her body be transferred to you for burial.  But we can talk more about that later.  For now, just know that we'll all do everything we can for the eight of you who knew and loved Bianca."

"Thank you," Zelda murmured.

"You're welcome.  Could I go get you ladies some breakfast so you can have some privacy before the counseling session... if you want to go, I mean?"

Both Zelda and Salma released their comforters and looked at each other.

After a nod from Zelda, Salma spoke.

"Yes, please.  We would like to go.  Thank you, Joshua."

"You're welcome.  I'll be right back."

"Okay," Zelda squeaked out.

The last thing Joshua saw before stepping into the hallway was Salma plucking her lion up from her bed-stand and burying her face in his mane.

*~*~*

Later that morning, Ivy and Sy found themselves alone in the Chrysalis' library.  Kendra had finished her homework and Violeta had gone to Dyeland to spend time with her wooly babies.  The couple each had a book and tablet in front of them and were jotting notes as they studied.  After some time, Sy noticed that his girlfriend hadn't turned a page or picked up her pencil or referenced her laptop for several minutes.

"Ivy... you okay?" he checked.

Ivy roused and her face flushed.

"Oh... yeah.  Just thinking."

"About this morning?  The girl who died?"

Ivy's eyes clouded as she nodded.

Sy squeezed her hand.

"I've been thinking about her, too.  And praying for Salma and Zelda and the others.  It must hurt so bad to know someone you cared about went that way."

"A-and after suffering so much beforehand..."

Sy held his hands out to Ivy.

"Let's take a break.  Go sit on one of the couches, you think?"

Ivy nodded and let Sy help her to her feet.  They settled onto a loveseat near a window overlooking the courtyard.

"I just...  I don't get why men would... would want that."

The words spilled out without Ivy having meant for them to.

Sy bowed his head.

"Oh, Sy...  I... I don't mean that I expect you to explain.  I know you don't... want that.  And I don't mean all men..."

Sy looked up and gave Ivy a gentle smile.

"I know.  I can't imagine having sex with someone who didn't want me."

"Me neither."

"And... and I wonder about those guys.  Surely they have daughters... mothers... sisters... wives.  How can they look them in the eye?  Maybe some of them think those girls are prostitutes by choice.  If they had been then that's still immoral but... not rape.  But some of those girls... they're not old enough for it to be anything but rape!  And the others...  Just watching Salma try to settle in...  I can't imagine her ever being encouraging or even seeming to be 'into it.'  So it was rape.  How does a man live with himself?  How does he have an ounce of self-respect knowing what he's done?  He took a blessing from God Almighty and turned it into a crime!"

In spite of the seriousness, Ivy couldn't entirely keep a smirk from forming on her lips.

Sy chuckled.

"What?  Was I parroting Dad again?"

"You sound a lot like him when you preach is all.  And that's a good thing.  Your Dad's a great preacher... and you will be, too, someday.  You won't shy away from hard things.  As much as I love the Church, sometimes it makes me angry that they do that.  I... well, I feel pretty naive about sex.  Still.  I know sex ed at Our Lady's was way better even than what JenniAnn got which was itself infinitely better than what my Grandma got.  But still... lacking.  Fordham's is better but too late for some.  And I know it's not just a Catholic issue.  Kylie's brought it up before, too.  And it's not even just Christian.  Isra talks about how little she knew.  A lack of information can be deadly... if not physically then spiritually.  I'm lucky.  I have family and friends who shelter me very well and I have trusted adults I can go to with questions.  But without that..."  Ivy gazed out the window and sighed.  "I suppose there's an element of 'There but for the grace of God go I...' for me.  Although I'm starting to hate that phrase.  Does that mean that God's grace wasn't with Salma and Ruby and Zelda and all the others?  That can't be!"

"No, it can't," Sy agreed.

"I just wonder how many girls end up in dangerous places... end up stuck... because they didn't know enough to know the signs of a predator or... or they were so ashamed after being victimized once that they didn't get help when it would have been easier to do so."  Ivy clutched Sy's shirt.  "Promise me we won't let our kids be naive."

"We won't let our kids be naive," Sy vowed.  "Actually...  This is a little embarrassing but... there's something I've been meaning to show you for a while."

Ivy watched with interest as Sy pulled out his wallet.  He stuck his hand into a pocket and withdrew a smaller item.  The girl gasped when she realized it was a condom.

"What are you doing with that?!"

"Dad gave it to me," Sy answered before returning the condom to his wallet.  "It was about three years ago.  At the start of my 'attitude problem.'  He sat me down one night and said 'Son, you know what your mom and I have always taught you.  Sex belongs inside of marriage.  It's a special, sacred thing.  Not something you just go and do for fun.'"

Recovering from her shock, Ivy giggled.  It was like Zeke was in the room.

"Of course, I was revolted.  I didn't even want to think my dad knew what a condom was," Sy jested.  "I was happy thinking the last time my parents had had sex was when Kendra was conceived.  Manny ruined that for me."

Ivy laughed when Sy gave a dramatic scowl.

The young man grew serious.

"Now I wish I'd paid more attention because I'm sure he said a lot of profound things.  But I did get bits and pieces.  He told me that it was never going to be the same for me as it would be for the girl.  I'd probably get slaps on the back and cheers.  And maybe that sounded fun to me.  But I needed to think about the girl.  The world's not fair and it wasn't going to be fair to her.  Slaps on the back and cheers could become taunts and jeers for her.  I do remember one part exactly.  He said 'God didn't make women to be your playthings, Sy.  The sooner you realize that, the happier you'll be.'  Then he gave me that."  Sy patted his pocket.  "He said he and Mom expected me to make the right choice but they definitely didn't want me to make the stupidest choice... for my good and the girl's.  He said he prayed that wouldn't leave my wallet until my wedding night... if then... but if I was tempted to use it before then, he wanted me to think long and hard about if this was the girl God meant for me to watch over and love and serve until my dying day.  Because, whomever or whatever else she was, she was His daughter.  And He didn't want her hurt or messed with.  And He didn't want me hurt or messed with, either."

A few tears slipped down Ivy's cheeks.

"I... I think we wouldn't need a place like this if everyone had a dad like yours."

"And a mom, too.  I think they planned it together even though Dad delivered it."

"Yeah... I'm sure they did.  So... if I can ask... why do you keep that?  The condom?" Ivy implored.

"I guess to remember who I was and what Dad said.  He got a hold of me right when he needed to.  I hadn't done anything with a girl... but I was tempted.  And with the basketball team parties... opportunities were there.  Even with my bad attitude, Dad shook me up.  I realized I wasn't thinking about those girls as people with feelings and hearts that could be broken.  I wasn't thinking of them as God's children.  I don't ever want to be that boy again," Sy stressed.

Ivy looped her arms around his neck.

"You won't be.  I know."

Sy rested his forehead against the girl's.

"I've found the one I want to watch over and love and serve until my dying day," he murmured.  "One day, we'll stand at the altar and I'll say 'I take thee, Carrots, to be my lawfully wedded wife.'"  Sy grinned.

Ivy shook her head and laughed.

"Not Carrots... not then."

"All right then.  I'll say 'I take thee, Ivy Elizabeth Lee, to be my lawfully wedded wife."

Ivy cradled Sy's face in her hands.

"And I will take thee, Silas Ezekiel Wilson, to be my lawfully wedded husband."

The couple kissed and exchanged matching, starry-eyed smiles.

When they drew apart, they found themselves staring at a giggling, colorful, little cherub who was wearing only a diaper.

"I really thought it took more to get a kid," Sy joked.

Ivy laughed and stood up.

"Zizi, honey, what ya doing?" she asked as she held her hand out to the toddler.

"Zizi!" a frantic Thandie called.

"She's in here!" Sy answered.

Thandie sucked in a deep breath when she entered the library and spotted the girl in Ivy's arms.

"Zizi!  Why did you run away from Mommy?" she questioned.

"No bah!"

Thandie laughed.

"Oh, yes, bath."  Thandie took the little one from Ivy.  "Nya thought it was a good idea to decorate her baby sister.  Thankfully, it's all washable markers... but washable markers do require washing.  Thanks for keeping her... contained."

Sy smiled and shook his head.

"We didn't do anything.  She just wandered in."  He ruffled the girl's hair. 

"Well, in any case, I'm glad she didn't keep running.  We'll let you get back to studying now.  Thanks!"

"Good luck!" Ivy called as mother and daughter left them.  She sighed.  "I guess we should get back to studying."

"Probably.  You feeling better?" Sy checked as he stroked her back.

"Yeah.  I really am.  We can't save the whole world... but we can do what we can for each other, whatever children God blesses us with, and whomever He sends our way."

"Definitely."

Ivy embraced Sy once more.

"I really love you," she affirmed.

"I really, really love you," Sy echoed.

Smiling, they spoke in unison.

"I really, really, really love you."

Giggling and in much better moods, the two returned to their books and studied with clearer heads and warmer hearts.

*~*~*

Amber-Marie sat with the eight girls who had known Bianca gathered around her.  For the most part, she was letting the women themselves lead the conversation.  There were occasional lulls but, eventually, someone would speak.

"There's one thing I'm curious about..." Zelda started.

"What?" Enisa prodded.

"How did you get away?  They kept such close guard of us."

"You'd think they would have doubled down after you two got away," Lilith mused.  "But they've been basket cases.  Damien hasn't been letting Gunnar leave.  I guess he lost his wallet... actually, it was on the day you and Salma disappeared.  Gunnar really screwed up.  Apparently he accosted some random lady outside the hotel, thinking she was Salma."

Salma gasped.

"Was she hurt?  The lady?"

Lilith shrugged.

"I'm not sure but I don't think so.  I guess two guys grabbed Gunnar and pinned him to the ground.  He got away but he thought that was when he'd lost the wallet... which was probably picked up by the lady or one of the guys helping her."

"So they had Gunnar's photo ID," Tanya clarified.  "Which I'm sure they took to the cops."

"So Damien probably figured that if the cops see Gunnar and grab him for that assault, he's such a coward that he'd fold and tell the cops everything, pinning the worst on Damien and Jocasta so he'd get off," Carmena reasoned.  "So Damien and Jocasta are doing everything now."

"Jocasta had taken a few of us... me, Denise, and Xinyi... out for a 'spa day' on Thursday.  I saw the flier for this place and memorized the number," Lilith explained.  "But I was too afraid... until... til that happened to poor Bianca.  I decided I'd rather be shot dead escaping than... than die with one of those scumbags on top of me.  Xinyi and Denise agreed.  When we told Enisa, Carmena, and Tanya, they did, too."

"But no one else?" Salma questioned.  "Or... or were they caught?"

"No one else," Tanya answered.  "Billie kept watch for us... we made a run for it while Damien and Gunnar were duking it out over... over what to do about Bianca.  But she wouldn't come..."

Zelda patted Tanya's back.  She knew she and Billie were as close as she and Salma were.

"I told them the number before we left," Lilith assured.  "Maybe..."

"I hope Damien and Jocasta don't crack down on them because of us," Xinyi fretted.

"I wish the police would have got there in time," Enisa lamented.  "Who knows where they've moved to now!"

Amber-Marie sent a box of tissues around the circle again.  She kept one for herself and dabbed at her eyes as she recalled Joshua's earlier grief.   Joe had dropped by the CC in person to report that when the police had arrived at the location Lilith had described, they'd found it cleaned out. 

"I... I wish Salma and I could have told them.  But we were taken to the hotel so soon after arriving that... that neither of us had gotten any sense of where we were," Zelda shared.

"I wish you could have, too," Tanya said with a sigh.  "But none of us could have.  Not that soon.  You did help us, though.  If those bozos hadn't been so distracted by your escape, we might not have had our chance."

"But Bianca might still be alive if..."  Salma drifted off.

"Salma, you can't carry that.  Neither can you, Zelda," Amber-Marie consoled.  "Everyone here did the best they could with a terrible situation.  What happened to Bianca is the responsibility of the traffickers and the man who killed her.  Not yours."

"What's going to happen to Bianca?" Xinyi quietly asked.  "What do they do with dead bodies when there's no family?"

"Joshua said we could claim her body," Zelda shared.

"But... that would mean we'd have to leave here," Denise pointed out.  "I... I'm nervous.  I don't want to leave until Damien, Gunnar, and Jocasta are behind concrete and iron... or whatever prison bars are made out of."

"Maybe... maybe Joshua could do it for us?" Lilith ventured.  "He seems nice."

"He is," Salma and Zelda averred in unison.

"Would you like me to ask him?" Amber-Marie offered.

Eight heads nodded at her.

"Okay.  I'll go check with him now.  Feel free to stay here and talk for as long as you need.  I'll check back in and, if I don't find you here, I'm sure I'll see you at lunch."

After receiving several shouts of thanks, Amber-Marie went in search of Joshua, regretting what she was going to ask him to do.

*~*~*

Joshua entered the morgue accompanied by his Abi, Joe, and Sylvester, a Tunnel Helper who worked as a funeral director.  After Joe had a few words with the Medical Examiner, the men were led into a cold room filled with sheet-covered tables. 

"I, umm, I'm sorry but it's protocol for you to, umm, identify the body," the ME explained to Joshua.

The carpenter attempted a smile, hoping to calm the fellow.  He knew he hadn't been on the job for long.

"I know, Clive.  Thank you."

Clive nodded and began to lift the sheet from one of the tables.

Yosef circled an arm around his son's waist as Joshua began to quake.

"My God..." Joe muttered, horror-stricken.  He gulped down a deep breath and clasped Joshua's shoulder.

"That.... that's Bianca," Joshua choked out.

Sylvester swiped at a tear and handed a card to Clive after he'd dropped the sheet.

"I'd like you to contact me for transportation of her body.  I'll be handling arrangements on behalf of Mr. Davidson and the girl's friends."

"I'll do that," Clive promised.  As he continued to speak, he stared at Joshua weeping in his father's arms.  "It may be another day or two with, umm, evidence collection and us being short-staffed but... I will."

"We understand," Sylvester replied.  "Thank you."

With Joe's help, the funeral director steered Joshua and Yosef out of the morgue and back to the D.A.'s car. 

"Abi..." Joshua whimpered once they were seated in the back.

"Yeshu..."  Yosef encircled his arms around his son and kissed his hair.  He thought of his wife holding Yeshua's scarred, disfigured body and wept along with his boy.

Joe rested his forehead against the steering wheel then abruptly pounded his fist against the dashboard.

The noise caused both Joshua and Yosef to sit up.

"I'm sorry..." Joe whispered.  "I'm just... so tired of this... this same scene.  Mothers and fathers finding their kids there and now... now you."

Joshua stretched forward and squeezed Joe's shoulder.

"I'm thankful that you were with me, Joe.  And you, Sylvester.  And Abi..."  Joshua smiled tearfully at the other men.

"But how many times..."  Joe hung his head then inhaled and exhaled deeply.  "I hope we find the others.  Soon."

"Me too."  Joshua drew in his own steadying breath then peered over at Sylvester.  "Abi and I would like to supply the coffin."

"Of course, Joshua."

"Randall and Dot already offered a plot on their farm.  I would have liked to have buried Bianca on Avalon in Dyeland.  She always dreamed of... of magical worlds.  Oz.  Middle Earth.  Narnia.  She would have liked that."  Joshua smiled sadly.  "But I want all her friends to be able to visit her in time.  So... so Albany it is.  I'll plant some Dyeland wildflowers o-over the grave."

"I think that's a very good idea," Sylvester agreed.  "Would you like me to call Andrew or John when Bianca's ready to be moved?"

"Yes, please."

Yosef squeezed Joshua's shoulders.

"Let's get you back to the others, Yeshu.  Lunch among them would do you good.  Gentlemen, will you join us?"

"I'm afraid I have a consultation at noon otherwise I'd love to," Sylvester declined.

"Then we'll drop you off on the way," Joe offered.  "I'd like to stick around, Josh."

"Good.  I think it'd be good for the ladies to see you, Joe.  The more comfortable they are with you..."

"The more we might learn," Joe finished.  "So... off we go."

The DA took another calming breath then steered away from the morgue, eager to get Joshua back among the living who could shower him with the love he deserved and needed.

*~*~*

True Love

An hour later, the Friends and the Chrysalis' clientele were all gathered together in the dining room for lunch.  Word had spread and everyone was being especially attentive to those who had known Bianca.

Isolde blinked back tears as she watched Andrew and JenniAnn speak with each of the eight girls.  Andrew had crafted dozens of little butterflies and was giving them out to everyone, starting with those who had known Bianca.

"I don't know...  Maybe we should stay here tonight," Isolde suggested after taking a long sip of her wine.

Kemara looked up from Ian who was taking his bottle.

"No!  It's your birthday.  You need to celebrate," she protested.

"But there's so much going on here...  A-and so much sadness."

"Which is all the more reason for you and Marco to leave.  You should be happy on your birthday.  Besides, JenniAnn and I already decorated your cabin.  It'd make us happy to know you were enjoying it, Isolde."

"Marco was looking forward to it so much...  And I was, too.  But Joshua..."

Kemara frowned as she craned her neck to glimpse Joshua.  He was sitting between his parents with Belle and Manny in his arms.  Across from him, Joe was pushing food around his plate as Catherine patted his back.

"I think it would help Joshua to know you and Marco were off doing your thing.  He already told Mick and Beth not to come here today and to focus on their anniversary.  Marriage is important to him.  True love is important to him."

"Which him are we talking about?" Emma asked as she and Peter sat down near the two with their lunch trays.

"Joshua," Kemara answered.

"Ah..."  Peter nodded.

"Kinda funny, ain't it?  He's not married and doesn't seem to have a lady," Isolde mused.  "So why would he care so much?"

"He cares about people.  And, generally, marriage and true love make a lot of people happy," Emma explained.

"Well, they've certainly made me happy!" Sean responded as he came near with Joy in his arms.  "All clean now.  That was a doozy."

Kemara laughed as her husband sat beside her. 

"So what are we talking about mahwidge and twue wuv for?" Sean inquired, doing his best impression of the priest in The Princess Bride.

Isolde giggled.

"Marco and I love that movie.  We went as Westley and Buttercup for Halloween a few years ago.  I even dyed my hair blonde.  Anyway, your bride is tellin' me that Marco and I need to stick to our plans for tonight and tomorrow night in Dyeland."

"Well, I agree with my bride.  Even with the influx in clients today, we still outnumber them," Sean reasoned.  "There's plenty of us available to help out."

Emma nodded.

"Definitely.  We need to do some rehearsing for Superstar but we've already decided to do that here.  It's always good to brush up on the songs but we know our way around St. G's stage plenty well.  So even more of us than usual will be here tonight.  Everyone from Albany, even Dot and Randall because they've agreed to play Simon and Veronica a few nights."

"Aww.  How wonderful!  Marco's been lovin' his time there at their farm!" Isolde gushed. 

"Is he there now?" Peter asked.

"Aye.  He left shortly after Joshua returned.  He wasn't goin' to go today on account of my birthday but it makes him so happy.  So we agreed he'd stay there til 4:00 or so." 

"I'm sure Clay and the Romanos are loving that.  They enjoy showing off the farm."  Emma smiled as she thought of the group's first trip to Albany.

"Speaking of my farmer boy...  I think he just texted me."  Isolde pulled her cell phone from her pocket.  She giggled and displayed a photo for the others.

The image depicted Marco mucking out a particularly dirty stall and mugging for the camera.

"Maybe I don't want to spend the weekend with him after all," Isolde jested with an upturned noise.

Kemara smiled.

"For real?"

Isolde sighed, looked back over at Joshua and blushed when she realized he was looking at her.

"No.  Not for real.  We'll go to that dear little cabin tonight.  Thank you."

"You're welcome.  I think that's the right choice."

"But you'll call if..."

"We'll call if anything happens," Kemara agreed.

"All right then."

Isolde smiled at the photograph of Marco and gave a resolute nod.

*~*~*

In Albany, Marco was winding down his time with Edward, Caleb, and Clay by wandering through the pastures with the sheep.  Though the animals had been skittish around the vampire at first, they'd warmed to him and he smiled at the sheep on either side of him.

"There's a good shade tree just a few yards ahead," Edward informed.  "We'll get them there to graze so we can chat for a while before you need to head back."

"Sounds good!"  Marco beamed at the other three.  "Thanks again for taking me on.  I've missed this.  Isolde and I travel too much to have our own farm and the same applies to pretty much everyone we meet through FS.  Not that vampires tend to be farmers, anyway..."

"Why do you suppose the animals get spooked?" Caleb wondered aloud.

Marco shrugged.

"I don't know really.  We smell different than mortal humans.  Maybe that's it."

"You smell like hay and manure," Caleb teased.  "All four of us do."

Marco laughed and nodded.

"Yeah.  But underneath that.  Normal humans don't pick up on it just the same way as you don't pick up on scents that a dog does.  But it's just a guess.  It could be something else entirely with animals.  Sometimes I think it's a self-fulfilling prophecy sort of thing.  We assume that animals won't like us so then we tense up and then the animal senses that and wonders 'Why's that guy acting so shady?  He must be danger.'"

The shade tree came in sight and the four men settled beneath its branches, allowing the sheep to wander.

"You and Logan...  I have a hard time believing you're vampires.  Same with Isolde," Clay admitted.

"But not Mick and Josef?" Marco asked with a grin.

Clay shrugged.

"They're different.  I know they're not a danger to me but they give the impression that they could be dangerous.  Logan only seems dangerous to video game villains.  And you and Isolde...  Not to anyone, really."

"We're like anyone.  We don't want to cause harm... but we will if those we love are threatened.  You haven't seen us work," Marco reminded.  "Isolde can defend herself very well with the creeps but there have been a few times a guy's gotten too aggressive and caught her off-guard.  Scares the hell out of me... and it shows.  I've never killed anyone and I hope I never do... but I have sent a handful of men to the hospital."

"Deservedly," Caleb assured.  "What's that like... being married for so long?"

Marco chuckled.

"Well, it's definitely better than being unmarried for so long.  Isolde and I will both welcome the day we, hopefully, get to Heaven.  Jesus said there won't be marriage there and we believe that.  But I'm sure He still means for us to be close.  I can't imagine any life... earthly or eternal... without Isolde.  This isn't the life we would have chosen but... I feel blessed that I've been able to spend it with her.  You'd think it would get boring and maybe it would for some.  Not for us.  Hundreds of years later and I still learn new things about her simply because there are so many new things to learn about.  So many changes...  When we first married, she was so traditional that she insisted on cooking every meal for me even though she couldn't enjoy the meal herself.  Nowadays, I know better than to slack off when it's my turn for laundry duty."

Clay smiled.

"And how'd you feel about that change?"

"I was taken aback at first... and I had to explain to her that I hadn't the foggiest idea how a washing machine worked because she'd never let me touch one.  But she taught me and I discovered I was perfectly capable and it made her happy.  It's fascinating to hear her talk about women's rights.  I do wish..."  Marco sighed.

"What do you wish?" Edward encouraged.

Marco plucked a fallen leaf up from the ground and twirled it as he spoke.

"I do wish we could go through the normal changes of life.  When I look at Isolde, I see a good, strong, beautiful, intelligent woman.  I understand that to the modern world she looks like a high schooler but, in our time, she was a woman and so she is to me.  Still...  I sometimes hear or read of husbands lamenting how their wives have aged and I want to shake them."  Tears formed in the man's eyes.  "I would love for my Isolde to become a mother, to see that glorious ebony hair become sprinkled with gray and her lovely eyes become rimmed with wrinkles, to hear her sing lullabies to our grandchildren.  But that evil monster stole those possibilities away from her, away from us.  Eternal youth... it's not all it's cracked up to be."

Caleb crawled towards the man and settled an arm around his shoulders.

"Don't lose hope, Marco.  Mick, Josef, Logan... they all believe the cure is coming.  And I believe it, too."

"But why... why do you all believe that?" Marco pleaded. 

Caleb, Edward, and Clay all looked at each other, unsure of how to respond.  They couldn't very well say that Joshua had told them... and that Joshua would know because he was God.

Marco rubbed at his eyes.  Maybe it was too much sun or too much peace and serenity and fellowship.  Whatever it was, all the questions he'd held inside came pouring out.

"I've felt... something.  Ever since we arrived at the Chrysalis.  Even at the saddest moments... like this morning... there's this feeling of... hope.  And not some pie-in-the-sky hope.  And the way everything's coming together...  Josef just happens to rescue a little girl who turns out to be his descendant?  One of the first two rescuees at the Chrysalis is one of the staff member's sister?  And how is it that an acting troupe, all together, decides to start fighting human trafficking?  And how... how is it that your leader is... is named Jesus and his parents are named Mary and Joseph and his cousin is named John?  And why... why..."  Marco rubbed at his chest.  "Why did my wife's and my long dead hearts leap back to life for a moment when... when we saw your Joshua?  Who... is... he?  My wife... Isolde..."

"Marco... who... who do you think he is?" Clay quietly asked.

Marco clutched at the Madonna and Child medallion around his neck.

"I... I think he's... he's Jesus Christ."

"Boys, it's almost 2:00.  Time to head back," Randall's voice directed from a walkie-talkie that Edward was carrying.

Edward didn't take his eyes off the weeping vampire as he raised the walkie-talkie to his lips.

"Thanks, Uncle Randall.  Can you meet us by the tractors?  We, uh, need to tell Marco about Joshua and you and the tractor."

There was silence for a few moments before Randall responded.

"Should I call his wife?"

"Yes."

"And Joshu..."

"Yes."

"Right.  Meet you four there."

"Where are we going?  Tractor..."  Confused, Marco looked back and forth among the other three men.

Caleb hugged him.

"Just trust us.  You'll have all your answers very, very soon."

Edward and Clay whistled for the sheep and soon the whole group was back near the farmhouse.  The twins hurried the sheep into their pen then led Marco to a collection of farming equipment where Randall and Dot were waiting along with Kylie, Adam, and Zadie.

"Marco!"

The man turned to see his wife running at him.  Joshua walked behind her.

"Marco... what's wrong, mo chuisle?" Isolde inquired as she brushed tears from his face.  Then she realized he was staring at Joshua.  "What... what's going on?"

"I... I need to know the truth.  About him."

"About Joshua?  What truth?" Isolde whispered.

Marco cradled her face in his hands.

"You love him," he murmured.  "You... you think about him all... all the time.  Every time he walks into a room or... or we run into him... you light up."

Isolde sniffled and bowed her head.  She couldn't deny it.  Though her love for Marco raged as strongly as ever, Joshua pervaded her thoughts, her dreams.

"My... my holy hermit has... has found all she ever... ever wanted."  Marco spun his wife around so she was facing Joshua.

"I guess maybe we won't need the tractor story," Caleb whispered to his uncle.

Randall clutched his wife's hand and nodded.

Behind them, Edward held Zadie while Adam had his arms around Clay's and Kylie's shoulders.  They were all silent, waiting for Isolde or Joshua to speak.

As the meaning of her husband's words dawned on her, Isolde was overcome.  She let out a sound that was half shriek and half gasp then began to sob.

Joshua, with tears of happiness in his eyes, stepped closer.

"Isolde, Marco... my Ama was so pleased when you chose to get married at Our Lady of Trim.  It meant so much to her.  And everything... all of your prayers, your pilgrimages, your donations to convents and monasteries and schools, your service with FS... it's meant so much to me.  So much to my Father.  But none of it has meant so much to me as your love for each other.... and for me... that never wavered in spite of your sufferings.  My little Isolde..." Joshua cooed as he reached for the woman's hands. 

With an encouraging push from Marco, Isolde stepped into Joshua's arms.  They closed around her as she nestled against his chest.

Quietly, the others tiptoed away, leaving the couple alone with their God.

"You... you aren't angry at me?" Isolde asked.

Joshua tilted her chin up so she was looking into his eyes.

"Isolde, why would I be angry at you?"

"I... I hated what... what he did to me a-and then... then I did it to Marco.  I... I took him from... from you and... and..."

Joshua adamantly shook his head.

"No.  Every time this horrible condition is passed on, it breaks my heart.  But what you did was not the same.  Not the same at all.  Marco asked for you to turn him.  You were both in a desperate situation and you made a desperate decision... a selfless decision."  Joshua looked up and beamed at Marco before returning his attention to the girl.  "What was done to you... that was pure evil, mo leanbh.  There was nothing of love in it.  But you turned it into many, many lifetimes of love.  That's the turning I care most about.  Marco, come here, please."

Marco wasted no time in accepting Joshua's invitation.  He smiled when Joshua kissed his temple and then Isolde's.

"I've been hoping... ever since you watched the DVD... that you would come to this conclusion."

"I... I was so confused, though," Isolde confessed.  "But Marco..."  She beamed at her husband.  "You knew."

The man clasped his wife's hands.

"In five hundred years, you've given me no reason to doubt you, mo cailin.  When I began to realize that there was a man who rivaled me in your affections... I knew he could be only one Man."

Marco drew in and let out a deep breath before peering into Joshua's eyes.

"When I saw you this morning... after you got back from the morgue...  That... that was more than the grief of simply a man of conscience.  That was the grief of a father.  It seemed so fanciful.  I spent all day here trying to banish the idea but... but you can't hide the truth."

Joshua nodded.

"What Bianca suffered pains me deeply.  But holding you both... knowing that you know who I am... that I love you... that helps.  So much."

"And I love you," Isolde murmured.

"I love you, too," Marco echoed.

Joshua embraced them both tightly.

"We have so much more to talk about but we should get back to the Chrysalis.  I think the others were alarmed by our abrupt departure, Isolde.  We'll give them the good news and then you two need to get to your cabin.  I'll go with you... for a while.  I don't want to get in the way of this evening's tradition," Joshua explained with a glint in his eyes.

Isolde's and Marco's cheeks became inflamed but they giggled and made eyes at each other.  Not wanting to lose the spark between them, they'd limited themselves to having sex only a few times a year... and Isolde's birthday night was one of those times.

Chuckling, Joshua waved for them to follow him.

"Let's go tell the others that we're heading back."

"They were going to tell us a story," Marco remembered.  "About a tractor..."

Joshua turned to face the two and smiled. 

"It's a good one.  We'll make sure you hear it."

"There's so much I want to hear about!" Isolde gushed.

As his wife raced forward to walk beside Joshua, Marco let out a contented sigh.  His saint could, at last, embrace her Lord.

*~*~*

Because no one wanted to seem insensitive in light of Bianca's murder, the announcement was quietly made to the Friends that they could now count Isolde and Marco among them.  Only one person stopped by their room as they packed for their weekend in Dyeland.

"It's Nick," the man called through the cracked door.  "I just wanted to see you both off."

Isolde bounded over and opened the door the rest of the way.  Marco laughed and closed the door behind his wife and the saint as they hugged.

"St. Nicholas...  We've actually met and chatted with and done a mission with St. Nicholas!" Isolde chirped.

Nick laughed and stroked the girl's hair then clasped Marco's hand.

"I'm very glad you know now.  It took incredible willpower not to let it all out as we looked at your shrine.  So Joshua told you about everyone else?"

Marco nodded.

"It's amazing to realize how many angels have been surrounding us.  I think Andrew and Monica were the most surprising."

"I'm sure they and Arthur and JenniAnn will love talking to you more about that.  For now...  I come bearing a birthday and Valentine's present from the others." 

Nick removed a rolled paper and handed it to Isolde.

"It's a map," she realized upon unrolling it. 

"And a to-do list," Nick clarified.  "Everyone wrote about their favorite things to do in Dyeland.  They know you won't get to everything in one weekend but they wanted to let you know the door... or portal to be more accurate... is always open."

"Oh... it's a wonderful present!" Isolde gushed.

"Truly amazing.  Look.  Hot and cold springs!  And a stone circle!" Marco exclaimed. 

"Right there is where Fr. Mike's parents live.  They can meet you here."  Nick pointed to the gazebo.  "And you can go with them to St. Mary Magdalene's for Mass tomorrow if you'd like."

"That would be wonderful," Isolde cooed as tears formed in her eyes.  "This has already been an unbelievably amazing birthday and... and now this..."

Another knock on the door sounded. 

"It's me.  I brought my Ama, too."

"Joshua..." Isolde murmured.

"I'll leave you four alone but maybe I'll see you tomorrow at Mass?" Nick suggested.

Knowing his wife wasn't about to miss Mass the day after meeting Christ Himself, Marco nodded and hugged the bishop.

"We'll see you then.  Thank you so much, Nick."

"Thank you, Nick," Isolde echoed though her eyes were now locked on Maryam.

Nick winked at Marco then disappeared into the hallway.

"Isolde..."  Maryam stepped forward and embraced her.

"Mary...  Maryam..." Isolde responded.

When they drew apart, the two women continued to hold each other's hands.

"I am so glad you know the truth about my Yeshu now."  Maryam smiled at Marco.  "Both of you."

"I... I feel like I'm walking on air," Marco replied.  "To know we've spent these last days a-among the Holy Family and angels..."

Joshua squeezed his shoulder.

"It's been a blessing for us, too." 

"Yosef and I have a birthday present for you, Isolde."  Maryam beamed and took the bag Joshua was holding. 

Stunned, Isolde only shook her head.

Marco chuckled and transferred the gift bag from Maryam's outstretched hand to Isolde's.

Blushing, Isolde smiled and came to.

"Thank you so much!  I...  Oh..."  Isolde removed a sky blue pashmina fringed with wooden beads from the bag.  "So... so beautiful."

Maryam took it and draped it over the girl's shoulders.

"It's so gorgeous...  Thank you..." Isolde admired.

"I chose the blue because it reminded me of your wedding dress.  Such a beautiful wedding," Maryam recalled.

"Th-thank you.  I... I am glad you... you were there."

Maryam again embraced Isolde, whispering motherly assurances and praise to her.

Marco and Joshua watched with teary smiles.

When Maryam released Isolde, she kissed her cheek. 

"We will see you at Mass tomorrow.  Have a wondrous birthday night, sweet Isolde," she wished.

"Thank you... a-and to Yosef."

"You are most welcome.  Until tomorrow."

"Tomorrow..." Isolde dreamily echoed.

Maryam hugged Marco and Joshua before leaving the room with one final, serene smile for Isolde.

"Are you ready to head to the cabin?" Joshua asked.

The two vampires gave eager nods and then the three were off.

*~*~*

Joshua smiled and laughed as he watched the Crocettis run around the cabin, taking everything in.  Since their new friends couldn't enjoy the taste of treats, JenniAnn and Kemara had focused on feeding their remaining senses.  Soft, silken sheets covered the bed.  Potions and lotions of various delightful scents sat in a basket in the bathroom.  An array of flowers and LED candles were everywhere.  Soft music emanated from a radio.  Altogether, it made for a wholly romantic and cozy scene.

"So beautiful!" Isolde praised.

"JenniAnn and Kemara have been very good to us," Marco agreed.

Isolde flew to Joshua's side and gripped his hands.

"Please tell them how thankful we are!  We'll tell them tomorrow, of course.  But..."  Isolde sighed and flopped onto an overstuffed couch.

Chuckling, Joshua settled into a chair across from her while Marco sat down beside his wife.

"I will definitely tell them.  But for now... there's so much I need to tell you."

"About... the cure?" Marco asked hopefully.

"That and more.  But first..."  Joshua took Isolde's hands in his.  "I want to make something very clear to you, Isolde.  On the day you escaped your rapist, you asked me to take you to Heaven.  You begged me not to be angry with you.  Mo leanbh, I was never angry at you.  And if his attack would have led to your death, you would have gone to Heaven.  Please know that."

Isolde brought Joshua's right hand to her cheek and nodded as tears trickled down her face.

"I have always meant for you and Marco to be together.  That man's evil couldn't be allowed to obliterate that plan."

"You... you gave her the strength to get to a place where I could find her... save her," Marco realized.

Joshua smiled at the man.

"I made sure Isolde got to where you would be able to find her, yes."

Isolde opened her reverently closed eyes and met Joshua's.

"The way you say that...  Did... did I not get there on my own?"

Joshua shook his head.

"It was then that I carried you," he intoned.

*~*~*

Ireland, 1510

Isolde's eyes fluttered closed as she lost consciousness. 

Joshua knelt beside the girl and gathered her into his arms.

"Mo leanbh, brave girl...  Rest now," he whispered into her ear as he caressed her face.  "I am so sorry that you have been hurt, Isolde.  But what that man meant for evil, I will use for good.  You are good.  You are beloved.  Never forget that."  Joshua kissed her forehead.  "It will be a long time before we are together like this again.  But I will never be far from you nor you from me.  Remember that.  Know that I love you.  And there is another who loves you more than life itself.  I entrust you to him.  And him to you.  You will work many miracles together, known and unknown.  This curse of death that has fallen upon you is not lasting.  Its end will come.  The life stolen from you today will be returned to you, Isolde.  And then, when your time on this earth is through, then you will be with me in Paradise."

Joshua frowned when he sensed Isolde's attacker approaching, wanting to reclaim his "prize."  Soon, the vampire was looming over Joshua and Isolde's unconscious form.

"She's mine," the vampire growled.

"No, she's not," Joshua answered simply.

The vampire's eyes turned a deadly blue and his fangs protruded.

Joshua didn't flinch which unnerved the monster.

"I am her master.  And soon... I will be yours," the vampire threatened as he grabbed for Joshua.

Joshua made no attempt to block his attacker. 

The vampire's sharp nails closed around Joshua's right wrist.  Instantly, he let out a pained howl and fell to his knees in agony.

Joshua peered down at the reeling vampire.

"I am your Master," he seethed.  "But you have been an abominable servant.  All that pain you feel now... you inflicted that on others.  You inflicted that on her."  His glance flitted to Isolde.  "It is only an ounce of the punishment that awaits you unless you repent for all your horrific sins."

Joshua peeled the vampire's fingers away and he thudded to the ground.  After picking up Isolde, Joshua looked back down at the writhing creature at his feet.

"If you wish to avoid a treacherous fate, you will go to the nearest church where you will receive further direction.  If you do not go... you will not see my face again.  You will not see love again."

The defeated vampire whimpered as Joshua stared at him. 

After a long moment, Joshua turned and carried his precious burden away from her attacker.  He walked for two miles until he saw a figure running through barley fields and shouting.

"Isolde!  Isolde!"

Joshua knelt and laid Isolde down.

"Marco is coming, mo leanbh."  He kissed her forehead again.  "Remember that I love you, Isolde."

As he ran, frantic and teary-eyed, a flash of movement caught Marco's attention.  He gasped as he realized a massive bird was hovering some yards ahead of him.  It let out a high-pitched whine and dived down thr
ee times.  Marco ran towards the strange bird and, in doing so, spied his beloved Isolde.

*~*~*

February 13th, 2016

"The albatross..." Marco murmured.  "You..."

Joshua nodded.

"I... I thought he was imaginin' tings when he told me that.  An albatross in a barley field..."  Isolde beamed at Joshua.  "You... you held me."

"I did.  And I never stopped."

"You told me that... that the life stolen from me would be restored.  What..."  Isolde's voice cut off.  She was afraid to voice her hope, afraid that Joshua meant something else.

Joshua took their hands in his.

"When the cure comes, it will restore you both to how you were before you turned.  Marco, the TB will be lurking... latent... so you'll need some treatment but will be just fine... otherwise like any average twenty three year old man and, Isolde, you will be an average fifteen year old girl."

"A-and will..."  Isolde's hand rested over her belly.

"You will be able to conceive and bear a child," Joshua assured.  "Children, actually."

Isolde shrieked and threw her arms around Joshua then clung to Marco.

"Babies..." she murmured.

Marco was too overcome to speak.  He mouthed 'thank you' to Joshua as he held his wife.

Joshua was thrilled by the couple's rejoicing.  When they'd finally settled down, he laughed and took a deep breath.

"Now... I do have a few words of advice.  One, I mean what I say.  You will be average... with an average propensity for high cholesterol and diabetes and so on.  So when you are cured... enjoy all that the culinary world has to offer.  But that doesn't mean nightly pizza is a good idea."

Marco laughed.

"Noted."

"Second, you have waited so long for little ones but I think it would be wise to wait a little longer.  Even though your ID has long said eighteen, Isolde, you know how skeptical people are."

The woman nodded.

"Aye...  I wouldn't want for Marco to get even more dirty looks.  And I wouldn't want our little boy or girl to pick up on that.  But if I truly was eighteen and looked it..."

Joshua smiled.

"That should work very well.  Now... thus far, I've been secretive about when the cure will come but I'm telling you now and will tell the others soon.  It will be next year.  I want you all to have time to make plans.  Your work with FS is very important but when you choose to take the cure, it will make that work much more dangerous.  Use this year to find ways to adjust the way you work... or to make other career plans entirely.  I won't be disappointed either way.  I know that, whatever you choose, your work will be a blessing to others."

Isolde brought Joshua's hand to her lips.

"Thank you, thank you, thank you..."

Marco nodded in agreement and spoke through the lump in his throat.

"For everything... everything today a-and everything... before."

The three rose from their seats and embraced.

"I love you both so, so much," Joshua averred.  "I have longed for this moment."

"U-us, too," Isolde agreed.

Joshua smiled as he stepped away from them.

"I know.  And we'll have many, many more opportunities to spend time together.  But right now I should get back to the Chrysalis.  I'd like to be there for dinner and check in with Bianca's friends.  And... I believe you two have plans."

Isolde and Marco grinned at each other and nodded.

With a laugh, Joshua hugged them both and kissed their cheeks.

"Enjoy.  I'll see you tomorrow at Mass.  G'night, mo chlann."

"G'night, Joshua!" Marco and Isolde replied before following him to the door.  They each hugged once more then the couple remained, watching Joshua until he disappeared into the woods.

With a contented sigh, Isolde turned to her husband.

"Would you like to enjoy some of that pretty bath stuff with me and... and then practice making babies?"

Marco beamed at his wife and nodded.

"I would like that very, very much."  He, too, sighed.  "Babies..."

They both peered up at the sky in silent, thankful prayer before entering the cabin and closing the door behind them.

*~*~*

The Friends had determined that while their charges were reluctant to part for the evening, they were also eager for distraction.  Thus, after dinner, several people remained in the dining hall but scattered to different areas.  JenniAnn and Violeta staked out one of the tables, leading a jewelry-making class that was attended by Opal, Ruby, Ashlee, Bailey, Lucia, and Gillie.  Shane and Diana had settled into a quiet corner where they were administering interest inventories to the latest arrivals, Brooklynn, Lizaveta, and Spencer.  At another table, some distance from the jewelry-makers, Logan and Max had set out four laptops.  Logan sat at the end of the table, smiling nervously at his students: Salma, Zelda, and Luis.  Gathered around a brightly colored rug, many of the children tried to follow Joccy's and Kendra's instruction as they taught them how to make Valentine's lovebugs out of craft foam.  To the children's delight, Joshua had stationed himself among them, learning as they did and giving a hand to those who needed it.

Music wafted from just down the hall where many of the Friends were rehearsing their Superstar numbers.  The trafficking survivors occasionally drifted in that direction, stopping for a few minutes at a time to take it all in.  Kisi had stationed herself in the room, with Monica at her side.  The angel pointed out who had already been cast in The Secret Garden and the woman made notes, occasionally pausing to sketch a costume.

If not for the cloud of grief that remained, it would have made for an idyllic evening.  Still, it was close and as Maryam and Yosef entered the dining hall after spending some time in the rehearsal room, they saw many smiles.  The couple drifted from group to group, smiling and offering encouragement, before they stopped near Logan's class.

The vampire smiled at the two.  He felt slightly nauseated.  Teaching computer classes had seemed like a good, worthy idea but somehow, when he had offered it up, Logan hadn't considered that he'd never taught a class in his life and despised public speaking.  Having Joshua's parents near gave him some peace and so he began.

"So... umm, first a few security things.  You'll notice we've blocked all social media and email sites.  I, umm, I know it's a pain but we have to require that you, umm, refrain from using those until you've let me do a security audit of your accounts.  A Facebook post could give our location away without you even realizing it.  Emails can be tracked.  Further, even after the audit, I'm, umm, afraid that you will have to be observed when using those sites.  It's not that we don't trust you.  It's that, well, I think we all know there are untrustworthy people out there and sometimes it's easy to unwittingly give too much information.  Okay?"

Luis, still afraid that at any moment his captors would come bursting in, gave an appreciative nod.

Salma only cocked her head in confusion.  She had never sent nor received an email and was only there because Zelda was.

Zelda's gentle smile turned into a disappointed frown but she nodded.

"So, uh, what are you all most interested in?" Logan asked. 

The three students stared blankly at him.

"Like do you want to know about a particular program?" Max prompted.  "Or gaming?  General operations?"

"We can play games?" Zelda asked, perking up.

"Sure.  Again, we blocked the ones with a social component but there are still many, many others online," Logan replied.

"What about online coloring?"  Zelda turned to Salma.  "I think you'd like that and it'd help you get used to using a mouse."

"That shouldn't be a problem at all.  Actually, my fiancee does that a lot and her favorite site is..."  Max typed in an address.  "This one.  See, you pick a picture and then open it.  Then you click on a color, click where you want it and..."  He smiled as a cartoonish snail's shell turned bright pink. 

"If you do anything you really love, we can send it to the printer in the other room," Logan informed when he saw Salma's eyes light up.

"Thank you," she murmured to both instructors before reaching for the mouse. 

Max showed Salma how to use the back button so she could return to the "coloring book."  He smiled when she chose a lion "page" to color.

"So how about you two?" he asked Zelda and Luis.

The young man turned to the computer in front of him.

"I've been craving empanadas that my abuela used to make for me.  I think I could figure out the filling but not the dough...  That I don't remember.  Maybe I could search for it?"

"Go for it!" Max encouraged. 

Maryam set a gentle hand on Luis' shoulder.

"You might also speak with Peter when he is through with his rehearsing.  He has a great many recipes from his own abuela."

Luis grinned.

"Great!  You think I could have some time in the kitchen if I do find a recipe?  Not tonight, of course, but..."

Maryam nodded. 

"I think that would be no problem at all.  Most welcome, in fact."

"You would have many eager samplers," Yosef added.

With a chuckle, Luis turned back to the computer and began his quest.

Only Zelda was unoccupied.  She chewed on her bottom lip and tried to catch Logan's gaze.  Unfortunately, he was so shy that he was deliberately avoiding hers.

Seeing this, Max rolled his eyes and approached his friend.

"Zelda is trying to get your attention."

"Really?"

"Yes, really."

"Can you help her?"

"It's not my attention that she's trying to get."

"But..."

Max clapped the vampire on the back.

"Maybe it's super-secret droid business," Max teased as he playfully jabbed Logan in the center of his BB-8 T-shirt.

"Ri-right."

Logan sucked in a breath then knelt by Zelda's chair.

"Anything I can help you with?"

"Well, umm, I totally understand the no email/Facebook/so on rule," Zelda started.  "But I was wondering...  Supposing someone had been involved in a RPGing thing online and that group posted their archives online...  Would it be okay to go to that site and read them?  To catch up?"

"Do you need to login to read them?"

Zelda shook her head then stopped.

"Well... you didn't used to have to.  But... but it's been about three years since..."

Logan felt a stab to his chest when Zelda's eyes welled.  Three years of her life stolen by those cretins...

"Go ahead and check," he encouraged, hoping whatever site she wanted would be extant and close to how she'd left it.

Zelda turned back to the laptop and typed.  After a few seconds, she grinned. 

"It's still there!  And not password protected!  Not the archives, anyway.  It looks different... but that's okay."

Logan took a cursory glance at the site but didn't recognize it.

"Very good.  Happy reading then!"

"Thanks!"

When Zelda had become engrossed, Logan returned to Max's side.  Maryam and Yosef joined them.

"That was easy enough," Logan shared.  "She just needed to know if she could read some RPG archives."

"RPG?" Yosef questioned.

"Role-playing game," Max translated.  "People write each other but as different characters."  He waved down the hall to where rehearsals continued.  "Sort of like acting... but only in written word."

"Ah..."  The carpenter nodded. 

"I wonder why she didn't ask you?" Logan pondered, looking to Max.

"Maybe she was embarrassed?  And you look geekier right now.  The only nerd swag I have on is this."  Max indicated a Deathly Hollows ring on his right hand. 

Maryam patted Logan's back.

"Or maybe she can sense how sweet and gentle you are.  Not that our Max is not."

"Thanks," Logan and Max responded in unison.  The former's face was taking on a magenta hue.

Salma looked up from her computer and caught Max's eye.  He hastened to her.

"Going okay?" he checked.

Salma nodded.

"Logan said I could print..."

Max glanced at her screen and beamed.

"Sure!  I'd be printing that, too, if I'd done it.  That's beautiful!"

Salma blushed and gave Max an appreciative smile before turning to gaze back at her brightly colored lion.

"Luis, have you found any recipes yet that you'd like to print?" Max inquired.

"I've found a couple options.  I think I'll start with those so, yeah, printing would be great."

"Awesome."  Max unplugged both of their laptops.  "I think we're out of range of the printer here but if you'll follow me, we'll head to the computer room."  He picked up Salma's laptop and Luis followed with his. 

Zelda tore her gaze away from her screen just long enough to smile and wave at Salma.  Then she turned back, soon lost in what she was reading.

Yosef squeezed Logan's shoulder.

"You have done a very good thing."

"I hardly did anything..."

"Sometimes the small things matter the most."

Logan reflected on this and nodded.  So often he'd sought refuge from his own demons by getting sucked into a comic book or movie or, yes, even a RPG.  He prayed Zelda would find solace in whatever world she'd taken up residence in.

*~*~*

Two hours later, the room was cleared out except for four people.  Everyone else had gone to bed save Zelda, who continued to read at the laptop, Logan, Ivy, and Sy.  Logan had offered to let Zelda take the laptop or even a tablet to bed but she'd declined, saying she didn't want to keep Salma awake.  Thus, Logan had remained in the dining hall in case she ran into any issues.  Ivy had agreed to bring her books there so she could study while chaperoning the two.  In spite of the increased comfort Zelda and Salma felt, no one was quite sure how they or any of the others would feel if left alone with only one of the fellows.  Sy had chosen to stick around merely to enjoy some quiet time with his girlfriend.

The silence in the dining hall was broken only by Ivy and Sy occasionally whispering to each other or Logan letting out a quiet growl when the video game he was playing on his cell phone didn't go his way.  Suddenly, Zelda leaped up from her chair and let out a cry. 

"No!  No, no, no..." she moaned.

Logan was so surprised by the sudden outburst that Zelda was already upon him, clasping his hands, before he knew what was going on.

"Please, please, please," she begged.  "I... I know I can't email anyone but... but could you email someone for me?  Just... just to tell him that I'm okay a-and I'm sorry I disappeared and...  Please..."

Ivy approached the distraught girl and wrapped an arm around her.

"Zelda, please, tell us what's wrong."  She glanced at Logan who had tensed up, clearly unsure how to deal with this.  "Maybe once he understands more, Logan will do what you ask."

Zelda sucked in a shuddering breath and nodded.  She waved the three back over to the laptop.

"I... I know it's goofy b-but when I was sixteen and seventeen, I was really, really into this online RPG group.  My parents were psychotic about the internet so I could only ever do it from school or the library b-but... I loved it.  It was this really weird but really cool mish-mash of The X-Men and Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children.  Like if the mutants and peculiars were friends, ya know?"

Ivy knew little of the former but had read all three of Ransom Riggs' Peculiar books so nodded.

Standing next to Logan, Sy was surprised when the vampire began to make strange noises as if he was going to hyperventilate.

"I... I was Jean Grey.  Phoenix, ya know?"

Logan turned away.

"One of the X-Men," Ivy concluded.

Zelda gave an excited nod.

"A-and...  So... she kinda has a thing with Wolverine.  And him for her.  Well... thing is...  I... I really... the boy who wrote for Wolverine and me...  We really hit it off.  Our exchanges moved off the group a-and I really... I cared about him.  A lot.  A-and I think he cared about me."

Sy's eyes went wide.  He'd been to Logan's basement-room at his mother's house.  He'd seen the array of Wolverine and Jean Grey memorabilia.  Sy had assumed that they were just another element of Logan's geekdom but what if they were really a shrine to a presumed-lost love?  To Zelda?

"But I... I just disappeared, from the group, from the email... when... when Gunnar..."  Zelda gulped down a sob.  "I never... never got to say good bye and..."

She waved to the computer. 

Ivy sat down and began to read.

Wolverine: Can we just stop playing for one day to try to get to the bottom of this?  I've been emailing every single day with 'Jean Grey.'  IRL.  But I haven't gotten an email in 5 days and she's not been posting here and I'm worried.  She'd never tell me her real name but, if you know it, I'm begging you to please, please tell me.

Millard Nullings: Dude, get a hold of yourself.  She probably got sick of you.  Give it up and let's get back to the game.

Wolverine: Maybe...  But I don't think she'd just disappear on me and I can't shake the feeling that this is bad.

Emma Bloom:  Don't be so rude, MN.  Wolverine, this happens a lot.  You know that.  People move on.  She's probably just focusing on RL.  Hugs.

Wolverine: She wouldn't do that!  I'm telling you that I have a really bad feeling. 

Professor X: You guys, you're ruining the illusion.  We don't talk about RL here.  Wolverine, PM me if you want to talk about this more but I insist you stop posting about this.  JG is probably just playing.  I'm sure she'll resurface soon.  Just like a... Phoenix.

Wolverine:  I'm done.  Good bye.

"So you want Logan to email 'Wolverine'?" Ivy guessed.

"Yes, please..."  Zelda balked when she saw Logan hunched over with his hands on his knees.  Sy was crouched beside him, whispering.  Logan kept shaking his head.

Finally, Sy turned his attention to Zelda.

"Give me the email address, please.  I'll send it."

Relieved, Zelda related it to Sy who typed into his phone.

"Geekofallstripes, no spaces, at griffenguy.net.  Griffen is G-R-I-F-F-E-N."

Sy finished typing then hit send.

A moment later, Logan's phone pinged.


Ivy spun around to gape at the vampire.

With tears in his eyes, Logan fumbled with his phone and read the email.

"Talk to her," Sy had written.

Blinking, Logan nodded then ambled towards Zelda and handed over his phone.

"Look at it.  Please."

Curious, Zelda accepted the phone.  It only took her a moment to realize whose inbox she was staring at.  Geekofallstripes@griffenguy.net was displayed at the top.  The emails in the box were all old... and all from her... save the last one from Sy.

Ivy and Sy politely backed off.

"You..." Zelda murmured.

Logan stared at the floor and nodded.

"I... I did leave the group after that.  I guess that's why I didn't recognize it when... when you logged on.  They remodeled."

"Yeah, they did.  Logan..." Zelda cooed.  "I... I like that better than Wolverine."

"Why... why didn't you let us use real names in... in our emails?" Logan questioned.  "Maybe I... I could have found you..."  He gasped and shook his head.  "I shouldn't have said that!  I don't blame you!  I..."

Zelda reached up and rested a finger over his lips.

"I've cursed that decision every day for the last three years," she confessed.  "But I... I was embarrassed.  My home life..."  Zelda took Logan's hand and led him to a couch that was pushed against the wall.  "It was awful.  I didn't want you to come find me.  Not until I... I was away from them.  I meant what I wrote.  I really did want to go to L.A. for college and meet you and..."

Shyly, Logan reached up to cup Zelda's face.

"I wanted you to come so badly...  Then... then I started to think maybe Millard and others were right.  Maybe you... you just got sick of it all.  Sick of me and..."

"No!  Never!" Zelda denied.  "I... I owe you the truth.  I did back then but now... especially now..."  She sighed deeply and took one of his hands in both of hers.  She stared at their intertwined fingers as she spoke.  "My family was well-respected in our little city in Oklahoma.  But... but there was something very... very wr-wrong.  I... I had an older brother and starting at the time I was twelve he... he...  At first he just... touched me but then... then it got... it got so, so much worse."

"Zelda..."  Logan buried his free hand in her hair.  "I'm so, so sorry..."

Zelda sobbed.

"He... he told me that... that if I told our parents, they wouldn't believe me a-and they'd send me to... to an alternative school where... where God knows what would happen to me.  I... I believed him.  My parents adored him a-and only tolerated me.  The only times I was happy were when... when I was RPGing or, better yet, emailing with you.  You were so... so kind and interesting and you always knew what to say when I'd rant."  Zelda smiled through her tears.  "My little sixteen and seventeen year old heart loved you so much.  A-and when it was just us... I didn't want to think about the rest.  I didn't want you to find out about it a-and have it ruin our... our perfect little world online."

Logan grew more bold.  This was the girl he'd spent so many hours baring his soul to.  The girl he'd spent years dreaming about.  The only girl he'd ever loved...  Gently, he pulled her closer.

Zelda sighed as she rested her head on his shoulder.  For four years, since not long after their email exchanges had begun, she had wished to be in her Wolverine's arms.  Now she was there.

Logan spoke softly.

"I don't need for our world to be perfect, Zelda.  I only... I need for you to be in it."

Zelda peered into his eyes and gave him a wan smile.

"I hated thinking that... that maybe you'd just gotten sick of me.  But worst yet was... was thinking maybe something terrible had happened a-and you weren't in... in my world at all any more," Logan whispered in a husky voice.

"I never wanted to leave you, Logan," Zelda vowed.  "The night after I
sent my last email... I went to a party.  I was so... so miserable a-and I drank s-so much and I passed out and when... when I came to...  I was moving.  In... in a van a-and Gunnar was... was raping me and then... then Damien and..."

Zelda shuddered and went silent for a few moments before resuming.

"That was the beginning of... of three horrid, awful years.  I thought of you so often, Logan.  Before Salma came, you... you were the only thing that kept me going.  The hope that some day..."  She caressed his face.  "Some day this would happen a-and that... that you would still want me even after..."

"I do," Logan hoarsely whispered.  "I do."

Knowing that their chaperoning talents were no longer needed nor wanted, Ivy and Sy quietly left the hall.

Long into the night, Logan and Zelda rehashed the myriad topics that had made their email exchanges so endearing and enlivening.  When they finally parted at half-past 3:00, it was with soft kisses on the cheek and the knowledge that, like Jean Grey herself, their relationship had risen from the ashes and roared to life again.

*~*~*

Valentines

Sunday, February 14th, 2016

Joshua crept out of his bedroom and smiled when he saw Logan sprawled out on the couch in his study.  He'd told the young man that he could stay there for the night but hadn't been sure whether or not he'd take him up on it.  Clearly it had been a late night and the couch had seemed inviting.

Drawing closer, Joshua noticed that Logan was smiling in his sleep.  And there was something else notable about his face...  A smudge of shimmering pink lip gloss was visible on his cheek.

Joshua grinned.

Logan's eyes flickered open in time to see it.  He leaped up and embraced Joshua.

"Zelda...  She's my Jean Grey." 

"She is.  I told you that you'd be with her again soon."

Logan smiled and shook his head when he remembered the previous Christmas.  Stricken by a pang of longing for his lost love, he'd asked Joshua if he would ever meet her again and received the enigmatic "Soon..." in answer.  "Soon" had apparently meant "in a month and a half" in this instance.

"I'm so happy.  But when I think about these past three years..."  Logan sunk back down on the couch.

Joshua sat beside him and hugged his shoulders.

"Zelda has a lot of emotions and memories that she's going to need to confront.  But that's why she's here.  And now she has you at her side."

"B-but...  What if I can't help her?  You know me, Joshua!  I'm awkward and naive and immature and..."

"Stop it," Joshua warned.  "You are not immature, Logan.  And naive and awkward aren't always bad.  In fact, that's exactly what Zelda needs.  That and kindness and love and patience.  You have those qualities, too.  She doesn't need a proud know-it-all to tell her how she feels.  She needs someone who makes her feel comfortable."

"Will I be comforting, though?  Once she knows the truth about what I am?"

"Who you are matters more than what you are, Logan.  And, remember, you *are* human.  Vampirism can't change that.  I know it's soon but I want you to introduce Zelda to your mom tonight, okay?  Take her to dinner at your mom's.  Which means taking her through a portal.  So already she'll know something beyond the ordinary is going on.  After they've gotten a chance to know each other and be mutually enchanted, then you tell Zelda why you turned.  You did it for Beverly.  That says a lot about both who and what you are, Logan.  And then you explain to her about FS.  You tell her about how there are many, many vampires using their powers for good.  Okay?"

The plan seemed very reasonable to Logan.  After all, Zelda was a lover of the peculiar, the supernatural, and the mysterious. 

"Good idea.  Yeah.  I think that'll work really well.  A-and... I'm looking forward to my mom meeting her.  She knew about how crushed I was when... when Zelda disappeared."  Logan sighed.  "Three years..."

Joshua hugged him again.

"There's a story that I want to tell you, Logan.  A true story that will help.  Not tonight, you have plans.  And maybe not tomorrow night or the next.  You and Zelda still have a lot of catching up to do.  But soon."

"Soon..." Logan repeated with a grin.

Joshua chuckled and clapped him on the back.

"Now, let's both of us get dressed and ready for the day.  Zelda will be up soon and she'll be looking for you."

Logan needed no further prodding before he bolted up from the couch and began his morning routine.

Joshua smiled and returned to his room, silently thanking his Father for another beautifully bright spot in what had been a difficult twenty four hours.

*~*~*

Marco awoke to the sensation of Isolde's fingers drifting through his chest hair.  He gave her a sleepy smile.

"G'morning, my valentine."

"G'morning."  Isolde stretched up for a kiss.  "We need to get up soon to get to the portal in time for Mass but first..."  She pointed to a cluster of packages resting on the trunk at the foot of the bed.  "Those were here when I woke up.  I think maybe Joshua sent them?"

"Hmm..."  Marco crawled to the foot of the bed.  "I think you're right."  He plucked up an envelope first and, with a nod from his wife, began to read it.

"'A birthday present for mo leanbh, a Valentine's gift for you both, and a couple necessities.  All my love, Joshua.'"

"Oh... as if just meetin' him wasn't present enough!" Isolde cried.

"And yet you're quite eager to open that," Marco kidded when Isolde claimed her present.

"I am... but maybe let's open the smaller ones first."

"Good idea"  Marco took one small package and handed Isolde the other.  Once opened, hers revealed two portal keys and his two wooden palm crosses.

"The note in this box says Lewellyn and Sibyll will explain how to use the portal keys to us.  Just think, mo chuisle!  We can come and go from here!"

"It's wonderful," Marco agreed.  "Here.  Joshua writes that he made everyone one of these back during their first hurrah with Superstar.  He wants each of us to have one."  He placed a cross in her hand.

"Oh...  A cross made by Jesus Himself!"  Isolde brought it to her lips then clutched the larger present.

Marco chuckled.

"On the count of three?"

Isolde gave an eager nod.

"One, two, three..."

Once the parchment paper was torn away, Isolde found herself holding a triptych while Marco held a wooden statue.  When she flipped the triptych frame open, Isolde began to cry.

"Oh look, Marco.  Look..."

Joshua had carved the simple yet elegant frame while Owen had supplied portraits of Maryam, Joshua, and Yosef.

"We... we can put it in our shrine a-and know... know that's how the Holy Family truly looks!  Tis too, too much...  I... I can't believe..."  Isolde traced Joshua's features.

Marco set down the statue and circled his arms about his wife.  For a few moments, they silently gazed at the images, willing their thanks to the Man in the center frame.

Finally, Isolde let out a sigh.

"And the Valentine's gift?"

Beaming, Marco held it up.

"Saints Castulus and Irene!" Isolde recognized.  "How perfect..."

"Truly...  I love how in love they look.  With each other and Him."  Marco's eyes glistened as he studied the two kneeling figures.  Their hands were clasped in prayer and their foreheads rested against each other's.

Isolde reverently placed the triptych on the trunk and, when Marco had done the same with the statue, she moved back into his arms. 

"I was thinkin' more about what Joshua said about the day you found me.  If... if he hadn't moved me, maybe... maybe the vampire would have finished me off a-and then I coulda gone to Heaven.  But us being together was more important to Joshua than me bein' in Heaven just then.  That's pretty extraordinary, isn't it?"

"It is," Marco agreed as he nuzzled her hair.

The temptation to remain in bed, though strong, was no match for their desire to get to Mass and see their Lord.  After a kiss, Isolde slid from Marco's arms and stood.

"Now to get ready.  I'm going to wear my new dress that my adorable husband got for me and my lovely new shawl from... from our Lady and her man." 

Beaming, Marco also rose and readied himself, never quite taking his eyes off his merry wife.  He caught the brief moment when, as she was pulling her dress on, Isolde's hand settled on her bared belly.  She smiled in joyful anticipation.

*~*~*

"Oh now look at them!  They're adorable!" Sibyll whispered as she and Lewellyn sat in the gazebo.  Hands linked, Isolde and Marco were running towards them.

"I have to admit that in my youth spent reading Stoker, Polidori, and Varney the Vampire, I never quite imagined linking the word 'adorable' with vampires but, yes, I agree."  Lewellyn smiled at his wife then moved down the stairs to greet the couple.

"Good morning!  The Crocettis, I presume?"

Marco nodded and shook the man's hand.

"Yes, sir.  I'm Marco and this is Isolde."

"Lewellyn here and that's my lovely bride, Sibyll."

Sibyll giggled and shook the newcomers' hands.

"We're pleased to meet you both.  I trust you had a good first night in Dyeland?"

When Isolde and Marco smiled giddily at each other, no further answer was required.

Lewellyn laughed and waved them into the gazebo.

"We'll take that as a yes.  Now... Joshua asked that we tell you a bit about the portal so..."

After some brief instruction on which symbol represented which location, Lewellyn told Marco to place his key on the one for St. Genesius' blue room.

"After you, ladies," Marco invited.

Once Isolde and Sibyll had disappeared, Marco waved Lewellyn through.  With a grin of amazement, he followed.

"So this is where they do all their shows," Sibyll informed as they moved from the blue room to backstage.  "Mike and I have even been up here a couple times for the Christmas shows."

"Oh, we love Fr. Mike!" Isolde gushed.  "His sermon last week was so good and I've been devouring his writings on his blog.  You must be so proud."

"Incredibly so," Lewellyn averred.  "He's a good boy.  And now through the office and...  Our chariot."

JenniAnn waved from the passenger seat of the Jolly Green.

"Good morning!" she called.  "Come on in!"

The back door slid open to reveal Joshua and Belle.

"Hi!" the little girl called. 

"Hi, sweetheart!" Isolde cheerily replied. 

Joshua stepped out to greet them.

"Good morning, happy Valentine's Day!  Sibyll and Lewellyn, how about I sit in the very back with you?  Isolde and Marco, you can entertain Belle.  Sound good?"

"Very," Lewellyn agreed.

"Definitely."  Isolde again smiled at Belle.

"Pitty, pitty!" she admired once the woman was sitting next to her. 

"Aww, thank you.  You look very pretty, too!"

Belle grinned and gave Isolde a kiss.

Marco whipped out his phone in time to catch the image.

"Very nice," Andrew admired as he twisted around in the front seat.  "Could you send us a copy?"

"I'll do that now.  Thanks for picking us up."

"No problem at all.  We'll meet the McCallums and Nick there.  Arthur, Liam, and Monica will be coming, too," Andrew informed.

"And your parents and John?" Isolde asked, craning her neck to look to Joshua.

"Already there.  John stayed at the rectory last night and Tiva and Rabbi Yakov had Ama and Abi over for breakfast so they're bringing them," Joshua explained as Andrew drove off.

"Do the Rabbi and his wife generally come to Mass?" Isolde inquired with some surprise.

"Not usually.  But today's important to Mike so they'll be there."

In the backseat, Joshua smiled proudly at the priest's parents.  Like the Levines, Sibyll and Lewellyn knew what was going to happen after the Mass.  Fr. Mike, however, did not...

*~*~*

Fr. Mike and the procession of altar servers made their way down the nave and through the narthex, into the sunny day, as the congregation finished off the recessional. 

"'God has watered our barren land and sent His merciful rain,'" they sang.  "'Now the rivers of life run full for anyone to drink.  Glory and praise to our God, who alone gives light to our days.  Many are the blessings He bears to those who trust in His ways!'"

The priest beamed at others around him.

"Wonderful job, everyone.  I'm glad we could do this together today.  Now..."

The boom of a mishandled microphone issued forth from the church.

"Oops."

Fr. Mike squinted as he peered back into the church.  He cocked his head when he saw John standing at the lectern.  The baptist tapped on the microphone.

"There we go...  Fr. Mike, would you please come back inside?"

Confused, the priest realized that no one had moved from the pews.  Instead, they were all looking back at him and smiling.  He turned to his deacon.

"What's going on, Bob?" 

The man shrugged and squeezed the priest's shoulder.

"Just a little something we cooked up with your parents and your friends from Pennsylvania."

Fr. Mike smirked.  When someone had asked Joshua where he was born and he'd answered honestly, his listener had assumed he'd meant he was born in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania.  The rumor lingered on.

"Okay..."

"Fr. Mike...  Do I need to send your parents to drag you back in here?" John teased.

Blushing, Fr. Mike re-entered the church to thunderous applause.  Tears filled his eyes when he saw Joshua waiting at the end of the aisle.  He was beaming at the priest.

"Josh...  What's going on?" Fr. Mike asked as he moved into Joshua's waiting embrace.

"It's ten years ago tomorrow since you were named pastor of St. Mary Magdalene's.  We wanted to celebrate that... and you."

Fr. Mike's face flushed.

"I... I thought maybe you'd take me out for breakfast tomorrow or something but this..."  Fresh tears welled as his gaze traversed his parishioners and the Friends.  Several more had snuck in since Mass had ended, delaying their arrival so as not to arouse his suspicion.

"We'll still do breakfast.  I promise.  But your flock wants to celebrate with their shepherd.  Come on."

Joshua led Fr. Mike to his chair on the altar then moved to join John at the lectern.

"Thank you, everyone, for sticking around to celebrate our beloved Fr. Mike on his 10th anniversary as your pastor here at St. Mary Magdalene's.  I hope you can join us in the fellowship hall for some cake and ice cream and storytelling about Fr. Mike.  But before we head that way, Fr. Mike, we all got you a little something."

Fr. Mike gratefully accepted a handkerchief from John and rubbed at his eyes as his mother and father approached with a small box. 

"Here you go, son."

"We're so proud of you, darling boy."

With shaking hands, Fr. Mike unwrapped the package.  Inside was a series of priestly stoles in each of the liturgical colors.  The stitching was beautiful and the priest immediately knew it was Maryam's handiwork.  But that wasn't the only thing that made them special.  In fine point marker, hundreds of people had signed the stoles.  His parishioners, his friends, his siblings, his parents, Joshua and his family...  Maryam had embroidered over each signature, rendering them permanent.

"They're so beautiful...  I love them!"  Fr. Mike put one on and modeled it, bringing on fresh applause.

"Thank you, thank you, thank you," he gushed.  "You all are the reason I... I do this and to have your names and your love with me like this...  Thank you.  Now, let's go see about that cake and ice cream!"

With more cheers, the sanctuary emptied out and the group resettled in the fellowship hall.  An assortment of people spoke, each sharing stories of how Fr. Mike had changed them for the better and encouraged them in their faith.

The party had been going on for a half hour when one of the narthex doors opened.  A harried looking man stepped inside.  He was nearly weighed down by the bags of groceries he carried.  He set them down at the back of the church and hastily made his way to St. Joseph's altar where he lit a candle.  Kneeling, he wept as he prayed.  He was so nervous that the sound of the door settling made him jump.  He crossed himself then went to pick up his burden but something on the bulletin board in the narthex caught his eye.  It was a bright orange flyer with a butterfly exiting its cocoon on the corner.  Chrysalis Court was the name of the organization touting its ability to help people escape forced labor or sexual slavery.  His hand quaking, the man looked around to reassure himself that no one was in the church.  Satisfied that he was alone, the man ripped off a tab with a phone number.  He shoved it deep into his pocket, picked the groceries back up, and slipped back in amongst the chaos of the sidewalk.

*~*~*

That evening, JenniAnn flitted around Owen's chamber, fussing over him.

Owen laughed and wrestled with her as she tried to take a comb to his hair... again. 

"Enough, mother!" he teased.

"I can't help it that I'm excited!  I'm just so happy for you and Graham!  Out for your first Valentine's date!  Take lots of pictures!"

"Maybe you'd just like to tag along?" Owen suggested in jest.

"Oh, shut up!"

Owen kissed her hair.

"I'm just kidding.  I'm touched that this means so much to you.  So... do you have a hot date with Andrew?"

JenniAnn giggled.

"I do actually...  Literally.  We're going to the hot springs.  He's been so achy doing all that carving and building furniture.  I'm hoping that'll help him."

"I hope so, too.  And it sounds romantic.  Who has Belle duty?"

"Shel and Violeta.  They've got Liam, Aiyla, and Omar, too.  Oh and Jacob, too.  Although he can mind himself.  And Joshua's babysitting Manny and Zany so he'll be around if any craziness ensues.  And Maryam and Yosef, too.  They're watching Ian and Joy for the night."

"That's nice of them.  I'm sure Zeke and Diana and Eric and Neela and Kemara and Sean are grateful.  Are all the couples leaving the CC for the night?"

"Oh no.  Zeke and Diana are enjoying a night at home since it's also their anniversary.  Kemara and Sean, too, but the rest of us will go back after whatever we've got going on.  I don't think Isra and Behnam are leaving at all.  Just kinda holing up in their room.  I mean... the CC was a nice hotel at one point and it really is lovely.  Rather romantic, actually."

"I can't believe how much it's changed since Joshua first brought us there!" Owen exclaimed.  "Although even then Nick, Reuel, and Co. had done an incredible amount of work."

"Yeah...  Okay, final check."

JenniAnn surveyed her friend and gave an approving nod.

"Still need my tie, though," Owen reminded.  "Would you do the honors?"

"Actually... I asked someone else."  JenniAnn smiled and cocked her head to the entry.

Joshua looked on happily as he leaned against the cavern wall.

"I've been taking lessons from your fellow teacher there, Owen," he reported. 

Owen's eyes misted when Joshua took a silk tie from JenniAnn and approached him.

"Thanks, Joshua.  This... it means a lot.  I wouldn't have Graham if... if not for you.  I mean obviously...  You created him.  But you're also why we met and... thanks."

Joshua looped the fabric around Owen's neck and patted his cheek.

"My pleasure.  Now..."  He concentrated as he did up the tie then smiled.  "Perfect!  You look great, Owen."

Muted by the lump in his throat, Owen's only response was to embrace Joshua tightly and consider the beautiful path this man, who he had once feared hated him, had set him on.

*~*~*

Monday, January 11th, 2016

As Owen and Graham sat in a booth at Adrian's following the art show, the painter waited for a response from his guest.  He'd finished telling Graham about Joshua.  He hadn't told him that Joshua was God, of course.  Only that he'd never met a man who seemed more like God.  And that, in the end, it had been impossible to not believe Joshua's insistence that God loved him and wanted him to be happy.

"He sounds remarkable, your Joshua," Graham finally said.  "I wish I had someone like him in my life."

"I'll have to introduce you," Owen eagerly offered.  "Actually... I really wish you could have met him tonight.  I asked him to come but..."  He shrugged.  In truth, Owen was bothered by the fact that Joshua had turned him down and decided to stay at the CC to do some work.

"You're not mad at him about it, are you?" Graham checked.

"Not mad.  Just disappointed, I guess."

"Well, I may not have ever met Joshua but if he's as good and kind and selfless as you say then, to me, it's a no-brainer why he didn't come.  Tell me, how often tonight were you asked about your model?"

Owen chuckled.

"By nearly everyone, actually."

"If he's got even half the charisma that shows up in your paintings of him, Joshua would have been the star of the show, Owen.  Your show.  He wanted it to remain your show."

Owen was speechless.  Of course that was it!  How had this man known Joshua's motives even better than he did?

"Well... now I feel stupid!" Owen confessed.  "And ungrateful."

"I doubt he wants you to feel like that," Graham counseled.

"Yeah, you're right.  But still...  Wow.  Seriously, though, I'd love to introduce you both.  Now, we've spent all evening in the midst of my work.  I'd like to hear more about you.  What do you do for a living?"

"I'm an EMT.  Trying to get myself through medical school."

"That's awesome!" Owen praised.  A thought occurred to him.  He wouldn't have considered bringing it up... not mere hours after meeting Graham... but everything pointed to his being the man who Joshua had foretold.  Surely he could be trusted!

"You look... enigmatic," Graham offered with a smile before taking a bite of his scone.

"Sorry.  It's just... well, there's another reason Joshua isn't here tonight.  See...  JenniAnn told you about how a bunch of us met doing a production of Jesus Christ Superstar, right?  I thought I heard..."

"Yes, she did.  She said you'll be doing it again.  I'll have to come see it!  Shane had mentioned it before, actually."

"Great.  We'd love that.  We all became really close after that.  I mean many of us already were close.  But the group grew.  And we branched out beyond just shows.  We like to volunteer together, do fundraisers.  Things like that.  And now... now we've taken it to the next level.  You know about human trafficking, right?"

Graham grimaced.

"Yes.  I've seen it firsthand more than once.  We'll show up for domestic disputes only to realize much more is going on.  Why?"

Owen lowered his voice.

"Joshua's Dad bought an abandoned hotel.  We're turning it into a shelter for trafficking survivors."

Without thinking, Graham reached across the table and clasped Owen's hand.

"I'd love to be involved!  I could do basic health checks!  Or, anything, really that you'd all think of for me to do.  Shane can vouch for me!  I've known him for years."  The man realized he was touching Owen and blushed before withdrawing his hand.  "Sorry.  It's just that I'm really passionate about this.  I donate to various causes but to actually personally help..."

To show he wasn't upset, Owen placed his own hand over Graham's.

"Let me talk to Joshua.  But I think we can definitely arrange something," he assured.

"Thank you!  That would be great.  So... did you grow up here?" Graham questioned.

That question led to another and then several others, back and forth, until a smirking Adrian had informed them that it was closing time... although they'd be welcome to stay if they promised to start the bread for the next day at 3 AM.  Knowing that would be a bad idea, the two men laughed, settled their bill, and bid Adrian a good night.

"So... I should probably give you my phone number so you can get in touch after you've spoken to Joshua," Graham offered.

"Yeah, definitely!  And I'll give you mine, too."

The two entered each other's numbers into their phones then stood awkwardly.

"I, umm, really enjoyed tonight," Graham shared. 

"Oh, hey, so did I!" Owen replied, his voice at an annoyingly high pitch.  He laughed.  "Sorry...  I've just not done this in a while."

"This?" Graham prompted with interest.

Owen's face colored. 

Graham bowed his head and was silent for a brief moment before he spoke.

"Even if Joshua says no about helping... could I see you again?" he requested.  "I've really enjoyed tonight, Owen."

Owen relaxed and smiled.

"I have, too.  I have plans on Wednesday night but I could do tomorrow or Thursday or..."

"Tomorrow would be good," Graham hurried to accept, wincing when he realized how overly eager he sounded.  "Umm...  I get off at 5:30 so maybe do you want to meet here tomorrow and we can decide then what we feel up to?"

"It's a plan!" Owen cheered.  He squeezed the other man's hand.  "I'm so glad you came to my show and that we did this.  I'll look forward to tomorrow, Graham."

"Same here!"

The two shared an awkward hug then parted, each walking in a different direction and smiling.

*~*~*

Sunday, February 14th, 2016

Owen released Joshua and smiled.

Joshua smiled back and kissed Owen's cheek.

"You've come a long, long way since our visit in the chapel down here and I'm proud of you and proud of Graham, too."

"Thanks."

The two turned to find the EMT standing by JenniAnn who waved before stepping into the passageway so the three could have some privacy.

Graham beamed at both Joshua and Owen as he approached.

"It's hard to believe that it's only been a month.  So much has happened.  Meeting you... dating you..."  He took Owen's hand.  "Discovering who you are..."  Graham's eyes filled as he took Joshua's hand.

Joshua smirked.

"I do wish that had happened a bit differently but... I'm glad it happened."

Graham and Owen both smiled and shook their heads as they remembered. 

*~*~*

Sunday, January 17th, 2016

"Hey!  There's the birthday boy!"

Behnam turned and smiled at Owen as he and Graham stepped into the Chrysalis.

"Happy birthday, Behnam!" Graham greeted.

Behnam hugged both men.

"Thank you.  It is a very special birthday.  The first with my niece, so many friends, Joshua and his family..."

Graham's eyebrow rose.  He wondered why the Friends routinely singled Joshua and his family out like that.  Why weren't they simply counted among "friends"?

"We come bearing a gift."  Owen held a bag out to Behnam.  "You don't have to wait til after dinner.  You can look now."

Behnam peeked beneath the tissue paper and grinned.

"God bless you.  These will be very much enjoyed!"

"I'm glad!" Graham replied.  "I had to laugh when Owen told me we were going to get you dark chocolate covered pomegranate truffles.  That's got to be about the healthiest member of the candy family.  You're lucky to have that as a favorite.  I'm a gummy bear man myself."

Behnam chuckled.

"Isra tells me that I am sometimes too responsible for my own good."

"You are," Owen averred.  "But we love you for it.  Now where..."

A blood curdling scream interrupted them.

"Aiyla!" Behnam shouted, setting off at a run.

"It's fine!"

Joshua's voice.

Despite his assurance, the three men ran to the dining hall.  They found Joshua sitting on the floor, trying to wrap a napkin around his right hand.  Beside him, Aiyla was flapping her arms and crying.

"It's okay, sweetheart.  It's not as bad as it looks.  Oh, Aiyla..."  Joshua used his unbloodied hand to reassuringly pat the girl's back.

"Bad!  Bad!  It's like when you were on the cross!" Aiyla exclaimed.

"Oh, no, honey.  It's really, really not.  It barely hurts." 

Joshua looked up to find Graham gaping at him.

"Hi," he greeted.  "Sorry for the dramatic welcome.  I was trying to fix the loose leg on that table over there and pinched my finger between the slab and the leg and well..."

Graham grabbed the First Aid kit from a cabinet and went into EMT mode while Behnam scooped up his daughter and comforted her.  For his part, Owen bit his lip and wondered if Graham had heard Aiyla's comment.

In no time at all, Graham had Joshua's cut cleaned and butterflied close.  Then came the inevitable question...

"So when were you on a cross exactly?"

Calmed, Aiyla answered before Joshua had time to.

"Long time ago.  He died for our sins, you know."

"I, uh..."  Graham mumbled as Owen patted his shoulder.

Aiyla squirmed out of her daddy's arms and hugged Joshua.

"Can I kiss it and make it better?"

Charmed by the echo of Isra, Joshua nodded and stroked the girl's hair when she kissed his bandaged hand.

"Thank you, Graham and Aiyla.  It's much, much better."  Joshua smiled at Graham.  "I think we need to talk.  Owen, come with us."  He hugged Aiyla.  "We won't be long.  Can you do something for me?" 

Aiyla eagerly nodded.

Joshua whispered to her where he'd hid her daddy's birthday present and asked her to wrap it.  Grinning, she nodded and ran off.

"Well, I will, ah, go check on my wife," Behnam blurted out before jogging after his daughter.

"Graham, I have something I've been wanting to give you," Joshua explained.  "Could you and Owen please join me in my study?"

"Umm.  Sure," Graham replied after an encouraging nod from Owen.

Joshua smiled sympathetically. 

"I promise I'll explain everything.  I think it would be better to do so in private, though.  People come and go through here a lot."

"Sounds like a good plan," Owen agreed. 

The three made their way to Joshua's study with Graham still feeling dazed and slightly unwell.  Why had Aiyla said that?  And why had no one corrected her? 

"Owen, why don't you and Graham take a seat on the couch?" Joshua suggested.  "I'll be right back."

Once Joshua had disappeared into his bedroom, Graham turned to Owen.

"What's going on?" he demanded.  "Why didn't Behnam or you... or even Joshua!... say something to Aiyla?  I realize the man played Jesus but it can't be healthy to let her go around believing he is Jesus!"

"What would you like us to have said?" Owen gently inquired.

"That Joshua only played Jesus and he's no more Jesus than Peter is!"

Owen slowly let out a breath then patted Graham's hand.

"Remember everything I told you at Adrian's?"

Graham nodded.

"And remember how you commented about how in synch everyone here seemed to be when I first brought you around on Wednesday?"

"Yes..."

"That's because we all share something very important.  We know that what Aiyla said is true, Graham.  And so we can't correct her.  Peter plays Jesus.  But Joshua... he played Himself."

Before Graham could reply, Joshua reappeared holding a large, flat, wrapped package.

"I made you something, Graham.  A thank you for agreeing to help us here at the CC."

Joshua set the package down in the man's lap.

"It's okay," Owen urged when Graham hesitated to open it.

Slowly, the man tore away the parchment paper.  His eyes grew wide when he realized what he was holding.  It was a wooden briefcase nearly identical to the one his beloved grandfather had always carried.  Graham could still remember him and his mother sneaking notes into the briefcase before his Grandpa took off for his medical practice every day.  Graham had last seen that briefcase in his grandfather's coffin twenty years before.  Now here it was...  Or one very, very like it, rather.  The only difference was that his own name was engraved into this one.

"But... But I don't understand..."  Graham shook his head.  He'd never mentioned his Grandpa Dave's briefcase to Owen or Shane and there was no one else he could think of who could have relayed his desire for such a briefcase to Joshua. 

"Dave asked me to make it for you," Joshua informed with a teary smile.  "He wanted you to inherit his but your mother was so devastated by the loss of her father that she couldn't bear seeing it."  He set his hand over Graham's which was rested on the briefcase. 

Graham sniffled and looked up at Joshua. 

"She's with your Grandpa, Graham.  With my Father and me," Joshua assured.

Owen wrapped an arm around Graham as he began to sob.

"It... it's Y-you," Graham choked out.

Joshua settled to Graham's other side and embraced him.

"Yes.  I was hoping it wouldn't be long before you came to recognize me.  I guess Aiyla decided to help that along."

Through his tears, Graham chuckled as he remembered the little girl's words.  Then he thought again about his mother.

"Did... did she suffer for long?" he questioned. 

Joshua gulped down the lump in his throat and shook his head.

"She felt the first few blows to her stomach," he informed.  "But then she was kicked in the head and she didn't regain consciousness after that."

Owen gaped at Joshua.

Noticing, Graham clasped one of his hands.

"I... I would have told you eventually.  I just... it usually takes me a while to talk about my family.  My mother, Vera, and I lived with my Grandpa Dave after my parents split up when I was two.  He was good to us and, when he died, something in my mother died, too.  She started dating these men, none of whom treated her right at all.  Eventually, she married one.  The worst of the lot.  My... my first year  of high school, he... he beat her to death.  That's how I ended up living with my dad and his wife."

Owen grimaced.  He had gathered that Graham's remaining family was very homophobic.

"I'm so sorry, Graham," Owen murmured.  "You've survived so much..."

"I'm so proud of you," Joshua told Graham before wrapping an arm around his shoulders.

The enormity of those words hit Graham like a tidal wave, washing away all the hateful words of his father and stepmother.  The Son of God had said he was proud of him as he sat there, holding the hand of a man who he hoped would one day be his boyfriend.

"And I love you, Graham," Joshua continued.  "I'm so glad you could be here with us tonight.  And with Owen.  Now, my Ama has some handkerchiefs for you.  It might be good to go get those then we'd better get washed up for dinner."

Graham could only laugh at the wonder of it all.  To be hanging around so casually with Jesus!  And to see that Jesus had no interest in berating him or Owen!

Owen and Joshua helped Graham to his feet then the three embraced.

It was the happiest moment in Graham's life.

*~*~*

February 14th, 2016

"So what are your plans for tonight?" Joshua asked. 

"Well, since we went to Adrian's on the night we met, we know we want to spend some time there," Owen reported.  "Probably close the place down again."

"And then I think just a walk around town.  Get some fresh air," Graham added.  "You'll call if..."

"I promise," Joshua vowed.  "But I want you two to focus on having a wonderful night together, not what's happening back at the Chrysalis.  Taking a break is good."

"We know," the couple responded in unison, causing Joshua to chuckle.

"All right.  Good.  So I'll see you... soon?"

"I plan to come tomorrow," Graham answered.  "For Owen's art class."

Joshua beamed at the artist.

"I'll be there myself.  But now... I need to report for babysitting duty so I wish you gentlemen a lovely Valentine's evening!" 

Before Joshua left, the three embraced.  When he had stepped into the corridor, Graham let out a sigh and shook his head.

"Sometimes I'm still so in awe...  When does that wear off?"

Owen smiled at his boyfriend.

"I'm not sure.  But I'll be sure to let you know when I get there... but I'm not sure I ever will."

"Probably not," Graham guessed with his own smile.

Holding hands, the two left Owen's chamber and made their way to the world Above, each grateful to Joshua for bringing them together.

*~*~*

In Dyeland, the temperature was unseasonably warm with a soft breeze blowing through trees that were just beginning to bud.  Several stars dotted the sky, rivaled in number by the white daffodils that surrounded Baile's springs.

Andrew, submerged up to his chin, smiled at JenniAnn who was perched on the edge of the hot spring they'd claimed for the evening.  She'd hiked her sundress up to her knees and was soaking her legs.

"You sure you don't want to get in?" the angel of death asked.  "It feels so good on my shoulders and back."

"I'm fine.  You enjoy it!"

"There's plenty of room," Andrew pointed out.

JenniAnn laughed and glowered at him.

"I think you just want to frolic in the hot springs with a fraulein."

Recognizing the paraphrase of something Albert Einstein had once said to him, Andrew burst out laughing.

"And what if I did?" he teased.

"Andrew...  This is all I meant to do.  I didn't bring a swimsuit and if I get in wearing this..."  She held up a bit of skirt fabric.  "Then it'll be all... clingy."

The angel swam over and rested his elbows on her knees. 

"Why didn't you bring a swimsuit?" he queried as she toyed with his hair.

"I just didn't feel like it."

"Ah."

"You say that like you doubt me."

"Well... that's cause I do.  Laja..."

"It just...  looked bad, okay?  I don't know when my stomach got so... big.  You'd think I'd actually delivered Belle," JenniAnn mumbled.

The smile on Andrew's face faltered.

"Laja, your stomach is definitely not big.  Further, I don't think it's even changed in years.  Have you or have you not been wearing the same 4 pairs of jeans since at least ten years ago?"

"Maybe..."

"Besides, I happen to like your stomach.  It's a good place to rest my hand when we're cuddling.  Your hips, too.  So you better not say anything about them.  Them's fightin' words."

JenniAnn couldn't help but laugh.

"And...  Permission to be blunt?" Andrew requested.

"Granted."

"Thank you.  Your spring and summer sleepwear, while exceedingly tasteful, doesn't exactly leave a lot to the imagination silhouette-wise.  And... I like that."

Tears welled in JenniAnn's eyes as Andrew kissed her hands.  When he was done, she gently pushed him back a step and slid into the water.

Andrew moved behind her and wrapped his arms around her chest.

"Now, just relax and float.  I'll keep your head up."

JenniAnn obeyed and let out a sigh.

"What do you think?" Andrew whispered in her ear.

"It's awesome..."

Andrew smiled as he nuzzled her hair.

"I... I want to do this some more in a bit but right now..."  JenniAnn spun around and kissed the angel.

Andrew returned the kiss.

"I love you..." JenniAnn murmured before planting another kiss on his jawline.

"I love you, too," Andrew whispered back before she turned around again and he kept her aloft.

After a few minutes, JenniAnn slipped away and stood. 

"Now your turn."

She moved around the angel and began to knead his back and shoulder muscles.

"Mmm...  That feels great."

"Good.  Now drink."

Andrew accepted the bottle of water she grabbed off the ledge.

"Apparently that's important," she informed.  "Something about toxins getting released or something.  Way romantic."

Andrew nearly spit out the water as he laughed. 

"Well, thank you for thinking of my toxins," he kidded.

"Any time.  So... how goes it among the menfolk at the CC?"

"What do you mean?" Andrew queried.

"I guess I just got to thinking that it's gotta feel a bit weird.  I mean us ladies can pretty much go wherever we please.  You all have to think about it more.  And that's never been true among the Friends.  If someone's husband stays back with someone else's wife or daughter, no one thinks about it.  We trust each other immensely.  I mean, heck, you left me and your daughter alone with some carpenter I'd just met... well, just met face-to-face, anyway."  JenniAnn laughed then let out a dreamy sigh as she remembered the day Joshua Davidson and Jesus Christ had become one in her mind and heart. 

Andrew smiled and reached back to squeeze her hand.

"It is odd.  And frustrating.  But I don't see any way to avoid it.  The sad truth is that the people staying with us were, overwhelmingly, victimized by men."

"Yeah...  But maybe us ladies could do a better job of incorporating you fellows into our classes and downtime and such.  I mean thank God that Logan still did his computer class even though Beth was unavailable.  And, actually, maybe Logan is the key.  I'm sure Zelda's going to want to spend time with him.  Her history with him goes back even further than hers with Salma.  When the other ladies see how much Zelda trusts him, maybe they'll start to think his friends are trustworthy, too.  Although I don't think it's necessarily that they don't think you all are trustworthy.  It's just..."

"It could be a shock to, say, run into us in a dark hallway.  And I think that's reasonable."

"Still...  I think we should do something to integrate you all a bit more.  Especially Joshua.  And Elazer!  I know he'll have to alter his story a bit but how can it be anything but inspiring to the ladies?  He spent Odelya's whole life with her and raised her baby as his own!"

Andrew smiled with pride as he thought of the angel.

"I do know he wants to go the next time they do a rescue and actually..."

JenniAnn ceased rubbing his back.

"Actually?"

Andrew turned around.

"I'd like to go, too."

JenniAnn bowed her head.

"Why?" she quietly asked.

"Because... Laja, I just..."  Andrew took her hands.  "I... I'd like to be there once when the person... they survive.  I'd like to be able to take them to the CC... not Home before their time."

JenniAnn drew in and let out a deep breath then looped her arms around the angel's neck.

"I understand.  I think that's a good idea.  I... I can't imagine what that would be like but I imagine you would be very comforting."

"I hope so."

"I know so."  JenniAnn stood on tip-toe to kiss him then rested her cheek against his chest.

Andrew closed his arms around her then sunk down into the water until it lapped against JenniAnn's shoulders.

"It really does feel good," she admitted.

"Sometimes I'm right about stuff," Andrew responded with a devilish grin.

"You weren't right about Halloween, though," JenniAnn countered.

"True.  But at least I was educable.  Speaking of... it's February.  What have you decided on for Halloween?"

JenniAnn laughed and gently swatted at him.

"I'm not that bad!"

"Oh c'mon, Laja!  You can't tell me you haven't at least started to think about it."

"Well...  Maybe."

"Just maybe?"

"Okay, okay!  It did occur to me that our costumes have overwhelmingly reflected my interests and not so much yours so...  I was thinking maybe a League of Their Own theme.  I could be a Rockford Peach and you could be my coach.  Although you better not make me cry like Tom Hanks did."

With a chuckle, Andrew bent to kiss the woman's forehead.

"I also promise not to drink, smoke, or spend an excessive amount of time relieving myself."

"Very good.  So what do ya think?"

"I like that idea very much.  And what about Belle?"

"Well, I figure she may voice her own opinion on the matter but if not... a Racine Belle would be pretty perfect."

"Very perfect.  I can't wait."

JenniAnn beamed up at Andrew as he brushed some damp hair from her face.  She noticed when he cocked his head and bit his lip.

"What is it?" she pressed.

"Well...  I was just wondering if your costume would be more... movie-like or more like the costumes they sell with the, umm, thigh highs."

JenniAnn giggled.

"Which would you prefer?"

"Oh, whichever one you wanted."

"Good answer.  I was thinking movie version.  Although maybe I'll have both on hand.  Save the thigh highs for after the party.  Ya know, so you can enjoy my silhouette."

Andrew cracked up over JenniAnn's coquettish grin.

"Oh, Laja...  You make me happy."

Touched, JenniAnn stroked his face.

"And you make me happy."

After a sweet kiss, they lay side by side in the shallowest part of the spring and admired the stars, thanking the One who had created them and their beloved.

*~*~*

After Logan had treated his mother and Zelda to a home-cooked dinner, the three moved to Beverly's sitting room.  They settled onto a couch with Beverly between her son and his guest.  Logan blushed as the photo albums came out and his mother began to gush.

"And there he is on his first trip to the zoo.  He was so scared of the gorillas that he screamed whenever we got close to the Gorilla House on return trips!  Lasted for probably five years."

"I'd just like it noted that I'm now over my gorilla phobia," Logan pointed out.

Zelda giggled and patted him on the back.

"That's good because I think they're amazing.  Can't handle snakes, though!"

"Thankfully, this is a snake-free home," Beverly assured.  "I'm afraid of them myself and told the boys that was the one pet I simply couldn't deal with.  They never tested me on that."

Logan's eyes misted over the reference to his brother.

Zelda noticed the change in mood and clasped Beverly's hand.

"Logan told me about his dad and brother.  I'm so sorry for you both.  I can't imagine what that would be like." 

Beverly patted her son's back.

"Thank you, Zelda.  It was very hard but Logan was a godsend.  Still is."  She shifted to cup her son's chin and stroke his hair.

Logan kissed his mother's forehead then drew in a deep breath.

"Zelda, there's something I... I need to tell you about that time.  A-about a decision I made then.  And it also... it has to do with my 'special diet' a-and why I didn't eat dinner."

Zelda swallowed the lump in her throat.  She wondered what it could possibly be.  Logan looked terrified.

With shaking hands, Logan took the photo album from his mother

"Look here."  He flipped forward to a photo of himself, with his parents and brother, in his high school's cap and gown.  It was dated May 19th, 1990.

Confused, Zelda cocked her head. 

Logan proceeded to move forward in the album.  The years advanced but his features remained unchanged save a few tweaks to his hair.

"I... I don't understand."  Zelda looked from Logan to Beverly and back again.  "How old are you?"

"Zelda, I'll be forty four in April."

"That... that's not possible!" she protested.

"It... it is, Zelda," Logan insisted, tears trickling down his cheeks.  "Vampires... they... they're real.  A-and I am one.  I... I had a friend bite me so... so I would never leave my... my mother like... like my dad a-and brother did."

Zelda kept shaking her head.

"I... I don't know why you're teasing me like this b-but it's not... not nice!"

Beverly wrapped her arms around the girl.

"Sweetheart, Logan isn't teasing you.  He's telling you the truth.  But I promise it's not like what you're thinking.  Logan has never hurt anyone."

"No... nope."  Zelda gave another adamant shake of her head.

Knowing there was only one way to convince Zelda, Logan stood and moved a few paces away.  He began to think of her horrid brother and her awful parents and all the men who had hurt and used her.

A growl escaped from his lips.

Fangs protruded.

His eyes turned crystal blue as he stared at Zelda and his mother, still crying.  Then, drawing in a few breaths and thinking of Joshua, Logan returned to normal.

Zelda's protests had ceased.

Keeping some distance, Logan began to speak again.

"I'm not the only one.  Josef, Mick, Isolde, Marco... they're vampires, too.  Mick uses his extra abilities to work as a private investigator.  That's actually how he first met Beth.  She'd been abducted and her mother hired Mick to find her.  And... and Josef... he decided to use his abilities to start Freedom's Sanctuary and he's employed several vamps, like Isolde and Marco, who are committed to using their powers for good.  Bullets can't hurt us so... so there's less risk during a bust of a brothel.  That's why Isolde and Marco stayed behind when they rescued you and Salma.  If... if the trafficker had come back early and found only them, his anger would have done little to them."

"He's telling the truth, Zelda.  All of it's true," Beverly assured.

Zelda looked up from her nails which she'd been picking at.

"But... but blood.  You say you've never hurt anyone but..."

Logan moved a couple steps closer. 

"We have insiders at blood banks."

"But when there are shortages like... like after disasters?"

"Some of our friends also bank blood for us.  Andrew, Adam, Eli, Henry... others, too.  That's all we can have.  Well, and liquor, too, for some strange reason.  I mean... we can eat but it's tasteless for us so... pointless."

Zelda looked at a space just beyond Logan, not meeting his eyes.

"A-and what... what you just did with... with the fangs a-and..."  She shuddered.  "How often does that ha-happen?"

"Not often," Logan assured.  "I actually can't remember the last time.  I have to be really angry or feel really threatened for it to happen."

"So... so why just now?" Zelda pressed.

"So you would know I wasn't teasing you."

"So you were angry at... at me?"

Devastated, Logan hurried forward and knelt in front of Zelda.  She flinched when he reached for her hand so his own dropped to his lap.

"No!  I... I thought of your family a-and the men who... who hurt you.  They make me angry."

Zelda at last met Logan's eyes.  After holding his gaze for a few seconds, she turned to Beverly who patted her cheek.

"I know it's a lot, sweetheart," she consoled.  "But Logan didn't want to... to string you along if..."

"If..." Zelda murmured.  She didn't need Beverly to finish her sentence.

If this is reason for you to cut and run...

Zelda thought of everyone at the Chrysalis.  People she had seen eating and drinking and occasionally mentioning health issues.  So she believed Logan that there were only five vampires among them.  She recalled seeing Belle snuggled on Isolde's lap as Marco beamed at his wife.  Then there'd been Omar shrieking with glee as Mick played helicopter with him.  And then there was Daisy who sometimes clung to Josef as if her life depended on him.  Zelda also remembered how casually and comfortably Ivy and Sy had sat with Logan while she'd read their old archives.  And Joshua...  Joshua who stressed how much he wanted her and the others to feel safe and protected had allowed them into their midst.  He seemed to genuinely love them, too.  They never parted for more than a few minutes without hugs and sometimes kisses.

Zelda's face flushed as she thought of her own daydreams.  Of her Wolverine... man and beast... protecting her.  How could she blame Logan for being so similar to what she'd longed for?  And to think he'd given up so much for his mother...  With a sigh, Zelda reached down for Logan's hand.

"I... I can't pretend this isn't a shock, Logan.  But..."  Zelda sniffled and accepted a tissue from Beverly.  "You still m-mean a-a lot to me a-and I... I don't want to lose you a-again so... so soon af-after we found each other again and..."

Strangled by a sob, Zelda sunk to her knees and melted against Logan who, after some hesitation, wrapped his arms around her. 

Alone on the couch, Beverly softly wept with joy.  She alone, save God, had known the extent of Logan's pain when his "Phoenix" had disappeared.  She could only imagine how much worse it had been for Zelda whose life had grown truly hellish.  Watching over the two, Beverly thanked God for bringing the beginnings of healing to their broken hearts. 

*~*~*

Word Spreads

Monday, February 15th, 2016

"So how did you spend last Valentine's Day?" Graham asked Owen as they made their way to the Central Park Tunnel entrance after Adrian's had closed. 

"Hmm...  Well, we did our usual Valentine's shindig in Dyeland.  Then I think I painted.  And, actually, wow..."

Graham halted after Owen did.

"What?  Is something wrong?" he checked, looping his arm through his boyfriend's.

Owen shook his head, patted Graham's arm, and resumed walking.

"No.  It just occurred to me that, at the party, Andrew confided in me about a nightmare he'd had about Psyche.  It, well, looking back now, it seemed to be about her getting shot.  I'd completely forgotten that was the Valentine's party."

"That's... intense.  And remarkable.  Just goes to show how close they are."  Graham smiled as he thought of the two.  "You know, even if I hadn't found out about Joshua but had learned that Andrew was an angel, I think I would have eventually come to realize that God is okay with us."

"How so?"

"Well, one of the arguments that always comes up against gay marriage is that we can't procreate.  But neither can they.  And clearly God is more than okay with the two of them being together.  And Monica and Arthur."

Owen considered this.

"That's very true, actually.  Huh.  I probably should have made that connection myself."  Owen turned to Graham and smiled.  "I'm glad I have you to clue me in."

"I'm glad I have you, period," Graham replied.

The two moved closer and kissed.  They were about to kiss again when they heard heavy breathing and feet stomping.

"Damn..." Owen muttered, concerned that someone had seen them and weren't pleased.

"Owen..." Graham whispered, pointing ahead of them.  "She's bleeding!"

It took a moment for Owen's fight or flight reflex to calm.  By the time it did, Graham had already reached a man and a woman who had come tearing through the trees.  He'd guided the bleeding woman to a bench.

"Please... help.  Help... please," the man begged. 

Owen whipped off his suit jacket and wrapped it around the woman as Graham popped open his briefcase and began to tend to the gash on her forehead.  She was sobbing so hard that she couldn't speak.

"Sir, what happened?" Owen questioned, suspiciously eying the man.

"Mrs. G was very, very angry.  She said Analyn's soup was too cold.  It was not.  Good soup," he replied.

Owen's take on the situation immediately changed when the man lovingly patted the woman's back.  He could see the anger in his eyes but knew it wasn't meant for her.

"Ma-Marlon..." the woman whimpered.

As best as he could without getting in Graham's way, the man knelt beside her.

Graham caught his boyfriend's eyes and they exchanged a meaningful look. 

"Your name is Marlon?" Owen checked.

"Yes, Marlon Castillo."

"Are you running from Mrs. G, Marlon?" Owen questioned.

Marlon shook his head.

"No.  Mr. G.  I... I hurt Mrs. G.  She began to beat Analyn a-and..."  Marlon reached into his pocket and held out an orange slip of paper.  "Do you have a phone?  Could you call?"

Owen's eyes grew wide as he saw the number.

"You want us to call the Chrysalis Court?" he asked.

Surprised, the man nodded.

"The paper at St. Mary's said they help those forced to work."

"They do...  We do.  Graham and I work there.  My name's Owen."  He reached into his wallet and drew out his business card.  Joshua had insisted they all have them.  Now Owen knew why.

Marlon began to weep as he held the card with the familiar butterfly logo.

Owen stroked the man's back.

"We'll get you there.  I promise," he vowed before looking to Graham.  "Are you almost done there?"

Graham placed a final piece of medical tape and nodded.

"It'll hold for now."  He looked down at his patient.  "How are you feeling?  Are you light-headed?  Dizzy?"

"Dizzy," Analyn echoed. 

Owen and Graham quietly conferred.

"I know both Tyron and Matthew are working tonight.  Let's call them.  With their sirens, they'd reach us before anyone else could," Graham reasoned.

"Good idea.  Meanwhile, let's get them to the drainage tunnel just in case this Mr. G monstrosity is still out there.  We can carry Analyn."

Graham nodded then turned to explain their plan.

"Owen is going to call two police officers we know.  They'll get us to safety."

Marlon jolted and Analyn clung to him.

Graham set a hand on the man's arm. 

"Don't worry.  There's nothing illegal about acting out in self-defense or defense of others.  We need to move now, though, in case Mr. G is still looking for you.  Can you carry Analyn or..."

"I will carry my wife," the man insisted.

"Then let's go."

As the four made their way to the Tunnel entrance, Owen continued to speak to Tyron.

"Yeah.  Probably forty yards away now.  We'll wait inside."  Owen turned to look at the couple.  It appeared that Analyn had passed out.  "We might have to stop by a hospital first," he whispered.  "Okay.  See you soon."

A few times as they ran, they heard shouting but whether it was coming from someone in pursuit of Analyn and Marlon or any number of random people in the Park, no one could say.  Either way, Owen and Graham were relieved when the drainage tunnel came in sight.  They would wait just inside so as not to expose the Tunnel world but, if needed, they could go further in, beyond the locking doors.

Once inside, Owen found a lantern they kept there and turned it on.  For the first time, he and Graham could truly study the couple.  They looked to be in their thirties, possibly younger and aged by their circumstances.  Filipino, perhaps.  Analyn was definitely unconscious and very pale.

Graham grabbed an emergency blanket from one of the first aid kits he'd donated to the Tunnels.  He was glad he'd insisted they keep them at every entrance.

"Let's wrap this around Analyn, okay?"

Marlon nodded.

"Did she lose a lot of blood?" Graham gently questioned.

Marlon tightened his embrace of his wife and nodded.  When he looked up, tears were in his eyes.

"Last week, Mrs. G caught Mr. G kissing Analyn.  She did not want to!  He made her!"

Owen patted the man's shoulder.

"We understand."

"Mrs. G became even meaner.  She made Analyn work harder and harder a-and she hit her.  Many times.  Tonight was the worst.  I.... I tried to help but they threatened to send me back to the Philippines a-and keep Analyn.  They told us..."  Marlon swiped at a tear.  "They told us they'd give us good jobs, help us become U.S. citizens b-but then..."  He shook his head as he brushed hair from his wife's face.

Graham rested a hand on Marlon's arm. 

"You don't have to worry about them ever hurting either of you again.  I do want you to be prepared, though.  I think Analyn is going to need to spend a night in the hospital.  Maybe two.  Then we'll bring you both to the CC... Chrysalis Court."

Marlon nodded.

"But the police...  We... we aren't here legally."

"The police we called are our friends.  They help at the CC, too.  It'll be fine.  I promise.  They will probably want to speak to you more about what happened but it's Mr. and Mrs. G who need to be worried about being arrested.  Not either of you," Owen consoled.

Marlon offered them a weak, weary smile.

A moment later, Owen's phone vibrated and a series of taps sounded.  T-Y-R-O-N tapped out in Tunnel code.  Owen checked his phone and smiled. 

"They're here."  He moved towards the front of the tunnel and greeted the two officers with hugs.  "They're further back with Graham.  Fair warning: they're in the country illegally, Marlon fought back against the trafficker, and he's pretty jumpy about being arrested."

"Got it, thanks," Tyron answered.  He turned to his buddy.  "Matthew, maybe it would be better if you take them to the hospital in your unmarked car.  Owen, I'll take you and Graham."

Welcoming a moment of levity, Owen grinned.

"Cool.  Because it's not a proper date unless it ends in the back of a squad car."

Tyron and Matthew chuckled as they followed him.  All three sobered when they came to Graham, Marlon, and Analyn.  The latter had begun to stir.

"Where.... where are we?"

"With friends," Marlon answered.  "They are taking us to the hospital so they can look at your head, my dear."

"No..." Analyn groaned.

Tyron stepped closer.

"Ma'am, no one is going to hurt you and your husband.  And we're definitely not going to report you to INS.  We just want to get you feeling better and then, if you want, Detective Matthew and I will personally escort you to the Chrysalis Court."

Matthew knelt down beside the couple.

"I've known Officer Tyron for a very, very long time and his word is golden."

Analyn and Marlon still seemed suspicious.

Tyron pulled his wallet from his pocket and held out a photo of his family.

"That's my wife, Roslyn, and our boy, Milo, and our baby girl, Piper.  I know that I would do anything I could to ensure they had a good life and that they were safe.  I don't fault anyone for doing the same for their husband or wife or little ones."

Analyn smiled wanly at the family then looked up to Marlon and nodded.

"We'll go," Marlon translated.

"Great!" Matthew enthused.  "You two will ride with me and Owen and Graham will be right in front of us in Tyron's car.  Okay?"

Marlon nodded as Analyn turned into his chest and closed her eyes again.

"Then we're off," Tyron announced.

Carefully, they helped Marlon navigate outside of the tunnel and settle into Matthew's car.  Owen and Graham climbed into the back seat of Tyron's squad car and, sirens blaring, they set off for the hospital.

*~*~*

Max and Rose were in a dreamy state as they appeared in the gazebo following their date in L.A.  They'd enjoyed a romantic dinner before meeting Logan and Zelda at an arcade.  The latter had peppered them with questions which they'd readily answered, pleased to see that she was so accepting of Logan's condition.  After a couple of hours, Logan had escorted Zelda back to the CC while Max and Rose remained in California for a while longer, enjoying a moonlit stroll on the beach.  They'd spent the time dreaming of their future and the wishful conversation continued during their brief stop in Dyeland.

"Just think...  With the cure coming next year, our kids could grow up together!" Rose enthused.  "I mean not that I think Zelda and Logan will be getting married right away.  I'm not even sure if they're considering each other boyfriend and girlfriend yet."

"I don't think they are," Max replied.  "At least not out loud.  When we went to buy drinks, Logan told me that he wants to take everything very, very slow.  No pressure.  I think Zelda needs that.  And deserves it."

Rose drew closer and nodded.

"It's still so awful to think about what she and the others endured.  That she could trust Logan so quickly is a miracle."

"It is.  Those internet conversations must have been pretty intense."

Rose's face flushed.

"I can remember when that was us.  After you first came.  The epic phone calls and PMs..."

Max stroked her face.

"Those are very special memories for me.  You, Maja, Dad... you made me feel so welcome.  In different ways, of course."

Rose moved in for a lingering kiss then began to giggle.

"Speaking of your Maja and Dad..." 

Max turned around to see where she was pointing. 

Clad in fluffy robes, Andrew and JenniAnn were walking back, hand in hand, from the eastern coast where they'd come ashore after sailing from Baile.  Not seeing Max and Rose, they detoured beneath the willow tree.  The wind carried the sound of their laughter back to the younger couple.

"I'm sure they're totally just pulling weeds under there," Rose teased.

"Definitely," Max agreed with a smirk.

After a few moments, the two reappeared, their arms around each other. 

Unable to resist, Rose shouted.

"Looks like you two had a happy Valentine's evening!"

Their faces flushing, Andrew and JenniAnn looked to each other and then up to their son and soon-to-be daughter-in-law.

"We did.  Very much," Andrew replied with a grin as they ascended the gazebo's steps.  He whispered something to JenniAnn who nodded.  "We went skinny dipping then did some streaking to dry off.  It was a blast!"

Max and Rose gaped and turned several shades of red.

"Re-really?" Max choked out.

JenniAnn burst out laughing.

"No.  But that's what you get for spying on your parents.  How long have you two been here?"

Max rolled his eyes but laughed.

"A few minutes so... fair enough."

"Yep.  And how was your evening?  Did you see Logan and Zelda?" JenniAnn asked with some trepidation.  She knew the arcade plan had been contingent upon Zelda's reaction to Logan's revelation.

The younger couple beamed.

"We did!  Zelda told me it was all a little emotional for a while but they seemed at peace when we saw them," Rose reported.  "Logan was over the moon."

"I'm so thrilled for them both.  When I asked Logan to be my best man, I was worried it might be upsetting.  I'm not worried now!" Max exclaimed.

Andrew clapped him on the back.

"I'm very, very glad for that and for Zelda and Logan.  But now... I better get your Maja back to the CC.  I'm afraid I enticed her, fully clothed, into the hot springs."

"I'm all wrinkly!" JenniAnn shared, holding up her pruny hands.

"You're not the only one," Andrew assured.

"Well, I did say I would still love you when you were wrinkly," JenniAnn reminded before giving the angel a peck on the cheek.

"You did."  Andrew wrapped his arm around her waist and pulled her nearer. 

Touched, Rose enfolded her own arms around Max's middle.

"I think you both look adorable... but a warm bed does sound nice," she admitted.

Andrew fished his portal key out from beneath his wet T-shirt and got them all through.  Since he and JenniAnn were still wet, they settled on kisses on the cheeks when parting from Rose and Max. 

On the way back to their room, Andrew and JenniAnn passed Joshua's suite and realized that the light was on in his study.  Curious, Andrew knocked lightly and after a quiet "Come in," the couple entered.

They found Joshua sitting in a recliner, rocking Manny.  The little boy gave them both a sleepy smile as they entered.

"You two are up late.  Anything wrong?" JenniAnn asked.

Joshua shook his head.

"Nothing wrong.  Little Man couldn't sleep and neither could I so... here we are.  I have news, though.  But perhaps it should wait until you're in dry pajamas?"

Joshua chuckled as the angel and woman blushed and nodded.

"Andrew, you can use my shower.  Speed things up," he offered.

"Thanks.  But I won't wake Zany?"

Joshua smiled towards his bedroom where the boy was tucked into his sleeping bag.

"No.  He sleeps like a rock.  Besides, we exhausted all the kids playing Hide-and-Seek.  Except this one."  Joshua kissed Manny's curls.  "Well, maybe..."  He noticed Manny's eyelids were beginning to droop.

Andrew gently patted the child's head.

"I'll go get my pajamas and then come back.  Then you'll join us, Laja?"

"Definitely," JenniAnn agreed.

"Thank you."  Joshua smiled after them as they left the room.  Manny had turned into his chest and was humming to himself.  Taking the cue, Joshua closed his eyes and began to sing.

"'My soul and my spirit rejoice for now, my own, you are here.  The Mighty One has done great things, best of all brought you near.'"

*~*~*

"'My little one, my precious one, to you these promises I make: I will love you in the daytime, in the nighttime, in the morn as you wake.  As the years go by, as the seasons change, never will my love.  For you, my sweet girl, I will always pray to our God Above.  When the way is hard, when you feel alone and do weep, remember this, oh my child, my love is always yours to keep.'"

Yosef's eyes were filled as he watched his wife sing to the baby girl as she fed her a bottle.  He smiled down at her twin, asleep in his own arms. 

Maryam burped Joy and wiped her mouth then rejoined Yosef and Ian on the bed.  The couple admired each of the babies.

"Imagine if he had been a twin," Yosef mused. 

"There is that belief that Yeshu was a twin.  Thoma's.  Hence his being 'Thomas the Twin.'"

Yosef chuckled.

"With all due respect to Thoma, I am glad we were not responsible for raising him."

Maryam laughed, too.

"People believe so many strange things," Yosef observed.

"Yes.  Like that you were very, very old when Yeshu was born and thus beyond being tempted by my charms," Maryam teased.

Yosef grinned.

"As if it would have mattered.  I am very, very old and still enthralled by you, my love."

Maryam cupped his chin.

"And I by you."

They kissed.

Ian remained oblivious but Joy let out a little coo.

Maryam smiled at the girl and cuddled her closer.

"She reminds me of Yoninah.  Such joy permeates from her.  She is well named.  Yes, you are, sweet Joy."

"This place needs all the joy it can get."

Maryam squeezed Yosef's hands and nodded.

"You are thinking especially of the couple who Graham and Owen found?"

"I am, yes.  That poor man..."  Yosef shook his head.  "To feel powerless to protect your own wife...  He... he lit a candle at my altar.  It was when we were celebrating with Fr. Mike.  The Father told me."

"Yes, He told me, too."  Maryam could tell Yosef's mind had wandered back to Nazareth, to the occasions when the Romans had come tearing through, demanding tax payment.  Yosef had always kept them in the clear but, more than once, there had been the threat that "Caesar," in the person of crude soldier, might demand more.  Maryam had felt leering eyes cast upon her more than once.  Yosef seemed deflated each time.

With a sigh, Maryam closed what little distance remained between the two and rested her head on Yosef's shoulder.

"You will be a good friend to Marlon," she assured.  "And, once here, he will be able to focus entirely on helping Analyn to recover.  It will be very good for them both, yes?"

"Yes," Yosef agreed.

"Analyn will need iron rich food.  Like our own diet was.  Perhaps we could offer Eleora and Cody a night's reprieve tomorrow?  We could prepare fish, hummus, salad.  Granola parfaits with many, many nuts and fruits for dessert?" Maryam suggested.

Yosef smiled over both the tantalizing menu and the opportunity to spend time in the kitchen with his wife.

"I would like that."  He sighed and peered down at the babies.  "I am sorry that you are not yet old enough to enjoy the feast.  Well, at least not directly."

"We will do it again when you are older.  I promise," Maryam vowed.

Yosef laughed when Joy's hand jutted out from beneath her blanket.

"We will shake on it then."

He softly shook the girl's hand then rested his cheek against Maryam's hair before they resumed quietly gazing in awe at two precious examples of their son's creation.

*~*~*

"Owen and Graham have decided to stay at the hospital, in the waiting room, with Marlon.  They think he'll feel more confident that he and Analyn will definitely be coming to the CC that way," Joshua shared.  Manny was now asleep in his arms but Andrew and JenniAnn were wide awake as they sat on the couch across from Joshua.

"And you think they'll come here tomorrow?" Andrew checked.

Joshua nodded.

"Analyn will be doing much better now that they've given her a transfusion.  Keeping her there is only making Marlon nervous which makes her nervous.  I expect them around lunchtime."

"And the people who were keeping them captive?" JenniAnn prodded.

"That's some good news.  On the ride to the hospital, Marlon pointed out to Tyron where they'd run from.  Actually, it was the same building where Catherine's apartment is."

JenniAnn shivered.  It was horrible to think such awfulness had happened so close to a place she knew and loved.

"Not ten minutes later, a Mrs. Garrison, from that same building, shows up in the ER with a broken wrist, claiming she'd fallen out of bed and caught herself.  Tyron and Matthew put two and two together.  They checked with Marlon who said he'd pushed 'Mrs. G' to the ground to get her away from Analyn.  They expect to have a search warrant for the apartment by the morning.  It won't take long for them to find the locked walk-in closet where they kept Marlon and Analyn."  Joshua shook his head and rubbed at his eyes.

Andrew rested his hand over Joshua's.

"So tomorrow morning we should probably shuffle rooms around," the angel of death reasoned.  "We can't put them on the second floor with the ladies because of Marlon but I can't imagine Analyn would feel comfortable with just the guys on floor four.  There's always this floor but then we'll have to watch ourselves and not... reveal anything before its time."

"I think it's time we use the fifth floor," Joshua decided.  "For couples.  We may get more.  I'm sure Eleora and Cody would be willing to move up there.  Kylie and Clay, too, when they stay here.  And Mick and Beth.  Isolde and Marco."

"We could," JenniAnn offered.

"I think it's best that those of you with small children stay down here since the kids sleep in the playroom.  They should be able to get to you if they need to," Joshua countered.  "But thank you.  Ama and Abi could go up there.  I think I'll be fine."  He smiled.

Andrew chuckled.

"I think you will be, too.  That's a good idea.  Just let me know when and where to be to help move things."

"And I'm happy to do whatever's needed, too," JenniAnn added.

Joshua squeezed their hands.

"Thank you both.  Very much.  So since we have a busy day ahead of us..."  Joshua yawned.  "Let's all try to get some sleep."  He rose carefully, trying not to jostle Manny.

Andrew and JenniAnn carefully hugged and kissed him good night.

"See you at breakfast, Joshua.  I love you," JenniAnn murmured.

"I love you, too, Joshua.  I hope you can get some rest," Andrew wished.

"I love you both.  And same to you.  Good night."

"G'night," Andrew and JenniAnn echoed.

Once the door had closed behind them, the angel and woman joined hands.

"I do hope he sleeps," JenniAnn whispered.  "He looks so tired..."

Andrew kissed her forehead.

"He does."  Andrew dragged his hand through his hair.

"What are you thinking?" JenniAnn questioned.

"Just that no matter how many floors we fill here... there will still be so many people in need.  His children.  This... it's just so much bigger than last time.  We aren't going to be able to wrap this assignment up nicely for him like we did last time."

JenniAnn embraced Andrew tightly.

"I know..."

The angel sighed.

"But we'll help him with as many rescues as we can," he averred.

"We will," JenniAnn agreed.

Quietly, they returned to their room, crawled into bed, and prayed to the Father for the Son.

*~*~*

As Joshua predicted, Analyn was released from the hospital late the next morning.  By lunchtime, Graham and Owen were pulling into the parking garage with the Castillos in the backseat of Owen's car.

Upon returning to the CC and hearing of the recent developments, Diana and Zeke had decided to move to the fifth floor since Manny still slept in their room.  Thus, they had been chosen to lead the welcome committee.

"Now, these are our friends and guards," Owen explained with a smile as they walked past a half dozen angels.  "They're here whenever this door opens.  So no one can sneak in and cause harm."

"So pleased to have you both join us," Eli greeted.

"Thank you.  Thank you very much," Marlon replied as Analyn smiled shyly.

"And now... in we go."

Graham held open the door leading into the lobby.

Along with the Wilsons, including Manny who was balanced on his mother's hip, the Castillos first saw Joshua and his parents.

"Welcome, Analyn and Marlon!" 

Zeke's warm, rich voice made the couple smile.

"My name is Zeke Wilson and this is my wife, Diana, and our youngest, Manny."

"Hi!  Welcome to the Chrysalis Court!" Diana shook the newcomers' hands.  "And this here is Joshua Davidson, our host and all around wonderful person and his parents, Maryam and Yosef."

Joshua smiled gently at the two.

"I'm so pleased that you're both here.  Graham and Owen tell me they've really enjoyed getting to know you both."

Analyn and Marlon turned to smile at their rescuers before taking Joshua's hand and shaking it.

"Thank you," Marlon replied.  "We are very grateful to them.  And to you.  I saw your flier on Sunday and hoped..."  His voiced trailed off.  He'd hoped to bring his wife here before she had suffered anymore.

Maryam gently patted the young woman's back.

"Lunch is being served now.  Would you both like to go eat and meet the others or, perhaps, see your room first?"

The couple quietly conferred for a moment before Marlon answered.

"If we could see our room..."

"Sounds great!" Zeke responded.  "Right this way..."

The group made their way to the elevator and were soon on the fifth floor.  Yosef pointed to the first door beyond the vestibule.

"This is Maryam's and my room.  Should you need anything, day or night, please let us know," he urged.

"And we're just right across the hall from them," Zeke explained.  "We're always happy to help, too, although we do both have jobs so aren't always here during the day."

"And this..."  Joshua opened another door.  "Is your room."

Stepping inside, Analyn immediately burst into tears.  It looked like a fancy hotel room.

Marlon clasped his wife's hand then noticed the door.

"A lock," he observed.

Joshua nodded.

"We want everyone here to feel like they have privacy.  Everyone deserves that."

Marlon swallowed the lump in his throat.  Far from being locked in a closet, now he could lock this door behind him and his wife, keeping her safe from everyone else.  Not that he would.  He didn't feel he would have to.  But simply knowing he could took a great weight from his shoulders.

"If you would like, we could bring you some lunch to enjoy in your room?" Maryam offered when she saw Analyn sit down on the bed and begin stroking the chenille duvet.

Sensing that the Castillos worried that this would seem rude, Owen spoke.

"No one would mind.  We've done it for others."

When Analyn softly nodded, Marlon spoke.

"If you would be so kind... we would like that."

"It's no trouble at all," Diana assured.  "I have to get myself back to school, where I work, but, if you're feeling up to it, perhaps I'll see you both at dinner?"

Analyn wiped at her eyes and smiled.

"Yes.  That would be very nice.  Thank you so much for your kindness."

"You're very, very welcome."

"We'll be right back," Graham promised as he left with the others, softly closing the door behind them.

"I would like to get their lunches," Yosef shared.

"I will help," Maryam offered.

"I think I should head Below.  I'd still like to be able to give the kids their art class before coming back here for one.  Do you think it's okay to leave them?" Owen asked Joshua.

The carpenter nodded.

"I do.  Thank you and Graham for all the help you've already given Marlon and Analyn.  It was invaluable.  We'll see you later."

After a round of hugs, Owen left followed by Maryam and Yosef who headed to the kitchen.

"It's my day off so I think I'll just stick around here.  Maybe go hang out in the health office until Owen's back.  Maybe I can help someone there?" Graham offered.

Joshua smiled and patted his back.

"Thank you.  That would be great.  But please grab some lunch first.  I can't imagine hospital vending machine breakfast was very appealing."

Graham laughed.

"No, it wasn't.  I will.  See you all later.  Diana, do you want to walk down with me?"

"Sure!"  Diana kissed Manny's cheek.  "Good bye, Little Man.  I'll be back soon.  Meanwhile... here's Daddy!"

Manny giggled as Diana swung him into Zeke's waiting arms.

Zeke snuggled his son then looked to Joshua.

"What will you be doing for the rest of the afternoon, Lord?"

"I guess I better get some lunch myself and then..."  Joshua sighed.  "I want to put the finishing touches on Bianca's coffin.  Sylvester thinks her body will be released tomorrow."

"Could I keep you company?" Zeke offered.

Joshua squeezed his shoulder.

"I'd like that, thank you, Zeke.  For now, let's just wait here until Ama and Abi get back in case Marlon or Analyn step out with any questions."

"Good idea."

The two men were chatting about Zeke's kids when Maryam and Yosef returned, each with a tray.

Joshua knocked lightly on the Castillos door then frowned when there was no answer.  He tried the handle and, finding it unlocked, opened the door.

Inside, the couple were spooned together on the bed.  Exhausted, they'd fallen asleep while only meaning to rest their eyes.

Tears welled in Joshua's own eyes.  He motioned for his parents to set the trays down on the table then quietly closed the door.

"They might sleep for a while.  It's been months since either of them had a decent sleep," he shared with the others once they were in the hallway.

"Perhaps if you could keep watch just long enough for your Ama and I to get some lunch then we, too, could dine in our room.  Then we will be nearby should they need us," Yosef suggested.

Joshua nodded and hugged his father and mother.

"Thank you.  That's a good idea, Abi."

"We will be back very soon, Yeshu," Maryam promised before kissing his birthmark and leaving with Yosef.

Zeke gently transferred Manny to Joshua.  He watched with tears trickling down his cheeks as his son patted Joshua's watery face and cooed.

"I love you so much, Manny," Joshua gushed as he clung to the boy.  "And your Daddy, too.  And your Mommy.  And Hailey and Kendra and Sy.  And Ivy and..."

Zeke gently stroked Joshua's back as he went through his litany, listing the names of every single person in the CC, including those who he couldn't yet tell to their faces but so clearly longed to.

*~*~*

Later in the day, Zeke joined Vincent Below for their weekly chess match.  Their sessions were usually filled with happy banter and catching up on the goings on with each other's families.  That evening, however, Zeke was morose. 

After playing in silence for several minutes, Vincent spoke.

"Perhaps now would be a good time to discuss what's weighing on you, my friend?"

Zeke pulled himself out of his funk and smiled at Vincent.  This was, after all, the man who had listened to his teenage drama.  He could open up about what weighed on his heart now, concerns far more important than those he'd trumped up as a young man.

"Yes, I think it is," he agreed.  "Sorry for my sour mood.  Those latest arrivals...  Analyn and Marlon, the married couple..."

Vincent nodded.  Owen and JenniAnn kept him abreast of the happenings at the CC as did Joshua who always found at least a few minutes a day to sojourn Below.

"They've gotten to me more than any of the others.  And I don't know why."

"I was myself stricken when Owen told me of them.  I think, perhaps, it's that when we hear of sex trafficking victims, we think 'If she were my daughter then I would track her down and get her away from that and those men would pay.'  And we're comforted by that thought.  We believe we could fix things.  But when we think of a man who was there, who knew his wife was being abused, and yet couldn't save her... it reminds us of how powerless we sometimes are.  Wanting to protect our loved ones isn't always enough to protect them."

Zeke gulped and nodded.

"Yeah.  Yeah, I think that's it."

Vincent didn't think Zeke seemed fully accepting of his explanation.  He carefully weighed his next words over the course of six more moves.  Finally, he spoke.

"There are aspects of history that I have always felt deeply when I taught them to the children.  Then there are some that I feel more deeply now after various life experiences.  When I taught about the Irish Potato Famine for the first time after discovering I was Irish, I wept.  It had become personal."  Vincent took a deep breath then spoke.  "I imagine I would feel for Analyn and Marlon even more deeply if I knew I was descended from slaves."

Zeke looked up from the chess board and met Vincent's sensitive eyes.  With a nod, he reached over and patted the older man's hand.

"I can't help but wonder how many times that played out in my own family.  And then I wonder... what would I have done?  Towed the line out of fear that they'd take Diana, my kids from me?  And they'd have probably done that anyway.  And to think of my wife being treated like someone's property!  That poor woman... that poor man..."

Vincent abandoned his side of the table and moved to pat Zeke's shoulder as he wept.

"And poor Joshua," Zeke lamented.  "Watching him working on that casket...  Imagine that...  Making a casket for your own child."

Vincent bowed his head.

"Oh, Vincent...  Man, I'm so sorry.  Of course you know."  Zeke recalled, too late, Vincent telling him about how he had built a tiny casket for Jamey before he'd been entombed in the catacombs.

Vincent smiled sadly.

"It is tremendously difficult.  However, it was also healing.  I am sure it is for Joshua, too," he comforted.  "He can ensure his daughter is buried with the dignity she deserves.  As for the couple, they're now in the best place they can be to begin to heal.  And maybe this kinship you feel will deepen the compassion you show them, Zeke.  Let it do that instead of just feeding into your anger."

Zeke squeezed Vincent's hand tightly.

"Thank you, Vincent.  So much.  That's exactly what I'm going to let it do.  I just... I haven't felt such anger in a long time but between what they suffered and seeing Joshua suffer and what happened with Ivy and Sy last night..."  Zeke shook his head.  "I guess it was all too much.  You're a good friend, Vincent."

"As are you, Zeke.  I'm so glad you came back into my life.  One of Joshua's many gifts."  Vincent smiled then shook his head.  "I was sorry to hear about Ivy's and Sy's date.  However, I was led to believe Ivy held her own."

Relaxing, Zeke chuckled.

"Oh, that she did.  Sy looked so proud when he was telling his mom and me.  Those two are gonna be a fine couple.  Well, they already are but someday... someday they're gonna shake this whole world up.  I can feel it."

"I'm sure they will," Vincent agreed.  "They both have such poise and passion and..."

He was interrupted by Zeke's cell phone buzzing.

"Sorry about that.  I didn't want to turn it off in case..."  Zeke read the text message from Diana and his eyes grew wide.  "Someone called the hotline.  They said they heard about Salma and Zelda and want to be rescued, too.  Joshua wants to do another mission, same as the last.  There's some worry that it's a trap but... he's determined.  Surely the Father would tell him if it was a trap, don't you think?"

Vincent contemplated this before shrugging.

"I would hope so.  But I'm not sure.  Psyche is no doubt beside herself...  Andrew wanted to go."

Zeke frowned.

"Let me go up there, make sure no one else is on the Friends' floor.  Once it's clear, I'll come back down to get you so you can be with her if you'd like?"

"I would appreciate that.  Thank you, Zeke." 

After sharing a hug, the two men parted so Zeke could check on the situation at the CC.

*~*~*

In the minutes after the call, Joshua had gone to his study to make plans with a small group who would be involved in the rescue mission.

"I'd like to go," Elazer volunteered.  "Maybe I could wait in the van with Joe since Andrew will be going in?  Or perhaps station myself outside?  I could make sure that man doesn't return early."

Joshua nodded and clapped the angel on the back.

"Thank you.  That would be great.  Maybe you could do both.  Keep an eye out and then meet up with Joe.  Also, I think we'd do best to get only one extra room so as not to raise suspicion.  So probably no more than four of us fellows and two of the ladies go in."

"Could I go, Yeshua?" Makena requested.

"I'd like that very much, Makena.  Thank you.  You can pretend to be with Andrew.  With JenniAnn's blessing, of course."

In spite of the nervousness she felt, JenniAnn laughed.  She squeezed Andrew's hand which she was already holding tightly and nodded to Makena.

"He's yours... very temporarily."

Makena grinned.

"I'll get him back to you as soon as possible," she vowed.

"Thank you very much," Andrew replied, hugging both women.

"Yeshu, we could go."

Joshua turned around to discover that his parents had entered his study.  Two others were behind them: Logan and Zelda.

"Joshua, I'd like to help," the vampire expressed.

Joshua tore his gaze away from his parents and looked to Logan.  He smiled when he saw that he and Zelda were holding hands.

"Ama and Abi, I would appreciate that.  Thank you."  Joshua hugged them both then turned to Logan.  "Are you sure?"

Logan nodded.

"The caller mentioned Zelda.  Maybe she knows her.  And if she does... Zelda said I could show her this."  Logan held up his phone which displayed an image of him and Zelda.  They looked as if they were having a blast while playing skee ball at the arcade the previous night.

"So that she'll know I'm happy... and she can be, too," Zelda stressed.

"Plus... it would mean a lot to me.  Like... like I was giving back.  The last mission brought back someone I care a whole lot about."  Logan smiled at Zelda who readily returned it.

Joshua gave a nod as he patted the man's shoulder.

"Then you'll round out our group, Logan.  You'll stay with me.  Ama, Abi, Andrew, and Makena... you'll take the other room."

"Has the reservation been placed?" Andrew checked.

"I booked my room," Joshua replied.  "I thought we'd wait a little while before booking the other but it's been a half hour so if you could, that would be great.  I booked room 331."

"I'm on it.  I'll say I'd like room 333 if it's available.... special significance and all." 

Andrew withdrew his phone, moved to a quiet corner of the room, and called.

Zeke entered the room and approached JenniAnn.  They whispered, snuck a couple glances at Zelda, and then Zeke conferred with Joshua who nodded.

"Zelda, while the rest of us are away, I've requested that a very special friend come to stay here until we're back," Joshua began to explain.

"He's my godfather," JenniAnn added, pride evident in here voice.  "And Catherine's husband, Dr. Jacob's son, little Jacob's father, grandpa to Belle and Omar and Liam and Aiyla, and friend to everyone else."

"Vincent?" Zelda guessed.  "I've heard people talk about him and wondered why he hasn't been around."

"You'll love Vincent," Logan assured.  "Everyone does."

"Cool!  Why hasn't he been around, though?  Was he out of town?"

Joshua shook his head and approached the girl.

"No, he's been very close by.  Vincent was born looking different from most humans.  That frightens some.  But I, for one, think he's a thing of beauty, inside and out."

JenniAnn giggled.  It was something of a brag on Joshua's part.

Zelda returned Joshua's smile.

"Then I'm sure he is.  I'm excited to meet him!"

"I'll go get him unless there's anyone else..."  Zeke looked to the others.

"No, there's not.  Everyone else is either on the main floor or in their own rooms," Joshua explained.

"Isra and Behnam took Salma to see their house.  So she's not here at all," Zelda added.

"Got it.  I'll go get Vincent.  Will you still be here or are you leaving shortly?" Zeke checked with Joshua.

"In about half an hour."

"Then I'll see you before."

After Zeke left, Joshua drew in a deep breath then peered around the room.

"Everyone who is going, let's meet in the lobby at 6:30.  Right now I need to make some final arrangements with Joe so... I'll see you then." 

After a quick exchange of hugs, Joshua withdrew to his bedroom with only his parents accompanying him.  Makena went to change out of the dress she was wearing to something more suitable for running if the need should arise.  Elazer returned to his room to commune with Odelya and put his mind at ease.  Logan and Zelda left to tell Max and Rose what the former was doing.  Once alone, JenniAnn clasped Andrew's hand and led him to their room.  She laid down on their bed then patted his side.

Andrew obeyed and let out a sigh when she nuzzled his chest.

"Are you at all nervous?" JenniAnn asked.

"A little.  You?"

"Yes..."

Andrew ran his fingers through her hair.

"We'll be fine.  Laja, we're a bunch of immortals and a vampire."

"I know...  I guess maybe I'm not so much worried about something happening to you as... as maybe the rescue itself could be sabotaged.  Like... like maybe the trafficker is gonna burst into the room ten minutes in, realize what's going on, and... and... grab her.  Make you turn over your phones or... or something.  Then use those to root us out."

"No more true crime shows for you," Andrew teased.

"Okay, okay.  So it's a little far-fetched but..."

"I know.  Sure, it could happen.  But doubtful.  It's a nice hotel, Laja.  A busy one, too.  Someone would report that and security would come running."

"True...  I guess I'm just concerned for your and Joshua's emotional well-being if it doesn't work out.  Like maybe there's not even a girl.  Maybe they're just gonna start doing this to tie us up so we're not available for legitimate rescues."

"That's possible, too.  But Laja..."  Andrew propped his head up with his hand and peered down at her.  "Here's the sad truth: They don't care.  Not that much."  He gently caressed her face.  "For every girl we save, they nab five more.  The financial hit is minimal.  And that's all they care about.  The only way it's going to come back to bite them is if we can get enough information and quickly to bring down a whole brothel.  That'll hurt.  It's been two days since the brothel was moved.  Maybe this girl can supply that information.  But maybe not.  Still, supposing she is real, and I think she is, then at least she'll be safe and on the road to recovery.  So, please, don't worry about Joshua or me.  I know what I said about not being able to tie this up neatly for Joshua.  But that doesn't mean we shouldn't rejoice in every single person who is released from their bonds."

"Yes...  True."  JenniAnn stretched up to kiss him.  She sighed.  "I'm glad this lady is under the assumption that she's being rescued.  It had to be so awful for Joshua when he first saw Salma and Zelda and could see in their eyes that they assumed he was there to hurt them.  So at least there won't be that... I hope."

"I hope so, too."  Andrew returned her kiss.  "Now... do you want to help me pick out a good undercover outfit?"

Cheered by having a rather frivolous chore, JenniAnn gave an eager nod then went to their closet to begin making selections as Andrew looked on with amusement.

*~*~*

The group of six had only been at the hotel for a few minutes when they had their first breakthrough.  Somehow, Andrew's room had been left devoid of towels.  When he called to report it, a maid was quickly dispatched to stock their bathroom.  She left her key card on the sink and the angel of death was able to grab it, unlock the door adjoining his room with Joshua's, and return it without her noticing.  Now they only had to pray that the trafficker didn't notice that they kept the door slightly ajar.

After twenty minutes had passed, there was a sharp knock on Joshua's door.  He bestowed a quick, hopeful smile on Logan then answered.

"Hello there!  So good to see you!" Damien greeted, waving the woman beside him inside.

Once Joshua closed the door, the man's demeanor changed.

"We require payment up front," he barked.

Joshua pressed some bills into Damien's hand.

"Four hours.  And you'll pay more if you mess up her face."  Damien eyed Logan.  "Either of you."

Joshua nodded.

"Got it."

"Yeah," Logan added, trying to keep a tremor out of his voice.  He could break the man in two but the coldness in his eyes terrified the vampire.

"I'll be back at midnight.  Like a God damn fairy tale," he joked with an ugly snicker.  "Enjoy."

"Will do," Joshua replied.  He closed the door as soon as Damien was in the hallway.  "Viper," he muttered.

"So... is... is this legit or are... are you going to kill me?"

Joshua snapped back around.  With her head now raised, Joshua could see who exactly it was in their midst.

Billie, the girl who had kept watch for her six friends as they escaped.

He set a gentle hand on her arm.

"This is legit.  I promise we won't hurt you," he vowed.  "My name's Joshua and this is my friend, Logan.  He also volunteers at the CC and he's a longtime friend of Zelda.  Logan, if you could..."

The vampire approached, holding out his cell phone.

"We used to chat online, Zelda and me.  I... I was so sad when she disappeared but now..."

Billie ambled to the bed and sat down.  She began to cry as she looked at the photo.

"She looks so happy...  And so good!  Healthier.  Already." 

"There are more photos.  All the girls asked me to take some.  So you'd know."

"Oh...  Who are all these people with Salma?"

Joshua smiled.

"Her family.  That's her brother-in-law, Behnam.  He came with me when we recovered Salma and Zelda.  So she'd know, right away, that she was safe.  That's her sister, Isra, and their little ones: Aiyla and Omar.  They're all at the CC... Chrysalis Court.  And..."

"Tanya!  Carmena!" Billie cried.  She grinned as she moved to the next photo.  "Look at little Xinyi!  I've never seen her smile like that.  Oh... and that cookie Enisa has!"

Joshua chuckled.

"We eat very well at the CC.  In fact, my parents are next door with two more of our helpers.  They have some food, a change of clothes.  If you're interested."

With blurry eyes, Billie nodded.

Logan opened the door and waved Maryam in.  She flew to the girl, her soft gaze meeting Billie's nervous one.

"This is my mother, my Ama, Maryam," Joshua introduced.

"Your eyes..."  Billie looked from Maryam to Joshua.  "When... when I saw his eyes, I... I thought surely no serial killer could have such beautiful eyes."

Joshua gulped.

"I'm sorry but... serial killer?"

Alarmed herself, Maryam set a comforting hand on her son's back.

Billie's face flushed red.

"That's what they told us.  They said that Salma's, Zelda's... all the girls'... bodies had shown up.  They thought it was a serial killer.  Same one as got Bianca.  The other girls are terrified but I..."  Billie shook her head.  "I couldn't believe it.  I was able to snag some newspapers.  I found one article about Bianca but no others.  If a modern day Jack the Ripper was running around, that would be everywhere!  Plus... I just... I didn't feel it in my heart.  I feel so sad when I think about Bianca but when I think about the others... I felt hopeful.  So I told the other girls that I was calling you.  And, if I was right, and if I lived, I'd try to get a sign to them."

Joshua watched with keen interest as Billie reached into her pocket.  She withdrew a folded piece of paper and showed it to them.  He smiled when he saw it was a drawing of a soaring bird.

"That's my symbol," Billie proudly reported.  "I thought maybe you could get it in all the same places you got the fliers.  Then they would know."

Joshua beamed at the girl.

"That's a fantastic idea!  Well done, B...  Beautiful!  It's beautiful.  We'll do that.  Say, could we get your name?  My friend, Andrew, promised to let the others know who it was who called."

"Oh, yeah!  Billie. With an -ie.  Like Billie Holiday."

Andrew poked his head into the room and smiled.

"Great performer.  Do you like her music?"

Billie gave an enthusiastic nod.

"Cool.  Let me send this text and then I have some of her music loaded on here.  You could listen."

"I'd love that.  Thank you."

Makena peeked out from the other room and smiled.

"Would you like some dinner?" she offered.  "Or a shower first?  Change of clothes?"

Billie was so startled by the ability to make her own decisions that it took her a few moments to respond.

"A shower first would be nice.  I'll try to hurry."

"You don't need to hurry," Joshua urged.  "Our get-away van won't be around for another hour.  The district attorney is driving and he has to get away from a meeting first."

"The district attorney..." Billie echoed. 

Maryam held out her hand. 

"Joshua has several people helping.  You are in very good hands.  Come, Makena and I can show you what clothes we brought.  And I would very much like for you to meet my husband, Yosef."

"That would be nice.  Thank you, Maryam."

While the women moved into the other room; Andrew, Joshua, and Logan clustered together.  A short time later, Yosef joined them.

"I didn't see this serial killer angle coming," Joshua admitted.  "Although it makes sense.  What better way to scare them out of calling us?"

Logan waved to the drawing that Billie had left.

"Thankfully, it won't work much longer.  That was a stroke of genius on Billie's part."

Joshua smiled proudly.

"She's always been such a smart girl.  She was the valedictorian in high school."  He sighed as he thought of the dark years that had followed.  A rape while at college.  Not being believed.  Billie drowning her sorrows in drinking.  Reckless behavior.  Then her abduction by Damien. 

Yosef rested an arm around Joshua's shoulders.

"And now she can begin to find her way back, yes?" he reminded.

"Yes.  She can."  Joshua turned to Andrew.  "Any word from Elazer?"

The angel of death nodded.

"Joe texted him to say the meeting is running on schedule so we should be fine.  And Elazer saw Damien leave the hotel.  He went down one of the subway entrances."

"Good.  This time, we'll all leave together," Joshua decided.  "We'll pack one of the elevators so no one else gets in with us.  Then the six of us will clump around Billie so, when we hit the streets, she'll be difficult if not impossible to see.  Just in case Damien returns to the area.  Or one of the others is out there."

Logan's phone chimed.  He smiled as he read the message and held it out for Joshua.

"Zelda via JenniAnn's phone."

A smile stretched across Joshua's face when he saw a large smiley and the words "We're all so happy that Billie's coming home to us!!!!!!!!!"

"Home," Joshua mused.  "I'm glad she feels that way about the CC."

Andrew's phone was the next to go off.

Joshua chuckled when the angel blushed.

"Gonna guess whatever that was came from JenniAnn directly," he surmised.

Yosef chuckled when Andrew tilted the screen so he could see.

"She still calls you her 'studly awesomeness,' I see," he kidded.

"Only sometimes," Andrew clarified.  "It's kind of weird when she gets into bed with those old nickname pajamas."

Joshua burst out laughing. 

"And that's my reaction every single time she does," he revealed.

Logan grinned then let out a contented sigh.

"I'm so excited to see Billie's reunion with everyone.  So how are we going to get Billie's drawing out there?" 

Joshua refolded it and put it in his pocket. 

"We'll ask Joe to disburse them the same as he did with our fliers.  And we'll get them up wherever we personally hung them."

The sound of water rushing started in the other room and Makena and Maryam joined them.

"She's so excited to see the others!" Makena exulted.  "And, of course, relieved that Yeshua isn't umm..."  She hugged Joshua tightly.

Joshua kissed the angel's hair and reached for his mother's hand.

"Thank you both for tending to Billie.  Now... we wait for word from Elazer and Joe."

The others nodded and prayed that they would all make it to the van without issue.

*~*~*

Nearly an hour later, the seven stepped off the elevator and into the hotel's lobby.  With Billie in the center, they made their way to the door.

"Everyone ready?" Joshua checked.

"Ready."

"Yes."

"Let's do this."

With a nod, Joshua stepped out into the night.  They didn't need to go far, only a block ahead.  Not taking his eyes off where the van would be waiting, Joshua resumed walking.

Suddenly, Billie gasped.

"He's there.  Across the street.  Talking to two girls!" she reported in a frenzied whisper.

Joshua frowned when he saw Damien chatting up two girls who he knew to be only seventeen and eighteen.  He also knew they were starved for affection, high, and not very discriminating.  He wanted to go over there and break it up before they agreed to go anywhere with Damien.  If they did, Joshua knew it would be the last independent decision they made for a while.  But Damien might recognize him...

"I'll go."

Joshua glanced over his shoulder at Andrew.  He knew there'd be no talking the angel of death out of it so nodded.

"I could stay with him," Yosef offered.

Andrew shook his head.

"Please go on ahead.  I can handle this.  Let's give Billie as much cover as we can."

"Andrew's right.  Please stay, Abi."

"Then I will."

When Andrew stepped away from the group, Yosef shifted to take his place and the others moved closer around Billie.

"I'll see you soon," Andrew promised as he stepped back under the hotel's awning.

"Thank you," Joshua called as the group continued to move.

The angel of death's gaze shifted back and forth between Damien and his clump of friends.  When he saw the latter pause and begin to load into the van, Andrew started across the street. 

Thankfully, a street vendor was nearby.  As he listened to the conversation, Andrew perused the merchandise.

"So what do you say?  We've got a great DJ.  Good food.  Great booze.  Top of the line stuff," Damien tantalized.

"I don't know...  We have school tomorrow," one of the girls explained.

"Would it be the first time you went to school a little hung over?  I think not.  You look like two girls who know how to party."

Andrew's stomach churned as the girls giggled.  He grabbed two paintings from a rack and turned around to face them.

"Excuse me but I promised my little girl that I'd bring her something back from my trip.  You ladies would probably know better than me: unicorns or butterflies?" he queried.

The teenagers' attention shifted from Damien to Andrew.

"Hmm...  How old is she?" one of them asked.

"Two," a beaming Andrew replied.

"Definitely the unicorn one," the other girl decided. 

Behind them, Damien silently fumed. 

"Then the unicorn one it is.  Thank you!"  Andrew turned to pay the merchant but continued to talk.  "I'm hoping next time I can bring her with me.  Her mom, too.  What's your recommendation for the best places for kids around here?"

"Oh, umm, well... the Bronx Zoo, definitely."

"I used to love the Children's Museum of the Arts."

Andrew grinned.

"Awesome, thanks!"  He took out his cell phone and brought up a photograph of Belle.  "Here she is."

"Aww!"

"She's so cute!"

The girls had both turned to Andrew and were now completely ignoring Damien.

"She's a real character, too.  And so smart!" Andrew boasted.

Tyron, in uniform, strode past them.

Andrew's eyes alighted on him, noticing out of the corner of his eye that Damien was walking away.

"Wow!  An NYPD officer!  Sir, do you think I could get a photograph with you?"

Tyron turned around and flashed a smile.

"Sure!  Perhaps one of these young ladies could snap it?"

"I will," one of the girls volunteered.

Andrew handed over his cell phone then posed, with a cheesy smile, as he stood next to a tough-looking Tyron.

"Thanks again, ladies!"  Andrew smiled at the two as he reclaimed his cell phone. 

"No problem."  The girls smiled back then looked around for Damien who was already a block away.  Seeing no sign of him, they shrugged and continued on in the opposite direction.

Andrew hunched over and let out a deep breath while Tyron patted his back.

"I'm glad I was nearby.  Logan texted to tell me what had happened.  I parked my cruiser up the street.  Do you want to try to catch up to him and follow?" Tyron offered.

The angel nodded and then raced after the officer to his car.

*~*~*

JenniAnn stared up at the ceiling, waiting for her bedroom door to open or for her cell phone to ring.  She prayed Andrew would be home soon and safely.  As she did, she softly stroked Belle's back.  The little girl had gone hysterical when she'd realized Daddy wasn't there to tuck her in.  Her mother had only managed to get her to sleep by taking her to their bedroom and promising that Daddy would be there soon.

Once her prayers were finished, JenniAnn allowed her mind to wander over the past couple of hours.  She smiled as she thought of Zelda's dazed reaction upon meeting Vincent.  Far from fearful, she'd acted as if she was in the presence of one of the X-Men or a peculiar.  Only Aiyla, Omar, and Belle vying for their Appa's attention had begun to dispel the sense of enchantment.  Zelda soon realized that Vincent was a fairly ordinary man and a kind one at that. 

While Vincent kept the children amused, the others had prepared for their latest charge.  Isra and Behnam had returned with Salma so she would be there when Billie arrived.  All the girls who knew Billie had been abuzz and eager to show their friend around their sanctuary.

Then there was Billie's arrival itself.  So many tears and hugs.  JenniAnn had smiled as she'd watched it all... until she'd realized Andrew was missing.

Joshua had told her about the two teenage girls and Damien.  She'd felt some comfort knowing Andrew was with Tyron.  Still...

JenniAnn's heart leaped when the doorknob turned.  A second later, she glimpsed Andrew.

"Love..." she called, relief evident in her voice.

Andrew gave her an exhausted smile.

"My girls..." he greeted.  Approaching, he squeezed JenniAnn's outstretched hand.  "I don't want to get much closer until I shower.  I'm sweaty and... smoggy.  And I slipped on the subway station floor so... germy."

"Oh, my love...  Are you hurt?"

The angel shook his head.

"No.  Disappointed, though.  We lost him.  But, on the plus side, Elazer got a pretty clear photograph of him when he entered the hotel with Billie.  So they'll circulate that.  Still..."  Andrew sighed.  "We'll talk more post-shower."

"Okay."

JenniAnn closed her eyes and listened as the shower ran.  She smiled when it stopped, knowing Andrew would soon be beside her and Belle. 

When he returned, Andrew groaned slightly as he laid down.  It was enough to awaken Belle.

"Daddy..." she murmured.

"My little elf," he echoed. 

Belle slid off her mother's torso and snuggled against her Daddy.

"Nigh, nigh."

JenniAnn smiled as Andrew kissed the girl's curls.

"Night, night, my girl," he responded.

Belle opened her eyes and met JenniAnn's.

"Nigh, nigh."

"G'night, sweetheart. See you in the morning."

JenniAnn planted a kiss on Belle's forehead.

The toddler sighed and drifted back to sleep.

"She was upset when you weren't here earlier and I think the crying tuckered her out," JenniAnn explained after a few silent moments.

"I'm sorry that..."

JenniAnn shook her head.

"What you were doing was very important.  And Belle's fine.  She's just two and, well, that's how two is.  Rather fond of having their own way."

Andrew chuckled.

"True."  He reached for JenniAnn's hand.  "I hope she stays two for a long time."

"Love..."  JenniAnn moved nearer and rested her head on his shoulder.

"It was so disturbing," Andrew admitted.  "Seeing those two girls seemingly so close to going with Damien.  And who knows when he'll try it again?"

"You stopped him this time.  Focus on that, Andrew.  And that's one of the good things about human trafficking getting more attention in the press these days.  You aren't alone.  I think more and more people would be willing to get involved if they saw something like that."

"Yeah.  I think so, too.  Still... a lot of people walked on by.  And he was clearly too old to be hanging out with them."

"But if they didn't hear enough of the conversation to know what he was saying...  Thank God people don't go berserk over older guys simply talking to teenaged girls.  We might have landed ourselves in hot water."

Andrew smiled and playfully nudged JenniAnn.

"You know I can't argue with that."

"I do."  JenniAnn kissed him.  "I just want you to be proud of what you did tonight but not... burdened by it.  You look so worn out, my love.  You need to sleep... and soundly."

"You're right.  And, yeah, I do need to get some sound sleep.  I think it'll be pretty easy with two of my precious girls in my arms."

"Hope so," JenniAnn whispered in his ear.  "I love you."

"Love you, too, my Laja.  Love you, my Belle."

JenniAnn sat up just long enough to flick off the lamp then snuggled back down beside Andrew and Belle.

"Love you, sweet baby," she murmured while brushing a curl away from Belle's left eye.

Soon, the room was quiet with two of its three inhabitants asleep.  Eventually, sleep came for Andrew, too. 

He dreamed of Badriya, dancing and singing in Heaven and telling him that all would be well.

*~*~*

Family

Tuesday, February 16th, 2016


Andrew awoke with a groan that immediately grabbed the attention of Belle and JenniAnn.  Mother and daughter had been quietly reading beside him.

"Daddy!" Belle chirped.

Andrew stifled another groan when she bounded onto his lap.

"Morning, baby girl.  What were you and Mama reading?"

"Una," Belle replied.

Andrew glanced over in time to see JenniAnn close their Kindle on Stellaluna

"G'morning, Laja," he greeted.

She kissed his cheek.

"G'morning.  Still sore, I take it?"

Andrew nodded. 

"Just my legs.  I'm afraid they don't get near as much of a work-out with the carpentry as my arms do so all that running threw them for a loop."

"Maybe I can do something about that later," JenniAnn whispered into his ear.

Andrew smiled and wrapped an arm around her.

A polite knock came from their closed door.

"It's me."

"Osua!"

Belle scurried away from her parents, tumbled off the bed, and opened the door.

Joshua chuckled and picked her up.

"You've got lots of energy this morning, don't ya?"

"Yep!  Osua..."

Joshua returned the little girl's kiss then looked to her parents.  A slight frown formed when he saw the pain on Andrew's face and the concern on JenniAnn's.

"Daddy's maybe not quite so much on the energy front, huh?" he inferred.

"Daddy..." Belle lamented with her bottom lip stuck out.

Andrew laughed.

"Oh, come on, I can't look that bad!"

Belle giggled.

Joshua smiled and shook his head.

"You don't.  But... pained.  Thank you, again, for what you did last night.  I think the least I can do is take this little one to breakfast so you two can do your thing.  I'll be by later with a tray.  Breakfast in bed seems appropriate."

JenniAnn beamed at him.

"Thank you, Joshua."

"Yes... thank you," Andrew echoed.

While balancing Belle on one hip, Joshua approached and hugged them both.

"My pleasure."

"How was the first night for Billie, Analyn, and Marlon?" Andrew asked.

Joshua's smile grew.

"Analyn and Marlon said it was the best sleep they've had in a very, very long time.  Billie, on the other hand, didn't get much sleep.  Makena tells me she and the other girls spent most of the night talking.  I don't expect we'll see much of any of them until later.  Although Salma might rouse earlier to see her sister off."

"That's right!" JenniAnn exclaimed.  "Isra's ultrasound is today!  9:00, I think."

"And I was going to offer to fill-in for Behnam with Stanley," Andrew recalled.

Joshua squeezed his shoulder.

"I'm sure he'd like that.  Maybe JenniAnn could join you," he suggested when he noticed the woman's longing look.  "But the mornings are usually quiet there.  He'll be fine until 10:00 or so.  Take your time.  And now...  our Froot Loops await!" he cheered at Belle who grinned.  "We'll see you later."

"Bye, Mama!  Bye, Daddy!"

"Bye, sweetheart.  Have fun with Joshua."

"We'll see you soon, little elf."

Andrew and JenniAnn smiled after the two as they left.  Belle was whispering something to Joshua that made him laugh.

"It's good to see him so happy," JenniAnn observed.  "I know later will be difficult with Bianca's burial but... for now he's happy."

"He is.  That picture Billie drew could do us a whole lotta good.  Him especially."

"I hope so.  And now... let's see what we can do for you, tough guy," JenniAnn teased as she brought her ointments and oils out from the bathroom.  She pointedly handed Andrew a bottle of water.

Andrew smirked, took a big gulp, and sunk back down into bed, determined to be a good patient.  He let out a sigh as JenniAnn rested his right calf in her lap and began to knead the soreness away.  He closed his eyes and sighed again.

"I feel like I'm being touched by an angel," he mused.  "'When you walk down the road...'"

JenniAnn giggled.

"'Heavy burden, heavy load...'"

"Okay, you are seriously making this weird, ya know?"

Andrew opened his eyes.

"How so?"

"Well...  I don't think that Andrew would go for this."

The angel of death shrugged.

"Probably would have.  Except he was written to please network execs who may have objected."

"True enough.  Thankfully, the only executive type you answer to ships us."

Andrew laughed.

"Actually, it kinda goes beyond shipping given he created both of us and basically manipulated situations, in a nice way, so we'd be together," JenniAnn reasoned.

"Uber-shipping," the angel decided.

"There ya go."

They quieted for a few moments before JenniAnn let out another laugh.

"Generally speaking, I don't think it's considered good form to caress your masseuse's hair," she kidded.

Andrew realized he had, without realizing it, grabbed hold of a lock of her hair and was twirling it between his fingers.

"My apologies."

"And yet you continue."

"Yep."

JenniAnn smiled.

"I won't hold it against you."

"Good... cause I don't think I could stand that.  Not anymore."

JenniAnn looked up and met Andrew's gaze.  She thought about all the times they'd gotten into tiffs and walked away from each other for days, occasionally even weeks at a time.  Now a separation of more than twenty four hours was nearly unbearable. 

"I'll, umm, get back to this in a bit," she promised as she patted his leg.

Andrew let out a contented sigh as JenniAnn laid down beside him and rested her head on his shoulder and her hand over his heart.  He kissed her temple and let her very nearness soothe the aches in his body and soul.

*~*~*

After finishing a preliminary examination, Portia beamed at Isra and Behnam.

"Well, everything looks great so far!  Are you two ready for the big show?"

The couple giddily smiled at each other before turning back to the doctor and nodding.

"Great!  If you could just unbutton your shirt up to your chest..."

Isra fussed with the buttons of her blouse but her fingers were shaking
with anticipation.

"Let me," Behnam offered as she struggled.

Isra smiled.  She wasn't sure if he was being chivalrous or merely anxious.  Regardless, her husband soon had her in proper form.

"Okay, I'm going to spread this jelly over your belly.  It'll help transmit the sound waves which will then make up the images we'll see." 

After doing so, Portia paused and rested a hand on Isra's arm.

"I promise this won't hurt.  Not you and not the baby," she vowed.

Isra blinked back tears and nodded.

"I know but thank you.  I suppose I am only nervous because...  In a way, it's the same nervousness I felt shortly before Aiyla and Omar were born.  What if... if something is wrong with our baby?  Then, we could not know until they were born but this..."  Isra glanced at the screen.  "This could tell us now."

Portia glanced over at Behnam who appeared to share his wife's feelings. 

"Isra, Behnam, that's true... but it can also show us what's right.  And even if we do see something troubling, it wouldn't be hopeless.  There's so much we can do these days," she comforted.  "But let's not think any more about any of that unless we have to, okay?"

"Yes, okay," Isra agreed as Behnam nodded.

Portia noticed how tightly they were holding hands and smiled tenderly.

"Good.  Now let's see what your little one wants to show us today..."

The doctor placed the transducer on Isra's belly and began to move it around.  After a few seconds, she zeroed in on what she was looking for and began to laugh.

"Well...  While I can't say with 100% certainty, I think your baby wants us to know something about them.  You were wanting to know the gender if we could tell, right?" Portia checked.

Isra and Behnam both nodded without taking their eyes from the screen.

"That's some of the best positioning I've ever seen for a gender reveal and... I very much think she's a little girl."

Isra beamed as tears streaked down her face.

"Those are her little legs... and look at those little hands!"  Portia giggled.  "It looks like she's trying to call you.  And listen..."  She tweaked a couple settings.  "That's her heartbeat."

Portia shifted so they could see the baby's face.

"I don't see a single thing to cause me concern," she declared.

It wasn't the first time Behnam and Isra had heard their baby's heartbeat.  However, hearing it as they looked at her was an entirely new experience.

While Isra stared in wonder and continued to softly weep, Behnam was overcome.  He buried his face in his hands and began to sob.

"Oh..."  Portia murmured.

Realizing he was missing precious moments, Behnam raised his head and swiped at tears.

"She... she's perfect," he cooed.

Isra's gaze flitted away from the monitor long enough to smile at her husband and caress his face.  For his part, Behnam raised her hand to his lips.

"So beautiful..." Isra praised.  "That tiny nose...  I love her."

"I... I love her, too.  A-and to have this glimpse of her..."  Behnam drew in a deep breath and shook his head in amazement.

Isra twined her fingers through his.  She understood how, in some ways, this was more important to Behnam than to her.  With their other children, he'd had little sense of them save a few hardy kicks that he could feel when she pressed his hand to her belly.  Meanwhile, she had felt Aiyla and Omar grow and move.  She'd known when they slept and when they were restless... even when they were hungry.  For Behnam, everything came secondhand.  But now he could see with his own eyes and hear with his own ears...

Portia let them enjoy the view and the bonding time for several more minutes.  She was quiet, speaking only when they asked questions.  When they were done, she embraced the couple.

"I'm so thrilled for you both!" she gushed.

Isra kissed her cheek and squeezed her hands.

"Thank you for doing this.  I... we were nervous but this... this was beautiful."

"It was my honor.  Truly!  Now... why don't you two go get some brunch and, by the time you're done, we'll have this burned to DVD so you can take it back to the CC to show Aiyla, Omar, and whomever else you'd like."

"We would absolutely love that," Behnam replied, bestowing his own kiss on the doctor.  "Portia, you are a very good doctor and a very good friend."

Isra nodded enthusiastically as she rubbed her belly.

"Aww, thanks.  You're wonderful friends, too.  I really am so happy for you both!" Portia stressed.

With a final embrace, the couple parted from the doctor.  While Isra used the ladies' room, Behnam sent a text.

All is well.  Our little girl is beautiful.

*~*~*

As Isra and Behnam were meeting their daughter, a solemn ceremony was taking place at the CC.  Bianca's friends along with the Davidsons, John, Logan, Sylvester, Dot, Randall, and Adam had gathered in the courtyard to say good bye.

Since a closed casket was a necessity, Joshua had built a small box into the girl's casket.  Into this each of her friends placed letters or mementos.  When they were finished, Billie led them all in singing "Amazing Grace."  Zelda approached Joshua after the song had concluded.

"You have such a soothing presence, Joshua.  If it's possible... do you think you could say a few words?" she requested with watery eyes.

Even though he was feeling on the verge of tears himself, Joshua nodded and squeezed the girls' hands.  He accepted hugs from his parents and cousin then moved to stand at the head of Bianca's casket.  He placed his hand on the smooth wood for a moment and prayed, asking for strength from his Dad.  When it came, Joshua drew in and let out a deep breath then looked at the cluster of young women.  He smiled tenderly at them.

"I know we're all heartbroken about Bianca's death and her sufferings.  There's nothing I can say, here and now, that can take that pain away.  But I think it's important to remember that it's your pain... our pain.  For Bianca, the pain is past.  Never to be felt again.  This world..."  Joshua swallowed a lump in his throat.  "This world was not, in the end, kind to Bianca.  But the World in which she now lives... it is abundant and never-ending kindness.  It's fields of flowers in colors so vibrant that they make your heart sing... the colors themselves sing.  It's reuniting with beloved grandparents and pets.  It's feeling the love of a Father who will never turn His back.  Feeling His love al-always.  A-and feeling the love of everyone here, simultaneously.  We feel Bianca's loss because she's no longer in this world.  But, to her, we're merely on the other side of a door that could open at any time.  And she can feel your love through that door.  Please know that, please believe that.  And... and please know that those of us here at the CC will do everything we can to ensure this... this doesn't happen again.  And we will do everything we can to help you... in remembrance of her."

Joshua gently patted the casket.

Whatever lingering distrust the women might have felt towards Joshua had evaporated as he spoke.  They each took turns embracing and thanking him. 

After a few quiet moments, Sylvester spoke.

"Whomever would like to can join us on the ride to Albany where Bianca will be buried," he invited.  "However, also know that Dot and Randall have graciously offered to welcome you whenever you would like to visit... if you don't feel up to it today."

"You ladies would always be welcome," Dot averred.

Following murmured thanks and final good byes to Bianca, only Billie and Zelda remained to make the trek to Albany with the others.  The others still felt too anxious to leave the confines of their sanctuary.  Since it was too soon to swing the portals on Billie and the others would grow suspicious if their absence was too brief, the mourners drove.  Sylvester led the caravan with the hearse while Adam took Dot and Randall in his car.  Yosef drove the others in the Jolly Green which Andrew had been quick to volunteer that morning.

The Jolly Green was quiet but Billie and Zelda occasionally piped up with remembrances of their friend. 

"I remember one really, really awful day.  I... I was in the bathroom, supposed to be shaving my legs.  But I... I was holding the razor a-and thinking maybe I'd slit my wrists instead a-and end it all," Billie confessed.  "Then Bianca burst in.  It was like she knew.  She yanked the razor out of my hand and said that... that those... well, she used a word that rhymes with 'other luckers'... they may have stolen some of my past and they might steal more time yet but I could NOT let them steal my future.  And I would be if I did that.  She told me that one day, I would be free.  And happy.  I was so down that I didn't believe her... but I listened.  A-and... she was right."

Maryam gently stroked the girl's back as she softly wept.

While hugging Logan's arm, Zelda nodded.

"I had a moment like that with her, too.  Except... I... I'd started stealing pills from johns when they fell asleep.  And I'd been hoarding them thinking that if I got enough, I... well... I'd use them to end it all.  But Bianca told me the same thing."  Zelda let out a shuddering sigh when Logan kissed her hair.  "Then she watched me flush them all away."

Sitting in the passenger seat, Joshua smiled sadly as he listened.  He stared out the window so neither girl would see his tears, tears that would seem excessive given they didn't know how close to Bianca he truly was. 

Yosef reached across the middle seat and squeezed his son's shoulder.

Three hours later, the vehicles had reached the farm.  On a hillside, Edward, Caleb, and Clay had dug a grave.  They were waiting there with Kylie and Zadie who were using their school lunch break to attend the burial. 

When the group was assembled; Joshua, Yosef, John, and Logan carefully lowered Bianca's casket into the ground. 

Billie and Zelda tossed bouquets that, unbeknownst to the former, Joshua had picked in Dyeland.

As the twins and Clay filled the grave; Maryam and Yosef began to sing kaddish while Joshua quietly translated for Billie and Zelda.  Both girls were soothed by the words and the couple's united voices.

After the grave was filled, Joshua sowed some of Dyeland's wildflower seeds.

With Zelda's face buried in Logan's shoulder and Billie staring up at the sky, neither noticed that Joshua was crying... and that, with each tear that hit the soil, a sprout appeared.

*~*~*

There was a double-feature at the Chrysalis that evening.  As the group enjoyed desserts, those who wanted to were invited to watch Isra's ultrasound video.  Along with most of the Friends, several of the CC's inhabitants were present.  The celebration of new life was a welcome switch from the morning's grief.

While the adults watched in amazement, the children were largely baffled.

"That's for real your baby?" Daisy asked Aiyla.

The proud big sister nodded as she gazed at the golden image of her sister.

"But where is she?" Daisy pressed.

"Mommy's tummy."

"But how did they see through your mommy's tummy?"

Sensing that Aiyla wanted to focus, Josef knelt beside Daisy and tapped her shoulder.

"How about we go talk to your mommy about those questions?" he suggested.

Daisy smiled and hurried over to Amber-Marie who shot Josef a look before she attempted to explain wombs and transducers and sound waves to the five year old.

For his part, Omar watched the video for a few moments then made a beeline to his mother.  His little hand formed a fist and he politely knocked on Isra's belly.

"Hi."

Isra smiled at her son.

Omar knocked again.

"Hi, baby."

Charmed, Behnam ruffled the boy's hair.

Omar's brow furrowed.

"Baby...." he whined.

Alarmed, Isra settled the boy onto her lap.

"Omar, what's wrong?"

"Why my baby not come out?" he questioned.

"Well, sweetheart, it's not time for her to come out.  She's too little.  She needs to grow more in my tummy."

Confused, Omar shook his head and pointed to the screen.

"Baby out!"

Behnam and Isra exchanged looks of befuddlement.

Omar began to cry and slid down to rest his cheek against Isra's belly.

"Out, my baby...  Pease, baby..."

"Oh, Omar..." Isra cooed as she stroked his hair.

Behnam frowned. 

"Maybe he's too little for this?"

Joshua, who had been happily studying the screen, quickly shifted his attention to the unfolding drama.  He made his way to the little boy and his parents.

"Omar, what's wrong?" the carpenter checked as he crouched beside him.

"My baby not come out and see me!" Omar sobbed.

Stifling a chuckle, Joshua gathered the boy into his arms.

"Omar, do you think the baby came outside at the hospital?"

Omar nodded against Joshua's chest.

"Oh, sweet little one..."  Joshua kissed Omar's forehead.  "The baby stayed in your mommy's tummy.  Dr. Portia has a very special camera that let her see inside Mommy's tummy.  The baby stayed there because she needs to be there for right now.  But you'll see her when she's born.  And you know what?  Until then, you can still talk to her.  She'd like hearing from her big brother.  Okay?"

"Okay."

Omar rewarded Joshua with a snuggle then went back to his mother and began to carry on a one-sided conversation with "his baby." 

Both misty eyed, Isra and Behnam smiled at Joshua.

"Thank you," the man whispered.  "We could not figure out why he was so upset!"

Joshua clapped Behnam on the back.

"I was happy to help.  That little girl up there is going to have two wonderful siblings and two amazing parents," he gushed.  "I'm so glad you get to see her."

"It's so extraordinary," Behnam mused.  "The technology but also... everything about this."  He squeezed Joshua's hand then beamed at his wife.

"Thank you," Isra told Joshua with great meaning.

"You're very, very welcome."  Joshua knelt beside Isra.  "I know after this you want to go Below to show Vincent and Catherine their newest grandbaby.  But, after that, could you please speak to Brooklynn?  I can tell she has lots of questions and she'll be having her own ultrasound soon."

"Of course!  Gladly!" Isra promised before glancing over at the young woman who looked pensive as she stroked her own barely protruding stomach.

"Thank you.  Now... I have another favor to go ask."

After patting Omar's hair, Joshua made his way to Mick and Beth.  Since Mick's Christmastime revelation and the discovery that he and Beth were not destined to be childless forever, the couple had thrown themselves into all baby-related activities that involved their friends.  Both were watching the ultrasound video in quiet amazement.  Joshua waited until it was over to speak to the woman.

"Hi Joshua!" Beth greeted once her eyes flitted away from the dim screen and she noticed him.  "How are you doing?  I know this morning must have been so hard."

Joshua nodded as he gratefully accepted her hug.

"It was.  But that helped."  He indicated the screen.  "And being with all of you."

"We were thinking we'd stay here.  At least for a week or two," Mick informed.  "If that's okay.  I stopped taking cases back in L.A.  I'd like to focus on helping here."

Joshua embraced the vampire.

"That's more than okay.  We'd love to have your help.  And, actually, that'll make what I'm about to ask even easier."  Joshua lowered his voice.  "Beth, I think Zelda would love to talk to you.  Now that she knows about Logan, I think it would be good for her to speak with someone in a similar position."

"Of course!" Beth agreed.  "I was even thinking to myself that I should try to talk to her.  I'll do that.  Definitely!"

"Thank you so much.  Now...  I better get up front."

Once the children had been ushered out with promises that Joshua would later be by to read them a bedtime story, John joined his cousin at the front of the room.

"Thank you so much to Isra and Behnam for sharing their ultrasound video with us," Joshua began.  "I know we all can't wait to meet your precious little girl."

Joshua paused for more cheers and congratulations to the happy couple.  When the room again grew quiet, he continued.

"As promised, we have a second video for you to watch.  I'm very happy to report that John and his crew have finished the CC's promotional video and it's set to start airing tomorrow.  So... John."

John beamed as he took over for his cousin.

"I'm very excited to have this project done and ready to go out into the world.  Thank you very much to Reuel, Eleora, Cody, Nick, Freya, Zaila, and Makena for their willingness to appear on the video.  I think what we put together is really special and I hope it leads more folks to the CC.  So here we go..."

After carefully stowing the ultrasound DVD, John replaced it with his own and hit play.

The video began with some staggering statistics.

Worldwide, there are over 20 million victims of trafficking.

Twenty six percent of them are children.

New York has the fifth highest number of sex trafficking cases in the United States.

Zaila's gentle voice spoke as the the visuals shifted from the text to a view of the CC's sunlit courtyard.

"There is hope.  There is a sanctuary."

As Zaila told the audience about the Chrysalis' many offerings, the beauty of the place was rendered in several images of the library, the expansive dining room, and the classrooms.  The angels, Nick, Eleora, and Cody made appearances serving up food, leading classes, or decorating resident rooms.

When the video ended with the emergency number and the logo, Billie burst into applause.  Her bird appeared in a corner of the screen.

Billie was soon joined by the others in the room.  Once their clapping finally ceased, Joshua spoke again.

"Good job to John and his team!  As I said before, it'll air tomorrow.  Once during a morning news program and again during the 6:00 news.  In addition, John is going to be posting it on the CC's Facebook and Twitter pages.  Finally... we have these."  Joshua pulled a folded sheet of stickers from his pocket.  Billie's bird was on each.  "District Attorney Joe has made sure all the beat cops have these.  If they see one of our fliers, they'll stick one on.  We've already sent folks around to the ones that we personally hung.  So how about a round of applause for Billie?"

The young woman blushed and beamed as everyone smiled and clapped for her.

"Thank you, Billie, for your amazing foresight and creativity," Joshua praised.  "Now... I have a bedtime story to go tell but I'll see you all tomorrow at breakfast and, hopefully, by this time tomorrow our number will have grown!"

To the sound of more cheers and after stopping to give out several hugs, Joshua stepped out into the hallway.  He raised his eyes to the ceiling and smiled.  While he still grieved for Bianca, he also felt more optimistic than he had since the assignment had begun.  Since his return from Albany, several of the survivors had sought him out.  Some chatted easily, others only hung around to watch him as he did his carpentry work.  After school, Ruby and Opal had found him doing work in the courtyard and lingered.  Lucia had left Gillie and Wyatt in his care while she had a consultation with Dr. Jacob.  Shockingly, Brooklynn had even asked him to accompany her to her ultrasound appointment.  Their trust in him was definitely growing.

"Thank You, Dad," Joshua whispered before continuing on his way towards the little ones who, like their elders, required their own hugs.

*~*~*

Wednesday, February 17th, 2016

The next morning, after breakfast, Beth invited Zelda to her and Mick's room for tea.  Mick himself was among those waiting on phone calls.  In the hour since the CC's commercial had aired, two groups had been dispatched to pick up people.  They hoped more calls would soon follow.

At first, the two women exchanged casual chit-chat about goings on at the CC and Beth's and Mick's life back in L.A.  Then the conversation took its inevitable turn.

"So, umm, I talked to Beverly quite a lot," Zelda shared.  "But there are just some things..."

Beth smiled.

"Some things that are hard to talk to the guy's mom about?" she guessed.

With a blush, Zelda nodded.

"Well, you can ask me anything."

"Okay...  I mean... it's not that I expect this to happen soon but... well, in movies, vampires seem... uncontrolled while, umm, having sex.  So I wondered..."

Beth reached out and set a hand on the younger woman's arm.

"Zelda, there's a lot in movies that isn't true.  Mick has never once lost control with me.  In fact...  Once, before we were married, I was investigating a case involving a new street drug.  Well...  I ended up drugged myself.  I was extremely vulnerable and extremely out of it!  And I went to Mick's apartment...  Seeing my state, he put me in a cold shower.  Fully clothed, I might add, and then put me to bed.  That was all.  If any vampire ever claims that they raped or assaulted someone because of their condition... they're just a very bad person, not a vampire who lost control."

Zelda let out the breath she was holding.

"Okay, good."

"You don't think Logan will be expecting sex any time soon, do you?  Because I really don't think you need to worry about that," Beth stressed.  "I mentioned to him that I wanted to have this talk with you and he gave me permission to go full disclosure, okay?"

"Okay," Zelda agreed.

"Logan grew up in the church.  Methodist, I think.  But, you know, lots of us grow up Christian without taking all of it really seriously.  I know I didn't wait until I was married.  And neither did Logan.  He was pretty popular in high school and in that first year of college.  The lovable class clown, I think."

Zelda smiled at their characterization.  She could imagine it. 

"Anyway, he had a handful of girlfriends.  Some pretty serious.  Then everything changed.  After he turned, he became very reclusive.  And then we all fell in with Andrew, JenniAnn, and their crowd.  I think Logan viewed Andrew as a sort of stand-in for the older brother he'd lost.  And Andrew, as you might have gathered, is very noble and considerate and gentlemanly.  So Logan wanted to be like him.  And then, a few years later, Joshua showed up.  Have you had much of a chance to talk with Joshua?" Beth checked.

"A little.  He seems wonderful," Zelda complimented.  "I'm so grateful to him!"

Beth squeezed her hand.

"We all are.  Anyway, Logan adores him.  And Joshua is very much about a Christianity rooted in compassion and selfless love.  So Logan takes that very seriously now.  He would never pressure you into anything, Zelda.  I know he wouldn't."

"I don't think he would, either, but with the Christian thing...  So... so he's been with maybe a handful of girls?  I... I've been with... with... I don't even know and..."

Beth wrapped her arms around the girl when she began to cry.

"Oh Zelda, no one is judging you.  Logan least of all.  I know Christians have a bad reputation for making judgments, maybe especially about sexuality, but that's not us.  Not this group.  Besides, it's not as if you chose to have sex with all those people."

"No...  I didn't," Zelda replied. 

"And Logan knows that."

"Yeah...  I... I just wish it could be like... grade school.  Puppy love," Zelda wistfully explained.  "Holding hands and being cutesy and a 'date' meaning doing something with friends or watching movies at his mom's house.  I... I want to be close to Logan.  Sometimes... it's like I need to be.  I feel safest then.  But I don't want to be a tease.  I think it might be a couple years, at least, before I'm ready for... more."

"That's not being a tease.  Why can't it be that?" Beth pressed.  "Zelda, you have every right to tell Logan what you do and don't want and when.  I think, these days, that's more his speed, anyway."

"You think?"

"I really do."  Beth smiled.  "He's so happy to have you back, Zelda."

"I'm so glad to have him back."  Zelda softly sighed.  "I just don't want to do anything to mess it up."

"We all mess up sometimes, Zelda.  I'm sure you will.  And I'm sure Logan will.  But then you'll talk about it and forgive each other and move on.  It'll be okay," Beth assured.

"Yeah...  Thanks.  I... I do have one more question about the vampire thing."

"Shoot."

"Supposing Logan and I do get married...  I noticed that neither you and Mick nor Isolde and Marco have kids so..."

Beth smiled.  There would be time to truly explain about the cure later... once Zelda knew the truth about Joshua.  But, for now, she would have to be vague.

"Vampires can't have children.  However... we have a friend, a friend with an amazing track record of knowing what's to come, who says the cure will be available next year.  And, when it comes, their fertility will be restored."  Beth beamed as she spoke, already planning the nursery she would design for her children.

Zelda smiled, too, and thought of Vincent.  He seemed like the type who could be prophetic.

"That's wonderful," she murmured.

"It is.  Now...  I feel up for a walk around the courtyard.  Would you like to join me?"

"Sure!" Zelda happily agreed.

The two women left the room and made their way outside where they started into the business of becoming good friends.

*~*~*

That afternoon, a crowd gathered in one of the large classrooms.  Emma stood at the head of the class, smiling at her students.

"I'm so pleased that so many of you could come to our first dance class!  I'm going to start us off with a simple waltz so if you could please pair up..." 

Most of the pairs were comprised of two ladies, including Isra and Salma, but some of the Friends had shown up including Andrew and JenniAnn, Kemara and Sean, Mick and Beth, Isolde and Marco, and Clay and Kylie.  Logan, too, was there and had been nabbed as a partner by Zelda.

For her part, Emma had to do without Peter who was meeting with vendors at St. G's.  That did not, however, leave her partnerless.

"Great!" she enthused.  "You're going to want to pick one person to lead.  And since my fiance is unavailable... I asked someone else to fill in."  Emma waved to Joshua who had been rifling through some CDs.

The carpenter popped a CD in, pressed play then smiled and joined Emma.

"I'm looking forward to it."  He peered at the class and smiled.  "Great group."

"It is.  So I'm going to let Joshua lead and you can watch us and, as soon as you're comfortable, you can join in," Emma invited.  She turned towards Joshua, beamed, moved into position, and they began.

"It's just a box step," she explained as they moved.  "Front, side, back.  One, two, three.  And turn...  Front, side, back..."

After a few repetitions, the others started to join in.  Soon the room was filled with giggles and laughter.

Isra and Salma, in particular, were enjoying themselves. 

"I'm sorry Behnam isn't here.  He would be a more graceful partner, I'm sure," Salma ventured after flubbing a few steps.

Isra laughed and shook her head.

"Maybe not with this.  We love dancing... but a simpler dance.  Besides, I'm enjoying this time with you.  I'm so glad you came and that you're having a good time here."

"I am," Salma agreed.  "All the books... and the crafts."  She reached up to touch one of the earrings she'd made in Violeta's and JenniAnn's class.

Isra paused to hug her sister.

"And everything continues to be well with Zelda?"

Salma glanced over at her roommate who was gliding along with Logan. 

"Very good.  She spends more time with Logan now.  But we still read together every night and every morning.  And talk.  She is very happy.  And maybe it has made me... branch out more."

Isra smiled as she thought of Maryam's reports.  When she'd resumed helping with classes Below, Isra had feared that Salma might hide alone in her room.  It turned out that she regularly wandered down to the computer lab to color or to the library or the courtyard. 

With a contented sigh, Isra caressed her sister's hair.

The sisters exchanged smiles and continued to dance.

"Has Omar recovered from last night?" Salma checked.

"Oh, yes.  Poor little fellow!  It didn't even occur to Behnam or me that he might think he would truly get to see the baby.  Catherine wants to buy him a baby doll to practice taking care of until the baby is born."

"A doll for a boy?" Salma asked.

"It is rather common.  And toy cars for girls.  I think Omar will love the doll."

"It's very good that you have so many people caring for you and Behnam and the children."

Isra squeezed her younger sister's shoulder.

"And they care for you, too, Salma.  Very much."

Salma offered a shy smile and resumed focusing on her footwork. 

After the waltz, Emma moved onto the foxtrot and then turned the class over to Kemara and Sean for a little Irish dance instruction.  Joshua finished off the class by organizing three circles to dance the Hora.  The group nearly collapsed with laughter when Andrew, Clay, Logan, and Sean produced a chair and coaxed Joshua into it before raising it off the floor. 

The three circles spun and smiled at their fearless leader as he wobbled on the chair.  When the music stopped, everyone burst into applause and Joshua was allowed back on his feet.

"Well done!" he praised.  "That was a blast!  Thank you, Emma, and to Kemara and Sean, for your instruction and thank you to Andrew, Logan, Clay, and Sean for not dropping me."

Once again, the group applauded.  Not quite ready to let the good feelings go, they formed little clumps all around the room and chatted with each other.

Isra and Salma found themselves at the periphery, trying to decide what group to join.  After a few moments, Isra gripped her sister's hand.

"Perhaps we could steal a few minutes for ourselves while Aiyla and Omar are still at school and Behnam is at work?" she suggested.  "We haven't had much time... just the two of us."

Pleased by the idea, Salma nodded.

On their way out, Isra told Joshua what they were going.  He smiled at the two.

"I think that's a wonderful idea.  Enjoy."  He lowered his voice.  "And something tells me there are some pints of Ben and Jerry's in the freezer if you'd be interested."

Isra laughed.  This particular baby seemed to crave ice cream constantly.

"Thank you for the tip, Joshua.  We will investigate."

"Good.  See you at dinner."

"Yes, at dinner," Isra promised before kissing his cheek.

Salma made a little wave.

"Good bye, Joshua."

"Good bye, Salma."

The sisters made their way to the kitchen where, sure enough, pints of ice cream were stowed in the freezer.  Isra indicated for Salma to make a selection then did so herself.  They settled onto one of the couches positioned against the walls and dug in.

"So delicious...  How have you not gotten fat having so much good food around all the time?" Salma questioned.

Isra laughed.

"I usually show more restraint.  And there was the morning sickness for a while.  And two little ones to chase around the house." 

"A beautiful house," Salma complimented.  "And Catherine's husband... he just lets you stay there?"

"We pay him rent.  But Behnam and I figured out that it was likely only covering the water, heat, and electricity we use.  So, once he got the library job, Behnam insisted on giving Vincent more money.  But Vincent insisted we save it since we might need it with another baby on the way.  Finally, we compromised on an amount."  Isra smiled fondly.  "He and Catherine are very kind."

"It can be difficult to accept such extravagant hospitality."

Isra looked over at Salma who was staring into her ice cream. 

"Yes.  It is.  But we also came to view Vincent and Catherine as family.  So, in a manner, it was no different than when Plaar helped Behnam and me out."

"For you... that makes sense.  But Joshua..."

Isra sat a hand on Salma's arm.

"To Joshua, everyone is family.  Besides, you've been a great help, Salma.  Logan says you are a very quick study with the computer and already helping others.  And helping with tidying up.  And maybe there's more you would like to do going forward but it has only been a little over a week since you came.  You deserve time to focus on yourself, to focus on healing."

"I... I'm not sure I remember who my self is," Salma admitted before beginning to sob.

"Oh, sweet Salma..."  Isra set her ice cream down and took her sister's before cradling her in her arms.  She kissed her hair then resumed speaking.  "I know who you are.  You are my sister.  Behnam's, too.  You are an Auntie.  A wonderful one.  You are strong and brave and kind and... and so loved.  More loved than you know.  And you are smart!  So very smart.  Think of all you have learned even under the worst of circumstances.  To read, to write.  To speak English."

"Zel-zelda taught me to read.  I remembered some from Behnam's lessons b-but she... she helped me."

"And you helped her.  You've been a good friend.  She's told me that so many times already."

Salma managed a smile. 

"She's a good friend, too.  I am happy for her and Logan.  I... I wonder if I'll ever be able to trust anyone like that."

"I think you will in time," Isra consoled.  "She and Logan knew each other before so trust comes easier.  Like how you trusted Behnam and went to him the moment you saw him."

Salma again bowed her head.

"I... I looked so improper."

Isra cradled her face.

"Behnam saw only the girl he loves as his own sister.  You don't need to be embarrassed."

"And Joshua..."

"You don't need to be embarrassed about him, either.  Trust me," Isra urged.  She wanted so badly to tell Salma everything she knew about Joshua.

Salma drew in a deep breath and nodded.

"I do."

"Good."  Isra patted her cheek then handed her back her ice cream. 

"Could you tell me more about how you met Joshua and the others?" Salma requested.

Isra smiled as so many beautiful memories returned to her.

"I would love to," she replied.  "It started with a very normal-seeming trip to a thrift store..."

Salma listened, in thrall, to all her big sister could reveal. 

*~*~*

Thursday, February 18th

The following evening found the Chrysalis with six more guests.  Accommodations were quickly made and, by the evening, the safe house had once again grown calm and orderly.  A cozy night of soups, rolls, cobbler, and movies was determined to be the best way to ease the new arrivals into life at the Chrysalis.  Inside Out had been chosen for the first film so the children could watch before bedtime.

The movie was halfway over when Omar began to squirm. 

Behnam, who had Aiyla on his lap, turned to his son.

"Omar, what's wrong?" he whispered.

"Potty..."

Nearby, Andrew overheard.  Since Belle was sprawled across JenniAnn's and Violeta's laps, he was unencumbered.

"I can take him," he offered. 

Aiyla wordlessly pulled her father's arms more tightly around her. 

"I will."  Isra started to get up but Andrew stilled her.

"Really, it's okay.  You haven't seen this before.  I've seen it too many times to count."  He tilted his head to Shelby for whom it had become a favorite.

Behnam smiled gratefully at Andrew.

"Thank you.  We would appreciate it."

"Thank you, Andrew," Isra echoed.

"No problem.  C'mon, little buddy."

Omar smiled and took his uncle's hand.

"What do you think of the movie?" the angel asked as they stepped into the hall.

"Good movie!"

"I think so, too.  So here we are.  Do you want me to go in with you or are you okay?"

"I okay."

"Okay.  I'll wait right out here."

Omar smiled again then entered the bathroom.

Andrew waited outside, listening for any sign of distress or trouble.  Like many children, Omar was sometimes prone to using far too much toilet paper and wreaking havoc on the pipes.  Thankfully, the angel soon heard the toilet flush easily.  The faucet turned on and, after a few more moments, Omar stepped out.  He was biting his lip in frustration.

"Hep?" he requested.

Andrew looked down to see that a wad of Omar's T-shirt was poking out of the fly of his jeans.

"Ah.  Yeah.  Sometimes that can be tricky.  We'll get you fixed right up.  No problem, bud."

Andrew knelt down to try to unsnag the cloth. 

Suddenly, a shriek erupted from nearby and, the next thing Andrew knew, something had hit him and his head snapped back.

Omar screamed.

After recovering from the shock, Andrew turned to see Salma.  She was raving in Pashto.  He opened his mouth to speak but, before he could, her fist again made contact with his brow.

Omar grew hysterical and launched himself at Andrew.

"No!  My Unca!" he shouted.

"Salma..." Andrew murmured.  "Please settle..."  He winced when she kicked him in the gut.  "Salma...  I was only..."

Salma grabbed Omar's shoulders and tried to pull him away but the little boy clung to Andrew.

"Salma!" Behnam came running into the hallway with JenniAnn and Catherine behind him.  Isra was a few paces further back.  Joshua, who had been furthest away from the door, hurried to steady her.

"Andrew!" JenniAnn cried as Salma landed another punch to his back.

Though not wanting to leave her cousin, Catherine stepped back into the dining hall to assure whomever else had heard that there was no danger to them.

Behnam approached the tangle and looped his arms around Salma's waist.  With one strong tug, he had her away from his son and the angel.

"He... he was touching Omar!" Salma accused.

Andrew rolled onto his back and gasped for breath.  Devastated, Omar climbed onto him and sobbed into his shirt. 

"Unca...." he whimpered.

"Salma, Andrew would never hurt Omar.  I prom..."

"I saw!" Salma seethed, cutting Joshua off.

"Salma, no..."  Isra reached for her sister.

"I saw!  He... he touched him... down there!" 

JenniAnn hurried over to her beloved.  Catherine returned and knelt beside her.

"Omar, sweetie, can you come to Amma?" Catherine shakily requested.

"No..." Omar moaned.

"Sweetie, just for a little bit.  Uncle Andrew needs to sit up."

Andrew patted the boy's back.

"Just for a little bit," he echoed.

Reluctantly, Omar moved into Catherine's arms as JenniAnn fussed over Andrew.

Salma began to struggle with Behnam and, for a moment, broke free.

Omar screamed and again latched onto Andrew.  Thankfully, JenniAnn had him sitting up and the boy wrapped his arms around his neck, leaving the tender spot on his side untouched.

Behnam managed to grab hold of Salma again before she reached Andrew.

Joshua moved to stand between them and Andrew, JenniAnn, Catherine, and Omar.

"Let's all calm down and ask Omar what happened," he urged.  "Omar?"

With his bottom lip shaking, Omar met Joshua's gaze and nodded.

"Stuck."  He indicated his fly with the T-shirt still sticking out.  "Unca hep."  He glared at Salma.  "Mean!"

The effect upon Salma was immediate as she saw the anger and hurt in her nephew's eyes followed by him again embracing his uncle.  She slid from Behnam's grasp and collapsed in a heap on the floor, her body wracking with sobs. 

"Salma..."  Isra knelt beside her sister and set a hand on her back.  Salma shrugged it off.  "Salma, please.  No one is angry at you but..."

"Vincent..." Catherine looked up to find her husband standing in the shadows, no doubt called there by her initial fright which he'd felt through their bond.

"What has happened?" Vincent inquired.  Not seeing Salma on the floor, he stepped forward.  "Andrew!"

He rushed to his godchild and the angel.  He frowned when he saw a welt already forming on the latter's brow.

"What happened?" he repeated.

Omar pointed at Salma.

"She hit Unca!"

Devastated, Salma sat up, wanting to beg forgiveness of her nephew.  Instead, she met Vincent's eyes.  The girl gasped and then crawled as quickly as she could towards Vincent.

"Zmaray..." she murmured before resting her cheek against his chest.

Shocked, Vincent looked up at Joshua who motioned for him to embrace the young woman.  Vincent obliged, softly stroking her hair as he did.

The others looked on in confusion.  Then they thought about Salma's plush lion and her coloring pages. 

Salma suddenly realized that Zmaray did not wear clothes nor have hands.  She drew away from the stranger but remained calm as she studied him.  He reminded her of her Plaar.  Looking at him, she felt calm and protected.  Finding herself exhausted, Salma again rested her head against Vincent's chest.

Catherine released Omar to Isra then sat down beside her husband and Salma.

"Salma, this is my husband, Vincent.  He's Aiyla's and Omar's Appa Vincent."

It occurred to Salma that she'd often heard the two children and their cousins refer to "Appa."  So this was Appa...

"Would you maybe want to come stay at Vincent's and my place tonight?" Catherine offered, thinking a night away might help the girl recover from her embarrassment, heartache, and shock.  "We have plenty of extra bedrooms."

Salma again peeled back from Vincent and studied him.  When he gave her a soft smile, she nodded.

"Yes.  Please."

The others watched in amazement, save Joshua, as Salma clasped Vincent's hand as he helped her to her feet.  As if in a spell, she went with him back into the shadows.

"I'll get in touch later," Catherine whispered to Behnam as she passed him.

"Thank you."

When the three were gone, Joshua spoke.

"Perhaps Omar could go back to watching the movie and we could meet in my study?" he suggested.

"I stay with you?" Omar requested, briefly raising his head from his mother's shoulder.

Joshua smiled.

"You can stay if you'd like."

Omar nodded and laid his head back down.

"Mommy..."

Isra brushed at her tears and kissed the boy's forehead.

"Let's go to Joshua's room."

Behnam wrapped his arm around his wife's waist and escorted her to the elevator.

"I'll go tell Violeta so she doesn't wonder why we're not coming back but first..."  Joshua approached the angel of death with his hand outstretched.

Andrew shook his head.

"I'd rather you save your strength," he protested.  "That couldn't have been easy for you, either."

"No.  But it's going to be very hard on Salma if she sees you with a shiner.  Not to mention Omar and Belle."

Andrew made no further protest.

"Thank you," JenniAnn murmured as Joshua's hand moved from the angel's side to his brow.

"Yes, thank you," Andrew repeated.  He clasped Joshua's hand when he was finished.

"You're very welcome."  Joshua pushed some hair behind Andrew's ear.  "Now, I'll go tell..."

"I will.  You rest.  Please."  JenniAnn kissed Andrew's temple then hurried off to speak to Violeta.

"I... I don't even know what to say," Andrew admitted.

Joshua patted his back and whispered soothingly as the angel began to weep.

*~*~*

Joshua closed his study door and turned to his guests.

Isra and Behnam sat on a love seat, shock still evident on their faces.

JenniAnn, seated next to Andrew on a couch, gently stroked his back.

Omar was perched on his uncle's knee, patting his cheek.  The angel of death smiled at the boy and gave him a bear hug.  Omar beamed at him and then his smile stretched into a yawn.

"Getting sleepy?" Andrew checked.

"Yep.  Night, night."

"Night, night, buddy."

"Good night, sweetheart."

Andrew and JenniAnn both kissed the boy's forehead then he toddled over to Joshua.

Joshua swooped the boy up and gave him a massive hug.

"You were very brave earlier, do you know that?"

"Yep."

Joshua chuckled and kissed his hair then sat him in Isra's waiting arms.

Omar beckoned for his father to lean in and, when he did, the boy kissed Behnam's cheek.

"Night, Daddy."

"Good night, my boy."

"Night, Mommy."

"Good night, sweet Omar.  I love you."

"Ove you."

Omar screwed his eyes shut and rested his head on his mother's breast.  In no time at all, he was quietly snoring.

"Always such a good little sleeper," Isra cooed.  "A good boy..."

Joshua settled into a chair and surveyed the others' faces.

Behnam cleared his throat.

"Andrew, I hope you know that you have no reason to feel bad about what happened."

The angel of death looked up and gave a wan smile.

"Thank you."

"I am so sorry that Salma reacted as she did," Isra apologized.  "I should have followed her out but..."

"Isra, you couldn't have known," Andrew stressed.

"I feel so bad for her," JenniAnn lamented.  "For her mind to go there... but it's not surprising it did given all... all Salma has suffered."

"I... I hope Omar doesn't remain angry at her.  She was terribly misguided but she was only trying to protect him."  Isra kissed her sleeping son's hair. 

"We'll talk to him more about it tomorrow," Joshua counseled. 

Andrew cast a gentle smile on his nephew.

"And he was trying to protect me..."

Behnam softly patted his son's back.

"As horrid as it was... I was struck by that.  I despised my own uncle.  To know my children have an uncle whom they love and trust so dearly... that is a gift."

"I just...  I hope it doesn't make Omar reluctant to come to me for help," Andrew confessed, his eyes watering.

"Oh love..."  JenniAnn tightly embraced him.

"We'll talk about that with him, too, Andrew," Joshua promised.  "For now, I want to tell you about why Salma was so drawn to Vincent.  I think... I hope... that it will give you comfort."

Isra met Joshua's gaze, her eyes alight with interest.

"I thought maybe it was his eyes.  Our Plaar's eyes were blue.  I... I thought of them when I first saw Vincent.  But I feel like it must be more than that.  I'm not even sure that Salma was close enough to see Vincent's eyes when she went to him."

"I'm sure that, once she got closer, Vincent's eyes helped," Joshua agreed.  "But there's more to it.  You've noticed her fascination with lions?"

The others all nodded.

"Zmaray...  I heard her say that," Isra recalled.  "Lion in Pashto."

"Poor Vincent got so used to people being afraid of his looks," JenniAnn lamented.  "But there's always been a smaller subset.  People who seemed instantly calmed by those same looks."

"And you were among them," Joshua remembered with a gentle smile.  "And now Salma.  For her, Zmaray isn't simply the word 'lion.'  Zmaray is a particular lion... a friend and comforter who has visited her in her dreams ever since Behnam first read The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe."

The man tore his gaze away from his wife and sleeping son.  He looked to Joshua.

"You...  You're Zmaray.  Like Emma...  Emma told me of her dreams of you before..."  Behnam's voice drifted off.

Joshua nodded.

"I visited Emma in her dreams, too."

"Oh, Joshua..."  Isra's eyes filled again.  She gently transferred Omar to his father then crossed over to Joshua and knelt beside him.  "Thank you," she murmured before kissing his hand.  "I am so glad to know that Salma has you in her life in such a way."

Joshua slipped from his chair and sat beside the woman, enfolding her in his arms and planting a kiss on her hair.

"You're welcome.  I've enjoyed the dreams so much.  When... when things got very bad, Salma would flee from Zmaray... me... in her dreams.  So I stopped.  But since coming here, she's allowed me back.  So when she saw Vincent, she projected that sense of comfort and peace and belonging onto him.  And I'm grateful for that because I know he'll give her all those things until... til she'll accept them from me in waking life."

Isra sighed.  As much as she loved and adored Vincent, she wished it could be Joshua caring for her sister.  They both needed that.

"I'm sure Vincent will talk you up as much as he can, Joshua.  After all... he's our St. Andrew... the first-called," JenniAnn related.

Joshua smiled and nodded.

"So he is.  And I'm sure he will, too, and I appreciate it very much."

Joshua shifted his gaze to Andrew who looked very tired and wan.

"Andrew, JenniAnn, perhaps you should make an early night of it," he suggested.  "I'll get Belle settled into bed.  If she fusses, she can stay with me."

The angel of death responded with a trembling smile and a nod.

"Thanks, Joshua.  I wouldn't mind an early night."

"Me neither," JenniAnn echoed.  "Thank you very much, Joshua."

Isra and Joshua both rose and bestowed hugs and kisses on the two.  With Omar still in his arms, Behnam could only squeeze their hands.  When he took Andrew's, his grip was especially strong.

"Thank you... my brother and my friend."

Andrew heaved a sigh and nodded, keeping hold of Behnam's hand for a long moment before departing with JenniAnn.

When they left, Behnam looked to Joshua.

"What can we do for him?" he asked.

Joshua heaved a sigh and dragged a hand through his hair before taking Isra's hand.

"Maybe you should take Omar to the library with you.  Salma will likely remain close to Vincent, attending classes with him.  We should allow Omar a little more time before he sees her again.  Isra, you and JenniAnn can assure her that all's forgiven.  Behnam, you can invite Andrew along to the library.  Let him spend time with Omar so he knows nothing has changed with his little buddy."  Joshua smiled tenderly at the sleeping child.  "Sound good?"

"Very good," Behnam agreed.

"Yes.  Definitely," Isra averred.

"All right then.  I think it wouldn't be a bad idea for you two to get some extra rest, either.  I can bring Aiyla by to say good night after the movie if you'd like," Joshua offered.

"We would."  Behnam patted him on the back.  "Thank you."

Isra kissed the carpenter's cheek.

"Thank you.  And... and for Salma's dreams, too."

"You're very welcome.  They've meant a lot to me."  Joshua hugged both parents then softly kissed Omar's forehead.

The Al-Mitras quietly left the room, Isra's head resting on her husband's shoulder and her arm around his waist.

Joshua sighed and looked heavenward.

"Please, give them all peace tonight, Dad.  They need it," he prayed.  Then Joshua drew in a calming breath and returned to the others who were still watching the movie. 

Seeing the children's faces alight with glee as the colorful movie continued, Joshua began to cheer up.  His thoughts, however, were still with his Andrew who he knew had a fitful night ahead of him.

*~*~*

JenniAnn frowned as she peered at the closed bathroom door while brushing out her hair. 

Even though she and Andrew had been sharing a room for over a year, they'd maintained separate bathrooms.  Therefore, she wasn't entirely familiar with Andrew's grooming routine.  However, it seemed to her that he'd been in the bathroom for an unusually long time.  She knew he usually shaved in the morning so she doubted that was the hold up.  Maybe he was feeling unwell.  Concerned, she set down her hairbrush and knocked at the door.

"Andrew love, are you okay?"

No answer.

Beginning to feel anxious, JenniAnn's hand went to the doorknob.  It wasn't locked. 

"Okay, I'm coming in."

JenniAnn twisted the handle and stepped inside.  She found the angel standing in front of the mirror and staring at his own reflection.  Upon seeing her, he turned.

"Laja."

JenniAnn set a hand on his back.

"Didn't you hear me calling for you?"

Andrew cocked his eye brow.

"No.  You called for me?"

JenniAnn bit her lip and nodded.

The angel of death sighed and pulled her to him.

"I'm sorry, Laja."  He kissed her hair.  "I guess I was in a daze.  C'mon, let's go lay down."

"Okay."

JenniAnn turned off the overhead light once Andrew had switched on the bedside lamp.  When he was settled, she stretched out beside him and peered into his eyes.

"Do you want to talk about what happened?"

"I... I don't know."

"Oh love..."

Andrew abruptly shifted so that his left ear was resting on her chest. 

JenniAnn stroked his hair and remained quiet. 

Finally, Andrew spoke.

"I... I've just never had someone look at me with... with such hatred.  I mean... not a good person.  Not someone I care about.  Well... once.  Eben.  Right before..."

The angel of death let out a long sigh.

"A-and seeing how terrified little Omar was b-but..."

"He loves you so much.  His Unca," JenniAnn cooed.

"Do... do you think one day he'll realize what it was Salma thought I was doing?"

"No, my love, I don't.  Omar's only three.  He may not even remember this at all by the time he's old enough to know."

"I hope he doesn't."

"Me too."

"Do you think anyone heard?  From the common room, I mean?" Andrew queried.

"We heard Salma scream.  But, no, I don't think anyone heard anything that was said.  And I'm sure Joshua will smooth things over, assure everyone that no one was hurt.  I mean not... not physically... at least not after Joshua..."  JenniAnn's voice drifted off as she rubbed Andrew's temple.

The angel moved back to his pillow and met the woman's eyes.  He buried his hand in her hair and gently caressed her cheek.

"I... I just can't stop myself from thinking that if... if I wasn't an angel... if Joshua wasn't there... would any one have believed that I... I could hurt a child?"

"Oh... sweet Andrew."  JenniAnn cuddled closer so they were nearly nose to nose.  "We all know and love you.  Even if Joshua hadn't been there... even if you were a man but had the same soul... I really don't think anyone would have thought Salma was right.  We trust you.  I trust you."

Andrew smiled softly as JenniAnn kissed his brow, his temples, and his lips.

"Thank you," he whispered into her ear before returning her kisses.  "Laja... my Laja, I love you." 

"I love you, too, Andrew," JenniAnn echoed.  She could still see the pain in his eyes.

"It... it wouldn't have happened if... if Salma hadn't been so hurt... hadn't seen other children hurt.  Laja..."  Andrew was choked by a sob.  "So... so many."

With that, JenniAnn knew they had reached the heart of Andrew's grief.  She, too, began to sob.

Andrew pulled her nearer, closing the remaining distance between them.

JenniAnn rested her forehead against his, praying she could unlock his mind and share the devastation with him... so he wouldn't be alone with it.

As if reading her mind, Andrew shook his head and groaned.

"No, Laja.  Just... be with me."

JenniAnn let out a ragged breath and slid down so her head rested beneath her beloved's chin.

Gradually, they both began to calm and, nearly at once, fell asleep.

*~*~*

With the baby wide awake inside her, Isra struggled to sleep.  Thankfully, for the moment at least, Behnam was not similarly impacted.  In the dim light, Isra studied her husband as he slept.  Her mind turned to that first night with him at her side.  At some point, Isra had awoken.  Then as now, she'd let her gaze linger on her slumbering husband.  Isra could still feel the swell of pride she'd felt that night.  She had earned Behnam's love and he had, in turn, earned hers.  She knew now that it shouldn't have been a surprise to her.  So many times she'd caught Behnam watching her as she cooked, brushed her hair, mended clothes.  Isra stifled a giggle as she thought of him asking her to teach him to sew.  She should have known it was only an excuse to be near her, to have her hands touch his.  They'd made a heaven of hell in their little home.

As her right hand drifted to her belly, Isra thought of other nights before that fateful one.  Nights she had felt feverish and frustrated.  Nights she had woken up, her face flushed, after dreams of Behnam who seemed so far away on his cot.  From the moment of that first flickering of love and desire to their marriage bed... the sensations of flesh touching flesh, soul touching soul... and beyond, sex and romantic love and Behnam had always been exclusively linked for Isra.  Tears filled her eyes when Isra thought of how different it was for her sister.  While Isra trusted in Joshua and in Vincent, her hope for Salma's welfare had taken a hard hit.  If she couldn't even trust Andrew... then who could she learn to trust?

"My star..."

Awakening, Behnam threw an arm around his weeping wife.

"What is it, Isra?" he murmured.

"The baby is restless and... and maybe it's only because I am.  I... I'm jus... just thinking a-about Salma a-and tonight and all... all she... she's been through a-and how...  We... we..."

"We've been so blessed?" Behnam guessed.

Isra nodded.

Tears welled in Behnam's eyes.

"I have thought the same.  I've compared our wedding night... the real one... with... with what I know of Badriya's."

"Oh... my love..."  Isra was stunned that it hadn't occurred to her that her own husband had already gone through what she was.

Behnam smiled sadly.

"I... I lost my virginity to someone who I loved so dearly...  To someone I knew loved me.  Badriya's was... was stolen by a monster," Behnam lamented.  "I still grieve for Badriya's pain.  I always will.  But what sort of parents will we be to her nieces and nephew if we allow ourselves to be consumed by guilt that isn't ours, Isra?  Who will we be to each other?  And Salma is still here.  We can still help her... together."

"Yes..." Isra agreed.  She imagined her sister with Joshua, Zelda, and Behnam in that hotel room.  It was seeing the latter that had brought Salma comfort.  She knew Behnam as a gentle, kind man because of the love he showed to his wife and children.  Salma knew Behnam had delivered her big sister from the grasp of Uncle.  Then he'd helped deliver her from the worst sort of slavery.  Salma trusted Behnam.  And, miraculously, she trusted Vincent.  Both were reason to hope.

Behnam kissed Isra's brow.

"My star, you need to remember that Salma knows so little of Andrew.  She doesn't know he's an angel.  She doesn't know the intensity of his love for JenniAnn.  She's not seen him tenderly parent his children or care for ours.  She doesn't know that Jesus Christ is in our midst.   And she's only been safe for a week and a half.  It may be a good while yet before her initial impression of everyone isn't one of wariness.  And... and it's not as if she had reason to be an optimist about people even before we left Afghanistan.  Her... her beloved older sister was stolen from her by an evil man."

Isra caressed her husband's face.

"To grow up in a world where that could happen..."  Behnam shook his head.  "But, by that same token, she learned that the bogeyman who her sister was forced to marry..."

"Was you...  Beautiful you..." 

A gentle smile lit up Behnam's face after Isra kissed him.

"So she went from a place of mistrusting and despising me to trusting me and caring for me.  It took time but it happened.  And it will happen again, Isra.  I believe that with all my heart.  But it will take more time and patience and so much love... but we have that love to give Salma."

"Yes..."

Isra calmed and realized that her baby, too, had settled down.  She smiled as Behnam rubbed her stomach.

"Please let Mommy sleep," he requested.

"She is calming down," Isra reported.  "And... so am I.  Thanks to you."  She traced the line of Behnam's jaw.

"I am very glad."

"But could you... read to me?"

"Of course.  What would you like?"

"You know..."

Behnam smiled, picked up a book that never left their bedside, and began to read.

"'
A splendid Midsummer shone over England: skies so pure, suns so radiant as were then seen in long succession, seldom favour even singly, our wave-girt land.  It was as if a band of Italian days had come from the South, like a flock of glorious passenger birds, and lighted to rest them on the cliffs of Albion.  The hay was all got in; the fields round Thornfield were green and shorn; the roads white and baked; the trees were in their dark prime; hedge and wood, full-leaved and deeply tinted, contrasted well with the sunny hue of the cleared meadows between.'"

Isra fell asleep to the sound of her husband's voice and then dreamed of picnicking with her sister in an English garden.  In the dream, Salma laughed and smiled, causing her big sister to smile as she slept.

*~*~*

Friday, February 19th, 2016

For a moment, Salma was seized by panic when she awoke in an unfamiliar setting.  Then, in a wave, her memories returned to her.  Attacking Andrew... her family looking on in horror... Vincent arriving... he and his wife escorting her to their home where she now was, sleeping on a couch in their room. 

Salma sat up and peered around her.  She noticed Catherine sitting in a chair, book in hand. 

Sensing that someone was looking at her, Catherine peered over the book and smiled.

"Good morning, Salma.  How are you feeling?"

"Better," Salma replied.  "Where...."

"Where is Vincent?"

The younger woman nodded.

"He's already in the classroom, teaching."

"What time is it?"

Catherine checked her watch.

"10:05."

Salma balked.

"I... I have slept so long!"

Catherine moved to sit beside her on the couch and patted her arm.

"That's okay.  You obviously needed the sleep.  But now that you're up... what would you like to do?  Have some breakfast?  Shower?  Just rest some more?"

Salma face flushed.

"Perhaps some breakfast and then... then could I see Vincent when I'm more presentable?"

"Of course."

Salma began to smile but then it faltered.

"Is JenniAnn..."

"She's there.  But please know that she's not angry at you.  Your sister is there, too.  She helps Vincent with his classes."

"A-and Omar?"

"He went to the library with his Daddy."

"Oh.  Good."

Catherine smiled. 

"I'll go get some breakfast for you.  Our bathroom is just right through that doorway.  I've set some necessities out for you and a change of clothes.  I won't be long," she assured.

When Catherine rose, Salma reached for her hand.

"Thank you... for this.  I... I hope I didn't cause offense... going to your husband like I did.  But he... he reminds me of my Plaar... my father and... and someone else."

Catherine stooped to kiss the girl's brow.

"You didn't cause any offense, sweetheart.  I'm glad Vincent could bring you comfort.  He does have a way about him, doesn't he?"

Salma returned the woman's smile and nodded.  She watched Catherine leave the chamber then rose on shaky legs and headed to the bathroom.  With a sigh, she fingered the homespun dress Catherine had left for her.  It reminded her of a garment her mother had once made for her.

Salma buried her face in the soft fabric for a few moments then set about making herself presentable.  As kind as Catherine was, she wanted to be near Vincent... needed to be.  He wasn't Zmaray but he was close enough.

*~*~*

While Behnam and Stanley tended to library patrons, Andrew was holed up with his nephew in the office.  A stack of children's books was nearby but Omar's focus was on the toy his Grandma Catherine had delivered earlier that morning. 

The baby doll sported olive skin and dark curls, making it a good stand-in for the little boy's soon-to-be sister.  Catherine had dressed the doll in a gender neutral sleeper, wanting to give Omar the opportunity to deem it boy or girl. 

Omar swayed as he cradled the doll then looked over to the bag of accessories that his grandmother had also brought.  He pulled a blanket out and brought it to his uncle.

"Bankie, pease," he requested, holding the doll and blanket out to Andrew.

"Sure thing."  Andrew spread the blanket out on the floor then gently placed the doll on top of it.  "So first you fold this up then this side and then the other side and then... there's your baby, nice and cozy."

Omar gratefully accepted the bundle.

"Ank you, Unca."

"You're very welcome.  Does your doll have a name, Omar?"

Omar kissed his baby then grinned at his uncle and nodded.

Andrew returned his smile.

"You wanna tell me?"

"Abby.  Unca hode Abby?"

Andrew blinked back tears as the little boy held his treasure out to him.

"I'd love to hold Abby.  Thank you."

Andrew gently cradled the doll in his arm then watched as Omar scampered to the pile of books.  He selected one featuring his doll's namesake, Abby Cadabby, and returned to his uncle.

"Pease?" he asked as he held the book out.

"You bet."

Omar settled onto the angel's lap.

"Will you, please, turn the pages for me since I'm holding Abby?" Andrew requested.

"Yep!"

"Thank you." 

As Andrew read, Omar snuggled more closely against him. 

When the book ended, Omar asked for it to be reread and Andrew happily obliged.  This time, Omar reclaimed Abby, freeing up Andrew's hand.  As the tale's end neared for the second time, the little boy's eyelids began to droop and, by the final word, he was asleep.

Andrew quietly set the book down and peered at his nephew.  He looked so peaceful and content and it extended to Andrew.  Whatever damage the previous night had wrought, his little buddy still loved and trusted him.

*~*~*

When Salma entered the school chamber, she found Vincent giving a lecture on Socrates.  He smiled and waved to her but continued on.

Isra approached her sister.  She hugged Salma and led her to a chair at the back of the room.  JenniAnn sat there, too, with Belle bouncing on her lap.  Salma's face flushed hot when she saw the woman but JenniAnn only smiled. 

"I'm so glad you've come, Salma," Isra whispered once they were both seated.  "How did you sleep?"

"Well, thank you.  Is Omar..."

Isra squeezed her hand. 

"He's well.  No doubt having a wonderful time at the library."

Salma glanced over at JenniAnn.  She wanted to ask about Andrew but couldn't find the nerve.

Vincent closed a book he'd briefly recited from.

"Now I will give you twenty minutes to work on your essays before we move onto Psyche's class.  I'll be at the back of the room should you have any questions," he offered.

Salma felt her body beginning to untense as Vincent strode closer to them.

"Salma, welcome to our classroom.  How are you this morning?" he inquired.

"I'm well, thank you.  Catherine was very kind to me."

Vincent beamed.

"Catherine is a very special woman.  Did you sleep well?"

Salma nodded.

"Very well.  Maybe tonight I... I could stay in that chamber you mentioned?"

Salma felt her stomach lurch.  She had no reason to presume they wanted her around for another evening.  No doubt they wanted her completely gone.  After all, they'd intended for her to stay in a guest chamber the previous night but she had clung so to Vincent that he and his wife had settled her onto the couch in their room.

"That sounds like a fine idea to me," Vincent assured.  "I think you'll like it there."

Salma reached for his hand.

"Thank you."

Vincent set his other hand over their joined ones.

"You are very welcome, Salma.  It's a pleasure to be able to spend time with you.  Your sister speaks very highly of you as do my father and Joe Maxwell."

Vincent turned to his godchild.

"Psyche, in the few minutes before your class starts, perhaps you could show Salma to Owen's chamber.  She might enjoy seeing his paintings."

JenniAnn readily nodded.

"Sure!  Would you like to Salma?"

"Only if it's convenient for you."

"Definitely!  Isra, would you like to walk with us?"

"If that's okay..."  Isra looked to Vincent who gave a nod.  "Yes."

"Appa..."  Belle reached out for her grandfather.

"Would you like to stay with me, Annabelle?" Vincent checked.

Belle grinned and nodded.

"Appa... Appa!"

Vincent chuckled as he took the girl from her mother's arms.

"We love our Appa, don't we?" JenniAnn asked as she smoothed back some of Belle's curls.

Belle nodded and reached up to tilt Vincent's head down so she could rub her nose against his.

The three women smiled at the adorable scene then left the classroom.

"So Owen's chamber isn't far," JenniAnn explained as they began to walk.  "And it's more like chambers.  He has his art studio and then, beyond a curtain, is his living area.  So we won't disrupt him even if..."

"How is Andrew?" Salma interrupted.

JenniAnn halted.  She turned towards the younger woman and smiled gently.

"He's fine.  He's not angry at you, Salma.  Please know that."

"And... and you?"

JenniAnn's own eyes welled when she saw the tears in Salma's eyes.

"I'm not angry, either.  We were all just... shocked... and rattled.  And we're sorry that... that you were so upset."

"Thank you for your kindness.  I... I'm going to have to learn to not assume the worst."  Salma brushed at a tear and forced a smile. 

Isra looped an arm around her sister's waist.

"We'll be here to help you with that.  And Catherine and Vincent, too.  And Joshua," she assured.

"Is Joshua upset with me?  I've sensed that he and Andrew are... are very close."

JenniAnn and Isra exchanged a quick look.

"No, Joshua's not upset with you," Isra replied.  "He understands how difficult it is."

"And Zelda?"

"I saw her this morning at breakfast.  She was concerned but when we told her you were with Catherine and Vincent, she felt better," JenniAnn informed.

"Thank you.  Maybe I could go back to the Chrysalis for dinner?" Salma offered.  "I don't want to cause anyone concern by my absence."

"I think that would be a wonderful idea," Isra encouraged. 

"Then I will do that," Salma vowed.

"Good!  And now... Owen's chamber."  JenniAnn waved the sisters inside.

They found Owen at his easel, working.  He paused briefly and turned to them.

"Hey, ladies!  Give me a minute and I'll be at a good stopping point.  Please, feel free to look around."

"Thanks, O!"  JenniAnn smiled at him then waved Isra and Salma towards a canvas.  "This is one of Owen's personal favorites."

"It's beautiful," Salma complimented as she took in the gorgeous landscape with a man... at least she thought it was a man... standing on a hilltop with colors radiating from him.

Slowly, Salma made her way around the gallery.  She was surprised by all the images of Joshua, including many of him in decidedly Christ-like poses.

Quietly, Owen approached Isra and JenniAnn.

"That was a good idea... bringing her here," he whispered. 

"Vincent's idea, actually," JenniAnn clarified.  "But yes."

"As it happens, Vincent made a suggestion to me, too."  Owen gave an enigmatic smile then went to join Salma in front of a painting of Belle.

"This is Andrew's and JenniAnn's little girl?" Salma ventured.  "Belle?"

Owen nodded.

"My goddaughter," he added, his pride evident.  "I gave a similar portrait to Andrew and JenniAnn but this one's mine."

"Your work is amazing.  This is almost like a photograph."

"Thanks!  Hey, so, Vincent mentioned to me how much you like lions, Salma.  So I'm working on something.  For you."

Salma turned to the artist with surprise.

"For... me?"

"Yeah.  It's no where near finished but would you like to see it?"

Stunned by the man's generosity, Salma gave a nod and followed Owen over to the canvas he'd been working on.

Isra and JenniAnn also approached it.

"Oh..."  Salma reached out, her fingers hovering just over the canvas.  "He's beautiful..."

"Thank you.  I'm glad you think so.  I'll get him to you just as soon as I finish."

"His eyes... so perfect," Salma continued, dazed.

Isra clasped JenniAnn's hand.  They both knew the golden brown eyes peering out from the majestic lion's face. 

When the time came for JenniAnn and Isra to return to the classroom, Salma at last tore her gaze away from the painting.

"We need to head back, Salma.  Are you coming with us?" her sister checked.

Owen caught the young woman giving him a fleeting look.

"Or you could stay here and keep me company as I work," he offered.

Salma bit her lip and considered.  She still felt very uncomfortable with the idea of being left alone with a man, save Behnam or Vincent... although she also knew this particular man had no interest in her.  Or any woman for that matter. 

"I would like to stay here if you're sure..." she decided.

"Absolutely!" Owen agreed.

Trying to mask her surprise, Isra smiled.

"Then JenniAnn and I will head back.  I'll check in before lunch?"

"Sounds good.  I'll be needing a break by then," Owen replied.

Salma smiled at her sister and JenniAnn.

"See you then."

"Have fun!" JenniAnn called as she and Isra stepped into the corridor.

Once they were out of view, both women let out deep breaths.

"That's progress, isn't it?" Isra hoped.

"I think so!  I mean she probably knows Owen is gay.  Graham's been around an awful lot.  But even at that...  And she definitely knows Vincent isn't gay so..."  JenniAnn lowered her voice.  "And the painting... with Joshua's eyes."

"The 'perfect eyes', she said," Isra recalled, her whole face alight.

The two squeezed hands and beamed at each other, praying that their hope wasn't misguided.

*~*~*

In Remembrance of Her

Saturday, February 20th, 2016


Zelda woke up with tears cascading down her face.  Her knees were gathered up to her chest and her arms were locked tightly around them.  She slowly inched out of the tight, little ball and rolled to her side, looking at Salma's bed.  Of course, her friend wasn't there.  Salma was still Below.  She'd visited at dinner, ensuring her and all the other girls that she was well... merely staying with other family.  Zelda had been happy for her and anxious to visit her in the Tunnels.  Now, however, she desperately wished Salma was there. 

But Zelda wasn't entirely alone...  She pulled a walkie-talkie off of the bedside table that stood between the two beds. 

"Logan?" she whispered into the speaker.

After a few moments, an answer came.

"Just down in the computer lab.  What do you need, Zelda?"

"Can I come down there?  Please?"

"Of course.  I'll wait for you by the elevator."

"Thank you."

Zelda picked up her same-named doll and her comforter and headed towards the elevator.  As she waited for it to land on the main floor, she closed her eyes and prayed.

"Please don't let me completely fall apart.  Please don't let me completely fall apart.  Please don't..."

The door opened to reveal Logan standing there, just as he'd promised.

The vampire stifled a gasp when he saw his sweetheart.  She was trembling and her eyes were puffy and red.

"Zelda..."

Unable to stop herself, Zelda broke into sobs and fell against the man.

"Oh, Zelda..."

Zelda began to slip from his embrace.

Logan bundled her, comforter and doll and all, into his arms and headed back to the computer lab.  Once they were there, he gently sat Zelda down on a futon.

"Can I go get you something?  Chamomile maybe?" he offered.

Zelda shook her head and grabbed his hand. 

"No... please... jus-just stay with me?"

"Of course."

Logan sat down and closed his arms around the girl when she rested against him.

Zelda drank in his scent.  Fabric softener and old books.  From their long ago chats, she knew that Logan sometimes wished he was more trim and fit.  But she loved him as he was: sturdy and soft. 

"Do you want to talk about something?" Logan ventured.

Zelda drew in and let out a deep breath before nodding against his chest then sitting up.

"I... I had a nightmare.  A flashback.  Sort of.  It... it was all mixed up.  My... my brother was raping me in... in my old room.  B-but then... Gunnar was there.  A-and he was standing at the door, taking money, and... and letting all these men in and making me... making me..."

"Zelda... brave girl..." Logan cooed as he stroked her hair.

"I... I tried to fight a-and get away.  And I had... really... in... in the beginning.  B-but... Damien hel-held me down as one after another they... they..."

Zelda once again collapsed against Logan. 

"It happened like that a... a lot," she confessed, her voice muffled by the man's shoulder.

Logan gently ran his hand up and down the girl's back as he wept.

"I'm so sorry... so, so sorry, Zelda."

For a while, the two simply cried together.  Eventually, Zelda sat up on her own and wiped the tears from her face.

"What if... if I'm too damaged?" she questioned.

"You're not too damaged, Zelda.  But... for what?"

A smile flickered on Zelda's face when she realized Logan wanted to make her happy, even if he didn't know what he was saying.

"For... for a relationship?  For... polite society, even.  I mean think of... of what happened with Salma.  She accused a completely innocent man of molesting his nephew!"

Logan frowned.  For the most part, what had passed between Salma and Andrew had been kept quiet.  However, Salma had confided in her friend and, expecting as much, Andrew had filled Logan in.

"It's just awful thinking that at... at any moment I could have a flashback and just... lash out at someone.  At you..."  Zelda caressed Logan's cheek. 

"I would understand, Zelda.  And I wouldn't leave you until you'd calmed down and realized you were safe.  And you and Salma, too, you've only just begun to heal.  You've only just started therapy.  Amber-Marie's good but she's not that good!"

"That's true."  Zelda felt her heart slowing and growing lighter. 

Logan kissed her hair.

"I already lost you once.  I'm not going to lose you again.  I'll stay with you for as long as you want me around, Zelda.  I promise."

Zelda hugged Logan's arm tightly.

"I want you around for the rest of my life," she murmured.

"I... I don't know what God has planned but I can promise that I'll be around for the rest of my life."

"Good."  Zelda sighed and noticed a comic book left open on the arm of the futon.  "Could you read to me?  Please?"

"You bet."

As Logan read, he made sure Zelda could see the colorful panels.  However, they were only a few minutes in when her eyelids began to flutter.  Soon they closed and Logan could sense her breathing growing more regular.  She was asleep.

"Good night, beloved," the vampire whispered into the girl's ear. 

Then, after ensuring the comforter was tucked completely around Zelda, Logan sat down his comic, turned off the lamp, and prayed for the girl in his arms.

*~*~*

Zelda was quiet for most of the day.  She remained near Logan until after lunch when, at Vincent's suggestion, Salma had extended an invitation to her friend to stay Below. 

The offer brought a smile to Zelda's face and relief to Logan.  Not only did he believe the time in the Tunnels would give Zelda some peace, it also gave him an opportunity he needed.

While several of the CC's inhabitants readied for a game night, Logan approached Joshua and sat a hand on his shoulder.

"Hey!  Logan, how are you?  I haven't seen much of you today since this morning."

Logan blushed as Joshua smiled.  He'd been the one to find him and Zelda on the computer lab futon.

"I'm, uh, okay.  Thanks."

Joshua rested an arm around Logan's shoulders.

"I owe you a story.  If you don't mind missing game night..."

"I'd love that," Logan hurriedly accepted.  "I'd actually come over to make that request.  You said you had a true story... one that will help."

Joshua smiled tenderly at the vampire and nodded. 

"I do.  Let's go to my study."

Once they were away from the group, Joshua clapped Logan on the back.

"How was Zelda throughout the day?"

"She was quiet... quieter than she's been this whole time.  I'm sure she was tired but..."

"Seems like every time I saw her, you were close by," Joshua pointed out.

"Yeah."

"Sometimes just being there is the best help you can give."

"Will she be okay tonight?"

"I think so," Joshua reassured.  "It'll be good for her to catch up with Salma and she's loving the Tunnels, I'm sure."

Logan grinned.

"Yeah, I figured she would."

When they entered the room, Joshua motioned for Logan to sit wherever he liked. 

The vampire settled onto the loveseat and was pleased when Joshua sat beside him.

"Some refreshments, first," Joshua declared.

Logan smiled when a tray appeared with two glasses of wine.  Joshua handed one to him then took the other for himself.

"The story I have to tell you, Logan, is about Mary of Magdala.  But you also know her by another name."

Logan tried to guess.

"Umm...  Well, Mary Magdalene but that's the same thing."

"Yeah.  I mean Mary of Bethany."

Logan's eyes grew wide over the rim of his glass.

"You mean they're the same person?"

"Yeah.  So my Abi was friends with a man named Cyrus.  Cyrus was quite well-to-do but not snobbish or showy about it.  He recognized Abi as his equal even though our family was poor.  In fact, once we got back to Nazareth, Cyrus would give work to Abi whenever he could.  And, after I turned thirteen, I worked for him, too.  So I got be pretty close to Cyrus' family.  His wife was named Eucharis and their eldest was a boy, Lazar.  Martha was born three years later, only a few months after me.  Then, sadly, they faced multiple miscarriages.  Cyrus and Eucharis had resigned themselves to only having two children but then, when I was fourteen, little Mary was born.  We all adored her."  Joshua smiled at the memory.  "She was such a spirited little girl.  But sweet, too.  You couldn't be sad for long around Mary.  And the family needed her cheer.  When she was only two, Cyrus was struck down by thieves while visiting Jerusalem.  And, just a year later, Eucharis took sick and died after a few months' illness.  So it fell to Lazar and Martha to raise their baby sister."

"That must have been so hard for them...  Was that why Martha doesn't seem to be married and was still living with her brother in the Gospel of John?" Logan checked.

"Yes," Joshua confirmed.  "She was already raising a child as it was and, truthfully, Martha wasn't the easiest person to get along with."  He chuckled.  "I loved her dearly and still do but she was very fond of having her way and keeping things just so.  Lazar, having taken over his father's work as a merchant, was only too happy to leave household affairs to his sister.  Martha knew potential husbands might not be so yielding.  Between that and there being no financial necessity for her to marry, Martha stayed on at the family's house.  She was a good mother to Mary.  And neither she nor Lazar were particularly interested in seeing their Mary wed.  However, Mary was a romantic, through and through.  One day, another merchant came to visit Lazar.  He was hoping for a partnership.  The man's name was Yakan and he hailed from Magdala."

Logan noted that Joshua's eyes had darkened.

The carpenter took a sip of wine and shook his head.

"Lazar didn't trust the man.  He told Yakan that he'd have to think about his offer.  Unbeknownst to anyone, Yakan had stolen a few opportunities to talk with Mary.  She was only twelve then.  He enchanted her with stories of Magdala with all its merchants and finery.  Like I said, Lazar and his family were wealthy but not showy about it.  So it all sounded very beautiful and alluring to Mary.  She kept their trysts to herself, at Yakan's suggestion, and then he and Lazar went away.  Lazar had agreed to team up with Yakan briefly... a trial run.  Yakan was a good businessman and so, eventually, Lazar agreed to the partnership.  This, of course, gave Yakan more opportunities to visit the family."

"Did you meet him?"