Note: Due to some of the content here, I've decided to put some trigger warnings which I haven't done much of in the past.  However, since they're also spoilers, I've hidden them.  If you want to see them, please highlight the black line below.

Trigger warnings for: mental health issues, self-harm, depression, suicide attempt, sexual abuse (briefly), child abuse, spiritual abuse.

You'll Never Walk Alone

Takoda        Joccy        Coming Back        The Reunion        Sermonizing a Bit

Reconnecting        Trust        Lucy        The Cabin

Waterfall        Sins of the Father        Walk On        Epilogue



Takoda

Tuesday, September 8th, 2020


Takoda paced his attic room in Willowveil.  His hands shook as he held the note.  They shook with rage and terror and heartache.

Her note...  Her last note?

I loved you, my friend.  Please know that.  I hope I see you in Heaven.  I just can't stay here.  There's nothing you could have done, sweet Takoda.  I wish I had loved you better.

The last words tore into him.  He hated that she'd felt regret... maybe even guilt... over him.  Hated that what could be her last moments had been filled with those thoughts.

He hated that the damned plague had separated them for so long.  Maybe he would have seen the signs...

He hated him.

Jayden.

He wanted to find him and pummel him... a blow for every drop of blood that had spilled from his Joccy.

Maybe he could go...  Find the traitorous fiend and make him hurt as badly as he did.  Andrew would be angry.  Andrew could be angry.  He didn't care.

Except he did.

Andrew was good to him.  And Takoda loved him and JenniAnn.  If he left, he couldn't come back.  He couldn't risk JenniAnn's health.  And he didn't want Andrew to feel what he did in that moment.

There was a light knock on Takoda's door.

Takoda only stared, unsure what to do.

After a few moments, Marty poked his head in.

"Takoda..."

The angel's eyes grew wide.

"Has she..."

Marty shook his head.

"I know nothing more than what Portia shared with us.  The doctors are still working on her.  Would... you like someone to sit with you?"

Takoda found himself nodding.

Old Metatron sunk onto the couch beside the young angel and gently patted his back.

"Would you like me to pray?"

Takoda nodded again.

"'God is our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble,'" Marty recited, his voice soft and calming.  "'Therefore we will not fear, though the earth give way and the mountains fall into the heart of the sea, though its waters roar and foam and the mountains quake with their surging.  Selah.  There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God, the holy place where the Most High dwells.  God is within her, she will not fall; God will help her at break of day.'"

"'God will help her at break of day,'" Takoda echoed, his voice sounding distant to him.

He was sleepy... so sleepy... wearied to the depth of his being. 

Takoda's head sunk against a throw pillow.  His eyes fluttered closed.

He fell asleep and began to dream about how it had all begun.

*~*~*

Wednesday, March 13th, 2019

"So...  We're going to start Bible Study with all the Friends shortly.  Would you want to..."

Takoda, tearing his gaze away from the cluttered and fascinating walls of Willowveil, interrupted JenniAnn's question with a shake of his head. 

"I'd rather not... if that's okay... ma'am."

JenniAnn bowed her head and smirked.

"JenniAnn's okay.  Really... sir."

Takoda smiled.

"Got it.  If it's okay with you... JenniAnn... I'd rather not attend.  But I'd like to do something to make it up to you and Andrew for putting me up.  So if you have any chores or anything that I could help with..."

JenniAnn studied the angel.  He was so pleasant!  She struggled to believe he'd struck out at Joshua.  But then... she could understand how pain and grief changed a person.

"There's no need to pay us back.  But... if you're bored... maybe you could help Jocelyn... Joccy... with the kids?  Do you like kids?  Belle sure seems to like you but if you'd rather not be surrounded by them..."

Takoda shook his head.

"No, no.  I love kids.  They're more... honest."

JenniAnn laughed.

"Sometimes painfully so.  All right then!"  She led the angel up another floor to the rec room.  "They usually hang out here.  Another adult or two will always be around.  We rotate in and out.  Joccy usually has a story time and a craft that she prepares.  They can be biblically themed so if..."

"I'm sure that'll be fine," Takoda assured.  He was not opposed to hearing about God... he just didn't want to hear a bunch of people, many of them older than him, wax philosophic about the Problem of Evil or the nature of redemption. 

"Hey, JenniAnn!" 

The two turned around to see Joccy entering.  She glanced curiously at Takoda.

Looking at the newcomer, Takoda could feel himself blushing.  And there was an odd twist in his stomach that he couldn't account for.

"Hey, Joccy!"  JenniAnn approached and hugged the girl.  "Come meet Takoda!  He's offered to help with the kids this evening."

"Oh great!"  Joccy smiled brightly at Takoda and held out her hand.  "Hi, my name's Jocelyn.  But I mostly go by Joccy."

Takoda took her hand in his and stared.  She looked... like him.  More beautiful, of course.  Her features were finer.  But the same dark eyes, black hair down to her mid-back.  Her skin was lighter than his... but he still wondered.  But then he couldn't very well ask for her ethnicity.

"I... I'm Takoda," he stuttered.  "I'm a caseworker.  My supervisor is Wahkan, the principality of the Sioux Nation."

Joccy beamed.

"That's so cool!  My great-grandpa was full-blooded Algonquin.  I never met him, of course.  But my grandpa used to tell us stories... take us to All Nations gatherings."

Takoda saw the girl's face cloud for a moment.

"Anyway...  It's a pleasure to meet you," Joccy recovered.  "If you want... I could use some help cutting out shapes for a craft later."

Takoda nodded and smiled agreeably.

"Happy to."

"Then I'll leave you to that.  I'll be in the kitchen with Andrew if you need anything," JenniAnn informed.

"Thanks, JenniAnn!"

"Thanks!"

After looking back at the two for a final time, JenniAnn left the room wearing an amused smile.

That was a meet-cute if she'd ever seen one!

*~*~*

Wednesday, March 20th, 2019

Within a week, Takoda and Joccy had become nearly inseparable.  They'd had such a good time with the kids that first week that they'd planned something more elaborate for the following week... a slightly belated lesson on St. Patrick.

"I feel... goofy," Takoda declared as he stepped out from behind a room divider.

Joccy giggled as she took in his long, flowing green robe. 

"I look nothing like Patrick..."

Joccy settled a stole around the angel's shoulders.

"Oh, hush.  White actors have been playing characters of colors for ages.  There's nothing wrong with a bit of the reverse."

"True...  But I don't feel very... saintly."

The young woman handed him a staff, wrapped in foil in lieu of gold.  A Celtic cross was attached to the top.

"Better?"

Takoda chuckled.

"Not really... but I appreciate the effort."

Joccy snapped a photo with her camera.

"I think you look cute!"

Takoda grinned.

"Now...  Let's practice, okay?"

"Okay..."

Joccy threw a rubber snake onto the ground.

Trying not to laugh, Takoda/Patrick stared at the serpent.

"In the name of Christ, be gone ye foul creature!" he bellowed.

Joccy yanked the invisible thread she'd tied around the snake and it disappeared beneath a strategically placed rug.

"Yay!  You banished it!" she cheered.

Takoda frowned.

"I feel kind of bad...  I mean it was just a little garden snake...  It wasn't hurting anything."

Joccy hugged him.

"It was also rubber... pretend."

"True..."

Joccy's embrace tightened.

"I love that you care about the snake."

Takoda felt his pulse quicken.  She was so close...  No human had ever been so close to him.  None, at least, except Joshua.  The thought of his estranged Creator caused the angel to tear up.

Takoda squeezed his eyes shut against the memory of his last encounter with Joshua... how he'd yelled, how he'd accused Joshua of not doing enough to protect Robin and Daniel, how he'd run away from him.

"Takoda?"  Joccy pulled away and peered into his face with concern.  She reached up and brushed a tear from his cheek.

The angel responded with a ragged sigh.

Joccy took his hand and led him to a nearby couch.

"Will you... tell me why you're here?  I know Adam is working with you.  And it's not an AOD thing.  Which means... it's the other thing.  The therapy thing.  So... something happened.  And... and if it would help you to talk about it...  I'd like to listen," she offered, her voice gentle and soothing.

Takoda shook his head.  He stared at the cross around Joccy's neck.  She loved Joshua.  And she would hate him once she heard what he'd said and done.  The Friends longed for Joshua... always hoping for him to return.  What would she make of him?  Willingly leaving Joshua?

And yet...

It all came pouring out.  The night out at the pub, the false accusations against Daniel, the car chase, the crash, his black-out, Daniel... shot and killed, Robin... raped and killed, and then their bodies and the car going up in flames, waking up in Heaven, his harsh words, his rejection of Joshua...

Joccy said nothing.

But she held him as he wept.  She never let go... even when he spoke of ignoring Wahkan and cursing Joshua.

"I'm sorry..." Takoda's hoarse voice spoke after several moments of silence.

"He knows...  And I... I'm sorry you had to go through that, Takoda.  Truly."  Joccy stroked his back.

Takoda sighed and pulled away from her.

"The kids..."

"We have about half an hour.  How about you go wash your face and I'll make you some tea?"

"You... you aren't mad at me?" Takoda implored.  "What I said to Joshua..."

"I get the sense Joshua Himself isn't mad.  He understands.  How could I be mad if he's not?"

"I hope you're right... and thank you."

Joccy smiled gently and cupped the angel's chin.

"You're welcome.  Thank you for trusting me with that.  And now... JenniAnn always keeps the tea well-stocked.  So what would you like?"

"Chamomile?"

"Chamomile it is.  I'll be right back."

"Thank you."

Takoda watched her leave the room.

If he were completely honest with himself, that day with Joshua... he'd worried he would fall.  And now he felt like he was falling... but this was a very different sort of fall...

*~*~*
  
Sunday, April 28th, 2019

Takoda and Joccy were stretched across a blanket in Willowveil's backyard, laying on their backs and scanning the sky.

"He looked really good...  Joshua, I mean."

Takoda rolled over to face Joccy.

"Glad you clarified.  I had no idea who you were talking about," Takoda teased.  They had been talking about nothing but Joshua since leaving the hospital.

Joccy rolled to her side and stuck out her tongue.  Then her face softened and she snuggled against the angel.

"Thank you for staying by me... during all of this.  It... it was so hard to... to see him like that... hurt... emotionally and physically... in ways we... we couldn't fix."

Takoda lightly brushed his lips against Joccy's hair.

"I needed you just as much, Joc."  He sighed raggedly.  "Even though we... we'd made our peace... it still hurt to think that so recently I... I'd been so... harsh with him."

"He understands, Koda."

"Yeah..."  Takoda gasped.  "Look up, Joc."

Joccy rolled onto her back and smiled as she caught a glimpse of a falling star.

"So beautiful..." 

There was silence for a few moments... a silence Takoda knew well.  It was loaded with pain and sadness.

"Joc..."  He gripped her hand.

"My dad told me once that falling stars were angels falling because they didn't listen to God."

Takoda propped himself up on an elbow and peered down at his friend.

"Joccy...  That... that's nonsense.  They're... hydrogen and helium.  I think?  I'm not good with elements.  And I wasn't around to make any.  But... they are beautiful.  And it was wrong of your dad to try to tarnish something God meant for you to admire."

"He was pretty good at tarnishing things..." Joccy muttered.

Takoda let out a shaky breath.  He knew what Derek Lowery had done to Emma.

"He never... hurt... you, did he?"

Joccy's eyes went wide.

"No... no.  I mean... not physically.  And I didn't... I don't mean he tarnished Emma or anything like that.  That's nonsense.  But... he tarnished our reputation back home...  He tarnished what I had with Emma.  And... and, yes, we've built our bond up.  Stronger than ever.  But... I... I would have really liked to have had her around when I was growing up."

"I know... I know...  I'm so sorry."

"He tarnished my ability to trust men.  I mean... I trust the Friends.  I trust Joshua, of course.  But... men my own age?"  Joccy shook her head.  "I don't want to end up like my mom."  She noticed the hurt in Takoda's eyes and she cupped his chin.  "I trust you.  So much.  I just... I meant humans."

"I understand."

"I wish..."

Joccy's voice drifted off.

But Takoda knew how she wanted to end that sentence.

"I wish you were human."

And, with her, he wished it, too... as much as he loved being an angel.

Joccy flinched then sat up.

"Text," she announced, pulling her phone from her pocket.  Her eyes lit up.  "Jayden.  Aww...  I'd mentioned that I was worried about a friend who had been shot and he's just checking in.  Sending 'good vibes.'"

Takoda struggled to keep a calm smile on his face as Joccy replied.  What were 'good vibes,' really?  But then he realized he was inclined to find fault in whatever this Jayden said.  He'd known about Jayden from the start...  In that first week they'd been trying to get to know each other, Joccy had mentioned him several times.  But then he'd seemed like just a boy in one of her classes, a crush... an unreciprocated one.  Two weeks ago, that had changed.  They'd been paired up for a class project.  And Joccy had begun to talk more about him again... and now what she said was grounded in reality.  She was beginning to truly know her crush... and her feelings were only deepening.  Her trust issues... and probably also Joshua's reappearance... had prevented anything deeper from developing but with a sinking feeling, Takoda knew it was only a matter of time.

"Maybe one day they could meet..."

Takoda roused from his melancholy musings.

"Hmm?"

"Jayden and Joshua.  Maybe they can meet sometime."

Takoda smiled and nodded.

"Yeah.  Maybe."

Joccy cocked her head and gently gripped Takoda's chin.

"You're my friend, Takoda.  My best friend, even... after Joshua, of course.  That won't change even if..."

"I... I know."  Takoda attempted a bright, breezy smile.

Joccy hugged him.

"I promise," she vowed.

"I promise, too," Takoda echoed.

Joccy beamed at him.

"Now... back to the stars."

"Back to the stars..."

As they settled back down onto their blanket, Takoda tried to remain in the moment... to not think ahead...  For now, Joccy was at his side and all was well.

*~*~*

Wednesday, January 8th, 2020

She was almost constantly texting him these days.  Not when they were in charge of the kids, of course...  But during their prep meetings, Jayden had become an invisible presence.

He'd asked her to ring in the new year with him.  She had.

And Takoda had noticed something disturbing...  Over night, all the photos of him and Joccy had disappeared from her Facebook page.  He wanted to ask why... but he also wasn't sure he wanted to know the answer.  His suspicion was that Jayden had expressed some disapproval... jealousy even... and Joccy had been quick to relent.  And so the photos were gone.

She'd also stopped wearing the necklace he'd given her.  She'd worn it every day in the week between Christmas and New Year's and then it was gone.

Takoda longed to go back to that week.  For that week, things had been like they had been in the beginning.  Joccy smiled at him and sometimes held his hand.  They'd gone sledding and sipped cocoa in Central Park.  Jayden had only been a distant presence... the very occasional text.

But with the dawning of 2020, everything changed.

Takoda glanced over at Joccy as he cut out glittery shapes for the kids to make crowns with in honor of the just passed Epiphany.  She was smiling in a dreamy way. 

Takoda sucked in a deep breath and slowly let it out.

She was happy.  That was all that mattered.  He loved her and he wanted her to be happy. 

All would be well... all would be well... all would be well...

Takoda repeated the phrase in his mind, willing for it to be true, willing the queasiness in his belly to go away. 

Joccy giggled.

He loved the sound... 

She was happy.

All would be well.

*~*~*

Friday, March 13th, 2020

All was NOT well.

The world was locking down. 

The Friends were separated.

Takoda was separated from Joccy... for now.

He stared expectantly at the Zoom screen... and then she appeared.

"Joccy...  How are you?" Takoda asked.

"Umm..." Joccy contemplated the question.  "Freaked out?"

Takoda smiled sympathetically.

"Understandable...  Have you talked to your mom and sister?"

Joccy nodded.

"Yeah...  They're staying in Connecticut."

"Have you thought about where you're staying?  I mean...  I think Andrew and JenniAnn would let you stay here if...  It's just with not being able to go Topside...  If you stayed here you could still go outside..." Takoda rambled, trying to keep from sounding too hopeful.

Joccy smiled sadly at the screen.

"I'm staying here, Koda.  In the Tunnels.  I want to be with the kids.  And... I want to be in the same city as Jayden."

"But... you... you're not going to... to see him, surely?" Takoda spluttered.

"Of course not!  Vincent's been very clear and I'm not about to go up against him.  I know it's the right thing.  I do.  But... even if we can't see each other... I just... I want to be in the same city with Jayden, okay?"

Fighting back tears, Takoda nodded.

"Okay."

Joccy's own eyes filled.

"Koda, I love you.  I... I hope you know that.  So much.  But I just..."  She bowed her head.  "I... I'm not JenniAnn.  Or Arthur.  I... I want... I want to get married.  And have babies.  I want..."  Her voice broke.

"I... I understand," Takoda assured.  As much as his heart was breaking, it hurt worse to think Joccy was suffering for his sake.

"You... you don't," Joccy replied, her eyes filling.  "Koda, I..."

The video froze.

"No!" the angel shouted as he pointlessly tapped the sides of the screen.

"Am I back?" Joccy asked.

Takoda nodded, calming down.

"You are.  The last thing I heard was that... that I don't understand."

Joccy nodded.

"It's... embarrassing."

She was so quiet that Takoda could barely hear her.

"It... it's okay.  Whatever it is, it's okay.  I was embarrassed, too... when we first met... about how I acted towards Joshua... but you listened.  I'll listen now," he stressed.

Joccy nodded and stared down at her hands.

"I... I slept with him... with Jayden.  After... after my birthday party last month.  And... and a couple times since."

Takoda said nothing.  He struggled to keep his expression blank.

"And... I liked it.  I... I told Joshua I was sorry.  I know we should have waited.  But... he's the one, Koda.  And I know... I can feel... it's only a matter of time.  We'll get married.  Maybe... maybe after this is all... behind us."

Takoda prayed for the app to again freeze... to give him some time to steady himself... but the Internet didn't cooperate.  So he forced a smile, feeling his lips shake, hoping she couldn't see.

"Joccy...  I... I hope that works out exactly as you want it to.  I'm happy for you," he managed.

Joccy's face lit up.

"Oh, Koda...  Thank you.  I... I haven't told anyone else.  It's... I dunno...  But thank you.  That means a lot.  And I am sorry that I can't come join you."

"No... no.  I understand completely.  You're right to stay where you are."

Joccy nodded then lifted her hand to the screen.

"I will miss you... more than I can say."

Takoda rested his hand over hers.

"Me too... so much."

"But we'll keep talking," Joccy assured.  "I've already been thinking of ways to keep the kids' Bible study going."

"I'll look forward to hearing your ideas."

Someone called Joccy's name.

"Oh.  It's Catherine.  I better go."  Joccy smiled sadly.  "Take care, my friend.  I love you, Koda."

"You too.  I love you, Joc," Takoda replied with another quaking smile.

"I'll be in touch!"

"Yeah... same."

"Good night!"

"G'night!"

Then, with a final wave, Joccy disappeared.

Takoda stared at where she had been and began to weep.

It was done.  She had made her choice.  There was no going back... not because he wouldn't want her back.  He wanted her back so badly it hurt, the pain radiating out from his chest to the tips of his fingers.  But he couldn't give her what she wanted.  And he just wanted her to be happy, fulfilled.  No matter what.

There was a knock on the door.

"Takoda, we're having ice cream.  Do you want to join us?" Andrew called.

Takoda tried to choke out a response but only a strangled noise came out.

Alarmed, Andrew peeked into the room then hurried to the younger angel.

"Takoda, what's..."

"Joc..."  Takoda shook his head.  He wouldn't say anything more... wouldn't betray her.

Andrew sighed and pulled up a chair beside Takoda's.  He rested an arm around his shoulders.  He knew this was more than pain over an unexpected separation.

"I'm sorry, Takoda."

"How... how do I make it stop hurting?" he begged.

Andrew's eyes filled.  He rallied against a sudden flash of Eliot and JenniAnn in the gazebo.

"Time.  Only time, I'm afraid.  And focusing on the love around you.  The love from Him."

Takoda nodded.

"Also... ice cream.  Lots and lots of ice cream.  I remember that part really well," Andrew continued.

In spite of his agony, Takoda chuckled.

"Ice cream sounds good," he agreed.

After quickly wiping at his face, Takoda joined Andrew and the others... and downed three whole bowls of ice cream.

*~*~*

Monday, September 7th, 2020

To Takoda's great surprise and relief, quarantine hadn't been awful.  He and Joccy exchanged letters every week and kept up with their Zoom calls.  He still missed seeing her in person every week and he had to fight a cringe every time she brought up Jayden... but they were both reasonably happy.  And even though not with the regularity he'd been accustomed to pre-The Year That Everyone Hated, Takoda had seen Joccy a few times.  About once a month, she came to Dyeland for fresh air. 

Shortly after Easter, Portia, Vincent, Andrew, and JenniAnn had jointly decided that the minimal risk of COVID exposure was less than the psychological and physiological toll a complete lack of sunshine was taking on the Tunnel folks.  Thus, the portal between Dyeland and the Tunnels was opened.  The two communities could mix freely amongst each other.  And with Andrew being the only one to regularly leave Dyeland and no one leaving the Tunnels, they all stayed safe.

The only struggle Takoda truly faced was a biweekly Zoom call with some of the younger Friends... and Jayden.  When he'd remained a presence in Joccy's life, Ivy and Sy had suggested adding him to their call.  After all, it only made sense that they begin to get to know him.  Joccy had leaped at this... and so every two weeks Takoda found himself face to virtual face with his rival.

And then one day, a half hour before their scheduled call, Takoda got a text from Sy.

"Hey there.  Ivy and I hoped to talk to you.  Alone.  Can you come over?  Or we could pop over there... but here might be better."

"Yeah.  Sure.  Be right over," Takoda texted back, wondering what was going on.  He wasted no time in going to Serendipity.

"Hey.  Thanks for coming so quickly," Sy greeted as he opened the door.  "We would have come over but... this is kind of delicate and... less chance of being overheard here.  Leo, Esau, and T'Challa aren't likely to tell tales."

Takoda laughed.

"I would guess not!  But... you have me a little worried.  Are you and Ivy..."

"We're fine.  Just... we need to show you something."

Sy led Takoda to the kitchen where Ivy was setup with her laptop.  She looked up to the angel, a slightly guilty expression on her face.

"I swear I wasn't snooping!"

Takoda blinked.

"Okay..."

"It's just...  I'm Facebook friends with this girl from Fordham and she posted a few photos of herself in Central Park with her cousin and... someone else."

Ivy patted the chair next to hers.

Curious, Takoda sat down and looked at the screen.

"That's my friend."  Ivy pointed to a girl taking a selfie.  "And that... is her cousin.  And that..."

"Jayden..." Takoda muttered.

"That's what we thought," Sy agreed.  "A little hard to tell with the mask but... same hair.  And I swear I've seen him wear that shirt in one of our calls."

"It's him," Takoda confirmed.  "Look."

He pointed to the man's forearm which bore a tattoo of a compass rose.

"So...  Here's the thing...  Different friend groups are different... but the only girl I'd be handling like that would be my wife," Sy insisted.

Takoda continued to stare.  He was inclined to agree.  Jayden was standing behind the girl, pressed against her, his arms wrapped around her waist.  It seemed more romantic than simply friendly.

"So... so what do we do?" Ivy questioned.  "I hope Joccy doesn't see this...  It'll break her heart."

"Well, I know one thing for sure.  After today, we change the Zoom password and that dude's banned," Sy fumed.

"Sy, we can't do that...  Not until we know how Joccy feels," Ivy reasoned.  "What if it is a misunderstanding?  Or... what if it was a temporary indiscretion and she forgives him?  We don't want to make Joccy feel isolated... or like she needs to choose between us and him."

Takoda's head rolled back and he stared at the ceiling, asking God to calm the rage he was feeling.  After a few moments, he looked at the computer again.

"We proceed with the call as normal.  Then we ask Jayden to meet with us.  And we confront him.  Just the three of us.  Then we decide what we need to tell Joccy," he decided.  "Agreed?"

Ivy and Sy both nodded.

"Agreed."

But their plan would turn out to be unnecessary...

*~*~*

Jayden showed up to the call five minutes late but that wasn't unexpected.  He tended to be late.

Joccy's face lit up when he appeared.

"Hey, Jayden!  How are you?" she chirped.

"Fine... sleepy.  What a lame Labor Day," he replied.  "How's everyone else?"

"Good!" Violeta answered.  "I was just telling everyone about my sheep.  They learned a new trick!"

"It's so cute!" Shelby averred.  "And then we were discussing maybe..."

The teenager's voice drifted off.

Takoda stared at his monitor, wondering if he should go in the other room and check on Shel.

And then he saw her.

And he saw Joccy seeing her.

A few feet behind Jayden, there was a woman.  She was stepping out of another room, pulling up a strap of her negligee.

Suddenly, the meeting ended.

Takoda's phone vibrated and he saw it was Sy calling.

"Sorry!  I panicked!  Did you see..."

"Yes..."

"I didn't know if Joccy had seen so... so I ended the call in case she hadn't," Sy explained.

Ivy's voice took over.

"We need to check on Joccy, though."

"Yeah... yeah.  I'll go," Takoda volunteered without hesitation.

"No...  I just...  Oh maybe...  I don't know..." Ivy debated.

"I'm going," Takoda insisted.  "I'll talk to you later."

After ending the call, Takoda raced down the stairs where he nearly collided with Shelby and Violeta.

"He's cheating!  Stupid Jayden is cheating!" Violeta exclaimed.

"Violeta...  Shhhh...." Shelby whispered.

"I'm sorry but..."  Wide-eyed, Violeta grabbed Takoda's arm.  "Are you gonna go check on her?"

The older angel nodded.

"Yeah.  I think she saw... but I'm not sure.  I just... I need to go."

Nodding furiously, Violeta released him.

"Don't tell anyone else!  It's her business," Takoda shouted as he ran down the next flight of stairs.

Takoda saw Andrew, JenniAnn, Max, and Rose in the ballroom as he flew past.  He knew they'd seen him, too, but he didn't linger to offer any sort of explanation.  Shelby could make something up.  Instead, he ran out the front door and made a beeline to the gazebo.  Once through the portal, the angel rushed through Tunnels until he came to the door he wanted.

He could hear her.

"Who is she?" Joccy demanded as she glared at Jayden on her laptop.

"Baby, she's... she's just an old friend.  I... I'm sorry.  I just ran into her last night..."

Takoda gritted his teeth.  That was a lie.  The photos Ivy had found had been dated five days ago.  And it was the same woman.  He was sure of that.  Not wanting to eavesdrop, Takoda stepped into Joccy's chamber.

Joccy stared at the angel.

Takoda waited for her to wave him away but she didn't.

And so he spoke.

"That's a lie, Jayden."

"Who is that?" Jayden questioned.

"It's me.  Takoda."  He stepped into view of the webcam.  "And I know that's a lie.  Another friend of mine found photos this morning.  From five days ago.  You and that same girl in the park.  You didn't just run into her last night."

Joccy gave a little cry.

"We were going to give you a chance to explain yourself," Takoda continued.  "But I think what just happened explained it pretty well."

"Joccy, don't listen to him.  He's been against me this whole time," Jayden insisted.  "I've seen how he looks at you.  Pathetic."

"Who is she really, Jayden?" Joccy repeated.  "The truth.  Now."

Jayden sighed.

"She's my ex, okay?  We broke up about a week before you and I hooked up."

Takoda flinched.  He knew it had been more than a hook up to Joccy.

"I mean... six months is a long time to be separated from you, baby.  I... I got lonely."

Suddenly, there was a woman shouting in the background. 

Jayden jumped up from his chair.

Joccy and Takoda stared at the screen which now depicted only Jayden's chair and a hallway.  But they could still hear.

"You told me you broke up with her when quarantine started!" the woman bellowed.  "What the hell have you been up to, Jayden?"

"We haven't seen each other for six months!  I've only been with you!" Jayden replied. 

Then he muttered an expletive and the call died.

Takoda looked over at Joccy who was shaking.

"He... he cheated.  He's... he's been cheating.  Nearly this whole time... maybe this... this whole time," she murmured.

"Joc..."

Joccy crumpled to the ground and began to sob.

"Joc..." Takoda repeated tenderly as he sunk to his knees beside her.

"He... he never love-loved me...  Not... not really..."

Takoda didn't know what to say so he simply wrapped his arms around the quaking woman.

"But I... I loved him...  I... I really loved him..."

"I'm so sorry, Joc.  I'm so, so sorry..."  Takoda gently swayed with her.

Joccy continued to sob for several minutes until she was exhausted and practically limp in the angel's arms.

"What can I do?" Takoda asked.  "Anything at all."

Joccy reached up and stroked his face.

"I... I'm so tired, Koda."

Takoda nodded.

"Understandable.  I'll help you to bed."

He did so then waited at her bedside.

Joccy reached for his right hand and squeezed.

"Can you..."  Her face flushed.

"Anything," Takoda promised again.

"Can you just... hold me until I fall asleep?  Please?"

Takoda sighed and nodded.

"Of course, Joc.  Happily."

He settled into the bed and wrapped his arms tightly around her, gently tucking her head under his chin.

"Thank you..." Joccy whispered.

"It's nothing.  Just rest, Joc.  Things... they'll be better after some rest," Takoda encouraged.

Joccy snuggled against him and said nothing more before she drifted to sleep.

Takoda couldn't smile... not when his beloved Joccy was so wounded.  But he also couldn't deny the contentment he felt with Joccy in his arms.

He would protect her now, no matter what came their way.

*~*~*

Tuesday, September 8th, 2020

Takoda roused from his sleep.  He was stretched out on his couch... Marty must have moved him.

Marty...

Takoda searched for the scribe but the room was empty. 

Next, he clamored for his phone and read all the text messages.  Amidst all the prayers, he zeroed in on one from Graham.

"She's out of surgery.  Breathing on her own which is great.  Hasn't regained consciousness."

Takoda let out a shaky breath then rose.  He ambled into the hall and headed towards Marty's room.  To his relief, he found the door open.

"Come in, Takoda," Marty invited.

"Thanks.  I... I don't suppose you have any news?"

Marty shook his head.

"No more than what Graham's shared."

"But...  You've probably recorded similar situations many, many times.  How... how likely is she to..."

Marty cut Takoda off with a wave of his hand.

"Takoda, I don't know.  Each case is different.  Each person is different.  She lost a lot of blood.  But I've seen others came through worse.  And..."

"You've seen others die from less?" Takoda finished.

Marty nodded.

Takoda began to cry.

"If only I hadn't fallen asleep..."

"Takoda...  You couldn't have known..."

"She'd just found out..."  He cut himself off, not wanting to betray Joccy.

"I know."

"Of... of course...  I... I'm not thinking straight."

"And that's understandable.  But others also knew what Joccy had discovered.  And none of them assumed she'd do this.  Are you going to blame them, too?"

Takoda stared down at his hands and shook his head.

"Then you shouldn't blame yourself..."

Marty gently patted the young angel's back.

Takoda gasped as the image of Joccy... sprawled, lifeless and bleeding, on the floor of the Tunnel chapel... returned to him.

That couldn't be his last memory of her...  It just couldn't.

*~*~*

Joccy

Tuesday, September 8th, 2020

Frightened, Joccy wandered the strange house she'd found herself in.  It wasn't truly a house...  It was massive.  More like a mansion or a castle.

And it wasn't the sort of mansion or castle she'd expected to find herself in.

This one was dark and filled with shadows.  There were drafts that made her shudder and strange noises behind the myriad doors that surrounded her.

She kept walking down the hall, searching for an escape.  Exits... or at least staircases leading to exits... were usually at the ends of halls or maybe in the middle of them... like at Willowveil.  But she couldn't find an end or a middle.  Finally, screwing up her courage, Joccy reached for one of the doors and opened it.

Inside, her father had Emma pressed up against a wall.  His hand was beneath her shirt.

"Not... not right now...  Joccy... she's not feeling well.  I need...  Derek, I need to check on her."

"She can wait.  Just a cold."

"Derek..."

Joccy watched her father grab Emma and push her onto the bed.

Then, just as she had as a child, Joccy hurried away from the door, tears streaming down her cheeks.

She ran and she ran, still desperately searching for a way out.  Finally, reluctantly, she had to try another door.  This one led into the bedroom of her childhood.

Joccy wandered inside.  She settled onto her bed and grabbed a plush horse her grandpa had given her.  She snuggled it close and buried her head in its mane.

Suddenly, the door flew open and her father appeared.

"What is this?" he demanded, throwing a piece of paper at her.

"I... I don't know," Joccy found herself replying, her voice suddenly sounding like it had when she was thirteen.  She grasped for the paper and began to read it.  It was a love letter from one of the boys at her school.  It was sweet and innocent... but he'd made the horrible mistake of mailing it to her home.

"What did you do with this boy?" Derek bellowed, snatching the letter away.

"I... I didn't do... do anything, Dad.  I... I promise.  I had no..."

"Your mother's taking you to the doctor."

Joccy shook her head, confused.

"But... but I'm not sick."

"We'll see about that," Derek grumbled before leaving the room.

Suddenly, Joccy was back in the hallway.  Her cheeks were burning.  She remembered that day.  And now she understood better what her father had wanted...  She'd been so naive back then.  She recalled the doctor listening as her mother meekly told her that she wanted Joccy's hymen checked.  It was only when the woman, with barely suppressed rage, had adamantly refused and informed Jodi that the state of a hymen was not proof of virginity or lack thereof  that Joccy had understood even a little.  Then her mother had been removed from the room and the doctor had gently asked her if she felt safe at home.  And she'd said she had... because her father never hurt her.  Not physically.  And if they were removed... maybe she'd be separated from Zoe.

Joccy continued stumbling down the hallway, occasionally opening doors.  Thankfully, the scenes they portrayed were gentler.

Joshua was holding her close after she'd, at last, confronted her father.  He was telling her how much he loved her and Zoe.

There she was reuniting with Emma.

Moving into the Tunnels, finally feeling at home.

Meeting Takoda for the first time.

Helping the little ones with their crafts.

And then, once again, the rooms became more somber.

Joccy was filled with shame when she found herself with Jayden... getting into bed with him... losing her virginity to him... thinking he loved her... planning to marry him...

Their relationship unfolded across several rooms... and then it imploded in another with the tell-tale Zoom call.

Then Takoda was there, holding her close and yet so gently.

And Joccy realized how much she had missed him.  Even when Dyeland and the Tunnels had opened back up, it hadn't been the same as in the early days.  She'd kept her distance.  But not then.  She snuggled beside her angel and fell asleep.

When Joccy woke up, Takoda had fallen asleep.  And she stared at him... pure, innocent Takoda.  He loved her.  He would do anything for her.  And she knew that.  And she'd turned away from him.  And she'd loved a boy... slept with a boy who had cheated on her... had likely been cheating on her the whole time.  But maybe she deserved that.  She could have had true, pure love.  But she'd rejected it... rejected him.  And she had no right to draw comfort from him now.  She had no right to be in his arms.

She was broken and dirty and depressed.  In spite of it all, she loved Jayden still.  But he didn't love her. 

Feeling a flash of hope, she checked her phone.  But there was nothing.  No "We need to talk more" or "I'm so sorry" or "I still love you, baby."  Nothing.

Joccy felt sick and sad.  She'd loved him...  He hadn't loved her.  Maybe never. 

There was only one person she knew who could make her whole again... only one man she truly trusted.

With tears streaming down her face, Joccy peered at Takoda. 

He deserved better.  He didn't deserve to be shackled to her... which now he would be.  Because she was weak and pathetic and he'd feel compelled to build her back up. 

Maybe... maybe they could be together in Heaven where she'd be fixed.  And he wouldn't have to take care of her.  They could be equals.  She would be better.

Joccy shook her head, trying to pull herself out of her thoughts.  Her sister... Emma... her mother... all of the Friends...  She couldn't hurt them like that.  She couldn't leave them to wonder what else they could have done to help her.

But if she stayed... she'd have to deal with all of them knowing about her humiliation.  Even if those in the Zoom call kept it quiet, someone would eventually ask about Jayden.  And Takoda would have to live with all of them knowing that she had turned from him for a man who had cheated on her... a man she had slept with even though she'd known she shouldn't. 

Joccy couldn't bear it.

And she needed Joshua.

Joshua could fix her.

She needed to get to Joshua.

Joccy carefully extricated herself from Takoda's embrace.  She went to her desk and withdrew two pieces of paper from her organizer.  She wrote two notes: one to Takoda and another to everyone else she loved.

Then, quietly, she returned to the bed and placed a soft kiss on Takoda's forehead before leaving her chamber.

The Tunnels were hushed.  It was just after midnight, after all.

Joccy crept towards Eliot's workshop.  She felt guilty for stealing... but it was better than her other idea of raiding Portia's supply of medicine.  People might need those pills.

Joccy studied the various carving knives that were laid out.  She selected one... small and sharp.

Feeling calmer now, Joccy made her way to the chapel.  She wanted to see Owen's painting of Joshua as she waited for the real Joshua.  She sat in front of the painting and did what she needed to do.

And then she waited.

Suddenly, Joccy was outside of her body.  She watched and waited, praying for Joshua to come.  But when someone finally entered the chapel, it wasn't Joshua.

"No!" Takoda screamed.  "No!" 

Joccy watched in horror as Takoda tore at his shirt, winding strips around her wrists. 

He screamed again, something guttural and wild that wasn't even a word.

Vincent appeared, along with Catherine.  Then Portia... who wept as she checked for signs of life.  Vincent grabbed Takoda who had begun pushing pews and chairs over, howling like an animal.

Then, from behind her, Joccy felt a great warmth.  She whirled around, expecting to see Joshua... finally.

But, to her surprise, she found Jemima.

"Hey, Joccy..."  Jemima reached for the girl's hands and squeezed them affectionately.

"Jemima...  Are... are you here to... to bring me Home?  I... I know I... I shouldn't have done that but... but..."  Joccy began to sob.  Somehow it hadn't occurred to her that maybe she wouldn't get to go to Heaven.  They said suicide was a sin, after all...

Jemima pulled Joccy close.

"It's not time for that, sweetheart.  There's so much left for you to do here."

"He... he won't let me into Heaven.  He... he doesn't want me, either," Joccy moaned.

"Shh.. shh...  No.  You know better than that.  Joshua loves you.  So much.  But... he has his plans.  And this..."  Jemima sighed as she looked at the chaos behind Joccy.  "This isn't it."

"So... so I'm going to wake up?" Joccy asked.

Jemima nodded.

"But..."  Joccy turned back to the others.  She fell to her knees when she saw Takoda on the ground, rocking and pulling at his hair while Catherine and Vincent fought to stop him.  What had she done?!  She stared at her body and began shaking her head.  What had she been thinking?  What had she done to those she loved so much?  What had she done to herself... to her life?

"Joccy... look at me," Jemima requested.  "Please."

When Joccy obeyed, she saw Jemima was no longer alone.  A beautiful woman with jet black hair down to her waist was standing behind Jemima, a hand on her shoulder.  She was smiling tenderly at Joccy.

"Joccy, this is my mother," Jemima introduced.  "Mary of Magdala and Bethany."

"Mary..." Joccy repeated in a daze.

Mary nodded and smiled.

"Hello, Joccy.  I'm so pleased to meet you.  Jemima told me about how kind you were to Yeshua when he was in the hospital... how kind and loving you always are to him."

"I... I wanted to... to see him.  I just wanted to see him.  But I..."  Joccy began to sob.  "I... I made a terrible mistake.  I'm so... so sorry."

"He understands, little one," Mary assured.  "And he forgives you.  And we'll have plenty of time to talk that over... so you really and truly believe it.  But right now...  Right now you need to focus on healing your body.  We'll work on the rest later.  I promise.  I'll be there when you need me."

"O-okay..."  Joccy yawned.  She peered at Jemima and Mary who were beginning to grow hazy.

"Rest now, sweet Joccy," Mary urged.

And then everything went black.

*~*~*

Wednesday, September 9th, 2020

Joccy awoke to the sound of beeping and voices from another room.

At first, it hurt to open her eyes but, eventually, she managed it.  She realized she was in a hospital room... and a familiar one.  She recognized the view.

This had once been Joshua's room at New York Presbyterian Hospital. 

As she realized where she was, the events of the past few hours came back to Joccy and she began to weep: both with gratitude that she'd survived and sorrow for what she'd experienced and for the pain she'd caused others.

Maybe that was why no one was at her bedside...  Maybe they were all angry at her.

But then Joccy remembered that it was a pandemic and visitor policies were strict... if they were allowed at all.

Joccy looked around, hoping to locate her cell phone.  But then maybe it was still in her chamber...  She hadn't brought it to the chapel.  She hadn't intended to ever need it again.

"Oh good!  You're up!  Good morning, sweetheart!"

Joccy turned to find a smiling Jemima standing in her doorway.  Seeing her, Joccy's dream... or whatever it had been... came back to her.

"Jemima...  Your mom..."

Jemima approached and gently brushed some hair from Joccy's face.

"That was real," she affirmed.  "I'm going to be here until they release you."

Joccy began to relax, comforted by the idea... but not for long.

"When they release me..." she started.

Jemima briefly peered out the window, looking to the rising sun, then directed her attention back to Joccy.

"Yeshu knew you'd be uncertain where to go."

Joccy nodded as tears welled in her eyes.

"I... I can't go Below.  I can't face them after... after they saw...  I can't face my mom or... or sister.  Or... anyone.  Not yet."

"I know.  So... as it happens... my Ama and Abi have been staying in town since last Christmas."  Jemima beamed.

"Your... Abi?"

Jemima nodded happily.

"Lucius.  You know the story, right?"

"Yeah...  But... didn't he die before you were born?"

"Yep.  But we've grown close since and since he's my Ama's anam cara...  He's my Abi."

In spite of the troubling situation she found herself in, Joccy chuckled.

"So a Roman centurion and Mary of Magdala have been living in New York City since Christmas?"

Jemima laughed.

"I mean it does sound kind of ridiculous... but yeah.  I think Yeshua just wanted them to have some fun for a couple months but then..."

"The pandemic..."

"Yeah...  Ama was working in a mental health crisis center for a while.  Abi... since we can't get it, you know... has been doing grocery runs and such for people.  He's turned into a really wonderful house-husband of sorts."

"But so... what's your Ama doing here now?  You said she WAS working..."

Jemima sobered and nodded again.

Joccy blinked.

"Is... is she still here just because... of me?"

Jemima squeezed Joccy's shoulder.

"She wants to be.  She understands."

Quietly, Joccy pondered what she knew of Mary's story... she, too, had been rejected by someone she'd deeply loved. 

"That's... a lot," Joccy murmured.

"I know...  But it was her choice.  Don't second guess it.  She doesn't like that.  She's a very determined lady.  I would know."

Joccy returned Jemima's smile.

"Yeah... you would.  I... I'm grateful.  Truly.  But right now...  Do you have a phone?"

"Actually..."  Jemima withdrew Joccy's own phone from her pocket.  "Catherine sent it with you... hoping.  I've sanitized it."

It was when she moved to take the phone that Joccy became aware of the myriad bandages on her wrists and hands.

"Oh..."

"Please try to keep them as still as you can.  We don't want you to re-open any stitches.  There... there are a lot."

Joccy stared at the bandages.

"But I... I don't feel any pain."

"You're on a lot of medication, sweetheart.  You will eventually feel it, I'm afraid."

Joccy nodded.

"I could call someone for you?  Hold the phone for you?"

"Yes...  Please."

"Who would you like me to call first?"

"I..."  Joccy felt like she should call her mom first.  Then she could talk to Zoe, too.  But...  She remembered Takoda, breaking down in the chapel.  "Takoda...  Please call Takoda," she answered.

"Will do!"

Joccy watched, anxiously, as Jemima dialed.

*~*~*

Coming Back

Takoda had moved outside.  He needed the fresh air.  But he was mindful of the watchful eyes peering out of the Willowveil ballroom.  He knew Andrew, JenniAnn, Marty, and Max were taking turns watching over him.  He couldn't blame them.  He didn't know what Vincent had told them but even if he'd said little, Takoda was sure his appearance when Vincent had escorted him home had told them enough to be worried about leaving him alone for long.

Takoda flopped onto the crisp grass and stared up at the sky.

The same prayer he'd been praying for hours ran through his mind.

"Please, don't let her die.  Don't let her die.  Don't let her die.  Don't..."

Takoda's cell phone came to life.

"When you walk through a storm,
hold your head up high,
And don't be afraid of the dark."

Joccy's ringtone!

Takoda scrambled to answer.

"Joc...  Joc..." he choked out.

He received only a sob in reply.

A moment later, a different voice took over.

"Takoda, this is Jemima.  I'm with Joccy.  She's awake and okay.  Just needs a few moments to collect herself, okay?"

"She... she's okay..." Takoda repeated.

"Yes.  Okay.  She wants to talk now."

"O-okay.  I'm here."  Tears rolled down Takoda's cheeks as he listened, silently thanking God.

"Koda...  I... I'm so sorry, Koda...."

"Joc... Joccy...  It... it's okay.  I'm just... so glad..."  In spite of his best efforts, Takoda broke down.

"I... I messed up... so bad..."

"No...  Joc, just... we need you to focus on... on getting better.  I... I need you..."  The angel sobbed again.  "I... love you."

"I love you, too, Koda.  I..."

Jemima came back on the line.

"I think that's all she can do for right now.  She's going to try and call her mom and sister and Emma now." 

Takoda heard Joccy faintly.  And then Jemima answering her.

"Okay, sweetheart.  Will do.  Takoda?"

"I'm... here."

"Can you start to get word out that Joccy's woken up?  She'd appreciate that."

Takoda nodded then, realizing they couldn't see his response, spoke.

"Yeah... yeah.  Happily."

"Thank you.  We'll talk to you soon."

"Good bye, Jemima.  Bye... bye, Joc."

Once the call ended, Takoda stared at his phone for a few moments.  Then he leaped to his feet and ran towards Willowveil's front door, excited and relieved to share the wonderful news.

*~*~*

Saturday, September 12th, 2020

Over the next three days, Joccy endured several mental health evaluations, physical examinations of the stitches on her wrists, and overall checks to ensure there was no lasting damage from her extreme blood loss.  With a reluctance pushed aside only due to COVID, she was released on Saturday morning.

"And you have somewhere to go?  Somewhere you feel safe?" Nina, the charge nurse, pressed.

Joccy nodded.

"I'm, um, staying with... a family friend.  She's a mental health professional."

The nurse's demeanor changed.

"That actually... that's good.  That makes me feel better.  So... you take care of yourself, missy.  I do NOT want to see you back here, okay?"

Joccy nodded eagerly.

"I will.  I promise."

"Okay...  Then I'm going to let Jemima here wheel you out."

"Thank you, Nina.  I won't forget you and all the care you gave to me."  Joccy smiled fondly at the woman and waved to her then simply smiled when she realized waving hurt.

"Good bye, Jocelyn, dear."  Nina returned Joccy's wave then moved onto the next of many patients.

Once they were on their way, Jemima squeezed Joccy's shoulders.

"Ama and Abi have a room all prepared for you!  It's super cute and sunny.  And you already have some things waiting there for you!"

"Things?" Joccy questioned.

"Catherine sent up some of your clothes and such.  But also gifts.  From the Friends."

"But I... I told them not to send anything because I was afraid it would get contaminated in the hospital."

"So... they didn't send to the hospital," Jemima replied with a grin.

"Oh..."  Joccy's eyes welled.

"Just think of it this way.  Now, for the duration, they have Ama's address.  I'm sure they're using the opportunity to write to her."

Joccy smiled.  That was definitely true.

"There's something else...  Well, a couple of things."

"Yes?"

Jemima steered them into an elevator.  Once the door closed, she resumed speaking.

"Ama and Abi are both sticklers about COVID.  Or rather... they will be with you.  They've just... seen too much in their lifetimes.  And since.  So once you're there... you're there.  But... they didn't want you to be completely isolated.  And Yeshua didn't want that, either.  So... Kelly's moved into the apartment next to theirs.  And... she has a guest bedroom.  So they've decided that you can pick someone to stay there.  But then they're in lockdown, too.  Except going back and forth between the two apartments.  Unless they're an angel, of course.  Or a spirit."

"Is... is Joshua..."

Jemima hugged Joccy.

"Not Yeshu.  He... he'll be with you.  And you will see him.  In time.  But... well, my Ama will talk to you more about that.  Anyway, you don't have to pick anyone right now.  Just something to think on.  You don't even have to pick anyone.  They just wanted you to know that was an option."

"Oh... okay.  I'll think about it.  Will you be there?"

"I'll drop in now and again," Jemima assured.

"Your Ama seems really nice...  That was real, wasn't it?  When I met her, I mean.  I think I asked before but..."

"It was very real.  And no worries.  Your mind's bound to be a bit fuzzy."

Joccy sighed.  Now weaned off of her pain medication, her head was clearer now... as were her memories.

"Everything?  The way Takoda..."

"Yes, sweetheart."

Joccy softly wept, dampening her mask.

The elevator door opened.

"They should be waiting just outside...  And there they are!"  Jemima waved enthusiastically at her parents.

Joccy simply gawked.  Mary was just as beautiful as she remembered.  And if she had to pick anyone to play Lucius, George Clooney would have been a solid choice.  But beyond their good looks, Joccy was struck anew with the realization that she was going to stay with Mary of Magdala.

As Joccy and Jemima approached, Mary's and Lucius' warm smiles were evident even with their masks.

"Hello there!" Lucius greeted.  "So pleased to meet you, Miss Jocelyn."

Joccy smiled as he very gently took one of her hands in both of his.

"Joccy, please.  And... it's so amazing to meet you both.  I... I just can't believe..."  Fresh tears welled in Joccy's eyes when she looked into Mary's warm, welcoming ones.

"We're so looking forward to hosting you, Joccy.  I think we'll have a very good time together.  So... shall we?" Mary gestured to the car door that Lucius was holding open.

"Thank you."  Blushing at the attention, Joccy stepped into the car.  "Thank you," she repeated when Lucius set the few belongings she'd had at the hospital beside her.

"I'll stop by in a day or two!" Jemima promised.  "Have fun!"

"Thank you, Jemima.  I... I really appreciated having you near and all of your help during these past few days."  Joccy smiled tearfully.  "Means a lot."

"You're very welcome.  Have a good time!  Make sure my Abi makes you lots of sweets!"

Mary laughed.

"He doesn't need any encouragement in that department," she joked.  "We'll save some for you, Yemmy."

"See you soon, Dulcis," Lucius called to Jemima as she headed back into the hospital.

"Thanks.  And definitely!" Jemima yelled back.

Then Mary and Lucius joined Joccy in the car.

"You ready?" Lucius checked.

Joccy nodded.

"Yes.  Thanks."

Mary reached back and gently patted Joccy's knee and then they were off.

*~*~*

As they were nearing the apartment building, Mary angled around to look at Joccy.

"We have a couple of friends who came over to help rearrange things.  But they're going to stay out of the way until you get settled.  You'll have your own bathroom.  Let me know if there's anything you need.  And, always, help yourself to whatever you find in the kitchen."

"Thank you... so much.  This is... unbelievable.  Jemima already mentioned about not going out... which I didn't plan to... but... do you have any other house rules?" Joccy inquired.

"Not really rules...  We do stick to a schedule of sorts.  We have a grab and go sort of breakfast.  Lucius does his grocery and errand runs in the morning.  So I thought you and I could visit then.  Maybe around 9:30?  10:00?"

"Either one sounds good to me."

"Let's plan on 10:00.  Then I try to have lunch ready for when Lucius comes home.  If it's nice, I like to spend as much of the afternoon as possible on the balcony.  Reading, praying, visiting."  Mary smiled with fondness.  "Watching the birds and other little critters.  You'd be welcome to join us any time."

"Thank you."

"I start dinner preparations around 4:30 then we typically eat around 6:00," Lucius continued.  

"I thought, if you want, we could talk more then," Mary suggested.  "Lucius is a wonderful cook... but not the best at delegating.  I try to stay out of his way."

Joccy laughed.

"Understood.  Then I will, too."

"And... here we are."  Lucius pulled into a parking spot.

The three donned their masks again then made their way up to the apartment. 

"Home, sweet home," Lucius announced as he unlocked the front door and waved the two women in first.

Joccy smiled shyly at the men seated on the couch.  They returned her smile and waved.

"Boys, we'll get back to you," Mary promised.  "So, Joccy, as you can see, we have the kitchen and living room here.  Then just down this hallway... there's Lucius' and my bedroom.  And this way..."  Mary thrust open a door.  "Is your room."

"Oh..."  Joccy surveyed the room.  As Jemima had promised, it was cute and sunny.  The walls were painted a beautiful robin's egg blue and the furniture was mostly white.  There was a comfortable-looking bed, a dresser, a rocking chair, a bed stand, and a few book shelves.  Plush toys and potted plants were situated on the shelves. 

"Those are all yours.  Sent by your friends."

Joccy's eyes glittered.

"They... they're so kind."

"Very much so."  Mary opened another door.  "And here's your bathroom.  If you'd like, I can leave you to clean up."

Joccy nodded.

"I would like to do that but..."  Joccy stared down at her hands.  "I have to put waterproof coverings over my bandages.  Could you... help... please?"

"Of course, dear!  I imagine the coverings are in your bag?"

Joccy nodded.

"Found them!"  Mary held them up with a smile then carefully unwrapped them.  "Just wrap it around?"

"Yes, please."

"Got it." 

Joccy's face flushed slightly.  She couldn't believe a saint was helping her like this...

Mary smiled.

"You're going to have to get over that, you know."

"Over... what?"

Mary laughed.

"Me, I guess." 

Joccy smiled and bowed her head.

"Yeah...  I guess I'm just in awe.  Which... is weird.  Because... cause I don't feel... awkward like this with... with..."  She sighed.

Mary squeezed her shoulder.

"It's just the novelty.  And... Yeshua has a way of putting people at ease.  But, trust me, things will be better by tomorrow morning... if not before.  One look at me in my flannel pajamas and my hair sticking every which way as I scramble for coffee... it kills the aura of sainthood pretty quickly, I think."

Joccy laughed, truly and deeply laughed.

"Thanks.  And... I'm more pleasant after my coffee, too."

Mary grinned.

"Noted."  She tucked a final bit of plastic covering.  "I think you're set."

"Thank you.  I appreciate it... all of it."

"It's our pleasure, truly.  We'll see you in a bit but if you decide you just need some time for yourself, that's fine, too."

"I think I'm up for visiting," Joccy assured. 

"Wonderful!  We'll have some tea and cookies waiting for you."  Mary smiled again then closed the door.

Joccy looked around the room once more, feeling immensely grateful and blessed, then stepped into the bathroom.  All of her toiletries were already laid out.  The only thing missing was her razor which she couldn't blame either Catherine or Mary for keeping away. 

It took her longer than normal to shower and washing her hair was quite the task.  But Joccy felt much better when she was finished and she was grateful that there were no signs of blood peeking around her bandages.  Brushing her hair, however, proved too taxing.  She was debating what to do... throw a scarf over her hair? stay in her room? just go out there with her hair a mess of tangles?... when there was a knock on her door.

"Joccy, it's me.  Just got to thinking that you may need help with your hair," Mary called.  "If you want me to..."

Joccy opened the door and nodded.

"Please.  I was just trying to figure that out."

Mary beamed.

"I was hoping you'd let me.  I used to love brushing out Yemmy's hair and styling it."

Mary waved to the bed and sat down behind Joccy. 

"Is that why some people say you were a hair stylist?" Joccy asked.

"Hmm...  Maybe so!  I did enjoy it.  But never as a profession.  I just found it very soothing... and a good opportunity to catch up with Yemmy... sometimes my only opportunity as she got older and we spent more and more time preaching."

"I love Jemima.  She's been so helpful and kind and... it made not having visitors so much easier," Joccy admitted.  "Not that they didn't offer to come.  It's just... thinking someone coulda been exposed because of me...  I couldn't take that stress on top of..."

Mary squeezed Joccy's shoulders when she drifted off.

"I hope Emma gets to meet you at some point," Joccy resumed.  "It would mean a lot to her."

"It would mean a lot to me, too!  She does such a wonderful job of bringing me to life... even if it's not exactly me."

Joccy laughed.

"Yeah...  I imagine Lucius would have some thoughts on 'I Don't Know How to Love Him.'"

"I have some thoughts on it!  It's a beautiful song but..."

Joccy smiled when a nearby mirror revealed Mary wrinkling her nose.

"I love Yeshua.  More than I love anyone.  But... not like that.  He was... and is... more like a big brother than anything.  He was so much older.  Although... Lucius was older, too.  But... I didn't grow up seeing him as much older."

"Takoda is eleven years older than me."  Joccy blushed when she realized her saying that made it sound like they were the equivalent of Mary and Lucius.

Mary shrugged.

"True.  But I count their ages differently.  The angels' ages, I mean.  Think about Violeta.  She's twenty three but..."

Joccy giggled.  Violeta definitely didn't seem twenty three. 

"I happen to know that Takoda has only been visiting the mortal realms since 2000," Mary continued.

"That's the year I was born."

Mary nodded.

"So... we're basically the same age.  I mean... he does feel like a peer."

"Because he is, dear."

Joccy silently contemplated this.  If she were completely honest with herself, part of why she'd pulled away from Takoda was because she couldn't understand why someone like him would care about her.  He was an angel... stronger, wiser, more capable.  But then... hadn't she known from the beginning that he was fallible?  That his emotions sometimes took control of him just as hers did?  They'd only met because he'd run away from Joshua, from Heaven.  And she'd tried to run towards him, towards Heaven.  They'd both been wrong in opposite and yet similar ways.

Joccy sniffled.

"I... I miss him."

"I know..."

"And I... I don't just mean since... since it happened.  I've missed him since January when... when... I started to get more distant because... cause of... of Jayden."

Mary placed a final ribbon then was finished styling Joccy's hair into a braided, partial ponytail.

"Do you think..."

"Hmm?" Mary encouraged.

"Do you think Takoda would... could... if Kelly's still up for it... Jemima mentioned..."

Mary hugged Joccy.

"Kelly is still willing to have someone stay with her.  And, yes, I think Takoda would be happy to do so.  But... let's give it a day.  See how you feel tomorrow.  After some sleep, hmm?"

Joccy nodded.  That was a good idea.  She needed a good night's sleep in a comfortable, quiet bed... no beeping, no nurses whispering.  If she asked Takoda now, he would come immediately.  And she felt too raw and tired for that.

"Would you still like to come chat?" Mary checked.  "It's okay if not..."

"No... I would.  Please."

"Then let's go meet the fellows!"

Mary took Joccy's arm and helped her from the bed.  They were at the end of the hall when Joccy abruptly stopped.

"Should I wear a mask?  I feel fine but if I caught it in the hospital..."

The man nearest to them rose from the couch and smiled, shaking his head.

"No need to worry about that, miss.  We're dead."

"Dead to the world... alive in Christ," the other corrected.

"What he said."

Joccy smiled as she studied them.  She was instantly intrigued.  They appeared to be in their thirties, both tanned but more like Lucius than Mary or Joshua.  Both were brunettes but one had hair a few shades lighter than the other.  The darker one was wearing jeans and a T-shirt emblazoned with a rainbow cross and the words "Love is Love."  The lighter haired man was also donning jeans but, to Joccy's delight, had on a Crocetti's Cucina T-shirt.

"I know them!" Joccy exclaimed.  "The Crocettis, I mean.  Isolde and Marco."

"Great food!  I hope I get to meet them some day, too.  I've heard... very interesting and inspiring things about them.  I'm Bacchus, by the way.  Bach to my friends."  The man winked.  "I like you.  You can call me Bach.  And this is my anam cara, Sergius."

The other man held out his hand.

"Just Serge."

"Joccy.  And... it's so good to meet you both."

"Sit, everyone.  Eat up," Lucius directed as he set a plate of cookies down on a coffee table that already bore a teapot and cups.

"How do you take your tea, dear?" Mary asked.

"Umm..."

"It's Earl Grey."

"One of my favorites!  Cream and sugar then, please," Joccy requested.

"Coming right up!"  Mary smiled as she prepared the cup.  "That's the way I take mine, too." 

"Gentlemen?" Lucius checked.

"Just black," Serge replied.  "Please."

"Two sugars, please?" Bach requested.

As Mary and Lucius prepared the tea, Joccy continued to study the two men, trying to place them.

"I... well, I'm afraid I don't know who you are," she admitted.  "Were you friends with Lucius?"

Serge shook his head.

"Not til Heaven.  We missed him by a few centuries.  Born in the late 3rd century and died in the 4th century A.D."

"Are you... martyrs?" Joccy asked gently.

Bach nodded.

"We were soldiers in the Roman Army... and covert Christians.  When we were outed... in more ways than one... I was tortured to death and Serge here was beheaded."

Joccy grimaced.

"I'm so sorry..."

Serge shrugged.

"Didn't take."  He rolled his head and chuckled.

"I just... I grew up in the Catholic Church and attended Catholic schools.  I don't remember either of you.  I'm sorry."

"Not your fault," Bach assured, carefully patting Joccy's right hand.  "Erasure happens."

"Yeah...  So... did other Christians of your time know about you two?  I mean about... your being anam caras?" Joccy inquired, emboldened by the relaxed nature of the two.

"Not in those words.  But yes.  There... well, there are a lot of differences between the Christianity we grew up with and the Christianity you grew up with, I'm afraid," Bach opined.  "We definitely had values when it came to relationships.  But this purity culture nonsense..."

Joccy's face flushed. 

"That's exactly what it is.  Nonsense," Serge agreed as Mary and Lucius nodded.  "I'm not saying it all comes from an evil place.  Many people mean well.  But..."

"Some are a little too fond of the Madonna/whore complex."  Mary sipped her tea.  "So Serge and Bach are erased and I don't get any nuance.  Even Maryam doesn't get any nuance.  She was in love with Yosef.  Always.  Whatever happened between them obviously honored God but... the rest of us don't need to be privy to it."

Joccy peered intently and with admiration at the four.  Her father would have flipped out by now.  But there was no way he knew more than three centuries old saints.

"To be fair, Christianity doesn't hold a monopoly on dubious beliefs about sexuality and women," Lucius offered.  "I spent my early years worshiping gods with a mythology dotted with numerous rapes of young women.  Not to mention the goings on with some of those caesars..." 

Mary squeezed his hand.

"And yet... you turned out very well."

Lucius blushed.

"Thanks to Abigail.  She was my wet nurse... mother, really.  She was Jewish," he explained to Joccy who nodded with vague recollection. 

"A rebel in her own way," Mary added.  "It's not as if Judaism had it all right."

"No..."  Lucius patted her back.

"Anyway..."  Mary smiled at Joccy.  "Is everything in your room okay?  Because the guys can move things around if you'd like."

Joccy shook her head.

"No, no.  It's perfect.  I really appreciate it... all of it."

Lucius smiled.

"It was fun for us.  Imagine our surprise when we woke up one day and our one-bedroom had become a two-bedroom."

Joccy giggled.

"Really?"

"Really.  Although I'm pretty confident that if we were to look at a blueprint, it's still a one-bedroom.  Miracles and all."  Lucius glanced at the ceiling.

Joccy smiled as she nibbled on a cookie.

"So, Mary and Lucius, how about you tell us how you've been keeping busy down here?" Serge suggested.  "It's been quite the stay."

After the couple exchanged smiles, they took turns regaling the other three with their adventures... and misadventures with modern technology.

Joccy took it all in, growing more and more comfortable around the others and enjoying the break from her current reality.

*~*~*

The Reunion

Sunday, September 13th, 2020

On Sunday morning, Mary led a brief service after breakfast.  Joccy closed her eyes and sang along to familiar hymns like "In the Garden" and "Abide With Me."  Her favorite part was when Mary sung a hymn in Aramaic.  She'd glanced over at Lucius and been touched to see him smiling so proudly. 

Afterwards, Lucius headed out on his errands, leaving the two women to visit alone.

"So... have you thought more about inviting Takoda?" Mary asked as she refilled Joccy's cup of coffee.

"Thank you... and yes.  I... I want to ask him but... I feel like when I ask him, he'll say yes whether he wants to or not."

Mary shrugged.

"Maybe so.  But it would still be his decision.  In spite of what I said yesterday, he is an adult, capable of making his own decisions whatever the reasons behind them.  And since he is an angel... he wouldn't be as limited.  He could still go back to Dyeland when he wants... after enjoying Andrew's shower, of course."

Joccy smiled.

"You know about that?"

Mary laughed and nodded.

"Andrew and JenniAnn are... well... I mean it's not like we ever invade their privacy.  That would be wrong.  But some of us peek down every once in a while.  They're very cute."

Giggling, Joccy nodded.

"They are.  So...  Do I ask Kelly first or..."

"You don't really have to ask.  She's expecting someone.  But might be good to tell her.  Shall I call her over?"

"If you think she's available."

"Definitely." 

Joccy watched, expecting Mary to call.

Instead, there was a knock on the door and then Kelly's voice.

"Heard you call.  Headed in."

Mary laughed at Joccy's amazement.

"Good morning, Mary!  And Joccy... sweetheart..." 

Joccy rose and moved into the angel's waiting arms.

"How are you doing?" Kelly asked softly.

"I... I'm good.  Glad to see you.  Glad... to be here."

Kelly lightly ran her hands over Joccy's hair.

"I'm glad you're here, too.  And... I understand you've found a roommate for me?  I'm glad!  Getting a bit too quiet over there."

"I... well... I thought I... I would ask Koda... Takoda," Joccy shared as the two sat back down.

"Thanks, Mary."  Kelly accepted a mug from the saint then turned back to Joccy.  "I think that's a wonderful idea and it would mean so much to him.  And I'd be delighted to have him join me.  He... well, he reminds me a little of my son, my Jesse."

Joccy smiled sympathetically and squeezed Kelly's hand then looked to Mary.

"So... do you do the thing you just did with Kelly or..."

Mary shook her head.

"I think it would mean more to him if you asked him directly."

"Yeah... yeah.  That makes sense."  Joccy nodded but didn't move.

Ever patient, Mary simply continued the conversation, allowing her time.

"So what did you think of Serge and Bach?"

Joccy grinned.

"I loved them!  I'm just sorry more people don't know about them.  I... well... I had no idea there were gay saints.  I mean... they are gay, right?  I guess anam caras aren't necessarily..."

"Were gay.  We're all asexual now.  Although..."  Mary tilted her head.  "The romance doesn't really go away.  Not when it was real.  So... maybe?  Labels don't matter much in Heaven.  We're all just... who we are."

"I like that..." Joccy answered, her voice soft.  "I think... I think I'd like to call Takoda now.  When can he come?"

Kelly shrugged.

"Whenever he wants.  I'm ready."

"Maybe we could have dinner together?  All five of us?  Might be a nice Sunday tradition?" Mary ventured.

"I like that idea a lot."  Joccy hugged Mary and then Kelly.  "Thank you.  Both of you.  I'm just gonna step into my room and... and call him."

"Take your time," Mary urged.

"Okay..." 

Joccy's hands began to shake when she reached her room.  She wasn't even sure what she wanted to say...  But she knew that if she thought too much about it, she'd talk herself out of it.  And she needed to see him.  So she dialed.

"Joc...  I'm here," he answered on the first ring.

Tears welled in Joccy's eyes.

"Hi, Koda."

"Hi...  Hi, Joc.  I... I've missed you."

"I miss you, too, Koda.  And... and... Kelly's here.  She moved in next door."

"I heard."

"And... she has an extra bedroom.  And she said... well, that I could ask someone to... to stay there."

There was silence on the other end.

"So... would... you?" Joccy squeaked out.

"When can I come?" Takoda answered without hesitation.

Joccy breathed a sigh of relief.

"Whenever you want."

"I'll start packing now.  Won't take long!"

"Do you need the address?"

"No.  I have it from... from when I sent..."

Joccy looked over her shoulder to where a peace lily sat on the dresser.

"The lily...  Thank you for that.  Everyone... they've been so good.  I especially love the lily."

"I'm glad.  Is there anything else I can bring you?"

Joccy thought.

"Actually... could you ask JenniAnn if I could have some paper and markers?  I'd like to make and send some thank you notes."

"I'm sure she'll agree.  It... it'll be nice to do crafts together again."

"It... it really will."

"If there's nothing else... I'd like to start packing," Takoda said after a few moments of awkward silence.  "Unless... I could keep you on speaker phone while I do?"

"No... nothing else.  And that's okay.  I should go tell Mary and Kelly you're on your way.  You do... you don't feel pressured to come, do you?  It's okay to say if..."  Joccy stared down at her bandages, fighting tears.

Takoda's voice shook when he replied.

"Joc...  I need... I want to see you.  I... I feel so grateful that Kelly's doing this.  That you asked me...  There's no pressure.  I promise.  I want to come.  Badly.  Okay?"

"O-okay...  Thank you."

"Thank you for asking.  I'll be there soon.  Within an hour.  Good?"

"Good."

"Until then... I love you, Joc."

"I... I love you, too, Koda.  Good bye."

"Good bye, Joc."

Joccy let out a shaky breath.

In less than an hour... Takoda would be with her.

*~*~*

It took Takoda ten minutes to pack.  Another five were spent helping JenniAnn throw a bunch of craft supplies into a box.  She was determined to give Joccy not only all the paper and markers she needed but an assortment of yarn, pom-poms, beads, paint, crayons, coloring books, and more to keep her busy and content.  Then there was a twenty minute subway commute from a portal to Mary's and Lucius' apartment building.  Takoda stopped at Kelly's apartment first where she hustled him towards the shower... just in case.  And then, ten minutes later, he was knocking on the couple's door.

"Takoda, welcome!"  Lucius stuck his hand out.  "I'm Lucius.  But I know you're not here for me and we can get to know each other later.  Down that hall and to the right."

"Th-thanks."  Takoda smiled at the man and followed his direction.  He stood for a few moments in front of Joccy's door.  "Please... please don't let me say or do anything stupid or... or that could hurt her, however unintentionally," he prayed.

Joccy's door opened and Mary stepped out.

"Takoda!  Hello!  So glad you're here!"

"Am I... interrupting anything?" he asked. "I... I can come back in a few..."

Mary shook her head.

"Oh no!  I was just helping Joccy with her hair.  All done!  She's ready for you.  Go right in."

Takoda nodded.

"Thanks..."

Mary smiled, patted the angel on the back, and then headed towards the living room and Lucius.

Takoda entered Joccy's room and his breath caught in his throat.

She was standing near a window, tending to one of her plants.  With the sunlight, she appeared to be glowing.

"Joc..."

Joccy turned towards Takoda and, for a few moments, only stared.  Then she gasped and ran towards him.

Takoda wrapped his arms around her. 

"I... I'm so sorry.  So sorry I... I did that a-and that you had... had to see... and... my mind... it... it was all... all darkness.  And..."  Joccy's voice was swallowed by a sob.

"It's okay... it's okay..."  Takoda kissed her hair and steered them to the edge of the bed.  Once they were seated, he wrapped an arm around Joccy while she rested her head on his shoulder.  The angel's breath again caught in his throat when Joccy settled her hands in her lap and he saw the carefully wrapped bandages covering her wrists.  Something Andrew had said during their hasty good bye came to him.

"Scars mean that she stayed.  Remember that."

Takoda let out the breath he'd been holding.

Joccy was here.  In his arms.  There was a lot to talk about.  She needed a lot of help.  But she was alive and she was safe.

"I love you.  So much.  I... I should have told you... sooner... more often.  I'm... I'm sorry," Takoda apologized.

Joccy shook her head and cupped his chin, ignoring the pain in her wrist.

"I... I knew, Koda.  I knew.  And you did tell me.  I never, ever doubted that you loved me.  Please... please don't think that I... I did what I did because... cause I didn't feel loved.  I... I knew I was loved.  But I just... I felt horribly, completely broken and... and unworthy a-and dirty."

Takoda shook his head.

"No..." he protested.

"But it's what I felt and..."  Joccy sighed and buried her face in the angel's shoulder.

"You... you can't still feel..."

"In some ways..."

"Joc..."

"I know I shouldn't!  I do.  But it... it's like there are two voices in... in my head.  And, usually, the one I hear best... it... it sounds like Joshua.  And he tells me that he loves me and he forgives me and that I'm worth dying for.  But... but sometimes... sometimes another voice gets louder.  And it tells me that I have to be a... a certain way to be loved, to be worthy... and that I'm not.  I... I've done too many bad things..."

"That voice is wrong, Joc..."

"But... but I did do bad things... with... with Jayden," Joccy protested.

"We all fall short of... of perfection, Joc.  But... you weren't cruel.  You didn't hurt anyone."

"I... I hurt you."

Takoda let out a ragged sigh.

"Loving someone means risking getting hurt somehow.  I took that risk.  Willingly.  You... you loved Jayden.  You were with him because of that.  Not because you wanted to hurt me.  Joc... I can't fault you for feelings."

Joccy stood up and stared out the window.

"Then... I fault myself.  I should have known better.  I knew it... it wasn't what Joshua wanted and I... I still..."  She shook her head.

"Hormones and... and urges...  They can be difficult to ignore.  You're human, Joc.  Joshua understands that... better than I even can.  And I... I think I understand in some way.  And think of where you are right now, Joc.  Lucius and Mary... they were never married," Takoda pointed out. 

Joccy turned around and looked at Takoda.  She'd known that.  It just hadn't entirely clicked. 

"The first person Joshua appeared to after the Resurrection was to a woman who had sex outside of wedlock.  The first real Christian, the first to spread the good news... 'He is risen.'"  Takoda drew closer and lightly stroked Joccy's hair.  "She understands.  You can tell her anything and she'll understand.  She'll help you in ways I can't.  Just... promise me you'll give Mary that chance, Joc.  You... you hold stuff back with me.  And I don't blame you for that.  But, please... don't with her.  So... so you can feel better a-and heal.  Because I... I don't ever want..."  Tears slid down his cheeks and his breath quickened as he remembered the chapel.  "Don't ever want to... to see you like... like that..."

Joccy hurried towards the angel and hugged him.

"I will... I will, Koda.  I promise." 

"Good."

Joccy gave him a trembling smile.

"I'm so glad you're here, Koda."

"I... I'm glad you are, too, Joc."

Takoda returned her smile then the two went quiet, focusing only on the warmth and closeness of the other.

*~*~*

Sermonizing a Bit

Monday, September 14th, 2020

Joccy awoke with a smile on her face.  The previous evening had been dream-like.  Dinner had been a delicious pot pie with a side of macaroni and cheese.  Then Lucius had proudly brought forth a spice cake that had melted in Joccy's mouth.  And then there had been the conversation... Kelly reminiscing about creating stars... Takoda had been right about them... Mary telling stories about growing up under the watchful and loving gazes of her siblings and Yeshua and his family...

But Lucius' story had been the best.

Joccy snuggled her face into her pillow as she recalled it.

"And, suddenly, a bright light shone in Sheol.  People began to rejoice.  But I was confused... and scared.  Their Messiah had come... theirs.  Not mine.  Then Cyrus and Eucharis, Mary's parents, grabbed my hands and started pulling me towards the light.  And I saw there was a man in the midst of it.  He... well, there was nothing special about his appearance.  And yet...  I felt a reverence that I'd never felt... not for any caesar, any ruler.  And... a recognition, a familiarity, too.  As if I had known him... long, long ago.  And then I saw his wrists...  The wounds...  Wounds my people had inflicted...  I began to shrink away... in horror, in embarrassment, in guilt.  Suddenly, he was right there beside me.  And he said 'Lucius Caelius, son of Romulus, beloved of Mary bat Cyrus... it will be written "Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one's life for one's friends."  But you didn't lay down your life for a friend... you lost your life trying to save two strangers... because you saw goodness and worth in them when so many did not.  And that... is God's love.  Just as you showed immense love, so shall it be shown to you.'  And then the little boy... the one I couldn't save... he was there, clinging to the man and smiling up at him.  And I wept at the sheer beauty of it... of the love that poured out from him... from Yeshua.  And I longed to be like that boy.  Yeshua held his hand out to me and... and I took it.  And then I was Home... with him."

Joccy lingered on the vision of Joshua that Lucius' words had conjured... the tender look in his eyes... the gentle but strong way he would have held the Roman's hand... his scars...

Sitting up, Joccy stared at her own wrists.  Carefully, she undid the bandages.

Joshua's scars were beautiful.  Hers were not.  He had gotten his saving the world.  She had gotten hers from a poisoned mind... and all it had brought about was pain... for herself, yes, but more for those she loved.  She screwed her eyes shut as memories of Takoda, thrashing around the chapel, returned to her.

A knock on her door saved Joccy from further torture.

"Come... come in," she called.

Mary poked her head in.

"Good morning, dear.  Just wanted to check on you."  She frowned and stepped into the room.  "Joccy..."

Joccy realized Mary was looking to her wrists.

"I... I just wanted to... to see what they looked like this morning.  No change."

Mary nodded.

"I see.  Well, since the bandages are off, why don't we wash the wounds and change into fresh bandages?"

"Okay.  Thank you.  What time is it?"

"9:45."

Joccy jolted.

"I had no idea...  I'm sorry.  We're supposed to meet at 10:00!"

"No worries at all.  You obviously needed some sleep."  Mary stepped into the bathroom and returned with a basin and washcloth.  "After we finish with this, I'll bring you some breakfast.  A lie-in would be good for you, I think.  We can talk here just as well as in the living room or balcony, hmm?"

"Yes.  Thank you...  I'm just..."

"You're fine," Mary assured.  "Okay, ready?"

Joccy nodded.

Though Mary was exceedingly gentle and careful, Joccy still winced slightly as she cleaned the scars.

"I'm so sorry," Mary apologized.

"No... no.  It... it can't be helped."  Joccy smiled.  "It actually hurts less now than when I do it."

Mary returned her smile.

"Well, then, let's plan that I'll do it going forward, okay?"

Joccy nodded.

"I... I can tell you were a good mommy," she murmured.

Mary beamed.

"Thank you.  Yemmy was constantly getting into scrapes.  If there was a tree, she was going to climb it.  If there was a pond, she was going to jump into it.   If there was an animal, she was going to pet it... whether or not it wanted to be pet."

Joccy laughed.

"Kept me on my toes!  And Martha..."  Mary snorted.  "She was just beside herself.  All that dirt...  But she loved Yemmy.  And she was the apple of Lazar's eye.  Kept them young, I think."

"It's hard for me to imagine having a brother and sister who were so much older," Joccy mused.

Mary shrugged. 

"It was odd, I suppose.  But it's all I ever knew.  I did sometimes think it would have been nice to have another sister my own age.  Like you and Zoe."

"Yeah..."  Joccy sniffled.  "I miss her..."

"Maybe later you could try a Zoom call?"

"Maybe..."  Joccy stared at her hands.  She had talked to Zoe and her mother on the phone.  But she hadn't let them see her yet.

Mary finished washing and began to bandage Joccy's wrists.

"I think it would do all three of you good," she ventured. 

"Yeah...  I just...  Then... they'll see."

"Yes... but seeing might help.  People tend to imagine things as worse than they are."

"True...  Has Lucius already left?" Joccy asked to change the subject.

"About an hour ago.  He had a lot of deliveries.  Did you need anything?  I can contact him if..."

"Oh no.  Just curious."

"I sometimes think a few of his clients are stocking up beyond what they truly need just so they have reason to see him.  The little old ladies adore him."

Joccy giggled.

"I can see that.  He is very handsome and personable.  You have good tastes."

"Thank you.  I think so."  Mary smiled proudly. 

"I loved the story he told last night... about Joshua."

Mary's smile softened.

"I do, too.  He's told it so many, many times... and always his eyes get misty."

A quietness settled into the room, Joccy replaying Lucius' memory over and over in her mind and Mary focusing on tending to Joccy.

"All set," Mary announced when she was finished.  "I'll give you a few minutes to yourself now while I get some breakfast and coffee for us. Then we'll chat."

Joccy rested a hand on Mary's arm.

"Thank you."

"You're most welcome."

After Mary left, Joccy spent some time making herself more presentable.  As she was selecting some clothes, she noticed a thin box settled amongst the items Catherine had packed for her.  Joccy removed it and opened the lid, running her fingers over the turquoise and coral.

"Cool necklace.  Part of your heritage?"

"Yeah!  The design is Algonquin.  That was my great-grandpa's tribe."

"So it's an heirloom?"

"No.  My friend Takoda got it for me for Christmas."

"Oh."

"Oh?"

"It's just... feels a little weird for my girlfriend to be wearing a necklace from some other guy."

"Oh...  Yeah.  I guess so.  Sorry."

Hot tears filled Joccy's eyes.  For all she knew, Jayden had been two-timing her even then.  She'd given up her necklace because she'd wanted to be a good girlfriend.  And all for a crappy boyfriend...

Defiantly, Joccy fastened the necklace around her neck.

When Mary reappeared with a tray of fruit, scones, and coffee, she said nothing about the necklace, only smiled.

"Here we go.  Eat up!"  She set the tray on Joccy's bed then pulled up the rocking chair.  "So... if it's all right with you... I'd like to talk about your childhood."

Joccy gulped.

"Oh boy..."

Mary patted her arm.

"I know how things we hear or were taught as kids can follow us through our whole lives... even when, deep down, we know better."

"Yeah..."

"And I think some of those things you were taught helped bring about what happened on Tuesday.  So... you focus on your breakfast and allow me to sermonize a bit... pipe up whenever you'd like."

"Okay..."  Joccy took a bite of a scone.  The cinnamon-y goodness of it eased her nerves.

"For all the years between us, I think you and I grew up in environments that were quite similar in some ways.  Women were valued for their 'purity,' their virginity, and, later, their fertility.  One big difference is I heard those messages consistently from Martha... with silent acquiescence from Lazar.  They weren't unfeeling... never that.  And... there were things about my brother that I wouldn't learn until I was in Heaven."

Joccy looked curiously at Mary who sighed sadly.

"Something not everyone thinks about in regards to misogyny...  It hurts men, too.  It hurts everyone.  Have you ever wondered why Lazar and Martha never married?"

"Yes... actually.  I mean... I figured it wasn't our business but... I did find it curious."

"Lots of people did.  Soooo much whispering...  They expected something sordid... but really it was just sad.  Lazar had been in love once.  A girl from Jerusalem.  He wanted to marry her but... she was raped and when she was found to be with child..."

Joccy tensed.

"Her parents married her off to the man who had done it... to save face.  To be fair, it was just as much for her to save face as their family.  But still...  It was awful.  Something broke in Lazar.  After that, I think Yeshu... and Yosef before he died... were the only men Lazar trusted.  If Yeshu had asked for Martha's hand... Lazar probably would have consented.  But he never did, of course.  And Martha... well, Lazar let her have her way in nearly all things."  Mary smiled fondly.  "She wasn't about to give that up and risk marrying a controlling husband.  And she had a baby to raise... me.  She was content.  And she was determined to protect me.  So... I was taught to be demure, to be faithful, to be chaste... just as you were.  The big difference was you also had the wider culture selling you other messages...  Messages about how to snag a man, how to keep a man, how to be sexy, what to buy to obtain the same, and so on."

"Yeah..." Joccy agreed in between sips of her coffee.

"The thing is... neither is completely wrong.  Sex... it's meant to be sacred.  It's meant to be shared by two people who love each other.  It's not evil.  It's a commitment... or should be.  But you were taught to fear it."

Joccy nodded, remembering the aborted virginity test. 

"With your father and Emma...  You saw how sex could be used to control someone, to demean them.  And when Emma was cast out... when your father reacted so negatively to a simple act of pure, child-like admiration... when he made it clear that you would be diminished in his eyes if you lost your virginity... that fear increased.  So...  It's no wonder to me that when someone offered you a different way of seeing it... of experiencing it... with someone you loved... you yearned for that.  I understand that hunger, that need, Joccy.  My ex-husband, Yakan, had left me feeling so... worthless, so used.  So when Lucius...  Well... truth be told... I'm the one who came into his bedroom.  I'm the one who asked to stay."  Mary bowed her head and smiled, lost in memories for a few moments.

Joccy sighed.  There was something extraordinary in Mary's expression, something she longed for.

"Anyway...  After Yeshu healed me... even though I knew he was the Messiah... I told him that I was sorry that Lucius and I hadn't been married and I was sorry that we had sinned... but I wasn't sorry for loving him.  And do you know what he said?"

Joccy shook her head.

"He said I shouldn't be sorry for loving him.  Even though he knew that love had led me to sin, he understood.  And he forgave me.  Later, when we were both Home, he explained it like this: stealing is wrong.  It's a sin.  But... imagine if you'd baked a loaf of bread and then saw it had been stolen.  You might be angry.  But then imagine you track the culprit down... and you find a starving child.  How angry would you be?"

"I... I wouldn't be."

"Of course not.  And if you feel that... imagine how God feels when it's His own children."

Joccy thought on this.

"But... Lucius... he's a good man.  Jayden..."  She shook her head.  "He... he was... not good.  At least... not with me."

"But you didn't know that, dear.  Not at the time.  So why would God hold his behavior against you?"

"I..."  Joccy halted and thought.  "I guess he wouldn't."

"Correct!" Mary confirmed with a smile.

Joccy laughed quietly.

"It's just... a lot."

"I know, dear.  But you have plenty of time to think on it."

"Yeah..."  Joccy took another bite of scone.  "Did Lucius bake these?  Delicious..."

Mary nodded.

"He sure seems to make a lot of food.  Is it, like, stress-baking?"

Mary shook her head and laughed.

"He doesn't get stressed any more.  More like... stress-sympathy-baking.  I'm so glad I no longer have a mortal's metabolism.  I'm sure I'd be having some health issues by now...  He's learned to bake scones, crumpets, fruit pies, cream pies..."

Joccy continued to indulge in her breakfast and listened with amusement as Mary ran through the list of her beloved's many, many culinary adventures.

*~*~*

Next door, Takoda and Kelly were also enjoying some of the scones their neighbors had sent over... and engaging in a counseling session of their own.

"Do you think I came on too strong?  Like... maybe I should have kept my feelings to myself," Takoda pondered.  "I mean... she would have still felt badly.  Cheating hurts.  But... I... I think she felt guilty, too.  She wouldn't have if..."

"I think if you had kept your feelings to yourself, we'd be having a conversation about how things might have turned out differently if you'd been more open," Kelly interrupted.

Takoda gave her a slight smile.  He had thought such things since Tuesday...

"True..."

"I think..."  Kelly reached across the table and patted her fellow angel's hand.  "I think there was a lot going on under the surface with Joccy.  And nothing you could have done... or not done... would have kept it from eventually bubbling over."

"So then... Joshua... why didn't he... I only mean... in the times he's visited her couldn't he have... fixed her?" Takoda questioned.

"Because nothing fixes the scars leftover from an overbearing father figure like an even more important father figure just taking control and... POOF... fixing everything," Kelly countered.  "Joshua wants a living, breathing, dynamic child... not a toy to tinker with."

"True..."

"Takoda, there's no use in continuing down this path of 'if only...'  Tuesday happened.  We can't change that."

"I know..."  Takoda rubbed at his temples.  "I just keep thinking there's something I missed... and if I learn what it was... then I can keep this from happening again."

"That's something you have to entrust to Joccy.  She made a decision.  It's a decision she now regrets... but she made it.  What you need to do is focus on helping her, supporting her in making good choices... not taking choices away from her."

Takoda nodded as tears filled his eyes.

"I... I just can't get the images out of my head...  Finding her... all... all the blood and she was so... so still..."

Kelly moved and wrapped her arms around him.

"I know, honey.  I know how hard it can be to let those images go.  Trust me... I know.  But they'll lessen with time.  And they'll be replaced by more and more good images.  It just... it takes time."

Takoda nodded.

"And time... time is what you have now," Kelly assured. 

Takoda inhaled and let it out slowly.

"Yeah... I do."

The two proceeded with their breakfast, the younger angel feeling somewhat calmer.

*~*~*

Reconnecting

After lunch, Joccy settled herself onto the living room couch with her laptop.  She was going to call her mom and sister... with Lucius and Mary looking over her from the kitchen in case intervention was needed.

She initiated the Zoom call and, to her relief, found Zoe alone was waiting.

"Zoe..." she murmured.

Zoe looked up from her phone and peered at the computer screen.

"Joccy...  I... I..."

Joccy's heart sank when her sister began to cry.

"I'm so glad to... to see you," Zoe managed.  "You look... good."

Joccy smiled through her own tears.

"Mary and Lucius take really good care of me.  I feel good."

"I'm so glad, Joccy.  Really I am."

"Thanks.  So... how are you?"

"Well... relieved, of course.  I just... I wish... I wish you would have... talked to some of us before..."

Joccy bowed her head and nodded.

"I know.  I should have.  I can't even entirely explain it.  I just... I went to a very dark place and... and it felt like talking wouldn't help... only... only Joshua could."

"But... sometimes he helps through others, through us," Zoe protested.

"I know...  I see that so clearly now but...  I'm sorry, Zoe.  So sorry..."

"Joccy...  I... I didn't mean to make you feel bad.  I just... it was... really, really bad."

"I know...  And I understand."

"Promise me you won't ever, ever do that again?"

Joccy nodded.

"I promise."

"No matter what?"

"No matter what," Joccy vowed.

Zoe smiled.

"Good.  Thank you."

"Welcome.  So... where's Mom?"

Zoe's face flushed.

"Well... I actually told her you said the call was at 1:15.  I just... I wanted a little time just for the two of us."

Joccy returned her sister's smile.

"I'm glad.  How... how's she doing?"

Zoe frowned.

"She's... kind of a mess.  Been talking about how much her and our father screwed up...  The thing is... she's not wrong.  I mean, yeah, it was mostly him.  But... she could have protected us more."

"I'm sorry you're having to deal with that.  Really.  If there's anything I can do..."

Zoe shook her head.

"You need to focus on you right now.  I can handle Mom.  And... I have Amber-Marie on speed dial.  She insisted."

"Aww.  That's good."

"Are you... in any pain?" Zoe asked.

"Not much.  Every so often when I'm not thinking and twist my wrist.  Mary's been helping me brush my hair since that's been the hardest thing."

"It looks really pretty!"

Joccy touched the elaborate braid Mary had put in that morning.

"Thanks!" 

"So... Takoda's there?"

Joccy blushed and nodded.

"Next door.  Staying with Kelly.  I... I thought about asking you, Zoe.  I really did.  But... I thought... it's safer where you are.  And Takoda isn't as... as boxed in as you'd be.  Plus..."

Zoe shook her head.

"Joccy... stop.  I wasn't fishing for an explanation.  I'm really glad he's there.  He's your best friend.  He should be there.  And I do like having a yard to roam...  So does Peri."

Joccy smiled with relief.

"So what have you and Mary been talking about... if you want to share, I mean?" Zoe inquired.

"Well... this morning we talked about how some of the messages we got as kids... especially from dad... were messed up."

"Umm... yeah.  But you more than me, Joccy.  I had you to shield me and explain things to me.  You had... no one."

"I... I tried, Zoe.  But... just... be careful.  That doesn't mean those ideas aren't still lurking... waiting to attack at a vulnerable time."

"I'll be careful.  I promise.  I'm... I'm sorry they attacked you."

Joccy sighed. 

"Me too...  But I'm learning to ignore them."

Zoe looked over her shoulder and then whispered.

"Mom's coming."

"Okay.  Thanks."

Jodi appeared on Joccy's screen, her eyes red and puffy.

"Baby girl..."

"Hi, Mom."

"I... I wish I was there to hug you."

"I know, Mom...  I wish you were, too.  But... I want everyone to stay safe."

"How are you feeling?  I really hope you didn't catch it in the hospital."

"I'm good.  I take my temperature every morning and evening.  It's been normal, thankfully."

"And... and how are you doing otherwise?"

"I... well, I'm feeling a lot better, Mom.  Mary and Lucius are just..."  Joccy turned around and beamed at the couple.  "So wonderful.  And being here... it's helping a lot."

"I just... I can't forgive myself.  If you'd had a normal childhood..."  Jodi began to weep.

"Mom, stop," Zoe whispered.  "You can't put that on Joccy right now."

"I... I'm sorry," Joccy offered.  "I... You..."  She wanted to say that there was nothing her mom could have done... but that wasn't exactly true.

Jodi pulled herself together.

"I love you so much, Joccy.  Please know that."

"I... I do, Mom.  I really do," Joccy insisted.  "It's not that I felt unloved.  It... it really wasn't.  I was just... confused a-and upset.  But... now I'm getting better.  I will get better."

"Oh, baby..."

Joccy bristled.  She didn't want to be called that any more.  But she also didn't want to get into it right now.

Suddenly, Mary was beside her.

"Hi, Zoe!  Hi, Jodi!  I'm Mary."

Zoe grinned.  Jodi gaped.

"Hi Mary!  Oh my gosh!  You're so pretty!" Zoe enthused.  "I mean... not that I expected you wouldn't be.  It's just..."  She giggled.  "Sorry.  Hi."

"Hi, sweetheart.  It's so good to meet you.  And you, too, Jodi.  And, you know, I'm a mom.  And if my girl was staying with someone, I'd want to meet them.  So... Lucius, please come over here."

Lucius ducked behind Joccy and smiled and waved.

"Hello!  Greetings from New York!"

Joccy suppressed a giggle when she saw her mother's face flush.  She was clearly impressed by the handsome Roman.

Mary winked at Joccy.

"Lucius, why don't you tell Jodi and Zoe some of the meals you have planned for Joccy's stay with us," Mary encouraged.

"Oh... okay.  Happily!"

And Lucius was off... rambling about caprese salad and fish tacos and coconut shrimp and more.

Mary gently stroked Joccy's back, soothing her.

And all was well for the rest of the call.

*~*~*

That afternoon, as Lucius prepared dinner and Mary tended to some letters, Joccy and Takoda sat in the former's room, working on making thank you notes.

"So how did your chat with your mom and Zoe go?" Takoda asked as he traced a design onto a piece of cardstock.

"Pretty good.  I was so glad to catch up with Zoe and... I hope... assure her that I'm doing better.  And it was good to see my mom just... more tense."

Takoda only nodded, not wanting to pry.

Joccy continued.

"I dunno...  I feel bad for her cause she was a victim of my dad in her own right.  But... she was also an adult.  Sometimes I wonder why we didn't move in with my grandparents earlier... it's what ended up happening, anyway.  And it... it woulda been nice to have those years with my grandpa before he died."

"I can understand being frustrated like that."

"I guess she was trapped... in a way.  Divorce being frowned upon by the Church... but that ended up happening anyway, too.  And... I know Emma's forgiven her.  But...  I'm not sure I have.  I mean... Emma was even younger than I am now.  To just let a young woman... no, a girl... carry that shame... even to add onto it..."  Joccy shook her head. 

"I think the big difference is Emma doesn't really have to deal with your mom.  She sees her once or twice a year... they exchange pleasantries... that's about it.  But she's your mom."

"Yeah..."

"So your feelings are completely valid."

Joccy set down her marker and stared at the angel.

"Can you please stop?" she asked.

Takoda met her eyes and blinked.

Joccy bowed her head.

"I'm sorry.  That came out more sharply than I meant."

Takoda squeezed her shoulder.

"It's okay.  But... stop what?"

"It's just...  You keep replying with... I dunno... therapy-speake.  And you seem so... toned down.  And it makes me feel bad.  Like... like you can't be yourself around me anymore," Joccy confessed. 

Takoda moved to sit beside her.  When she rested her head on his shoulder, he wrapped an arm around her and gently took one of her hands in his.

"I'm sorry.  That's not what I wanted at all, Joc.  I guess I just... I don't want to upset you any more than... than you are."

"I know...  But it's upsetting to... to not..."  Joccy shook her head.  "I'm not sure how to say it.  But... but like maybe one bright spot to come out of this could be us... going back to how it was in the beginning.  But when we can't be open and honest...  But then maybe I'm a hypocrite.  I keep a lot to myself.  I dunno...  I'm so confused, Koda.  I'm sorry."

"Oh, Joc...  It's okay.  I... I'm confused, too.  I'm worried that I'll say something and make things worse... but then I'm also worried that not saying something will make things worse.  And I just... I want you to be happy.  More than anything.  But I know I can't magically make that happen... but to think I actually contributed to... to hurting you... I can't."

"I know...  So... so let's just agree to be honest.  And if it's too much for the other, we call a time-out and change the subject or go talk with other people.  Do you think that would work?" Joccy asked.

Takoda smiled and nodded.

"I do."

"So... anything you'd like to say?"

"Yeah...  I guess just that... that I can't help being angry at your mom.  Definitely, definitely angry at your father.  But he's out of the picture.  So... it becomes easier to focus on your mom.  But... I wasn't there.  I don't know how things were.  I just know that growing up like you did... it hurt you.  And that makes me angry," Takoda admitted.  "And I guess...  It's just that when you've talked about your grandparents... they sound great.  They sound like they were independent thinkers... like your grandma still is.  And I have to imagine they raised your mom to be one.  So I just don't understand... why did she put up with him?  If it had just been her... not our business what happens between two people.  But it wasn't just her.  She had two little girls..."

Joccy nodded.

"It... actually helps to hear you say that.  Because sometimes I feel bad.  Anti-feminist or something.  Because it was my father who cheated... my father who hurt Emma so badly.  And I don't like when women are blamed for men's bad behavior.  But... I do blame her.  She was supposed to protect us... not play along.  And I think I'd understand it more if my grandparents had been diehard Catholics like my dad and his family.  But they weren't.  So it's not like she was brainwashed from a young age.  They were just... normal Catholics.  But... love makes us do things we might not otherwise, I guess..."  Joccy frowned.

"I guess," Takoda agreed.  "But..."  He gave her an affectionate squeeze.  "Please tell me you're not equating what happened between you and Jayden with the way your mom enabled your father with you girls."

"Kinda..."

"It's not the same.  What happened between you and Jayden... that impacted the two of you.  What happened with your parents... that impacted impressionable children."

"What happened with me and Jayden also impacted you..."

"But I'm not a child, Joccy."

"True..."

Takoda kissed her hair.

"Listen, I've known from the start that my feelings... they were maybe going to be unrequited.  It was the same for Andrew, for Monica, for so many others who we probably don't even know about.  I could have asked to go elsewhere.  But I chose not to.  Because whatever else... you're my friend, Joc.  And I would have missed you.  I'm not a victim.  A sap, maybe.  But not a victim."

Joccy laughed and patted the angel's hand.

"Nothing wrong with being a sap.  I like saps.  And... you're right.  It's just... I remember when I used to just have a crush on Jayden, before he really noticed me.  And sometimes it was fun.  But a lot of times... it hurt.  It kept me up at night.  I... I don't like thinking I'm the source of the same sort of... angst, I guess... for you."

"I know the feeling..." Takoda murmured.

Joccy said nothing.

"I... Joccy, I can't shake the feeling that... that I'm part of why... Tuesday happened how it did."

"Oh, Koda..."  Joccy moved to wipe away his tears then, self-conscious, lowered her hands.

"Your note... you sounded like... like you felt guilty.  A-and maybe that guilt..."  The angel shook his head as the tears became too much to control.  "I'm sorry..."

"Koda...  Sweet Koda..." Joccy cooed as she set aside her discomfort and wiped at his face with a handkerchief.  "I... I did feel some guilt.  But it's not anything you... put on me.  I just... I felt bad.  Because I knew you loved me... and I loved you.  Love you.  And... I felt like... and in some ways I did... turn away from that for... for something that ended up not being real."

"Your feelings were real Joc...  There's no shame in that," Takoda stressed.  "Whatever Jayden felt... you shouldn't feel guilty for... for loving someone."

Joccy smiled softly.

"Exactly.  You shouldn't feel guilty for loving someone... no matter what they did."

In spite of his lingering tears, Takoda smiled.

"You trapped me with my own words."

"Mmm hmm."  Joccy gently stroked some hair from his face.

They peered into each other's eyes for several moments.  Then Takoda spoke.

"Your necklace..."

Joccy looked down and fingered the beads.

"I missed it.  I'm sorry I stopped wearing it.  He... didn't like that I was wearing something from... you.  Maybe... maybe I should have realized then that something was up.  Like he was jealous and worried I'd cheat... because he knew he was cheating."

"You couldn't have known."

Joccy shrugged.

"Have you... heard from him?" Takoda asked with some trepidation.

"Nope."

"I'm so sorry, Joc," Takoda apologized, sincerely.

"I... you know, I'm kinda not.  It hurts... don't get me wrong.  But it also... it makes things clearer.  He didn't really care.  I... I still have feelings for him.  But... I think I'm realizing that... that I loved someone who wasn't really there.  Not like I thought he was."

"That's tough."

"Yeah..."  Joccy sniffled.  "I just wish..."  She shook her head, not wanting to go further. 

Takoda patted her shoulder.

"Maybe we should get back to your thank you notes?" he suggested.

Joccy smiled and nodded.

"Yeah.  Let's do that.  Thank you for helping."

"It's my pleasure.  Is it... helping?  I hope."

Joccy nodded. 

"It is.  I mean... it felt awkward at first.  It's weird to thank people for sending you something because you tried to kill yourself...  But I am grateful.  And it feels good to express that.  Plus I missed my crafting time."

Takoda smiled.

"Me too."

Joccy returned his smile and the two settled back down to their card-making.

*~*~*

Tuesday, September 15th, 2020

Joccy and Mary were settled on the patio with some iced tea and jam and goat cheese sandwiches.

"Such a beautiful day!" Mary praised.

Joccy smiled and nodded in agreement.

"I'm not sure how much longer we'll be able to enjoy mornings on the patio without at least jackets... but I'm going to take what I can get," Mary continued.

"I love the fall.  I hope we don't hurry into winter like some years.  And... I hope the COVID rates don't explode when people can't mingle outdoors."

"Me too..."  Mary lifted her eyes in a brief prayer then returned her attention to Joccy.  "So you mentioned that you and Takoda talked some about your mom yesterday?"

Joccy nodded.

"I... I guess I'm coming to terms with how I'm kinda still mad at her.  I mean... after my father went away and we moved to Connecticut, we went into family counseling.  And I thought I was over it.  But... I was still pretty young then.  I didn't really realize the impact my past was going to have on me with relationships."

"No, you wouldn't have.  Resuming family counseling might be something to consider... even if it has to be done remotely... later on.  In the meantime, were there specific things you had in mind?  Specific incidences?" Mary prompted.

"Well... yeah.  But first...  Right after I... I lost consciousness, I went... somewhere.  It was a huge house with so many doors.  And each door led to a different memory.  Where was that?"

"It wasn't really anywhere.  At least, not anywhere physical.  That was your mind trying to make sense of things, trying to work through what had brought you to that moment."

"That makes sense.  Well... there was a 'room'... a memory... that... that I hadn't really thought about in a long time.  When... when my mom took me to the doctor."

Mary nodded in recognition.

"She could have put her foot down.  I doubt he would have taken me himself.  And even if she felt she had to take me... she could have talked to me.  Explained.  I was so confused... and then so embarrassed.  And the message I took away from it is they would both reject me if... if I didn't wait until I was married."

"That was wrong," Mary confirmed.  "And I'm not sure why your mom acted like she did.  But I think sometimes people... well, they make one concession that they shouldn't have... and then another... and another... and then they lose their way."

"Yeah... maybe that was it.  I didn't tell her... that I'd had sex with Jayden, I mean," Joccy admitted.

"You're a grown woman.  You don't need to."

"But... I feel like... like if you'd been my mother, I would have told you."  Joccy gave Mary a wan smile.  "I feel like I should be able to tell her... but... I can't.  Because just cause my father's out of the picture... I don't know what she really believes."

"And you couldn't know... not unless she told you.  And it sounds like communication is a big problem."

Joccy nodded.

"Did you tell anyone?"

"Just Takoda... and eventually Emma."

"How did they respond?"

"Takoda was... he was so kind.  I know it hurt him but he just said that he hoped it would work out for me.  And Emma...  She just wanted to make sure I was okay.  And she told me to let her know if I had any questions or anything I wanted to talk about."

"And did you talk about it any more?" Mary asked.

"Not really.  It... I mean it only happened three times.  And he used protection.  And then lockdown started and... it just wasn't an issue any more."

"Is there anything you want to talk about now?"

Joccy blushed.

Mary reached over and patted her arm.

"I'm over 2,000 years old, dear.  I've seen and heard a lot... experienced some things, too."

Joccy smiled.

"Well, it's just...  The first time was kind of weird.  Kind of uncomfortable.  But not bad.  And the second and third times... it felt... good.  And... I almost wish that... that I hadn't liked it."

"Why?" Mary gently questioned.

"Because... cause then... then I would know I could give it up."

"Why would you give it up?"

Joccy looked in the direction of Kelly's apartment.

"Because of Takoda?" Mary guessed.

The young woman nodded.

"It's not impossible," Mary assured.  "But... it has to be what you want.  It can't be something you give up because you think it's expected of you."

Joccy stared down at her hands and bit her lip.

"Out with it," Mary encouraged.  "I can tell you want to say something."

Joccy looked up and smiled shyly.

"It's just... you were happy with Lucius, right?  When you were... intimate?"

"Very."

"But... after he'd died... after you started following Joshua... did you... was there anyone else?  I'm sorry if that's too..."  Joccy cringed.

"It's not.  It's relevant.  And no.  There was no one else."

"So... you lived for quite a while without..."

"Yes."

"Was that hard?"

"Sometimes.  It got easier when time went on.  But sometimes... I'd have a dream about Lucius and I'd wake up wanting him but..."  Mary looked up at the sky.  "It wouldn't have been the same with someone else."

Joccy thought of what she'd seen of the two.  They clearly loved each other very much... and she suspected they were downplaying their affection out of respect for her wounded heart.  But still that love had shone through.

"The thing to remember is you have time, Joccy.  Even if you were to decide you wanted to spend your life with Takoda... you're twenty.  Look at Andrew and JenniAnn.  They've known each other since she was seventeen.  But she was in her early thirties before they moved in together and everything," Mary reminded.

"True..."

"Not saying you have to take things that slow... but you certainly could and that would be just fine.  That's part of what's so wonderful about this time and place.  You're not rushed into marriage when you're so young."

"That's definitely a good thing," Joccy agreed. 

Mary waved at the sandwiches.

"Try to eat a little?" she encouraged. 

Joccy nodded, selected a sandwich, and took a bite.

"Yummy..."

"Good."

Joccy took a few more bites then looked over at Mary.

"Can I ask you something else... about you and Lucius?"

"Of course."

"When you were with him... did you wish that... that he'd been your first?"

Mary contemplated the question.

"I suppose in a way.  Because my ex-husband... he wasn't caring or gentle.  Lucius was.  It might have been nice to only remember him but..." Mary shrugged.  "Can't change the past.  And who's to say I would have met Lucius if I hadn't been kicked out of Yakan's house?" 

"True...  Did you get the impression that... that Lucius cared?"

"No.  And he knew I was divorced.  Certainly there were men who would have cared... still are.  But many don't."

"And... what if he'd been an angel?  Takoda acts like he doesn't care but..."  Joccy frowned.

"That might be a better question for an angel.  Like... maybe Andrew?" Mary suggested.

"But... JenniAnn was... is... a virgin."

"I know.  But... I still think it would help."

Joccy shrugged.

"I like Andrew.  Sure.  Is this like the Kelly thing?  Is he waiting on Zoom right now?" she questioned.

Mary grinned and nodded.

"But...  He's also fine to reschedule if you'd rather."

Laughing, Joccy shook her head.

"No.  I'd like to talk to him.  And I won't keep an angel of death and father of five waiting..."

"Good!  You keep eating.  I'll grab your laptop."

Mary jumped up and left Joccy for a few moments. 

When she returned, Joccy opened up her laptop and then the Zoom app.  She smiled when she saw a meeting had already been scheduled.  When she opened it, Andrew was there with Avi sleeping in his arms.

"Oh...  So precious..." Joccy cooed.

Andrew smiled at the screen.

"Hey, Joccy.  It's so good to see you!  So good!"

"Thanks, Andrew.  It's really good to see you, too.  And lil Avi...  How's everyone there?"

"Doing well.  So happy that you're doing better."

"I... I really am.  Thank you and JenniAnn for the cute little roses... did you make that planter?"

"I did," Andrew confirmed.

"It's so beautiful.  And please give my thanks to JenniAnn for the craft supplies.  I'm working on getting thank you notes out."

"I will do that.  But you take your time."

"I will," Joccy promised. 

"So there was something you wanted to ask me?" Andrew reminded.

"I... well, yeah...  I just...  I mean I know she didn't but... supposing JenniAnn would have... slept with someone before you two got together...  I mean would you have... cared?" Joccy asked.

Andrew's expression softened.

"I would have cared if she'd cared.  I wouldn't have wanted her to feel like she couldn't talk about it... like we were just going to ignore it.  But if you're asking me if I would have felt differently about Laja...  No.  I wouldn't have.  I loved her.  I love her still... so much.  She still would have been Laja.  And..." 

"And?" Joccy prompted when the angel stopped speaking.

"I'm not sure...  This is just me, Joccy.  Remember that.  I can't speak for every angel but... I don't think I could have stopped loving her.  No matter what.  And I don't mean... it's not like I don't have a choice.  I do.  I choose to love her.  But I also... I don't think I have it in me to choose to stop.  I love her more and more every day... never less.  So even if... if she left me for someone else tomorrow... which I know she won't but supposing she did... if she came back... I'd want her back.  No matter what happened."

Joccy began to softly cry.

"I... I'm sorry if... if I said something wrong," Andrew apologized.

Joccy smiled at him and shook her head.

"No...  Not at all, Andrew.  That... it was beautiful.  And it helped.  Thank you."

Andrew, his own eyes misty, returned Joccy's smile.

"I'm glad.  If there's anything else I can do... I'm only a call away."

"I'll remember.  Thank you, Andrew."

"You bet, Joccy."

"Good bye."

"G'bye, kiddo.  Take care!"

"You too."

When Joccy ended the call, she turned towards Mary.

"Angels can't lie," the saint reminded.

"No... they can't." 

Joccy peered at where Andrew had been.  He was right.  He couldn't speak for all angels... but she suspected he was a lot like the one who meant the most to her.

*~*~*

Trust

Wednesday, September 16th, 2020


Joccy was quiet at breakfast the following morning.

Both Mary and Lucius sensed she was troubled but, not wishing to force himself into her confidence, the latter offered commentary about the previous day's errands.  He hoped it would lighten the girl's mood.

"Marisol is very keen on setting me up with her daughter once this is all over.  So... I have options," he teased Mary.

"Do you now?" she asked, her tone casual.

Lucius grinned.

"No... not really.  Saw her photo.  Not my type."

Mary peered at him.

"And what does that mean?"

"Well... she's not you."

A smile flickered on Joccy's lips.

Mary rolled her eyes but her face flushed with pleasure when Lucius clasped her hand.

"Slight trouble with Delia, I'm afraid," Lucius continued.  "Her refrigerator died."

"Oh no!"

"She can't afford another one.  And she's not much for taking charity.  She always insists on tipping me.  I stopped trying to dissuade her when I saw it was hurting her feelings.  I'm sure I could get Serge and Bach to help me move one in but... how do I get her to take it?"

Mary considered the question.  Her family had been relatively wealthy as had Lucius'.  She could remember a couple of times when her brother had tried to help Yosef out, only to feel bad for accidentally insulting the carpenter.  Eventually, he'd discovered the best way to help was to periodically hire Yosef, and later Yeshu, for assorted jobs.

"What skills does she have?" Mary asked.

"Umm...  Well, she used to be a costume designer at one of the theatres."

"So she can likely sew.  Find a refurbished refrigerator... a new one will make her feel awkward... and barter for services.  I'm sure we can find a shelter or school or something that needs masks.  You can even give her the materials.  Say you had them but found yourself to be all thumbs."

"Definitely NOT a lie," Lucius insisted.

Joccy giggled when Lucius winked at her.  The previous evening he'd tried to help her make cards... only to end up a gluey mess.

Lucius sighed happily.

"So it's settled.  Thank you, Mary."

"I'm glad Delia and all the others have you looking out for them."  Mary smiled tenderly at her man.

"It's been a pleasure."  Lucius returned her smile then finished his breakfast.  "I should head out... I have a fridge to find, after all.  I wish you ladies a productive and healing morning.  Anything I can get for either of you?"

"Nothing for me.  Joccy?" Mary checked.

Joccy shook her head.

"No...  I'm fine.  Thank you, though."

"You bet.  I will see you ladies later!"

"Good bye, Lucius!"

"Have a good morning, my love."

With a final wave and smile, Lucius grabbed his backpack and headed out.

Once he was gone, Mary turned her attention to Joccy.

"Are you all right, dear?  You seem upset."

Joccy stared down at her lap and shrugged.

"Maybe after we finish eating, we can move to the balcony and talk.  A little sunshine might..."

Joccy shook her head.

"I... well, maybe later.  I just... if Takoda should also come onto the balcony...  I... don't want him to hear."

"Oh!  Of course.  I could ask that he stay inside.  But we can also talk here."

"Here is fine.  It's... goofy maybe.  But...  I... I had a dream last night." 

"A bad one?"

"No... Just..."  Joccy gulped.  "Inappropriate."

Mary cocked her head.

"Unless you were lucid dreaming, I'm not sure how that could be.  You can't help what your dreaming mind comes up with."

"Maybe not...  But...  I..."  Joccy blushed.  "I... I had a dream about Takoda.  And me.  Together... like... in bed.  And I... I know he can't..."

Mary gently rested her hand over Joccy's.

"That's not weird, Joccy.  It makes a lot of sense to me.  Your first time having sex... it can be a very emotional, very impactful thing.  I know it was for me.  And when later you look back on it with regret because the other person hurt you... badly... it's only natural for your mind to want to fix it," Mary reasoned.  "To trick you into believing it was someone else, someone who really cares about you.  And Takoda really cares about you."

"Yeah..." 

"It's also natural for most humans... our asexual friends being the exception... to crave the touch that comes with having sex.  And especially now when people aren't getting the hugs and caresses they usually would."

"But... I have been with Takoda.  And with you," Joccy countered.  "And it's not like I was totally cut-off from contact in the Tunnels."

"No, you weren't.  But it was still less than what you were used to.  When was the last time you hugged Emma?"

Tears pricked Joccy's eyes.

"It's been over six months."

"Exactly."

Joccy sighed.

"Still...  Angels aren't meant to... to be viewed like that.  They're holy and..."

"Sex can be holy."

"But not with them!"

"No," Mary agreed.  "Because they weren't created for that.  But no one... God included... expects your unconscious mind to have perfect theology."

The comment made Joccy smile.

"And it's not like they're completely banned from romantic touch.  It's not wrong to want that.  If it was wrong... pretty sure Joshua would have done something with Andrew and JenniAnn... something other than completely enabling them," Mary continued. 

Joccy laughed.

"That's true..."

"It is.  And I think we both know you would never, ever push Takoda into something that made him uncomfortable."

"No... never," Joccy agreed, clasping her necklace.  "At least... not purposefully...  But...  I'm not JenniAnn.  She could never even accidentally push Andrew too far because... well... she's not made like that.  But I... I am."

"So is Arthur.  But he and Monica have been together for what?  Almost six years?"

"Yeah..."

"It works for them.  And it could work for you if you wanted.  There'd just need to be lots of communication.  But..."

"But?" Joccy prompted.

"I also think all of this with Takoda... valid as it all is... serves as a bit of a distraction."

Joccy bit her lip and said nothing.

"What happened... it didn't happen because you weren't with Takoda," Mary continued, her voice soft and tender.  "And even if you were to go over there right now and declare your eternal love... it wouldn't fix the underlying reasons for why you made the choice you did."

A tear trickled down Joccy's cheek followed by another.  She should have known Mary was too wise and too compassionate to not catch on.

"But... but what if... if we dig deeper a-and... I don't like what I see?" she whispered.

Mary moved to sit beside Joccy and wrapped her arms around her.

"You have to be brave, dear.  And remember that whatever you see... God loves you.  Joshua died for you.  Even if you'd been the only person in the world in need of a savior... he still would have died for you and only you.  Because he loves you that much."

"Then... then why isn't he here?" Joccy whined.  "Physically here..."

"Because his being here... as wonderful as it would be... wouldn't help you in the way you need to be helped.  Sweet Joccy...  Your trust has been shattered time and again.  And, through it all, you've continued to trust and love Joshua.  And that's a beautiful, wonderful thing.  But...  He put you on this earth to trust and love others, too... to be trusted and loved by others.  We need to work on rebuilding your trust in your brothers and sisters.  Okay?"

Joccy rested her cheek against Mary's shoulder and nodded.

"Okay."

Mary softly swayed and hummed for several minutes until Joccy was calmed.

When Joccy finally pulled away, she smiled at Mary.

"I think I'm ready to move to the balcony when you are."

Mary returned her smile.

"Sounds good."

*~*~*

"So... what are you most afraid of?" Mary asked as she sat across from Joccy at a bistro table on the balcony.

"I... well... I guess...  I mean I'm afraid of my mom finding out about Jayden.  But even more than that...  I'm afraid of the Friends finding out.  I mean...  It's not like I think anyone's gonna rat me out.  But...  It's kinda common sense.  Girl loses her virginity to a boy, he cheats on her, she falls apart...  It's a cliche for a reason.  And I... I think I might be the first one to... to... well, to have had sex outside of wedlock since Joshua came.  They might be mad.  Or even just disappointed."

"Do you think you're the first of them to sin since Joshua came?"

Joccy laughed.

"Well... no.  Of course not.  I mean we really try but... going six years without sinning at all?"  She shook her head.  She wasn't sure even the angels could have managed that.

"But you seem to think that, even knowing they've all sinned, for some reason they would be especially hard on you?" Mary challenged.

"Well...  I mean... I guess when you put it that way..."

"Also... let's take a moment to remember that they all rallied around someone who stole money from Yeshua's ministry and then betrayed him to the religious authorities.  Not to be harsh to my old friend who I am very glad to have back but... I think even Yehuda would agree you have nothing on him, Joccy.  And we can look even more recently," Mary suggested.  "Cameron shot Joshua... actually tried to kill him.  And Ibrahim and Raheem.  And now practically every day he gets a letter from one Friend or another.  He gets more letters than entire blocks in that prison do.  So... I hope that gives you a little perspective, dear." 

Joccy smiled and nodded.

"It does actually.  I just... I never thought about it like that, I guess."

"Well, in your defense, thinking a lot about the sins of others isn't a good thing.  But I think, every now and again, it can be helpful to remember that we're all sinners."

"True...  I heard a saying once: 'Saints are only sinners who fall down and get up.'"

"It's very true!" Mary confirmed.  "And I know a lot of saints."

Joccy laughed then sighed, feeling some of the tension she'd been feeling ease up.

"I think... maybe... I should... I mean I don't want to make it a big thing...  But maybe it would help if... if I told someone.  Maybe a few people.  About what happened.  Someone other than Takoda and Emma.  Do you think Emma told Peter?"

"I think that if you told Emma in confidence, she kept that confidence."

"Yeah...  Probably.  I think... I would like for him to know.  He's been so good to me...  Do you think... could I try to call them now?  Before I lose my nerve?"

Mary nodded.

"I'll step inside to give you some privacy."

"Thank you."

Mary patted Joccy's shoulder then stepped into the apartment.

After drawing in and letting out a deep breath, Joccy pulled up FaceTime and called Peter's cell phone.

"Joccy!" Peter cried happily when he accepted the call. 

Joccy smiled and waved.

"Hi Peter."

"Joccy... so glad to see you.  Can Emma get on the call, too?"

"Sure."

Peter settled onto a couch and Emma plopped down beside him, eagerly studying his phone screen.

"Joccy...  It's so good to see you, sweetie.  How are you doing?" Emma asked.

"I'm... good, actually.  Mary is so amazing.  And Lucius is really cool, too.  And I saw Jemima again and met a couple of their friends, Serge and Bach.  I really hope everyone can meet them all sometime."

"That sounds awesome, Joccy.  And Mary's counseling you?" Peter checked.

Joccy nodded.

"She's really good.  She, umm...  I've kinda been... distracting myself with issues that aren't really pressing.  And she knew."

"I'm glad she's helping you.  Is there anything we can do?"

Joccy peered at her former babysitter and Peter.  Both had taken her under their wings.  It would be incredibly hard if Peter rejected her... but she had to find out.  She nodded to Emma.

"Yeah, actually.  Did you, umm, did you tell Peter about... about what happened with Jayden and me before the pandemic?"

Emma shook her head.

"Joccy, that's your business."

Peter's face froze.

"What happened with Jayden?" he asked, his voice tense.

"I, umm...  I..." Joccy fumbled.

"Sweetie, you don't have to say if..."

"I do.  I... I slept with him."

Peter visibly relaxed... but not entirely.

"Was he... a gentleman?" he delicately asked.

"Then?  Yeah.  He treated me well."

"Okay..."  Peter slowly let out a breath.  "I just... I was worried.  I thought maybe..."

"It was consensual," Joccy affirmed.

"Oh good.  So... you're okay?" Peter checked.  "Because if not...  I mean Emma bought me a drone last Christmas and I still haven't really figured it out but, if you want, I can work on that and... I dunno... have it drop rotten eggs outside his apartment or something."

Joccy laughed and shook her head.

"No!  I mean... he did turn out to be cheating on me..."

"Oh, sweetie...  I'm so sorry," Emma apologized.

"Getting the drone!" Peter shouted.

Joccy surprised herself when she laughed... a lot.

"No!  No drones!  We don't need the headline 'Local Jesus Arrested After Using Drone to Egg College Student," she teased.

Peter smiled softly.

"All right then.  I'm really sorry, Joccy.  Truly.  That's rough."

"Thanks.  And yeah...  I... I'm feeling better about it.  It just... I'm realizing it brought a lot up for me.  But... you're not disappointed in me... or angry at me?"

Peter's gaze softened even more when he realized Joccy was speaking to him specifically.

Beside him, Emma bowed her head.  She realized that, in some way, Peter was now standing in for Joccy's father.

"No...  Joccy, no.  Little chica...  I'm disappointed in Jayden... disappointed and angry that he hurt you.  And I'm sorry that you're hurting."

"It was a sin, though..." Joccy murmured.

"It's one many, many of us have committed, Joccy.  I mean..."  Peter looked to his wife.

"It's not like we were each others' firsts, sweetie," Emma reminded.

"Jaz wasn't even my first time, Joccy," Peter added.  "We've all done things we shouldn't have.  But Joshua has forgiven us.  And he wants us to move forward, living life fully... not fixated on our past mistakes."

"Yeah..."  Joccy sniffled.

"It hurts so badly when your heart is broken," Peter continued.  "But it gets better.  I promise."

Joccy nodded.  Peter would know.  He'd lost his first wife... and then been put through the emotional ringer with Emma.

"It does," Emma agreed.  "And Joccy...  I think I know exactly the sort of thoughts that are running through your head.  The... the thoughts that must have been running through your head that... that night."  Her eyes filled.  "Sweetie, do everything you can to move past those voices.  They aren't speaking the truth.  You are so valuable and so precious.  You... you're not broken or... or dirty or used.  You're so lovable... so worthy of being loved!  And you are loved.  So much.  I love you."

"We both love you," Peter added.

"I love you both, too," Joccy replied, wiping at her eyes.  "And... I'm trying, Emma.  I'm really, really trying."

"I'm so glad, sweetie.  So glad."

Joccy blew the couple a kiss and smiled when they responded in kind.

"I... I don't think I'm ready to see everyone at Bible study tonight.  But... could you please tell everyone that I'm doing better and so, so grateful for their prayers and kindness and support and everything?" she requested.

"Absolutely.  And I can imagine that big of a group would be overwhelming.  Everyone will understand," Peter assured. 

"Thanks.  I think maybe I'll contact people in smaller groups... see how that goes," Joccy suggested.

"That sounds like a really good idea, Joccy," Emma encouraged.

"MAMA!"

Emma turned away from the phone and laughed.

"Looks like Mr. Sawyer is up from his nap.  Come here, sweet boy.  Say hi to Aunt Joccy."

Joccy checked to be sure her sleeves covered her bandages then looked expectantly at her phone.  After a few seconds, Sawyer grabbed his father's phone.

"Aunt Doccy!" the little boy cried.

Joccy fought to keep some tears from falling.

"Hey there, Sawyer!  How's it going?"

"I maked pancakes this mornin'," he reported.

"Did you!  Were they yummy?"

Sawyer nodded with enthusiasm.

"When come see me, Aunt Doccy?"

"Oh, Sawyer...  I wish I could come right now."

Peter grabbed the little boy and plopped him onto his knee.

"We'll see Aunt Joccy as soon as we can, bud.  But remember how we need to stay inside for a while to keep safe and well?"

"Yeah..."

Emma smiled sadly and tousled the boy's hair.

"Sawyer?" Joccy called. 

The boy stared at her and smiled.

"I'll talk to Takoda and... and maybe soon we can start Bible lessons back up on the computer.  That would be fun, wouldn't it?"

"Yesh!"

Joccy beamed.

"Then we'll do that."

Sawyer clapped then turned to his mother.

"Tummy hungry, mommy."

Emma laughed.

"All right.  Snack time it is.  Joccy..."

"Definitely go.  His tummy is hungry."  Joccy smiled.  "Thank you for this.  Both of you.  All three of you!"

"Any time.  Call any time, Joccy," Peter urged.

"Will do.  Talk soon.  Love you all."

"Love you!" the trio shouted back before Joccy ended the call. 

She sighed happily and replayed Emma's and Peter's words in her mind.

*~*~*

Lucy

Just before noon, Lucius returned to the apartment... but he wasn't alone.  Serge and Bach, having helped to move in Delia's new refrigerator, had tagged along for lunch.  And there was yet another guest: an orange tabby cat.

Joccy came out of her room just in time to overhear Mary meeting the cat.

"Lucius...  Where did he or she come from?"

"She.  And...  The place I got the refrigerator from was next door to an animal shelter.  They were so full that they were just giving cats away!"

"You never mentioned wanting a cat..."

"I don't really.  But Joccy had a cat.  Peri.  We saw her on the call, remember?  Maybe it would help her to have a cat now."

Bach was the first to see Joccy lurking in the hallway and, with a smile, waved her out.

Joccy entered the living room, feeling a bit shy.

Noticing, Mary smiled. 

"Come closer, dear.  Lucius got a friend for you.  If you don't want her, we can find her another home but... she's awfully sweet."

Beaming, Joccy approached a small cat carrier.

"I can't believe you got me a cat," she murmured to Lucius who seemed quite proud of himself.

"I saw her and just knew she was the one for you."

Gently, Joccy scooped the cat out of the carrier.  To her relief, she snuggled against her and meowed.

"Oh... she is sweet."

"They told me she was the cuddliest one they had," Lucius shared.  "I think we got everything you need for her."

Joccy tore her gaze away from the cat long enough to look at Serge and Bach who were doing their best Vanna White impressions as they showed off a bed, scratching post, litter and box, food, and an assortment of toys.

"Thank you..."  Joccy murmured.  "I love her."

She carefully readjusted the cat so she had one arm free to hug Lucius.

"You're very welcome."  Lucius sniffled.  "Glad you like her."

"Very much."

As Joccy nuzzled the cat, Mary patted Lucius' shoulder.

"You did good."

"Thank you."  Beaming, Lucius kissed Mary's hair.

"What are you going to name her, Joccy?" Serge asked.

"Hmm..."  Joccy studied the cat.  "I think... I'm going to name her Lucy.  After her rescuer."  She smiled up at Lucius.

"Well... I'm honored."  Lucius gave a little bow.  "And she looks like a Lucy with her orange hair."

Mary laughed and nodded.

"She does!  He loves I Love Lucy," she informed the others.

"The one with the chocolate assembly line...  Comic perfection!" Lucius opined.  "So much better than those odd and demoralizing 'reality' shows that are on so many of the stations."

"All right.  Well, I'm going to put the finishing touches on lunch.  Maybe you all could get Lucy's things settled into Joccy's room?" Mary suggested.

"Happily!" Bach agreed as he and the other two men grabbed various of Lucy's belongings.

The three Romans very quickly had Lucy setup in Joccy's room. 

"Not sure she'll even need this," Lucius ventured as he set Lucy's bed down near Joccy's.  "Seems like she's a cuddler and will prefer your bed... but just in case.  Sometimes it's nice to have one's own spot."

"Definitely.  Thank you again!"  Joccy hugged Lucius first then Serge and Bach.  "It does help to have someone to care for and cuddle."  She nuzzled Lucy.

"I think you'll make a great pair!" Serge encouraged.  "And I look forward to hearing about all the shenanigans Miss Lucy gets into."

The cat purred as he stroked her.

"I hope not too many...  I don't want her to cause any trouble."  Joccy looked around... wondering if she should move things off shelves.

"She'll be fine," Bach assured.  "She doesn't seem like the most energetic of cats."

Joccy laughed as she sat Lucy down on her bed.  The cat looked around with interest then simply curled into a ball.  She purred in satisfaction as Lucius pet her.

"She may perk up a bit after she adjusts.  But don't you worry.  We'll manage."  Lucius patted Joccy on the back. 

"Okay... thanks." 

"We'll leave you two to get acquainted and knock when lunch is ready," Lucius promised.

"Lunch..." Bach replied hungrily.  "Cooked by Mary..."

"Come on...  I'm glad you're not having to participate in drills any more."  Serge playfully patted Bach's slight paunch.

Lucius laughed and ushered the two into the hallway.

Amused, Joccy continued to listen.

"Hey, I could still keep up with the best of them!" Bach protested.

"Prove it.  Drop and give me twenty."

"Only if you do it, too."

"Happily.  Lucius, you count."

"Yeshu... help me," Mary prayed, amused annoyance in her tone.

Giggling, Joccy closed her door as Lucius began to count.  She returned to her bed and snuggled beside Lucy.

"You are precious," she murmured.  Tears welled in Joccy's eyes as she remembered Emma's words which she began to repeat for her cat.  "You are valuable.  You are lovable.  You are loved."

Lucy purred.

Joccy smiled and sighed happily as the cat moved and curled up on her chest, leaving them both content and comfortable.

*~*~*

It was love at first sight... at least on one side.

After a laugh-filled lunch with Mary and "the boys," Joccy had asked Takoda to come over to meet Lucy.

When Takoda entered Joccy's room, Lucy was curled up in the woman's lap as she sat on her bed.  Lucy lazily opened one eye then, suddenly, launched herself at Takoda.

Joccy was just about to shriek, worried the cat was attacking the angel, when Takoda laughed.

"Umm..."

Lucy was dancing around his feet, pausing to rub against each side of his shins.

"What's that mean?" Takoda asked.

Joccy began to laugh, too.

"She's... well, she's marking you."

Takoda's nose scrunched.

"Is she going to pee on me?"

Still laughing, Joccy shook her head. 

"No.  They just rub.  She's transferring her scent to you... claiming you as hers."

"Umm... awesome?"

Joccy smiled. 

"Maybe you remind her of someone she used to know and love.  Or... she senses where you came from."

"Did she do this to the others?  To you?"

Joccy cocked her head, thinking.

"No actually...  I mean she's been very cuddly.  But... not that."

Lucy had now stopped rubbing and was peering up at Takoda.

The angel stooped and picked up the cat who began rubbing her face against his chest.

"You're not my cat.  You're her cat," Takoda whispered.

With a giggle, Joccy shook her head.  She grabbed her phone and snapped a photo.

"It's okay!  I'm not jealous.  It's pretty hilarious." 

Joccy patted a spot on her bed and, once Takoda sat down, Lucy slid from his arms and returned to Joccy's lap.

"Could be that she realizes you came from elsewhere and she'd like for you to stay.  She knows Mary, Lucius, and I live here."

"Makes sense.  She's very pretty.  Good thinking of Lucius' part."

Joccy beamed as she stroked the cat.

"She is very pretty...  Yes, you are...  My pretty Lucy Girl..."

Takoda smiled.

After a few moments fixated on her pet, Joccy returned her attention to Takoda.

"How much do you think Lucius spent?" she quietly asked.  "Should I try to repay him?"

Takoda adamantly shook his head.

"No.  Definitely not.  Just write him one of your notes."

"Planned to but..."

"I mean...  It's not like it put him out.  He doesn't have to worry about money."

"I've never really understood that...  But it always felt rude to ask.  How does money work with all of you?"

"Well...  Firstly, when we're working assignments, God always provides us with what we'll need to complete those assignments.  So rent, money for food, a little discretionary income for fun... or coffee if you're Monica."

Joccy laughed.

"Then you gotta figure that lots of times our assignments involve some kind of job.  So that brings in income.  A lot of that ends up getting donated.  But some is saved to fund other assignments."

"Okay...  But what about, like, Andrew and Monica?  They don't work as many assignments as they used to.  At least not right now."

"No.  But think about how many centuries... eons really... they've been working.  Compare them to, say, Josef.  He's loaded.  If they'd been saving the money they'd earned, they'd be even wealthier than he is."

"But... they're not," Joccy interjected.

"Do either Andrew or Monica strike you as the sort of people who want to live in the lap of luxury?"

"Well... no."

"Right.  And even Josef lives modestly these days.  They're happy living as they are.  But still...  You'd expect God to behave as ethically as any employer, even more so, right?"

"Right."

"So given they've worked for him for thousands of years... He's not going to let them be destitute.  They shouldn't have to suffer because they've been working for God and not, say, Apple or Target.  They have their own problems... all human companies do... but if an employee had to step down to take care of their family, Apple and Target aren't going to be like 'Well, fine then.  But we're taking all the money you ever earned while working for us.'  So God definitely wouldn't.  He makes sure they have enough to get by.  And with Andrew, He kicks in more when Marty and I are around so much.  They shouldn't have to pay for our food."

Joccy smirked.

"What?" Takoda pressed.

"So... you're saying God basically pays Andrew and JenniAnn child support for you and Marty?"

Takoda laughed and shrugged.

"I guess so.  Yeah.  Anyway...  All this is just to say that Mary and Lucius are being provided for.  You shouldn't feel like you need to pay Lucius back for his gift.  He'd be hurt if you tried."

"Got it.  But..."

Takoda patted Joccy's arm.

"It's okay.  Ask me anything."

"So... when Andrew buys JenniAnn something... like for their anniversary or something...  Is God just... handing him the money?"

"Oh!"  Takoda adamantly shook his head, trying not to look at Joccy's necklace.  "No.  I... I didn't mean to suggest there's never any... I mean...  No.  Andrew probably squirrels away some money from his carpentry orders.  Or eats cheaply when on assignments and saves some of that discretionary money.  I didn't mean to suggest he doesn't provide for his family at all.  He does.  So does JenniAnn with what she gets from teaching.  Same with Arthur and Monica.  I just mean...  God's not going to let them be homeless or hungry.  Everything beyond that, that's on them."

"Oh..."  Joccy's fingers slid over the beads of her necklace.

Takoda blushed.

Joccy wondered how many foregone coffees or desserts and extra shifts with random assignment-related jobs had gone into obtaining her necklace.

"Anyway... enough about money.  How was your morning?"

Joccy welcomed the change of subject.

"Really, really good.  I talked with Emma and Peter.  Even Sawyer for a little bit.  I... well, I told Peter about what happened between Jayden and me and..."

"And?"

"He was wonderful.  Threatened to egg Jayden's apartment via drone but... wonderful."

Takoda chuckled.

"I knew I liked him..."

"Me too.  It just... it helped.  I know he's not my dad.  But...  I dunno...  And maybe part of it is because he plays Joshua but...  I felt something inside me start to... untangle?"  Joccy shook her head.  "I dunno.  It's hard to say what I mean.  But it helped.  A lot.  And so did talking with Emma.  She told me I... I wasn't broken or dirty."

"You're not," Takoda murmured.

"And I was loved."

"You are."

Joccy sighed.

'Thank you.  Mary thinks that maybe, next, I should do a call with everyone who was there... you know, Ivy, Sy, Shelby, and Violeta.  And you.  Would you sit with me?  Here?"

Takoda rested a hand on her arm.

"Of course."

"Maybe tomorrow afternoon?  If it works for them?"

"Sounds good.  Would you like me to set it up?"

"If you want."

"I do."

Lucy yawned and stretched then curled into Joccy's lap again.

Takoda smiled as he pet her.  Lucy leaned into his touch.

"She loves her Daddy."

Joccy cringed as soon as she'd finished speaking.

"I... I mean...  Or... I don't mean..."

"It's okay," Takoda assured. 

Joccy's embarrassment increased as scenes from the previous night's dream returned to her.

"It's okay," Takoda repeated as he gently stroked her back.  "I know you didn't mean it like that."

"We're... we're not a couple."

Takoda tried to glean meaning from Joccy's tone.  Was it disappointment?  Relief?  Simple statement of fact?  It didn't matter in that moment.

"No," he agreed.  "But we're friends.  Friends can raise a cat together, hmm?  I doubt Lucy will be permanently scarred by a non-traditional family.  She doesn't strike me as overwhelmingly conservative.  You?"

Joccy laughed when Takoda cocked his head at her, daring her to guess at the political and moral leanings of her cat.

"No... she doesn't," Joccy agreed.  She let out a shaky breath.  "Thanks."

"It's nothing.  I will look forward to learning how to be a cat-dad."  Takoda grinned at Joccy then pet Lucy.  After a few moments, the cat moved and plopped into his lap.

Joccy relaxed further and watched Takoda and Lucy.  As she watched, her heart began to ache... but not as it had when she'd discovered Jayden's betrayal.  No...  This was the cleaner, gentler ache of when she'd first started to develop feelings for Jayden.  But it was gentler even than that.  Because, back then, Jayden hadn't even known her name.  Takoda knew that and so much more.  And still he was there.

Takoda laughed.

"She just let me boop her on the nose!"

Joccy smiled.

"Not sure there's much you could do that would bother her."

"Boop!"  Takoda gently tapped the cat's nose again.

Lucy pounced happily on the bed.

Joccy grabbed one of the feather toys Lucius had brought and handed it to Takoda. 

She watched, happily, as the two played... and she wondered if Lucius had had an ulterior motive in getting Lucy for her.

*~*~*

Thursday, September 17th, 2020

The following afternoon, Joccy and Takoda got comfortable on Mary's and Lucius' balcony.  A laptop computer was setup in front of them.  Lucy was asleep in Joccy's lap.

"So your talk with Mary this morning went okay?" the angel checked as they waited.

Joccy nodded. 

"Yeah.  We just kinda talked through what I wanted to say to everyone."  She glanced at the computer.  "And how I might feel a little anxiety since, well, it could bring back powerful memories of the last time."

Takoda squeezed her hand.

Joccy smiled at him.

"But unlike last time, you're here beside me.  And so is Lucy."

"And we won't leave.  Well, I won't leave.  Can't speak for Lucy.  Although she doesn't look inclined to leave."

"She does not!" Joccy agreed with a laugh.  "You don't think there's anything wrong with her, do you?  She's awfully... lazy."

"No.  And I wouldn't be surprised if you start to see a different side of her.  She'd probably been on high stress mode for the entire time she was in the shelter.  Now she's crashing because she realizes it's safe to let her guard down.  Didn't Lucius say they'd given her a health exam?"

"He did.  And you're right.  I can remember Peri being like this when we first got her.  It was just so long ago that I kinda forgot.  Might not be able to take her out on the balcony once she gets more active."

"We'll see."

"Yeah...  So how are you liking being at Kelly's?"

"I really do," Takoda assured.  "I mean I loved staying at Willowveil... hearing Andrew's stories about cases he's worked.  And hearing JenniAnn's perspective on being with him during some assignments.  But it's been nice to get another take.  And Kelly's just a great person to be around."

"Good.  I'm glad."  Joccy looked at the screen.  "1:27.  We should probably hop on."

"Sure."  Takoda pulled up the Zoom meeting.  When it opened, Ivy and Sy were already there.

"Joccy!  Takoda!  So good to see you both!" Ivy greeted.  "Oh, Joccy...  You look so good."

Joccy smiled shyly.

"Thanks.  I'm being very well taken care of."

"Good!" Sy cheered.  "And it looks like it's nice there."

"In the seventies so yeah," Joccy verified.  "How about there?"

"About the same.  Might get a little rain later," Ivy informed.

Another box appeared showing Shelby and Violeta.

"Hey girls!" Sy welcomed.

"Hi!" Shelby replied.

"Hi."  Violeta peered intently at the screen.

Joccy saw her relax.

"Hi, Joccy," she murmured.

"Hi, Violeta.  Hi, Shelby.  Thank you so much for coming.  All of you.  This... it means a lot."  Joccy smiled tearfully at her friends.

"Of course.  We're here for you," Sy stressed as Ivy nodded beside him.

"How are you feeling?" Shelby checked.

"Ya know...  I'm feeling really good.  The, umm, cuts have stopped hurting.  More onto itching now.  Which I can't do cause I don't want them to get infected so... still all covered up."

"That's really good, Joccy.  I'm so glad."  Ivy smiled gently at her friend.

"Yeah...  And..."  Joccy squeezed Takoda's shoulders.  "Really helps having Koda here."

"So glad to be here," he replied, beaming.

"And I have a new friend."

"The photos were so cute!" Violeta enthused.  "Is Lucy there now?"

"Yeah.  She's curled up in my lap, asleep.  I'd show you but... we think she's still sleeping off the stress from being in the shelter so..."

"Definitely let her sleep," Sy agreed.  "They get a little... touchy... when you disturb them.  At least T'Challa does."

"Oh, definitely," Joccy agreed.

An awkward silence settled over the group.

Takoda gently stroked Joccy's back.  After a few deep breaths, she spoke.

"So... I... I just wanted to talk a little about what happened.  And... firstly... I just... I want everyone here... and everyone really... to know that... that there wasn't anything you... you could have done.  I'm still trying to work out... with Mary... why... why I did something so... rash.  And so... potentially final.  If you'd told me on that Monday morning that... that I would try to kill myself within 24 hours..."  Joccy shook her head.  "Wouldn't have... have believed you.  So... so please don't think things like 'We should have seen the signs.'"

Takoda bowed his head.  He had thought that.

"Would... would it have helped if we'd all come to the Tunnels to... to see you?" Shelby asked.

Joccy adamantly shook her head.

"No.  I... I think...  I was embarrassed.  I think that would have only made me more embarrassed.  I... well, I'm partly glad Takoda came."  Joccy rested a hand on his arm.  "But... but that also meant he saw... saw what I'd done.  And... I can't bear thinking of all of you..."  A few tears slid down her cheeks. 

"Joccy, I... we all, I'm sure... hope you know that no matter what happens... no matter what you ever do... you're our friend," Sy affirmed.  "We love you.  And we always, always will."

Joccy smiled.  He looked and sounded so much like his dad.  And she also picked up on the subtext.  Sy and Ivy had undoubtedly guessed that she'd slept with Jayden.  And they were still looking at her with the same kind, understanding friendship they always had.

The others murmured their agreement.

"Thank you.  Anyway...  I just... I wanted to tell you all that.  And thank all of you for being amazing friends.  And to say that I'm sorry for... for what I put you through," Joccy apologized.

"We're all just so glad you're getting better, Joccy," Ivy responded.  "Continuing to take care of yourself is the absolute best way of thanking us... because we need you here, with us."

"Yeah..."  Joccy smiled.  "I... I need to be here.  But... that's enough about me.  What's going on with all of you?"

The conversation lightened and the group laughed with each other as they exchanged tales of sibling rivalry between Leo, Esau, and T'Challa, Belle's latest antics, school-related Zoom snafus, and more.  By the time the hour-long call had ended, all six of them were feeling more at peace.

"How you doing?" Takoda asked as he closed the laptop.

"I'm good," Joccy assured.  "Really good.  I... I was afraid it would be really awkward.  And it was.  But just for a little bit.  And then... then it was like it's always been."

Takoda hugged her.

"You're still the same Joccy."

The tender words and the way in which Takoda said them made Joccy melt into his embrace.  She allowed herself to enjoy the hug for a few moments then, reluctantly, pulled away.

"I...  There's something I... I feel like I should probably tell you," she began, her cheeks flushed.

Takoda looked at his friend with concern.

"Okay..."

"I... I had a dream the night before last.  About... us."

Takoda frowned when Joccy wouldn't meet his gaze.

"A... bad dream?" he asked.

Joccy shook her head.

"No...  I... I enjoyed it... at the time."

"Well...  That's good, right?"

"It was...  Not G-rated.  More like... an R."

"Ah..."

"I'm sorry, Koda."

"Why?"

Joccy finally looked up at him.

"Because... that's weird.  You can't..."

"I also can't drive a race car.  But I dreamed I was a few nights ago."

Joccy laughed.

"Kinda not the same..."

"How is it not the same?"

"Koda...  There's nothing morally wrong with driving a race car.  I mean... not if you're being responsible and honest about it."

"In this dream, were we two randos who just bumped into each other and then we were off?"

"No...  We were us.  We knew each other.  Well."

"Okay.  Did you talk about this with Mary?"

Joccy nodded.

"Good.  What did she say?"

"That having sex for the first time can be emotional and when one looks back at it with regret, it's natural for one's mind to want to fix it... swap in someone who really loves you," Joccy reported.  "And also the whole not being able to be around people and hug them and everything as usual.  Touched-starved I think they call it."

"That makes a lot of sense," Takoda asserted.  "First time this has happened?"

"Yeah..."

"I mean... I'm not upset, Joc.  I can't fully understand how that might feel to you.  But... just know I'm not upset."  Takoda gently lifted Joccy's chin.  "Okay?"

Joccy managed a smile.

"Okay.  I'm glad."

"I mean really...  While it's sometimes very inconvenient, I'm sure, it wouldn't be good if humans stopped having sexual desire en masse.  Humans would die out.  And I highly, highly doubt you're the first person this has happened to.  I mean... we're kinda a sexy bunch.  Adam's got that silver fox thing going.  Monica's gorgeous.  Andrew...  I mean the dude had an entourage of enamored women."

Joccy giggled.

"Marty's voice...  I kid you not, we went out to lunch once and a woman actually asked him to read the menu to her because she forgot her glasses."

"I mean maybe she had..."

"She recorded it on her phone.  I totally saw her do it!  And her eyes got all glazed over..."

Joccy couldn't stop laughing.

"Even Wahkan...  One time we met up at a bar to catch up and a woman started getting particularly pushy with her flirting so I pretended to get a call on my cell and told Wahkan it was his wife...  Got a mild talking to about not lying... but it did the trick!  She shuffled on back to her booth.  And in those cases... they didn't even know them.  Their weird behavior was based solely on lust.  They couldn't have loved them.  They didn't know them!  Marty and Wahkan coulda been serial killers for all they knew!  In contrast, I'm inclined to believe that whatever happened in your dream..."  Takoda's voice trailed off.

Though she was blushing, Joccy didn't look away from Takoda.  She rested a hand against his cheek.

"There was love," she finished for him.

Takoda's eyes filled.

"If... if I could just turn that part of myself off..." Joccy murmured.

"No..."  Takoda shook his head.  "No.  Don't wish any part of yourself away.  I... I love all of you."

"I love you, too, Koda."

Joccy closed her eyes as he rested his forehead against hers.  She wanted to scoop Lucy up and move the both of them into Takoda's lap.  But she knew she wasn't ready for that.  And she couldn't bear him thinking he was simply her rebound.

"We'll figure it all out," Takoda reassured.  "We have time."

"Yes... we have time," Joccy repeated.

The two... three counting Lucy... sat quietly for several minutes, simply enjoying being together.

*~*~*

The Cabin

Friday, September 18th, 2020

The next morning, as they nibbled on fruit and cheese, Joccy and Mary continued their counseling sessions on the balcony.

"I just...  I'm having a hard time understanding now... why I did it?  And even further back... why did I sleep with Jayden?" Joccy implored.

"Well...  Let's tackle the second question first.  As I said a few days ago, you grew up in a very repressed household where sex was treated as something scary, something that threatened your place in your home, in your family.  I don't think it's unreasonable that when Jayden offered a more tender, appealing version of sex, you wanted that," Mary reiterated. 

"Yeah...  But...  He didn't love me," Joccy countered. 

"But you didn't know that at the time, dear.  You're projecting knowledge you have now, back onto several months ago.  And... you don't even really know that.  He didn't love you well.  He didn't love you like you deserve to be loved.  But he might have loved you in his imperfect way."

"True...  He... he did seem to love me then.  I... I guess... I'm just having a hard time..."  Joccy closed her eyes briefly and drew in a few calming breaths. 

"Take your time," Mary urged.  "We're in no hurry."

"Thank you.  It's just...  I can't say my feelings for Jayden have completely gone away.  There's still... some sort of connection there.  But...  I dreamed about Takoda again last night," Joccy admitted.  "It wasn't like the last time.  It was... sweeter, more innocent.  Romantic, though."  She bowed her head and smiled, briefly reliving the dream.

Mary smiled gently.

"It sounds nice."

"It was," Joccy confirmed.  "And even when I'm awake...  I feel... more... for him.  More than I used to.  But I don't... I mean I've heard of people being on the rebound.  I just... I don't trust my own thoughts and feelings any more.  It... it seemed so clear to me, in the moment, that killing myself was the best option.  Now... it sounds insane.  So... so how do I know that anything I think is sane?"

Mary rested a hand on Joccy's arm as she began to cry.

"Who... who even am I?" Joccy bleated.

Mary moved closer and wrapped the girl in her arms.

"You're Joccy, a wonderful daughter, sister, and friend.  You're a beloved child of God... who knows you even when you feel like you don't know yourself.  And... I think I know you.  I was the woman hiding away, feeling completely lost to myself.  I scared children.  I ignored Abigail.  I was cruel to Yeshua.  But I came back from that... with his help, with the help of my family and friends... and I learned to trust myself again.  You will, too, Joccy.  I know it."

"Yeah?"

"Yeah.  And let's start to untangle this Takoda business.  It would be one thing if you'd just met him a week ago.  But you've known each for a year and a half.  You've had feelings for him... yes, mostly of a strictly friend variety... for nearly as long.  I think you can trust that your feelings for him are based in reality.  It's only natural that, after a trauma, you'd be drawn even more to him, Joccy.  That's not weird.  It doesn't mean he's your 'rebound guy'... any more than Lucius was my rebound guy."

Joccy straightened up.

"Oh...  I'd forgotten how quickly you and Lucius met after... after your divorce."

"We're talking days!" Mary reminded.  "But that didn't make it less real.  And I'm not suggesting that you and Takoda are now destined to spend eternity together... only that forming or deepening attachments with someone in the wake of trauma isn't odd or fake."

"I just... I wish I would have felt this way back in January.  I wish that I would have stayed with Takoda.  I could have saved myself and every one else..."

Mary squeezed Joccy's shoulder and shook her head.

"Joccy...  I don't think that's true.  And now I think we should move onto your first question.  Why did you try to kill yourself?  The obvious answer is because you'd discovered Jayden was cheating on you and, because of your upbringing, you looked down on yourself for sleeping with someone who was now not going to be your husband.  Right?"

Joccy nodded.

"And everything was just fine before Jayden?" Mary pressed.

Joccy stared down at her hands.  After a few moments, she shook her head.

"You want to tell me about it?" Mary inquired as she stroked the young woman's back.

"I... I have nightmares sometimes," Joccy admitted.

"Do you want to talk about them?"

Joccy shrugged.

Mary waited.

"About... Emma and my father."  Joccy's voice shook as she spoke.  "About... what I know he did to her.  A-and... what I only think he did.  And how... how I knew and... and did nothing."

"Joccy...  You were just a little girl."

"I... I coulda told someone."

"You were scared, I'm sure.  Scared that he would hurt you... or Emma."

Joccy stood up and began to pace the length of the balcony.

"I still could have tried..."

"Have you told Emma about these feelings?"

Joccy nodded.

"And what did she say?"

"Same as you."

Mary watched Joccy continue to pace like a caged animal.  She looked up at the skyline.  It was beautiful in its own way.  But it could also make a person feel trapped.  An idea began to formulate.  She closed her eyes and listened, smiling when the answer came from her Yeshu.

"Joccy?"

"Hmm?"

"How would you like to get out of the city for a bit?"

"But... where would we go?" Joccy implored. 

"There's a cabin in the middle of nowhere that I think would do nicely," Mary replied.

"Can we drive?  I... I don't know about flying..." Joccy fretted.  "Especially since I'm still not fourteen days out from the hospital."

"No need for either."  Mary beamed.  "Yeshua will give us access to a portal.  I think some time in nature would do you good."

In spite of her agitation, Joccy smiled.

"That does sound really good.  Would Takoda..."

"Takoda and Kelly would come.  And, no doubt, we'll have Yemmy, Serge, and Bach dropping in... especially if we make s'mores around a campfire.  I think it would be nice for Lucy, too.  And Lucius for that matter."

"Will his clients be upset?"

"He can still pop back here as needed," Mary assured.  "So... shall I ask Yeshua?"

Joccy stopped herself from asking if he would be there, too.  She didn't want her hopes dashed if not.

"Yes.  Please."

"All right then..."

Joccy watched intently as Mary closed her eyes and prayed silently.

Then, just to the right of the fruit and cheese tray, a small object appeared.

Mary opened her eyes and smiled as she picked up the object.

"Very on brand..." she commented.

Joccy smiled.

"I recognize that, I think...  It's a mezuzah, isn't it?" 

Mary nodded.

"When we're ready, we'll hang it on one of the door posts inside, touch it, and then... we'll be off."

"Do you think he made it?  Carved it, I mean?"

Mary examined it.

"Looks like his work.  Would you like to look?"

"I... I won't go poof?"

Mary laughed and shook her head.

"No.  He said it had to be hanging on a door post to work.  Right now, it's just a normal mezuzah."

"Then yes, please."

Joccy studied the piece once Mary handed it to her.  It was beautiful olive wood with a green vine and branches of myriad colors carved into it.

"I'm sure you can keep it after we're done.  It'll be deactivated.  And then, one day, you can hang it in your own home," Mary suggested.

"It's beautiful..."

Mary hugged Joccy and kissed her hair.

"A beautiful creation from a master carpenter... just like you."

Tears welled in Joccy's eyes.

"Thank you..."

"Just telling the truth, dear."

*~*~*

That afternoon, once Lucius had returned, Takoda and Kelly came over with their bags.

"So any idea where we're off to?" Kelly asked.

"The middle of no where," Mary replied.

Takoda laughed.

"Well, that clears things up."

Mary winked at him.

"I figured he would know which 'middle of no where' would be best."

"Definitely!" Lucius agreed.  "And whichever one it is... I'm looking forward to going for a run... hiking..."

"I was told there would be s'mores," Joccy brought up with a smile.

"Oh, lots and lots of s'mores!" Mary confirmed.

Takoda sighed contentedly.

"I think I can already smell the bonfire..."

Joccy beamed at him.

Lucius nailed the mezuzah in place then looked to Mary.

"Look good?"

"Looks good!"  She reached up... and disappeared.

One by one, they each followed suit until only Joccy, Lucy, and Lucius were left.

"I hope she doesn't freak out..." Joccy worried.

"She'll be fine.  Don't your friends bring their pets through the Dyeland portal sometimes?"

"Yeah...  You're right.  Okay..."

Joccy touched the mezuzah and suddenly found herself standing with the others outside a cabin... a cabin that was much larger than what she'd imagined.  It reminded her of the cabin the Friends had stayed in when they'd visited North Carolina.

"It's so beautiful..." she praised before turning around in a circle to see the most beautiful autumnal forest.  "All of it..."

"And there's a fire pit already built," Takoda pointed out.

Lucius appeared with the last of their bags.

"Wow..."  His face lit up with admiration. 

Mary smiled proudly.

"He really outdid himself..."  She sucked in the fresh air then pulled a key from her pocket.  "So... let's look inside, shall we?"

The others nodded eagerly. 

Mary opened the door and stepped into a large open plan kitchen/living area.  The entire interior was knotty pine and furnished with cozy, rustic decor.

"I'm never leaving," Kelly commented with a grin as she ran a hand over a beautifully carved rocking chair.

"Definitely a little piece of heaven on earth," Mary agreed.  "And we can all admire it properly after we get settled.  Bedrooms are on the second floor.  Joccy, dear, why don't you pick first?"

"Oh...  Okay.  Thanks!"  Joccy smiled at Mary then, carrying Lucy, made her way up the stairs.  She examined each room, six in all.  They were all beautiful and very similarly sized.  The main difference was that each had accents in a particular color.  And so Joccy chose the turquoise room. 

Takoda chose next and, heedless of the colors, selected the room next to Joccy's. 

Kelly followed, taking the last room on that side of the hallway. 

Once Mary had chosen the purple room for herself and Lucius, the five gathered in the hallway.

"So I'm guessing the other rooms are for Jemima and then for Serge and Bach?" Joccy questioned, trying to keep the disappointment out of her voice.  That left no room for Joshua.

"Probably so.  But we'll see," Mary replied.  "They might dine and dash on us."

Lucius laughed then stretched his arms out.

"I think I could go for a hike.  Any of you are welcome to join me but I also understand if you want more time to get settled.  We can go again tomorrow."

"I think I'll stay here with Lucy, let her explore the cabin a bit and get comfortable.  But thanks!" Joccy answered.

"I'll stay, too," Takoda added without hesitation.

"I think I might break in one of those rocking chairs on the porch," Kelly replied.  "Do a little reading maybe."

Mary squeezed Lucius.

"I'd love to go with you."

Lucius beamed at her. 

"Sounds wonderful."

Joccy smiled, glad the two were getting some alone time. 

"We'll be back in time to start dinner," Mary promised.  "I was told the kitchen should be well-stocked so help yourself to snacks if you're hungry."

"Will do.  Have fun!"  Joccy hugged the two. 

"Back in a bit."  Lucius waved at the trio then departed with Mary.

Joccy's smile grew when she heard Mary giggle from the main floor, right before the door closed.

Kelly turned to Joccy and Takoda.

"You two good on your own?"

They nodded.

"Great!  I think I'll make myself a cup of tea, grab a book, and be on the back porch.  Let me know if you need anything."

"Will do," Takoda promised. 

"Well...  I guess I'll try to coax Lucy off the bed."  Joccy frowned at the cat who was curled up on a pillow.

"If she doesn't budge, maybe we can sit with her for a little bit," Takoda suggested.  "So she knows we're staying with her."

"Good idea.  I didn't even think about how she might be rattled by coming here so soon after getting adopted," Joccy fretted.  "I hope this doesn't set her back."  She stroked the cat's back, drawing out a meow.

"She'll be fine.  It's the people that matter most.  Not the place."

"Yeah..."  Joccy sat down on the bed and indicated for Takoda to do the same.  "Thanks for coming, by the way."

"Of course!  I've missed being outdoors.  I mean the balconies are great but... not the same."

"You should have gone hiking with Mary and Lucius.  You could still catch up.  Lucy and I will be fine," Joccy urged.

Takoda shrugged.

"We have plenty of time.  I doubt Joshua will rush us out of here.  Besides, I think they should have a little time to themselves."

"True..."

Takoda looked around the room.

"This place is beautiful.  I wonder if Joshua built it?"

"Do you think so?  I didn't know if that was a thing he'd do... buy land and all."

"He might.  I'm sure there are lots of uses for it."

"Have you ever read The Shack?" Joccy asked.

Takoda nodded.

"I found it in the library at Willowveil.  JenniAnn said it was worth a read.  Maybe this is like that shack."

"Maybe..."

Lucy stretched then hopped off the bed. 

Joccy and Takoda watched patiently as she began to explore the room, occasionally stopping to rub up against things.  After a couple of minutes, she walked out of the room.  Joccy and Takoda jumped to their feet and trailed her.  They watched with amusement as Lucy went from room to room, exploring.  Once she'd checked all the bedrooms, she headed to the main floor. 

Lucy surveyed the kitchen and then the living area.  Then she turned a corner.

"We didn't even see what was in the back half of this floor," Takoda realized as they followed.

"It's beautiful..."  Joccy spun around as they entered a sunroom.  She laughed when Lucy jumped onto a bench in front of a large window and curled up. 

"Looks like she found a cozy spot."  Takoda smiled and stroked the cat between the ears.

"Uh huh..."

Joccy stepped into another hallway to find a bathroom... and a closed door.  Seeing no reason not to enter, she turned the knob.  Peering inside, her heart began to race.

"Takoda!" she called.

The angel hurried to join her.

"Well, hey..."

They stepped into the room which was half workshop, half bedroom. 

Lucy pushed past their legs and bounded into the room. 

Joccy spotted a flannel shirt hanging from a hook, grabbed it, and buried her face in it... sandalwood, sawdust, a vague hint of roses.

"He... he was here!" she exclaimed.  "Maybe... maybe he'll come back while we're here!"

Takoda rested a hand on Joccy's shoulder.

"I really hope so."

He had to believe it.  This was an awfully big tease if not.  And Joshua was never cruel.

Joccy gave her friend a teary smile.

"I'm okay," she assured.  "It... it's not like I'm expecting him tonight.  Or even tomorrow.  But... I feel like... like he wouldn't let me find this if... if he wasn't going to show up at all."  She returned the shirt to its hook then began to examine the tools.  Her smile faded as she picked up a carving knife.

Takoda watched her closely.

"I still haven't apologized to Eliot.  He... he did nothing wrong.  But... it probably upset him to realize I'd used one of his knives..."  Joccy set the knife down.

"You can text him if you want," Takoda suggested.  "I'm sure that's enough for now."

"Yeah...  I should probably talk to Catherine and Vincent and Portia at some point, too."

Takoda stared at his feet, thinking he probably should, as well.  He thought of Vincent fighting to subdue him.

Joccy approached and wrapped her arms around the angel.

Takoda smiled, his arms circling around her.

"Sorry...  I didn't mean to bring things down," Joccy apologized.  "Especially not here."  She waved around the room.

"You're fine," Takoda reassured.  "We're fine."

Joccy stared into his eyes.

"What is it?" Takoda asked with concern.

Joccy shook her head.

"Nothing... just... this feels good."

Takoda smiled.

"It does," he agreed.

They remained in each other's embrace until Lucy exited the room and reclaimed her spot in the sunroom.  Joccy and Takoda followed, basking in the sun and lighthearted conversation.

*~*~*

Just as Mary had predicted, Jemima, Serge, and Bach all showed up just before dinner.  After dining on some fish and assorted sides, most of the group moved into the yard where Lucius started a bonfire.  Inside the cabin, Joccy and Jemima prepared the ingredients for s'mores.

"Chocolate..." Jemima murmured with adoration as she opened a package.

Joccy giggled when she snuck a bite and offered her a piece, too.

"Thanks."

"Welcome!  This place is gorgeous!  Ama's and Abi's apartment is super cute but I'm glad you all got out.  You don't see stars like this in NYC."  Jemima stared out the window and up at the heavens.

"I'm glad, too.  And I'm glad you came.  And Serge and Bach, too.  Are you staying over?"

"Not sure about the boys.  I am."  Jemima began to break up graham crackers.  "So how has everything been going?"

"Good.  Your mom's the best.  It's really helped talking to her.  And Lucius...  I'm so glad he got me Lucy."  Joccy glanced out the window where her cat was curled up on Takoda's lap.

"He's awesome.  Ama thinks he'd have totally spoiled me.  She's probably right.  Could you grab a bowl, please?"

"Sure!"

Joccy handed Jemima a bowl and watched as she poured large, fluffy marshmallows into it.

"Better check to make sure they're fresh."  With a grin, Jemima popped one in her mouth and motioned for Joccy to do the same.

"Mmm...  Yummy.  Definitely fresh," Joccy confirmed.

"Yup.  I hope the guys found sticks.  Cause I want a s'more pronto."

The two left the kitchen carrying the bowl of marshmallows and a tray covered with crackers and chocolate bars. 

"Here we go!" Bach enthused.  "S'mores time!" 

"Do you all not have s'mores in Heaven?" Joccy asked as Serge handed her a stick.

"Yeah.  But even with all of eternity, you can never have too many s'mores," Bach replied.

"Plus, it's just the experience of it.  Watching the marshmallow start to get all crisp around the edges..."  Jemima added.

The little group all gathered around the fire, toasting their marshmallows.  Soon, there were a series of contented sighs as s'mores were constructed and consumed.

Joccy smiled as she gazed around her.  She marveled at what a difference a few days could make and she dreamed of the days to come... hoping they would add one more to their number.

*~*~*

Waterfall

Saturday, September 19th, 2020


Despite the change in location, Mary and Joccy stuck to their schedule.  While the four men went hiking with Jemima and Kelly returned to her book, they met in the sunroom.  Nearby, Lucy sunned.

"So do you feel better being here?" Mary checked.

Joccy nodded with enthusiasm.

"I mean I love your apartment.  It's so homey and comfortable.  But...  I have missed being outside, being in the wilderness.  I probably should have visited Dyeland more than I did once the portal was opened back up."

"Why do you think you didn't?"

With a frown, Joccy shrugged.

"I dunno...  I guess...  I felt a little awkward.  Especially with..."

"Takoda?"

"Yeah...  I mean...  It definitely wasn't anything he said or did.  I think in some ways..."  Joccy shook her head.  "Ironically enough...  I felt a little like I was cheating when I did go.  I couldn't touch Jayden.  Couldn't see Jayden face-to-face.  But I could do those things with Takoda.  And... I wanted to.  I wanted to hug him, squeeze his hand.  And there were a few times..."

"Take your time."

"Thanks...  It's just...  There were a few times I... I wished I'd made a different choice.  But that wasn't coming from a good place.  I felt that way because, with the lockdown, I could have more with Takoda than... than with Jayden.  And that felt wrong... selfish.  Like... like I picked Jayden because I want to have kids someday.  And, presumably, I could have with him.  Not with Takoda.  And then once I could hug Takoda but not touch Jayden at all...  Well, it was just easier to mostly stay away from Takoda, too.  So I didn't hurt either of them.  But now it seems like Jayden wasn't abstaining for my sake... so I feel stupid that I did for him.  But even as I say that...  It still makes it sound like... like I wanted to use Takoda."

"Joccy...  Just because you want affection from someone, it doesn't mean you're using them.  Not if it's consensual and they're enjoying it, too.  A lot of people were re-evaluating relationships during the pandemic... still are.  Tell me, how were things with you and Jayden otherwise?  Like were you talking regularly?"

"Uh huh.  Almost every day.  And it was good.  I mean...  Sometimes he could be a little...  He's not really big on Christianity.  So he would tease me a little when I said I had to prepare for the kids' Bible study or whatever."

"How did that make you feel?"

"I dunno...  I mean...  I didn't like it.  But there are so many stories of saints converting their spouses.  Like St. Monica."

Mary frowned.

"And, I mean, Lucius even started the process to convert, right?"

"He did," Mary confirmed.  "But he'd also never really felt at home with pagan worship.  I was pretty weak in my own faith at the time.  I wasn't trying to convert him."

"And I wasn't trying to convert Jayden, either.  I just thought maybe if he could see how happy I was...  Or even if he could meet Joshua..."  Joccy sighed.  "I just wanted him to accept that it was important to me.  But it felt like he was just humoring me."  Her hand went to her necklace.  "He probably shouldn't have suggested I stop wearing my necklace, should he?"

"I don't think so.  I suppose I could understand it to an extent.  I'm not sure I would have been thrilled with Lucius regularly wearing a gift from another woman but... if it had been important to him and if I had no other evidence of impropriety... I think I would have accepted it.  I think Jayden should have been more accepting of it.  Especially given he knew it had cultural significance to you."

Joccy nodded.

"I don't think he meant it this way but... it felt a little like when my father said we couldn't go to pow-wows any more."

"I could see that."

"Like... he wanted to erase part of me... if not my heritage then at least my friendship with Takoda.  And the two... they're kinda bound up.  Cause... Takoda had been helping me reclaim that part of myself.  I... I probably should have broken up with Jayden.  If I had...  We wouldn't have slept together." 

"You were in love.  You wanted it to work out."  Mary smiled sympathetically.  "No one can fault you for that.  I missed so many signs with Yakan...  But he was my first love and... I just wanted so badly for him to be who I thought he was."

"Yeah...  That's it exactly.  And... I wanted the happiness that... that I always wished I'd grown up around."

Mary reached over and patted Joccy's hand.

"I can understand that."

"He may have messed up a little with the necklace.  But... he was a feminist.  At least... I thought he was.  So I figured when we had kids... he'd be happy to have daughters.  I... I know my father wishes Zoe and I were boys.  Me especially.  I didn't want my daughter to grow up like that."

"Of course not."

Joccy stared out a window, admiring the sunshine on the brightly colored leaves.

"But I also wouldn't want my children to grow up under the shadow of infidelity.  Because that... that's miserable, too," she murmured.

"I'm sure it is.  And you were incredibly strong to make it through that, to protect your sister as best as you could.  Have you ever really talked to someone about how that made you feel?"

"No...  Not really.  I did a little when we did family counseling.  But...  Not everything.  Because Mom and Zoe were there."

"So how did it make you feel?" Mary asked, her voice soft and soothing.

Joccy let out a shaky breath.

"Like... like I was living on ice.  And, any moment, it could break and I'd fall into the freezing water with Zoe."  Joccy began to cry.  "I... I think sometimes that's why I didn't tell... about Emma.  Because... what if they decided neither of our parents was fit?  Would we be split up?  And... even if we weren't... would I be able to protect Zoe?  And when I got older... I never trusted either of my parents.  I knew my dad was terrible... but he kind of turned my mom terrible, too.  She should have helped Emma... not piled on.  So... how could I know that she'd help me if... if my dad ever really hurt me?"

"He did really hurt you, Joccy.  Emotional and spiritual abuse just leaves a different sort of scarring," Mary counseled.  "I think sometimes you minimize what you went through just because it wasn't physical."

"Yeah...  That's probably true."  Joccy dabbed at her eyes.  "It was also...  I mean...  How... how was I supposed to really believe that I had value when... when Emma was such a kind, good person and everyone... my parents... people at my church... start-started saying she was trash?  I was little.  But I still understood.  If... if someone hurts you then... then you're trash.  It... it wasn't until Joshua came that someone I really trusted made me see otherwise."

"I can't imagine how much strain that put you under, Joccy.  I'm so, so sorry, dear.  No child should ever, ever have to feel that way."  Mary embraced Joccy as she wept.  "But you know that all of those people... they have nothing on Joshua.  Joshua speaks the truth.  He is the truth.  And he knows that Emma isn't trash.  And he knows that you have never been and will never be trash.  You're precious and wonderful.  And he loves you."

"Y-yeah..."

Mary's own eyes filled as Joccy clung to her.  She felt like they'd had a major breakthrough.  And yet... something still nagged at her.  But there would be time to discuss that later on.  She could see the four men and her daughter returning.  Takoda was staring at the house, no doubt searching for some sign of Joccy.

"Joccy...  The guys have come back.  Maybe after lunch, you and Takoda could go for a walk?" she suggested.

Joccy sat up and peered out the window.  She nodded.

"That'd be good.  As long as he's not tired out."

"I think he'd be up for it.  There's a waterfall not far from here.  Not even a quarter of a mile.  I'm sure he can make it.  He's a strong fellow."

Joccy smiled.

"Yeah.  He is.  That sounds nice."

"Actually...  We were just going to have sandwiches.  Maybe you could have a picnic?  Lucius and I can watch Lucy."

"It would be nice to get outside..."  Joccy rubbed at her eyes and took a few deep breaths.  "Yeah.  I'll go ask him.  Thanks.  This talk... it really helped."

"You're very welcome.  I'm so glad."

They heard the front door open and the five enter.

"Ama!  Ama!" Jemima cried.

Mary laughed and entered the living room with Joccy.

"Guess what?!"

Mary looked at the newly returned men and her very enthusiastic child.

"What, what?!"

Jemima beamed.

"I beat both Serge and Bach in a race.  I'm faster than two soldiers!"

Serge chuckled.

"Turns out drilling with the Roman army maybe isn't as much of a work-out as being a little ragamuffin with a neat freak aunt," he jested.

Mary laughed loudly.

"She did spend an awful lot of time running from Martha and a clean rag..." she recalled, hugging Jemima. 

Joccy approached Takoda.

"Did you race?" she asked.

He shook his head.

"More fun to watch.  Besides, I wanted to save some energy.  We passed a waterfall that I'd like to show you."

Joccy smiled.

"Mary had just suggested we have a picnic lunch there, actually."

"Good plan."  Takoda returned Joccy's smile and the two awaited their adventure with excitement.

*~*~*

It took only a few minutes for Joccy and Takoda to reach the waterfall.

"Oh... wow...  It's so beautiful."  Joccy spread out the blanket she was carrying then withdrew her cell phone from her pocket and snapped a few photos.  She smiled at Takoda.  "Now one with you in it."

Takoda scrunched his nose.

"Really?"

"Yes, really!" 

"All right..."

Takoda set down the picnic basket then posed, smiling in front of the waterfall. 

Joccy snapped one photo and was prepping for a second when a gust of wind blew through.  She took a photo then pulled it up.

"That bad?" Takoda questioned when she made a face.

"Mmm...  No, no."  Joccy showed him the first photo.  Then she swiped to the second.  "You look... elemental."

Takoda peered at the image.  The wind had caught him off-guard and his eyes had sought out Joccy's as his hair had whipped around him.  It made for quite the intense image.

"Wild man!" he jested. 

"I like it," Joccy murmured, her cheeks flushed.

"The other one looks like I'm posing for senior class photos."

Joccy laughed.

"It does, doesn't it?  Ugh.  I hated that.  So awkward.  Be glad you were spared it."

"Made for some really lovely photos, though."

Joccy blushed again.

Takoda squeezed her elbow.

"C'mon, let's eat."

The two sat down on the blanket and unpacked the basket.  After saying grace, they dug in.

"This macaroni salad is really good," Joccy commented after a few moments.

"Digging this sandwich.  I love goat cheese.  Never thought to pair it with beets."

"It's yummy," Joccy agreed.

Takoda went in for another bite then grimaced when a breeze went through again.

"I'd really rather not eat my hair."

Joccy giggled.  She reached into her pocket and pulled out a hair tie. 

"Would you like me to braid it?  Probably pretty sloppily since I don't have a brush on me.  But it'd keep it out of your face."

Pleased, Takoda nodded.

"Yeah, thanks."

"Okay."

Joccy moved behind the angel.  She ran her fingers through his hair a few times, eliminating tangles. 

Takoda sighed.

Joccy began to braid his hair, admiring it as she did.

"It's so beautiful," she complimented.

"We have basically the same hair," Takoda deflected.

"I know but...  It just... it looks really good on you."

"Thank you.  I... I love your hair, too."

"Thanks."

Joccy continued to work.  She was just putting the hair band in place at the bottom of the braid when she heard Takoda sniffle.

"Koda..."

Joccy leaned forward and saw a few tears trickling down the angel's face.

Takoda rubbed them away.

"It's fine...  It's nothing."

Joccy frowned.

"Doesn't look like nothing."

"I was... just... thinking."

"About?"

Takoda shook his head.

"Please tell me," Joccy encouraged.  "I... I can take it."

"It's just...  This... feels so good.  A-and it popped into my head that... that things could have been so... so different.  If... if you hadn't come back."

"Koda..."  Joccy gently pulled him back against her chest and wrapped her arms around him.  "I'm here.  And... I'm glad I'm here.  With you."

Takoda closed his eyes as she kissed the top of his head.

"I love you, Joc."

"I love you, too, Koda."

Joccy kissed the angel's hair again and sighed contentedly.

*~*~*

"They're holding hands!"

Serge pulled his anam cara away from the window of the sunroom.

"Stop gawking, Bach!  You'll make them self-conscious."

Mary smiled over her cup of tea.

"I truly hope everything works out for them," Lucius wished.  "They deserve a happy life... together or otherwise."

Jemima hugged him.

"I hope so, too, Abi." 

Kelly glanced out the window.

"She looks better... freer."

Mary nodded.

"She's been more open... honest.  There's just still something that's gnawing at me..."

Lucius moved to rest a hand over Mary's.

"You'll figure it out.  I trust you.  What's more, He trusts you."

Mary brought Lucius' hand to her lips and nodded.

"Thank you, my love."

Lucy leaped from Mary's lap and headed to the door.

"Well, hello, sweet girl!" Joccy greeted as she scooped the cat up.  "I missed you!"

Takoda stroked the cat.

"I missed you, too.  I suspect you spent most of the time taking a nap, though, huh?"

Just as Lucy jumped from Joccy's arms and began to rub at her and Takoda's shins, Mary entered the living room and laughed.

"That she did.  She didn't leave my lap until just now.  How was lunch?"

Joccy beamed at Takoda.

"It was really nice."

He nodded in ready agreement.

Mary cocked her head.

"Takoda, was your hair braided before?"

With a grin, Takoda shook his head.

"No.  There was a little wind.  Joccy did this so I wouldn't be biting into strands of hair with my sandwich."

"It suits you.  Isn't the waterfall beautiful?"

"Absolutely gorgeous.  And I captured an awesome photo of Koda..."

Mary smiled as Joccy cycled through the images.  There were several of both of them.  Takoda had clearly commandeered the phone at some point.

"This one..."

Takoda blushed as the two women looked.

"Very angelic," Mary declared.  "Fiercely angelic."  She smiled at Takoda.

"Thank you."

Joccy yawned.

"Sorry.  I think between the delicious lunch and the walk, I might need a nap."

"That sounds like a good idea.  And I'm sure Lucy would be happy to accompany you," Mary encouraged.

Takoda took the blanket Joccy had been carrying from her.

"I'll get everything put away," he offered.

"Oh, I can help with that first.  I'm not totally zonked," Joccy protested.

Takoda squeezed her shoulder.

"It's fine.  Really.  I want to.  Besides..."  The angel pointed at the cat on the ground, staring expectantly up at Joccy.

Laughing, Joccy nodded and scooped Lucy up.

"In that case... thank you.  For cleaning up but also... I had a really nice time, Koda."

Takoda beamed.

"I had a really nice time, too, Joc."

Joccy hugged him with her free arm then did the same with Mary.

"See you later."

"Sounds good!" Mary replied.

"Later," Takoda echoed, watching as Joccy climbed the stairs. 

Once she disappeared, the angel sighed.

"I... I think...  There's no coming back from this for me," he whispered.

Mary hugged him tightly.

*~*~*

Sins of the Father

30 A.D.


Mary awoke with a dreamy smile.  She was snuggled against Lucius.  When she saw he, too, was awake, she gently dragged her fingers through the hair on his chest.  And then she noticed he seemed troubled.

"Lucius...  You look...  Are you not happy that we..."  Mary hung her head.  "Was it... not... what you expected?"

"Mary..."  The soldier gently cupped her chin.  "It... you... wonderful," he choked out.  "I... I only regret...  There are things... things I should have told you... before.  Things I meant to tell you...  But... I did not expect... that."

Mary frowned.

"What things?"

Tears welled in Lucius' eyes.

"Things about my family.  About where I came from."

Mary hugged him fiercely.

"I do not care, Lucius.  I love you.  No matter what."

"Terrible things..." Lucius moaned.

"Tell me.  Please."  Mary pressed her lips to his and waited.

And so he told her.

*~*~*

Sunday, September 20th, 2020

Mary awoke from her dream, her memory with a start. 

That was it...

She gently shook Lucius.

"Hmm?  Mary... what..."  He blinked then sat up straight.  "What's going on?  Has something happened?"

Mary shook her head and cradled her beloved's face in her hands.

"No... no.  I'm sorry.  But something occurred to me.  And I just had to tell you.  Joccy.  The thing I've not been able to put my finger on.  I'm not the one who is supposed to help her with it.  You are."

Lucius rested his hands over Mary's.

"Me?  Really?"

Mary nodded.

"It's something you can understand...  Something I can't.  Not fully.  Lucius... what you told me the morning after we first laid together..."

Lucius grimaced.

"Why would I share something so dark with Joccy, sweet Mary?"

"Because it's a darkness she already knows, my love."

"Oh..."  Lucius bowed his head.  "Of course.  Yes...  I will talk to her."

Mary hugged him.

"Thank you."

Lucius kissed her brow.

"Thank you... for helping me through."

Mary brought one of his hands to her lips.

"I had to.  I loved you so... as I still do."

Lucius smiled.

"I love you, too.  So much."

The couple laid back down, entwined in each other's arms.

And they waited for sunrise.

*~*~*

Joccy rose with a shudder.

She'd dreamed of Takoda again.

It had not been pleasant.

She felt sick to her stomach as the images replayed in her mind.

In the darkness, she felt for Lucy.

Once her hand landed on the cat's soft fur, she relaxed... at least a little bit.

Waking, Lucy moved onto Joccy's chest.

"Lucy..." Joccy whispered.  "Sweet Lucy..."

Joccy was glad the cat was a cuddler.  She needed a cuddler right then.

Lucy meowed happily as she nuzzled her head beneath Joccy's chin.

Joccy didn't return to sleep.  She didn't want to go back to the dream... nightmare.  And so she began to pray.  The Our Father, Hail Mary, Angel of God.  The familiar words steadied her and kept the images at bay.

Eventually, the sun rose.  Joccy started to hear movement in the hallway.  Then further away... the kitchen.

"Time to get up, Luce," she announced.

Joccy pulled on her robe then carried Lucy to the kitchen where she found Lucius starting some coffee.

"Good morning!" the Roman greeted.  His smile morphed into a frown.  "Joccy, are you okay?  You look... wearied."

Joccy shrugged.

"Been awake for a while.  Had a nightmare.  Couldn't get back to sleep."  She snuggled the cat. 

"I'm so sorry to hear it.  Do you want to talk about it?  Or... I could wake Mary?  She'll be up soon, anyway?"

"I dunno...  Definitely don't wake up Mary.  Thanks, though."

Lucius nodded.

"You're definitely getting the first cup of coffee.  Should be brewed soon."

Joccy smiled.

"Thank you."

Lucius pulled out a stool so Joccy could sit down.

"There's, umm, something I think I should tell
you," he confessed.

Joccy looked curiously at him.

"Really?"

"Yes.  About... my past.  My family's past."

"You don't have to if..."

"I... I think it might help.  But first..."  Lucius handed Joccy a mug then a carafe of creamer and a sugar bowl.

"Thanks."

Lucius poured a cup for himself and took a sip before settling onto a stool across from Joccy.

"My mother died when I was still quite young.  I remember her as being... melancholy.  She seldom smiled.  I never knew why.  I sometimes thought... maybe it was me?"

Joccy reached over and rested a hand on Lucius' when tears filled his eyes.

"And... in some ways... maybe it was," Lucius continued.  "I... was not a wanted child.  At least not wanted by her.  And how could I expect her to want me?  She didn't want my father.  But my father wanted her and so... he took her."

Joccy's eyes went wide.

Lucius nodded.

"My parents were married... but that doesn't change the fact that I was conceived in rape."

"Does... does Mary know?"

"Yes.  I told her shortly after our first time together.  I felt she deserved to know.  I would have told her before.  But...  I think we both moved faster than we meant to."

"But... but that doesn't have anything to do with you," Joccy protested.

"That's what she told me."

"I'm so sorry, Lucius.  Sorry for you.  For your mother."

"Thank you.  Joccy, I've only told you this because... you're right.  My father's actions have no bearing on who I am.  And your father's actions have no bearing on who you are," Lucius stressed.  "You're your own person, Joccy, capable of making your own choices.  And you've chosen to love."

Tears spilled down Joccy's cheeks, onto the cat in her lap.  But Lucy remained still and content.

"My... my nightmare...  I dream... dreamed that... that I pushed Takoda too... too far.  That I just got... carried away and... and hurt him... like my father hurt Emma."

"I've had those nightmares, too.  About Mary.  But they never happened, Joccy.  They wouldn't happen with you, either.  I know it."

Joccy shook her head.

"When... when I tried to kill myself... it was because I... I felt dirty a-and broken and unworthy.  And I did feel those thing when I... I realized what Jayden had done.  But... if I'm really honest... I've felt them for... for a long time.  Because... I am my father's daughter.  A-and I worried that... that whatever was in him that made him so awful... it was in me, too.  But... but it's not."

"It's not," Lucius confirmed.  "You are a truly good person, Joccy."

Through her tears, Joccy beamed at Lucius.

"And you're a truly good person, too, Lucius."

Lucius returned her smile then hugged her tightly.

On the steps, Mary smiled through her tears.  Just as she'd suspected, it was Lucius, not her, who needed to draw that last piece of truth out of Joccy.  And he had.  Tenderly and lovingly.

Jemima approached and took a seat on the steps beside her mother.

"What are we doing?" she whispered.

"Giving Lucius and Joccy a few moments to themselves.  He just helped her realize what she needed to," Mary replied, her voice hushed.

"Aww... good.  So things will be better for her now?"

Mary nodded.

"Thank God."

"Thank God," Jemima echoed as she hugged her mother.

*~*~*

Walk On

That afternoon, following a healing chat with Vincent, Catherine, and Portia; Joccy and Takoda went for another walk to the waterfall.

They settled against a tree and admired the beauty around them.

After a few minutes of companionable silence, Joccy took Takoda's hand in hers.

"What would it look like if... if we tried... tried to make this work?" she questioned.

Takoda peered into Joccy's eyes, hope and worry warring inside of him.

"I... I'm not sure.  I... I've never done this before.  But... I mean..."

"If... if you would even want to, I mean," Joccy interrupted.

"Joccy...  Of course I want to."  Takoda caressed her face.  "Very much."

"I'm... well, I'm just... afraid that I'll hurt you.  What if... if, in time, I... I miss sex?  Or... or my biological clock starts really ticking or..."

"Then... then I would want you to pursue the life that made you happy... with whomever made you happy, Joc."

"But... it would hurt," Joccy protested.

Takoda nodded.

"I... I don't think anyone gets to love without hurt."  He smiled with fondness.  "So... before I left Willowveil, Andrew and JenniAnn were on this big Simon and Garfunkel kick."

Joccy giggled.

"How does that not surprise me?"

"Right...  Anyway... there's this song that really got to me. 'Flowers Never Bend with the Rainfall.'  And this part in particular: 'No matter if you're born to play the king or pawn, for the line is thinly drawn 'tween joy and sorrow.'"

"That's beautiful... and sad."

"And true.  Choosing to love means choosing to get your heart broken, somehow, at some point.  We'd be no different than anyone else who takes a chance... knowing they could grow to want different things... knowing it might not work."

"I... I suppose.  But not everyone has to... to live forever with heartbreak," Joccy reminded.

Takoda bowed his head and said nothing.

Joccy let out a shaky breath.

"It... it's too late to avoid that.  Isn't it?"

Takoda nodded.

"If... if we don't try, you'll live with that ache forever.  But if we do... there's a chance that... that it will work.  That we... we can live happily ever after."  Joccy smiled at the thought.

"Yes."  Takoda returned her smile. 

"Then let's... let's at least try?  Please, Koda?"

The eagerness, the fondness in Joccy's eyes made Takoda's heart race.  Tears welled in his eyes.

"Yes...  Let's try.  Please."

Laughing, Joccy wrapped her arms around the angel's neck and pulled him close.

"I love you, Koda," she murmured into his ear.

"I love you, too, Joc."  Takoda rested his forehead against hers. 

Joccy tilted her head and... so softly... brushed her lips against his.

Takoda beamed.

"Thank you."

Joccy giggled.

"You're welcome."

Then she pushed him forward and squeezed behind him.

Takoda relaxed against her, sighing with contentment as her hands joined over his chest and she kissed his hair.

Outside of Heaven, he had never felt so at home.

*~*~*

February 11th, 2000

"It's a girl!" the doctor cheered as the baby squalled.  "A healthy baby girl!  Good lungs on her!"

Jodi smiled wearily.

Her husband scowled.

After a quick examination, a nurse handed the baby to her mother.

"Do you have a name picked out, Mama?" the nurse cheerily asked.

Jodi nodded as she studied the tiny, perfect face.

"Jocelyn.  Her name is Jocelyn."  The mother smiled at her baby.  "Welcome to the world, Joccy."

*~*~*

In a park across from the hospital, two men... seemingly... sat on a bench.  The younger of the two stared with curiosity at the building and all the activity surrounding it.  He saw ambulances unloading stretchers, women with expansive bellies being wheeled inside, harried parents rushing in with screaming children, limbs bent at odd angles or ice packs held to heads or knees.

"For many of them, their lives will begin and end there.  These buildings are filled with so much life... and death," Wahkan informed.  "You can learn a lot about humans in a place like this.  But we'll come back...  It's too much for your first assignment."

He rose and beckoned for his protege who followed without hesitation.

"Where will my first assignment be?"

Wahkan waved to a school building.

"There.  You'll be teaching history.  There's a student who is grieving the loss of a sibling.  You'll help them through, Takoda."

Takoda gulped.

"What if... if I fail?  If I can't reach them?"

Wahkan squeezed his shoulder.

"I'll drop in.  Keep an eye on you.  I have confidence in you, my boy."

Takoda smiled shyly.

"Thank you."

"You're welcome."  Wahkan beamed.  "Welcome to the world, Takoda."

*~*~*

Sunday, September 20th, 2020

As Joccy and Takoda walked back to the cabin, joined hands swinging between them, she smiled up at him.

"Would you sing, please?"

Takoda nodded.

"Anything in particular?"

"You know."

And Takoda did.  Before the wedge had grown up between them, Joccy had asked him to sing it several times.

"Okay...  Here goes."

"'When you walk through a storm,
hold your head up high.
And don't be afraid of the dark.
At the end of a storm,
there's a golden sky
and the sweet silver song of a lark.'"

Joccy's eyes filled as she thought about all they'd experienced together... of all the many ways Takoda had helped her.  And, she knew, she had helped him, too.  She'd hurt him... badly... but they'd made it through.  The storm was passing... had passed.

"'Walk on through the wind.
Walk on through the rain.
Though your dreams be tossed and blown,
walk on, walk on,
with hope in your heart,
and you'll never walk alone.'"

As they drew closer to the cabin, Joccy saw them... the familiar black curls poking up over the top of one of the chairs gathered around the fire pit.  Unable to speak, she could only point.

Then Takoda saw him, too.  He clasped Joccy's hand more tightly and they ran the rest of the way.

As they approached, Joshua rose from the chair and held his arms aloft.  He embraced both of them.

"Joccy... Takoda... my beloved ones," he whispered as he held them close and kissed the tops of their heads. 

Joccy sobbed into his shoulder, clutching desperately to him.

Takoda broke away first and watched, with a smile and tears streaming down his face, as Joshua held his beloved in a bear hug.

"My girl... my sweet girl," Joshua cooed.

"Josh- Joshua...  Joshua..."  Joccy kept repeating his name.

"I'm here, I'm here," Joshua consoled.

They stood like that for a long time, Joshua holding his little girl close to his heart.

*~*~*

Once Joccy had finally been able to release Joshua enough for them to move, they'd only gone as far as the privacy of his room.

"When I found this room... I... I hoped it meant you would come.  Soon," Joccy told him.  "And especially when I found this."  She stroked the flannel shirt.  "It... it was like you'd just been here and only stepped out for a little while."

Joshua nodded.

"I had just been here.  The place needed a few minor repairs."  He grabbed the shirt and settled it around Joccy's shoulders.  "Yours now."

"Thank you..."  Joccy nuzzled the collar.  Then she sighed and bowed her head.  "I'm sorry... for what I did.  I just... I felt so... so lost and broken and... and like you were the only... only person who... who could fix me.  But... I see that wasn't true."

Joshua perched on his work bench and patted the spot next to him.  Joccy settled down beside him.

"It wasn't true," Joshua averred.  "But I understand.  I do.  And I forgive you...  Utterly, completely.  Life... it's never been easy for you, Joccy.  These last few years?  Better.  But they can't undo the pain of your childhood.  Trust... it's so easily broken and then so very difficult to piece back together."

"I felt like you were the only man I could trust," Joccy confessed.  "Even... even the only man who truly loved me.  But...  That's not true.  You're the most trustworthy.  You love me the most.  But...  I see now that... that others are worthy of trust, others love me.  Andrew and Peter and Sy and Lucius and Serge and Bach and Vincent and... and Takoda most of all."  She rested her head on Joshua's shoulder.  "I wish I could have seen that... before I put everyone through this."

"What's important is that you did learn, Joccy.  And now you won't forget."

"Yeah..."  Joccy nodded.  "You... you tried to warn me about Jayden.  Last Christmas."

"Yes."

"I... I never really did have that honest conversation with him about beliefs.  Maybe could have made all the difference.  Maybe would have stopped me from... from sleeping with him."

Joshua gently patted her hand.

"Can't change the past, Joccy.  Not even I do that.  But...  I can remake it.  I can take what was wrong and turn it into the beginning of something beautiful.  I want to do that for you.  If you'll let me... and you took a big step today."  Joshua smiled proudly.

Joccy returned his smile and nodded.

"I... I do love him.  Takoda.  Always have.  If... if not for...  I worry I can't make those sacrifices..."

"I know.  And that's for you and him to figure out over time.  But I'll tell you this... sometimes even the hardest sacrifices... they end up giving you more than you ever dreamed of."

Joccy peered into Joshua's beautiful brown and gold eyes and knew he spoke from experience.  One life sacrificed... innumerable ones saved and restored to him, including hers.

"Yes..."  She smiled.  "Thank you for sending me Jemima and Mary and Lucius and Serge and Bach and Kelly and... Takoda.  Takoda most of all."

Joshua returned her smile.

"They had a good time... and they'll continue to have a good time.  We'll stick around here for another few days."

"We?" Joccy asked hopefully.

Joshua grinned.

"Me too," he confirmed.  "And as for Takoda...  He's your best friend.  Of course he wanted to be here... to be with the woman he loves."

Joccy's face colored.

"It's so hard to believe an angel cares for me like that.  I mean... I do believe it but... it's just... wow."

Joshua chuckled.

"Not the first time... as you well know.  Won't be the last time.  I kinda dig the angel/human anam cara thing."

Joccy laughed.

"I can tell."

She sighed with contentment.

Joshua kissed her hair.

"I love you so much, Joccy.  Always have.  Always will."

"I... I love you, too, Joshua.  Al-always," Joccy echoed, her voice shaking.

Then, once again, Joshua simply held his child close and surrounded her with his love.

*~*~*

Epilogue

Several Months Later


Joccy and Takoda ambled around Central Park, hand in hand.  It felt good to, at last, roam around as they used to... maskless, without worry.

And then Takoda spotted him. 

Jayden.

"Joc..."  He paused and squeezed her hand.

"Hmm?"

"Joc...  Jayden's here."

Joccy stiffened.

"Where?"

Takoda pointed.

"Oh."

Joccy's face colored.

"We could turn around before he..."

But it was too late.  Jayden had spotted them.  He looked around nervously as if he wanted to flee but, for some reason, couldn't.

"It's fine.  I... I think I actually want to talk to him," Joccy decided.

"Okay."  Takoda gave Joccy an encouraging smile then walked with her, still with hands linked, towards the young man.

"Hey Jayden," she greeted.

"Hey... hey, Joccy.  Takoda," he responded shakily.

"Long time no see," Joccy offered breezily, thinking of how she hadn't heard a word from him since that fateful Zoom call.

"Yeah...  Sorry."

Joccy shrugged.

Takoda only looked on, ready to jump in if need be.

"How... how've you been?" Jayden asked.

Joccy beamed.

"Good...  Really good."  She released Takoda's hand only to loop her arm around his waist.

Takoda bowed his head to hide a grin.

"So, uh, you two...  You're together?" Jayden asked.

Joccy patted Takoda's side.

The angel met Jayden's gaze and smiled.

"Mmm hmm.  Got together sometime after you... well, ghosted Joc."

Jayden's cheeks burned.

"Yeah...  I... well, I'm sorry about that, Joccy.  It was just... the pandemic, you know?  Wasn't thinking straight."

Joccy couldn't see how the pandemic had precluded a simple call or even a text to give her some sort of closure, some consideration.  But she found it also didn't matter to her any more beyond the principle of it. 

"I see.  Well, I'm doing really well so... doesn't matter.  I just hope you won't do the same again to someone else.  It's hurtful."

Jayden stared at his feet and nodded.

"Yeah...  I know that now."

And, with that, Joccy guessed at what had happened with his other girlfriend. 

"Good," she replied.  "Well, nice seeing you.  We need to get going.  We have a lunch reservation."  Joccy beamed at Takoda who smiled back at her.

"Yeah.  Of course.  Won't keep you.  Good seeing you, too," Jayden mumbled.

"Take care, Jayden," Takoda wished, sincerely, as they walked away.

They'd made it a few steps before Joccy halted and turned back.

"Jayden?"

"Yeah?"

Joccy's eyes misted.

"God loves you.  He really does.  I... I hope you really come to feel that someday."

Jayden only nodded. 

Later, Joccy and Takoda would tell each other that they both thought they saw tears welling in his eyes.

Right then, the couple resumed their walk.

"How do you feel?" Takoda asked.

Joccy thought.

"Actually... no different.  I'd moved on a long time ago.  Moved onto someone better."  She gave Takoda an affectionate squeeze.

The angel smiled and kissed her hair.

"I love you, Koda."

"I love you, Joc."

They kissed then continued on their way, feeling light and free and happy and filled with love.

The End

Works Cited:
So... I apparently didn't track these when I was writing as I usually do.  And then I *did* track them on my re-read but that file got lost.  So... hopefully this is everything but, if not, please let me know if you notice something missing.

"You'll Never Walk Alone" by Rodgers and Hammerstein
Psalm 46:1-5- "God is our refuge..."
Jesus Christ Superstar
"In the Garden" by Charles A. Miles
"Abide With Me" composed by Henry F. Lyte and William H. Monk
Matthew 28:6- "He is risen"
John 15:13- greater love has no one than this
"We Fall Down" by Bob Carlisle- This is where I originally heard the "Saints are only sinners..." line but it probably has other origins, too.
I Love Lucy
Wheel of Fortune
The Shack by William P. Young
The Our Father
Hail Mary
Angel of God
"Flowers Never Bend with the Rainfall" by Simon and Garfunkel


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