Hope and Healing
by Jenni


Saturday, June 27th        Sunday, June 28th        Monday, June 29th        Wednesday, July 1st

Saturday, July 4th
        Tuesday, July 7th        Wednesday July 8th        Saturday, July 11th 

Sunday, July 12th        Monday, July 13th
        Tuesday, July 14th        Wednesday, July 15th

Sunday, July 19th       
Wednesday, July 22nd        Friday, July 24th        Tuesday, July 28th

Thursday, August 13th
        Wednesday, August 19th        Thursday, August 20th


Saturday, June 27th, 2015

After at last leaving the Romano Family Farm following Clay's and Kylie's wedding, Andrew and JenniAnn trekked up the main staircase at Willowveil with Shelby, Violeta, Rose, and Max trailing them.  Belle snoozed on her father's shoulder.

"So what's the game plan for tomorrow morning?" Max whispered.

JenniAnn stretched up to plant a kiss on Belle's forehead before Andrew took her into her nursery.

"Andrew picked up some doughnuts and muffins at Adrian's in between the weddings and there's still a bunch of fruit salad we should probably eat up.  So let's say everyone eat by 10:00 and we'll head to 10:30 Mass at St. Mary Mag's?  Monica, Arthur, and Liam will be meeting us there.  Maybe Kemara and Sean, too."

Rose smiled dreamily and rested her head on Max's shoulder.

"Sounds good..." she murmured.

From behind the couple, Violeta grinned and shot JenniAnn a look of amusement which was quickly returned.

Max clasped Rose's hand and nodded.

"Sounds good, Maja."  He smiled at JenniAnn then looked to Rose.  "Can I walk you to your room?"

Her face briefly flushing, Rose nodded.

Violeta giggled and was rewarded by a Look from Max who playfully bumped his shoulder against hers.

A round of hugs began and was renewed when Andrew stepped back into the hall.  Once Max and Rose were off, Andrew squeezed Shelby's hand.

"Are you staying in the nursery with Belle or with Violeta, Shel?"

Shelby bit her lip as she considered. 

"I'm not really tired yet..."

"We could color!" Violeta suggested.

Shelby beamed.  "Okay!"

After a few more embraces, Andrew and JenniAnn were left alone in the hall.

"It's been such a lovely day...  Eleora and Cody... Kylie and Clay...  They looked so blissful and content and Joshua was there and... and I don't want tonight to end," JenniAnn opined.

The angel of death took her hands in his. 

"I don't either.  Would you care to join me on the balcony for some more dancing?" he offered.

JenniAnn smiled up at him.  "Certainly."

While Andrew lit some lanterns, JenniAnn prepped her laptop and selected a playlist entitled "Andrew's and JenniAnn's Dance Mix Part VI."

Andrew smiled as Christina Perri's "A Thousand Years" began to play.

"I remember how crushed you were when you found out this was the song from Twilight."

JenniAnn wrinkled her nose.  "Annoying... but I do love this song."

Andrew set down the lighter and embraced her.

"Me too."

"We really gotta make some time to mix another of these, though.  We haven't done one since..."


JenniAnn smiled.  "Right.  We've been too busy mixing lists of Disney songs and nursery rhymes."

"We're gonna find ourselves dancing to something from Sesame Street one of these days."

Laughing, JenniAnn shook her head as Andrew began to hum the theme song.  After he quieted, they began their dance.

JenniAnn sighed as she rested her head against Andrew's shoulder.

"What ya thinking?" he inquired.

"Just about the weddings...  So beautiful."

"Do you ever wish..."

JenniAnn looked up. 

"That we could have had a wedding?  No.  I mean, don't get me wrong, I spent some pleasant teenaged evenings planning it."


"Sure.  I mean not that I ever expected any such plans to be needed.  But it was still fun to play around with.  Our colors woulda been emerald and cerulean."

Andrew chuckled.  "Nice color scheme.  I would have supported that... assuming I had a vote."

With a grin, JenniAnn shrugged.  "You pretty much let me do whatever I wanted in my day dreams."

"I see.  And did I even get to pick out my tux?"

"Well... you didn't have a tux."

"Oh boy..."

"It was very casual.  You wore jeans and a white peasant shirt... open til right about here."  JenniAnn rested her hand over his heart.

Andrew burst out laughing.  "Laja..."

"Well, I wore jeans, too!  They had white lace inlays that flared them out into bell bottoms.  And then I wore my emergency wedding dress over it but with all the buttons undone except those at my waist and bodice.  Ya know, so the jeans would... what?"

Andrew's head was cocked.  "Emergency wedding dress?"

"Oh...  I thought I told you about that at some point."

"Really don't think so."

"Well... it's just this cream colored sun dress that I bought just in case I ever fell madly in love with a deploying soldier or something and needed a dress ASAP."

Andrew tried to hide the fact that her words stung.

JenniAnn reached up to cradle his face. 

"Of course, I did fall madly in love with a deploying soldier in time.  But no wedding, no marriage.  All for the best, though.  I could never say 'til death do us part' to you, my love."

Andrew nuzzled her hair.

"Never," he whispered.

His soft twang made JenniAnn feel weak in the knees and she leaned closer.

"I really don't mind that we never had a wedding," she stressed.  "To me, what we had with Joshua in the chapel was just as beautiful and special and wonderful as what Clay and Kylie and Eleora and Cody had today.  And it's not like we can't have some big emerald and cerulean colored anniversary party at some point... with that gourmet popcorn from back home as party favors.  That was another part of my dream wedding and that bit I want to keep."

Laughing, Andrew nodded.  "Definitely keep the popcorn."

"All that truly matters to me is that we're together, surrounded by our family, and with God watching over us all... every day.  That's more important than any ceremony or reception."

"It is," the angel agreed as his right hand drifted through her hair.

JenniAnn frowned.  Andrew still seemed upset.

"You're not hurt are you?  About the emergency wedding dress or..."

"No.  Laja, no.  No at all."  Andrew sighed.  "It's only... I'm a little nervous about tomorrow afternoon."

JenniAnn ceased dancing and hugged him tightly.

"I'm sure it'll be fine, Andrew.  Joshua wouldn't let Eben come if it was too soon or if he was still too outta sorts or anything."

"True.  I just hope I'm in the right frame of mind."  The angel yawned.

"Hold that thought.  Let's get ready for bed and talk there," JenniAnn suggested.

With a grateful nod, Andrew extinguished the lanterns.

After a few minutes' separation, the two reconvened in the bedroom.

As she brushed out her hair, JenniAnn watched Andrew snuggle Lulu and Fawn who had already joined him on the bed.

"Not sure there's gonna be room for me," she teased.

After giving both dogs hearty snout scratches, Andrew smiled up at JenniAnn.

"We'll make room.  Besides, I've caught them both yawning.  They'll move to the foot of the bed soon or else go join Belle."

JenniAnn peeked into the nursery where Belle was still sleeping soundly then set down her brush and settled beside Andrew.  Fawn and Lulu both demanded a round of cuddles and belly rubs then, as predicted, curled onto the foot of the bed.

"Told ya."

"Ya did." 

Andrew smiled as JenniAnn placed a kiss on both of his temples.

"I hope Clay and Kylie are having a nice night," she murmured.

"You have doubts?"

JenniAnn laughed quietly.  "No, actually."

"Me neither.  And I'm incredibly glad for them."

"Me too.  Being with someone they know loves them truly, madly, deeply...  I am a bit concerned about Adam, though.  I mean... I know his connection to Kylie isn't the same exactly as... as yours to me.  And I know he's connected to Clay, too.  But that's gotta be kinda odd.  Two of the three have a closeness that the other, Adam, doesn't share."

Andrew considered this.  He'd kept a close eye on Adam at the wedding but hadn't noticed him seeming downcast.  A little wistful.  Adam had admitted as much.  But not upset or lonesome.

"Maybe it's a little like us with Violeta," Andrew suggested.  "We both love her very, very much.  And sometimes I envy you a little bit for being her confidante in ways I never can be."

"And I wish I could be with her, showing her the world, like you do when you're on assignments together," JenniAnn interjected.

"Right.  And probably, over time, differences will develop in what we each share with Shelby and Belle.  Maybe even with Max.  Maybe we'll feel a sort of... gentle envy."

"Ooh.  I like that term."

Andrew smiled.  "Thanks.  It makes sense to me.  Because even while a hint of jealousy is there, it makes me really happy that you and Violeta have the bond you do.  There's a wistfulness but no desire to interrupt that and steal it away."

"Exactly!"  JenniAnn hugged his arm.  "Cause I do feel a lotta joy when you both come back from assignments and Violeta excitedly shares what she learned from you and smiles so lovingly and proudly at you.  You make each other happy... and that makes me happy."

Andrew kissed her hair.  "It's not a perfect analogy but I think that's the heart of it.  Adam loves Kylie and Clay and their marriage brings them great happiness and, seeing that, it'll bring him happiness, too."

"Yeah...  And he is pretty excited about going on that honeymoon."

Andrew let out a hearty laugh.  "He really is.  I saw the collection of tourism pamphlets he's amassed."

"But what do you think he'll do at night when Clay and Kylie are, umm... busy?"

"Probably make his way to the hotel pub and make all kinds of new friends.  Maybe just amble around town."

"Probably get hit on a lot, too."

"I have a feeling that he'll enjoy that."

Giggling, JenniAnn nodded against Andrew's chest.

Silently, the two prayed for their three friends and hoped that their shared honeymoon would bring them even closer.

"Now..." JenniAnn began.

"Now," Andrew echoed, knowing she meant for him to share what was weighing on him.  "I think, more than anything, I'm worried about keeping my own anger at Eben in check, Laja.  Ever since..."

"Since I was shot," JenniAnn interrupted when she saw him begin to struggle.

The angel nodded.  "And everything that happened after that... I feel like I'm walking around with... with raw nerves exposed.  It hasn't been so bad since I've spent most of my days here or in the Tunnels or at the theatre, among people I love and trust.  But now... here comes Eben.  Eben who repeatedly tried to... to scare you away from me."

JenniAnn brushed some hair behind Andrew's ears and peered into his brimming eyes.

"I'm concerned about that, too.  But maybe it's okay if we do get upset with him.  That might be cathartic for all three of us.  And as for Eben trying to scare me away, you know that didn't work.  If you start to feel overly angry about that, just focus on the fact that this meeting is happening in our home that we share with our kids and know that, once Eben leaves, we can crash and take a relaxing and restoring nap in our bed."

Andrew chuckled.  "True.  But since Max, Rose, and Violeta are bringing Shel and Belle back around 3:00, it can't be a very long nap."

"Even little elves need naps sometimes.  Belle could join us if need be."

"Also true."

"She's loved having you around so much.  So have I, of course.  Very grateful to Joshua for that."

Andrew gently placed a hand over where he knew JenniAnn's scar was.  "Me too."

"I'm also... I'm grateful he and the Father didn't put the kibosh on the whole angel/human anam cara thing after... after what Nen and Tzila and their like did.  Earlier, at the farm, I found myself thinking about how there were a couple times in grade school when I got demerits... not because of anything I did but cause the majority of the class was acting up and so the whole class got them at once.  I can remember the first time, it was during our library time, I'd just been obliviously perusing the books, trying to block out my classmates' rowdiness so I could focus and choose my book for the week.  Then the librarian announced that we all had gotten demerits.  It was stupid, really.  My parents didn't care at all.  Still... I did.  So I just bawled."

"Laja..."  Andrew's eyes welled as he thought of a distraught, miniature version of JenniAnn.  He brought her right hand to his lips and kissed it. 

JenniAnn snuggled nearer.  "So at the wedding I thought about how awful it would be if Joshua and his Dad were like that librarian.... if He doled out punishments on everyone for what some did.  Then you and me...  Nothing..."

"God would never do that, Laja."

"I know.  He told me... while splitting a cup of cream cheese wedding mints with me."  JenniAnn's eyes twinkled as she remembered.  "Still... he could have.  He said it was painful to watch what Nen and Tzila did but he could never have missed out on the joy he felt watching you and me and Eli and Sophia and Reuel and Rafiq and Adam and Kylie and Clay and so on.  And from that... I came to pity Eben more than anything.  That's not to say the anger is totally gone.  But while we were busy growing ever closer to each other and our friends and family and God, he was wandering Sheol for years."

Andrew let out a deep sigh.  "You're right.  I can't imagine what that was like for him.  Especially after he started to come around."

JenniAnn nodded before resting her head on his shoulder. 

"Seeing us in Edmund's office... knowing he'd missed out on so much friendship.  He could have been here the whole time... attending our parties, hanging out," she lamented.

"But at least now he has the chance... eventually.  Maybe."  Andrew dragged his hand through his hair as he contemplated whether or not Eben would ever truly be part of his inner circle again.

JenniAnn sat up and stroked the angel's cheek then bent to kiss him.

"I think he has that chance," she averred.

Andrew circled his arms around the woman and buried his face in her hair.

"Thank you, Laja.  I love you."

"I love you, too.  Now for some sleep?"

Andrew nodded and was soon lulled by the sound of JenniAnn's steady breathing.  He inhaled and exhaled slowly, further calming himself.  Whether nightmares came that night or not, the reality was that his Laja was safe and happy and healing more and more every day.  He stared up at the ceiling and thanked God for that.  Andrew also prayed that Eben's visit would be yet another step in his own healing from the month's shocks and heartbreaks.

After again resting his chin against his soul mate's hair, the angel of death surrendered to sleep.


Sunday, June 28th

Following Mass, Andrew and JenniAnn brought Belle back to her room to change into clothes more suitable for a picnic and trip to the Children's Museum in Brooklyn with her sister, Uncle Max and Aunts Rose and Violeta. 

Belle sang a nonsensical ditty as JenniAnn fastened on the bright pink shorts that the toddler had chosen to pair with a Frozen T-shirt.

"Very stylish!  Now go see Daddy to get your shoes."

"No oos."

Andrew crouched beside the girl.

"Belle, you can't go to the museum without shoes," he urged as he patted the floor so she'd sit down.

Belle scampered away.

Peeking in from the hall, Shelby entered.

"C'mon, Belle.  Put your shoes on," she encouraged.  "Don't you want to play on the swings at the park and with the animals at the museum?"

With a nod, Belle took the shoes from Andrew then brought them to Shelby.

"Eby oos."

Shelby glanced at Andrew.  When he shrugged, she moved to put the shoes on Belle who made no further protest.  Once the sandals were on, Belle wrapped her arms around Shelby's neck and cooed loudly as the older girl returned the hug.

Watching the scene, JenniAnn wished there was some way to express to the little one that now was not the time to play favorites and snub her daddy.

Andrew forced a smile and got to his feet.

"We should probably head downstairs.  Uncle Max and Aunt Rose and Aunt Violeta are waiting."

Belle released Shelby, hurried over to Andrew, and raised her arms.

"Up!  Up!"

JenniAnn sighed happily as the angel lifted their girl into his arms. 


"Baby girl!" Andrew exclaimed, casting off his brief melancholy. 

Belle grinned then planted several kisses on Andrew's face.

Laughing at the toddler's puffed out cheeks and puckered lips, JenniAnn and Shelby embraced.

"Andrew's going to be okay, right?" the girl whispered.  "He looked really sad sometimes this morning."

JenniAnn patted her back.  "He's just a little nervous about his old friend coming today but he'll be fine.  And that helps."  She beamed at Andrew and Belle who were still cuddling.  "Having you with us this weekend has helped, too.  He loved dancing with you at the wedding, ya know."

Shelby beamed.  "It was fun.  Especially the swing dance.  You'll call Max or Violeta if it would help if we came back here sooner?"

"Of course.  But don't you worry about that, Shel.  You just have fun.  Andrew and I will be fine.  Promise."

"Okay.  Can I stay over again tonight since you're going to the Tunnels for classes tomorrow, anyway?"

"I think that can be arranged," JenniAnn replied.


"You girls ready?" Max called from down the hall.

Shelby hurried forward and nodded at him.  "Coming!"

"Eady!" Belle repeated, at last releasing her grip on Andrew and taking Shelby's hand.

Joining hands themselves, Andrew and JenniAnn followed the sisters to where they met up with Max, Rose, and Violeta. 

Belle cried out with glee as her uncle swooped her up onto his shoulders.

"We'll be back by 3:00 if all goes as planned," Max promised.  "I'll call if anything changes... like if we're unable to get Bellaluna to leave the Totally Tots section."

Andrew chuckled.  "It could happen.  Thanks.  We'll see you then."

"Have fun!" JenniAnn exclaimed. 

Once they'd hugged the kids good bye and seen them off, Andrew and JenniAnn stepped into the chapel.  They settled, side by side, into the pew closest to Joshua's portrait.

"Joshua, Father, please let this visit be everything Andrew hopes it to be," JenniAnn silently prayed.  "I mean I hope it helps Eben, too, but... you know with whom my heart lies.  And, like me, you know the sleepless nights and the nightmares Andrew has suffered with.  Please let this time with Eben further his recovery."

Andrew laced his fingers through JenniAnn's as he also spoke to God.

"I'm not sure why I feel nervous about this, Joshua, but I do.  Maybe I'm worried that talking with Eben... it's going to bring Laja back to those times when he tried to hurt us.  Or maybe even back to... to earlier this month.  She hardly talks about it... more often about my going to Sheol.  And maybe it doesn't help that I can't speak easily of it, either.  The shooting.  Laja was shot.  Laja could have died.  I can say it to you but sometimes... usually... it's so hard to talk about it out loud.  To remember the seizures, to know more could strike.  Father...  Father, I think I know a little piece of what you felt watching Joshua suffer."

Andrew only realized that tears had begun to trail down his cheeks when JenniAnn tightly embraced him.

"My love..." she cooed. 

Andrew rested his cheek against her hair and took in a few deep breaths.  When he released JenniAnn, he felt more at ease.

"Better?" she checked.

The angel nodded.

JenniAnn stroked his cheek. 

"Good.  Do you want to stay here a bit longer while I go get the sandwiches and sides out?"

Andrew shook his head. 

"No, I want to help.  I'm fine.  Let's go."

Arms around each other, they headed out.  Both cast one last look at the portrait before entering the hall. 

Once they'd reached the kitchen, it took only a few minutes to set up lunch in the ballroom.  They'd decided a good view of the yard and sky beyond would help them, and hopefully Eben, relax.

JenniAnn was just doing a final check when the doorbell rang.

"Should I go..." Andrew began.

"Let's go together," JenniAnn decided.

With a nod, Andrew took her hand and brought her to the front door.

They found Eben nervously shifting from one foot to the other as he held a large potted plant and a basket.

"Hi Eben," Andrew greeted.

"Hi Andrew, JenniAnn," Eben replied.

JenniAnn, who had been intently studying Andrew, gasped when she turned to respond to the reformed angel and saw the vibrant flowers he carried.

Eben smiled shyly.

"They're for you, JenniAnn.  From the island.  Joshua said they'll take if you plant them here."

JenniAnn reached out to touch the beautiful petals then bent to breath in their enchanting scent.

"Thank you," she murmured as she remembered her time with Joshua, Chava, Sophia, and the others.

It was Andrew's turn to peer at her, taking in her brimming eyes but obvious pleasure.

"I, umm, I'd hand them to you but they're a little heavy and I didn't know if..."

JenniAnn startled.  "Oh!  Of course, let's just sit them right inside the door.  Andrew and I will find the perfect place later.  I..."

Eben stepped inside and gently set the flowers down.  He was surprised when he stood and felt a gentle touch on his shoulder.

"Thank you," JenniAnn repeated before drawing her hand back.

"Thank you for welcoming me into your home after everything..."  Eben stared down at the floor.

Andrew's hand briefly alighted on his old friend's arm.

"We'll talk about all of that in a little bit.  Let's have some lunch first, you think?"

Managing a smile, Eben nodded. 

"I brought dessert.  I didn't make it, I'm afraid, but that's for the best."

The angel opened his basket to reveal a perfect looking and heavenly smelling apple pie.

JenniAnn beamed.

"Hope?" she guessed.

Eben answered with a smile and nod.

"I'm still on the island but she comes to visit me often.  Last time, she insisted I take one of her pies to you both."

Andrew's eyes filled as he thought of his former assignment.  They were happy tears, however.  Hope was thrilled about Eben's return.

"Thanks, Eben.  And thanks to Hope, too.  I'm going to want to scarf down my sandwich just to get to that," the angel of death teased.

Eben laughed.  "Still with that sweet tooth, I take it?"

JenniAnn grinned.  "Very much so.  And he's doing an admirable job of passing that trait down to a new generation."

Still laughing, Eben followed the two into the ballroom.  Once they'd all taken seats, Andrew held his hands out to Eben and JenniAnn. 

After a momentary shock, Eben took Andrew's and JenniAnn's hands and bowed his head.

"Dear God, thank You for this meal and for the hands that prepared it.  Thank You for this time together, for all the effort You put into bringing the three of us here.  Help us to have a good, healing visit.  We love You.  Amen."

"Amen," Eben and JenniAnn echoed.

The three loaded up their plates then dug in.

Eben sighed after taking a bite of his chicken salad sandwich.

"This is delicious," he opined.  "Better than any I've had on Earth."

Andrew chuckled.  "The 'chicken' comes from Adam."

Eben looked curiously at him.  "Why did you put air quotes around 'chicken'?"

"We don't know how... and neither Adam nor Joshua will tell us... but somehow Adam creates various meat-like substances.  So, basically, a vegetarian could eat this guilt-free," JenniAnn explained.  "Cause it's not really an animal product.  Just tastes like it."

Eben eyed the salad before taking another bite. 


Andrew and JenniAnn smiled at each other.

"So, umm, how are you feeling?" Eben inquired of JenniAnn.

"Really good, thank you.  I had a check-up last week and everything looks really good.  Very, very little pain or discomfort."

"I really was... I was sorry when I heard about... what happened."

JenniAnn gave Eben a tremulous smile.  "Thank you."

"I'm sorry about a lot," Eben continued as he pushed some macaroni salad around his plate.

Andrew looked up from his own plate.  "Why her, Eben?  I... I can understand why you targeted me.  I didn't do what you wanted back in Shiloh.  But La... JenniAnn wasn't even born then and you still..."

Eben set down his fork and sighed.  "I won't make any excuses but it was like... once the darkness got a hold of me... my thought patterns, my reasoning... so different.  Jealously overrode everything.  I spent centuries stewing, occasionally acting out against you, Andrew.  And then when JenniAnn entered your life...  I was jealous that she got to be close to you.  I was jealous that you had her.  I know... I understand that Hope didn't love me as... as you love Andrew, JenniAnn.  But I thought... we could have been really good friends.  And then when you wouldn't fight for her in the way I wanted you to..."  The former demon looked to Andrew with tears splashing down his face.  "And I know... now... that what I wanted was wrong.  Very wrong.  I wanted to take away God-given free will.  But in the darkness... I still believed I was right.  And I couldn't understand why you wouldn't help me save Hope but, continuously, you did everything you could for JenniAnn.  The difference is you never tried to steal away freedom for her.  As glaringly obvious as that is to me now... I couldn't see it then."

"So that... that's why you tried to drive me away from Andrew?" JenniAnn pressed.

Eben nodded.  "Seeing you two together... it hurt.  And I wanted to make Andrew hurt as badly as I did when they took Hope away from me."

"So I... I was only a means to an end for you?" the woman continued.

"Yes.  I'm sorry."

Andrew quietly seethed for a few moments before JenniAnn began to lightly stroke his back.

Eben watched, swiping at a few tears.

"What if... if she'd gotten hurt going back and forth from the jail, at night, when I was arrested?  Or... or what if your lies had upset her so badly that she'd fled Dyeland and... and gotten hurt then?" Andrew questioned.

Eben buried his face in his hands.

"I... I just didn't care.  I'm sorry.  My anger... it sent any remaining compassion left to me into hiding."

Andrew glared at his former friend.

"You knew how badly it hurt to lose a friend you cared about but you still... if your plans had worked... you would have made me feel that, too.  And what you made JenniAnn feel..."  He clasped the woman's right hand in both of his.

JenniAnn began to weep as she remembered her confusion when, in disguise, Eben had befriended her and then begun to tell her lies about Andrew.  She recalled the lonely nights hiding in the basement of the jail and playing music, knowing it was her only way to connect to Andrew who was behind bars above her.  If he'd had his way, Eben would have stolen away so much that brought happiness and meaning and love to her life.

Not entirely cognizant of what she was doing, JenniAnn settled onto Andrew's lap and twined her arms around his neck.

Fresh tears welled in Eben's eyes.  He wept for the sorrow and pain he had caused... not only to them but to himself, too.  He had completely missed out on one of the most beautiful epochs in his friend's life.  He wasn't there to see Andrew settle into life in Dyeland.  He wasn't among the many friends Andrew had introduced to the Dyelanders.  He hadn't seen him win JenniAnn's heart.  He was absent when the angel had become a father.  What he knew of Joshua's time among Andrew and his burgeoning group of friends had come to Eben only secondhand.  He knew now about the Dyeland Christmas tree and Andrew's family tree.  There was no ornament, no bird for him.  In trying to steal happiness from Andrew, he'd caused only further isolation and loneliness for himself.

After lifting his face from where he had buried it in JenniAnn's tresses, Andrew's eyes locked with Eben's.  He saw the regret and sadness and grief writ on his face and in his eyes.

"If I could do any-anything at all to take it all back... I would.  I swear I would," Eben pleaded.  "I'm so sorry.  In the days before you came to Sheol, Andrew, I told your story... the story of you and JenniAnn... what I knew of it, at least... so many, many times.  And each time... I... I felt a little bit more love for you both.  I know that may not mean much right now and maybe... maybe you don't feel loved... by me... but it's true.  Andrew, we couldn't... weren't meant to... save Hope's life.  I know that now.  And, as she's told me, she wouldn't have wanted to... to live at the cost of... of freedom and faith.  But you and JenniAnn... you brought hope... hope that God's will eventually prevails, hope that no one is ever too... too broken to be loved and welcomed home... back to me.  I don't blame you if you want me to leave right now and never come back but I just had to... to thank you... and tell you that I... I pray for you.  I do."

JenniAnn loosened her hold of Andrew enough to look at his sobbing one-time partner.  After placing a kiss on Andrew's temple, she rose so he could go to his friend.

Andrew knelt beside Eben's chair and rested a hand on his arm.

"We, umm, we've got a lot of work to do to... to repair the friendship we once had," the angel of death started.  "But I... Eben, I'm willing to do that work."  He looked to JenniAnn.

The woman stepped to Eben's other side and rested a hand on his shoulder.

"And I'd like to help in any way I can," she added.

Eben looked back and forth from one to the other.  He noted their sincerity.

"Thank you," his wavering voice croaked.

"You're welcome," Andrew softly replied.  "Now how about some of that pie?"

With a laugh, Eben accepted the handkerchief JenniAnn held out to him.

"Yeah, I'd like that."

After loading their plates with pie, the three moved to the front porch and Eben listened raptly as Andrew and JenniAnn began to fill him in on the surprising but wonderful paths God had led them to take.


Following dinner, Andrew and Max rinsed off dishes and loaded them into the washer while JenniAnn and Rose helped Violeta make a list of supplies she'd need before classes started.  Occasional shrieks of delight assured both parents that Belle was having a wonderful time playing Hide and Seek with her big sister.

Max laughed as Belle streaked past the doorway, shouting for her "Eby."

"Maybe we shouldn't have gotten her that second cookie earlier," he mused.

Andrew smiled and shook his head.

"She'd be wired regardless.  The good thing is when she's this energetic in the evening, it usually means she'll crash early and sleep through the night."

"And, umm, do you think you'll sleep any better than you have been?" Max questioned.  "I mean... it sounds like the visit with Eben went really well so I was hoping..."

Andrew squeezed his shoulder.

"I'm hoping, too," he answered.  "The worst part is your Maja is such a light sleeper that if I wake up, there's a good chance she will, too.  I've thought about moving back to my room."

Max frowned and eyed the angel as he loaded glasses.

"You really think either of you would sleep better that way, Dad?  I guess I got the impression that Joshua was giving you the summer off so you and Maja could be together as much as possible.  And... I mean... you couldn't even nap in your room that time you tried when Maja was in the hospital."

"True.  You're right, Max.  Bad idea."

A few moments of companionable silence passed before Max interrupted it.



"Can I, umm, ask you something kind of awkward?"


Sensing Max needed his undivided attention, Andrew turned away from the dishwasher and motioned for the young man to take a seat at the table.  Then he noticed Max glancing into the hallway.

"Would you rather go talk in my office?" the angel suggested.

"Yeah.  Please."

Before going upstairs, Andrew poked his head into the parlor where the girls were.

"Max and I are going upstairs to my office for a bit."

Though surprised, JenniAnn only smiled.

"Okay!  You coming back down for ice cream sandwiches later?"

Andrew flashed her a grin.  "Naturally."

Max was quiet as they made their way up the stairs.  During those few moments, Andrew pondered what could be going on.  Surely he and Rose weren't having problems.  The two seemed closer than ever.  At the thought, Andrew wondered if, perhaps, that was the reason for this consultation.  Maybe their closeness had reached a new level.  Maybe Rose was pregnant.  He couldn't fault them with everything that had happened that month.  Still, that didn't seem quite right.  If that was the case, surely Rose would be involved in this conversation.  JenniAnn, too.

Once inside the office, the two men settled onto the couch.

Andrew looked expectantly at Max.


"So... I'm getting married in a year," Max opened.  "And... and I want to be a good husband."

Andrew beamed.  "I know you will be, Max."

Blushing, the groom-to-be smiled.

"Thanks.  But I mean, like... in every way."


"See, well...  Rex never..."

Andrew patted the boy's shoulder.  Max had ceased referring to his father by anything other than his first name.

"He talked to me about sex but not... not in a good way.  Just... bravado.  Not good stuff."

Andrew hugged Max.

"I'm sorry, Max.  You shouldn't have had to hear that.  Just know that if you have any questions that you think I can help with, I'm here.  And for those I can't answer, I'd be happy to arrange a talk with Zeke or Rabbi Yakov or whomever you would feel comfortable with.  I could go with you or not.  Whatever's easiest for you.  I'm sorry I can't handle it all myself.  I know that's part of a dad's job but..."

Max adamantly shook his head.

"Don't say that, Dad.  I'm not sorry.  If you could answer all my questions then that would mean you wouldn't be as compatible with Maja as you are.  And I'd hate losing that."

With a smile, Andrew nodded.  "Me too.  So what was it you wanted to ask me?"

The color returned to Max's face.

"Well, Rose and I are discussing taking some sort of pre-marriage class.  Like Kemara and Sean did.  But it made me a little nervous so I Googled to see what sort of questions we might get asked and then I got freaked out because I have no idea how to answer them.  Like one... it asked how often we think we'd want to have sex.  I don't know!  I initially thought four times a week because I guess that sounds reasonable but what if Rose was thinking daily and gets hurt that I only said four times a week?  Or what if four times seems way too often to her?  Is it?  I have no idea!  I thought maybe... just from being around humans for so long... you'd know what's... normal?"

Andrew considered how best to respond.

"Well, first of all, I think those questions are mostly just to get you two talking.  No one is going to hold you to your answers on questions like that.  So maybe just tell Rose what you told me... tell her you're really not sure what to say.  You might find that she's not at all sure, either.  And that's okay.  As for what's normal, I know for a lot of couples, there's an ebb and flow to it.  Maybe they have sex really frequently at first but then not quite so often over time.  You and Rose will just have to consistently revisit that question.  And you don't know what else might come into your lives.  Kids... they'll change everything."

Max smiled.  "True.  Like with you and Maja after Belle.  You didn't get much dancing or alone time right after she came.  And even now, you know you could get interrupted at any moment by crying from her nursery."

Andrew chuckled.  "That we do.  But we wouldn't have it any other way."

Max drew in and let out a deep breath.

"Feel any better?" Andrew queried.

"I am.  Yeah.  Thanks.  I just... I don't want to make any of the same mistakes that Rex did.  Rose... she deserves better.  Much better."  Max let out a shaky sigh.

"And she's getting much better, Max.  I know that.  She knows that.  Your Maja knows that.  And God knows that."



"I love you."

"I love you, too, Max."

The two embraced before placing their call to Zeke.


Downstairs, Violeta had tired of looking through her syllabus and online catalogs and had joined Shelby's and Belle's game.

"Rose, I can handle this myself.  You can go play if you want," JenniAnn offered as she folded a newly washed towel.

Rose shook her head.  "Thank you but I'd rather just sit with you.  Actually... I have something kinda important to ask you."


"It's about Max."


"He's... he's doing a lot better.  Thankfully.  But the whole Rex thing..."

JenniAnn patted her friend's hand. 

"I can't imagine what it's like for him.  I've noticed he only refers to him as Rex now.  No 'my father' any more."

Rose nodded.  "Max says he's going to keep working at forgiving him but he needs to cut all ties.  It's not just about what happened to you... although that's a huge part of it... but also Brooke."

Both women were silent for a few moments as they thought about the wife who Rex had brutally abused.  While remaining very vague, Catherine had said Brooke's case was one of the worst she'd seen while at the Phoenix.

"Anyway..." Rose resumed, "I was doing some research and I just wondered if... if maybe you and Andrew would consider legally adopting Max.  He'd get a new birth certificate and everything.  And in New York all you need is Max's consent which I know he'd give!"

JenniAnn smiled tenderly at Rose.

"I know.  Andrew and I researched it, too.  We thought about offering that to Max a couple years ago but we didn't want him to think we were trying to replace Rex.  We thought maybe there'd be a chance of reconciliation eventually.  But I guess now..."

Rose shook her head.  "I truly believe Max will get to a point where he can forgive Rex.  But the father-son relationship... it's broken beyond repair.  And I... I just really don't think God wants it repaired at this point.  Yesterday I talked with Joshua a lil bit and before I could even run this by him, he started talking about how much he's loved watching you and Andrew parent Max.  He... he said you were what he wanted family to be."

"Oh..."  JenniAnn sighed as a few tears fell from her eyes.  She knew as much but it touched her to hear it from Rose.

"And I... I have a selfish reason, too.  Max and I would really love to have kids and... and if something should happen to us... if you adopted Max then... then..."

"Then Andrew and I would be their legal grandparents."

Rose nodded.  "We just... we don't want Rex to have any claim to them and you know he would if he was out and thought there was any money in it."

The color drained from JenniAnn's face.  She was sure Rose was absolutely correct.

"I hope and pray nothing happens to either you or Max, Rose.  But... but you're right.  And it would... it would be wonderful to have Max recognized as... as Andrew's and my son.  Let me talk to Andrew tonight and then we'll talk to Max and then I'm sure Catherine can help us."

Rose hugged JenniAnn tightly.  "Thank you.  And then... come next June... you really will be my mother-in-law."

JenniAnn laughed as she returned the younger woman's embrace.

"Feel free to start sending the mother-in-law jokes my way."

Rose giggled.  "I'll try to be nice."

"Thank you."  When she pulled back, JenniAnn took Rose's hands in hers.  "I know it's a stereotype that mothers never think their daughters-in-law are good enough for their sons but I... I think you're perfect for mine, Rose."

As happy tears formed, Rose once again hugged her longtime friend and future mother-in-law.


After enjoying ice cream sandwiches together, the family split up for the night.  Rose, Max, and Violeta camped out in the TV room to watch The Avengers.  Belle and Shelby drifted to sleep not long after being tucked in by Andrew and JenniAnn who retired to their room shortly thereafter.

After slipping under the sheet, JenniAnn nuzzled Andrew's shoulder then leaned up on her elbow and smiled at him.

"How do you feel?"

Andrew stroked her cheek.

"Really, really good.  You?"

"The same.  Is everything okay with Max, though?  I was little worried when you two went to your office."

Andrew smiled.  "He's fine.  Just a little worked up about getting married and all that entails.  We set up a visit with Zeke for some counseling."

"With Rose?  And Diana?"

Andrew shook his head.  "Not yet.  This is kind of... pre-counseling.  Just us guys."

JenniAnn guessed at what Andrew wasn't saying.

"Ah...  Good idea.  About Max... I have something very important to ask you."

"And what would that be?"

"Would you adopt him with me?"

Andrew blinked.

"We've discussed it before and just never got around to asking Max but Rose brought it up today.  She thinks it'd help Max with the whole... Rex mess.  And she brought up a really, really good point.  If, God forbid, something happened to Max and Rose after they had kids then Rex..."

Andrew sat up with a start.

"We should have thought about that..."

"I know.  I was pretty horrified when Rose mentioned it.  We wanted to adopt Max regardless but now... I think we should bring it up soon.  Tomorrow even.  Rose said he gets off from the comic book store at 5:00.  Maybe we could take the two of them to the Fields for a picnic.  I'm sure I could get my parents or Vincent and Catherine to watch Belle.  Oh, definitely the latter.  Cause we need to keep it quiet til we ask Max and my parents would ask what's up.  But we kinda have to talk to Catherine first cause I don't want to get Max excited if it turns out there'd be hurdles.  So can we?"

The angel pulled JenniAnn to him and held her close.

"I... I'd love to, Laja.  I think that... it's a wonderful idea and it'll mean so much to Max and..."  Andrew's voice cracked.

"And to us, too," JenniAnn finished for him.  She closed her eyes as she felt him nod against her hair.

Andrew drifted to sleep imagining the day ahead and revisiting his conversations with Eben and Max.  For a month whose early days had been so tumultuous, June was certainly ending on a pleasant note.


Monday, June 29th

With Catherine's encouragement, Andrew and JenniAnn followed through on their plan and brought Max and Rose to the Fields of Gold for a picnic dinner of grilled burgers and tomato salad.  When they'd moved onto cookies, Andrew broached the subject that he, JenniAnn, and Rose had been awaiting.

"Max, your Maja and I have something we want to talk with you about."

The young man looked a bit anxious.

"You're both okay, right?" he asked.

JenniAnn hugged him.  "We're fine.  More than fine.  This... it's a good discussion, we think."

Rose took her fiance's hand and beamed at him.

"Good..." Max replied, nervously taking another bite of his cookie. 

"Max, not too long after you came to us, JenniAnn and I discussed asking you if you'd be interested in us legally adopting you," Andrew explained.

Max's eyebrows raised.

"But, of course, I wasn't really a permanent legal entity at the time and we also... we didn't want you to think we wouldn't support your reconciling with Rex if... if the opportunity arose.  But a lot... it's changed."  Andrew bestowed a gentle smile on his son.

Max's eyes pooled and he nodded.

"So Rose and I had a talk last night... same time as you were talking with your Dad," JenniAnn continued.  "Rose suggested that you would maybe be interested in taking this step and Andrew and I... we just want you to know that... that if you are, so are we.  Very much.  But we want the decision to be yours, Max."

The tears began to splash down Max's face and he held his arms aloft.

"I... I... y-yes... Dad... Maja," he sobbed as he embraced them both, loosening his hold just long enough to pull Rose to them.

"I'm so... so glad we're doing this," Andrew confided.

"Thank you... so... much," Max quavered.

JenniAnn kissed his forehead and wiped away his tears.

"Thank you for wanting to be our son," she replied before embracing Rose.

The two women watched as a silent, thoughtful look passed between Andrew and Max.

As they embraced, father and son thanked the God who had, under harrowing circumstances, first brought them together and proceeded to keep them together.


Wednesday, July 1st

Andrew ran, as fast as he could, through the trees.

"Laja!" he bellowed. 

The angel struggled to breathe as he searched his surroundings, trying to determine which way the man had taken her.

A shrill cry met his ears and Andrew followed it.

"Laja," he repeated over and over as he raced and prayed.  He had to save her, had to keep her safe, couldn't let that man hurt her.

Finally, Andrew came to the edge of a clearing.  Dozens of tents littered the field.  He frantically searched for any sign of JenniAnn or her abductor. 

Another scream filled the air and Andrew spied JenniAnn just before she was shoved into a tent.  The man laughed then followed her inside.

"No..." Andrew cried before running towards them.

"No!  No!" JenniAnn sobbed.

Andrew tore onto the field and towards the tent.  He'd only made it a few feet when other men began to exit their tents and block his way.

"You're too late," one taunted.  "He'll have wasted no time with her."

"Just settle down there, have a drink with us.  You'll forget about the woman in time," another suggested as he thrust a wineskin at Andrew.

Andrew continued to try to push through.

"Laja!  I'm here!  I'm coming!  Laja..."

"No..." JenniAnn moaned.

"Too late," the first man viciously repeated as the throng pressed in, further cutting Andrew off.

The angel of death continued to struggle but made no progress.  Tears blinded him as further, strangled cries met his ears.

"Laja..." he whimpered.


JenniAnn wept as she lay beside Andrew, waiting for the latest nightmare to pass.  He'd asked her not to wake him and she'd obeyed, recognizing that he feared unwittingly hurting her.  Still, it was horrid to watch him.  Surely talking to him would be okay.

"Andrew...  It's okay, love.  We're safe.  All of us.  Andrew, love, open your eyes.  Oh... my dearest and loveliest of all Andrews, look at me!" she begged.

The angel shuddered and his eyes snapped open.

"My poor, sweet love," JenniAnn cooed as she caressed his face.

"My Laja," Andrew hoarsely greeted.

"I'm here."

When he seemed unsure of what to do with his hands, JenniAnn set his right one over her heart.

Andrew sighed.

"Do you want to talk about it?"

"I... I guess I thought maybe they'd be over with.  We visited with Eben and... and we're adopting Max and it's been a great few days but..." 

The angel of death began to cry as he recalled the horrid dream.

JenniAnn dotted kisses along his brow.

"They showed you your own nightmares... made them seem real.  A-and everyone else's nightmares, too.  And told you about the nightmarish things they'd done.  It's going to take some time to process all of that, my love.  Joshua said as much."

Andrew nodded then moved to his side so he could better look into JenniAnn's eyes.

"I wish I wasn't keeping you up and waking you up all the time, though.  You need your rest.  You... Laja, you have physical wounds that... that need that."

"I need you more," she countered.

Andrew sighed then kissed her.

"What a pair we make..." he observed.

JenniAnn grinned when the angel wriggled his eyebrows at her.

"An awesome pair," she added before pulling him into a sitting position then sliding behind him.

"I guess you missed the part about you needing rest," Andrew teased as she began to knead his shoulders.

"Sorry, what was that?"

Andrew laughed. 

"Are you coming to classes with me again?"

The angel of death looked down at his hands.

"I have an order for a chess set that I need to finish before we leave on vacation.  But I thought maybe I'd just set myself up in the back of the chamber to carve... if that's okay?"


"You really don't mind all the... togetherness?"

"Not at all.  It's been nice.  And when the kids ask questions I can't answer, it's good to have someone ancient around."

Andrew angled around to glare at her.

Laughing, JenniAnn kissed his cheek then sobered and hugged him.

"I'm serious.  I do enjoy having you there.  And it's not like I feel crowded or like I have no private time.  Heck, I still have my lengthy bubble baths all to myself.  If I was a single parent, I likely wouldn't even have those.  And you know Vincent doesn't mind about the classes, either.  Actually, he'd probably love to have you there for his history classes, too."

"Vincent has been great.  Everyone has... more than great... but Vincent..."  Andrew's eyes welled as he thought of the man.  Second only to JenniAnn, Vincent seemed to best understand what he was going through.  He found he could sometimes even talk to him about things that were difficult to tell JenniAnn. 

"I wouldn't mind sitting in on Owen's class.  It's gonna be a stained glass-like project.  Maybe when I do that, you and Vincent could visit?" JenniAnn suggested.

Andrew nodded.  "Good idea."

JenniAnn rested her cheek against her beloved's back and prayed that her godfather would be able to comfort him.


Owen stood in front of his classroom with a pair of scissors in one hand and a slip of orange tissue paper in the other.  JenniAnn moseyed around the room, sitting bundles of brightly colored paper on the kids' tables.  Belle sat on the floor merrily stringing oversized beads and making herself "pitties."  At the back of the chamber, Andrew and Vincent observed and quietly chatted.

"Okay, now what we're going to do is very carefully cut tissue paper into little squares and triangles."

"How many colors, Owen?" Liam asked.

"As many as you want.  If anyone needs help, raise your hand and Psyche or I will be over."

Once she'd divvied up the tissue paper, JenniAnn made her way to the back of the room where she embraced Andrew and Vincent.

"I hope you two have a nice visit.  Where are you off to?"

Andrew looked to Vincent.  He wasn't sure.

"The roaring chamber," Vincent reported in a hushed voice.

JenniAnn smiled sadly at him.  "Good idea."

Andrew hugged her once more and kissed her temple.

"See you soon, Laja."

"I'll be praying for you," she replied before kissing Vincent's cheek.  "Thank you," she whispered.

Vincent returned the kiss.  "It's my honor, my Psyche."

JenniAnn watched the two retreat and clasped her cross.

"Please, Joshua, let this time with Vincent be another step in bringing our beloved Andrew peace," she petitioned.

Owen paused in his instruction long enough to embrace his friend and offer his own prayer.


Andrew closed his eyes and listened to the dull roar of the waterfall.  When he opened his eyes, Vincent was staring at him.

"You have not slept?" the man guessed.

"I have... just not very well.  I went a few nights without nightmares but last night more than made up for it."

"Would you like to talk about it?" Vincent offered as he waved towards a boulder.

Andrew took a seat and smiled wanly when Vincent settled near him.

"I don't think you want to hear it, Vincent."

"It was about Psyche?"

Andrew nodded.

"Did you tell her of it?"


"Have you told anyone about them?"

"Joshua.  The Father."


The angel of death shook his head.

"Sometimes speaking aloud about our fears helps.  At times in my life nightmares have plagued me, too, Andrew.  Confiding in Catherine or Father about them generally helped."

Andrew inhaled deeply then slowly let the breath out.

"I was in a forest.  JenniAnn was with me.  And then this man... I couldn't see his face... he snatched her away from me and ran off... but faster than any human should be able to.  I followed them and came to a clearing with a bunch of tents and I... I saw him toss her into one and then he went in and..."  Andrew let out a ragged breath.  "I knew what he was going to do to her.  I just... knew.  I tried to go rescue her but other men were there a-and stopped me and then... then all I could do was cry and listen as she screamed while he... he raped her and..."

Vincent fiercely hugged the angel.

"Was this a vision the demons showed you?"

"Partly.  Mixed in with others' nightmares and a few real assignments."

"Had you had nightmares like that before you met with Nen and Tzila?"

Andrew shrugged.  "Occasionally I'd dream about not being able to protect JenniAnn but the dreams weren't so detailed and... and terrible."

"And the other nightmares you've had recently... are their themes similar?"

"Yeah.  It's always about something happening to one of the girls or... or Max and me not... not being able to... stop... it."

Vincent handed Andrew a handkerchief.

"Andrew, do you think, perhaps, that the nightmares have less to do with the machinations of Nen and Tzila and more to do with your own concerns that you cannot always protect those you love?  Concerns that may have increased since Psyche's attack?"

The angel of death twisted the handkerchief around in his hands.

"I... I don't know...  And I... I just didn't know..."

Vincent softly patted his back. 

"Didn't know what, Andrew?"

"How much... more... I would feel and yet... yet it wouldn't be e-enough.  It's almost like... like we've become so close that I assumed, even when JenniAnn was apart from me, that I... I would know when she was in danger, that I'd be able to help her.  Or... or at least pray for her.  B-but I wasn't there... wasn't even aware... when it mattered most.  While that... that... man... had a gun digging into... into her chest I... I was looking at... at some plywood!  She was bleed-bleeding out and I... I was trying to decide which nails to buy!  I... I wasn't there but he... he was!"

Vincent watched as Andrew bolted up from the boulder, raced to the edge of the chamber and screamed.

Andrew pounded on the wall.

"You could have killed her!" he shouted.  "She... she'd done nothing to... to you a-and you could have... kill...  Why... why did you hur-hurt her?"

Vincent stood when the angel again punched the wall.

"Andrew, please, you need to let that anger out but I don't want you to hurt yourself.  Psyche loves those hands."

The angel of death spun around and slid down the wall, crumpling at the bottom.  He glanced over at Vincent and, seeing the concern on his face, clasped his hand.

"I... I'm grateful you were there.  I am but..."

"I understand.  I do, Andrew.  I remember how helpless I felt when Catherine was shot all those years ago.  Decades have passed and I still have the occasional nightmare about it.  It showed me not only her vulnerability but my own.  You and I... we pride ourselves on being the protectors of those we love.  But we are not omniscient, not omnipresent.  We can only trust in the One who is."

Andrew nodded as he cupped his birthstone cross in his hands and studied the six glittering stones.

"I think you put a burden on yourself that no one else means for you to bear... and certainly not Joshua nor Psyche.  Your anger at Rex is justified and understandable.  But your anger at yourself... it's not.  Tell me, Andrew, has Psyche even once made you feel like she blames you... even a little bit... for her shooting?" Vincent pressed.  "Has she been less affectionate, less loving?"

Andrew felt his cheeks warm.  "Less affectionate, less loving" was no way to describe JenniAnn's actions the previous night nor at any point in the previous month.  On the contrary, they were closer than ever before.

Vincent chuckled.

"I rest my case."

For the first time since entering the chamber, Andrew laughed.

"Your wife would be pleased with your lawyerly ways, Vincent.  And I... I can't argue your points.  You're right."  The angel heaved a sigh and rubbed at his eyes.  "I hope the nightmares stop.  They're waking JenniAnn up, too."

Vincent patted his back.

"Perhaps they will now that you've let some of your anger and misplaced regret out.  Or they may continue.  But when they do, open your eyes and take a good look around you, Andrew.  Focus on the life you truly have, not the terrifying versions of your life that they imparted to you.  And know this: you don't have the power to keep your Laja safe from all harm.  However, you do have the power to share joy and love with her every day that God gives to you both.  You use that power to the utmost, my friend."

"Thank you," Andrew murmured, rewarding the man with a grateful smile.

"You're welcome.  Know you can come here, to this chamber, as often as you need, Andrew.  But right now, I think we should head back to Owen's.  I'm sure my goddaughter and granddaughter both are missing you."

Smiling, Andrew nodded and followed Vincent back to the main hub of the Tunnels.


Saturday, July 4th

Andrew tore his gaze away from the bejeweled sky and beamed at JenniAnn and Belle as they admired the fireworks that Edward and Caleb were setting off near the pond behind Willowveil.  Most of the Friends were scattered in the backyard; taking in the festive sight, chasing fireflies, and enjoying s'mores and sundaes.

"Pitty!  Pitty!" Belle shouted.

Sean laughed.  "I think she might start to expect this every night, Andrew," he jested.

Laughing, Andrew stroked the girl's curls.

"I hope not!"

"I hope not, either.  We'd be hearing them over at Sol Mate," Kemara pointed out, gently rubbing her belly.

JenniAnn hugged her shoulders.  "And you need every bit of sleep you can get!"

"Well, if she does, just send her our way.  The twins still have quite a few back at the farm," Randall yelled over the din.

Dot shook her head.  "We're resigned to a few more later nights."

Andrew looked over to see if either Clay or Kylie had any comment but they seemed to be too busy gazing into each other's eyes.

Belle squirmed until JenniAnn set her down.

The adults laughed as the toddler jumped, trying to reach the faraway sparkles.


Belle frowned and looked around at the grown-ups then set off at a run.

"Appa!  Up!  Up!"

Emma grinned as Belle launched herself at Vincent.

"That's so cute!  She ran to the tallest person here.  Or close to tallest?  Maybe Adam..."

"Vincent has half an inch on me," Adam clarified as he approached with a plate of s'mores.  "Hurry before Eli eats them all."

"Hey!" his fellow angel of death protested before snagging a snack and popping it into his mouth.  "Okay, good advice.  Tempting..."

"Too tempting," Shane agreed as he helped himself to a s'more.

"Oh!  That's too cute!  We need a photo!" JenniAnn exclaimed when she saw that Vincent had Belle on his shoulders and her arms were stretched to the sky.  She giggled as her grandfather swayed.

Once she'd captured the sweet image, JenniAnn returned to Andrew's side and wrapped her arms around his waist.

"Such a magical night..."

Andrew circled his arms around her and nodded.  As he saw the fireworks reflected in JenniAnn's eyes, a thought seized the angel.

This could have been their first holiday without her.


He traced the contours of her face with his thumbs then gently tilted her chin upwards.


Their kiss was immediately followed by a sniffle.

Andrew and JenniAnn looked to find Max with his cell phone pointed towards them.

"We, umm, needed a photo," he explained before looking down to his screen.

Rose sighed as she peeked over his shoulder.  "Wow..."

Max handed the phone to them and revealed a perfectly timed image with a golden firework exploding behind them as they kissed.

"Perfect," Andrew opined as he sighed contently and thanked God that there would never truly be a time "without her."


Tuesday, July 7th

Andrew bolted up in bed.

"Andrew?" JenniAnn sleepily whispered.

"Belle..." he moaned.

JenniAnn rubbed at her eyes and watched as the angel burst out of their bed and hastened to Belle's nursery.  She saw his shoulders relax as he stood in the doorway, observing their little one.  After another moment, Andrew shuffled back across the room and sat down on the bed.

JenniAnn knelt behind him and wrapped her arms around his neck.

"She got out of her bed again and was curled up with Shelby.  They... they look so sweet," Andrew choked out.

"Aww.  Love, do you want to tell me about it?"

"We... we were in a store a-and one moment Belle was right there with us and then... no where.  A-and we searched a-and searched but she was... was gone.  All we found was... was Jimi tossed on... on the floor near a-an exit and..."

"Oh, Andrew..."

The angel of death sighed deeply.

"But she's fine.  And so is Jimi for that matter.  He appears to have burrowed into Shelby's hair."

JenniAnn smiled.  No doubt Belle had made a little bed for her tie-dyed puppy.  She hoped it wouldn't cause too many tangles.

Andrew twisted around and kissed JenniAnn's forehead.

"You should go back to sleep.  I'm just... not ready.  I think I'll head to the library with the Kindle and see if I can find a book for Max."

"Can't you stay?  I don't mind.  Actually, I'd like to help.  I mean... I know Max would come to you with any questions but... well, it's going to be my turn, eventually, with Shelby surely and, besides, I'd at least like to weigh in on what you're giving to Max."

Andrew considered.

"No classes for me tomorrow.  We just have to get Shelby to the Tunnels by 9:00 and then we can go right back to bed to catch up on sleep if need be," JenniAnn pointed out.

The angel nodded.

"True.  And I would like your input but... it could be a little awkward, Laja."

"Bring on the awkwardness!" JenniAnn invited.

Chuckling, Andrew grabbed the Kindle that Mick and Beth had bought them for use during their recuperation.  He amused himself with the thought that the couple probably hadn't envisioned them using it to peruse books about sex.

The two sat together, JenniAnn's chin resting on Andrew shoulder as he logged into the store.

"What should I search?" he asked.

"Hmm... try 'Christian intimacy.'"

Andrew did as she suggested.

"Okay... a lot of this is more devotional.  Like intimacy with God but... ooh.  Try that one!"

Andrew clicked into a preview of the book JenniAnn had suggested.  They read silently for a few moments.

"Really?" she questioned.


JenniAnn pointed to a part of the screen.

Andrew read.

"Yeah, I guess.  I mean... I've heard that at least a few times when I've done marital counseling."

"Huh...  What?!"


"The author doesn't think couples should talk about sex to any extent... and never just the two of them... before the wedding because it might inspire temptation!?  Well what's to keep someone from doing something they shouldn't if neither has had the chance to say that they just don't think they'd be into a given act?"

"I agree.  I don't like that.  Veto this book?"


Andrew returned to the list and scanned it.

"This one?" he suggested.


Once again, they read silently.

"Awful lot about birth control," JenniAnn pointed out.

"Yeah.  Let's look at this next chapter."

"'What to Expect on the Wedding Night,'" the woman read. 

Andrew winced after skimming a few paragraphs.  "No, not this one."

"Why not?  It seems pretty practical and fair and..."  JenniAnn followed Andrew's finger.  "Ah, yeah.  You're totally right.  Veto."

"The last thing Max needs to read is that it's normal for the bride to feel anxious while the groom is really excited.  He's anxious.  It's hard enough feeling anxious without feeling like you're odd for it."

"It's actually rather sexist, isn't it?  I mean surely Max isn't the lone guy feeling that.  She makes it sound like men are, across the board, raring to go."

"She's not alone.  I've been in plenty of high schools and seen plenty of boys get embarrassed because it's just assumed they want to sleep with every girl who passes them."

"Speaking of that...  I've always kinda wondered..."

Andrew couldn't help but chuckle when he noticed JenniAnn had changed hues.


"I mean you've always looked thirtysomething and most people seem to assume you've had sex post-thirty if not long before.  Surely you've found yourself in conversations where someone just assumed..."


"So... how do you handle that?"

"In the past, I usually just kept quiet.  Most of the time people just want to talk about their experiences, anyway.  When I'm out right asked..."  The angel laughed.  "Well, I'm not gonna lie!  I tell them that I haven't had sex.  I've received more than my fair share of shocked looks and inquiries about if everything's all right 'down there.'  So that's enjoyable," he deadpanned.

"Poor love!"  JenniAnn hugged his arm and nuzzled his shoulder before sitting up straight.  "Wait... you said 'in the past.'  So what have you been doing lately?"

"Well...  I might say something like 'I've only ever had a relationship with one person and what happens between me and her stays between me and her.'  That's actually better because it tells the person I'm not going to spill any juicy details but they seem to be more comfortable talking to me.  That's, umm, okay, isn't it?"

"Of course it's okay!  Actually... it's really nice to know that this..."  JenniAnn clasped his hand.  "Helps you with assignments."

Andrew brought her hand to his lips.  "More than you'll ever know."

"Andrew..."  JenniAnn snuggled closer.  "I love you."

"I love you, too, Laja."  Andrew buried his face in her hair briefly and sighed.

"Back to work?"


The scrolling continued.

"Gosh.  Some of the covers alone make me want to rule them out!" JenniAnn opined.  "I mean look at that.  The bride's dress gets 9/10 of the cover and the groom is represented by a portion of one leg!  But I guess it's better than that one.  All it shows is a wedding dress period!"

"Not great.  I'm also not crazy about the ones that oversell honoring God."  Andrew pointed to a particularly pious looking cover.  "Of course Max and Rose are going to honor God!  But I don't want them thinking that Joshua's going to be disappointed if everything isn't great... because it probably won't be at first."

"I did like that the one book tried to tame expectations... but I didn't like that element enough to override the sexism.  And, personally, I also don't want to hand off anything that lets on like procreative sex is the best way for a couple to honor God.  One way, yes.  But the best?  I mean... what does that say about us if that's true?"

"You know it's not, Laja."

"I do.  But still..."

Andrew hugged her.  "I know."  He dragged his hand through his hair.  "I think I know what part of our problem is."

"That we don't know what we're doing?" JenniAnn fretted.

"Not at all.  I think we know all too well," Andrew countered.  "Laja, from the moment we took Max in, and with all of the kids, we've been very hands on.  And this... trying to pick out a book... it feels like handing Max off to a stranger and leaving him with them.  And even the Friends who Max and Rose will be talking to... I trust them immensely but they're not us.  Max came to me... not a book, not Google... and in some of the talking that we've done, several times he's asked 'What do you think Maja thinks about that?'  Maybe he doesn't want the voice of experience just yet.  Maybe he genuinely wants to know what we believe.  Just because we don't have sex and can't get married doesn't mean we don't have beliefs and opinions.  Didn't you ever just want to know what your parents thought about certain issues?"

"Sure.  And yeah... you're right.  That could very well be."

"So... I think we find a book that most closely aligns with what we believe... but knowing we won't agree with it entirely... and then we jot notes and give it to Max then.  He can read or skip our notes as he pleases, share them with Rose or not."

"I really like that idea.  So... we're going to go through a book together?" JenniAnn asked with a slight blush.

"It's up to you.  We could read separately if you'd rather."

"Let's try it together?"

Andrew smiled.  "Sounds good.  Now... with being a little less particular, let's see what we can find."

Relaxing, JenniAnn returned her attention to the Kindle.


Wednesday, July 8th

After a day filled with playing Below and then heading to her godmother's to frolic on the beach, Belle sprawled out on her bed shortly after 8:00.

"Eepy...  Nigh-nigh," she murmured to her parents.

JenniAnn laughed quietly. 

"Sweetheart, we need to get your jammies on first."

With a dramatic sigh, Belle sat up and raised her arms.

While JenniAnn pulled a T-shirt over her head, Andrew got her into terrycloth pajama shorts.

"Now you ready for bed, cuddlebug?" he asked.

Belle nodded but kept tight hold of his hand.

"You want a story?" JenniAnn offered.

Belle shook her head.


The yawning toddler nodded. 

Andrew and JenniAnn tucked the girl into her little bed then began to sing.

"'Fly so high, my little bird,'" Andrew sang.

"'My little bird,'" JenniAnn echoed, pleased that they'd figured out how to turn Badriya's lullaby into a duet.  "'Fly until you're free.'"

"'Til you're free.'"

"'Take my love beneath your wings and soar into the azure sky,'" they sang together.

By the time they finished, Belle was softly snoring.  Her parents kissed her forehead then drifted apart to get ready for bed.

They reconvened shortly thereafter... Andrew with the Kindle in tow and JenniAnn with a notebook and two pens: blue for her, green for him.

Before Andrew turned on the Kindle, the two clasped hands and bowed their heads.

"Dear God, as we continue to read this book, please give us the courage to be honest with each other," Andrew began.

"The wisdom to know what notes we should leave for Max," JenniAnn continued.

"And the ability to have fun and a sense of humor."

"And to grow closer."

"And love more deeply."

"Each other and You."



After exchanging smiles, Andrew's and JenniAnn's work began.

They each read silently, JenniAnn tapping Andrew's hand so he'd known when she was done with a page.  Occasionally they jotted notes or made comments to each other.

After a chapter and a half, Andrew noticed that JenniAnn was taking an uncharacteristically long time to finish a page.

"Laja, you okay?"

JenniAnn lifted her head from Andrew's shoulder and nodded. 

Andrew tilted his head when their eyes met.

"Only a little okay?" he suggested. 

"It's just...  Even with knowing Joshua is 100% behind us, it still does feel weird... and I guess hurtful... to continuously read that procreative love is the best love.  I mean, don't get me wrong, I really hope Rose and Max have as many kids as they want because I know they really want kids.  And, gosh darn it, I want grandkids!"

Andrew chuckled.  "Me too."

"So I'm not downplaying the awesomeness of procreative love.  But *the* best?  I know we're NOT second-best.  Just kinda upsetting to think my religion thinks we are.  And let's not even start on how hard it can be for infertile couples to read this!"

JenniAnn uncapped her pen and began to scrawl.

Andrew thought of the trying moments with Allison and Robert in the hospital.  The truth was, even though the three had made peace, Andrew thought about those heated conversations a lot... because he knew JenniAnn heard them all the time.  If not out loud then in the memories of what assorted fellow Catholics had said or written.  But he'd formed his own opinion on the matter.



"I think our love is procreative."

JenniAnn looked up from the notebook.

"Love, what we share is amazing and wonderful and, frankly, just as mind-blowing and socks-knocking-off to me as anything we're reading about in that book but..."

"We can't conceive a child.  I know.  But, Laja, think about it.  We created a family, a home to raise children in.  We created a connection so deep and... and God-seeking... that He sent you a vision and then physically led you to where I was waiting... with our daughter.  Maybe procreative love doesn't have to be life-giving.  Maybe it's just as important if it's life-sustaining, life-affirming.  And that could be true for so many couples, Laja.  And, sure, maybe that's not what most people think of when they use the word 'procreative' but that doesn't mean my usage is necessarily wrong, does it?  We're not second-best.  Not even by their standards."

JenniAnn gaped for a moment before making a sudden movement.

The next thing Andrew knew, the Kindle was out of his hands and JenniAnn was making a grab for his glasses.

"Laja!  Hey!  I'm using those!  What are you..."  The angel couldn't help but laugh at the ridiculousness of her stealing his glasses of all things.

"They're in the way," she murmured.

"Huh?  Oh..."

Andrew went silent as she dotted his face with kisses.

"I love you," she whispered while kissing his brow, temples, cheeks, chin, and lips.

Andrew was just about to reciprocate when the door adjoining Belle's nursery pushed open.

"Mama!!!!!!" the toddler screeched.

JenniAnn stumbled off the bed and hurried across the room.

"Baby..."  She gathered the hysterical child to her and carried her to the bed.

"Aww, Belle...  What's wrong, my little elf?" Andrew asked as he pushed matted curls from her face.

"N-no aye-ee..."

Both her parents' hearts melted when Belle's lower lip trembled.

"I'm so sorry, baby," JenniAnn cooed.  "Do you want to stay with Mama and Daddy tonight?"

Belle nodded and began to burrow into the blankets between the two.

"Is that better, Belle?" Andrew checked.

"D-daddy..." she whimpered, stretching out her hand and just missing her father's face.

The angel moved closer and smiled when Belle patted his cheek.

Belle swiveled and patted JenniAnn's cheek.


"Night-night, baby," JenniAnn replied before kissing Belle's left cheek.

"Daddy's here and Mama's here with you and Joshua's watching over us," Andrew consoled then kissed the girl's right cheek.

Belle smiled and closed her eyes.

Andrew and JenniAnn clasped hands above the girl's head and peered at each other as they waited for the tell-tale steady breathing.  When they were sure Belle was asleep, JenniAnn spoke.

"I didn't get a chance to tell you that I think you're totally right about the procreative thing."

Andrew beamed.

"I got the idea.  But I didn't get the chance to tell you that I love you, too." 

JenniAnn grinned.

"I got the idea."

With final, tender smiles, they squeezed hands then followed their daughter into a peaceful sleep.


Saturday, July 11th

Andrew lay on his side, his heart swelling with pride and love.  After one quiet night, Belle had suffered another nightmare very early in the morning.  While he and JenniAnn wanted her to learn to soothe herself following typical toddler nightmares, they couldn't entirely dismiss the possibility that their little one was experiencing the echoes of Nen's and Tzila's attack.  Therefore, once again, they'd let her snuggle between them.  At some point during the night, Belle had shifted closer to JenniAnn.  Now she was gently encased in her mother's arms.

The angel thought back to the tiny infant Belle had once been... so small that JenniAnn would only nap with her if he promised to stay awake and watch over them.  Andrew missed the newborn but was also enamored with the little girl she'd become.  He loved listening to her talk and it seemed like, week by week, more words were becoming clearer.  Andrew looked forward to the time when Belle would be able to tell them her hopes and thoughts and opinions.  But for now he was grateful that she was still very much a baby, just one big enough for him to leave unattended so he could make her and JenniAnn breakfast in bed.

After pulling on his robe, Andrew quietly exited the room and made his way to the kitchen.  He was surprised to find Max already there with Fawn and Lulu gazing up at him as he rummaged through drawers.

"Good morning," the angel greeted.  "You have an audience."

Max chuckled.  "Yeah... they crashed with me last night and then followed me down here.  I was, umm, thinking of making Rose breakfast in bed."

"Great minds think alike.  I came down to do the same for Belle and JenniAnn... and Violeta if she's up."

"Well, considering I went to bed at 1:15 and she was still up texting with Ivy... hard to say."

Andrew shook his head but smiled. 

"I hope they manage to get some sleep when they're both over at Serendipity."

"I'm sure they will.  At least for me, the first week of college was exhausting.  So... any ideas on breakfast?  I'm not sure when Rose will wake up so it can't be something that needs to be hot... or cold."

"Hmmm..."  Andrew seized two jars out of a cupboard.  "Honey and peanut butter sandwiches and bananas?"

Max laughed.  "Sounds like a Joshua recipe."

"It is," Andrew admitted with a grin. 

He instructed Max on how to mix honey, peanut butter, and butter and slather it between think slices of bread.  They loaded up trays; adding bananas, carafes of coffee, and mugs.  Andrew grabbed a sippy cup of juice for Belle.

"You and Rose hanging around today or headed out?" Andrew asked.

"I'm not quite sure.  At some point, we have to head to Selini to pack for our trip.  We'll be sure you and Maja know before we leave."

"Thanks.  Enjoy!"

"You too!"

The two hugged and then went their separate ways.  Lulu and Fawn followed Andrew.  When the three entered the bedroom, Andrew discovered that Belle and JenniAnn were both up.

Belle screeched when she saw Fawn and Lulu, scrambled off the bed with JenniAnn's help, and threw her arms around them.

"Awn!  Oo-oo!"

Andrew and JenniAnn watched as Belle laughed while the dogs repeatedly licked her.

"She's going to have a fantastic immune system," JenniAnn observed before glancing at the tray.  "Awww."

"Breakfast in bed seemed like a good idea.  Max and Rose are enjoying the same and I'm going to see if Violeta is up and wants to join us."

"Good idea."

A few moments later, Andrew returned with a sleepy Violeta in tow.

JenniAnn stifled a giggle when she saw the angel's mess of hair.  Once Violeta had collapsed onto the foot of the bed, JenniAnn handed her a mug of coffee and a sandwich.

"G'morning.  Honey, what happened to your hair?"

"Fell asleep on my brush..." 

Andrew grimaced as he sat down beside JenniAnn.  "Ouch!" 

"Can you brush it out later, JenniAnn?"



Andrew glanced to his side where Belle was standing with her mouth open.  He laughed.

"You look like a baby bird, Belle," he opined.

Belle smiled and again opened her mouth.

Andrew tore off a piece of his sandwich and placed it on her distended tongue.

"Ummy!" Belle repeated before toddling back to the dogs.

JenniAnn sighed contently as she sipped her coffee.  This surely wasn't a Norman Rockwell-style family meal what with the angel of death in training now curled up in fetal position at the foot of her bed and her toddler licking the dogs.  However, when she took in Andrew's relaxed, amused expression; JenniAnn knew this was exactly her idea of idyllic family life.


Sunday, July 12th
JenniAnn fell to her knees and wept.

"It... it can't be!  Andrew would never..."

Eli knelt beside her and wrapped an arm around her shoulders.

"Their evil... it was too strong.  I'm sure he wanted to come back to you... to all of us but... it was too much, JenniAnn."

"No..." JenniAnn moaned.  "My love..."

Before the angel of death could respond, a strong wind blew the door of the bedroom open.  Eli and JenniAnn both tensed when they heard an icy cackling.  Turning, they saw Nen and Tzila smirking at them. 

"Poor things...  I almost pity them, Tzila," Nen taunted.  "Grieving their lost hero."

Eli stood and moved in front of JenniAnn.

"Don't come any closer!" he ordered.

JenniAnn watched in horror as Tzila grabbed Eli's arm and stared into his eyes.

Tears began to stream down Eli's face and he crumpled to the ground.

While Tzila laughed, Nen reached for JenniAnn.

"Don't touch me!" she shrieked, trying to pull away.

Nen backhanded her, bloodying her nose.

"Shut up, clay-bitch.  There's no one here to protect you any more.  You'll come with us and do as we say," he sneered. 

"With who we say to do it," Tzila added.

JenniAnn screamed as Nen and Tzila yanked her out of her room, down the stairs, onto the lawn, and disappeared.


Andrew's heart was pounding when he woke up.  The sound of JenniAnn screaming echoed in his mind but, to his relief, the real JenniAnn was sleeping soundly.  For a few minutes, he remained still and focused on the weight of her head on his shoulder and her hair tickling his neck.  She was alive.  She was safe.  And in a matter of hours, they and most of their family and friends would begin the vacation Joshua had told them to take.

Still, Andrew couldn't get the images out of his head.  He needed to focus on something else.  Careful not to wake JenniAnn, the angel slid out of bed.  He crept towards Belle's door and peeked inside.  Shelby and Belle slept soundly.  Only Harvey stirred.

Andrew smiled at the rabbit, an idea forming.  He kept most of his supplies in his own room but there were a few in JenniAnn's for nights such as this one, nights when he couldn't sleep.

Grabbing his knife and selecting a block from off the bureau, Andrew settled into the chair closest to the bed and began to work.


JenniAnn awoke to an increasingly familiar feeling: someone was watching her.  Intently.

After drawing in a deep breath, she sat up and looked to a nearby chair.  Predictably, Andrew was there with a carved object in one hand and a knife in the other.

“Hmm…  A bunny.  Harvey?”

Andrew smiled and nodded.  “I thought it might be good for Belle to have while we’re traveling.  I wish I’d thought of it earlier so I would have had time to paint it.”

JenniAnn rose and took the mostly finished rabbit from him.

“His eyes are perfect… and the detail of his fur.  This is several hours’ worth of work.”  She raised an eyebrow and peered at the angel.  “And you were staring again.  I… I don’t mind but…  I am a lil worried.  Did you sleep at all?”

“Until 3:00… ish.”


JenniAnn perched on the arm of the chair and circled her arms around Andrew’s neck, kissing his hair.

“Which nightmare was it?”

Andrew rested the knife on a nearby table and embraced the woman.

“I… I didn’t do very well in… in Sheol and then Nen and Tzila came here and got to… to you and…”

JenniAnn bit her lip.  Eben she could forgive… had forgiven… but she was quite sure that if she ever saw Nen and Tzila, it would be a different story entirely. 

“Andrew, you did do well in Sheol.  Very well.  And Nen and Tzila are probably… I dunno… hanging wallpaper somewhere in Purgatory or whatever.”

Andrew quietly chuckled.

“Point being, they can’t get to me or anyone else.  We’re safe…  I’m safe.  Jesus sent me on vacation with friends and family and…”  JenniAnn lowered her voice.  “I go to bed every night with an angel of the Most High God so… that’s pretty darn good security.  Ooh and he’s muscly.”

Andrew laughed again and blushed slightly.  “Is that, umm, a word?”

“Is now.  But I’d love you even if you weren’t muscly.”

The angel brought her hand to his lips.

“Thanks.  I love you, too.  And I am okay.  Really.  And if I get tired on the road, Violeta can drive.  Might not be a bad idea to trade off, actually.”

“That’s true.  And I trust you to hand over the wheel when you need to.  I just wish you were sleeping better.  Maybe a change of scenery will help.  Get away from our normal routine.  Lotsa nature.  Constant presence of friends nearby.  Good food.  Exciting adventures.”


JenniAnn snapped out of her reverie.  “Hmm?”

“If we split up at some point… the group I mean…”  Andrew rested his hand against her cheek.  “I want you to do what you want to do.  I don’t want you to feel like you have to stick with me just because…”

“I know.  And I will.  And same for you.  You deserve to have some fun with the guys.  And especially with Max.  It’s not lost on me that I’ve stolen his usual roommate.”

Andrew shook his head. “I’m sure he doesn’t mind. But, yeah, it will be good to spend some one-on-one time with him.”

JenniAnn covered a yawn and looked over at the clock. “I wish you had time to get some more sleep now, but I guess we need to get our little elf up and going.”

“Her first road trip,” Andrew said as he added a few more details to the carving. “She’s so active, I’m a little worried about how she’ll handle sitting in her car seat for so long...even with the other kids entertaining her.”

“I guess we’ll just have to stop often.  Well, gonna have to do that anyway when she needs to be changed.”


“Although… I know it’s early but I was thinking, when we get back, maybe we could start potty-training her.  She’s so smart and you’ll still be off,” JenniAnn reasoned. 

Andrew plastered on a grin.  “I am so excited to get back home!”

JenniAnn burst out laughing.  “Yep.  It’ll be glorious.  But, seriously, I think we might have a better chance than most.  Belle idolizes Shelby and she knows she doesn’t wear diapers.  I’ve had to stop her from trailing Shelby into the bathroom actually so… she’s obviously curious about how ‘big girls’ go potty.  I say we use that.”

“Maybe you’d better let Shelby in on your plans first!”

“Oh, it’s not that I expect Shelby to do anything… especially not be an example!  She’s… well…  Shelby’s almost eleven, Andrew.  She needs her privacy.  That’s around when things start… well, getting a little haywire.  But that’s another parenting discussion for another day.  Right now…”

JenniAnn stood and held her hand out to Andrew.  “Time to rouse the elf.”

Smiling, Andrew took her hand and followed her to Belle’s nursery.


Monday, July 13th

After a five hour drive from the halfway point of Harrisonburg, Virginia where the gang had spent a night, Andrew at last steered the Jolly Green up a small hill and parked in front of a large, wooden cabin.

"And here we are!" he exclaimed.  "Home, sweet home for almost two weeks."

"It's lovely...  Even more so than in the photos on the site," JenniAnn observed.

"It's so cool!" Violeta exclaimed as she took in the cabin while those behind the Jolly Green in the caravan parked and unloaded.  "Where's us girls' room?"

Sy laughed as he held the van door open for Ivy.  "You're the very picture of patience, Violeta."

Violeta pouted.  "I just wanna see it.  I promise I'll help unpack everything."

Ivy hugged her.  "Let's wait until Hailey, Kendra, Joccy, and Zoe are here.  Then we can see it together.  What do you think, Shel?"

Shelby gaped.  "Yeah.  It's so pretty!  Way bigger than the cabins in the Fields of Gold."

Andrew chuckled.  "I'd hate to see all of us try to cram into one of those cabins!"

"Is Belle going to stay with us or you?" Shelby asked JenniAnn. 

"I'm not sure.  Andrew and I will have a room near you girls so it won't be such a hassle if she's undecided," JenniAnn replied as she got Belle out of her car seat.

"Okay."  Shelby smiled and took Belle's hand once she was standing.

Soon all the vehicles were parked and everyone had exited them.  Adam retrieved the key from where the cabin's owner had placed it in a locked box.

"Everyone ready?" he checked.

"Yes!" the others assented.

While their friends hastened into the cabin; Kemara, Sean, Edward, and Caleb snuck around the side and headed down a small hill, the twins each carrying loaded bags as Sean helped Kemara.

Inside the cabin, the kids were running around and the adults were only slightly more composed.  After allowing everyone a few minutes to admire all the rooms, Andrew whistled.

"Okay, time for room assignments then we gotta get the cars unloaded so a few of us can head to the grocery store."  The angel handed JenniAnn a piece of paper listing who was staying in what room.  "You take the main floor, I'll take the upstairs?"

JenniAnn nodded.  "Sounds good!" 

As JenniAnn began leading people off, Andrew turned to Shelby and the teen girls.

"Ladies, there are two bedrooms and a rec room downstairs.  JenniAnn and I will stay down there, too.  Go see which one is bigger and you can lay claim to that one."

Giddy, Violeta lifted Belle onto her hip and led her roommates to the staircase.  On the way down, they ran into Kemara, Sean, and the Romano twins.

Ivy grinned. 

"Everything set?" she checked.

"Everything is beautiful!  Edward and Caleb got the stakes with the lights up really quickly!  Do they suspect anything yet?" Kemara asked.

Ivy shook her head.  "Not yet.  Andrew and JenniAnn just started showing everyone to their rooms."

"Good!"  Smiling, Sean took his wife's arm.  When they and the twins reached the landing, Clay and Kylie were the only ones left in the main room.  They looked slightly concerned.

"Don't have your room assignment yet?" Caleb cheerfully asked.

Clay shook his head.  "Maybe we're just staying here in the living room?"

Kylie tried to mask her disappointment and smiled. 

"It is beautiful!  All the windows looking out onto the trees!"

Edward noticed Andrew, JenniAnn, and Adam approaching.  He held back a laugh when he realized several of the others were nonchalantly standing along the upstairs railing.

Adam cleared his throat and addressed the newlyweds.

"Clay, Kylie, on behalf of the others, I have something I'd like to confess."

"Okay..." Clay prompted.

"It seems we reserved a cabin that's a room short of what we needed.  But I think we figured out a good way to improvise."  Adam produced a key from his pocket and held it out to them.  "I think you two should check the backyard."

"What did you all do?" Kylie asked, a smiling stretching across her face.

"Just go look!" Zeke directed from above.

"Don't make me drag you both out there," Caleb jested.

Taking his bride's hand, Clay made his way to the sliding door that led off from the kitchen.  Once the couple was outside, the others hurried to the windows.

"Oh, I love the twinkle light pathway to their cabin!" Emma gushed, smiling at the McCallums and Romanos.  "Good job!  That's going to look even prettier at night.  Oh!  Look at Kylie!  She's crying!"

"Clay doesn't exactly look sedate himself," Peter pointed out with a grin.

As Clay unlocked the door and led Kylie inside their cabin, JenniAnn looked to Adam who was standing beside her.  She took his hand and squeezed it.

"They're so happy," he murmured as he squeezed her hand back.  "I'm happy."

Andrew clapped his longtime friend on the back then pulled Adam and JenniAnn into a hug.

"I think we'll have a really happy couple of weeks ahead... all of us."  Andrew beamed at the two and to the throng of loved ones surrounding them.


Tuesday, July 14th

The day was a blur of good food, enchanting sights, awe, and laughter as the Friends took to the Biltmore.

Afterwards, many of them had stayed in Asheville to enjoy some nightlife while others returned to the cabin, Andrew and JenniAnn among them.

Belle sat on the floor of her parents' room, happily playing with a child's carpentry set that they'd bought for her at the Biltmore Toymaker's shop.

Andrew stretched out on the bed and laid with his head at the foot, watching the little one.

"She's going to love having that and 'working' in your shop with you."

Andrew rested his hand over JenniAnn's when she relaxed beside him after carefully packing away some souvenirs she'd picked up for her parents, Catherine, Vincent, Raquel, and Nico.

"I hope so.  I think she was a little overwhelmed there."

JenniAnn nodded.  "I always think of Willowveil as so large but then to see the Biltmore...  Not that I'd ever trade.  Everything was so beautiful there but I like the charm of our mismatched chairs and dishes.  Although I wouldn't mind a Halloween room," she teased.

Andrew chuckled.  "I knew that would be your favorite."

"You've been there?"

"I had an assignment there once."

"Why didn't you tell me while we were there?!" JenniAnn queried.

Andrew blushed. 

JenniAnn giggled.  "Lemme guess... you were a handsome servant who one of the maids took to?"

"Stable boy and... yes."

"Oooh...  a stable boy."

Andrew laughed as JenniAnn batted her eye lashes. 

"You do realize that means I basically mucked the stalls?  Not exactly glamorous work."

"Still...  So what happened to the maid?"

"Her mother, who also worked there, passed away... that's why I was really there.  I helped her cope but there was another fellow, a valet, who doted on her.  She just didn't see it... until she did.  They got married a couple years later."

"Mission accomplished."

"I would never have imagined that years later I would walk those stalls again with my children and... and you."  Andrew stroked some hair behind JenniAnn's ear then moved in for a kiss.


The two pulled apart and looked to Belle who was staring at them and giggling.

"I thought she was engrossed in her toy," JenniAnn whispered.

Andrew smiled.  "Guess not."  He reached for Belle.  "Come here, baby."

Belle held her arms out and let her father scoop her up into his lap.  JenniAnn squeezed her little hands.

"Did you have fun today, Belle?"

Belle nodded.  "Moo!"

Andrew laughed.  "I take it the animals were your favorite part."


Belle swiveled around and kissed Andrew's cheek then hugged JenniAnn.  She stood on the bed and rested her forehead against JenniAnn's.


"Uh oh..." Andrew murmured.

JenniAnn frowned.  Belle was used to seeing her Appa Vincent on a near daily basis.  She and Andrew had worried that the separation might bother her.

"Appa!" Belle called.

"Sweetheart, Appa's not here," JenniAnn explained.  "He's back home."

Belle's eyes filled.  "A-appa!"

JenniAnn embraced her and kissed her hair before placing her in Andrew's lap.

"I'll go try to call him.  Maybe FaceTime will work?" she suggested.

Andrew nodded as he tried to console Belle and listened to her increasingly forlorn cries for "Appa."

JenniAnn called Catherine's cell phone, praying she would answer and be with Vincent.

"Hi Catherine!  Yes, everything's going so well...  Jacob's having a blast.  He and Liam had a great time at the Biltmore... maybe a little too much ice cream but they quickly recovered.  Slight problem with our Belle, though...  Bit of a meltdown because she wants to see Appa Vincent...  Oh good.  Thank you!"

JenniAnn heaved a sigh of relief as she handed her phone to Andrew.

The angel took the phone and held it in front of Belle.  A brief moment later, Vincent appeared on the screen.


"Annabelle!  How has your vacation been?" Vincent asked.

Andrew and JenniAnn smiled as Belle excitedly chattered away.  Vincent occasionally punctuated her monologue with "I see" and "Very good!"

Finally, Belle bent to kiss the phone.

"Nigh-nigh, Appa."

"Good night, sweet Belle."

With that, Belle began to peel off her clothes.

JenniAnn laughed and took the phone while Andrew got the girl's pajamas out.

"What can I say?  When she's ready to go to sleep... she's ready!"

Vincent chuckled.  "Better that than refusing to sleep at all.  How did you enjoy the Biltmore?"

"It was amazing.  I took pictures when we could and bought a book for you with loads more photos.  How's everyone there?"

"Missing you but well.  Seeing you and Belle... and Andrew, too... has helped."  Vincent tilted his head.

Understanding, JenniAnn stepped out of the room and settled onto the steps.


"How has Andrew been?"

"The last two nights have gone really well.  The night before we left was... not good.  Violeta ended up driving part of the way cause Andrew was just so exhausted.  But he... he was very happy today.  I'm a little worried about tomorrow.  We all planned to kinda split up.  Some of us shopping, some exploring, some headed to a rec center.  Andrew and I will probably part ways for more than an hour or two for the first time since everything..."

"Maybe that's why Joshua told you to take this trip, Psyche.  He knew it would give you ample opportunities to be together... but also some to be apart.  It will be good for Andrew to see that you will safely return to him after an absence."


"Psyche, what's troubling you?"

JenniAnn gave a sheepish smile.  Even hundreds of miles away, she couldn't fool her godfather.

"Andrew... he may not be the only one with a... a little separation anxiety."

"My child... just think of how happy your reunion will be," Vincent counseled.

JenniAnn sighed.  "I will.  And Owen has strict instructions to elbow me... in my good side... if I get mopey or check my phone too much."

Vincent smiled.  "I know he won't fail you in that.  I'll let you go now but please give my love and Catherine's to everyone."

"Hug Jacob for us!" Catherine shouted.

Returning Vincent's smile, JenniAnn nodded.  "Will do.  G'night, Vincent and Catherine.  Love you."

"And we love you.  Rest well, sweet Psyche."

JenniAnn inhaled and exhaled deeply after hanging up.  Talking with Vincent always made her feel better.

Returning to the bedroom, she found Andrew dancing with Belle on his right hip.  He smiled and held an arm out to her.

Without hesitation, JenniAnn stepped into his embrace and joined the two in their dance.


Wednesday, July 15th

Shortly after 10:00 in the morning, the Jolly Green pulled up in front of the Grove Arcade with the Wilsons' mini-van behind it.  Adam, Belle, JenniAnn, Kylie, Diana, Kemara, Rose, Monica, Emma, and Owen exited the vehicles.  JenniAnn walked around to the driver's seat of the Jolly Green.  Andrew stepped out and embraced her.

"Have a good time," he wished.

"You too.  I think you and Max and whomever else decided to tag along will have a great time at the Pinball Museum... and the Fun Depot if you decide to go there, too.  If you do, please try not to give each other whiplash on the go-karts."

Andrew laughed.  "Noted."


"Ooh, someone's not patient today," JenniAnn noted when she looked over to where Belle was squirming in Adam's arms, her hands outstretched towards the building.

"I should probably let you go... literally and figuratively."

JenniAnn stretched up to kiss his cheek.

"It'll fly by and it'll be good for you and Max.  And... Adam offered to watch Belle tonight so..."

Andrew looked over to his friend who winked at him.  He mouthed a 'thank you.'

"Sounds good.  I'll see you at 5:00," Andrew replied, placing a kiss on her temple.

As Andrew said good bye to Belle, Owen approached JenniAnn and hugged her.

"This'll be good," he encouraged.

JenniAnn nodded and rested her head on his shoulder.

"C'mon, I'll buy you a frap.  Extra whipped cream," the artist tantalized.  "That'll cheer you up."

JenniAnn laughed and walked with him and the rest of their group into the Grove Arcade.  She looked back once to Andrew who waved before pulling away.


After two hours of shopping and browsing galleries, the group convened at one of the Arcade's eateries for lunch.

"I can't get over how luxurious the Biltmore was!" Emma exclaimed.  "Imagine living like that..."

"Clothes weren't very comfortable... and I'm sure I'd feel that even more strongly if I were a lady," Adam mused. 

Monica rolled her eyes as she sipped her iced coffee.

"One thing I never did figure out, though..."

"What's that?" Kylie prompted in between bites of chicken salad.

The angel of death lowered his voice.  "The couple had separate bedrooms.  How did they decide when and where to... you know."

Diana burst out laughing. 

"Oh, Adam..."

"I'm genuinely curious!  It just seems like it'd be awkward.  '9:00.  Your place or mine?'"

JenniAnn made a show of covering Belle's ears but the toddler was too engrossed in her grilled cheese to care.

"Maybe they left notes?" Rose guessed.

"Tie or scarf wrapped around the doorknob?" Owen teased.

Emma wrinkled her nose.  "While I think it'd be nice to have someone else dust and do your laundry, I just can't imagine having that many servants who would just... know everything!"

"No kidding," Kemara agreed.  "You'd never feel you truly had privacy."

Adam shuddered.  "You don't even want to know."

"Privacy is good," Monica asserted. 

"Actually... here's a question.  I dunno why it never occurred to me to ask Andrew... or maybe I did and just forgot but...  In the show, sometimes the angels were around for..."  JenniAnn cleared her throat.  "Intimate moments.  Surely..."

Monica laughed.  "Ah, the time Tess and I were the backseat of a car while two teenagers were getting friendly?"


"In real life, we were outside the car, sitting on a hill nearby.  And thank God for that!  I can't say that's never happened... sometimes we do need to be close by... but that particular incident would have been needlessly invasive."

Kylie sighed.  "That's what I love about all of you... well, one of the many things.  We feel like we can talk to you about this kind of stuff and yet not feel awkward... like it really matters to you but not in an overdone, kinda creepy way."

Adam squeezed her shoulder.  "Your happiness matters to us.  Very much."

Kylie patted his hand.  "It's mutual."

"Aww!" several of the others exclaimed.

Kylie laughed then smiled at each person gathered around their table.

"Clay and I still can't get over what you all did with the cabin.  Thank you."

"You're newlyweds.  You deserve it!" Kemara encouraged.  "Sometimes that phase goes really, really fast."  With a contemplative smile, she patted her belly.

"I can still remember those first weeks..."  Diana gave a dreamy smile.

"Looking from the outside in, it often seems like you and Zeke are still in those first weeks," Emma complimented. 

"Pretty inspiring," Owen agreed as the others nodded.

Diana hugged Rose and Kemara who were on either side of her. 

"It's work... but the best kind of work."

"What's the longest you and Zeke have every been separated, Diana?" JenniAnn queried.

Diana thought.  "Just two nights.  It was back when Zeke was still a stock broker.  A business trip.  We were miserable.  He quit shortly after that.  Even when money was tight, we never regretted it.  Well... maybe for a split second when Sy was having his issues.  But that was, thankfully, remedied."

"Jesus playing basketball..." Rose murmured.  "I wish he was here.  I mean... you know."

"If he was, he probably wouldn't be with us right now.  Big fan of pinball," Adam informed with a grin.

Emma laughed.  "I should have known.  When I had my first appointment with Dr. Sayer, Joshua and Peter spent part of the time playing Pac-Man while they waited for me."

"I can totally see that!"  JenniAnn sighed and shook her head.  "Something else... that Joshua.  I... I wonder how things are going at the Pinball Museum?"

Owen rested a hand on her back. 

"I'm sure he's fine, Psyche," he encouraged.

JenniAnn fought back a tear and nodded.


Max, Zeke, Eli, and Peter surrounded the pinball machine that Andrew was playing.  The angel of death stared down intently, a tight grip on the controllers... then there were the bells and whistles and flashing lights.

"Go, Dad!" Max cheered.  "High score!"

Andrew laughed and hugged him.

"Thanks."  He lowered his voice.  "I guess those stints in bowling alleys and arcades over the years gave me more practice than I realized.  So... what time is..."  He balked when he looked at his pocket watch.  Three hours had passed and he'd hardly noticed. 

Eli clapped him on the back.  "It's been fun.  I don't know about the rest of you all but I'm getting hungry.  So do we want to head to the Fun Depot... Arthur texted to say they have tasty flatbreads... or grab lunch somewhere else?"

Before answering, Andrew glanced at his cell phone.  JenniAnn had texted him a picture of Belle riding Adam's shoulders.  He smiled, feeling better.

"I'm fine, either way.  Max, Zeke, Peter?"

"I wouldn't mind heading over to the Fun Depot and seeing what my kids are up to," Zeke replied.  "But I can always get a cab."

Peter shook his head.  "I'm good to go.  I think the dings and rings from here are already going to be running through my head all night."

Max laughed.  "No kidding.  So to Fun Depot?  You gotta do go-karts with me, Dad."

"Definitely.  Although your mother has banned us from giving each other whiplash."

Max felt his eyes water.  His mother... 

Andrew realized what he'd said and hugged the young man.  Even though the adoption hadn't yet been finalized, it was true.

Zeke sniffled.  "Gotta listen to your mother."

"Yeah... I do," Max agreed, swiping at his eyes.

All smiling, the five exited the museum.


After a few hours of playing, Andrew and Zeke settled into a booth at the Fun Depot's cafe with sodas.

Zeke laughed.  "Figures it'd be the guys with children under two who had to retire early."

"Oh yeah...  Belle had JenniAnn and I up and down last night.  I think it's still the novelty of her surroundings.  Thankfully, Uncle Adam volunteered to take her tonight."

"That's great!  It'll give you and JenniAnn some time to relax together and Adam some... distraction."

Andrew nodded.  "I can't really wrap my mind around how he must feel.  I don't know whether I should try to talk to him or...  I mean he'd come to me if he wanted to talk about it, don't you think?"

"I do.  And I know Joshua hung out with him the night of the wedding.  So Adam probably talked a lot out then.  I think the occasional 'How are things going?' is enough of an opening if he does want to talk."

Andrew peered across the massive room to where Clay and Peter were playing ping pong.

"I'm glad Clay seems to realize how important Kylie is to Adam and vise versa.  Laja said she overheard Clay telling Kylie that the Arcade had a couple yarn stores and suggesting she go with their group and keep Adam from going too crazy.  So he takes care to ensure they have their time."

"He does.  And he likes Adam a lot, too."  Zeke chuckled.  "To look at some of the honeymoon photos, you'd think it was Adam's and Clay's trip."

 Andrew swallowed down his Coke before laughing. 

"True.  I love that photograph of them in the Disneyland tea cup."

"It's a good one.  So..."  Zeke took a sip of his Sprite.  "How are things going for you?  Still reading that book?"

Andrew smirked.  "We are...  And, again, I just want it clear that JenniAnn and I trust you immensely but..."

"But you want your boy to know how you feel!  I completely get it, Andrew.  Although I have to admit... the idea brought Diana and I considerable amusement." 

"Oh, it's been amusing all right!  Laja's an interesting blend of...  I don't know.  I mean..."  Andrew dragged his hand through his hair.

Zeke reached over and set a hand on his arm.

"It's just between you and me.  I promise.  I won't even tell Di..."

"No, it's fine to tell Diana.  But, uh, no one else."  Andrew looked around.  The only other people in the cafe were an older couple, probably grandparents, on the other side of the area.  They wouldn't overhear so he continued.  "I guess I never realized... fully... how... not exactly naive but...  She can argue from moral and theological standpoints about way more issues than I would have ever thought of her thinking about but then just basic things...  It's like she's learning for the first time."

"JenniAnn probably learned to filter a lot out, Andrew.  I mean by the time those Catholic schools really start up with the sex ed classes, she probably had inklings that she was asexual.  And then you were there.  So a lot of the... mechanics probably seemed useless at best and upsetting at worst because it was a reminder that she was different.  Not just different from her peers but different from you... or so she thought."

"Huh...  That actually makes sense."  Andrew bowed his head as he remembered a younger, desperate to be accepted JenniAnn.

"Thank you. I've raised three teenagers.  I know things."  Zeke grinned.  "As for her making the moral arguments, you know she has that innate sense of justice and mercy.  JenniAnn probably plots out her arguments in case she ever needs them in real life.  And, at times, she has.  Remember that time an audience member got a little snooty when she overheard Emma and Peter talking about their apartment?  That was an epic verbal smackdown in defense of certain instances of cohabitation from JenniAnn.  Don't you think she had already plotted some of that out?"

"Yeah...  I'm sure she had."  Andrew smiled down at his ring.  "I do love listening to her 'verbal smackdowns.'"

Zeke chuckled.  "And have you gotten to witness some rehearsals since you started your book?"

"Oh yeah...  It's been something to see... and hear."  Andrew sighed contently.  "I'm glad we're reading it... not just for Max's sake but ours.  It's really opened my eyes to how much I still have to learn about Laja... and her about me."

Zeke squeezed his hand.  "And isn't it wonderful that we have eternity with our ladies?"

Andrew swallowed the lump in his throat.

"Very wonderful."


After a group dinner back at the cabin, Andrew and JenniAnn got Belle settled in the living room with Adam who commenced reading Stellaluna while his niece's parents snuck away to get ready for bed.

As soon as Andrew stepped into the bathroom to change into his pajamas, JenniAnn hurriedly set out some of the day's purchases.  She arranged a trio of candles on the bedside table and sent a mist of linen spray over the bed.  After placing a box on Andrew's pillow, she sat on the bed and waited.

The angel did a double take when he returned to the room.


JenniAnn lunged at him.

"I missed you so much!" she gushed.  "And then everyone was together and so..."

As she stretched upwards, Andrew bent down so their lips met.  Afterwards, he ran his hand through her hair.

"I missed you, too, Laja.  I had a great time with Max and all the guys and kids but sometimes I'd turn to say something to you and..."

"I did the same thing!" JenniAnn interrupted.

Andrew pulled her nearer.

"Dance with me?"

"Mmm hmm."

Andrew grabbed his cell phone and soon the soft strains of "Feels Like Home" could be heard.

"Do you think Joshua and the Father will kinda... ease you in when you go back to working assignments?" JenniAnn quietly asked as they danced.

"I think so.  And you know He won't keep me away for too long when Belle's so little."

"True.  So what was your favorite part of today?"

"Hard call.  Pinball was fun... but not as fun as go-karts with Max.  And neither was quite as hilarious as watching Violeta start hurling what I can only imagine are completely made up obscenities at the skeeball game."

JenniAnn laughed.  "Was she trying for a prize?"

"I don't really think so.  Ivy and Sy were doing really well and you know how she can be.  She had a lot more success with the claw machine."

"Aww, yeah.  Belle loves her new teddy bear."

"And she gave a couple to lil kids who were there so that was cute to see.  I also had a nice talk with Zeke.  I told him about how that book has been good for us... gotten us to discuss things we wouldn't have otherwise."

"It definitely has!  Maybe we can get through another section tonight?"

"Sure.  So how about you?  What was your highlight?"

JenniAnn pondered the question.

"While you're thinking... how did Adam seem?" Andrew questioned.

"Very happy!  Actually, that was a highlight.  He and Kylie were so cute in the one yarn store.  I don't think Kylie will ever want for hats, mittens, or scarves.  And he was already trying to butter up Belle.  She had the best time riding around on his shoulders!"

Andrew smiled.  "That's great.  I'm really glad.  What else?"

"I also really enjoyed taking in the galleries with Owen.  I need to get better about doing stuff like that with him again.  We haven't as much since Belle came."

"I agree."  Andrew kissed her hair.  "I love what we have now but our friendships deserve care and tending, too."

"Yeah... definitely."  JenniAnn giggled.  "You keep stealing glances at that box."

Andrew gave a sheepish smile. 


JenniAnn turned off the phone then slipped into bed and held the box up to Andrew.

After settling beside her, the angel of death accepted the gift and pulled away the cover.


"Red velvet fudge, freshly made."

Using the little plastic knife that was in the box, Andrew carved off two pieces and handed one to JenniAnn.  He bumped his against hers. 



"Ooh... Ummy...  Ank you."

JenniAnn giggled at Andrew's attempt to speak.

The angel sunk back against his pillow and let out a sigh of contentment.  Then he sniffed.

"The bed... smells like home."

JenniAnn nodded.  "I missed the lavender spray I use on our sheets so I picked some up today.  It's comforting."

Andrew circled his arms around her. 

"Very much so.  Want another piece of fudge?"

"No, thanks.  You go ahead.  If you want, we could go get more before we leave."

"Good idea.  So... it's still early on but do you think our souvenir spending agreement will work?"

JenniAnn smiled.  "I think so.  I keep seeing carvings and frames and furniture that I like but I figure I'll just get you to make similar for me."

Laughing, Andrew sliced another piece of fudge. 

"Are you making a list?"

"Yup.  I have a folder on my phone labeled 'things Andrew should make.'  Which reminds me..."  JenniAnn got out of bed and pulled something out of a bag.

Andrew closed the fudge and looked curiously at JenniAnn.

"At the place I got the linen spray, you could mix all sorts of bath and health products.  So I got this for you.  Sandalwood... with just a hint of lavender.  I thought it might make the lil knicks you get on your hands heal faster."


Andrew peered at her as she gently massaged some of the cream into his hands, focusing on a couple cracked fingers.

"Did you buy anything that was completely for you?" he questioned.

JenniAnn shrugged.

"Didn't really see anything I had to have.  Maybe at the dish store in Hendersonville."

"I wish I'd gotten you something today... but I didn't think you'd want a Fun Depot baseball cap."

With a laugh, JenniAnn shook her head.

"Not particularly, no.  How do your hands feel?"

"Wonderful, Laja."  Andrew took her hands and brought them to his lips.

JenniAnn snuggled against him for a few moments.

"I almost don't want to look at that book...  I don't want to get grouchy."

"It's not grouchy, Laja.  I prefer... impassioned.  But we don't have to."

"We'll never get through it otherwise.  And I'd like Max to have it soonish."

"Me too."

"Well, then..."

JenniAnn stretched over Andrew and grabbed the Kindle. 

"I'll turn pages this time," she declared.

Andrew glanced down at his hands, sure he'd mark up the screen. 

"Sounds good."

They read several pages, mostly silently and with only a few notes.

Then JenniAnn gasped.

"What?" Andrew checked.

JenniAnn pointed to a line.

"Well... that's been the Catholic Church's belief for a long time," he commented.1

"But...  What if it just doesn't work that way?  I mean what if... if...  I mean let's be honest.  Some people have a lot of really bad baggage attached to sex.  What if they have a bad flashback?  Or just get a little upset and need to stop and talk?  And maybe after they talk, they're just done for the time.  Why put it into their heads that they'll have committed a sin if they don't keep going a-and... reach that particular moment?  Wouldn't it be coerced sex at that point?"

Andrew squeezed JenniAnn's hand, knowing she was thinking about Emma.

"I really don't think any reasonable, compassionate person would insist on following that guideline if their partner was in obvious distress, Laja."

"Well, no, surely not.  But would it weigh on them?  And why not just put that in there then.  Like 'This needs to happen unless mitigating circumstances exist.'  Still not sure I completely would buy it but... at least then it couldn't be used as a means of control.  And... and there are people who just get so hung up on obedience to the Church or equivalent that, even if they are normally decent people, they end up doing bad things."

Andrew noticed that she was fighting tears.  He took away the Kindle and pulled JenniAnn into his arms.

"I know, Laja.  I do."

"I just...  I don't want Belle ever pressured into any-anything or... feeling like she can't speak up if...  Or Shelby!  Just because she's not Catholic doesn't mean she won't meet some guy who... who believes that.  I'm not even sure if it's just the Catholic Church!"

"Laja..."  Andrew nuzzled her hair then sighed.  "That's where we step in.  We didn't just hand Belle over to a religion to raise.  We'll be with her for years and years.  Same for Shelby.  And we stress to them that they deserve to be treated with dignity and kindness... that God wants both them and their partner to be treated with dignity and kindness... and they should never accept doctrine being used to hurt them.  And I truly, truly believe that any guy who won their favor and their love, would have enough compassion and sense to realize there are always exceptions to rules... and God knows that and accepts that.  And don't you think it's likely that those hypothetical guys would meet Joshua at some point?  They couldn't meet Joshua and persist in believing God wants them to strictly adhere to the Church's rule if it means hurting the woman they love.  And Fr. Mike... you know, Laja, you have to know... that he would tell anyone who asked, and even those who didn't, that sex being consensual and an expression of love trumps every other rule.  I'd be surprised if he hasn't incorporated that into his pre-Cana talks.  And... I have enough trust in our girls to think that if they thought their guy was the type to unthinkingly follow rules, they'd confront him over that one before it was a real issue."

"Yeah... true.  I'm sure they would.  I just...  I hope that if they meet someone..."  JenniAnn peered up at Andrew.  "I hope they feel as safe and loved and loving as... as I do with you."

Andrew smiled as she cuddled nearer.

"I hope so, too.  Because it... it's a wonderful feeling."

After exchanging several kisses, JenniAnn smirked at Andrew.

"I still can't believe the author dude is fine with countless, ahem, positions and acts but role playing is apparently bad because it's 'inauthentic.'  That was the only part I ever thought sounded remotely fun!  Costumes!  And maybe sometimes someone has an authentic need to dress like, I dunno, a fairy or a princess!"

Andrew burst out laughing.

"Laja, if you ever want to come to bed dressed as a princess or a fairy, I promise I won't think you're inauthentic."

"Thank you.  We should probably put a note..."

Andrew watched as JenniAnn reached for her notebook.

He smiled as he read her words.

"Take this bit with a grain of salt.  Your father and I have had countless meaningful moments when one or the other of us were in uniforms or costumes that made us look other than we truly are... the moments were still authentic."

"It's true," Andrew assented.  "That time we danced in West Hollow... I was in a cop uniform... and had just put away my gun.  You can't get much more contrary to who I really am than that gun.

"Or our trip to the Renaissance Faire in 2009 or when Violeta came on Halloween.  You were in costumes both times but as I watched you with Shelby and Violeta...  So proud, so doting...  I didn't think I could ever love you more... and you're not really a Renaissance era peasant or a baseball player."

"And the Halloween we took Shel trick-or-treating... and this past year with Belle...  Watching over our little Anna and Elsa..."  Andrew chuckled as his and JenniAnn's eyes both filled.

They silently reflected on their years together... on the enlightening and enlivening journey God had set them on.  Their minds both turned to the same thing: some of the most real, the most precious moments of their lives had happened on or near a stage, with costumes, with make-up, and with God right there in the midst of them.


Sunday, July 19th

With plans to visit Chimney Rock the following day, the elder Friends wanted to watch The Last of the Mohicans since part of the movie had been filmed there.  In hopes of wearing out the kids and making for a less interruption-prone viewing experience, JenniAnn and Monica had volunteered to take Liam, Jacob, Shelby, and Belle to a park.

As the two boys climbed on the playground equipment and Shelby pushed Belle on a swing, the two women sipped iced coffees.

"This has been so great for Jacob," JenniAnn opined.  "He's doing so well with being separated from his Mama and Papa.  The first time, really..."

Monica nodded.  "Liam's loved having him around.  It's so sweet how Jacob films everything so his Papa can see."

JenniAnn's eyes misted. 

"I wish technology had been so readily available when I was younger.  I could have taken Vincent on all our family trips."

Monica patted her arm.

JenniAnn smiled at her then turned back to the kids.

"How's Liam been?  This is the longest he's been away from home since he came, isn't it?"

"Oh, yes.  Our trips to Colorado have been much shorter... and then it was Grandma's and Grandpa's house which isn't the same.  I think he's enjoyed taking over the smaller TV room with Jacob.  I'm not sure they're sleeping as much as they should be, however."

JenniAnn laughed.

"Ah, it's vacation!  Let them enjoy it.  And well... I hope their moving out of your room has been good for you and Arthur."

With a blush, the angel nodded.


"Yes.  We tend to sleep separately back home so it's been..."  Monica beamed.  "Very nice."

JenniAnn bit her lip, wondering if she should say what was on her mind.

"Liam still has his nightmares sometimes," Monica continued.  "They're becoming much less frequent, thank God... and every so often he does get into bed with me and Arthur and I just aren't sure what he'd think if both of us were there."

"Can you teach him to knock first?  I actually kinda thought that was why you made your and Arthur's room adjoin when you expanded the cottage... so he could get out quickly if he needed to."

"Well, yes.  We just haven't..."

"Have you talked to Dr. Sayer about it?"

"A little...  I think she agrees with you."  Monica smirked.

"That obvious, huh?  I just think... Liam saw some awful things.  But it's not good if he grows up thinking that two grown-ups sleeping together is bad."

Monica smiled at her son who had taken Shelby's place behind Belle.  The two girls swung and giggled as the boys pushed them.

"You're right.  And Arthur and I have noticed that you and Andrew... you seem more... in synch since you started sharing a room."

JenniAnn clasped her cross.

"It just happens when you know when the other had a nightmare or just plain didn't sleep well.  And you know right away, in the mornings, what sorta mood they're in.  And when it's you having the bad night, there's nothing like having someone who understands right there."

Monica hugged her friend's shoulders.

"We've come a long way from the people we were during that first Coffee Summit, haven't we?"

JenniAnn laughed.

"Oh yeah!  Thankfully!"

"Yes, thankfully."  Monica let out a contented sigh.  "I'll talk to Arthur.  In the meantime, let's go take some photos.  That's too precious to not remember forever."

JenniAnn smiled at the four kids who were still swinging and pushing.

After taking several photos, JenniAnn and Monica took over pushing duties so all four children could swing at once.  Both mothers smiled and glanced up at the sky as childish laughter filled the air.


Wednesday, July 22nd

Andrew watched in amusement as Ivy, Violeta, and Hailey oohed and ahhed over assorted dish sets at Bloomfield's of Flat Rock.  JenniAnn and Diana were advising them.

"I love that you can buy by piece!" Hailey gushed.  "Cause I only need a few pieces for my dorm room.  I do *not* want to always be eating off of paper plates."

Diana patted her on the back. 

"That's my girl!"

"Make sure you get an extra set for when I visit!" Kendra reminded.

"I won't forget!"

Not seeing what was so enthralling about flatware, Sy and Zeke shot each other looks. 

"There's a patio section.  Might be a bit more interesting," the angel of death suggested.

Zeke looked at him with relief. 

"Where is that?"

Andrew pointed.

"You coming along?" Sy asked.

Andrew shook his head. 

"Not right now.  If Belle starts to fuss, I'm going to take her so JenniAnn can browse."

Zeke chuckled.

"You're a good daddy, Andrew.  We'll see you in a little while, either way."

Once the two men were gone, Andrew turned back to the women and girls.

"Do you think we need a crock pot?" Violeta asked Ivy.

"Hmm...  Maybe.  How much are they?"

"Andrew and I have one.  I doubt both households would need it on the same night so you could always borrow it," JenniAnn offered.  "And, actually, I have a smaller one, too.  You can just have that one.  I don't use it at all since, well, I always need food for several people these days!  But it'd work for two people."

"Thanks!"  Violeta hugged her. 

"It wouldn't be a bad idea for you to get a small one, though, Hailey," Diana suggested.

"Yeah...  I don't want to eat in the cafeteria all the time."

When Diana and Hailey headed off in search of a crock pot, Andrew noticed that Shelby was standing a few yards off, fiddling with some spatulas.

"Shel, everything okay?" he checked when he approached her.

To Andrew's surprise, the girl burst into tears and hugged him tightly.

"Oh... Shel, sweetheart...  What's wrong?"

Overhearing from where they were looking for a souvenir for their mother, Joccy and Zoe moved closer.

"Shelby... are you okay?" Zoe quietly asked as Joccy pressed a tissue into her hand.

Noticing what was going on, JenniAnn hurried over with Belle on her hip.

"Oh... Eby..."

Belle's sympathy and the attention only made Shelby cry harder.

"Sweetie, do you want to go outside for a lil bit?" JenniAnn offered.

"The sunshine might help," Andrew added, hoping a little more privacy might convince Shelby to talk about what was bothering her.

"Y-yes..." Shelby replied. 

"We'll be right back," JenniAnn assured Joccy and Zoe as Andrew escorted Shelby outside.  "Thank you, girls."

Joccy bit her lip.

"I hope she's okay..."

"I'm sure she is," JenniAnn consoled.  "Sometimes people just need a good cry."

With a reassuring smile, she and Belle made their way outside where they joined Andrew and Shelby on a bench.

JenniAnn looked to Andrew who shrugged as he continued to stroke Shelby's hair while she cried against his shoulder.  They both smiled when Belle reached out to pat her sister's head.


Shelby sniffled then sat up and reached for Belle.

The toddler scooted off JenniAnn's lap and straddled Shelby's.

In spite of her tears, the tween laughed as Belle kissed her cheeks.

"Eby..." Belle repeated before circling her arms around the older girl's neck and resting her head on her shoulder.

Shelby kissed Belle's curls then sighed.

"I... I wish we didn't have to... to grow up.  I know it must be a... a good thing cause Joshua and his Dad made us that... that way b-but... Asher went a-away a-and now Hailey is... is, too.  And Violeta is going to college, too, and even though she'll be living at Serendipity, she'll be really busy a-and won't... won't be able to play with... with me a-and she'll have Ivy, any-anyway a-and... Max is... is marrying R-rose a-and what if they go... go away and..."

"Oh, sweetie..."  JenniAnn clasped Shelby's hand.  "Just because you kids are growing up doesn't mean you have to grow apart!"

Andrew nodded.  "That's exactly right.  And with Asher and Hailey, you know you can call them and talk to them on the computer.  I'm sure they'll do that with you.  And, as for Max and Rose, yes, they may have to go away for a little while for Max's coursework but you know they'd always come back home."

"Max has told me that repeatedly, Shel.  And I'm sure Violeta will still make time for you.  It might have to be different... more studying together and less coloring, for example... but you'd still be spending time together.  I think Ivy would like that, too.  They're not going to forget about you no matter how busy they get," JenniAnn comforted.  "And there's definitely someone who would probably be your little shadow if we let her."  She tilted her head to Belle who still had a vise grip on her big sister.

Andrew chuckled before wrapping his right arm around both girls.

"You might just discover that you'll grow even closer to your brothers and sisters and friends as you get older, Shel, honey," he counseled.  "Do you know that, when JenniAnn was younger, I sometimes thought that she'd drift away from me when she got older?"

Shelby shook her head.

"Well, I did.  But look what happened."  Andrew smiled at JenniAnn. 

"Yeah..." Shelby admitted, cracking a smile.  "And I guess if no one grew up, there'd be no babies."  She stroked Belle's back.  "Do you think Max and Rose will have babies?  And Clay and Kylie?"

JenniAnn nodded.  "I do.  And soon we'll get to meet little Joy and Ian.  And, actually, look what happened there.  Kemara got married but, instead of her leaving Dyeland, Sean moved here.  And now his family sometimes visits us and Kemara's parents.  So our circle grew even bigger!"

"True.  And when Liam came, Arthur moved to Dyeland and now sometimes Grant and Molly visit us," Shelby relayed.

"And now we're friends with Reuel," Andrew reminded.  "He might introduce us to all sorts of people!  Shel, I don't think you're ever gonna be alone except when you want to be... and maybe not always then."  He smiled at Belle who was still clinging and appeared about ready to go to sleep.

"Can I just stay out here and hold Belle?" Shelby asked.

"Is it okay if I stay with you?"

Shelby nestled closer to Andrew and nodded.

JenniAnn kissed her girls' cheeks.

"I'm just going to run back inside and tell the others that we're okay out here and..."

Shelby shook her head.

"I'm okay.  Really.  You should look at what you want to," Shelby encouraged.

"You're sure."


"Did you see anything you wanted?"

"Well... there was a Frozen tea set that I thought would be fun to play with Belle with."

JenniAnn laughed.  "Okay.  I'll be back soon."

After a smile for Andrew, JenniAnn re-entered the store.

Shelby let out another calming sigh.

As Andrew patted the girl's shoulder and gazed at her and Belle, he prayed that neither would grow up too quickly.  Then he thanked God that JenniAnn would be there with him when the girls did grow up.

Friday, July 24th

Andrew's whole body shook when he heard the loud popping sound.  He spun around... and then he saw her.


The angel ran to catch JenniAnn before she hit the ground.  He succeeded, cushioning her body as they fell.

"Laja, I have you.  You're safe."

JenniAnn opened her mouth but no words came.  She looked down.

It was then Andrew saw the blood stain spreading across her shirt.

"No...  No, Laja.  It... it's fine.  I..."

Andrew gently laid her down then tore off his shirt and pressed the fabric against the wound.

"See... see.  It... it's slowing."

JenniAnn reached up and set a hand against his cheek.  She shook her head.

Andrew tore his gaze away long enough to glance at his hands.  His fingers and the shirt were covered in blood.  Her blood, her life draining away.

Her hand slid from his face and dropped to the ground.

"No... Not now.  Not like..."

JenniAnn's unseeing eyes stared up at the angel as he cried out in agony.


JenniAnn awoke to the sound of Andrew gasping for air.  Concerned, she sat up, turned on the lamp, and peered at him, meeting his panicked gaze.


JenniAnn curled beside the angel of death, nestled her head beneath his chin, and reached up to softly stroke his face until the panic attack subsided.

Finally, Andrew spoke.

"What time is it?"

JenniAnn rolled away just long enough to look at their travel alarm clock.


"Happy birthday, Laja.  I'm so sorry that..."

"Thank you... but, please, don't be sorry.  I..."  JenniAnn lowered her head and kissed the angel.  "I'm just glad I get to spend my birthday with you a-and the kids and so many of our friends."

Andrew returned the kiss and wrapped his arms around her.

"Tell me about it?"

Andrew sighed.  There was no use in hiding it from her.  Her mind would go a million different places if he didn't just tell her.

"I dreamed I was there... when you were shot.  A-and I tried to staunch the... the wound but it... it just kept getting bigger and bigger or... or I mean the blood did and then... I was helpless and... and you... you died."

"Sweet Andrew...  Do you dream about that particular instance a lot?"

The angel nodded.

"Okay.  Well, will you let me put a lil of my incomplete psychology degree to use?"

Chuckling, Andrew nodded.

"Okay...  We're going to try a little exposure therapy."

Andrew watched, curious, as JenniAnn sat up and undid the lightweight robe she was wearing.  Next, she flung her hair over her left shoulder and then lifted the right side of her camisole. 

For the first time, Andrew saw the scar that stretched from just below her right breast, across her side, and onto a bit of her back.  He blinked back tears but had to admit that it wasn't as bad as he thought it might be.  And it was certainly healing.  There was no trace of blood.  Intellectually, he knew there wouldn't be but to see it...

JenniAnn let him stare for a few more moments.

"Give me your hand."

When Andrew held out his hand, she gently placed it against her side.

Andrew closed his eyes as she took a few deep breaths. 

JenniAnn didn't take her eyes off him.  She wished she'd thought of this tactic earlier.  In some ways, it must have been easier for her.  Over the weeks, she had felt the pain turn into a dull ache which then morphed into itchiness along her scar before disappearing entirely.  Now the scar was simply another part of her.  But, for Andrew, the wound had loomed large, apparently.

JenniAnn shifted his hand slightly.

"Look, right here it's not even really elevated at all any more.  Soon the rest of it will be like that.  And then it'll just be a thin, little line."

Andrew nodded.

"It... it looks really good."

"I wish I'd thought to show you earlier.  I just... I worried it might upset you more but... I should have known."

Andrew shook his head.

"I could have asked."

"Well, from now on... we both know."  JenniAnn lowered her shirt.  "Since we're both up... will you do something with me?"

"It's your birthday!  Of course!"

JenniAnn grinned.  "You would even if it wasn't my birthday."

"I would," Andrew agreed with a chuckle.

"Put your robe on.  Slippers, too.  We're going outside."

Smiling the whole time, Andrew did as he was told and kept hold of JenniAnn's hand as they crept outside.  Once on the porch, they gazed up at the stars.

Andrew watched as JenniAnn blew a kiss to the heavens.

"Thank You for bringing me to this moment," she murmured.  "I know I can't possibly do what You did at thirty three.  But I want to do Your will."  JenniAnn clasped Andrew's hand.  "With him at my side... because I am so grateful to You for... for Andrew a-and our family."

When she began to cry, the angel pulled the woman to him and resumed the prayer.

"Thank You, Joshua, Father, for this amazing life You've given us.  Thank You for... for the gift of living it together.  We love You."

"So... so much," JenniAnn interjected.

"And always will."




JenniAnn giggled as Andrew steered her, blindfolded, through what she took to be a restaurant based on the clanking of dishes and sounds of chatter.

"I spose it's only fair since I've blindfolded you a time or two but... the suspense is killing me!"

"Just a few more steps..."

JenniAnn heard a door open and close then silence.

"Okay, I'm going to take the blindfold off now," Andrew informed.


Just as the angel drew away the blindfold, the room erupted.

"Happy birthday!"

JenniAnn laughed and cried as she saw their entire group gathered in the restaurant's party room.

Plus two.

"Mama!  Dad!"

JenniAnn hurried to her parents and hugged and kissed them.

"I... I had no idea!"

Allison held her close.

"We had to be with you on your birthday, sweetheart.  So... Andrew devised this."

JenniAnn beamed when her parents shot the angel of death an admiring look.

"It... it's so wonderful!  Thank you!  All of you!"  JenniAnn began to hug all of the gathered Friends.  "But I still don't know... where are we?"

Shane chuckled.

"It's called La Strada.  An Italian restaurant overlooking..."  He waved his hand behind him.

"Lake Lure..." JenniAnn admired.  "It's beautiful..."

Emma clasped her hand.

"We just... we wanted to do something special since... since..."

"You're here," Peter finished, embracing JenniAnn.

After releasing the man, JenniAnn scooped up Belle who was tugging on her dress.

"I am..." she murmured as she kissed the little one.

Liam approached and hugged her.

"Happy birthday, Aunt JenniAnn."

Jacob moved in for a simultaneous hug.

"Happy birthday, Psyche.  Can you kneel down?"


Jacob kissed her cheeks.

"From Mama and Papa."

"Aww, thanks."  JenniAnn tousled her godson's hair.  "So did you boys get to look at the menu?  What looks good?"

"Pizza!" they both cried.

"And they have fresh baked desserts!" Violeta chirped as she moved in for her hug.

Shelby nodded enthusiastically. 

"They look really yummy!"

Andrew chuckled.

"Well, why don't we all get seated so the servers can take our orders and we can get to dessert more quickly?" he suggested.

The group readily complied and, once drinks had been distributed, Andrew stood.

"Before the food arrives, I'd like to make a toast," he began.

Everyone raised their glasses.

"This trip has been such a great time and now I know why Joshua told us to take it.  We've experienced so much in the last year and a half that's brought us all closer but I think... I know... we needed time to just relax and have fun together.  And we did... a lot.  I'm so grateful for that and also really... really grateful that my Laja... our JenniAnn... has been here with us."  Andrew took in a deep breath and peered at JenniAnn.  "When I celebrated your eighteenth birthday with you... the first of your birthdays that we celebrated together... I couldn't have imagined that I'd be with you for your thirty third.  And I really couldn't have imagined that we'd have four children."

JenniAnn and the group laughed when Andrew cocked his eye brow.

"But we do.  And I love you and everyone in this room and all our friends and family back home love you, too.  So much, Laja.  And I pray to God that we get to celebrate your forty third, fifty third, and on and on and every birthday in between... together.  Happy birthday, Laja."

As the others cheered, JenniAnn stood and hugged Andrew.

"Thank you, my love," she whispered before kissing his cheek.

"You're welcome.  I... I just... So glad..."  Andrew's eyes filled as he brushed some hair from her face.  "You're here."

"I know.  Me too."

"Me three."

Andrew and JenniAnn stared at each other, wondering if the other had heard Joshua's voice.  Then they laughed and embraced again.


Tuesday, July 28th

After an evening spent helping Ivy and Violeta rearrange furniture at Serendipity, Andrew collapsed onto the bed causing JenniAnn to giggle.

"I hope all the good vibes and calm nerves leftover from vacation haven't been destroyed," she mused.

Andrew smiled and shook his head after turning to his side so he could face her.

"No.  But that was a lot of lifting and moving furniture...  Sy was a trooper."

"Are Ivy and Violeta content with how everything's arranged now?"

Andrew nodded.

"They are.  And very, very excited.  In some ways, it hardly looks like my old house."

"How do you feel about that?"

"Fine.  I like where I am now."

JenniAnn nuzzled Andrew's shoulder.

"Me, too.  What did they decide about the couch?"  JenniAnn tried to mask her concern about the fate of the couch where she'd first told Andrew she was in love with him.

Andrew smiled.  "Once she heard its history, Ivy agreed with Violeta that it has to stay.  I think they might try to get a cover for it, though."

"Aww, good.  I woulda been sad to see it go."

"I have a feeling it woulda ended up in the ballroom or elsewhere if they'd really wanted to get rid of it," Andrew hypothesized as he rubbed his shoulder.

"True...  Here, let me." 

Andrew sighed and rolled his neck as JenniAnn kneaded his shoulders.

"Thanks.  How long did it take to get Belle settled down?"

"Not long at all.  We rocked for a little while then watched Mr. Bobo's light display and she drifted off.  I think she just didn't understand what was going on over at Serendipity.  I told her she'll still see Aunt Violeta all the time."

"Good.  Oh, after you left, Violeta made a point of showing Shel where she would stay if she ever wanted to sleepover.  I think that did her a lot of good."

"Aww, yeah, I bet."

"I never got a chance to ask you... how did your laundry tutorial with Violeta go earlier today?" Andrew queried.

Laughing, JenniAnn shook her head. 

"Well, I had that shirt of yours that I accidentally got bleach on so I showed it to Violeta as a warning of what can happen when bleach spills.  She thought it was cool.  So I'm a little worried all of her clothes are gonna end up bleach spotted."

Andrew chuckled. 

"But she understood about sorting colors and everything.  I did tell her that if she ever had a load that was too small to bring it over and we'd combine it with ours."

"Laja...  We really should have made Violeta responsible for her own laundry a while ago.  I don't want her thinking we'll still do it for her."

"I know, I know...  But I also don't want her doing a load of only three black garments if, otherwise, they only have lights.  That's wasteful."

"True.  Good point.  I withdraw my objection."

Smiling, JenniAnn kissed the angel's jawline.

"Thank you.  So... you up for a lil reading tonight or not?"

"Sure.  And thanks.  My shoulders feel much better."

"Good.  So... on we go."

JenniAnn handed Andrew their Kindle and situated her notebook on her lap.

It only took a few minutes for their reading to be halted.

"I just cannot get that!"

"Get what?"

JenniAnn pointed to a paragraph.

"I'm not quite there.  Just a second."

JenniAnn fumed as Andrew read.


"Okay, I may not 100% support that every time a couple has sex they should be open to conceiving.  But... babies are awesome.  So I get it.  But that...  I mean what if... I mean...  Well..."  JenniAnn's face flushed.  "Based on things Kylie has said, I have reason to believe she and Clay can... ya know... and hopefully have kids.  But what if that explosion had impacted Clay in that way?  But, otherwise, his feelings and Kylie's remained the same?  I just don't understand why the Catholic Church wouldn't marry them... assuming they were Catholic... if that's what they wanted!  And if married couples have to be able to have sex to get married... then why are they teaching the perpetual virginity of Mary?  Cause, by their own reasoning, Mary and Joseph wouldn't have had a real marriage.  And I dunno what went on between Maryam and Yosef and I don't wanna know... but it was clearly a real marriage and is still a very real union!  Or what if a couple just plain didn't want to have sex?  Like what if you were human but we were both still asexual.  Couldn't we get married?  I mean not that you would marry me if you were human but..."

Andrew startled.

"Wait, what?"

"I just think it's weird that they extol all these virtues of marriage and stress how important they all are and yet wouldn't recognize that, if they couldn't or wouldn't have sex, a couple might still very much want those other virtues and to have a beautiful, God-focused marriage and..."

"No, no, I get that, Laja," Andrew protested.  "But what do you mean that I wouldn't marry you if I was human?  How can you say that?"

JenniAnn's righteous indignation began to fade when she looked at Andrew.  He looked truly hurt.  Once again, she blushed.

"I... I guess I just mean that, well, you're... you're so handsome and I'm just... me.  If you were human then any number of women... and men, for that matter... would want you.  A lots of them would be prettier and more..."

Andrew closed the Kindle and put it on the nightstand then stared down at his hands.

"So do you really think I'm here due to a lack of other opportunities?" he asked quietly.


Andrew could hear the doubt in her voice.

"Studies say that one out of every 100 humans are asexual, Laja.  So... I've met a lot of asexual humans over thousands of years.  You wanna know how many of them I've thought 'I think I'd like to live with them and know them inside and out and have them know me so well, too' about?"

"Just... just me?"

"Yeah.  I can't tell you exactly what I'd be like if I were human, Laja.  But what I feel about you... I feel it's more intrinsic to who I am than even my species... that, even if I were human, those feelings would still be there."  Andrew cupped JenniAnn's chin and brushed away some tears.  "I never, ever settled for you."

JenniAnn threw her arms around Andrew's neck and wept into his T-shirt.

"I... I feel the same a-and I'm sorry..."

Andrew kissed her hair.

"I... I'm just sorry if you haven't felt secure enough in my love that..."

"No... I have.  I really, really have.  I just..."

For a brief moment, Andrew saw the uncertain young woman with an eating disorder and battered self-esteem.   He sunk down against the pillows and shifted slightly so he could look into JenniAnn's eyes.

"I think we have to, now and forever, both put away any idea that one or the other of us got a better deal out of this relationship.  Neither of us lucked into this.  Neither of us is settling.  God meant for us to have this... He gave us this love for each other.  And He gave it to Andrew and JenniAnn, not angel and woman.  To us.  Us exactly.  And, as part of accepting that gift, I think we have to get better at talking to each other about what we want, Laja, or else, over time, I'm concerned that bitterness will creep in and I... I don't want that.  I so don't want that.  God doesn't want that."

"Me... me neither."

"That book... sure, it says some dubious things.  But the author... and the Church... make some really good, solid points about communication.  And it's not just Max and Rose who can learn from that.  The two of us... we need to learn from that.  Because I shouldn't have used Diana and Zeke needing a room this past Christmas as an excuse to basically invite myself into your bedroom, Laja.  I should have told you that I wanted to stay with you... if you wanted me there."

"I... I did.  Very much.  And I should have... the moment I saw Maryam and Yosef kiss and I... I realized I wanted that, too... I should have said so.  Not... not waited for you to surmise it a-and kiss me."  JenniAnn softly kissed Andrew's lips.

The angel smiled as he twined his hand through her hair.

"And, personally, I don't think it's fair that you repeatedly rub by temples and massage my back.  If you ever want that... tell me.  I'm told I have good hands."

JenniAnn laughed, recognizing her own compliment.

"I will."

"And, conversely, if you ever want some space... I want you to tell me that, too.  My bed is perfectly comfortable."

"And you'll do the same?"

"I'll do the same," Andrew promised.

"But not tonight?"

Andrew smiled as she snuggled against him.

"Not tonight," he agreed.

"Good.  In keeping with our new pledge... I have a request."

Andrew felt the last of his angst fall away when JenniAnn batted her eyes lashes.

"And what is that?" he got out in between laughs.

"Sing to me?"

"Of course."

As Andrew sang, JenniAnn rested her cheek against his chest and listened to his heartbeat.

"'Just a song at twilight, when the lights are low,
And the flick'ring shadows softly come and go,
Tho' the heart be weary, sad the day and long,
Still to us at twilight comes Love's old song,
comes Love's old sweet song.'"

After finishing the ballad, Andrew flicked off the bedside lamp and closed his eyes.

"I love you, Laja," he murmured as he nuzzled her hair.

"I love you, too, Andrew."

They smiled at each other in the twilight before drifting to sleep.


Thursday, August 13th

JenniAnn sighed as she watched Andrew sleep.  In five minutes, she would have to wake him up so they could begin the busy morning ahead of them: taking Ivy and Violeta to Fordham to get their school books and map out how they'd get from class to class and then getting Ivy back to Nebraska so she could help Mark ready his own classroom.  Afterwards, Violeta had asked them to go with her to some thrift stores so she could get clothes for school.

Many of their days since they'd returned from vacation had been similarly hectic yet JenniAnn felt as if the previous two weeks had been among the most serene in her life.  While she still felt badly about her unintended slight against Andrew, everything had been so much better since their confrontation... and that was saying a lot since the bulk of July had felt very nearly heavenly.

Best of all, Andrew hadn't had a single nightmare.  And that's why JenniAnn hated to awaken him but she also knew he wouldn't want to be running late. 

JenniAnn kissed the angel's forehead.

"Wake up, sleeping beauty," she whispered in his ear.  "Otherwise, I will sic our little elf on you."

His eyes still closed, Andrew smiled.

"Do that.  She'll match the fairy princess I already have."

JenniAnn giggled.

The previous evening, they had turned over a Kindle and their notebook to Max.  In a final fit of rebellion, JenniAnn had chosen to come to bed in a beige chemise from an old Halloween costume and a leaf print bodice.

As if on cue, Belle pushed open the door separating the rooms.

"Mama, Daddy, up up," she declared.

Andrew burst out laughing.

"An elven alarm clock!" he exclaimed.

JenniAnn laughed, too, as she lifted Belle up off the floor.

"I hope you stay an early bird when you start going to school, baby girl."


"That's right!  Appa's at school," Andrew replied.  "And we'll see him later.  But first we gotta take Aunt Violeta and Aunt Ivy shopping.  Okay?"

"Ay."  Belle nodded at her father before redirecting her attention to her mother.  "Pitty..."

JenniAnn giggled as Belle played with her laces.

After sliding out of bed, Andrew grabbed his cell phone and took a photo of the two.

"Augh.  My hair's probably all crazy!" JenniAnn protested.

Andrew shook his head.

"You both look beautiful.  Ethereal even... my fairy and my elf."

JenniAnn opened her mouth to counter his assertion but then stopped and only smiled.

"Thank you."

"You're welcome."

Andrew stooped to kiss mother and child both before all three began to prepare for the day ahead.


In a tiny two room apartment in New York City, a woman sighed as she awoke.  She turned away from her sleeping husband and peered at their two little ones dozing on a cot to the side of their bed.  Then she gazed at the dawn's light peeking into their window. 

Isra smiled.  Today was a special day.

Rolling back around, Isra studied her beloved's face.  It was only when he slept so peacefully that he truly looked his age.  Only the slivers of graying hair at his temples betrayed him.

Twenty two and already graying...

Tears filled Isra's eyes as she recalled their first moments together.  How she had hated him!  The resentment... the worry... the fear...

A lot had changed in six years!  Of course, it had taken much less than six years for Isra to fall in love with him.  Remembering that blessed night in their little home in Afghanistan, Isra decided to wake her husband with a kiss.

His eyes fluttered open.  He smiled.

Isra smiled back.

"Happy anniversary," they murmured in unison.


Andrew held Belle as JenniAnn and Violeta sorted through racks and stacks of clothing.  He'd felt much more useful at Fordham University.  Now he wasn't really sure what to do with himself.


Violeta pulled an item off a rack and brought it to a mirror.  She frowned as she held the skirt up to her waist.

"I really, really, really love the colors but I dunno...  It's really short." 

JenniAnn moved to stand beside Violeta and studied her reflection.

"I think it'd look cute with a pair of your leggings under it.  Then the length wouldn't matter so much.  Or..."

JenniAnn grabbed a different, longer skirt.

"What if you layered these two?"

Violeta held the two skirts together.

"I like that!  Thanks!"

Belle began to wriggle in Andrew's arms... then whine.

"Laja, I'm gonna walk around the store with Belle.  She's getting restless," Andrew informed.

JenniAnn turned away from Violeta and smiled at the angel of death.

"Okay.  Thanks!"

"If she gets too fussy, we can leave," Violeta offered.

"No, I think we'll be fine.  I'll check back in a few minutes.  C'mon, cuddlebug."

Belle quieted as Andrew carried her up and down the aisles and into various nooks and crannies.  After a couple laps, the angel noticed his shoe had become untied.

"Daddy needs to tie his shoe, Belle.  I need you to stay right here, okay?"


After setting Belle down, Andrew knelt to tie his laces. 

When he finished, the angel realized that Belle was no where in sight.  His chest tightened and his stomach twisted.  It was his nightmare come horribly true.



Isra hugged her husband's arm as their son and daughter perused the selection of toys.

"I wish I could get you something, my star," he whispered into her ear.

Isra smiled and shook her head.

"This is what I want... their happiness."

"Me too."

To the left of her husband, Isra spotted a small child with a huge grin approaching them.  With no hint of shyness, the little girl approached and held her arms up.

"Up, up."

Startled, the man looked down and took a sharp intake of breath.

"Behnam!" Isra cried when she felt him begin to shake.

"B-Badriya..." Behnam choked out, falling to his knees.

"Oh... oh..." the girl cooed as she patted Behnam's hair.


Isra tore her gaze away from Behnam and the child to see her own girl, her Aiyla looking up at her with concern.

"Mommy, what's wrong with Daddy?"

"I... I..."

Isra shook her head, unsure of how to respond.  She could only watch, frozen, as Behnam embraced the child and wept.  She grew fearful that someone, not understanding, would misjudge her husband.  They wouldn't know that, in this little girl, Behnam saw his beloved older sister.  Isra, having seen the one and only photograph of Badriya as a child, knew that the resemblance was uncanny.  Finally getting control of herself, Isra bent down.

"Benham, beloved, this is someone's little girl.  We have to..."

"Belle!" a man's voice shouted.


JenniAnn had come running, with Violeta trailing her, when she'd first heard Andrew cry out for their daughter.  The three had scattered in different directions but had somehow convened at the very spot where Belle was hugging a complete stranger.

JenniAnn heaved a sigh of relief.  At least Belle had wandered off to another couple... and a nice seeming couple at that.  JenniAnn studied the woman who was wearing a bright pink head scarf and daffodil-yellow shirt with jeans embroidered with multi-colored stars.  If this were any other day, she would have complimented her on them.  As it was, she wondered why the man wasn't releasing her daughter and why his wife wasn't making him.

"That... that's my daughter," Andrew choked out.  "Please, let her go so..."

"Behnam... let the little girl go," Isra gently coaxed.  "She... she isn't Badriya."

JenniAnn and Violeta gasped.

"B-Behnam..." Andrew murmured.  "Behnam Al-Mitra?"

Hearing his full name, Behnam at last snapped to attention and let go of Belle.  He smiled as she kissed his cheek.

Belle toddled off to JenniAnn and giggled.

"Andrew..." Behnam whispered.  He stood, shaky at first but buoyed by Isra. 

Tears poured down Andrew's face as he pulled the man into his embrace.


Isra tore her tearful gaze away from her husband and knelt, pulling her children into her embrace.

"Aiyla, Omar, this is... is Andrew.  He is one of Daddy's friends from... from Afghanistan."


Aiyla and Omar smiled at JenniAnn and Violeta.

"Hi," Aiyla greeted as her younger brother smiled shyly.

"H-hi," JenniAnn replied before beginning to sob.

Violeta hugged her and began to cry, too.

A store clerk who had been alerted to the possibility of a missing child simply shrugged, shook her head, and walked away.

"I... we... have so much we need to tell you," Andrew told Behnam as he clasped his face in his hands.

Behnam could only nod in response.

"Let's check out, if you're ready, and then JenniAnn and I can take you to our home a-and tell you."

"Yes...  Please," Behnam replied.  He stepped away from Andrew and circled an arm around Isra's waist.

"This is my wife, Isra, and our oldest, Aiyla, and our youngest, Omar."

Andrew smiled through his tears at the woman and children.

"I'm very, very glad to meet you.  My name is Andrew and this is Belle who came to meet you.  She's JenniAnn's and my daughter and this is Violeta, my... our..."

"I'm Belle's aunt," Violeta saved.

"So pleased to meet you all," Isra responded with a warm smile.  "Aiyla, Omar, have you selected your toys?"

"Yes, Mommy."


"Good.  We'll go to the register and then visit Daddy's friends at their home."

JenniAnn gaped as she watched Isra lead her little ones way.  She rested her cheek against Belle's hair.  Her little girl had blood cousins...

"I'll go pay, too." Violeta hugged Andrew and JenniAnn and kissed Belle's forehead before joining Isra at the register.

"Your daughter..." Behnam marveled as he looked at Belle.

"Adopted.  JenniAnn's not an angel but... but we care very deeply about each other," Andrew explained.

"Good.  I... I am glad you have each other.  So often I thought of you... prayed for you.  Sometimes it was only my Isra who pulled me through the memories and I thought if you did not have..." Behnam squeezed Andrew's hand.

"I... I did.  I do."  The angel of death beamed at JenniAnn who stepped forward.

"I'm so... so glad to meet you, Behnam.  Andrew has told me so much about your sister and I..."  The lump in JenniAnn's throat cut her off.  Awkwardly, she moved to hug Behnam with her free arm.

"Thank you," the man replied as they embraced.

When the others rejoined them, Andrew hugged JenniAnn's shoulders and led the group out to the Jolly Green.


Explaining the portal when they'd entered the blue room at St. Genesius' had been easy compared to what Andrew and JenniAnn had to tell Behnam and Isra.  Situated on two couches in Willowveil's playroom, the two couples sat in silence and watched as their children, Fawn, Lulu, and Violeta frolicked.

Isra interrupted the silence.

"You have a truly beautiful home," she complimented.

"Thank you," JenniAnn replied.  "It... it's filled with a lot of love."

Andrew could tell she was nervous... afraid that Behnam and Isra would want to take Belle when they learned the truth.  He couldn't believe, however, that Joshua and the Father planned that.  Still, they had to tell the truth.  But how much truth?

"All of it, Andrew.  Behnam and Isra need to know," an unseen Joshua whispered to the angel.

Andrew nodded.

"Behnam, Isra, there's something JenniAnn and I have to tell you both.  It's something about Belle, something that... that concerns you.  And I think it's why God drew her to you today.  I'm sure of it."

Bracing themselves, the Al-Mitras listened to the tale of Dyeland, of how Andrew and JenniAnn had come to be so close.  Their eyes filled as Andrew spoke of finding an abandoned baby in the snow, of how, miraculously, JenniAnn had helped him rescue her. 

Andrew clasped JenniAnn's hand.

"A few months later, God revealed something to JenniAnn and me," he began.  "He... he knew how much I still wished that I could have... have saved Badriya."

Behnam reached over to clasp the angel of death's hand. 

"Behnam, he told me about your younger sister, Adila."

The man's face clouded.

"She is... unwell.  When we first came to America, our host brought us to Florida.  It's taken us a few years to earn enough money to come to New York to be near my cousins... but they kept me informed about Adila," Behnam explained.

Andrew nodded sympathetically.

"I'm glad you know but, Behnam, there's something about Adila that not even your cousins know... because she hid it from them.  A couple years ago, Adila met a man at a party.  She... they...  Adila became pregnant but she hid the pregnancy from your cousins... her parents.  She was afraid they'd be angry."

Behnam gaze snapped to Belle.

"So... so after her baby was born..."

"She left her in an alley," Isra whispered, looking to JenniAnn for confirmation.

She nodded.

Behnam felt a flash of anger towards his sister for her recklessness and cruelty but soon it was overrun by far sweeter feelings.  The little girl who had hugged and kissed him was his niece.  He was an uncle.  His children had a little cousin.

Isra rested her head on Behnam's shoulder as she wept softly and hugged his arm.

"Will... will I be allowed to see Belle a-again?" Behnam choked out.

Andrew gaped.

JenniAnn sighed.  Clearly the man had no intention of taking their daughter away.  She again nodded.

"Well, of course!" the angel of death exclaimed.  "You're her uncle, Behnam.  And her aunt, Isra.  And I think Belle's already hitting it off with her cousins."

Behnam and Isra both let out the breaths they'd been holding.

The four adults smiled at the three children... and Violeta.

"And Violeta... is she... human or angel?" Isra questioned.

Andrew laughed.  "Sorry.  I kind of garbled that at the store, didn't I?  I wasn't sure if Behnam had told you I was an angel."

"Oh yes."  Isra squeezed Behnam's hand.

"Violeta is my protege," Andrew explained.  "She's in training to be an angel of death but..."

"She's really just a big kid," JenniAnn picked up.  "In fact, Andrew and I consider her one of ours."

"You have other children?" Isra asked.

"Yes, all adopted, of course... officially or otherwise.  Belle, Violeta, and then we have a ten year old girl named Shelby.  And next Wednesday we're officially adopting our son... Max."  JenniAnn peered into Behnam's eyes.  "You... you have to meet our Max.  You helped save him, Behnam."

Behnam was confused for a moment.

"The other soldier..." he realized.

"Yeah.  He and I... we... we got really close over there and he had a pretty bad home life so..."  Andrew sighed.

"So he's our boy now," JenniAnn proudly declared.  "Oh!  Can you stay for dinner?  We could ask him and his fiancee over and you could meet him!  And Shelby, too!  And Adam!"

Behnam looked to Isra who did not hesitate before nodding.

"I'll call Max but first...  You two should properly meet your niece."

Behnam stared adoringly at the three little ones. 

"I... I'd love that.  And would you... if it would please you... consider our Aiyla and Omar as your niece and nephew?" he requested.  He and Isra keenly felt a loss of family that their harried cousins could not fill.

JenniAnn hugged Andrew and indicated for him to speak.

"We... we would be honored," Andrew accepted.  He smiled.  "We'll have to exchange birthdates."

"And anniversaries!" JenniAnn chimed in.

Behnam and Isra smiled at each other.

"Actually... today's our anniversary," Behnam informed.

"Then all the more reason to celebrate!" JenniAnn cheered as the four approached the children.

The parents gathered their own children to them.

"Aiyla, Omar," Behnam began, "Mommy and I have very good news.  Little Belle is your cousin."

"Cousin!" Aiyla chirped.  "I didn't know we had a girl cousin.  Just old cousins."

Isra stifled a laugh.

Behnam chuckled.

"Yes, Belle is your cousin and that means her mommy and daddy, JenniAnn and Andrew, are your Aunt JenniAnn and Uncle Andrew and Mommy and Daddy are Belle's Aunt Isra and Uncle Behnam.  Okay?"

"Yay!" Omar yelled.

"Belle, do you want to go say hi again to your Aunt Isra and Uncle Behnam?" JenniAnn asked.

Without hesitation, Belle slid off Andrew's lap and went to Behnam and Isra.


"Hi, Belle," Isra greeted.

"Belle..." Behnam echoed, misty eyed.

Belle smiled and planted a kiss on his forehead.

As Andrew was admiring the adorable scene, he felt a tug on his sleeve.

"Well, hello there, Aiyla.  What can I do for you?"

"Violeta... Aunt Violeta?"

Aiyla looked to Behnam and Isra who nodded after glancing at a gleeful Violeta.

"Aunt Violeta said you have a donkey and sheep.  Can we see them?"

"Pease?" Omar added.

Andrew beamed at the two.

"I think we can make that happen!  C'mon!"

With that, the entire group trooped outside to enjoy the sunshine and pets and get to know each other better.


After hanging up the phone upon leaving a giddy message for Max, JenniAnn rejoined Isra in the gazebo behind Willowveil.

"So today's your anniversary?" she asked as she poured her guest some tea.

The younger woman tore her gaze away from where Behnam, Andrew, and Violeta were leading the children around on the donkey.  Her face flushed.

"It's the anniversary we celebrate.  Our wedding anniversary was six months ago.  We do not celebrate it."

"Oh.  Well, I'm glad you have a date to celebrate each other in, umm, in any case," JenniAnn fumbled.

When her hostess pushed a tray of cookies towards her, Isra set a hand on her arm.

"Your daughter... she is my niece.  So... so we're sisters."

JenniAnn blinked back tears upon hearing Isra unintentionally echo the sister-in-law she had never gotten to meet.  She nodded.

"I... I think that would be really nice, yes."

"Then you can hear the truth?" Isra asked.

"If you tell me something, I can promise I won't repeat it... so long as withholding it won't hurt anyone," JenniAnn promised.

With a smile, Isra squeezed her new sister's hand.

"Tell Andrew, please... if Behnam does not.  But no others.  It won't hurt.  He's embarrassed is all."  She looked to her husband.  He was laughing!  She loved the sound of his laughter...  After enjoying it for a moment, she returned her attention to JenniAnn.  "Behnam is embarrassed because our marriage... it was arranged, forced by his uncle.  He threatened my father if... if I did not comply.  I was only fifteen."
JenniAnn gaped.  Isra and Behnam seemed like an ideal couple...  The way they interacted with each other reminded her of herself and Andrew.

Isra again seized the older woman's hand.

"Please... just listen.  Hear our story?" 

JenniAnn nodded and Isra began her account.


February 2009

Isra shook as she awaited her new husband's arrival at their home.  His home.  It was no home to Isra.  She wanted to run... to go back to her home, to the bed she shared with her sister.  She didn't want that man... that Behnam Al-Mitra... to touch her.  She didn't love him!  And while the wedding ceremony had left her with very little sense of him, Isra knew his uncle was a cruel, evil man.  No doubt Behnam was very much like him.  Isra began to weep as she thought of the years of grief ahead of her.

"I am sorry."

Isra jumped and her head shot up.  He was there...  She braced herself.

Behnam backed into a corner of the room, knelt, and held his arms aloft.

"I promise I will not hurt you, Isra."

Blurry-eyed, Isra stared at him.  She gathered her knees to her chest.

"I... I am wearied.  I am sure you are, too.  We must sleep... I will sleep over here," Behnam hastily added when he saw his bride flinch.  "But first... I must speak to you.  I must apologize.  I... this marriage... it was not my idea.  My uncle... he... he thinks taking a wife will change me.  Make me a better man... his type of man."

Isra noted the edge in his voice.

"I will never be his type of man," Behnam spat out.  "He is no man."

There was silence for several moments.

"He gave my sister... Badriya... to a man even more evil than himself.  He... he hurts her.  Badly.  My sister..."

Isra had a momentary thought to comfort Behnam when he began to cry but she stayed where she was.  Perhaps it was all a ploy.

"I will not be that sort of man.  I will not... cannot... lie with a woman who does not want me.  I... I heard when he... he forced himself on my sister and I..."  Behnam adamantly shook his head.  "There... there should be love in marriage, yes?"

Isra found herself nodding.

"I do not know where he has taken her.  I spend my time trying to find them... to save my sister from him.  She has not given him a child and the last time I saw her..."  Behnam's hand drifted above his face.  "Bruises..."

Isra remained mute but a tear, this time not for herself, drifted down her cheek.

"I will continue to search when I can... but I promise I will keep you safe.  Good night, Isra."

Isra watched intently as Behnam prayed and then settled onto a cot and closed his eyes.

For hours Isra waited, sure that at any moment, Behnam would reveal his true self and attack her.

Eventually, sleep conquered her but she dozed fitfully.  Each time she awoke, she noted that Behnam had not budged.  In fact, she could hear him snoring.  He was truly asleep. 

For the first time after weeks of silent anger at Allah, Isra managed a quick prayer.

"Thank You... I think."


Three days and nights passed in the same fashion.  Only during their marriage feast did Isra see another side of Behnam.  He laughed at crass jokes from some of the other men and even made a few comments himself.  Her cheeks burned.

Then, as soon as they were in their home, the facade dropped.

Behnam set a gentle hand on her shoulder.  It was the first time he had touched her in private. 

"I am sorry I said the things I did.  It is only...  It is better for us both if they do not know about... how we are," he explained.

Isra recognized the truth in his words and shuddered.  If the others knew she remained a virgin, Behnam would be humiliated and her?  She didn't like the way Uncle looked at her.  If he found that out...

"Yes.  You are right," she concurred.

Behnam smiled.  They were the first words she had spoken to him in private.

"Good night, Isra."

"Good night, Behnam."

Isra fell asleep much more easily that night.


More than anything, Isra missed the companionship of her sister as the days wore on.  There were few opportunities to talk with other girls and women in the village.  When they arose, the married women spent much of their time sharing horror stories and the unmarried girls listened with trepidation.  Isra added nothing, only wept.  She felt some guilt when she realized this made the others assume Behnam treated her terribly.  Truthfully, she was only moved by their stories.  Sometimes she thought of defending Behnam but remembered his words: it would be better if no one knew.

After a week, Isra thought she would go mad with boredom.  She lay on her bed and stewed.  Then she looked across the room to where Behnam was poring over a book.

"If you could be anywhere but here... where would you go?"

Behnam jumped upon hearing the unexpected voice.  He smiled at the woman.

"America.  You?"


Behnam bowed his head.

Isra was surprised to find she regretted her words.

"I... I...  What do you know of America?" she covered.

Behnam studied her for a moment then he pulled up his cot and removed something from a hidden area beneath it.

Isra didn't take her eyes off him as he approached her. 

Behnam stood back and held his treasure out to her.

Isra looked at the strange characters on the page.  They meant nothing to her.  But the photographs...

"She is a senator there," Behnam offered, pointing to one image.  "That means her people chose her... a woman... to lead them.  And look."  He took one step nearer so he could turn a page.  "All of them had recently gotten married.  Beautiful, yes?"

Isra let out the breath she was holding as she looked at dozens of couples, most gazing adoringly at each other.  The dresses were so beautiful...

"They chose each other.  That's America.  And look..."  Behnam turned to another section of the newspaper.  "Those men... they get paid to play games!  Imagine!"

Isra looked doubtfully at him.

Behnam chuckled and took out another section.  "And she gets paid to sing!  And she travels all around the country singing."

"By herself?"

"I would think she would need help but..."

"No husband to escort her?"

Behnam shook his head. 

"One more thing..." 

Isra watched, fascinated, as Behnam once again moved to another section of the paper.

"This man... he gets paid to arrange books and help people find the books they need.  Look at all the books..."

Isra took in the image of a kindly older gentleman standing in front of shelves and shelves of books.  She got the impression that Behnam would give anything to be in that man's shoes.

"Do you plan to try to go to America?" she questioned.

Behnam shrugged. 

"Not without my sister... not without..."  His voice trailed off.

Isra wondered if he meant to take her.  She couldn't bring herself to ask.

"Do you know anyone there?" she pressed.

"Yes.  Two cousins and my younger sister.  After my parents died, my cousins offered to take Badriya and Adila, the little one, to America.  They knew life would be better for them there.  But... Uncle refused.  He said they could take only one.  Badriya insisted they take Adila.  So... so they did a-and Badriya was left here and then..."

Isra suddenly realized her hand was on Behnam's arm.  She quickly drew it back.

"I am sorry," she murmured.  "You... you are a very good brother."

Behnam managed a smile.  "Thank you."

"You can read this?"

"Yes.  My cousins taught me English. I think they had truly hoped to take all three of us to America but it was not to be.  I was very little but I remembered them... the words, the letters.  Sometimes, when I cannot sleep, I run the words through my head so I do not forget.  When I was around ten, some Americans came into the village.  They taught me a little more... gave me this newspaper and a few books.  I have hidden them all these years.  Uncle would not like that I have them."

Isra looked over to his cot.

"Beneath it," Behnam averred.

"Teach me?"

Isra was surprised and mortified when she realized the words had escaped.  Education was not for women.

Behnam grinned.

"I would like that very much."

Behnam once again returned to his hidden cubbie and retrieved a board.

"Letters," he introduced.  "We start there."

Isra watched as his finger glided over the board.

"A... B... C..."

Isra smiled.  Perhaps her days and nights of boredom were over.


August 12th, 2009

Weeks passed and then months.  The two settled into a routine.  Every evening, Behnam returned from tending his uncle's crops and Isra prepared dinner for them.  Then they would sit on her bed and go over her lessons until they were too tired to continue.  Without fail, Behnam dutifully returned to his cot.

Well after midnight one night, Isra and Behnam were still reading.

"'He should not be here,' said the fish in the pot.  'He should not be here when your..."

"Sound it out," the boy gently directed.

"'Mo... moth... mother is not,'" Isra read.

Behnam beamed.  "Very good."

Isra smiled at him.  "This is a very strange cat."

Laughing, Behnam nodded.

"I think soon you will be ready to move to another book."

"I will miss the strange cat... and his hat."

"We can always revisit him."

"Yes.  Behnam?"


"If... if you find Badriya and can get to America... would you take me with you?"

 Behnam rested a hand on her hair.

"Yes, Isra.  And you and Badriya could live together.  I know you would love her and her you.  And you... you would be free.  Our marriage... it would not be recognized and so... so you would be free," he repeated.

"Free..." Isra echoed.  The word was beautiful and yet she felt her throat tighten as she said it.  "And... and where would you live?"

"Close by, I hope, so I could visit and help as needed."



Behnam held Isra's gaze for a long, silent moment before startling.  He rose from the bed.

"We should sleep now.  Good night, Isra."

"Good night, Behnam."

Isra watched him settle onto his cot.  She listened to his breathing as he drifted into sleep.  She wished she had asked one more question.

Behnam, do you love me?  Because I think I love you.


Isra awoke to wretched sounds.  She sat up, fearing that someone was going to charge into their home at any moment.  Maybe Uncle or someone else had found out that they had not yet consummated their marriage, that Behnam was teaching her to read and speak English, that...


In the moonlight, Isra could see that he was thrashing around on the floor and his face was wet with either tears or sweat... maybe both.  She watched in horror, wondering what she should do.  Then, suddenly, he stopped moving.

Isra began to panic.  What if he was... dead?  She stumbled off the bed and knelt beside him.


Isra soon realized that he was moving.  His chest heaved and tears continued to trail down his cheeks.  She lightly stroked his back.


The man rolled to his side.


Heartbroken, Isra shook her head.

Clarity came into Behnam's eyes.

"Isra," he corrected.

"I am here."

Behnam sat up and hugged his knees to his chest.

"I am sorry that I awakened you.  I am... embarrassed."

Tears filled Isra's eyes. 

"I am not sorry... not embarrassed.  You had a nightmare about your sister?"

Behnam nodded.  "About the night... the night he took her... hurt her."  Fresh tears loomed in his eyes.  "She... she is... is the only one left who... who loved me and... and I... I could not protect..."

"You... you were just a boy and... and... you are wrong."

Behnam watched in surprise as Isra stretched out beside him.  The breath momentarily left his body when she rested a hand against his cheek.

"I... I love you, Behnam.  Truly."

Isra knew she meant the words.  As wicked as his intentions were, maybe by Allah's grace, Uncle had managed to do something right.  Behnam was her husband and the only one she could imagine wanting.  In nearly six months, he had never once been cruel to her.  He had never yelled at her.  His devotion to his sister was unfailing.  He had opened entire worlds for Isra.  And, yes, she knew that if anyone ever found out he was teaching her to read, he would likely be killed.  But he had risked that for her.  And he had kept his promise from the night of their wedding.  He had kept her safe, he had never forced himself on her.  He'd given her no reason to doubt his sincerity when he'd said, if they got to America, she would have her freedom.  But she wanted to share that freedom with him.

Behnam stared up at the ceiling as his wife snuggled against him.  He felt the strain begin to go out of his body.  He let out a deep breath then wrapped his arms around Isra.

"I love you, too.  So much, Isra.  I... I hoped you... but I did not want... love out of... of obligation."

"I love you... freely," Isra assured.  She sat up and smiled down at Behnam.  "Come to the bed.  We need rest tonight but, perhaps, tomorrow night..."

Behnam returned her smile.  "If you would like..."

"I would if you would."

"I would."

Isra giggled then took Behnam's hand and, for the first time in their six months of marriage, the couple got into bed together.  Once they were settled, Isra clasped Behnam's hands.

"Allah, thank you for my husband.  Please, help us to find our sister, Badriya," she prayed.

As simple as the prayer was, it endeared Isra to Behnam even more. 

"Thank you for my wife," he added.

The two smiled at each other, kissed, and went to sleep in each other's arms.


April 2010

Isra's sickness had started a few weeks after she and Behnam had first laid together.  Behnam had been beside himself but Isra suspected she knew what was happening.  She remembered how it had been for her own mother before her younger sister had come.  The village midwife had confirmed her suspicions. 

After the worst of the sickness had ended, Isra had discovered that she loved being pregnant.  Uncle no longer paid any attention to her.  She and Behnam would spend hours taking turns reading to the little one.  Then there was the bliss of Behnam rubbing her back and feet.  He'd cried the first time she'd pressed his hand to her belly and let him feel the baby moving.

The couple's joy was only tempered by the knowledge that so many others in the village were unhappy. 

One day, Behnam came home to find Isra crumpled on their bed and sobbing.

"Isra...  My star..." Behnam greeted as he sat down beside her and stroked her back.  "What is it?"

"Noora... she... she is... dead.  The... the baby, t-too."

Behnam's heart sunk as rage rose up in him.  Noora had been the wife of another man in the village.  She had been eleven when they married, pregnant at twelve... now dead.  He had tried to dissuade her husband, begged him to at least wait a few years if not release the girl entirely but it had been to no avail.  Too young... too small...  Behnam cursed the man and prayed that Noora's and her baby's souls would find peace.  Then he looked to his wife. 

"We have to get out of here," he insisted.  "I... I do not want our daughter facing such a life.  And I do not want our son becoming such a man."

Isra nodded and clasped his hand.  She trusted Behnam would do everything he could to keep her and their child safe.


June 5th, 2010

With one final push, Isra's baby came into the world.  In spite of the pain, she laughed when the little one made his or herself known with a shrill cry.

The midwife frowned.

"A girl."

Aunt stalked out of the house.

Isra reached for the child.

"My baby, please," she begged.

"You must wait, silly girl," the midwife chastised after wiping the baby some more and setting her in a basket.

Isra sighed, remembering what the midwife had told her about the afterbirth.  Soon she had delivered that, too, and again beckoned for her child.

Silently, the older woman handed her the baby and left.

"Oh...  Oh you are beautiful," Isra greeted her daughter.  "So... so beautiful.  I love you!"  She looked around the room before remembering no one was there to share in her joy.  Tears flooded her eyes.  Why could they not rejoice in this sweet little creature who she and Behnam had made?

The door flew open and her husband dashed in.

"You... you are well?" he asked as he knelt beside Isra.


"A-and the baby?"

Isra nodded.  "A... a daughter."  She prayed Behnam wouldn't be disappointed.

The man's eyes drifted from his wife's to the baby's.

"Oh...."  He moved his arms to hold her then again looked to Isra.

Beaming, she handed the infant over.

"She is... perfect."

"You... you are not disappointed?"

Not taking his eyes off the baby who stared up at him in wonder, Behnam shook his head.

"I would have been very happy with either a boy or girl.  But secretly... I wanted our oldest to be a girl."

Isra hugged him, knowing he was thinking of his absent sister.  She rested her chin on his shoulder and admired their miracle.

"What shall we call her?" Behnam asked.

"Aiyla... moonlight?  In honor of Badriya."

Behnam brought Isra's hand to his lips.

"Thank you."  He sighed and lifted the baby so he could kiss her.  "Welcome to our family, Aiyla.  You are so loved."


August 13th, 2015

JenniAnn swiped at a tear as Isra paused to nibble on a cookie and sip her tea.

"I'm so glad you two came to love each other," she choked out.

Isra smiled.  "Very much, yes."  She looked over at her husband and children.  "Still... people can figure."

JenniAnn rested a hand on the younger woman's arm.

"It's no where near unheard of for fifteen and sixteen year old girls to get pregnant here.  The big difference is they often don't stay with the fathers.  You and Behnam did stay together and that's something to be proud of, not embarrassed about."

Isra nodded.

"Have you had problems?"

Isra looked up to JenniAnn with tears in her eyes.

"There's a lady at the apartment building who invited me over for tea.  I was excited to have a new friend.  Behnam said he would watch Omar and Aiyla so I went and when I arrived there was another man and woman there a-and they asked me many questions.  Was I forced to marry Behnam?  And I... I said 'yes' but then I began to explain but they started talking and saying they would find a safe place for me and my children.  I tried to tell them that he hadn't touched me for six months and that I... I invited him into my... my bed a-and so if they were angry about that then they should be angry with... with me.  I loved him, I wanted him."

JenniAnn cringed.  She couldn't entirely blame the interlopers but, in Isra's case, their actions had been the very opposite of helpful.

"They... they tried to tell me that I had been too young and that I only felt as I did because I didn't know any better and had no other choices but I... I know my own heart.  I know what I feel in his arms!  I know that I did have a choice.  I know Behnam would have let me start a new life, without a husband, here.  But they should think about what it would be like to be almost always with only one person who is kind to you, who you can talk to freely.  Behnam...  He... he is all I had until my babies...  And now with so much more... I still love him and want him to be my husband and me to be his wife."

Isra accepted a handkerchief from her hostess.

"Thank you."

"You're welcome."

As Isra calmed herself, JenniAnn thought of Andrew and Max.  They had been largely alone for months and had bonded on an incredibly deep level that had easily grown into a father-son relationship.  It was hardly surprising that two virtually marooned, like-minded teenagers had fallen irrevocably in love during a similar time period.

"Are you still having problems with those people?" JenniAnn gently asked.

Isra shook her head. 

"I became so angry that I ran from the apartment and back to my own.  They followed me.  When Behnam answered, I hugged him so tightly.  And kept repeating 'Don't let them take me away!' and then 'I love you.'  And he said 'I love you, too, my star' until I had stopped crying.  When I finally looked to the neighbor and the other two, they looked very uncomfortable... and even more when Aiyla and Omar started screaming 'Don't take Mommy.'  Then they apologized and left.  The neighbor will no longer look at us when we see her.  I wish I could tell her that I understand why she did what she did... but they should have believed me!"

"I'm so sorry that happened to you, Isra," JenniAnn apologized.  "And you're right.  It's a good thing to be concerned for a woman's wellness and safety... but that comes along with also trusting her to herself.  They shouldn't have questioned your decisions... or told you that you didn't have any choices when you know you did.  And if it helps...  I was only seventeen when I met Andrew.  Granted, it took us a while to get where we are but some part of me, the smartest part of me, has known since I was seventeen that he was the only one.  And we have two young friends who met last year when both were sixteen.  Andrew and I both have a very strong feeling that they're together for life.  And we have two other friends who got married when she was fourteen and he was eighteen or nineteen... I can't quite remember.  In any case, they're very, very happy and still very much in love.  Many teenagers are much too young to decide who to spend their life with... but not all are.  So I trust you.  You know the story of Joseph and the Twelve Tribes?"

"Oh yes."

"In the Book of Genesis, Joseph says to the brothers who sold him into slavery 'You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives.'  I think that holds true for you and Behnam, Isra.  His uncle planned something very wrong but God used it for something very good: bringing together two people who would grow to love each other very, very much.  And that love led to two precious, little lives."

Isra beamed at JenniAnn then at Behnam and their children.  Yonah was off grazing and Aiyla was hugging Belle.  Little Omar was snuggling Mary while Violeta looked on with pride and pet Silly.

Suddenly, Belle clasped Aiyla's hand and hurried towards her mother and aunt.  Noticing the girls, Omar ran after them.

When she reached the table, Belle eyed the plate of cookies.

"Ummy..."  She peered up at her mother with pleading eyes.

JenniAnn laughed.

"Would you kids like some cookies?" she asked.

Aiyla and Omar smiled shyly and nodded.

"Yes, please," the eldest replied.

"Pease," Omar echoed.

While JenniAnn helped Aiyla into a chair beside her mother's, Isra pulled Omar onto her lap.  After pouring glasses of lemonade for the kids, JenniAnn settled Belle onto her own lap and doled out cookies.

"Thank you," Aiyla murmured as she eyed her treats.

Omar grinned at JenniAnn and nodded enthusiastically.

Belle kissed JenniAnn's cheek then dug in.

"You're all very welcome," JenniAnn replied with misty eyes.  It was strange and heartening to see her little girl's features mirrored in her cousins'.

"Did you enjoy the donkey ride?" Isra asked.

"Yes, Mommy.  He's a very nice donkey."

"Yonah!" Omar chirped.

JenniAnn giggled. 

"You can come back and visit him whenever your Mommy and Daddy say it's okay," she assured.

Aiyla set down a cookie and stared at JenniAnn.

"We can?"

"Well, sure.  Belle would love to see her cousins and aunt and uncle often.  And I'd love to see you all, too."

Isra's eyes filled as she saw her children's faces light up.  She prayed that now Aiyla and Omar could have the life of safety and peace that she and Behnam so wanted for them.


After checking in with Isra, JenniAnn, Violeta, and the kids, Andrew and Behnam had gone to the former's carpentry shop.

"You are an artist!" Behnam praised as he admired some of Andrew's works in progress.

"I don't know about that but thanks.  I've only been doing it for about a year and am still learning.  So how long have you been in town?"

"Only two months.  We like New York very much.  I miss all the green of Florida, though.  It'll be nice to come here... so much green.  I still..."  Behnam's eyes filled again.  "The miracles of today..."

Andrew clapped him on the back and prayed for the right words to broach a subject that had been on his mind ever since he'd noticed the cracked soles of Behnam's shoes.

"Miracles is the word...  Behnam, I just want you to know that if there's ever anything JenniAnn or I can do for you or Isra or the kids, you have to let us know.  We... we're family now.  And family helps each other out.  And Behnam... I will never, ever forget that it was your information that led Adam and the Army to Max and me... and Badriya.  It... it was a struggle to come back from that and if I'd been away from Heaven, from my loved ones any longer..."  Andrew shook his head.  "I owe you.  A lot."

Behnam smiled and clasped the angel's hand.

"What I wanted most today was to be able to take my wife out to a nice place for dinner... you and JenniAnn are giving me that, Andrew.  And... and you have given me back a piece of Badriya.  Belle looks so much like her.  Far more like her than Adila at that age."

Andrew sighed.

"I thought maybe that was the case.  I met Badriya... and your Grandma Fila... when Badriya was around six."

"You took my grandmother to Heaven?" Behnam questioned.

Andrew nodded.  "And I stayed with Badriya until family returned.  I've thought sometimes that Belle looks like her."

"Very much but she'll be her own person," Behnam asserted.  "Don't worry that I'd expect anything else.  Badriya would be very angry with me, otherwise."  Behnam grinned.  "She was feisty when she was younger.  Bossy, too.  But I... I loved her."

Andrew hugged him.

"I know.  And she knows.  Back at the store, it seemed like Isra knew, too."

Behnam nodded.

"Isra knows my very soul in spite of... everything."

"I can tell she loves you very much... and you her."

"Another miracle."

"Yes.  But not surprising to me.  You're a good man, Behnam."

Behnam tried to smile.

"Maybe so.  But she deserved to choose her own husband."

Andrew frowned.  "Your marriage was arranged?"

"By my uncle.  But I... Andrew, I promise that I never forced Isra to... to..."

Behnam hung his head.

"So then... Isra wanted to have relations with you?" Andrew gently pressed.

"Yes.  It was six months after we were married.  That is, uh, what we celebrate as our anniversary."

"Well, then she did choose you, Behnam!"

Andrew could tell the young man was contemplating his words.  Maybe Behnam would believe him if he knew the whole story.

"If you want, why don't you start from the beginning of your time with Isra?" the angel invited.

"I don't want to keep you from JenniAnn."

"JenniAnn is probably having a great time visiting with Isra.  I'd just be intruding," Andrew countered.

"All right then."

Though nervous about the prospect of revealing everything to an angel, Behnam also felt strangely calm.  It was good to talk to someone.  Isra was his only confidante but how could he talk to her about this?

"I remember very little of our wedding ceremony.  I was so nervous," Behnam began.  "But I do remember waiting outside our house that night..."


February 2009

Behnam wanted to flee.  He couldn't believe what his uncle had turned him into. 

The girl was terrified.  Of him.

He wouldn't do anything, wouldn't hurt her.  But she didn't know that.  And even though he'd tell her, she wouldn't believe him.  Why should she?  She'd stay awake all night, certain that he was going to attack her.

Behnam's stomach lurched.

Maybe he'd just sleep outside.

No, Uncle would notice.  He'd force him inside.  Maybe even follow him inside.

Behnam didn't like the way Uncle looked at the girl. 

Decided, Behnam entered the house.

She looked so small as she huddled on the bed.  And she was crying. 


Behnam's heart sank and he wished he could comfort her.

Instead, he found himself rambling apologies and telling her about Badriya.

Isra stared at him, mute and cowering.  A nod and a tear were the only indication she heard anything.

After he'd settled onto his cot, Behnam could feel Isra's eyes boring into him.  She probably wanted to kill him.  He couldn't blame her.

To calm himself, Behnam mentally recited some of his favorite lines from a book a soldier had given him.

“I am no bird; and no net ensnares me: I am a free human being with an independent will.”

"If all the world hated you and believed you wicked, while your own conscience approved of you and absolved you from guilt, you would not be without friends.”

In his last moments before sleep claimed him, Behnam prayed that Isra would find some peace and comfort.


April 2009

Behnam found himself humming as he made his way home from the fields.  In spite of their awful beginnings, he and Isra had become genuinely happy.  She was the only true friend he had.  Though he hadn't told her, he'd begun to call her "my star" in his mind.  She was the flash of brightness at the end of his dreary days tending Uncle's crops.

Upon entering the house, Behnam sniffed the air.  He smiled at Isra.

"It smells delicious."

"I hope it tastes delicious, too.  My mother's recipe."

"Then I cannot wait to try it.  Thank you."

"You are welcome.  I..."  Isra tilted her head.  "Your hand..."

Behnam looked down at his hand.

"Oh.  Yes.  A fire started near the crops and I..."

Isra grabbed Behnam's unharmed hand and pulled him to a stool.

"Sit, please."

Behnam obeyed and watched as Isra went to the stove.  Curious, he studied her as she blew on the tea leaves.

After several moments, Isra returned to his side and spread the tea leaves over the burn then carefully wrapped his hand in some clean cloth.

Behnam felt lightheaded and slightly sick to his stomach... yet, strangely, the sensations weren't entirely unpleasant.

Isra smiled up at him.

"Does it help at all?"

Behnam nodded.

"I am glad!  If it does begin to bother you, we can skip our lesson tonight."

"No," Behnam interrupted.  "No, we can continue."

"Good!  I will get dinner."

Behnam watched Isra as she finished preparing their meal.

The truth struck him then.

He was in love with his wife.


July 2009

The more enamored with Isra he became, the angrier at his uncle Behnam grew. 

Why couldn't he have simply introduced him to Isra?  Why had he forced them to marry?

If Behnam had only met Isra before, he could have wooed her and maybe she would have come to love him.  Maybe he would have earned her father's trust and even friendship.

Now Behnam could only peer across the darkened room and ponder everything he wished he could say.

“I have for the first time found what I can truly love–I have found you. You are my sympathy–my better self–my good angel–I am bound to you with a strong attachment. I think you good, gifted, lovely: a fervent, a solemn passion is conceived in my heart; it leans to you, draws you to my centre and spring of life, wrap my existence about you–and, kindling in pure, powerful flame, fuses you and me in one.”

Behnam found himself envying Edward Fairfax Rochester.  The unwell wife was certainly pitiable but at least he had been able to speak of his feelings to Jane.  How could he do that with Isra?  Would she reply honestly or only how she felt she must since she was already his wife?



"I thought you were not asleep.  I cannot sleep, either.  Could you read to me?"

Behnam smiled, glad for the excuse to be near Isra.

"Yes, I would like that."

He grabbed Jane Eyre, pulled a stool near Isra's bed, and began to quietly read.

"'Merry days were these at Thornfield Hall; and busy days too: how different from the first three months of stillness, monotony, and solitude I had passed beneath its roof!  All sad feelings seemed now driven from the house, all gloomy associations forgotten: there was life everywhere, movement all day long.  You could not now traverse the gallery, once so hushed, nor enter the front chambers, once so tenantless, without encountering a smart lady’s-maid or a dandy valet.'"

By the time Behnam finished the chapter, Isra had fallen back asleep.  To be sure, he called her name.

"Isra...  Isra..."

She neither flinched nor blinked.

"Isra, I love you," Behnam whispered before closing his book and returning to his cot.


August 14, 2009

Behnam stared up at the ceiling.

He prayed the previous night, blissful as it had been, hadn't been a mistake. 

Isra had said she loved him and Behnam believed her.  But what if she'd changed her mind about being with him?  Would she have told him?

Behnam braced himself when Isra began to stir.

To his surprise, she smiled sleepily at him and snuggled closer.

"Good morning, husband."

Behnam chuckled.

"Good morning, wife.  How... do you feel?"

Isra considered the question.

"I feel... many things.  Mostly happy but... but also..."

"What, my star?"


To Behnam's horror, Isra began to sob.

"Isra... Isra...  I... I am sorry if... if you did not... not want to..."

Behnam tried to get out of the bed but Isra encircled her arms around his waist.

"No!  I... did want to be with you a-and I want to be with you again... soon.  But I... I think of the stories I have heard from the other women...  I felt... loved.  I... I felt Jane and Rochester's 'pure, powerful flame' but... they... they did not."

Behnam held his wife as she wept in his arms. 


August 13th, 2015

Behnam sighed and Andrew wiped away a tear.
"I don't mean to say that I think myself the only man in my entire village who isn't a rapist.  I believe there were others who came together because they both knew what was expected of them and maybe even some who were truly in love.  But there were others...  I could pity those 'men' if I didn't hate them so much," Behnam spat out.  "They will never... never have what I have.  I... I will never forget her smile that morning.  And..."  He blushed.  "I hope I always remember that night.  But it... it's not always like that."

"No, it's not," Andrew agreed, his voice husky.

"I blame my uncle entirely.  Our village was not always like that.  I remember it from when I was a boy and it was... it could be pleasant.  But then my uncle took to the same nonsense you see on the news every day now.  And I don't for a moment buy the theory that he was brainwashed.  Maybe it's true for others... not for him.  He saw in it a framework that fit his own lust for power and control."

"Is that why you never left?" Andrew asked.

Behnam nodded.  "I was afraid he'd come after us.  Murder me and..."  He shook his head.  "But that day I met Adam... afterwards, I felt emboldened.  Now I see that maybe it was because I'd been in the presence of an angel.  I told Uncle that I was taking my wife back to her family so she could be with them when our second child was born... and that I would be staying with them."

"He agreed just like that?"

Behnam blushed.

"I came to him when he was relieving himself and I had a gun.  He had made me learn to shoot when I was younger.  I think he lived to regret it.  I'm a very good shot...  I no longer own a gun," he hastened to add. 

Andrew smiled sympathetically and quietly listened as Behnam continued his story.


November 10th, 2012

"There it is... home," Isra whispered as she gazed at her father's house as they approached.

Behnam smiled up at his wife and daughter who rode atop a donkey.  Turning back to the house, he saw a young girl step outside and begin to feed some chickens.

"Salma!" Isra shouted.  "Oh Aiyla, look!  That is your aunt Salma, my sister!  Salma!"

The girl looked up but, instead of rushing towards them, ran back into the house.

A moment later, a man burst through the door, gun raised.

"Plaar!" Isra bellowed.  "No!"

Unflinching, the man hastened towards them. 

"Get away from my daughter!" he demanded, leveling his gun at Behnam.

The young man was unsurprised by the lack of a warm reception.  He raised his hands above his head.

"No, Plaar!  No!" Isra begged, clinging to Aiyla who was hysterical.

"I... I am not who you think I am, Faisal, but I know you have little reason to trust me," Behnam began.  "I have only one gun.  It is at my waist.  I invite you to take it.  Then, perhaps, you could tie me to that post there, take your daughter inside, listen to her story.  If you decide I am worthy to live, you can release me.  If you decide otherwise... I would understand."

Faisal gaped at this speech.  Finally, he nodded.

"I will take the gun."

Behnam stood stock still as his father-in-law took away his gun. 

"Plaar, please..." Isra whimpered.

Faisal looked to his daughter. 

Behnam noticed how careworn he looked.  The poor man was genuinely trying to save his child.

"I am taking this man up on his offer," Faisal declared.

Without protest, Behnam allowed himself to be tied to a fence post.  He watched as Faisal took Aiyla from the donkey then helped Isra dismount.  Father and daughter embraced tightly.

"We will be back, Behnam," Isra promised before accompanying her father and daughter into the house.  "I... I am sorry."

Behnam shook his head and smiled.

"Do not fear, my star."

Isra gave him a tremulous smile and proceeded into the house.

Faisal looked curiously at Behnam before shutting the door.

While he waited, Behnam surveyed his surroundings as best as he could.  Perhaps Faisal would let him help work his land... assuming he didn't kill him.

After several minutes, Faisal and Isra exited the house.  The former sliced the ropes around Behnam's feet and wrists.

For a long moment, the two fathers looked into each other's eyes.  Faisal cracked first, tears rolling down his cheeks.  He pulled his son-in-law to him. 

"Come inside.  You must be hungry, my son."

"Th-thank you."

Isra beamed at the two and swiped at her own tears.

"We... we have much to celebrate," Faisal declared, briefly resting his hand on Isra's protruding belly.

Smiling proudly, Behnam nodded and escorted his wife into her family's home.


November 11th, 2012

Behnam paused to stretch as he worked with Faisal in the field.  As he took in his surroundings, Behnam spotted an approaching figure.  They were wearing the whitest, cleanest garment he had ever seen.

"Who is that?" Faisal demanded.

"I have no idea," Behnam replied.  "Not a neighbor of yours?"

"Dressed like that?  No...  Not one of your uncle's people?"

"I do not believe so."

Behnam felt drawn to the visitor.

"I will go speak to him," he declared.

"I will go with you."

With a nod, Behnam accepted his father-in-law's company.

When they were a few yards off, the mysterious man ceased walking and waited for them.

"Greetings," Behnam called.  "Why have you come to us?"

The visitor smiled kindly.

"My name is Azrael.  I come with a message from your Heavenly Father."

Faisal began to quake but Behnam remained still.

"Behnam, I think it would be best if your wife was present when I share my message," Azrael continued, waving to the house.

Behnam nodded and led the other two back to the house.

Inside, Salma was playing with Aiyla while Isra kneaded some bread dough.  The sisters looked up in surprise when the men entered.

"Salma, please... take Aiyla outside... perhaps to play with the chickens?"  Behnam requested, forcing a smile.  He knew who and what Azrael was: an angel of death.  That he came with news could mean only one thing.

Salma scooped up her niece and nodded, hurrying towards the door.  Faisal followed.

Isra hurriedly washed her hands and cowered.

Behnam had voiced his distaste for the burqa and so Isra had ceased wearing one.  He knew now that she was fearful of retribution so he hurried to her side.

"I-Isra... he... he's an angel," he murmured into her ear.

Isra looked at the visitor and, instead of rage, saw only kindness in his eyes.

"Please, sit," Azrael invited, indicating their makeshift bed.

Behnam and Isra obeyed, her hugging his arm tightly.

Azrael knelt in front of the couple.

"Behnam, I am sorry that the news I bring will be difficult to hear."

Tears welled in Behnam's eyes as he braced himself.

"Four days ago, your sister Badriya attempted to aid the two prisoners taken by her own captor and his men.  They, in turn, tried to protect her.  Unfortunately, Badriya was slain by the man who claimed to be her husband."

Behnam began to sob and buried his face is Isra's tresses.

Azrael set a hand on the young man's arm and continued.

"Badriya died a hero and a servant of her Lord and Father.  Great will be her eternal reward, Behnam.  She is, at last, free and knows only love." 

Behnam could only nod in response.

Through her tears, Isra smiled at the angel.

"Thank you for telling us."

Azrael bestowed a gentle smile on her.

"I hope my words bring you peace even in your grief."

"Yes... they do," Behnam murmured.  "Could you please tell me...  Badriya... was she properly buried?"

Azrael let out an aggrieved sigh.

"I am sorry to say that her body was left by her killer but she now rests in a cave, guarded by God Himself.  Behnam, there is something you must know about the men Badriya was protecting."

"The soldiers..."

"Yes.  But one... he is a soldier not with the American Army but with God's.  He is my brother, another angel of death.  When the other soldier, Max, was taken captive, this angel, Andrew, volunteered to stay with him.  He's lived and suffered as a human would these past months.  During that time, during their all-too-brief visits, Andrew came to care very much for Badriya.  It is God's will that, once Andrew has healed from his injuries, he will bring Badriya's body to you for proper burial."

Behnam clung to Isra, unable to find words.

Isra spoke for him.

"Could they bring her here?  I... I do not want her buried on Uncle's land... even if he allowed it."

Azrael squeezed Isra's hand.

"They will do that."

"Thank you," Behnam hoarsely whispered.

"You're welcome.  I think I should leave you now but first it's my honor to speak to you of life.  Isra, you will bear a son.  The labor will be long but both you and the baby will be safe.  He will be a joy to you both and to his big sister, his grandfather, and his aunt.  Have no fear."

Isra rested her hand on her abdomen, softly patting the child.

"Thank you, Azrael.  Thank You, Father," she prayed.

Mute again, Behnam nodded and peered, with gratitude, into the angel's eyes.  He embraced his wife tightly and, when they drew apart, Azrael was gone.

"I am so sorry, my dearest," Isra cooed.  "So sorry.  I... I wish I knew how to... to comfort you."

"H-hold me?" Behnam pleaded.

Isra readily nodded and encircled her husband in her arms as he sobbed.


August 13th, 2015

"And then you and Adam came..." Behnam relayed after accepting a handkerchief from Andrew.

"We... we did."

"That meant so much to me.  It still does.  Even though we are no longer there, I am glad Badriya was not buried on either my uncle's or that monster's land.  Isra was very wise when she suggested Faisal's land."

Andrew nodded.

"Was Isra there when we came?"

Behnam smiled.

"Yes.  She desperately wanted to see you so she did... through the window.  Azrael was right.  Her labor pains were long.  Six hours after you left, she brought our Omar into the world.  I was there.  Faisal was scandalized, I think, but said nothing.  Isra is so brave, so strong...  And to see Omar draw his first breath."

Beaming, Andrew patted the man's hand.

"I'm happy for you."

"Me too.  We named him Omar because it means 'long lived.'  We were determined that our... our children should live long, happy lives."  Behnam sniffled.  "It seems even more possible now.  There were so many nights when... when we weren't sure any of us would see the next day."

Andrew gazed sympathetically at Behnam.

"Not long after Omar was born, we had to flee Faisal's home... Faisal and Salma with us."

Behnam's face darkened.

"Evil came to our door."


April 2013

Isra tucked some pastries into a basket and kissed her daughter's forehead.

"Numa will be so pleased to see you!" she gushed.  "You will bring so much joy to her."

Aiyla smiled then went to her father and kissed his cheek.

Behnam hugged her tightly, thinking of their neighbor woman, Numa, who had recently lost her son.  He couldn't imagine being without his Aiyla or Omar.

"We will not be gone long," Faisal promised.  "I want to be home before nightfall."

"And you promised to tell Aiyla and me one of your stories," Salma reminded, looking to her sister and brother-in-law.

"And we will," Behnam vowed.  "Over pastries of our own, I hope?"

Isra laughed at his hopeful, pleading glance.

"Yes, yes.  I made some for us, too.  Now... I need to feed Omar before he begins to fuss and..." Isra returned to Behnam.  "Perhaps you could see if we could barter some pastries with Farid for some milk?"

Behnam took a plate of pastries from his wife and smiled.

"I think I will have no problem completing my trade.  No one can turn these down."

After kissing Isra, Behnam followed Faisal, Salma, and Aiyla outside.

Once they were alone, Isra picked up Omar and began to nurse.

She hummed and traced her baby's features until he'd had his fill.

Shortly after he'd been burped and changed, Omar drifted to sleep.  Isra finished a few chores then settled onto her and Behnam's bed with a book.  He had recently picked it up at a bazaar and, pleased to have something new to enjoy, Isra became engrossed.  She didn't notice anyone approaching the house until the door flew open.

Isra screamed when she looked up to find Uncle staring down at her.

The man tore the book from her hands and flung it across the room.

"Whore!  Evil girl!" he shouted.  "Who taught you to read?"

"I... I cannot.  Only... only looking," Isra lied.

"Immodest and a liar!  Look at you!  Practically naked!" 

Terrified for Omar, Isra rose and attempted to get around Uncle to reach the child.  She'd only managed two steps before he pushed her back onto the bed.

"Where is Behnam?" Uncle demanded.

"At... at a neighbor's.  He... he will be home s-soon, Uncle."

"And he knows his wife behaves so shamefully?"

Isra began to sob.  Though she usually wore her hijab, she'd taken to removing it when she nursed.  She'd come to love the feel of her hair surrounding her and first Aiyla and then Omar, cocooning them in their own little world.

"You want to act like a whore?  I will treat you like a whore," the intruder sneered.

Isra screamed again when the man got onto the bed and tore at her clothing.  As they struggled, Isra spotted movement outside the window.

Behnam stood with his gun raised but he knew he couldn't shoot.  He could get his uncle but he might harm Isra... even kill her... in the process.  And he could see that his uncle, too, had a gun.  If Behnam shouted, Uncle would shoot him and do what he wanted with Isra.

Isra shuddered and stopped fighting.  She looked away as Uncle undid his belt.  Then, with all her might, Isra pushed him away from her, hoping it gave Behnam a clear shot.

Two shots sounded.

Uncle fell to the floor in a heap.

Behnam rushed into the room.


Isra couldn't move.  She could only lay on the bed, her chest heaving and silent tears streaming down her cheeks.

Behnam picked her up and carried her to the other side of the room, setting her down near where Omar, amazingly, still slept.

Stroking his wife's face, Behnam peered into her eyes.

"My star...  Oh... my Isra...  I... I am so... so... sor-sorry.  Isra..."  Behnam kissed her forehead and smoothed some hair behind her ears.  "I... I need to go make sure he... he's dead then I... I'll be right back."

Isra managed a nod.

Not trusting his legs, Behnam crawled to where his uncle laid.  He rested his hand over his heart.  Nothing.  No pulse at his neck, either.

Behnam peered down at the frozen face of the man who had torn his family apart, terrorized his childhood, sold his sister into certain death, and attempted to rape his wife.

"I am not sorry," Behnam whispered.  "You wanted me to... to be a man like... like you.  But you were no man.  You were a monster.  Now you are a dead monster.  I do not grieve you."

Feeling strengthened by the release of his long-held anger, Behnam grabbed the collar of his uncle's shirt and dragged him behind the house.  After swiftly washing his hands, Behnam returned to his wife.

"We... we don't need to fear him any more, my star."

Isra bowed her head and hugged her knees to her chest.

Behnam's heart broke upon seeing the visual echo of his wedding night.  He knelt beside Isra and embraced her.

"You did nothing wrong.  The evil... the sin... the shame... all of it on him.  All of it."

Isra looked up and saw the love and tenderness in her husband's eyes.  She threw her arms around him and wept into his shoulder as he spoke softly to her.

"I love you, my star.  I love you...  I love you..."


August 13th, 2015

Behnam twisted the handkerchief Andrew had given him. 

"We still don't know why he came.  Perhaps to drag us back.  He felt I owed him.  That night, Faisal and I buried him in the desert.  I would not have him buried on the same land as Badriya.  We all feared that some of his men would come in search of him and suspect us so we fled.  Things... they got very bad."

Andrew nodded.  He had personally seen how bad things had gotten.

"We eventually made our way to a band of fellow refugees but... but we were attacked.  Everyone ran in different directions.  Isra and I each grabbed one of the children and, thankfully, kept close to each other but... but Faisal was killed and Salma..."  Behnam let out a shuddering breath.  "We... we don't know.  Later, we ran into another family who had been there and... and they said they thought they saw her a-among the bodies as they ran but..."

Andrew clasped Behnam's shaking right hand in both of his.

"My Isra began to fade after that.  It was only when we came to the States that she started to improve.  I think, while we were in Afghanistan, she never stopped looking for Salma and it exhausted her.  I know the feeling well..."

"I... I know you do."  Andrew gave Behnam a sympathetic smile.  "How was it that you did get to the States?"

"A miracle.  We got to a point where we didn't know where to go or what to do.  Then I saw him...  Captain Lucas."

"Lucas..."  Andrew tried to place the name, knowing it meant something.

"He was with Adam when I first met him, when I told him about where the man who took Badriya and his brother lived.  He remembered me.  I begged him for help in getting my family to safety.  I told him more that I knew... things that I'd overheard my uncle say...  He came to trust me and he helped us get to America.  He and his wife sponsored us.  We lived near them in Florida.  Captain Lucas helped me find a job and to save money so we could eventually come to New York.  We were not unhappy in Florida, however.  It was... eye opening.  But Isra thrived.  Captain Lucas' wife, Marianne, truly took her under her wing... showing her how to shop for groceries, how to use the washing machine, introducing her at her ladies' Bible study..."

Andrew's eye brow quirked upwards.

Behnam shrugged.

"Marianne believed very much in 'spreading the Word.'  I was suspicious but Isra fell in love with Christianity... Jesus, mostly."

"Wow...  I guess I just figured with her hijab..."

Behnam chuckled.  "1 Corinthians 11.  I pointed out to Isra that other Christian women in the States seemed to not take it to heart but..."  He shrugged.  "It makes her happy.  I think it's her way of maintaining some tie to where we came from.  Her mother wore one so Isra wears one.  She was baptized before we left Florida."

"And you?" Andrew asked.

Behnam sighed and shook his head.  "I believe there is a God.  Obviously..."  He smiled at Andrew.  "I... I'm not sure beyond that.  Some nights, when we were running, I started to wonder if I'd imagined everything...  Adam, Azrael, you...  Isra assured me that I hadn't.  But sometimes it is hard to believe...  My uncle claimed many ugly things about God.  And, though she was very kind to us, Marianne insisted that only Christians go to Heaven.  What kind of God is that who would send so many others to Hell?  Who... who would send my sister?  But I know He didn't because Azrael..."

Andrew hugged his guest.

"I can promise you that Badriya is in Heaven, Behnam.  I've seen her there, spoken to her.  God... there's much more to Him than any religion has yet grasped," the angel consoled.

Behnam sighed and smiled at Andrew.

"You would know."

Andrew chuckled.

"I would, yes.  Although He's still somewhat unknowable to me.  And that's the great thing.  Even when we live eternally, we'll still be learning things about Him."

"And He... He will be patient with me?" Behnam questioned.

"Exceedingly patient," the angel of death assured.  "I love talking about God and I'd love to talk more with you about Him, Behnam, if you'd want to."

Behnam enthusiastically nodded.

"But right now... I think I better go check in with JenniAnn and see what we're planning for dinner.  Oh, do you observe any dietary..."

"Not any more."


"If it's food, we'll eat it."

Andrew laughed.

"Way to be!"

"I am so exceedingly grateful for all your hospitality and... and understanding," Behnam replied, tears in his eyes.

Andrew slung an arm around his shoulders.

"We're family.  It's nothing."

"It's everything," Behnam countered.

Andrew nodded.

"You're right."

With a contented sigh, Andrew led Behnam back to the castle.


Vincent felt nervous as he and Shelby exited the gazebo and approached Willowveil.  The girl squeezed his hand.

"It's okay, Vincent.  Andrew and Psyche wouldn't have let you bring me if they thought the new family was going to be mean."

Recognizing the simple wisdom in her words, Vincent nodded and smiled down at Shelby.

"Yes, you are right.  Thank you."


As Shelby skipped ahead of him, Vincent reviewed the tale his godchild had told him: Belle slipping away from Andrew and toddling over to her long-lost uncle, Andrew reuniting with the man who had help save him and Max, and then the impromptu visit to Willowveil.  In their haste and excitement, neither Andrew nor JenniAnn had thought to remove the photos of Vincent scattered throughout the castle.  Then the woman's innocent question.

"Is he wearing a mask?"

And his Psyche's answer.

"No, that's the way God made him."

"Striking... incomparable..." the man had observed.

And then they'd gone back to the business of preparing for dinner and entertaining the three little cousins.

Vincent's mind wandered further back to those harried months in 2012.  He'd never seen his Psyche like that and he never wanted to again.  It would be good to thank the man who had helped return Andrew to her. 

Vincent hastened his pace when he saw that Shelby was waiting for him at the front door.

Smiling, Shelby again took Vincent's hand and walked with him into the castle.

"We're here!" the girl shouted as she kicked off her shoes. 

Belle came tearing out of the ballroom.


Shelby giggled as Belle hugged her but quickly moved out of the way, knowing her sister wouldn't stand still for long.

"Appa!" the toddler bellowed before launching herself at her grandfather.

"Annabelle!" Vincent greeted with equal glee.

Stepping out of the ballroom with Andrew, JenniAnn, and Violeta; Isra and Behnam watched curiously as the man swung the girl up then held her as they rubbed noses.

"Has it been a long time since Belle saw her grandfather?" Behnam queried.

Andrew consulted his pocket watch.

"Twenty eight hours."

"Appa!" Belle screeched again before planting a kiss on Vincent's right cheek.

JenniAnn laughed and rubbed at her ears.

"They're pretty close.  Belle spends most of her Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays with her Appa Vincent," she explained.

Eager to see what so amused their cousin, Aiyla and Omar had been peeking around their parents' legs.  The latter decided he wanted a closer look.

After giving Belle another snuggle, Vincent noticed the little boy who was approaching.

"Well, hello," the man greeted.

Omar stretched his right hand up, opening and closing it.

Vincent knelt down and let the boy touch his face.

Once he was satisfied, Omar smiled at Vincent.

"Appa!" the little boy echoed Belle as he moved to share their embrace.

Behnam hoped Vincent felt the same warmth towards his son as he had when Belle had claimed him at the store.

Isra held back tears, praying that her children might, once again, have a grandfather.

Vincent patted Omar's back and smiled.

"I am so pleased to meet you, Omar.  Could you introduce me to your sister and your Mommy and Daddy?" he asked as he stood up and situated Belle on his left hip.

Grinning, Omar nodded, took Vincent's hand, and lead him to the others.

"Appa," he introduced.

Andrew cleared his throat so he could speak.

"Vincent, this is Behnam, Isra, and Aiyla."

Smiling, Vincent held out his hand to Behnam.

"I'm so pleased to meet you all."

Behnam readily shook Vincent's hand.

"The honor is ours and... and thank you..."  Behnam glanced down at his still enamored son.

Vincent shook his head.

"Truly, the honor is mine.  A hug is always nice."  He turned to shake Isra's hand.  "Your name is very beautiful, Isra.  I like it very much."

Blushing, Isra smiled.

"Thank you.  It mean's 'night journey.'  My mother delivered me late at night and said her journey as a mother had begun and so..."

Vincent patted her hand, recognizing his own orphans' grief in her.

"Belle, sweetie, come to Mama for a lil bit," JenniAnn interjected, reaching for her daughter.

Belle went without complaint.

Vincent again knelt down, this time in front of Aiyla.

"Hello, Aiyla," he greeted.  "I think your name is very beautiful, too."

The five year old gave him a shy smile but hung slightly back.

To put the girl at ease, Vincent continued to talk.

"I'm sorry that my wife, Catherine, and son, Jacob, couldn't be here.  They're at an event to raise money for the shelter Catherine runs and others."  He looked to Behnam.  "She asked me to extend her thanks, along with mine, to you for helping to bring Andrew home to our Psyche... JenniAnn."

Behnam beamed at Andrew.

"I am now... more than ever... pleased that I could help.  Thank you, Vincent."

Aiyla crept nearer.

"Have Adam, Max, and Rose arrived yet?" Vincent queried.

"Not yet," Andrew replied.  "Adam is just finishing up an assignment and we left a message on Max's phone.  Rose did, too.  Busy day at the comic book store, I think.  But Rose said she'd get him here as soon as possible."

"Good.  So what do you think of Dye...  Hi." 

Vincent smiled at the little girl whose hand was resting on his mane.

"You have a lot of hair," Aiyla whispered in an awed tone.

Vincent chuckled.  "I do, yes."  He remained still as Aiyla placed her hand on his cheek and studied him.  Finally, she moved in for a hug.

"Hi, Appa."

"Hi, Aiyla."

"Are you havin' dinner with us?" Aiyla asked without letting go.

"I am, yes.  Is that okay?"


Aiyla stepped back, beamed, and then eyed Shelby.

When JenniAnn and Violeta stepped away to make introductions, Behnam approached Vincent.

"I am not sure that they understand that, for you, 'Appa' means grandfather.  Please don't feel that you have to consider them your grandchildren."

"I don't want to be presumptuous," Vincent explained.  "But I wouldn't mind it even if they did think of me in that way.  Nor would Catherine."

"It... it would be good for them to have a grandfather again," Isra opined.  "And they never knew either grandmother.  Behnam's mother and my own both died when we were quite young."

Vincent took one of her hands in both of his.

"I am so sorry.  My own mother passed away, too."  He looked over at the four children and JenniAnn.  "Almost eight years ago, God led my wife and me to an abandoned infant... our son, Jacob.  I was adopted myself after losing my parents and now, of course, we have Belle...  I have never believed the adage that blood is thicker than water."

Behnam weighed these words along with the photos he had seen.  In particular, he'd been enchanted by dual images in Belle's nursery.  One portrayed JenniAnn as a toddler, smiling as she rested her forehead against her godfather's.  Next to it was a nearly identical pose with Belle in her mother's place.  In both, pure and radiant love had shone in Vincent's eyes.  He wanted such a grandfather for his children.  Turning, he saw Isra peering intently at him.

Behnam directed his attention to Vincent.

"I agree with Isra.  It would be good for Aiyla and Omar to have a grandfather again and if they could have the same one as their cousin... we would be very humbled and blessed."

"I gladly accept the honor," Vincent declared, his eyes glittering.

Andrew smiled as Behnam, Isra, and Vincent embraced.  He had the feeling that Vincent would be a positive, encouraging force in their lives.  As much as Aiyla and Omar needed a grandfather figure, the angel of death was convinced that Behnam and Isra needed a father figure.  Vincent would fill both roles perfectly.


Adam halted just before entering the ballroom and surveyed the room. 

Vincent was seated on a settee near a window, reading to Belle, Shelby, and two other children.  JenniAnn and Violeta were on another settee with a woman seated between them who Adam took to be Isra.  They appeared to be flipping through a memory book, laughing as they did.  In front of the largest window... the one bearing Joshua's hand print... stood Andrew and Behnam.  The latter was listening intently as Andrew gestured and spoke, likely telling the newcomer more about Dyeland.

Adam drew in a steadying breath and approached the two.

Hearing the footsteps, both Andrew and Behnam turned away from the window.

"Adam..."  Behnam's eyes welled as they met the elder angel of death's.

After closing the distance, Adam embraced the young man.

"I am so, so glad to see you again... and like this!" he gushed.

Behnam patted the angel's shoulder.

"I... I thought the next time I saw you, I would be dead."

Adam vehemently shook his head.

"No... you have so much living ahead of you, my friend.  Introduce me to this beautiful family of yours?"

"Of course!"

Beaming with pride, Behnam brought Adam to Isra.

"My wife, Isra.  Isra, this is Adam."

"Very happy to properly meet you!  I saw you before but..."  Isra smiled at Omar.

Adam grinned.  "Is that the little fellow you were busy bringing into the world?"

Isra nodded.  "Yes, Omar.  And our daughter, Aiyla."

"I'll visit with them later," the angel of death promised.  "I've learned to not interrupt Appa Vincent's storytime."

Andrew chuckled.  "Belle's taught us all that."

"I just... wow..."  Adam again hugged Behnam.  "I see miracles every single day but... wow."

The sound of the front door opening and closing alerted everyone to another arrival.  A few moments later, Max and Rose entered the room, their arms linked.  Max was already on the verge of tears.

"Oh, Max..."  JenniAnn brushed at a tear of her own as he approached.

Andrew stepped forward.

"Max..."  He greeted him with a hug.  "Rose..."

Rose smiled as she withdrew from Andrew's embrace.

"He had his phone in the backroom and the customers kept him hopping so... so he didn't know anything was going on until I went to go get him," she relayed.

"That... that's him?" Max asked, peeking over Andrew's shoulder to where Behnam stood.

Andrew nodded.  "Would you like to go meet Behnam and his family or do you need a moment?"

"I... I want to... to meet him."


Setting a hand on Max's shoulder, Andrew escorted him and Rose to the Al-Mitras.

"Behnam, Isra, this is our son, Max, and his fiancee, Rose."

Behnam squeezed Isra's hand tightly then flung his arms around Max.

"Th-thank you," Max choked out.  "I... I... needed to... to get home a-and Dad, too, and... and you...  A-and your sister...  Badriya...  She... she got me meds a-and I would have... have died... if... if not...  Thank you."

"You're welcome.  I am so... so glad you got home, Max, and now... now we will be uncles together."  Behnam pointed to where Belle, who had slid off Vincent's lap when she saw her uncles in apparent distress, stood with a troubled look on her face.

"Oh... Come here, Bellaluna," Max requested, crouching down.

Belle scampered to her uncles and was enthusiastically hugged by both Behnam and Max.

Moving to JenniAnn's side, Andrew looped his arm around her waist and inclined his head towards hers.

"For a few moments while we were at the store, I thought our day had turned into a nightmare but now... it's better than a dream," he observed.

JenniAnn sniffled and rested her head on his shoulder.

"It truly is..." she agreed.  Angling around, she looked at the hand print on the window and offered a silent prayer of thanksgiving.

"Now... lets get our family fed," JenniAnn declared.

Andrew nodded.

"Okay, who's ready for spaghetti and meatballs?" he asked.

The kids cheered and the adults all nodded in eager agreement, ready to begin the first of many meals together.


As she brushed out her hair that night, JenniAnn looked over at Andrew who, once again, had their Kindle.

"Whacha doing?  We already handed that book off to Max."

Andrew smiled and turned the Kindle around to reveal he was looking through photos from the evening. 

After setting down her brush, JenniAnn joined the angel on the bed.  She kissed his shoulder then rested her head there.

"I love that one with you Behnam, Adam, and Max.  Oh... and Isra and the little ones.  And look at Vincent getting loved on by his grandkids!"

"This is one of my favorites."  Andrew stopped at one he had surreptitiously taken of Isra rocking Omar on her hip as JenniAnn stood nearby doing the same with Belle.

"I hope they all sleep well tonight.  I'm glad they agreed to stay over."

"I'm sure they will.  Behnam said he and Isra are going to pretend they're at Thornfield."

JenniAnn laughed.  "Good idea.  And, thankfully, we don't have a mentally disturbed person in the attic.  Although... it would be nice if they could know Whose room is above us."

"I think they will in time.  Isra certainly liked Owen's painting of Joshua in the chapel."

"Yeah, she really did.  I'll have to ask Owen if we can get a smaller one for her.  You don't think Behnam would mind, do you?"

"Not at all."

JenniAnn sat up.

"Good.  I have something I need to talk to you about."

Andrew set the Kindle down.

"I'm all yours."

"Vincent wants to offer to let them stay at Cora's.  He's put together that they're struggling.  And you know they must be...  Warehouse jobs like Behnam has aren't exactly well paying... at least not for supporting a family in NYC.  And even the humblest apartment is astronomically expensive.  And then what happens when they leave?  They get nothing back but a small deposit... not much help in eventually getting their own place.  And Isra said this was the first day off Behnam's had in months.  He's always taking overtime just to make ends meet.  She said she tried to get something herself, to take away some of the burden, but childcare expenses would have added up to more than she could bring in and... she's worried, Andrew.  That much work takes an awful toll.  Plus, Vincent says it's silly... immoral even... for one member of a family to have an entire house empty except for the occasional guests and have someone else in that family dumping a huge percentage of their paycheck into rent."

"Great points.  But, Laja, I don't know how Behnam would feel about that.  I'm not sure if you picked up on it but, with Isra, Behnam doesn't feel worthy of her.  If we take away the knowledge that he's providing for her and the kids... that feeling might deepen."

JenniAnn bit her lip.  "I know.  I did pick up on that.  It... wasn't exactly unfamiliar to me."

Remembering their conversation two weeks before, Andrew nodded.

"And I remember how important it was to you to support Belle and not put everything on me.  But Behnam would still be working for grocery money, clothing, doctor visits, and so on.  Education, too.  Did you see how Isra's and Behnam's faces both lit up when Violeta was talking about her upcoming classes?  I think they'd love taking some courses themselves.  And maybe Vincent could suggest a low rental fee... maybe just enough to cover utilities.  I mean it would be a help to him... just knowing someone was there, watching over the house.  And it'd be much more convenient for all of us.  If the kids wanted to get together, we could just take the portal and the Tunnels.  Or if they wanted to get some more books."

Andrew smiled when he recalled the family's glee when they'd seen the library.  He kissed JenniAnn's temple.

"I think it's a great idea and I trust Vincent to come up with a way to broach the subject that won't make anyone feel bad.  He can always play the concerned grandpa card."

JenniAnn laughed.  "Exactly.  Just think, Catherine came home to learn she has two more grandchildren."

Chuckling, Andrew embraced JenniAnn.

The two grew quiet.

"It... it does make one reflect, doesn't it?" JenniAnn asked after a few moments.  "I remember that night you came back...  You... you looked so... bruised and thin and... and I wanted so badly to stay with you.  Thank God Adam spoke up for... for me.  Let me stay... in your office."

Andrew's eyes misted as he remembered watching her move away from him and disappear into his office after he'd told her she couldn't stay in his room with him.

"It's not that I didn't want..." he began.

"I know."  JenniAnn sighed when his arms tightened around her and he nuzzled and kissed her hair.

Andrew smiled.  "I think Badriya is cheering and dancing in Heaven."

"With her teacher... Joshua."


As the two snuggled together, they sent their love to the Head of their ever expanding family.

The next morning, they would discover four nested birds in the box beneath Andrew's family tree.  Behnam, Isra, Aiyla, and Omar would find the perfect branch.


Wednesday, August 19th

"Now you sign there and you two sign there and..."  The judge held up the piece of paper and smiled at Andrew and JenniAnn.  "Congratulations, you have a healthy, bouncing, perhaps over-sized baby boy."

Laughing and crying, Andrew and JenniAnn embraced Max as they stood in the courthouse.  Nearby, Rose wept happily and Violeta, Shelby, and Belle cheered.

"All... all at once I feel like... like nothing has changed and everything has!" the young man exclaimed.  He kissed JenniAnn's cheek and gave Andrew another bear hug.  "You've both made me feel like I... I was yours so I guess this piece of paper shouldn't matter but..."  Max picked up the certificate.  "It does." 

"I'm so happy!" JenniAnn gushed, hugging Max's arm.  "I love you."

"I love you, too, Maja!  And you, Dad."

"Love you, too, Max."

"And I love my Rose and Violeta and Shelby and lil Bellaluna and... my whole family!" Max celebrated.

The family moved into a group hug. 

Smiling through his tears, Andrew took a moment to admire the paperwork that had made JenniAnn and him officially Max's parents.

"I know we're having a party tonight but... I think this calls for celebratory ice cream," he decided.

With further cheers, the seven set out to begin celebrating Max's adoption.  The young man couldn't keep from grinning the entire afternoon.


That evening, after Bible study, the land surrounding Willowveil swarmed with friends and family.  It was the biggest gathering they'd had in Dyeland since the trials of June. 

The Los Angeles contingent had arrived early to help set up a Quidditch match in the back yard in honor of Max.  Reuel had brought a party from El-Chanan who quickly intermingled with the Friends.  Allison and Robert arrived with a massive sheet cake to celebrate their new grandson.  Eilish and Samuel had come and Henry took care to introduce them to folks they hadn't yet met.  Adam, Vincent, and Catherine were happily doing the same for the Al-Mitras who were amazed at the extent of Andrew's and JenniAnn's circle of friends. 

Before dinner was served, an electric screech caused everyone to grab at their ears.


The crowd turned to find Rose standing on the steps of the castle with a microphone in her hands.

"Microphone is a lil too amped up, I think.  Anyway... as many of you know, Max and I are getting married soon.  June 25th, to be exact."

Everyone cheered.

"That's right.  In less than a year, my longtime friend is going to be my mother-in-law.  Don't worry, I've already been sending JenniAnn loads of mother-in-law horror stories so she knows what not to do."  Rose grinned at JenniAnn as the others laughed.  "But, in all seriousness, I'm so excited about that because I know JenniAnn's going to be an awesome mother-in-law, equaled only by how awesome Andrew's going to be as a father-in-law.  I know because I, umm..."  Rose reached into her pocket, withdrew her handkerchief from Maryam, and dabbed at her eyes.  "I know because I've seen how awesome they are as parents.  They'd only had Max in their lives for three years but they've crammed so much love and guidance into my fiance's life in that time that... that sometimes I can't believe they haven't always been together.  And I know Max feels the same way because...  Well, we're already planning our wedding and reception a little and one thing Max's been really nervous about is the mother-son dance.  Cause he's convinced he's just going to bawl through the whole thing."

JenniAnn hugged Max, whose eyes were welling.

"So I thought, with some help from some friends, we could do a practice run tonight.  Max... Maja... this one's for you."

The door to the castle opened and out stepped Zeke, Sy, Peter, Shane, and Eli.

"Oh..."  JenniAnn began to cry as she recognized Boyz II Men's "A Song for Mama."


Blurry eyed himself, Max led JenniAnn onto an open patch of lawn so they could dance.

Andrew moved to stand by Rose and hugged her as they looked on, both beaming.

"'There were so many times,
looking back when I was so afraid,
and then you'd come to me
and say to me I can face anything.
And no one else can do what you have done for me.
You'll always be...
You will always be the girl in my life.'"

"This is really wonderful," the angel whispered.

Rose swiped at her eyes and smiled.

"And I'm not done."

Andrew wondered at her playful grin but returned his gaze to his soul mate and son.

As the song died down, JenniAnn cradled Max's face in her hands.

"I love you so much, Max."

"I... I love you, too, Maja, a-and I hope that, wherever life takes me, I'm never away from you and Dad for too long."

The two embraced as everyone around them applauded.

Once they'd quieted, Rose again claimed her microphone.

"Okay... not quite done but I promise we'll get to dinner really, really soon.  I wanted Max and JenniAnn to have their moment but also... Max and Andrew.  When they were in Afghanistan, sometimes they'd pass the time by singing Bruce Springsteen songs.  And they've been known to show off their E Street-style abilities for some of us since.  So... I thought maybe tonight they could do that again.  And while I couldn't get the E Street Band here tonight, I think I got a pretty good substitute.  If we could all just step around to the other side of the maze there..."

Following Rose's direction, the party-goers found Jacob, Gabe, and the rest of their angelic band waiting for them.  Smiling, Tess and Ronald handed Andrew and Max microphones before returning to their instruments.  Father and son laughed as the opening notes to "Born to Run" blasted.

With arms around each other's shoulders, Andrew and Max sang.  Soon, they motioned for JenniAnn and Rose and embraced them as they rocked out to the words of the Boss and marveled at where God had taken them, together, in three years.


Thursday, August 20th

Andrew ran as fast as he could, trying to catch up to the fleeing, silver-clad figure. 

"Laja!" he shouted as he stumbled through the woods, trying not to be felled by exposed roots or fallen branches.

Always she was just out of reach, his outstretched fingers just missing her cascading hair.

"Laja!  Please, stop running!" the angel pleaded.

"Andrew, you have to let her go," a voice ordered.

"But... but I don't want to."

"Andrew, look at me."

Andrew at last tore his gaze away from the fleeing woman and turned towards the voice.

"Laja!"  He smiled when he saw her leaning against a tree, smirking in her emerald and cerulean gown as Belle balanced on her hip, dressed to match.

"But I thought..."  Andrew looked back to the other JenniAnn.  To his surprise, she'd stopped running and was kneeling beside a mirror image of himself.  Or not really...  As he peered at them, he realized there was something he couldn't quite place that was off about each of them.


JenniAnn looped her free arm around Andrew's waist and studied the other two.

"I think we're meant to leave them here," she whispered.  "Maybe that's what these past weeks have been about, Andrew... leaving behind all the illusions we had about ourselves and each other...  Leaving behind everything that should have been said and wasn't... and what was said and shouldn't have been."

Observing the phantom couple, Andrew realized that "Andrew" was clasping "JenniAnn" a little too tightly.

"Leaving behind the fear, the worries of... of losing you," he added.  "Both of you." 

Belle giggled as her father caressed her cheek.

JenniAnn smiled then gazed back into Andrew's eyes before speaking.

"The concerns about not measuring up."

"About holding you back."

"Keeping you too much out of Heaven..."

"Bringing you too much of Earth..."

Belle squirmed, bringing her parents out of their daze.

JenniAnn set her down and watched as the little girl made a beeline for the trees.

"Pitty...  Pitty!"

Belle picked up speed and her parents ran after her.

"Pitty!" she squealed as she broke through the tree line.

When Andrew and JenniAnn stepped out of the woods and rejoined Belle, they were immediately awed.

The Fields of Gold spread out before them, more vibrant with wildflowers and sunlight than they'd ever seen. 

The meadow was filled with their loved ones: the Friends, Tunnel dwellers, El-Chananites, family, pets, angels, Mick, Beth, Logan, Josef, Maryam, Yosef, and John.


JenniAnn pointed to another hillside where Chava, David, Lor, Cora, Jamey, Sophia, Sarah, Badriya, and Yehuda looked on, all smiling.

Andrew beamed.

"Pitty, pitty, pitty!  Ah-ah!"

Andrew and JenniAnn looked away from the Fields and to their side where Joshua sat with Belle in his lap.  He finished weaving a little floral crown and placed it on the child's head, much to her delight.

"Joshua!" Andrew and JenniAnn cried in unison, embracing him.

Joshua chuckled and kissed their cheeks.

"Welcome to your twentieth anniversary... a little early.  And maybe not 100% accurate... but close.  There will be a few more smiling faces down there when the time really comes... but I don't want to ruin any surprises," Joshua teased.  After kissing Belle's curls, he grew more serious.  "The time of shadows is over... and I don't just mean the aftereffects of Nen's and Tzila's efforts.  A shadow has fallen away from the love you have for each other... a shadow of regrets, of fear, of doubt, of reticence.  Gone!  You've felt its absence these past three weeks, haven't you?"

After smiling at each other and nodding, Andrew and JenniAnn clasped hands.

"Good.  Hold onto that feeling of freedom.  Look where it will bring you."  Joshua waved to the peopled valley.  "And do me a favor?"

"Yes," Andrew agreed.

"Anything," JenniAnn added.

"Share it with Behnam and Isra.  You were very brave... and pretty hilarious... in sharing your wisdom with Max."  Joshua smirked as Andrew and JenniAnn blushed.  "I appreciated that and I know I can count on you to help Behnam accept how deeply and truly Isra loves him.  I need them to be as strong as can be."

"We'll do that," Andrew vowed as JenniAnn nodded.

"Thank you.  Now... someone's going to get up very, very soon and want her waffles so..."  Joshua kissed Belle's cheek and handed her back to Andrew.  "Until next time..."  He pulled the three into his embrace.  "I love you."

"I love you."

"I love you."

"Ah-ah, pitty!"

As their surroundings began to fade, Andrew and JenniAnn could still hear Joshua laughing.


Andrew's and JenniAnn's eyes drifted open at the same moment.  They smiled and reached out to caress each other's cheeks.

"Now that was a good dream..." JenniAnn murmured.

"Mmm hmmm..."

"Do you think it was real?  A vision?"

"Mama!  Daddy!  Ummy..."  Belle called from her nursery.

Andrew chuckled.

"I think so.  But I guess we'll know for sure if Belle picks waffles for breakfast." 

Andrew stretched then kissed JenniAnn's hair.

"Cerulean and emerald suit you, by the way."

JenniAnn was still laughing when Belle ran into the room... a circle of wildflowers on her head.


"I... I guess we won't need to wait on the waffles," Andrew observed as he smiled tenderly at his daughter.

"Belle," JenniAnn repeated, "where did you get your flowers?"

The toddler softly patted the petals.

"Ah-ah."  Belle kissed each of her parents.

JenniAnn's eyes welled as her heart filled with longing for the Carpenter.

Andrew held his arms aloft.  "Laja... come here."

JenniAnn sunk against Andrew and pulled Belle onto her lap then peered up at the ceiling and began to shakily sing.

"'What... wondrous love is this... O my soul... O my soul...'"

Andrew's own eyes filled when he recognized the hymn that JenniAnn had been listening to when she'd first recognized Joshua.  He joined in.

"'What wondrous love is this, O my soul...'"

They were still singing, together, when a dove alighted on one of the window ledges. 

"'And when from death I’m free, I’ll sing on, I’ll sing on,
and when from death I’m free, I’ll sing on;
and when from death I’m free, I’ll sing and joyful be,
and through eternity, I’ll sing on, I’ll sing on,
and through eternity I’ll sing on.'"

When the song ended, Andrew rested his cheek against JenniAnn's hair and closed his eyes for a moment, basking in their freedom from nightmares, from regret, and, yes, from death.  While the way would not always be easy, Andrew knew that nothing and no one could ever truly take his Laja or their children away from him.  Joshua had made sure of that.

Smiling, Andrew gave his girls an affectionate squeeze.

"So, who's up for waffles?"

"Oooh!  Oooh!" Belle chirped.

Laughing, Andrew and JenniAnn got up and took their little elven princess to her divinely appointed breakfast of waffles.

The End

Works cited:
Christina Perri's "A Thousand Years"
Sesame Street
The Avengers
Stellaluna by Janelle Cannon
"Feels Like Home" by Randy Newman
The Last of the Mohicans
"Happy Birthday to You" by Patty and Mildred Hill and Preston Ware Orem and Mrs. R.R. Forman
Love's Old Sweet Song by J.L. Molloy and G. Clifton Bingham
Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte
The Cat in the Hat by Dr. Seuss
Genesis 50:20-You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives.
1 Corinthians 11- head covering during worship
"Song for Mama" by Boyz II Men
"Born to Run" by Bruce Springsteen
"What Wondrous Love is This?" by Alexander Means

Okay...  So the reason JenniAnn freaks out here is it's Catholic teaching that sex must always include the emission of sperm into the woman's vagina for the act to be licit.  (Or at least the attempt.)  Make of that what you will.  JenniAnn's point is that if something happens prior to that particular act and one or both parties needs to stop (think Emma having a flashback to Derek and getting upset) then insisting upon completing that act with a distressed partner would be a gross violation and sin.  But none of the talking heads ever seems to think of this... they just tow the party line on this rule.  For what it's worth, I agree with Andrew that any priest or counselor with any sense and compassion would tell someone to disregard this rule if a couple was concerned about such a situation as in the Emma example.  Still... it is scary to think of it being out there with diehards who scrupulously follow the rules.  Similarly, one hates to think of someone carrying a violation of this rule on their conscience if a very good reason for abandoning it existed.

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