"I am convinced that on Judgment Day Jesus is going to ask us one question:
'Did you believe that I loved you?'”
~~Brennan Manning



Easter        Yehuda's Story        Community

Wonderful Counselor        Home Again        Building Up, Tearing Down

Carefully Taught
        New Friends        Soul Mates

God Strengthens        For Good        Child of the Light

Sacrifices
        Light Has Dawned        The Rocks

The Cast Party
        The Last Morning        The Vine and the Branches

Epilogues

Notes and Credits

-----------------------------------------------------------

Easter

Sunday, April 20th, 2014

Joshua smiled as he awoke.  Dreamily, before opening his eyes, he revisited the previous day.  Andrew and the others lovingly scheming as he and Ivy toured Fordham...  Visiting with Toby and Doug, giving them a glimpse of the Home he'd long promised...  His wonderful parents making themselves a part of the show when he most needed them near...  Dancing and singing with Emma, finally able to fully tell her how much he loved her...  And then Yehuda...  Joshua sighed happily as he relived the moment when he had known that his old friend had finally seen and accepted the truth. 

Joshua opened his eyes and turned towards the sun filtering into the window.  As he hummed "Morning Has Broken," he recalled the midnight celebration with the cast and crew at St. Genesius'.  It had been a sublime and ecstatic way to end their run.  And now they had a whole week together. 

After a few moments, Joshua became aware of scurrying and whispers in the hall.  He rolled back around just in time to see Violeta's head peeking around the door frame. 

Joshua laughed.  "Good morning, Duckling.  What are you..."

Violeta grinned but said nothing before disappearing back into the hall.

Joshua sat up, his left eye brow arching,

A moment later, the entire household entered his room. 

"Happy Easter!" Violeta cried before setting the coffee pot she was carrying on the bed stand and plopping down beside Joshua.

Joshua kissed her hair as she hugged him tightly.  "Thank you.  You too!  All of you.  But what is this?"

Andrew laid down a tray on Joshua's work table and smiled.  "Breakfast in bed."

Snuggling Belle, JenniAnn nodded.  "Since you'll be, umm, going before Father's Day and your birthday... now seemed like the time.  Fawn..."

Shameless, the dog leapt onto the bed and rested her head on Joshua's knee, receiving a vigorous nose scratching for her efforts.

Kemara handed Joshua a glass of orange juice while Max grabbed a bowl of Froot Loops off the tray.

Joshua clasped Kemara's hand once he'd taken a sip of the juice and sat it beside the coffee. 

"Thank you.  This is wonderful.  I can't believe I've slept this late."

Max laughed as he lifted Lulu onto the bed so she'd stop whining.  "You really are one of us, Josh.  7:15 constitutes sleeping in!"

"You had quite a day," Ivy quietly reminded as she sat on the foot of the bed.

"A beautiful day..." Joshua murmured.  "And another one to come!  Have all of you already eaten?"

Andrew shook his head.  "We thought we'd go grab our breakfasts once we've prayed."

"Then let's pray!"  Joshua gazed above as they all joined hands.  "Dad, thank You for this wonderful morning and for this lovingly prepared breakfast.  Our continued thanks for blessing us with this time together.  May sharing this Easter week draw all of us closer to each other and to You.  Amen."

"Amen," the others echoed.

Joshua smiled up at JenniAnn.  "How about I take Belle while you get your breakfast?"

"I think Belle would love that," her mother replied before handing her off.

When the room was empty save them and the dogs, Joshua kissed the baby's forehead.  "Thank you, little Belle.  You helped bring someone I love back to me."

Belle gurgled and smiled then reached up to pat her hand against Joshua's beard.

Joshua snuggled her close.  "I love you, too.  So you looking forward to going back home to stay tomorrow?"

Belle babbled. 

"I know your daddy's missed sharing a room with you.  So... which room do you think I should angle for him to get?  Maybe the one by the chapel?"

The infant grunted.

Joshua laughed.  "Maybe that one's best left for your big girl room, huh?  Well, we'll figure it out.  I promise."

Ivy re-entered the room first, a sly smile on her face.  "I think I overheard a little plotting..."

Joshua feigned innocence.  "Plotting?  What plotting?"

Ivy giggled as she sat her cereal and fruit on the window seat.  She hugged Joshua then peered down at Belle.  "What a cool way to start your first Easter," she mused.

Belle continued to gaze at Joshua, prompting her parents to pause in the doorway for a few moments to admire the scene.

Joshua smiled at them, his eyes lit with his hopes for the week ahead.

*~*~*

When Peter awoke, he remained still and stared up at the ceiling.  He began to think about all that had happened in the past two months.  After a few moments, his thoughts became a prayer: praise for the wonders of the night before, thanksgiving for the positive changes in his life, and a request for Emma's continued serenity.  It was Easter and they had every intention of celebrating it fully with Joshua and their friends.  However, the following day would be difficult.  Emma would work the early shift at the diner and he would go into the office after dropping her off.  Then, around 2:00, Joshua would come over to deliver the settee.  An hour later, the three of them would walk to Emma's first counseling session.  Peter knew she was nervous about it and, in truth, so was he.  But Joshua would be there, sitting with him in the waiting room, and Emma would know it. 

Peter sighed as he thought of her.  He had thought she was beautiful from the first moment he'd seen her but after she'd discovered who Joshua was...  The joy it brought her made her even more beautiful, inside and out.  And the kiss...  Perfect.  They'd shared another one before parting to go to their own rooms. 

After finishing his prayer, Peter rolled out of bed, pulled on his robe, and shuffled into the main room.  He smiled when he saw Emma was in the kitchen starting breakfast.

"Good morning, Emma," he greeted.  "Happy Easter!"

Emma turned around and smiled at him.  "Happy Easter, Peter.  How do you feel about pancake cake for breakfast?"

Peter chuckled.  "Come again?"

"Violeta was telling me about it.  She said Joshua made her some for her birthday.  It sounded yummy.  Layers of frosting between pancakes."

"I won't turn that down!  How about fruit salad to go with it?"

"Yes, please."

Before gathering up some fruit, Peter approached Emma and squeezed her hands.  "I'm glad you're here.  I know, given what happened last night, we were both bound to have a happy Easter but you being here this morning... it makes it even happier."

Emma nodded and rested her cheek on his shoulder, sighing when his arms closed around her.  "I'm glad to be here.  I love you, Peter."

"I love you, too, Emma."  Peter embraced her more tightly before releasing her and preparing to make the salad.  "So what were you wanting to do for church?  I know Joshua and Andrew and that group are headed to Calvary Lutheran.  Clay, Kylie, and Adam will be at Cornerstone.  Then there's Zeke's church.  St. Mary Magdalene's...  Or we could do our own thing."

Emma considered their options.  "I want to see Joshua, of course.  But we will later and... and he'll be in all of the churches."

"Yes, he will."

"So I think I'd like to go to Cornerstone if that's all right with you.  Just seems right to spend our first Easter together there since that's where we've been going.  And, I hope, we'll keep going.  I mean I'd really like to go to Zeke's church sometime when he's preaching.  And I really do like Fr. Mike so it'd be nice to visit St. Mary Mag's but... I'd like Cornerstone to be our church.  What do you think?"

Peter reached across the counter to pat her hand.  "I'd like that very much."

"Good."  Emma placed her hand over his for a moment then resumed mixing pancake batter. 

Both smiled with contentment as they prepared their meal in easy, companionable silence.  At odd moments Emma would steal a glance at Peter or he would peer over at her until, finally, they caught each other, laughed, and shared a kiss.

*~*~*

After their breakfast the gang at Cora's attended Easter service at Calvary Lutheran.  Upon their return, they had lunch with the Chandlers and Wellses before the latter returned to the Tunnels to welcome the Wilson family.  Robert and Allison left soon after, loaded up with Annabelle photos to show off at family gatherings back in Nebraska.

Around 2:30; Andrew, Belle, JenniAnn, and Joshua made their way to St. Genesius'.  They made a beeline for the blue room.

"And now for the portal!" Joshua announced as he stepped inside. 

JenniAnn watched intently, wondering at how Joshua would go about creating it.

Joshua touched the wall to his left side.  "Okay, we're good."

JenniAnn blinked.  "Wait... what?  That's it?"

Chuckling, Joshua nodded.  "Really not much to it."

"Not for you!" JenniAnn exclaimed, laughing.  "But cool, in any case."

"Thank you.  Now, it's foreseeable that other people will be in here.  It being a small room, there's a much greater chance than you have in the alley of someone accidentally bumping into the portal.  So... I made you these."  Joshua reached into his pocket and pulled out what appeared to be two wooden coins.

Andrew examined his and grinned.  "That's great!  It's the show's logo!"

"It's a key," Joshua explained.  "I'll make enough for everyone.  We can ask Owen to paint a mural and put something here."  He pointed to a particular spot on the wall.  "Put your key there."

Andrew set the coin against the wall.

When the blue paint began to shimmer, JenniAnn clapped as best as Belle's baby sling allowed.  "That's awesome!" 

Joshua hugged her shoulders.  "Glad you think so.  We'll see you three in about an hour."  He bent to kiss Belle's hair then embraced the angel of death.  "Don't work too hard.  I'm sure everything looks great.  And, after all, who's going to notice a little dust when they've just learned their friends live in another world?"

Laughing, Andrew clapped Joshua on the back.  "True.  Have fun showing them!  I hope no one faints!"

"I'll catch them if they do," Joshua vowed with a smile.

JenniAnn sighed happily.  "Off we go then!"

Andrew took her hand and, together, the three disappeared into the portal.

When they were gone, Joshua patted the wall.  "Welcome home," he murmured.

*~*~*

It only took a few minutes for Andrew and JenniAnn to open enough windows in Willowveil and Serendipity to air all the rooms out.  With little else to do, they headed to the ballroom.

"Oh good!  The windows are still pretty clean.  It looks so lovely with all the light coming in!" JenniAnn exclaimed as she tied back some curtains.  "I can't wait to see what everyone thinks!  I hope they don't think I have Disney princess delusions or anything like that just cause I live in a lavender castle and..."  She looked down at her ankle-length peasant dress.  "Actually, maybe I should change.  Andrew, could you..."

JenniAnn forgot what it was she meant to ask.  All she knew was that Andrew was staring at her and there were tears in his eyes.  A lump formed in her own throat.  As happy as she was to be coming back to Dyeland, it meant they were hastening towards a separation... one beyond Joshua's parting.  Soon Andrew would go back to his far-flung assignments.  Possibly even before that he would return to Serendipity.  He would no longer be just across the hall.  He wouldn't be there for every meal.  She wouldn't be able to wander into his room at all hours when she needed to talk nor would he be able to come to her when his own thoughts weighed heavily on him.

Though awake, Belle was silent.  Her eyes were fixed on her father.

A tear streaked down JenniAnn's face.  "Love..."

Andrew hurried to her and gently pulled mother and child against his chest.

"Laja... it'll be okay," he assured, stroking her hair.

"It... it's Easter.  We should be happy but... but... Joshua will go... then... then you and..."  JenniAnn ran her hand over her daughter's curls.  "I will have Belle and I'm so... so happy about that but..."  She entwined her fingers with Andrew's.

Andrew rested his cheek against her hair for a moment before guiding her to a settee near one of the windows.  "Laja, you know we'll never be apart for more than three weeks.  And Joshua told me that my absences won't even come close to approaching that for quite a while.  And as for Joshua... I know it will be hard.  But it won't be forever."

JenniAnn sighed.  "Yeah... I know.  He promised.  And it will be nice to have his room here as a reminder.  I'm glad we put it on the third floor.  Hopefully that way people will feel comfy enough visiting his room as they need to without thinking they'll disturb Belle or me or you if you're staying over."

Staying over...  Andrew stared down at their hands and wondered when exactly Joshua intended to have that talk with JenniAnn.  Maybe he should say something right then.  No.  Belle wasn't yet old enough to sleep alone in her nursery.  There was no danger of JenniAnn expecting him to move back to Serendipity yet.

"Andrew?"

The angel looked up when JenniAnn caressed his beard.  "Hmm?"

"Are you okay?  You look... pensive."

Andrew nodded and smiled.  "I'm good, thanks.  So, umm, dance with me?"  He stood and held his hand out to her.

JenniAnn returned his smile.  "I'd love to but we left Belle's cradle and swing and bouncy seat back at Cora's."

"Belle can dance with us."

"Aww!"  Giddy, JenniAnn took his hand and settled her left hand on his shoulder. 

Andrew chuckled when Belle began to babble.  "Oh wait..."  He reached into his pocket and withdrew his phone.  "I think we need a few words from Louis."

"Louis?  Oh..."  JenniAnn's eyes misted when the opening notes began.

Andrew returned the phone to his pocket before reclaiming JenniAnn's right hand and setting his left hand at her waist.

Snuggled between her parents, Belle cooed along to the song as they danced.

"I see trees of green,
red roses, too.
I see them bloom,
for me and you.
And I think to myself,
what a wonderful world."

*~*~*

"So we're going to JenniAnn's place specifically but Andrew lives nearby?" Clay asked as Adam drove him and Kylie to the theatre.

Adam looked into the dashboard mirror and nodded.  "Right."

"Do you live there, too?" Kylie questioned.  "When you're not working or in Heaven, I mean."

Adam smiled.  "I do.  I'm not there as often as, say, Andrew and Violeta but, yes, I have a place there.  It's where I keep my pet turkeys."

"Ooh can we see them today?" Kylie requested.

"I'm sure that can be arranged."

Clay continued to try to puzzle it out.  "So... it's gotta be somewhere that has a lot of space but it's not Albany, I take it."

"Right, it's not Albany."

"Oh... is it the Finger Lakes area, by any chance?  It's so beautiful there...  I had a friend at church who had family there and I visited once.  It was amazing."  Kylie sighed at the memory.

"No, not there.  But it's beautiful," Adam promised.  "Very beautiful."

"Maybe it's not in New York at all," Clay posited.

"Warmer..." the angel of death replied with a grin.

Kylie bit her lip as she thought.  "Jersey?"

"Colder."

Clay laughed.  "I don't think we're going to get it, Kylie.  Guess we'll just see where Joshua leads us to."

Kylie swiveled around in her seat so she could look at the soldier.  She was glad to see how happy he looked with his arms stretched across the seats on either side of him and his face turned up towards the sun roof.

"With Joshua leading, it must be a nice place," she mused.

Clay met her gaze and smiled.  "I'm sure it is," he agreed, briefly squeezing her hand.

In the driver's seat, Adam smiled to himself.

*~*~*

Shortly before 4:00, the last of the Superstar cast and crew arrived at the theatre.  After enthusiastic greetings and an abundance of hugs and kisses, Joshua took to the stage.

"So... as we decided last night, we'll be having Easter dinner at JenniAnn's place.  She and Andrew, with Belle, went ahead to get things ready.  I'll be showing you the way there."

"Joshua?"

"Yeah, Zeke?"

"Is it very far?  If it is, I think I'll need to stop at a gas station to fill up."

Joshua grinned.  "It's a ways away... sort of... but we'll get there very quickly and you don't need to fill up the car."

The angels, Dyelanders, Tunnel dwellers, Maryam, Yosef, John, Fr. Mike, Yakov, and Tiva began to chuckle and smile mischievously. 

"I'm going to trust you on that," Zeke replied.  "Although, I've got to admit, I have no idea what you're talking about, Lord."

Joshua laughed.  "Thanks for the trust.  Actually... we're going to Fr. Mike's birth place.  Mike, could you come up here?"

Smiling widely, the priest joined Joshua on the stage.  "Hey everyone.  So... who here has read The Chronicles of Narnia?  Don't feel guilty if you haven't.  Aslan here won't chew you out."  He playfully elbowed Joshua.

Almost everyone raised their hands.

"Great.  So, for those of you who haven't, in the books our world... Earth... was linked to another world, Narnia, by a wardrobe.  A portal, if you will.  Well... I don't come from Narnia but I do come from another world."

This was met by surprised murmuring in the house.

"Mike, are you a Martian in disguise?" Peter teased.

Laughing, Fr. Mike shook his head.  "Absolutely not.  What you see is what you get.  I appear exactly as God... as Joshua here made me.  I promise that there's no green skin to be found.  But... I do come from a place called Asteriana although it goes by Dyeland more often now."

All of the Manhattanites' eyes drifted to Joshua.

Joshua shrugged.  "Hey, when the creative mood hits... I gotta go with it."  He smiled.  "I've always loved that song 'He's Got the Whole World in His Hands' but it's not exactly accurate.  Or, rather, it's not complete.  Dad and I actually have a bunch of worlds in our hands and Asteriana/Dyeland and Earth are just two of them."

"This... is... awesome!" Caleb cheered. 

"It is!" Emma agreed.  "But I could have sworn JenniAnn said she was from Nebraska."

"Where the corn comes from," Adam joked.

Kemara smirked.  "You better be glad she's not here to lecture you about how Nebraska is so much more than corn."

Joshua chuckled.  "I'll be sure to tell her later, Adam," he kidded.  "But Emma, yes, JenniAnn is from Nebraska.  However, she happened upon Dyeland when she was little and moved there when she was a teenager.  And that's where she met Andrew and the rest is history...  A history that I'm sure they'll be happy to tell you about sometime.  But for now... if you would all please follow me to the blue room with your potluck dishes, that would be great."

Eager for this next turn in their adventure together, the others herded into the area outside the blue room. 

"Wilson family, how about you go first?" Joshua suggested. 

Sy grinned as he stepped into the room.  "First the Tunnels... now this," he whispered.

Joshua smiled and closed the door so they could speak in private.  "The Tunnels are pretty great, aren't they?  I take it you enjoyed your introductory visit?"

Diana and all three of the kids nodded enthusiastically. 

"They're beautiful!" Diana gushed.

"Vincent's way cool!" Hailey added.

"Yeah," Kendra agreed.  "I think I like Owen's chamber the best."

"So weird to think they've been there the whole time and Vincent and Dad knew each other...  I'm glad we know now!" Sy gushed.

Joshua hugged the five.  "I'm glad you've reconnected."

"I hope Vincent decides to come to this Dyeland place today," Zeke opined.

"I hope so, too," Joshua replied.  "And now... off to this Dyeland place."  Smiling, he withdrew another wooden coin from his pocket.  "This is the key.  You put it right here and... watch."

The family's eyes all grew wide when the wall shimmered.

"I'll make coins for everyone but, until I do, Zeke, you keep hold of this one for the family.  The portal will remain open for about a minute after you remove the key.  So... who's first?"

Zeke shrugged.  "Guess that's me.  I just walk right into the wall?"

"Yep.  Trust me, you won't bump into it," Joshua assured.

"Well, then here I go!"

Kendra blinked when her father disappeared.  "Wow...  Can I go next?"

"Sure."  Joshua watched with amusement as Kendra reached out and giggled before hopping through.

"That's something else..." Diana remarked dreamily.  "Can we go together?"

"Definitely.  It's pretty wide.  See you soon!" 

Diana took the hands of her two eldest children and after smiling at Joshua, they stepped through the portal.

Joshua opened the door and laughed when Emma, Peter, Kylie, and Clay gaped upon seeing he was alone.  "Next?"

Shocked but knowing they were safe with Joshua, the four stepped into the room.

*~*~*

"I love it!!!!!!!!" Kendra squealed as she did a 360 degree spin and stopped, facing the castle.  "It's so pretty and purple!"

Sy, Hailey, and Diana stepped out from the branches of the willow tree.

Zeke laughed when he saw their faces, knowing his own expression only a few moments earlier must have matched.  "Welcome to Dyeland," he greeted.

Andrew and JenniAnn hugged the newcomers.

"So this is home!" JenniAnn cried.  "And I'm glad you like the castle, Kendra.  It's called Willowveil."

"Do you live there?" Diana asked.

"Yep."

Recovering his voice, Sy pointed to the building behind them.  "What's that?"

"That's my house," Andrew answered.  "I stay there in between assignments, when I'm not in Heaven.  Although up until I started with the show, I was staying in Belle's nursery."

Zeke patted him on the back.  "Good for you.  Diana and I didn't move the kids into their own rooms until they were what?  Eight months?"

"Eight or nine," Diana replied, gazing around her.  "This place truly is beautiful...  I love that you've made it into a home but there are still so many flowers and trees."

Andrew smiled proudly.  "Thank you.  This is actually one of the more populated areas.  Other spots have even more nature.  Wait until you see the Fields of Gold.  Maybe we'll walk there for a bonfire tonight."

"I love that idea!" JenniAnn enthused.

"So how big is this place?" Zeke asked.

"About as big as Disney World... I think.  Maybe bigger," Andrew replied.  "I guess we should ask Joshua.  We never bothered to measure..." 

"Oh my..." 

The others turned to see Kylie and Clay stepping out from the willow tree.

"Oh my..." Kylie repeated.

Clay was rendered mute.

Andrew smiled warmly at them.  "Welcome!"  Chuckling, he waved the group further from the tree.  "Might want to give people some space when they come through."

"Amazing..." Clay finally choked out.

Andrew and JenniAnn smiled proudly.

*~*~*

Back in the blue room, Emma and Peter were just about to step through the portal when Emma abruptly stopped. 

"Wait.  I just gotta ask Joshua something." 

Curious, Joshua took her hand.  "Sure.  What is it?"

Emma bowed her head and lowered her voice.  "I was just wondering..."

Peter politely turned away.

"In this place we're going to, will... will your scars be visible there?" Emma whispered.

Joshua pulled her into a hug.  "No, my own."

"I... I mean not that they're ugly or... or frightening or anything.  It's just..."

Joshua patted her back.  "I know."  And he did.  The way the scars were perceived in the mortal worlds was different, even for the angels.  In Heaven, they were emblems of triumph and love.  They were that in the mortal worlds, too, but there was guilt and grief and regret and horror mixed in.  It was one of the reasons he usually didn't have them while on Earth.

Emma breathed in deeply then stepped away.  "Thank you."

"You're welcome."  Joshua brushed a stray tear from her face and looked to Peter.  "Ready?"

Peter smiled and nodded.  "Ready."

Since it had closed while he and Emma had spoken, Joshua reopened the portal.  He smiled and waved when both Emma and Peter smiled back at him before stepping forward and disappearing.

*~*~*

Yehuda's Story

About an hour after the last of the group from St. Genesius' had arrived, Catherine and both the aged and youthful Jacobs entered the ballroom.  A cloaked figure lingered hesitantly in the entryway.

"Vincent..." JenniAnn murmured, spotting him first.

Joshua rose from the table where he had been eating.  He bounded over to the group and warmly welcomed the family.  Vincent was pulled into a tight embrace.

"Vincent!  I'm so glad you came!" Joshua greeted, loud enough for the entire ballroom to hear.  "Andrew and JenniAnn tell me we'll need you later.  They've put together a scavenger hunt around Asteri and we need more in-the-know people to head up teams.  Come in!  Grab some food.  There's tons.  And I see you all brought more."

"Easter egg cookies!" little Jacob cheered.

Joshua smiled at him and ruffled his hair.  "I'm sure they're delicious and beautiful."  He kept hold of Vincent's arm and steered him into the ballroom.

Smiling at the man's persistence, Vincent lowered his hood.  "Thank you," he murmured.

"My pleasure," Joshua replied, patting his hand.

There were a few surprised looks but everyone quickly accepted that, despite his alarming appearance, Vincent was loved by Joshua and, thus, a welcome addition to their celebration. 

Zeke approached and hugged the newcomers.  "Grab some food and I'll introduce you around.  I'm sure JenniAnn would like to share the honors."

Beaming, with tears in her eyes, JenniAnn handed Belle to Andrew and then joined Zeke and her cousins in making the rounds. 

When the introductions had been made, a few more chairs were added to the cluster of tables that had been pushed together.  Once Vincent and his family were seated, conversation resumed.

"Joshua, there's something a few of us... well, probably all of us... have been wondering about," Zeke began.  "I understand that what happened with Yehuda was like what happened in The Great Divorce.  But, in that, the bus goes to the outskirts of Heaven... not to Manhattan.  So how did Yehuda end up here, if you don't mind my asking?"

Joshua smiled and shook his head.  "I don't.  It's a good story and one worth telling.  Yehuda would like for all of you to hear it and so would I.  So... here we go."  After taking a sip of his tea, Joshua began the tale.

*~*~*

After fleeing Yeshua, Yehuda ran as fast as his legs could carry him.  The further he ran, the darker and more inhospitable his surroundings became.  Finally, with the bitterly cold air burning his lungs, Yehuda could run no more.  He threw himself onto the icy, hard ground and wept. 

He wept for a thousand years.

Then came the centuries of rage.  Anger at the priests.  Disgust for the Romans.  Utter hatred for himself.

Every so often, Yehuda would have a visitor.  Or several.  And not so much visitors as gawkers. 

Other shades would approach him, never coming too close, and point and whisper to each other.

"That's the traitor."

"The worst of any of us he is!"

"Look at him blubbering.  I have to say that I expected someone more impressive."

"Oh, I very much agree.  I thought he'd be more... Romantic.  Byronic even.  But that?" 

"Humph!  Let's move on."

Eventually, Yehuda slipped into a catatonic stupor.  If the onlookers still came, he was unaware.

He thought, always, of the end.  Of Yeshua's screams, of the snap of the rope around his own neck. 

"'Take heed that you do not despise one of these little ones, for I say to you that their angels in Heaven do always see the face of my Father who is in Heaven.  For the Son of Man has come to save whatever has been lost.  How does it seem to you?  If a man has a hundred sheep and one of them will go astray, does he not leave the ninety-nine in the mountain and go on searching for that lost one?  And if he should find it, certainly I say to you, that he rejoices in it more than in the ninety-nine that did not stray.  Just so, it is not the will before your Father who is in Heaven that one of these little ones should perish.'"

Yehuda blinked.  How had that memory gotten through?
  For a moment, a long-forgotten feeling swelled in Yehuda: hope. 

"'But if your brother wrongs you, reprove him between you and him alone; if he hears you, you have gained your brother.  And if he does not hear you, take one or two with you, that in the mouth of two or three witnesses every word will be established.  But if he will not hear them, tell the assembly, and if he does not hear the assembly, let him be to you as a tax gatherer and as a heathen.  And truly I say to you, everything whatsoever you will bind in the earth will have been bound in Heaven, and anything that you will release in the earth will have been released in Heaven.'"

Yehuda deflated.  He had unbound himself... torn himself away from Yeshua.  Though it tortured him, he let the memory continue.

"'Again I say to you, that if two of you will agree in the earth about any matter which they will request, it will be done for them from the presence of my Father who is in Heaven.  For where two or three are assembled in my name, there am I in the midst of them.'"

Yehuda grimaced as he saw Cephas approach Yeshua.

"'My Lord, if my brother commits an offense against me, how many times shall I forgive him?  Seven times?'"

"'I do not say to you until seven times, but until seventy times seven.'"

Yehuda hunched over.  Cephas... the denier... had heeded this.  Yehuda was sure of that.  He had never seen Cephas there and some of his tormentors taunted him with whisperings of how Cephas had a place of honor in Paradise.

Still, even as the fog began to cloud his mind again, the ember of hope that the memory had kindled remained. 

Yehuda began to walk.  He had learned things from his old visitors.  There was a way to leave this wretched place.  Granted, many who did came back.  But they had left...  They had spoken to loved ones in Paradise.  Perhaps he could see Yeshua.  He would not speak to him.  But if only to see him for just a moment...  Or, barring that, perhaps his wife or one of his children. 

Yehuda walked on until he came to a gray, decaying city.  He jumped when a loud noise sounded.  He realized it was coming from a monstrous chariot of sorts.  Both intrigued and terrified, Yehuda continued towards it. 

"Last call for those boarding the bus!"

So this was how it was done...

Afraid his resolve would weaken if he waited even a moment, Yehuda ran towards the bus and hurried onto it.  Some of the other shades looked up in surprise as he walked towards the back row and slumped into the seat.  He lurched forward when it began to move.

In time, the bus slowed to a crawl and then stopped all together.

"Sorry, folks.  We're not there yet.  Gotta unload a passenger.  Yehuda Skariota, this is your stop."

Confused, Yehuda rose and made his way up the aisle.  He looked questioningly at the driver who only shrugged and waved to the door. 

"Oh, hey, wait."

Yehuda turned back just before stepping off the bus.

The driver held out a bag.  "A blanket, some food, change of clothes."

Wondering why he would need them, Yehuda took the offering.

"Thank you."

Yehuda blinked in surprise when he realized that the words coming out of his mouth were not of his own language. 

"You're welcome." 

The driver waved again and Yehuda stepped off the bus.  He was immediately assaulted by a cacophony of noises, many of which he did not recognize.  The bus disappeared, giving him a better view of his surroundings.  This was not what he had imagined.  Though far less dreary than where he had come from; there were crumbling bricks, stray trash, rust, and grime.  This was not Paradise.

Before he could notice much else, rain began to fall rapidly.  Spotting a dumpster, Yehuda hurried to it.  Crumpled beside it was a tarp.  He hastily tied it to a nearby fire escape and weighed down the other side with three bricks placed atop the dumpster.  Once he had finished, Yehuda crawled between the dumpster and the wall of a building.  He shivered and hugged his knees to his chest, wondering what good leaving Sheol had done if he was going to be miserable there, too.  Reaching into the bag, Yehuda withdrew the blanket.  He covered himself with it then used the bag itself and the extra clothes as a pillow.  He laid down and began to weep.

Something caught his eyes.

Words.  Not Aramaic.  Not Hebrew.  However, somehow, he could read them.

Yehuda pulled the piece of paper from where it was stuck to the side of the dumpster.  "'The Manhattan Arts Monitor,'" he read.  His eyes scrolled down.  "'St. Genesius' Theatre Seeks New Life with Jesus Christ Superstar.'"

Yehuda gasped.

"Yeshua..."

There he was, smiling with his arm slung around a man's shoulders, and the cross lurking behind them.

Yehuda read the article over and over until the sun set and he could no longer make out the words.  He ate a small portion of the food the driver had given him then laid down again.  He could not sleep so he imagined going to the theatre and seeing Yeshua for the first time since the terrible day they had both died.

*~*~*

After a few days, Yehuda ran out of food which forced him to venture from his makeshift shelter.  He wandered the streets of the strange city and met an assortment of people.  Some screamed at him or fled him and he wondered if they knew who he was.  However, there were others who helped him.  They answered his many questions and showed him to places where others provided them with food. 

Finally, the pull to the theatre grew too strong to resist.  Waiting until nightfall, Yehuda made his way there.  Hidden by some trees, he kept his eyes on the parking lot.  Only a few minutes passed before he was rewarded.  Yeshua stepped into the lot with his mother, another man, and a donkey.  Yehuda watched them visit.  He could not bear to look at Maryam.  The last time he had seen her, she had been so pallid, so heartbroken. 

"Yeshu, are you ready for us to leave?"

"But only because I know I'll see you both tomorrow."

"Yes.  You go enjoy the remainder of the evening with your friends now."

"I will, Abi."

Yosef.  The other man was Yosef.  Yehuda was intrigued by him.  Yeshua had spoken often of his Abi but, of course, he had never met the old carpenter.  Yosef had died years before he had become a follower of Yeshua.  Yehuda realized that he had glimpsed Yosef once... he had been at Yeshua's side when he had run from him in Sheol.  By all accounts, both Maryam and Yosef were devoted and loving parents.  It did not surprise Yehuda that they'd accompanied Yeshua back to Earth.  He ached as he watched the two men embrace and kiss before parting. 

As he thought of his own family and of the friends he had lost, Yehuda stumbled backwards.  A branch he stepped on cracked loudly.  Yeshua looked up and Yehuda felt as if he was peering right at him.  Just as he had all those years before, Yehuda set off at a run.

"Who's there?" Yeshua asked loudly.

Yehuda hurried when he heard Yeshua's footsteps behind him.  He slowed only when he was several blocks away from the theatre.  He fell onto a nearby bench and sobbed.

*~*~*

Yehuda had not been fully prepared for what he would feel when he got his first glimpse of Yeshua in the flesh.  His words and his laughter echoed in Yehuda's ears.  However, Yeshua's vitality and joy did nothing to combat the guilt Yehuda felt.  He had sent his friend, his rabbi, his Messiah, his God to his death.  And such a brutal death...  Agonizingly long...  Yehuda had seen crucifixions before.  That torture was only one of the many reasons he had felt that the Romans had to be destroyed. 

The following morning, dejected and longing, Yehuda made his way to a soup kitchen.  After receiving his meal, he spied a man poring over a map.  His shoulders were hunched and his head was down.  Yehuda knew this posture meant he did not wish to be bothered.  However, he was too curious to resist.  He took a seat across from the man.

"Is that a map of the world?"

The stranger grunted.  "Of course, idiot."

Undeterred, Yehuda continued.  "Where is Rome?"

The man pointed to an area of the map. 

"All of that is Rome?"  Yehuda reached over to circle a large mass of land.

"Man, how stupid are you?  No!  That's Europe and you got some of Asia in there, too.  That.  The dot right there.  That's Rome."

Yehuda gaped.  It was tiny.  "Is it powerful?"

"I guess if you're Catholic maybe since the Pope lives there."

"Catholic?"  The term was familiar.  Yehuda had seen it in newspaper articles and on signs outside churches.

The man rubbed at his eyes.  "Jesus...  Catholics.  You know, the Christians with the popes and the priests and the nuns.  Virgin Mary.  Rosaries.  The ones with the big cathedrals.  Mother Theresa?  JFK?  Stephen Colbert?"

Yehuda shook his head.

The man let loose with a series of curses, rolled up his map, and walked away.

Yehuda continued to stare at where the map had been.  Rome was tiny...  The Pope lived there.  Yehuda had read about him.  Pope Francis.  He seemed to be admired and, yes, powerful but not as the Romans had been powerful.  He spoke with love about Yeshua... Jesus. 

So Yeshua had brought down Roman rule... but apparently not as he had expected him to.

Yehuda stared into his bowl.  He forced himself to eat.  After the last bite, he left and wandered a park.  Deep in thought, he paused only when he felt something odd beneath his left foot.  He looked down and saw the end of a spoon peeking out from beneath the shoes someone at the soup kitchen had given him.  Unlike the eating utensils they gave out, this spoon was not white and easily breakable.  Instead, it was solid... and silver.

Yehuda stooped to pick it up.  As he held the piece in his hand, an idea began to form.  He had been selfish in coming... that was hardly surprising.  Yes, he wished to see Yeshua but what good would that do Yeshua?  He must do something for him... show him that he was sorry.  And this spoon would be the beginning.  He would collect thirty pieces of silver for Yeshua and leave them at the theatre.  Surely Yeshua would know what it meant. 

Yehuda shoved the spoon into his pocket and hurried back to his shelter in the alley.  He tucked the spoon beneath his blanket and left, determined to find more silver for Yeshua.

*~*~*

Yehuda's new mission gave purpose to the abundance of time he found himself with.  He ate two meals a day at the soup kitchen and sometimes slept but mostly he searched.  He scanned sidewalks and parks, sometimes digging through refuse.  When he had three pieces of silver, he made his first delivery to St. Genesius'. 

Yehuda decided that he would leave the silver near the donkey's lean-to.  Surely Yeshua would find it there.  He knelt beside the structure, briefly setting his hand on the wood.  He was sure Yeshua had constructed it.  Closing his eyes, he whispered.

"I am sorry."

He set the items down: the spoon, a thimble, an earring.  After sucking in a deep breath, Yehuda rose and walked away from the theatre.

He wondered when Yeshua would find the silver and if he would know who had left the pieces.

*~*~*

Yehuda knew it made more sense to wait until the middle of the night to go to the theatre.  There would be no chance of Yeshua or any of his friends seeing him.  However, there were nights when Yehuda could not resist going between 10:00 and 11:00 even if he had no silver to leave.  He would crouch among the trees and watch and listen as the group visited in the parking lot before separating for the night.

They all loved Yeshua. 

Tears would sting Yehuda's eyes as he watched them hug and sometimes kiss his old friend.  Then, oftentimes, Yeshua would get into a van with the head angel... seeing the man in person had left Yehuda with no question that he was an angel as were several of the others.  Then Andrew would drive off with Yeshua and his... family?  Was that possible?  The angel Andrew confused Yehuda.  The snippets of conversation he overheard led him to conclude that the angel was raising a child with one of the women.  And Yeshua seemed to approve.  Heartily. 

Hardest of all for Yehuda was watching the way Yeshua and the man named Zeke... the man who was portraying him... interacted.  There was so much warmth and love.  And Zeke knew.  More than once Yehuda had heard him address Yeshua as "Lord."  Zeke would never have betrayed Yeshua.

There were times when Yehuda was tempted to step onto the lot and approach Yeshua, to fall down onto his knees and make his regret known to all of them.  The urge had strengthened when he found the cross Yeshua had left in the box.  Still, Yehuda never heeded it.  Probably the others would turn on him.  Those who knew who Yeshua was, and perhaps they all did, would hate him for what he'd done.  And Yeshua was happy.  Yehuda would not bring him pain... not anymore.  But what most kept Yehuda away was one simple fact: what he had done was unforgivable. 

*~*~*

As the show's run continued, Yehuda spent every day scouring the city in search of more discarded silver.  As astounded as he was by how much people cast off, it wasn't enough.  When the show's last week began, he was still missing several pieces.  He was glad for one thing: his search had put him in the right place at the right time to intervene when a man accosted the young woman who was playing Mary.  Emma.  While Yehuda wished he could have done more and chastised himself for running when he'd spotted Yeshua's follower coming towards them, he believed his presence might have prevented the abusive man from doing the girl more harm.  That, at least, made his sojourn in the city worthwhile even if it in no way righted things with Yeshua.

*~*~*

After the loss of the bracelet and the resulting hospitalization, Yehuda had abandoned all hope of finishing his quest.  And then, in a reprise of his first day in the city, all was changed by a piece of paper: a twenty dollar bill.

And then another miracle!  Two miracles, in fact: Emma and Peter.

Yehuda felt refreshed and something akin to peaceful as he left their apartment.  He would buy seven more silver pieces and leave them at the theatre after the performance... the final one... that the two had invited him to.  Then he would get back on the bus.  He would not torture himself with any brighter imaginings.  But he would be leaving knowing that he had done something, however small, for Yeshua. 

Then came the boy.  His tears.  The threat of police.  The loss, again, of another bracelet... the loss of hope.

But not for long.

For a second time, Emma and Peter appeared.  They coaxed him away from the bus and to the theatre.

Yehuda's heart pounded in his chest when he found himself seated alone in the small room Emma had led him to.  In only moments he would see and hear Yeshua.  He would not need to strain his eyes to see him in the darkness of the parking lot.  He would not need to content himself with snippets of conversation.  Yeshua would be there, clearly and loudly, and Yehuda vowed to himself to soak in every word and every movement so the memories would last him for an eternity.

*~*~*

After the show had ended and he had snuck back into the theatre, Yehuda knelt by the tomb and wept.  When he was able to move, he rose and stepped behind the curtain to search for the door that would allow him to escape back to the bus.

The moment he was backstage, Yehuda saw them: the cross, the crown, the whip, the nails.  He groaned and fell down beside them.

Because of him, Yeshua had been stripped and beaten.

Because of him, Yeshua had been scourged until his body was a mass of torn skin and muscle, welts, and blood.

Because of him, Yeshua had carried the instrument of his own death through the streets of Jerusalem and up a hill.

Because of him, Yeshua's hands and feet had been pierced.

Because of him, Yeshua had bled and wept and ached and gasped for six hours until, finally, he had died.

Yehuda took one of the nails into his hands.  He contemplated what it would feel like to have it driven through skin and muscle and bone.  He trembled as he imagined it.

Nearly an hour passed before Yehuda at last released the nail and got to his feet.  He stepped behind the cross and headed towards some light coming from a hall.  Perhaps, through there, he would find the door.

He found something else first. 

Yeshua's cloak.

From the distance of the private box, Yehuda had not recognized it.  Now he did.

This was no prop.

Unthinkingly, Yehuda grabbed the cloak and hugged it to his chest.  Fresh tears welled in his eyes as he caught the familiar scents: the sea of Galilee, freshly baked bread, sawdust, sandalwood, olive trees.  Three years of memories were wrapped up in the aromas and in the stitches.  Holding the cloak a few inches from him, Yehuda studied the stitch-work.  This had been a gift from the wives, Mary, and Maryam to Yeshua.  Even some of the little girls, his own daughters included, had lent their time and "skill" accounting for several uneven stitches that had only made Yeshua love the garment more.

Yeshua had been wearing it the night of the arrest.  Yehuda was sure it had been destroyed.

Yet here it was.  And Yeshua Himself was there, too.  Restored.

Yehuda sat back down on the floor and ran his fingers over the stitches.  He remembered Yeshua beaming as he tried it on for the first time.  Other memories followed in quick succession, so many that he'd buried away for so long.

Yehuda began to rock as he came to that final week.

"Hey, who's there?"

Yehuda startled to attention.  Someone knew he was there!  He dashed towards the hall, pausing only to set the robe down on Herod's glittering chair.  When only a few feet from the hall, he collided with one of the carts from the Temple scene, sending items clattering to the ground.

"Stop!  Come back!"

Yehuda felt faint.  This was very, very bad...  He began to panic and struggled to breath but found he couldn't.  He slumped over. 

Then he came face to face with Zeke Wilson.

*~*~*

“'My soul and my spirit rejoice for now, my own, you are here.
The Mighty One has done great things, best of all brought you near.
My little one, my precious one, to you these promises I make:
I will love you in the daytime, in the nighttime, in the morn as you wake.'"

A strange thing happened as Yeshua sang.  The thick cold that had surrounded Yehuda like a stiff, second skin for nearly two thousand years began to crack.  For the first time in all those years, he felt warmth.  Once again, his mind traveled back to a moment in those precious three years.

They had been sitting around a fire after a day spent listening to Yeshua preach.  Cephas and Andreas had been asking Yeshua questions when Yehuda's youngest, Liya, had crawled to Yeshua and, rising shakily to her feet, grabbed his right hand.

"Song?"

Yeshua had laughed and settled the girl onto his lap.  "Cephas, Andreas, you will have to allow me to let this matter rest for the night.  Liya has made her wishes known and I cannot deny her."  He'd kissed the girl's hair and began to sing.  The other children and many of the adults had gathered around him.

Yehuda had been so entranced by his daughter's contentment that Yeshua was nearly through with the song before he had finally turned his gaze to the man.  Yehuda had startled when he'd realized that Yeshua was looking at him as he sang.

"'When the way is hard, when you feel alone and do weep,
Remember this, oh my child, my love is always yours to keep.'"

Yehuda opened his eyes and stared for a moment at the theatre floor.  Then he began to crawl towards Joshua. 

His head bowed, he knelt in front of Yeshua.  "I... I remember that song.  You sang it... to... to my children."

Yeshua nodded, smiling through his tears.  "Yes.  Ama's song.  But I... I was singing it for all of you."

Yehuda knew then that he had been... all those years before and in that moment.  "Yeshua..." 

More tears fell as Yehuda rested his forehead against his friend's hands.  "I... I am sorry.  You... you were enough.  You always were.  I... I was so gravely wrong.  A-and..."  He kissed his wrists.  "It was... enough.  I do not want to go back, Yeshua.  I do not want to... to be separated any longer, my Lord.  Please... please let me go... go Home to... to you and to Your Father.  Please, Yeshua."

Yeshua's eyes betrayed his response before his words did.  A wave of peace washed over Yehuda as he saw the joy and love in the man's glistening eyes.

"Arise, Yehuda." 

Yehuda drew in a deep, cleansing breath as Yeshua helped him to his feet.

"You are forgiven.  Come, see the place that has been prepared for you!" 

"Rabboni!"  Yehuda felt as he had that first day he had met Yeshua except... more.  There was no other word for it, not in Aramaic and not in English.  More!  The indescribable feeling continued to build as they followed the angel of death into the tomb and to the Home beyond.

*~*~*

Joshua sighed and squeezed Zeke's hand.  "We visited his wife and kids first, of course.  Then the boys.  Cephas greeted Yehuda with a friendly eye roll and 'You always were the late one.'"  He laughed.   "Some things never change.  The two of us talked more."  Joshua grinned.  "We're talking still."

Zeke shook his head in wonder.  "Amazing..."

Maryam hugged her son.  "I am so pleased Yehuda is where he belongs now."

Joshua squeezed her hand.  "Me too.  And you all played a part in that."  His loving gaze traveled around the group.  "Seeing our show... it meant a lot to Yehuda.  And those times he watched us in the lot, they really did change him.  It made him realize even more what he was missing.  He did want me to tell you all that he's sorry about spying, though."

Shane shrugged.  "I guess it's only fair.  We've spent generations picking him apart, after all.  He may as well know a little about us."

Chuckling, Eli nodded.  "I bet he was thrown by us angels being in the mix like that.  I mean not that this sort of blended group of friends never happened but I doubt Yehuda knew of any instances."

"He did have some questions," Joshua admitted with an amused smile.  "Lots and lots of questions...  And I bet he's not the only one."

Emma gaped up at the high ceiling.  "Nope...  I still can't even believe we're here!  In a castle!  Your castle!"  She smiled at JenniAnn.

JenniAnn returned her smile.  "Sometimes I can scarcely believe it's all real myself!  But it is, thankfully!  And it looks like people are just finishing up the last bits of dessert so... Andrew, you want to do the honors?"

"You bet."  The angel of death stood and began passing out sheets of paper to a few people.  "These are team lists for a scavenger hunt JenniAnn and I put together."

"I love these!" Max enthused.

Andrew chuckled.  "We've noticed.  So... we've made sure each team has a couple Dyeland regulars on it so no one gets completely lost.  We'll give you your first clues.  Each team has a slightly different path but you'll all end up seeing the same places and you'll all end up in the same very special spot.  And, from there, we thought we'd all walk together to this great area called the Fields of Gold for a bonfire.  Sound good?"

"Who gets Josh on their team?" Arthur questioned. 

"Hey yeah!  That's a pretty big advantage!"  Owen grinned at Joshua.

"Too big!" Joshua replied.  "Andrew and JenniAnn shared the courses with me so I'm going to be making the rounds, checking in with each team.  Ama and Abi know a lot, too, so they'll be waiting at the final stop with Andrew, JenniAnn, and Belle.  Okay?"

Excited to learn more about Dyeland together, everyone hurried into their groups and the game began.

*~*~*

Community

After the others departed; Andrew, JenniAnn, Maryam, and Yosef settled into the library with Belle.  When the baby began to fuss, JenniAnn left to prepare a bottle for her.  Upon her return, she found Yosef seated in one of the overstuffed
chairs with Belle in his arms.  Maryam was perched on the arm of the chair and both were cooing at the giggling infant.

JenniAnn paused near Andrew who was also admiring the scene.

"They're so lovely..." JenniAnn whispered.

Andrew smiled at her and looped his arm around her waist.  "They are.  Not what you expected, though?"

"What I wished... but no.  Not what I expected." 

"I wish I could have told..."

JenniAnn kissed the angel's hair.  "I know.  It's better this way, though.  To find out from the sources themselves!"

"True."  Andrew squeezed her hand.  "Maryam mentioned that she'd like to talk with you.  So... after Belle's had her bottle, maybe you could show Maryam Joshua's room while Yosef and I talk shop.  We're gonna need more bookshelves with Belle's burgeoning collection."

JenniAnn laughed.  "Definitely!  And I'd like that.  Sounds good.  Now... do you want to feed Belle or..."

"I think Yosef would appreciate it if you'd ask him.  He never got the chance with Joshua since, well, bottles weren't the thing back then."

"Aww, yeah..."  JenniAnn took in the adorable scene for a moment more before approaching.  "Bottle's ready!  Yosef, would you like to do the honors?"

Yosef looked up at Maryam for a moment.

"You can do this," she murmured, patting his shoulder.

"Yes..."  Yosef smiled up at JenniAnn.  "Yes, thank you.  I would like that very much and I hope Belle does, as well."

"She will.  She's a good bottle-taker these days.  Thank you so much!"  JenniAnn handed the bottle to the man.

"Here we go, little Belle."  Yosef smiled as the baby began to greedily suck down the formula.

Maryam's gaze drifted back and forth between Belle and Yosef for a few moments.  She beamed at JenniAnn and Andrew as they stood side by side. 

When Belle was finished drinking, Yosef expertly burped her.  "This part I learned to do long ago," he assured Andrew and JenniAnn with a grin. 

A few moments later, Yosef handed Belle to Andrew.  "I like that you did not trouble yourselves with coordinating the existing bookshelves.  It will make adding on much simpler."

JenniAnn smiled.  "When you find yourself with a whole castle to furnish, you learn to embrace eclecticism... and love yard sales, flea markets, and such!"  She turned to Maryam.  "Speaking of that... would you want to come check Joshua's room with me, Maryam?" she invited.

"Yes, please.  I would like that very much."

Andrew cuddled Belle close and kissed her hair.  "Would you wanna take her, Laja?"  He wasn't entirely sure what it was Maryam wanted discussed but sensed it would be more emotional than his own carpentry-centric visit with Yosef.

"Definitely."  JenniAnn happily took Belle into her arms.  "You'll both join us when we get word that the others are nearing the end of the hunt?"

"Happily," Yosef promised as Andrew nodded.

"Good!"

After smiling at them both, JenniAnn led Maryam towards the staircase and to Joshua's room.

"Andrew and I thought Joshua would like being able to get out onto the balcony," JenniAnn explained as they stepped into the room.  "Plus we thought...  Well, I mean..."  She snuggled Belle and for a moment rested her cheek on her curls.  "When you've all gone Home it might be nice for... for people to come here and just... feel close to Joshua.  So... so we picked a bigger room for more people to do that if they wanted.  I mean not that...  Of course we realize he's everywhere but..."

Maryam embraced her.  "I understand.  So does Yeshua and so does the Father.  Sometimes it is nice to have a place to go, a place where your memories of that person are.  I know."

JenniAnn sniffled.  "I... I spose you do.  Sometimes I just... I don't know how you managed."

"With much faith.  Sometimes it is all we have.  Thankfully, the One we have faith in is enough."

"Yeah... yeah, He is!" JenniAnn agreed, brightening.  "So, umm, you think this is okay?" she checked, looking around the room.

Maryam squeezed her hand.  "I think the room is lovely and Yeshua will be very comfortable here.  I hope you can see how much it means to him to be here."

JenniAnn nodded and bowed her head.  "Means a lot to have him here... all of you.  A-and that you're staying for Belle's baptism is just... just incredible and lovely a-and...  Sorry."  She blinked several times, trying to keep tears at bay.  "I swear you'd think I was actually dealing with post-pregnancy hormones!"

"You have had many changes since February, JenniAnn.  I would be concerned if you were not emotional."  With a gentle smile, Maryam rested her hand on JenniAnn's back.  "Perhaps you, Belle, and I could admire the view from the balcony?" she suggested, leading the way.

"Yes, please."  JenniAnn drew in a deep breath as they settled into rocking chairs.  "It is a lovely day...  Perfect for Easter."

Maryam gazed up at the clear, dazzling sky.  "It was much like this on that first Easter.  The sky was so clear... the air was warm but comfortably so."

JenniAnn reached over and set her hand on Maryam's.  "I can't imagine the joy you must have felt."

Maryam smiled.  "Too much to contain, to express.  Everything I felt when Yeshu was born and more."

JenniAnn peered down at Belle, remembering all the happiness she'd felt when Kelly had told her that the little one was hers.  She figured Maryam must have felt that times a million. 

"So... you did see him that first day?"

"Oh yes."

JenniAnn let out the breath she'd been holding.  "Oh good.  I... I always liked thinking you were the first but... I didn't know if that was true."

Maryam's smile brightened.

JenniAnn couldn't help but giggle.  She needed no other answer.  "I see."

"Yes.  JenniAnn?"

"Hmm?"

"I have a favor to ask of you."

JenniAnn straightened up.  "Anything, Maryam."

"Emma has told you what Joshua plans to do Tuesday?" Maryam checked.

"Yes...  She actually explained a lot last night after the show.  Joshua's going to confront the man who molested her."  JenniAnn frowned and shook her head.  "I can tell she's nervous about it.  I mean we all know Joshua can handle himself but... he can be hurt.  We've seen that, too."

"He can.  However, his concerns are for Emma.  I thought, perhaps, we could keep her company then.  I promised to go shopping for the apartment with her on Tuesday morning.  Could we meet up with you?  Violeta told me that you would be shopping for Belle's baptism.  I think it would be pleasant for Emma to focus on that."  Maryam peeked over at Belle when she cooed.

JenniAnn nodded eagerly.  "Sure!  We'd love that!  It'll be me, Violeta, and Kemara.  We planned to grab some lunch here then head to Manhattan.  Would that work or would you prefer something else?"

"That would be wonderful.  Emma and I can spend lunch readying the apartment."

"I'll call Emma when we head out.  We'll come through the theatre since she knows that best.  Anything else?"

"Yes.  This part may be more difficult and I do not ask it lightly.  Please know that."

JenniAnn looked curiously at Maryam.  "I do.  What is it?"

"You know that Yeshua is always near you and that we will always listen to you.  Even knowing that, you recognize that it will be difficult when we are not here like this."  Maryam reached for the younger woman's hand.

"I... I do."

"Emma will need support and love and friendship.  She will need someone... many someones... to hug her and encourage her and build her up.  Peter will be there, of course.  But the friendship between women... that is important, too.  Invaluable.  Lucy has gone Home and soon so will I.  It would mean much to me if I knew that Emma realized that you were all here for her still.  It is my hope that, after our shopping, we could gather all of the ladies here to talk."

"I think it's a really lovely idea.  To talk about anything in particular?"

Maryam looked tenderly into JenniAnn's eyes.  "They used Yeshu and me to make her feel badly, JenniAnn.  I think you know how... at least some of the ways."

Tears glistened in JenniAnn's eyes.  "Yes...  I... I have some idea."

Reaching into her pocket, Maryam pulled out a handkerchief and handed it to JenniAnn.  "For you."

JenniAnn smiled through her tears when she saw the J embroidered in the corner.  "Thank you..."

"I will give the others theirs on Tuesday."

"We'll all need them, I think."  JenniAnn drew in a deep breath.  "Ya know, I feel so much peace and happiness in knowing you, Maryam.  And I'll always treasure these few weeks.  But... they make me sad in a way, too.  I feel like... like I could have known something of your friendship if...  Well... and I really, really hope you don't take this the wrong way..."  She glanced over at Maryam.

Maryam patted her hand.  "I am sure I will not."

"It's just... I was never really sure what to think of the Virgin Mary.  I mean even when I got picked as May Queen in my senior year, I wasn't quite sure how to feel about the honor.  Cause... cause I guess I feel like so much of the Mary-related aspects of Catholicism have less to do with you and more to do with a buncha beliefs built up over time, many of which aren't particularly biblical and some... dangerous, to be honest."  JenniAnn cringed.  "Sorry.  I don't mean that you're dangerous.  I only mean..."

"I know."  Maryam lowered her voice.  "I must say that sometimes I am not sure what to think of the Virgin Mary."

JenniAnn giggled at the woman's grin, one very reminiscent of her son.  "That's actually... reassuring, to be honest!  Thing is... I've had the luxury of being merely hypothetically bothered by a lot.  But when I think of someone like Emma... there's nothing hypothetical about what happened to her.  She probably heard the same things I did.  I mean we learned about the perpetual virginity of Mary and... oh please don't feel the need to confirm or deny that!  I really, really don't want to pry, Maryam.  Not actually, umm, sure I wanna know."

"Yes, I know.  Right now I most want your honesty, JenniAnn.  Please," Maryam requested.

"Okay.  Sure.  I just mean it basically boiled down to 'Mary remained a virgin always because it showed how pure and how devoted to God she was.'  I could never understand it because if purity requires virginity then doesn't that mean God wants the species to die off?  Cause except for one very notable exception who is wandering scavenger hunt courses right now, we're all brought into this world via sex.  And I mean, well, God created the reproductive system so..." 

Maryam smiled.  "That is the truth."

Peeking down at Belle, JenniAnn shook her head at the wonderful absurdity of having this conversation with Joshua's mother.  "I just could never understand why having relations with one's spouse couldn't be as pure and holy, too.  I mean... I have my reasons for remaining a virgin and I do think I'd struggle spiritually if I wasn't but for my own very particular reasons...  But couldn't it be that someone else would grow spiritually?  I'd like to think my parents have by being married and all that usually entails.  And Vincent and Catherine, too.  My friends, Carrie and Kevin and also Raquel and Nico... who will hopefully join us next weekend.  And look at Diana and Zeke and the Levines.  And... the list goes on.  I guess I just don't get why virginity and celibacy rank so highly on the moral hierarchy and... and with you cited as the primary example."

Maryam watched the flight of two birds as she made her response.  "God has a plan for each of us, JenniAnn.  What would draw one person closer to Him might push another away.  Thus, He plans differently for each.  I have truly loved God for as long as I can remember.  My parents did a wondrous job of teaching me about our faith, about God's love for us.  But there were nights when neither Yosef nor I could sleep and we would lie awake for long hours, talking about Yeshu and how his life might unfold.  We learned so much from each other about God.  If He had asked, I would have raised Yeshu on my own.  I believe that if He truly wanted for me to be celibate... He would have made a way for Yeshu and me without Yosef.
  But I am so thankful He did not ask that of me.  He left it to Yosef and me to decide how best to love each other and Him.  So we did.  Another woman might have found my Yosef a hindrance.  For her, celibacy would have been best.  It was not so for me."

JenniAnn's eyes lit up as she smiled at Maryam.  "I think Yosef is glad of that." 

Maryam beamed.  "Yes.  And Yeshu, too.  He loves his Abi."

"Definitely.  It's been so wonderful to see the three of you together.  So... this is the sort of thing you want to talk about on Tuesday?"

"I do, yes.  If we could."

"I think we need to.  It's just... what we were just talking about, celibacy and marriage, that's actually the easy part.  For me at least.  There were other things that... that were much more difficult."

Maryam gently stroked JenniAnn's hair as she peered down at her daughter.

"They're the things I wish I could somehow keep Belle from.  There's so much beauty and faith and truth and light in the Catholic Church that I want to share with her.  But... but there's this portion that disturbs me so much.  And Emma's not spoken a word of it but something in the pit of my stomach tells me that... that portion is what hurt her so badly.  If... if it was so important that you remain a virgin and if it's worth celebrating the virgin martyrs... if virginity does signify purity and closeness to God... then... then she must have felt so lost and cut off when that man hurt her."  Tears slid down JenniAnn's cheeks.

Maryam moved her chair closer and settled an arm around JenniAnn's shoulders.  She smiled sadly when the younger woman rested her head on her shoulder.  "We both know Emma was neither lost nor cut off.  But, yes, many, many voices told her otherwise.  That is why we must speak of this.  Her community of faith betrayed her when she needed them most.  We will give her a new community with stronger, more loving voices, yes?"

"Yeah..."

"Then that same community will be there for Belle as she grows, encouraging her and reminding her that God is always with her.  Yeshu will never let any of you go.  I promise you that."

JenniAnn drew in a deep breath and slowly let it out.  "I know he won't...  I love him... and you, too.  I think now... I know now... I'll find it much easier to talk to you, Maryam."

Maryam bestowed a tender smile on her.  "I love you, too, and Belle and I will always look forward to hearing from you."

"I'm so glad.  But for now... do you think you could tell me a lil more about you?  Emma mentioned that you'd told her stories from when you were little and, well... I'd love to hear em if you're up to sharing..."

"I would love to share them.  Perhaps we could start with my first memory of Yosef?"

JenniAnn's eyes lit up.  "Oh, yes, please!"

Maryam's eyes twinkled as she began.  "Yosef and I have known each other since I was a baby and he was four.  However, my very first memory of him was from when I was four and he was eight.  You may find this hard to believe but... I stole from him."

JenniAnn balked.  "Seriously?"

Maryam nodded solemnly.  "Very seriously.  Well... it was not that I meant to.  Our parents were good friends and we were visiting them at their home.  At some point, I wandered off to explore.  Yosef's parents had a lovely tree in their yard that I was drawn to.  I made my way to it and settled myself beneath its branches.  That is when I noticed a very strange thing.  Beautiful flowers had fallen to the ground!  I plucked one up and admired it.  There were others and, after all, it was from a tree and thus from God and it had fallen so I felt as if I could keep the flower.  I did wonder at why it was so hard...  Nonetheless, I tucked it into my robe and, feeling sleepy, returned to my parents and climbed into my Ama's lap.  At some point, Yosef tired of listening to the adults so he went into the yard.  He returned a few moments later, telling his father that someone had taken one of his carvings.  I looked over and imagine my shame when I saw him holding one of the other flowers! 
I was so young that I did not understand woodcarving.  It had not occurred to me that human hands could make such a beautiful thing.  Yosef's parents got him settled down and promised him they would help him look for it later.  Yosef walked away grumbling.  Though I was fearful and disappointed and embarrassed, I knew I had to return the flower.  I left my parents and returned to the yard, the tears already stinging my eyes.  I made my way to Yosef and the tree and withdrew the flower.  I tried to explain why I had taken it but I was so frightened that I could barely speak.  But Yosef only closed my fingers back around the flower and told me I could keep it.  He said he could easily make another and asked if I wanted to watch.  The panic had so exhausted me that I sat beside him with great relief.  That was also the first time I ever saw Yosef at his work... the first of many times."

JenniAnn dreamily sighed.  "Oh..."

Maryam smiled at her.  "Though I would not have recognized the word then, I think it would be accurate to say that I began to form a 'crush' on Yosef that very day."

"Oh, I love that!  So... do you still have the flower?"

"Yes.  I brought it with me through our various moves.  But I must tell you, it was not my favorite of the flowers that Yosef gave me.  There was another that came years later when we were in Egypt.  A rose."

JenniAnn blinked.  "Andrew... Andrew's rose."

"Andrew's rose is descended from it, yes."

"Then... then Yosef is... he's the man who died and you're the woman who carried the dried bud and Joshua..."

"Yeshua brought it back to life.  Just as he did Yosef and me."  Maryam pointed to where the rose had appeared, sitting atop a table on the balcony.

Mindful of Belle, JenniAnn leapt to her feet and approached it.  Maryam followed.

JenniAnn's hand hovered over it.  "This... this is the original?"

"Yes.  You can touch it.  On this past Christmas Eve, I brought it to Yeshu to decorate his apartment.  When you invited him to Cora's, I took it back Home.  He did not want it to give him away and lead you to discover who he is before you were ready.  But now... now it can greet him in the mornings this week.  Would you like me to tell you the rest of its story?"

"I... I would."

The two women returned to the rocking chairs and JenniAnn listened attentively as Maryam filled her in on the details that Andrew had needed to hold back.

*~*~*

When it was nearing 4:00, Joshua entered his room.  He smiled at the neatly made bed with chocolates on the pillow, the table set up in a corner for his carving, and all the other little elements that would make it home for the next week.  Walking towards the balcony, he spotted an oil burner and laughed when he saw a bottle of frankincense oil next to a lighter.  Smiling, he joined Maryam and JenniAnn on the balcony.

"Wow...  The room looks great.  I love this!  Thank you!"  He bent to hug JenniAnn as she sat in one of the rocking chairs. 

JenniAnn squeezed his hand.  "I'm so glad you like it, Joshua."

"Definitely!  And the rose is back!"  He hugged Maryam.  "Thank you, Ama!"

"You are very welcome.  I was able to tell JenniAnn its story... the full story."  Maryam beamed at the girl and her baby.

"She did...  Even though it was a Christmas story, it was really perfect for Easter."  JenniAnn rose and hugged Joshua.  "It's been a beautiful afternoon here with your Ama.  But now... how goes the hunt?"

Joshua smiled.  "Very well.  Lots of laughter and oohs and aahs.  You and Andrew did a great job putting the courses and teams together.  The first team will reach here in a few minutes and the others aren't far behind." 

"I will go tell Andrew and Yosef so they can come join us," Maryam offered.  Before she stepped into the bedroom, she smiled at her son.

After returning his mother's smile, Joshua turned back to JenniAnn.  "So you had a good talk?"

JenniAnn nodded.  When Belle began to squirm, she handed her to Joshua.  "Very good.  Can't really believe I said all the stuff I said... so bluntly.  But your Ama... she just made it seem okay."

"Because it was okay.  JenniAnn, nothing's going to get any better if you just silently stew about it.  And you have Belle to consider now.  Let her hear you questioning so that she knows it's okay to question."  Joshua smiled mischievously.  "Questioning authority is something of a family trait... and one I really wanted to pass down."

Laughing, JenniAnn squeezed his hand.  "You did.  And you're right.  Obviously.  But yeah... I know.  I do tend to stew.  Or just rail to Andrew."

"Oh, well, don't stop that.  It helps you and he really enjoys it." 

JenniAnn blinked.  "I mean I know he's a good sport about it but... really?"

"Really.  Think about it.  For so much of the time Andrew's had assignments on earth, women haven't been encouraged to speak out.  And in many places, they still aren't.  Needless to say, that is definitely not the way Andrew was raised.  I made very sure of that.  So, yeah, he likes it when you speak your mind.  Just let others hear, too.  And not only when the audience is sympathetic."  Joshua grinned and playfully bumped his shoulder against JenniAnn's.  "Not saying you need to get run out of villages or anything but... give em something to think about, huh?  Like you did with Doreen at the hospital after Ivy's accident.  I loved that."

JenniAnn laughed again.  "Sure.  I can do that."

"Good.  You never know who might need to hear what you have to say." 

JenniAnn sensed Joshua meant something in particular by that but, before she could ask, Maryam returned with Yosef and Andrew.  The latter was smiling.

"We heard voices in the entryway when we left the library.  I couldn't pick out who all it was but at least one team's here!"

"Let's move back into the room," Joshua suggested, leading the way.

No sooner had they entered than Adam, Violeta, Makena, Kylie, and Clay thundered into the room.

"Are we first?" Adam asked.

Andrew chuckled.  "Yeah.  But what we neglected to tell anyone is that there is no prize.  Well, beyond what we have to say when everyone gets here."

"And chocolate eggs for everyone!" JenniAnn added, holding out a basket.

"Thank you!"  Kylie sighed contently.  "Although I really don't need any prize beyond seeing how beautiful this place is!  And to think we only saw a third of it!"

"I'm definitely going to have to make a point to stop in when I have time between assignments!" Makena declared.

"You should!  That would be so cool.  I hope everyone comes around more," Violeta chirped.

Makena laughed.  "Oh, I think they will.  When we bumped into Tess' team, I thought she was going to have to forcibly remove Angus from the planetarium.  And Nita and Luca had their eyes on that amusement park on that island."

Violeta wrinkled her nose.  "Maybe someone else could show them around there...  Or I guess I could... just not the roller coaster."

JenniAnn hugged her.  "We won't make you get on that.  Promise.  Clay, what did you think?"

"It's beyond amazing.  And running around, looking for clues... I felt like... like a kid again.  Like none of this had ever happened."  The soldier waved his hand over this face.

Kylie hugged his arm.  "I'm so glad you had a nice time."  She lowered her voice.  "And I'm glad we were on a team together."

Clay smiled down at her and squeezed her hand.  "Me too."  He cleared his throat and looked up at the others.  "Thank you, Andrew and JenniAnn, for having us and, Joshua, for making it possible.  Best Easter I've had in a long time."

"And it's not over!" Joshua cheered.  "And I think I hear tromping feet coming up the stairs."

They all laughed when Owen, Kemara, Peter, Emma, and John ran into the room.

"Darn, second!" Owen lamented though the smile on his face revealed that he was far from disappointed.  "Man, as much time as I've spent here, you two had me completely lost a couple times."  He grinned at Andrew and JenniAnn.

"I was glad, though.  We ended up seeing places I hadn't even been yet!"  Kemara smiled at the memories.  "I can't believe I hadn't gotten to Skellig yet!"

Laughing, Andrew shook his head.  "How'd you manage that?  We hadn't intended for anyone to leave the mainland."

Owen shrugged.  "The clue said to go where certain folks of an Irish bend feel right at home.  I realized later that you meant the Cafe but..."

"It was a really cool detour," Peter opined.

Emma nodded.  "I felt like I was at Stonehenge!" 

"I enjoyed being in the boat," John added.  "Reminded me of the old days." 

"You did not dunk anyone, did you?" Yosef inquired, eying his cousin.

Peter burst out laughing and smiled at John.  "He did seem to be trying to rock the boat..."

John grinned.  "I was tempted but I resisted."  He winked at Joshua.  "Besides, we have a baptism coming soon."  He approached Belle and smiled at her.  "I promise I will not dunk Annabelle.  But Mike said I could help pour the water."

"Very good."  Joshua handed the baby to John who beamed when he had her.

JenniAnn's eyes misted.  "We'd love that, John.  That's just... so lovely." 

Andrew squeezed her shoulders.  "It is.  Thank you.  So... I wonder who will be next..."

Only a minute or two later, Vincent's group entered with the other teams only steps behind them.  With the room filling up, some people drifted onto the balcony.  After they were sure everyone was there, Andrew and Joshua moved to the balcony door so everyone could hear them.

Andrew began.  "JenniAnn and I are really happy that everyone enjoyed themselves.  You might wonder why we chose this particular room to end the scavenger hunt.  Well... this is going to be Joshua's room for the next week.  So... Joshua."

Joshua smiled at everyone gathered.  "Right.  So now you know how to get to Dyeland so, please, starting tomorrow come here to visit with me.  Even if it's the middle of the night.  Andrew, JenniAnn, and Belle stay on the floor below us so they want you to know that any coming and going up here won't disturb them."

JenniAnn nodded.  "Exactly.  And know, too, that between here and Andrew's house, we've got loads of guest rooms so if anyone wants to crash here over the next week or any time in the future... we're here.  Of course, we've got some things back in the city to enjoy together, too!"

"Thank you all so much.  This place... I know it's going to be a blessing to us all."  Zeke's smile stretched across his face.  "I do have a question, though."

"What ya got, Zeke?" Andrew asked.

"Is Doug going to be told about this?"

"He has been," Andrew confirmed.  "Doug and Toby swung by Cora's house on their way back to Toby's this morning.  Joshua explained everything and, when they come back next weekend, Joshua will show them how to get here."

"Doug will love it!" Diana enthused. 

"I really hope this helps us all stay in closer contact.  Although..." Edward frowned.

"We'll still have to work in three hour drives each way," Caleb finished.  "Clay, too."

Joshua smiled.  "Or not.  I might have to do something about that come Wednesday."

The three Albany-bound men all grinned while, with great relief, Kylie slipped her hand in a smiling Adam's.

"But for now... how about that bonfire in the Fields of Gold?" Joshua checked.

He was answered by numerous cheers and shouts of assent.

"Then let's head that way!  We'll have dinner there, too.  Adam and I have something planned," Joshua explained with a gleam in his eyes.

Henry laughed.  "I guess that means TLS is involved?"

"TLS?" Shane questioned.

"Turkey like substance!" Adam proudly replied.  "Trust me.  It's good."  He waved to a cluster of Dyelanders.  "They've all been eating it for years and no one's gotten sick once."

Fr. Mike smiled and nodded.  "You won't be able to tell the difference.  Good stuff."

"Especially with all the fixings.  I know it seems Thanksgiving-y but I figure we have a lot to be thankful for so..." Adam shrugged.

"That we do," Peter agreed.  "So much..."  He squeezed Emma's hand.

"Joshua, will you lead us out?" JenniAnn requested.

"Happily!"

Shelby and Jacob hurried to each take one of his hands and the group was all smiles as they followed the three out of the room and on towards the Fields.

*~*~*

After a dinner that everyone agreed was delicious, Fr. Mike's parents, Sibyll and Lewellyn, joined the group.  In no time at all, the family had their instruments out and several members of the band joined them for some impromptu Irish music. 

As a soft, romantic tune began, Catherine took a seat beside JenniAnn at one of the picnic tables.  "My turn!" she declared, reaching for Belle.

JenniAnn laughed.  "Okay.  But I thought you might want to dance with Vincent."

"We can dance later.  Maybe you and Andrew should.  Or talk at least.  With answering everyone's questions and making sure everyone's comfortable, it seems like you've hardly had a chance to say two words to each other since we got down here."

"Yeah...  Where is..."  JenniAnn smiled when she saw Andrew sitting alone, a few feet up one of the hills.  "I'd like that.  Thank you."  She transferred Belle to her grandma.

As Catherine fussed over the baby, JenniAnn stood and headed towards the angel of death.

Andrew smiled when he noticed her.  "Hi, Laja."  He rose and pulled her into a tight hug.

JenniAnn nuzzled his shoulder.  "Hi..."

They sat on the grass and peered down at the field. 

"It's so amazing..." JenniAnn murmured.

"Sort of like celebrating four holidays all at once, I was thinking," Andrew responded.  "Easter, of course.  Thanksgiving for dinner.  And right now it sort of seems like a mix between St. Patrick's Day and Valentine's Day."

JenniAnn nodded, smiling as her gaze fell on Joshua who was helping Shelby, Jacob, and some of the other Tunnel children hunt for Easter eggs.  A few yards over, a number of people were slow dancing. 

"Oh... look at Arthur and Monica."

Andrew smiled.  "I think Monica's as close to in Heaven now as she can be without being in Heaven: Irish music, coffee, dancing with Arthur, and Joshua and several friends nearby.  Feeling pretty heavenly myself, actually."

"Me too.  Especially...  Sheesh!  Did you just see that?  Violeta almost bowled over Sy.  Gosh, now he's walking away.  I hope she didn't rattle him or... Oh..."

Andrew only smiled as Sy made his way to a picnic table where Ivy sat.  With no hesitation, the girl was on her feet and the two headed to the dance area.

"You know, Violeta asked me this morning if I knew for sure if the Wilson kids were coming.  She seemed extremely happy when I confirmed that they were.  I think there's been some girl talk going on back at Cora's," Andrew surmised.

"I... I think so.  They're so cute!  Oh and Emma and Peter are dancing and... aww."

Andrew chuckled.  "Maryam and Yosef?"

JenniAnn peered at them, feeling as if the happy endings from all of her favorite fairy tales had converged in the couple.  "Uh huh..." 

"They're soul mates, Laja," Andrew softly whispered.  "Always have been."

"So that... that doesn't go away in Heaven?"

"It only gets stronger.  All love does.  Tends to happen when you're surrounded by Love Himself."  Andrew brushed some fly-away hair behind her ear.  "You know why I came up here?"

"Cause you like watching from hills?" JenniAnn guessed.

Andrew smiled.  "Well, yeah.  But beyond that."

"Why then?"

The angel waved to all of the people.  "Remember all those times it was just us and we wondered what would become of Dyeland?"

"I do..."

"This is what's become of it.  This is who we'll be raising Belle with, who we will celebrate milestones with, who we'll grow old with.  I can feel it.  I know it."

JenniAnn hugged his arm.  "And I... I am very glad of it.

Andrew nodded effusively.  "Me too.  And I just wanted to step back and take it all in for a little bit but now we've done that so... you want to go join the others down there dancing?"

JenniAnn nodded eagerly.  "I would love that."

From where he stood lifting Jacob so he could reach an egg perched in a tree branch, Joshua saw the two coming down the hill.  He smiled. 

"Joshua?" 

Feeling a simultaneous tug on his shirt, Joshua turned to April.  "What is it, honey?"

"Can we dance, too, or is it only for grown-ups?"

Joshua smiled.  "It's definitely not only for grown-ups.  C'mon!"

As Joshua led the children over to the dancers, the ballad ended and a reel started.  While some of the children replicated steps Miss Kemara had taught them, others hopped and twirled around in random, reckless abandon with Joshua vacillating effortlessly between the two styles.  The energy and joy were too great to be ignored and soon everyone was on their feet. 

As the sun began to set, the Fields of Gold remained filled with laughter, cheers, and celebration.  To an outsider, it would have been impossible to tell who had lived there for years from those who had only been introduced hours before.  Joshua knew that, in time, the distinctions would become fewer and fewer leaving a wholly and eternally united group of friends.

*~*~*

Wonderful Counselor

Monday, April 21st

As Joshua finished packing his clothes and preparing to move from Cora's to Willowveil, Ivy watched him from the window seat.  In spite of all attempts not to, she began to cry.

Joshua turned around and, seeing her tears, hurried to Ivy.  He sat beside her, wrapped his arms around her, and kissed her forehead.  "What's wrong, my girl?"

Ivy sniffled.  "I... I really do want to see Grandma but I don't want to leave.  And I... I just keep thinking that if I feel this way right now, knowing I'll be back on Friday, then... then what's it going to feel like next Monday?"

Joshua gently rocked her.  "It'll be hard, Ivy.  I know it will.  And it's okay to cry... I'll be crying, too.  But I'll know that it's not the end.  We'll have more time together, all of us and just the two of us.  And here's what I want you to do this week: I want you to go back to school and learn as much as you can and be the best friend you can be and hug Leo and your grandma and Mark and love them all and everyone you meet as best as you can.  Because when you do that, my Spirit is there with you.  And then Friday afternoon, I'll come get you and we'll settle into Dyeland and then you, me, Violeta, and Kemara are going to have a great time at Wicked.  And when Monday rolls around... just remember that I am always, always loving you.  And you have so much to look forward to, Ivy.  Day by day, it'll get easier and you'll have friends here and in Dyeland who you can visit.  They'll be feeling the same things and you can listen to and support each other."

"Yeah..."  Ivy drew in a deep breath.  "That will be really good.  I... I never thought I'd have so many friends.  And definitely not any guy friends like..."  Her face flushed, making her freckles all the more visible.

Joshua chuckled.  "Sy?"

Ivy giggled and nodded.  "He is very nice... and cute."

"I agree.  But I tend to think you're all cute," Joshua teased.  He embraced the girl again.  "You're stronger than you realize, Ivy.  You always have been."

"'
I can do all things through Him who strengthens me...'"

Joshua smiled.  "Yes, you can.  Now... I'm almost done here and then let's load up the car and the van.  We'll get the things you're leaving unpacked at Willowveil and then on we go!"

"On we go..." Ivy echoed, feeling far less distressed.

*~*~*

Robert and Allison waited anxiously in their daughter's former bedroom.  The latter lunged forward when JenniAnn's stepped out of her closet with Belle in her arms.

"There's my baby!" the woman greeted, clamoring for Belle.

JenniAnn laughed.  "Guess I've been demoted!"

Allison kissed her cheek.  "Oh you know you're still my baby but you're just not very..."

"Portable," Robert finished for his wife.

A moment later, Andrew exited the closet with one of Ivy's bags.  "Hi!" he greeted.  "Looks like Belle's already found her way to Grandma."

"Not for long if I have any say in the matter."  Robert beamed at his granddaughter and kissed her hand then hugged both Andrew and JenniAnn.  "So what's Ivy think of all this?"

"So cool..." the girl murmured as she stepped away from the portal.  "And this one's very Narnian!"

"But not very convenient back in the day!" JenniAnn countered with a wry smile.  "I asked our friend, Cliff, to put it there because then it would be hidden but somehow it didn't occur to me that it'd mean losing half my closet space!  I guess it's a good thing I wore a uniform for a lot of that time."

"And you looked so cute in it!" Allison gushed.  "So is it just the three of you or..."

Joshua appeared, smiling from ear to ear.  "Hi, Allison and Robert!"

The couple were surprised when he sat down the bag he was carrying and hugged them both.

"Joshua, it's so nice to have you with us," Allison greeted.  "Did you enjoy the rest of your Easter?"

Joshua nodded.  "Oh yeah.  It was great!  Easter's always great."

Robert laughed.  "Big day for you, I guess," he teased, elbowing the man.

Joshua chuckled.  "Yeah.  It really is."

JenniAnn glanced over at her mother who looked utterly serious as she stared at Joshua. 

"Mom, you okay?" she checked.

Allison snuggled Belle and nodded.  "Oh yes."  She tore her gaze from Joshua and turned to her daughter.  "Well, I'm sure Ivy wants to get back to her grandma so we won't keep you.  Plus we'd like to get to the zoo before it gets too crowded.  When should we bring Belle back to Willowveil?"

"I think we should be settled in by 2:00 or so.  Any time after that," JenniAnn replied.  "Thanks for watching her!"

"Our pleasure.  Andrew, my car keys."  Robert handed them over to the angel. 

"Thanks!  We won't be long," Andrew promised.  He grinned.  "And I know: no texting, no speeding, and seat belts all around."

Robert laughed loudly.  "Right.  Although I think since you're now the father of my grandchild, I can trust you."

Joshua beamed as the two men hugged and clapped each other on the back.

Touched, JenniAnn hugged her parents and kissed Belle.  "See you soon."

Allison nodded.  "Ivy, we'll see you at the baptism if not before!"

Ivy smiled.  "I'll be there.  I can't wait." 

Joshua softly squeezed Belle's hand and smiled at her grandparents.  "Take care, Allison and Robert."

"You, too," Robert replied. 

The couple stood together and watched as the four stepped into the hall, went down the stairs, and left the house.

"Robert, there... there's seriously something going on with that Joshua fellow," Allison insisted. 

Robert shrugged.  "I know he's a little... friendly.  But Andrew would never let him near the girls if he thought there was any impropriety or..."

"But that's my point!  Andrew moved the guy in!  Who would Andrew trust that much?"

"Another angel?"

"With parents?"

"So who do you think he is?"

Allison glanced over at the crucifix on the wall.

Robert squeezed her shoulders.  "Honey... it was a role.  He's an actor."

"I... I'm just not sure about that right now."  Allison rested her cheek on Belle's curls.

Robert sobered.  "Don't you think JenniAnn would tell us if..."

"When would she have?  Who knows how long she's known?  And would we have believed her?  And I spose it's possible she doesn't know.  But I think she does... something in her eyes.  She doesn't even look at Andrew like that!"

Robert sat on the edge of JenniAnn's old bed and held his head in his hands.  "Wow..."

Allison sat beside him.  "Yeah..."

Belle simply cooed and giggled in he grandma's arms.

*~*~*

JenniAnn turned and looked into the backseat when Andrew parked in front of the Lee residence.  She frowned when she saw Ivy was clinging to Joshua's arm with her face buried in his shoulder.  Joshua himself had tears in his eyes.  JenniAnn glanced over at Andrew in time to see him swipe at his own eyes.

"Ivy, your Grandma's on the porch," Joshua murmured when he saw the woman step out and smile and wave.

"Kay..."  Ivy drew in a few deep breaths. 

Andrew smiled encouragingly at her.  "Now you keep calling and texting Violeta.  Let us know how you're doing."

Joshua nodded.  "And Violeta will know my schedule.  We can talk.  Okay?"

"Yeah."  Ivy rubbed her eyes.  "Okay...  I'm fine now.  Only three whole days and two part ones and then I'll be back and we'll go see Wicked."  She smiled at Joshua.  "You're going to come meet Grandma, aren't you?"

"Sure.  You ready?"

"Ready."

With that, the four exited the car.  Doreen hurried to Ivy and swept her up into a hug as Leo pranced at their feet.

"Hi Grandma!  Even though everyone was just... just wonderful... I missed you!" Ivy warmly returned her Grandma's embrace before stooping down to pick up her dog.  "How was the retreat?"

"Very, very good!  I'll tell you more about it later.  I missed you so much!  How was your visit?  And your Easter?  And..."  Doreen laughed and turned to Andrew and JenniAnn and hugged them both.  "Sorry!  I didn't mean to neglect you two.  It's so good to see you!  Thank you for taking such good care of my grandbaby and getting her back here.  Oh!"  She spotted Joshua standing on the opposite side of the car.  "I don't believe we've met."

Joshua walked around the car and took Doreen's hand.  "Hi Doreen.  My name's Joshua," he greeted.

Doreen blinked.  "Something about your voice... so familiar."

Andrew drew in a shaky breath and squeezed JenniAnn's hand as he remembered nearly a year before when he had seen Joshua holding Doreen and talking to her as she repented.

"It's a good voice," the woman continued.  "And you... you remind me of... of a sculpture my daughter made."

Joshua smiled.  "Ivy's told me about it and I've seen the sculpture myself.  It's a stunning Pieta.  Your daughter was very talented."

Doreen blinked back tears but smiled.  "She really was.  She's really sculpting for Jesus now, I like to believe."

Joshua squeezed her hand.  "I know she is."

Doreen nodded and rested her other hand over his for a moment.  "Well, I'd love to have you all in for coffee but I'm sure you're in a hurry to be on your way.  Are you driving back or flying?"

Ivy peeked over at Andrew and JenniAnn who both smiled at her.

"Actually, Doreen, we'll take you up on that coffee if you're willing," JenniAnn replied.  "We'd like to talk to ya about a couple things if you don't mind."

"Well, sure!  Come on in!  And I'd sure like to see some more photos of that little girl of yours!"  Doreen waved them all towards the house.

Joshua winked at Ivy before he and Andrew grabbed her bags.

Happy to have their parting put off for a while longer, Ivy smiled and walked to the house alongside Joshua.  Once they were all situated, she looked on with amusement and relief as Andrew and JenniAnn explained about portals and Dyeland and made their plea for having her visit them on Friday after school and taking her out of school on Monday.

"Well, I'm not going to argue with an angel!" Doreen responded.  "If you say it's important then I trust that it's important.  Sure, she can go.  I'll just tell the school it was an important family milestone that she couldn't miss.  In fact, I'll just outright tell them it was an out of town baptism.  No Catholic school is going to debate the importance of that!"

Ivy let out the breath she'd been holding and, not thinking, squealed and hugged Joshua.

Joshua only smiled and patted Ivy's back.

Though she had a moment's thought that this display of affection should concern her, Doreen found herself staring at the man and deciding she liked him very much.  Whoever he was, a voice deep inside her that she'd learn to trust in the past months told her that she could and, in fact, must trust him with her granddaughter.

Beneath the table, JenniAnn tapped on Andrew's foot.

He smiled as he translated the Tunnel code: "I think someone else is on the verge of the truth..."

"Hope so," he replied.

"Me too!  Also, you look very studly awesome in that sweater."

"Laja!"

"Just saying..."

JenniAnn smiled innocently as Andrew's face flushed pink.

*~*~*

After parting from Doreen and a more settled Ivy; Andrew, JenniAnn, and Joshua drove back to the Chandler residence to return the car.  Once they were in Dyeland, Joshua took the Jolly Green and returned to Cora's where he loaded up Emma's settee.  From there, he went to St. Genesius' to pack up one very special item.  After spending some time in traffic, Joshua made his way to a school.  Since classes weren't in session, he easily found a parking space near the side door.  He hadn't even exited the van when the door flew open.

Joshua smiled as Shane hurried towards him.  Meeting him halfway, he embraced the teacher. 

"Happy Easter Monday," Shane greeted.

"It is, thank you.  And yours?" Joshua replied, clapping the man on the back.

"Even better now.  So I appreciate you stopping by... a lot.  But I am curious why you wanted it to be here."  Shane looked on as Joshua headed to the back of the van and opened it. 

Joshua's eyes twinkled.  "I have something of yours.  I thought I'd deliver it."  He beckoned for Shane.

As soon as he saw one of the items in the back, Shane burst out laughing.  "The throne!"  He helped Joshua pull it out.

"All yours.  I thought maybe it wouldn't look too out of place in your reading corner here.  The kids might like it."

"The kids will love it!  Thank you!"  Shane again hugged Joshua as soon as they had the chair on the ground. 

"I brought lunch, too.  I thought we could get the chair situated and talk for a little bit?"

A lump formed in Shane's throat.  "Yeah.  I... I'd love that."

"Then let's head up!"

Joshua slung a bag from the front seat over his shoulder and then he and Shane carried Herod's throne into the school, to the elevator, and into Shane's classroom.

"I love how you decorated for Spring!" Joshua enthused when they stepped inside.  Once they'd sat the chair down, he made a beeline for a bulletin board covered with handcrafted flowers, butterflies, and bees.

Shane grinned.  "I bet you can guess who made each one."

Joshua tilted his head and considered.  "Let's see...  Ian, Chase, Jenna, Nevaeh, Riley, Caden, Aubrey, Cheyenne, Zoey, Travis, Cesar, Sebastian, Summer, Nolan, Brody, Lilly, Peyton, Oscar, Diego, Jada, and... you."

Shane laughed.  "Right!  100%, A+.  I found my flower when I was going through a box of stuff Mom found in the attic.  I remembered how much fun I had making it in Mrs. Tarry's class so I brought it in to show the kids as an example.  They insisted it be included."

"As it should be."  Joshua smiled at the teacher and returned to the chair.  Soon the two had it situated amid bookshelves that Shane had set up in a corner of the room.

Shane ran his hand over the back of the chair.  "This'll be so great!  I think it's going to be quite an incentive to earn free time to sit in the Reading Throne."

"I hope so."

"And Chase, Nevaeh, Cesar, and Summer will be thrilled.  They haven't stopped talking about the show since they went.  I'm just glad they're old enough to distinguish fiction from reality or else I think they'd be none too fond of me!  They loved you."

Joshua thought fondly of the four fourth graders who had swarmed him after one of the shows.  "They're great kids.  They all are.  And they love their teacher.   And you are a great teacher, Shane.  Don't let anyone ever make you think any differently."

Tears welled in Shane's eyes.  "You know?  But I thought... the whole 'live feed' thing..."

Joshua led Shane to one of the art tables, indicating for him to sit down.  "Dad told me."

Shane stared down at his folded hands.  "I... I guess I should have, too.  Sorry."

Joshua reached into his bag and pulled out a smaller, insulated sack from which he produced two sandwiches, grape juice, peaches, hummus and carrot sticks, and cranberry oatmeal cookies.  After sitting them on the table, Joshua sat across from Shane and took his hands.

"Dad, we thank You for this meal.   May this time together give Shane the peace and encouragement he needs.  Amen."

"Amen," Shane quietly echoed.

Joshua squeezed both of Shane's hands before releasing them.  "I understand why you didn't tell me.  You were so happy at the theatre.  You wanted to put the rest away while we were there."

Shane laughed quietly.  "You've got me pegged... unsurprisingly."

"I do.  And even though I've heard from Dad, I'd like to hear about it from you, Shane," Joshua encouraged.

Shane took a bite of the sandwich.  "Chicken salad...  Thank you."

"I know about your love of that, too," Joshua teased.

Shane smiled before drawing in a deep breath and beginning.  "I'm just having a time of it with Brody's mom.  Harlowe.  She says I don't give him enough attention and that his grades show it.  Joshua, that kid excels at Language Arts, History, Spanish, Theatre, and he adores going to the library.  He'll probably be the first one to start vying for time in the Reading Throne.  But Math... we try and we try but other than the basics, he struggles so much.  Science is better but not great grades-wise.  I don't know what else to do.  I tried tutoring him but I felt like it was just frustrating him even more.  That's just not where his strengths lie... and he has so many of them.  But Harlowe can't see that.  She's fixated on the Science and Math grades.  She called for a meeting with me... then several.  And I met her for every one.  Now she's meeting with Dr. Keating.  And a couple weeks ago, I overheard Harlowe badmouthing me to some of the other parents.  I'm concerned about that but, even more, about Brody living with that.  At least I can get away."

"So what does Brody think?"

Shane looked up at Joshua.  "Actually, he told me that I was his favorite teacher."

"Huh."  Joshua began to slice up one of the peaches.

Shane watched him for a moment then smiled.  "I'm teaching Brody... not Harlowe."

Joshua nodded.  "Yes, you are.  And by Brody's account, you're doing a wonderful job.  Harlowe has her reasons for being the way she is.  I'm not saying that to excuse her.  But I want you to know that her complaints... Shane, they say a lot more about her than about you.  And Fred knows that.  But he learned a long time ago to just let parents like Harlowe say what they feel they need to say.  And the other parents... they know you.  They know you'd do anything for their kids.  Harlowe's a fixer.  She thinks she can make anything happen like she thinks it should happen.  Well, she can't control her little boy.  And that's a good thing.  Because I know Brody's future and it's definitely not as an engineer or mathematician.  You just keep supporting him as he is and that'll go a long way in protecting him from Harlowe's pushing.  And one day she'll learn."

Shane let out a sigh of relief.  "Thank you, Josh.  That... I feel so much better.  And I guess I should have known all that but you hear of so many incidents of great teachers being let go due to budget restraints and not having certain accreditation and I worry that the slightest black mark on my record..."

Joshua patted his arm.  "Don't worry.  Whether here or elsewhere, you'll always be a teacher, Shane, and a treasured one.  Here."  He held out a peach slice.  "I suppose it would have been more appropriate to bring an apple but I know you've never been very fond of them."

Shane laughed and happily accepted the peach slice.  "Thank you."

"You're welcome." 

Shane was silent for a few moments as he ate and ran Joshua's words through his head in hopes of always remembering them.  When he was sure he had them committed, he rose and went to his desk to retrieve a book.

"Something I made for you," he explained as he set the book near Joshua.

"Is this what I think it is?" Joshua asked with a grin.

"Probably."  Shane sat beside him.

Joshua opened the cover and laughed.  "It is!  Our selfies!  Shane... this is great." 

"I added some comments... with my special pens."

Joshua's laughter increased as he came to the third photo.  "Yikes.  Don't let that one out.  I look demonic."

"Don't feel bad.  My eyes are freaky in a few.  And my hair's all staticky in a couple, too.  But I still love them all."

After turning another page, Joshua beamed at Shane.  "Me too... and you."

With a lump in his throat, Shane could only respond by squeezing Joshua's hand and remaining beside him as they looked through the photo album.

*~*~*

Emma and Peter sat in the lobby of their building, awaiting Joshua's arrival.

"I thought maybe Thursday, if you wanted, we could start moving some more of your stuff here," Peter offered in an attempt to keep Emma focused.  He could tell she was growing nervous about her counseling appointment.  "Andrew said he'd lend me the van."

Emma laced her fingers through his.  "I'd like that a lot.  Thank you.  Not much to move so it shouldn't take very long!"

Peter smiled.  "There's enough to make the place less stark.  And your time with Maryam tomorrow will help with that."

Emma nodded.  "That's going to be really nice.  And JenniAnn invited us to tag along on some pre-Baptism shopping after that and then a bunch of us are having tea at Willow...  What is it again?"

"Willowveil, I think."

"Right.  So... I think they're trying to keep me occupied until Joshua comes back which I really appreciate."

Peter rested his other hand over hers.  "Me too.  And remember to call if you want me to leave work early.  No meeting is worth..."

Emma kissed his cheek.  "I know.  And I will.  But I think I'll be okay."

"You will be.  Emma, you're one of the bravest people I know... and we know some very brave people."

"We do.  But I don't know about me..."

"You came to New York City when you knew only one person here.  At seventeen.  And you stuck it out.  That's really brave!" Peter complimented.

Emma didn't reply.  She hugged Peter's arm as she let his words sink in.

They both looked up when they heard the door open. 

"Joshua!" Emma cried, hurrying to him with Peter.

Joshua smiled as they both hugged him at once.  "Hi, Emma and Peter.  How's your day been?"

Emma simply grinned and stared for a moment so Peter spoke first.

"Pretty good, thanks.  Quiet day at the office.  I've been looking forward to your visit all day."  Peter smiled at Joshua before turning to Emma.

Keeping hold of Joshua's hand, Emma nodded.  "Mine was really good, too.  Samson spent yesterday with his family and told me all about it.  They had a great time!  All the customers were in good moods... and Dusty, too!  And your parents stopped in for breakfast.  How about your day?"

"Really good!  Got my stuff moved to Willowveil and then Andrew, JenniAnn, and I took Ivy back to her house.  I dropped the throne off at Shane's school and had lunch with him.  And now I'm here!"  Joshua hugged the two again.

"I'm so glad!  Well, it's not quite time for my appointment so do you want to come up to our apartment for a while?" Emma invited.

Joshua nodded eagerly.  "I do but we have to go outside for just a little bit first."

Emma looked confused for a moment but simply shrugged.  "Oh, okay."

Peter bowed his head and smiled as he followed them out. 

"Isn't that Andrew's van?" Emma asked when they turned into the parking lot.

"Yeah.  We switched cars for the day," Joshua replied.  "I needed the room."  He unlocked the back door and opened it.  "Had to return this, after all."

"Oh!  The settee!  I should have known!"  Emma pulled both Peter and Joshua into another hug. 

Joshua patted her back.  "Let's get it out so you can get a better look."

Once they had the settee on the pavement, both Emma and Peter admired it.  In addition to refinishing it, Joshua had added some simple, elegant carving on the arms, legs, and back. 

"Joshua... it's beautiful.  Wow..."  Peter's eyes misted.  He knew that, as much work as he'd put into it, Joshua had put even more love in.

Emma sniffled.  "I... I loved it before but now... so much more."

Joshua beamed at them both.  "I'm so glad.  Now how about we see how it looks in your room, Emma?"

"Yes... yes, please," she agreed.

The three easily maneuvered the piece into the building and up to the apartment.  As Joshua and Peter were sliding it into place, Emma glimpsed the folded hoodie on the dresser.

"It looks so perfect!" she exclaimed. 

"It really does," Peter agreed, reaching for Emma's hand.  "I told you I thought it had potential but this!  Joshua, you're a miracle work... well, I guess we already knew that."

Joshua laughed and clapped Peter on the back.  "I enjoyed working on it.  But now I'm glad that it's where it belongs."

"Me too..."  Emma sighed, running her hand along one of the arms before stepping away and going to the dresser.  "Before I forget again..."  She picked up the white hoodie.  "I, umm, ended up with this that night after the... the club."

Joshua stroked her hair.  "I know."

Emma smiled slightly and held the hoodie out to him.  "Thank you for letting me borrow it."

Joshua took the sweatshirt and unfolded and unzipped it.  "Thank you, Emma, for returning it.  But I think it looks better on you."  He placed it around her shoulders.

Emma met his gaze.  "Real-really?"

"Really."

Emma stepped into Joshua's embrace and rested her head on his shoulder.  "Thank you.  I... I really didn't want to give it back."

Joshua smiled at Peter and kissed Emma's hair.  "I know.  But I appreciate that you were willing to."

"I wanted to wear it to my session."

"Then I think you should."

"Okay."

"Good." 

Emma kissed Joshua's cheek then stepped back to put on the hoodie.

With a gentle smile, Peter helped extricate her hair from beneath it.  "I never saw it on Joshua so I can't compare but it definitely looks good on you."

"Thanks." 

"Peter, your gift is coming," Joshua promised.  "I just need a little more time."

Peter reached for his hand.  "I... I feel like I've been given so many gifts since February, Joshua.  To receive another..."

"It'll be my honor to give it to you."  Joshua smiled.  "It's one you'll find useful in time."

Content to leave it as a mystery, Peter replied with a silent hug.

*~*~*

Emma drew in a deep breath as she faced the door bearing the name Amber-Marie Sayer, M.D.  She turned around, squeezed Peter's and Joshua's hands, and again faced the door.  After a moment, she turned the knob and stepped into the office.

It was not what she'd been expecting.  The waiting area looked more like a living room. 

"Hi!" a woman seated in a recliner greeted.  "You must be Emma!"  She rose and approached the three.

Emma nodded.  "Yes.  Emma Dawes.  I'm a little early."

The woman held out her hand and warmly shook Emma's.  "My name's Gayle and I'm Dr. Sayer's assistant.  I'll let her know you're here while you and your guests make yourselves comfortable.  There's coffee and tea over there.  And today we even have cookies!  I felt ambitious this morning."

"O-okay.  Thank you." 

Peter approached and took Emma's hand.  "Wow...  This place is so... not at all clinical."

Joshua smiled.  "That's important to Amber-Marie.  She wants her patients to feel at home.  Catherine chose well.  You'll really like her, Emma."

Before any more could be said, Gayle returned with another woman.

"Emma, Dr. Sayer.  Dr. Sayer..."

"Oh my!"  The psychiatrist's face lit up.  "How wonderful to see you three!  I'm sorry!  I must be confusing you.  You see, I saw Jesus Christ Superstar at St. Genesius' two weeks ago.  You all were phenomenal!  And the show... so amazing!  Easily the best production of it I've seen." 

Peter snuck a glance at Joshua who had turned away.  Peter was sure he was hiding a knowing smile.

"Oh, umm... thanks!"  Emma smiled at the doctor.  "I'm so glad you liked it, Dr. Sayer.  So this is Peter who played Peter and Joshua who..."

Dr. Sayer's eyes filled.  "Jesus..."

Joshua clasped her right hand in both of his when he saw her reach out then start to draw her hand back, her cheeks flushing.  "I'm pleased to meet you, Dr. Sayer.  Thank you so much for coming to our show."

"I loved it..."

"I'm so glad."  Joshua smiled gently at her.

With the tension broken, Emma found herself giggling quietly at the sight of the dazzled doctor. 

Mindful of her new patient, Dr. Sayer allowed herself only a moment to gape at Joshua before turning to Emma.  "Well, Emma, would you like to head back now or wait until 4:00?"

Emma bit her lip.  She'd wanted a few minutes with Joshua and Peter but Dr. Sayer's enthusiastic response had put her at ease and she didn't want to give the anxiety time to build again. 

"Maybe if I could have just a moment?" she requested.

Dr. Sayer nodded.  "You bet."  She and Gayle moved to the other side of the room to give the three privacy.

Emma hugged Joshua and Peter.  "Please don't feel like you need to wait here.  I saw some shops downstairs.  That might be more amusing.  And I'll call if... if anything changes.  But I'd just feel better knowing you were both doing something fun.  I... I know you didn't have a whole lot of one-on-one time together because of... of..."

Peter kissed her hand.  "I have no regrets, Emma.  Joshua was always with me."

Joshua nodded.  "I was.  But I'll make sure we have some fun."

Emma smiled.  "Thank you.  I should be out by 5:30."

"We'll be sure to be back by then," Peter vowed.

"Thanks," Emma murmured.  "I'm going to go now."

"You'll do just fine, Emma.  I know you will," Joshua reassured. 

Emma pulled her hoodie more closely around her and, after another smile for each of them, went to join Dr. Sayer.

*~*~*

True to his word, Joshua did his best to keep Peter occupied and entertained.  Much to the amusement of some other patrons, they spent several minutes taking turns playing an old Pac-Man game inside a diner where they'd stopped for a snack.  When the novelty and nostalgia wore off, they returned to the street and walked along a line of shops.

"Anything pique your interest?" Joshua asked.

Peter looked around and then, noticing a sign across the street, nodded.  "Yes... maybe."

"Which one?"

Peter pointed.

Joshua smiled.  "Sounds like a good idea."

"Really?"  Peter gazed at the jewelry store.  "I was thinking of getting an engagement ring."

"I figured."

"I mean not that I'd ask Emma any time soon.  I don't want to rush her.  But... it would be nice to get your opinion."

Joshua rested his hand on Peter's back.  "Then let's go."

As soon as there was a break in traffic, the two hurried across the street and into the jewelry store.  They'd barely had time to catch their breaths when a clerk approached.

"Hello!  My name's Debora.  Welcome to Armand's Jewelry!  How can I help you?"

"Engagement ring," Peter got out.  "Please."

Debora grinned.  "Well, how wonderful!  Are you two the happy couple?"

Peter began to choke.

Chuckling, Joshua set his hand on Peter's back and shook his head.  "No.  Actually, this is my son."

Debora cocked her head.  "Your... your son?"

Peter only smiled giddily.

Joshua nodded.  "Yep."

"Oh... well, okay...  I'm sorry for the assumption but you, sir, don't look at all old enough to have a son buying an engagement ring!" Debora exclaimed.

Joshua smiled at her.  "Thank you.  And no need for an apology.  I'm older than I look."

"I see...  Huh.  Well, are you looking for something in particular, young man?" Debora asked Peter.

"Umm..." Peter looked to Joshua.

"I think right now we'll just browse if that's okay," Joshua replied.

"Of course."  Debora smiled again and walked away. 

Joshua resumed chuckling when he saw her step behind a counter and begin to whisper to another clerk. 

"I think I really threw her for a loop but... it was a true answer."

Peter smiled.  "Yeah.  It was.  So... I don't even know where to begin.  I mean we've discussed a lot but favorite gemstone hasn't come up at all.  It seems like Emma wears more silver than gold but I don't know if that means she prefers silver or if it's just what she has.  Emerald would be her birthstone so maybe..."

"Emerald's a good choice," Joshua agreed.

Peter made his way over to a case of emerald rings. 

Joshua stood quietly by his side as Peter looked.

Peter began to point then seemed to think better of it. 

"What one were you considering?" Joshua asked.

Peter pointed to a gold band with an emerald in the center.  Smaller diamonds were on either side of it.  "It caught my eye but maybe it's too small, especially for an engagement ring."

Joshua smiled and shook his head.  "No, it's not.  That's the one I would have chosen.  Peter, Emma will love that one.  It looks a lot like her Grandma's engagement ring."

"Does Emma have her Grandma's ring?"

Joshua frowned and shook his head.  "She was supposed to but... no."

Peter sighed.  "Then that... that's it."  His eyes welled when he again looked down at it.  "Emma's ring..."

Joshua hugged him.  "I'll go get Debora."

As Joshua walked away, Peter continued to gaze at the ring, imagining the day he would give it to Emma.

*~*~*

"So, Emma, tell me about your support system," Dr. Sayer encouraged several minutes into their session. 

"Well, up until these last months, I guess I didn't have much of one.  Or I didn't recognize I did, I guess.  Doug and Lucy, they own the theatre, were always very good to me and helped me out.  But I never really confided in them.  And then Lucy died and Doug went to stay with their son...  I felt really adrift.  But then the show came back together and I started spending time with Peter... and then Joshua..."  Emma began to play with the zipper of the hoodie, smiling as she did.

"You mentioned your boyfriend when you called to schedule this.  Is he supportive?"

Emma nodded readily.  "Oh yeah.  Definitely.  That's Peter.  He's been amazing.  And we've got Joshua looking out for us.  Actually, he, umm, him and his mom know the most about what happened."

Dr. Sayer smiled.  "Joshua's mother is a friend of yours?"

"A really good one.  I haven't spoken to my own mother in years so Maryam... she... she's my mother now."  Emma sighed as grateful tears welled in her eyes.  She pulled Maryam's handkerchief from her pocket.

"I'm so glad you have love and support from another woman, a mother figure, in your life, Emma.  That's so important."

"Definitely.  And I'm becoming close with the other girls from the show, too.  We're all getting together tomorrow actually.  I just..."  Emma frowned and bowed her head.

"Take your time, Emma.  And remember that, no matter what you have to say, it'll be kept confidential and I will not judge you," Dr. Sayer promised.

"Yeah...  Thanks.  I guess that's part of what bothers me.  I feel safer now than when... well, I feel safer now than I ever have.  See, I'm actually living with Peter now.  Separate bedrooms.  We're not rushing anything.  And knowing he's just a wall away... that makes me feel safe.  And for the first time, I believe... I know that God forgives me and loves me.  And I have all these friends... incredible friends.  We all... we had the most beautiful day together yesterday but still... last night I woke up twice with my heart pounding and my limbs shaking," Emma admitted.  "They weren't so bad that I felt like I needed to wake up Peter but... but I thought that they'd go away now that my life is so much better and I feel so much stronger."

With a gentle smile, Dr. Sayer shook her head.  "Emma, it's more complicated than that.  I know we haven't gotten a chance to talk much about what you experienced in your hometown and about the molestation but you've told me enough for me to recognize that it was extremely traumatic.  And trauma... it alters your brain.  And that's not something you can control or make go away just by being happy.  Think of it this way: if you fractured your arm, would you expect it to set and heal so long as you kept enjoying life and spending time with loved ones?"

"No..."

"Well, Emma, your brain's a part of your body, too.  And sometimes it needs medical intervention just like a broken bone would.  You said that this new peace you feel, it's relatively new?"

"About a week... and it's grown especially strong only in the past few days."  Emma smiled to herself as she thought about her time in Eternity with Joshua.

"So it's still pretty new.  Let's wait a week or two and see how you do with just talk therapy and continuing to settle into your new life.  But if the anxiety keeps up, would you consider medication?"

"I think so.  I'd like to talk to Joshua first."

Dr. Sayer's face betrayed some surprise.

Emma blushed.  "He just, umm, knows a lot.  Not that I think you don't.  Of course you do."  She gestured to the diplomas on the wall.  "He just umm... with knowing my history..."

The psychiatrist reached over to pat Emma's hand.  "I understand completely.  I'm very glad you have someone you can trust like that.  And Jesus, no less!"  She smiled.

Emma returned the smile.  "Yeah...  So, like, should I tell you now about what happened?"

"Do you feel like you're ready to?"

Emma nodded.  "I think so."

"Then let's try and, if you decide you don't want to continue, we'll talk about something else.  Okay?"

Comforted by Dr. Sayer's laid back attitude, Emma began to tell her story.

*~*~*

Joshua and Peter had only been waiting for a few minutes when Emma returned to the lobby.  After thanking Dr. Sayer, who waved to both men, Emma approached them.

"How did it go?" Peter asked with some hesitation.

Emma embraced him and rested her head on his shoulder.  "Good.  Really good.  We covered a lot.  But now I'm really tired."

Joshua squeezed her hand.  "Let's get you home."

The ride back to the apartment was quiet.  Emma needed some time to reflect on her first session with Dr. Sayer and Joshua and Peter were eager to allow her that.  Occasionally Joshua glanced in the dashboard mirror and smiled at the sight of the couple.  Emma's head was nestled beneath Peter's chin, both had their eyes closed.  Peter prayed while Emma contemplated.

When they arrived at the apartment, Joshua parked and walked them in.

"Could you stay just for a few minutes?" Emma requested.  "I know you're due back at Willowveil for dinner but..."

Joshua nodded.  "I have time."

Sensing they needed some privacy, Peter moved towards the kitchen area.  "I'll get our dinner started, Emma.  Enchiladas still sound good?"

Emma smiled.  "Very.  Thank you."

Peter returned the smile and watched as Emma and Joshua stepped out onto the balcony.

As soon as the door was closed behind them, Emma hugged Joshua tightly.

Joshua closed his arms around the woman and gently swayed as she began to cry.

"My own..." he murmured.  "I'm sorry this is so difficult but I promise you that it'll be worth it.  Sometimes...  Do you remember when your grandparents would take you to the beach and, no matter how much sunscreen you put on, inevitably you'd end up with a sunburn somewhere?"

Emma laughed softly at the memory.  "Yeah.  Inevitably's the word!"

Joshua smiled.  "And then, after a while, it would start to itch and that was really uncomfortable.  But then..."

"Then it would be healed."

"Yeah."

"This is like that..."

"Yes, Emma."

Emma sighed and pulled back enough to meet Joshua's eyes.  "I really, really like Dr. Sayer.  She's wonderful.  It's just... hard to think so much about it all again.  But I know... it's always there.  Facing it head on is at least better than having those voices and memories always in... in the background.  So I know talking with her will help.  Although... she said I might need medication for the anxiety.  She said my brain... that trauma can alter it and... and talking and being happy won't necessarily make that heal on their own."

Joshua nodded.  "She's right."

Emma stared down at the ground.  "But... but can't you heal it?"

Joshua lifted her chin.  "Yes.  I can."

"Then... then will you?"  Emma's face flushed.  "I... I'm sorry!  You've already given me... all of us... so, so much... more than any of us deserve... and..."

Joshua embraced her again.  "Emma, it's not a matter of deserving.  Come, sit with me."  He led her to the bench and took her hands in his.  "I have a favor to ask you, Emma."

"Anything," Emma vowed.

"I heal people in many ways.  Sometimes directly... sometimes indirectly.  Sometimes doctors, therapists... they're my hands and my voice.  But some people... they don't recognize that.  They have no problem accepting that someone would take medication for diabetes or a heart condition.  Yet medications for depression or anxiety... too many people still think those would be unnecessary if the person just prayed harder or drew closer to me.  Psychological conditions often are physical conditions, too.  Taking medication for them is no sign of weakness or lack of faith."

Emma squeezed his hand.  "I know that."

"But not everyone does.  There's a stigma that's painfully real for too many people," Joshua lamented.  He rested his other hand over hers.  "Emma, one day people will look to you for guidance."

"Me?" Emma questioned.

Joshua smiled.  "Yes, you.  And Peter."

"You mean... children?  Our children?"

Seeing the joy in her eyes at the prospect, Joshua nodded.  "And then some.  They will see in you a woman of great faith.  Your advice is going to have a lotta sway with them."

Astounded but believing completely, Emma marveled silently for a few moments.  She stared out at the city and then through the glass door to where Peter was cooking.  Briefly, her hand alighted on her belly. 

Emma sighed and turned back to Joshua.  "You want me to tell them that once I struggled with anxiety and sleep terrors and they didn't go away even though... though I loved you and believed in you.  So I went to counseling and took medication... and it had nothing to do with a lack of faith in you.  And so if they have mental illness... it doesn't mean their faith is lacking... only that they're sick."

Joshua again embraced her.  "Yes.  Exactly.  Please.  You will get better, Emma.  And I'll be with you every step of the way."

Emma nodded against his shoulder.  "I'll tell them, Joshua."

"Thank you."  Joshua beamed at her and brushed some hair from her face.

Emma sighed.  "I should probably let you get going.  And I'd like to umm..."

Joshua chuckled when she glanced into the apartment.  "Watch Peter cook?"

"Well, it is a pretty attractive sight..." Emma replied with a grin.

Joshua continued to laugh.  "Then I won't deprive you any longer... but I will be back."

"Tomorrow.  Around 8:00?"

"Yes.  Then Ama will come around 9:00."

"And... and we'll all go where we need to go and then meet up at Willowveil later."  Emma squeezed Joshua's hands.  "Thank you."

"You're welcome."  Joshua smiled reassuringly and then, hand in hand, they re-entered the apartment. 

Peter smiled at the two as they entered.  "Good talk?"

"Very good," Emma replied as Joshua nodded.  "But Joshua has to get back to Dyeland now.  Maybe you could walk him out?" she suggested, knowing that Peter needed his time with Joshua, too.

"Sure!" Peter agreed.  "Joshua, you ready?"

Joshua hugged Emma once more.  "I am.  Thanks, Peter."

"Do I need to do anything with the food?" Emma checked.

Peter shook his head.  "Not right now."  He kissed her forehead.  "Be right back."

"Good."  Emma smiled at them both as they stepped into the hall.

Once they were in the elevator, Peter spoke.

"So... she's okay?"

Joshua nodded.  "Tonight might be a little rough.  And probably an early night.  But Emma knows she's on the right track... and that you're there with her."

Peter smiled gently.  "All the way."

"So... did you get the ring hidden?"

Peter grinned.  "Yeah.  I thought about putting it in a safety deposit box.  Maybe I still will.  But for right now... I like being able to look at it.  It's hidden in my bureau.  That area that pops out but shouldn't."

"Right.  Good spot."  Joshua clapped him on the back.  "Mazel tov!"

Peter hugged him.  "Thanks."

The elevator doors opened and they stepped into the lobby.

"Actually, that reminds me... I've been meaning to ask: why did you teach me Kaddish?  Why not Arthur or Max or Caleb or Edward?"

Joshua merely smiled.  "I have my reasons."

Peter chuckled.  "Will I know them?"

"Soon."  Having reached the van, Joshua hugged Peter.  "I'll see you tomorrow morning."

"Tomorrow," Peter echoed.  "Thank you, Joshua."

"Thank you, Peter."  Joshua smiled proudly at him.  "Have a good night!"

"You too.  I love you."

"I love you, too."  Joshua clasped Peter's hand in his for a moment before stepping into the Jolly Green.

Peter waved as he
started up the van and drove off.  He grinned as he watched Joshua go.  "Say to Daughter Zion, ‘See, your king comes to you, gentle and riding in a green minivan.'"

With a laugh, Peter hugged his shoulders and smiled up at the sky before hastening back to Emma.

*~*~*

Home Again

Andrew was in Belle's room, putting some of his own clothes in the only drawer that wasn't filled with tiny dresses and sleepers.  He frowned at the suit jacket and a couple dress shirts he intended to wear for the cast party and Belle's baptism.  Because the room had only ever been intended as an office, there was no closet.  Prior to Joshua's arrival, he'd been using the one in the guest room across the hall but someone might need the room.  Unsure what else to do, Andrew laid them on the couch.

Peeking around the corner, JenniAnn saw.  Silently, she turned away.

"Laja?" Andrew called.

"Yeah?" she answered from her room.

"What did your parents say when they called?"

JenniAnn hurriedly finished her task and stepped into the nursery.  "It was kinda weird, actually.  I asked them when they were bringing Belle back and Dad countered with 'When is Joshua due back?'  So I said dinnertime and then I asked if they wanted to join us for dinner.  Both him and mom practically shouted back 'Yes!'  So they're returning, with Belle, in about twenty minutes.  Maybe it's just a stall for more time with her."

"Maybe...  Or..."  Andrew smiled.

"Or they have suspicions about Joshua."  JenniAnn crouched beside Andrew and his suitcase.  "You really think they might?"

"Something about the way your mom especially looks at him..." the angel noted.

"That would be so lovely if they did know..."  JenniAnn sighed and squeezed Andrew's hand. 

"It would be," he agreed, bringing her hand to his lips.

"Guess we'll know soon..." 

"Yeah.  Now..."

When Andrew's attention was diverted to where some of Belle's accessories still lay clustered near the door, JenniAnn grabbed the jacket and shirts and headed into her room.

Noticing, Andrew chuckled.  "Laja, you can't 'borrow' those.  I need them.  I'm wearing them this weekend."

"I know."

When no further explanation came, Andrew stepped into JenniAnn's room and found her standing in front of her closet.

"That'll do, won't it?" she asked.

Andrew nodded.  "It'll do..." he replied as he looked at his shirts and jacket there among her dresses and blouses.  He pulled JenniAnn into his embrace.

JenniAnn nuzzled his shoulder.  "We share a child.  I think we can manage sharing a closet for a bit."

"Yes," he agreed. 

After lingering a moment, JenniAnn sighed and pulled away.  "We should probably start the pizzas."

"We should.  So how many people?" Andrew asked, turning his gaze away from the closet and to her.

"Well... Joshua, Maryam, Yosef, John, Fr. Mike, Kelly, Kemara, Max, Rose, Aunt Josephine, Violeta, my parents, Adam, Kylie, Clay, Monica, Arthur, Eli, and Henry."

"No Owen?"

"No Owen.  Apparently his parents have a traditional Easter Monday dinner.  So he's there." 

Andrew grinned.  "Wow..."

"Definitely wow."

"You know, I imagined a lot of things that might happen when Joshua came.  But, as always, he went beyond my imaginings," the angel of death observed.

"He's lovely..." JenniAnn murmured, glancing over at the portrait of Joshua that Owen had given her. 

Andrew squeezed her hand.

After a sigh, JenniAnn headed towards the hallway.  "So I'm thinking four pizzas should do it, don't you think?"

"I'm sure.  Especially since we have salad and breadsticks... well, will have the latter."

"Joshua..."

Andrew chuckled and nodded.  "Joshua."

Laughing, JenniAnn stepped into the hall.

Andrew lingered for just a moment, looking at the contents of the closet, and then followed.

*~*~*

Andrew kept an eye on JenniAnn as he rolled out dough and she chopped vegetables.  He hoped and prayed he wasn't wrong about Allison and Robert.  Maybe he should have kept his suspicions to himself.  But he knew she so badly wanted her parents to recognize Joshua.  He sympathized.  For years he'd longed to tell her about him.  Now he could... and had.  Still, he well remembered the frustration and longing.

After finishing with the last of the four crusts, Andrew began to grate the cheese.  Though the task required more of his attention, he still snuck glances at JenniAnn.

"I'll be all right.  Either way, I mean."

Andrew smiled.  They were both getting better at sensing each other's thoughts.  If Joshua's plan worked... and surely it would... Andrew could only imagine how much less they'd be able to hide from the other.  But he knew that wouldn't be a bad thing.

"I know," he replied.  "But I know you'd like for them to know."

"Yeah, I would.  For one... it'd make explaining why I'm replacing the close-up of Hofmann's 'Christ and the Rich Young Ruler' in the chapel with Owen's portrait of Joshua."

"I was wondering what they'd think of that..."  Andrew mused. 

"Dad would probably jump right to 'She's joined a cult!'  You know how he can be sometimes...  I mean think of how many years it took before he trusted you."  JenniAnn set down the knife and wrapped her arms around Andrew's middle.  "And who wouldn't trust you?"

Andrew chuckled.  "Laja, I'm gonna be honest with you.  If seventeen years from now Belle shows up with a guy who looks thirty five... I'm not sure I would trust him now matter who or what he said he was."

JenniAnn grinned then her face fell.  "Oh... but what if she does?!  Andrew, what could we say without seeming hypocritical?"

"We'll cross that bridge when we come to it."  He rested his cheek on her hair for a moment.  "In all likelihood, it won't even happen."

"True..."

"Laja?"

"Hmm?"

"I just... I wanted to say that... that I've really loved having Joshua near but I've also... these moments... with you... I think we've had more of them during this assignment than any since Max and I came back.  And they've meant a lot to me," Andrew's eyes welled.  "And I know there were points when... when I'm not sure... I mean I know Joshua wouldn't have given me this assignment if he thought I couldn't handle it.  But I think... I think he gave it to me because he knew you'd help me handle it.  And you did whether it was holding my hand during Act II rehearsals or... or that night at my house.  So... thank you."

"Love...  Thank you for bringing Belle and me that first night, for introducing us to Joshua, for listening to me when I was angsty and trying to puzzle it all out.  Andrew..."  JenniAnn rested her cheek against his shirt.

The oven timer sounded, notifying the two that it had finished pre-heating. 

Andrew smiled down at JenniAnn.  "Guess we better get back to the pizzas."

"Yeah...  Oh and I have something special planned for dessert.  I think you'll like it," JenniAnn tantalized.

Andrew chuckled.  "Red velvet cake?"

"Close but no..."

Knowing he would get no further hints, Andrew only smiled and began to slather the pizza crusts with sauce.

*~*~*

For the first few minutes after Allison's and Robert's arrival, nothing was out of the ordinary.  It was only when Andrew left the ballroom and went to check on the pizzas that things took a turn.

Andrew startled when he looked away from the oven and saw Robert standing nearby.

"Sorry," Robert apologized.  After a moment, he smiled.  "It was here that I caught you in that Jesus Christ Superstar costume.  I wondered what you were doing sneaking around my daughter's castle."

Andrew blushed.  "I remember."  He chuckled.  "We've come a long way since then."

Robert nodded, pulled out a chair, and took a seat.  He motioned for Andrew to do the same.

"Andrew, you know that Allison and I love our daughter very much.  And maybe, at times, that's made us a little... overly leery."

"Robert, I understand.  Especially now.  I was just telling JenniAnn that if Belle showed up with a thirtysomething guy when she was seventeen..."  Andrew shook his head.  "I'd be leery."

Robert smiled.  "You're way older than thirtysomething, bucko."

Andrew laughed.  "I am."

"But your point is taken.  And your understanding.  Thank you."

"You're welcome."  Andrew patted Robert's arm.

"The two of you... and now Belle...  Andrew, you've made Allison and I realize that... that God really does move in mysterious and miraculous ways.  But we... we've been thinking today that maybe something even more miraculous than you and JenniAnn and Belle coming together has happened."  Robert paused, stared down at his hands, and then looked up at Andrew.  "Andrew, I hope I'm not putting you on the spot but... by chance, do you have a member of the Trinity living here?  Physically, I mean."

"Dad..."

Andrew and Robert turned to see JenniAnn in the doorway with Belle in her arms.  Allison stood behind them.  She stepped forward and placed a hand on her husband's back.

"We need to know," Allison pressed.  "Something is going on with Joshua and if it's not what we think it is then you have to tell us so... so we can move on."

JenniAnn silently questioned Andrew. 

The angel smiled gently and nodded.

"Yes.  We do... we have a... a member of the Trinity living here," JenniAnn answered, her eyes welling.  She moved towards her parents.  "The Son..."

There was silence as Allison and Robert let her words sink in.  Andrew and JenniAnn were so intently studying them that they didn't hear the approaching footsteps in the hall. 

"There you are!  I thought you'd be in the ball..."  Joshua halted when he stepped into the kitchen.  "What's going on?  Has something happened?"

Andrew rose from his chair.  "I think you need to have a talk with Allison and Robert, Joshua."  He pulled out another chair for Allison.  "JenniAnn and I will..."  He blanked.

"Go set the table," JenniAnn finished.  She smiled at Joshua and kissed his cheek as she passed him.

Andrew gave him a hug.

"They know?" Joshua asked, clasping Andrew's hand.

The angel of death smiled and nodded before following JenniAnn and Belle.

After ensuring that Allison, in her dazed state, didn't miss her chair, Joshua settled into the one Andrew had vacated.  He reached across the table and took their hands in his.

"I'm glad you know," he began.  "JenniAnn really wanted you to know but I also... I wanted to be able to talk to you.  Freely."

Allison glanced briefly at Joshua then began to weep.  She hunched forward and rested her cheek on his hand.

Roused from his awed silence and paralysis, Robert began to rub his wife's shoulders.  He looked to Joshua. 

Joshua read the confusion in his eyes.  "I love you both very much.  Please don't think anyone was trying to hide who I am from you.  You needed to find your way to the truth by faith... not because JenniAnn or Andrew told you.  And you have!"  He smiled.  "And I am so happy about that!"

"But... but I did ask," Robert began to explain.  "I asked Andrew for the truth.  JenniAnn heard and... she did tell us."

"What exactly did you ask?" Joshua questioned.

Robert looked to him with a slight smile.  "I asked if a member of the Trinity was physically living here."

Joshua laughed.  "You wouldn't have asked such a leading question if you weren't confident of the answer you'd get, Robert."

Robert's smile grew as he realized this was true.  He looked to his wife who had yet to move.

Joshua released the man's hand and stroked Allison's hair. 

"Allison... she believed first," Robert revealed.

"Allison, don't be afraid," Joshua encouraged. 

The woman sat up and stared at Joshua.  "JenniAnn... the way she looked at you... the way they all do...  You had to be... You."

With a tender smile, Joshua stroked her cheek and brushed away tears. 

"Are... are you mad at us?"

Joshua looked at Allison in surprise.  "Mad at you?  Why?"

"Andrew..." Robert began.  "It took us so long to not... resent him.  Then longer to truly accept him.  And he's one of your angels."

"And you're two of my humans.  I understood.  I knew what you were thinking.  'They are like the angels in heaven, neither married nor given in marriage.'  And from that truth you took two falsehoods.  One, that Andrew could never give your daughter a child."

Allison smiled.  "But he did...  In a different way.  Belle...  Our sweet Annabelle..."

Joshua's own proud smile matched hers.  "Yes.  Then there was the second false belief.  You thought that since Andrew and JenniAnn couldn't marry, there was nothing to bind Andrew to her.  You worried that he could leave at any time, crushing your daughter.  It wasn't and never will be true.  Allison and Robert, marriage is a beautiful gift.  It can be one of the most holy and sublime of unions.  That's why I used marriage symbolism so often in my teachings.  But it's not the only type of union.  Think of your own bonds to your parents and to your daughter and granddaughter.  They are just as strong, just as lasting.  Everlasting.  As much as I glory in your marriage... it will end upon your deaths.  But there's a bond between the two of you even deeper than marital bonds.  And that... that will remain.  Hey, are you staying for dinner?"

The abrupt change in topic caught both the Chandlers so off-guard that they laughed.  Joshua grinned.

"Yes, we are," Allison replied.

Joshua squeezed their hands.  "Good!  Then you can meet my parents, Maryam and Yosef, who, I might add, are no longer married.  But..."  He lowered his voice.  "They're still pretty into each other.  Where one goes, the other will never be very far away.  Not for long.  It was true 2,000 years ago and it's still true.  It'll be true for you.  And... it's true for Andrew and JenniAnn already.  I promise you, Andrew would never just up and leave her.  He has his work, of course, and that's important to both of them and to me and to my Dad.  But please know that I take his responsibilities to her and to Belle no less seriously than I take those between husbands and wives and their children.  So I understood why you had the worries you did but it's time to let them go.  Okay?"

"Okay," Allison and Robert responded in unison.

"Good!"  Joshua rose from his chair.  "Now, we can keep talking but I need to get going with some breadsticks.  Everyone else is due to arrive in about fifteen minutes."

"Do you need any help?" Robert asked.

Joshua shook his head as he stared at the counter.  "No.  Thanks, though!"

The couple looked on in amusement as four baskets of breadsticks appeared.

Joshua grabbed two.  "Want to taste test?"

Giddily, the two smiled and took the breadsticks.

"Perfect..." Allison murmured after a bite.

Robert nodded in ready agreement.  "Definitely..."  He took another bite then looked to Joshua.  "So... is it okay to ask why you came back like this?  I mean... did you just want to be in Superstar that much?"

Joshua chuckled.  "I did enjoy it.  But no.  That's not why I came.  At least not directly.  I came for many reasons.  And one of those reasons was to spend this time with you and have this conversation with you."  He hugged them both. 

Allison sighed and rested her head on his shoulder.  "That's so lovely..."

Joshua smiled.  Like mother, like daughter.

*~*~*

After dinner had been enjoyed and the leftovers wrapped up and labeled, the group began to splinter.  Since they hadn't had a chance the previous day, Clay and Kylie went with Adam and Henry to visit Tourkia.  Eli took to the piano in the ballroom and played show tunes as Rose, Max, Fr. Mike, and John took turns singing.  It surprised no one when the latter mastered "Prepare Ye" from Godspell.  Arthur and Monica wandered to the backyard and stationed themselves in the gazebo.  Maryam, who was enjoying her turn to hold Belle, had retired to the quietness of the parlor with JenniAnn, Violeta, Kemara, Kelly, Allison, and Josephine.  The latter had learned the truth about Joshua that afternoon when Max had shown her Rose's engagement ring which he had paid off in the morning.  The way the boy's eyes had shone when he'd told her of Joshua's approval had eliminated the flicker of doubt that Josephine had held onto.  After spending dinner at Joshua's side, the elderly woman was listening raptly as Maryam spoke about his childhood.

"It was difficult...  Yeshu was so small when we traveled to Egypt.  And Yosef and I were first time parents, apart from our own parents.  Yet, we managed.  God lent us much help.  And every time we looked at Yeshu, we knew every hardship was worth it."  Maryam peered down at the sleeping infant in her arms.  She bent to kiss Belle's hair. 

"And to think you did it all without the benefit of disposable diapers!" Kelly exclaimed.

Maryam laughed.  "That was quite unpleasant at times.  I do sometimes marvel at all the modern conveniences."

"Like dishwashers?" JenniAnn suggested with a smile.

Still laughing, Maryam nodded.  "Yosef has not given up on getting me one... for some purpose."

Allison looked curiously at her.  "Dishwashers are needed in Heaven?"

"Oh no.  I was admiring one at Arthur's shelter and Yosef has decided I should have one as part of his pledge when we were betrothed.  He misspoke and offered me an 'obedient home' instead of the 'obedient donkey' he intended."

"Maybe you could have a sort of model Earth-like home," Kemara suggested.  "Might be a nice way to introduce angels who are going to start having assignments there to life on Earth.  You and Yosef could show them the ropes." 

Violeta clapped quietly.  "Oh!  That's such a cool idea!  I would have liked that.  I mean... Andrew and JenniAnn and Monica and Adam all did a great job of teaching me.  But it might have been nice to know more from the start.  I didn't even know how to start the washing machine!"

Kemara smiled at Maryam.  "Who better to learn from than Joshua's Ama and Abi?"

"I will ask Yeshu.  I am very pleased by the idea," Maryam mused, already imagining the house.  She smiled to herself as she envisioned Yosef giving lectures about home repair.

"A new idea?  Care to share?" Joshua asked as he entered the room and took a seat on the arm of Kelly's chair.

The angel patted his hand.  "Probably not new to you.  But to us, yes.  Kemara suggested that this dishwasher Yosef's fixated on might be placed in a model home in Heaven.  Your Ama and Abi could give lessons to soon-to-be caseworkers and the like about life on Earth."

"I guess there would need to be multiple homes," Kemara added.  "I mean what we consider standard wouldn't apply all over the world."

Joshua nodded.  "That could be arranged."  He smiled proudly at Kemara then looked to his mother.  "We'll have to get started with that soon.  Right now, I have another building project in mind.  JenniAnn, I need your input in the front yard.  But you're all welcome to join us."

"I will stay here with Belle," Maryam answered.

Allison, Josephine, and Kelly opted to remain with the two and so it was JenniAnn, Kemara, and Violeta who followed Joshua to the front yard.

"I think that moving the portal's location might be in order," Joshua told them as they stepped outside.  "From out of the willow tree."

"Whatever you think is best... but why?" Kemara asked.

JenniAnn blushed.  She looked to where Andrew was standing beside Yosef and her father in an empty spot in the yard.  She suspected he had said something.  Of course, Joshua would have already known that as eager as they were to have their new friends drop in regularly, they were going to miss the relative seclusion of the willow tree.

Joshua hugged JenniAnn's arm.  "With so many more people coming and going, the tree's branches might get beat up if the portal stays there."

Violeta smiled to herself.  She knew that Andrew and JenniAnn sometimes slipped beneath the willow tree's branches for some alone time.  It was a safe enough practice when so few of them were using the portal but it couldn't have lasted.

"So where do you think you'll move it?" Kemara asked.

Joshua continued towards where the other three men stood.  When they reached them, he pointed to the sketch pad that Yosef was holding.

"There.  Abi, Andrew, and I and whomever wants to help will build it."

"The gazebo!" JenniAnn recognized.  "The one you were sketching on the porch last month!"

Andrew smiled and hugged her.  "It's beautiful, isn't it?"  He lowered his voice.  "Joshua suggested it.  He knew."

JenniAnn beamed at Joshua.  "I love that idea."

Kemara gave an approving nod.  "So would the gazebo itself be the portal?  Or could we still use it as a gazebo?"

Joshua pointed to a part of the drawing.  "The wall in the back will be the portal.  People can sit on the benches and wait for whomever they're expecting.  Or just admire the surroundings.  I'll put the symbols for each of the other portals on the beams on either side of the wall."

"It's so pretty!  And it'll go right here?" Violeta asked.

Joshua nodded.  "So it's only a few yards away from what people are used to.  And... I'm going to set it up to only work with those keys I gave you all.  Belle will be walking in no time at all and we don't want her or any other little ones slipping through the portal on their own.  I'll give Andrew extras to divvy out as you all see fit in the years ahead."

JenniAnn let out a sigh of relief.  "Good call!  I had been worried about that!"

Joshua hugged her.  "Worry no more!"

Robert squeezed his daughter's arm.  "I'm going to go get your mother.  How often will she have a chance to see Jesus do carpentry?!  And with St. Joseph!"

Yosef chuckled as the man dashed off.

JenniAnn smiled after her father then embraced Joshua.  "Thank you!"

"You're welcome.  I think it'll be good to have this project waiting for me tomorrow afternoon."  For a moment, Joshua's features clouded.

Kemara clasped his hand.  "We'll all be praying."

Joshua smiled at her and pulled her close.  "Thank you, little one."

"And we'll be there for Emma," Violeta promised. 

Joshua kissed her temple.  "Thanks, Duckling."

Andrew rested a hand on Joshua's shoulder.  "And Fr. Mike, Yosef, and I will take Peter out for lunch.  Or bring it to him."

Yosef nodded.  "You will take Yohannan with you, son?" he checked.

"Yes.  He's not going in with me.  But he'll ride with me and wait outside."

"So glad..." JenniAnn murmured.

Joshua pulled them all into a group hug.  "Thank you.  All of you.  Now... as soon as Allison and whomever else is joining us gets out here, let's mark it off and get the posts in."

"What wood are you going to..."  Kemara laughed as a pile of wooden beams appeared.

Joshua grinned.  "It needs to be weather resistant so I thought I'd get some lumber that can't be destroyed."

"So does that mean we should all get into the gazebo when it storms?" Andrew asked with a teasing smile.

Joshua chuckled.  "No, it doesn't.  Things could still get blown through it.  Besides, I think you have another location for that."

"He does... a very nice one...  And he's kind enough to share it."  JenniAnn peered up at Andrew with an enamored smile.

Andrew smiled down at her.  Something told him that, no matter where he was living, his basement would always be their storm shelter.  His theory was born out when Joshua smiled and winked at him.

*~*~*

After Adam and his guests had returned from Tourkia, everyone went back to the ballroom for dessert.

Violeta stood behind Andrew's chair with her hands firmly covering his eyes.

"I don't know if I should be really excited or a little scared," Andrew joked.

"Go with excited," Joshua recommended with a smile.

"Although maybe your metabolism should be scared," Adam added.

Andrew chuckled.  "Hmm..."

"Okay... here's dessert," JenniAnn announced as she walked into the room.

"Aww!" Kylie cooed.

Eli, who was holding Belle, smiled down at her.  "For once, I wish you were older, kiddo.  Because that looks delicious."

JenniAnn sat a large tray in front of Andrew.

Max pulled a candle and lighter from his pocket.  He placed the candle in the center and lit it.

JenniAnn nodded to Violeta who removed her hands from over Andrew's eyes.

Andrew looked down at the treat in front of him. 

"It's red velvet pizza," JenniAnn whispered.

He gripped her hand and nodded.

Joshua beamed at Andrew.  "Since we're celebrating Belle's baptism on the day we'd usually celebrate your Promotion Day, we thought we'd commemorate it a little early.  Thank you, Andrew, for all the compassion, devotion, and love you've shown to so many of my children in their final moments.  Like Adam, Eli, and Henry here; you're a wonderful angel of death and I am so, so proud of you.  I also love you tons.  And I'm not the only one."

With tears in his eyes, Andrew read the icing on the pizza: "Happy Promotion Day, Andrew... friend, father, son, supervisor, director, and teacher.  We love you!"

The angel of death drew in a deep breath and slowly let it out before speaking. 

"Thank you...  All of you.  This is... it's great.  And it means a lot of me.  And so do all of you.  So much.  I love you, too."

A round of hugs commenced and was briefly interrupted when Max realized the candle was going to burn into the cake if Andrew didn't blow it out.  Once that was accomplished, the angel resumed his hugs and kisses.  He hoped it would be one of many celebrations that would feature both his Dyeland and heavenly family joining together.

*~*~*

Building Up, Tearing Down

Tuesday, April 22nd

Emma and Peter sat on their couch, waiting for Joshua to arrive.  Despite Dusty's offer to give her the day off, Emma had went in for part of the first shift.  It had kept her mind occupied but, upon her return to the apartment, she'd grown anxious. 

"So what are you going to be on the look-out for during your shopping trip?" Peter asked, hoping to keep Emma focused on something pleasant.

"Definitely curtains."

Peter laughed.  "What?  My blinds aren't appealing enough?"

Emma wrinkled her nose.

"Curtains would be a good thing.  What else?"

"Well, I like my throw pillows."

"Me too."

"But since you have more seating space than I do, having another couple wouldn't hurt.  Maybe a nice area rug for here."  Emma pointed to the floor in front of them.

"Good idea."

"And those pully thingies for that."  Emma indicated a ceiling fan that had bare chains coming out of it.

"Oh yeah...  I always meant to replace those.  So how much are you planning to spend?"

"Dusty gave us all a $100 Easter bonus.  He's never done that before!  It'll go a long way at thrift stores." 

"You shouldn't have to pay for all of it.  I mean unless you plan to kick me out and live here by yourself," Peter teased.

Emma playfully glared before kissing him.  "Never, ever." 

Peter caressed her face.  "Good."  He pulled out his wallet and gave Emma two fifties.  "If you don't use it all today, we can put it in the 'Livening Up the Pad Fund' because I'm sure we'll come across other improvements we want to make."

Emma squeezed his hand as she took the money.  "Thank you.  So is there anything you especially want?"

Peter considered.  He looked around the apartment.  "Picture frames.  Lots of them."

"Yeah..."  Emma smiled as she thought of all the friends whose images they would want to display. 

"Maybe another end table for in here."

"Actually, I thought maybe we could wait on that.  It'd be nice to buy one from Andrew when he really settles into his carpentry work."

"Yeah!  That's a great idea!"  Peter shook his head in wonder.  "Imagine... we'll have home decor from Joshua and an angel of death."

"It's still so amazing...  Everything is..."  Emma curled up against Peter and hugged his arm.

"It is."  Peter sighed.  "Oh.  Candle holders."

Emma laughed.  "Huh?"

"Candle holders.  I dunno.  I guess it seems kinda appropriate for us to have candle light."  Peter began to hum "Could We Start Again, Please?"

"Oh... yes.  And I always see lots of cool candle holders."  Emma grabbed a pad of paper off the coffee table and jotted everything down.  She was just finishing when there was a knock on the door.

Peter jumped to his feet.  "I'll go let Joshua in."

Joshua greeted the two with a smile as soon as the door was open.  "Good morning!  I wasn't sure if either of you had eaten breakfast so I brought some.  Ama's recipe."

Emma and Peter returned the smile.  They'd been too nervous to eat but found their appetites returning.

After setting the bag he was carrying down, Joshua hugged them both.  "How are you doing?"

"Nervous but good," Emma replied as Peter nodded in agreement.  "You?"

Joshua took their hands in his.  "I'm doing really good, thanks.  It was nice waking up at Willowveil.  Which reminds me, Andrew and JenniAnn sent you leftovers from last night in case you don't feel up to cooking this evening."

"Wow.  We really appreciate that."  Peter made a mental note to thank Andrew at lunch.

Emma's eyes misted. 

Joshua kept hold of her hand.  "JenniAnn's looking forward to this afternoon, Emma.  And I know Ama's counting down the minutes until 9:00.  But, for right now, why don't you both sit down?"

"Can we help you?" Peter offered.

Joshua shook his head.  "Not much to be done.  But you can talk to me.  How'd you both sleep?"

As Joshua moved behind the kitchen counter, Emma and Peter sat down at the table.

"Well... I went to bed around 8:00 and slept pretty well until 11:00 when I had a nightmare.  So Peter and I sat on the balcony for a while.  Then we went back to bed around midnight and I slept really, really well after that," Emma replied with a smile for Peter.

"I slept like a rock after that, actually," Peter added.

Emma giggled.  "Fitting."

Joshua laughed.  "Well, good."  He reached into the sack and pulled out a pot then ladled the contents on the chunks of bread he'd cut.

Peter sniffed the air.  "That smells delicious!"

"A favorite of mine.  Honeyed figs with freshly baked bread.  And if you're into it... Andrew sent butterbeer."  Joshua's eyes twinkled as he pulled a thermos from the bag.

"Like in Harry Potter?" Emma checked.

"Yep.  One of his specialties."

"Cool!" the couple responded at once.

Joshua poured the drinks into three mugs and brought them to the table.  He returned with the bread.

"Wow..."  Emma ogled the meal. 

"I haven't tasted any of it yet but it sure looks like Nazareth and Hogwarts produce a delicious breakfast."  Peter grinned at Joshua.

Laughing, Joshua nodded as he took a seat.

"Joshua?"

"Yes, Emma?"

"Do you think I could say the blessing?"

Very pleased, Joshua nodded.  "I'd like that very much.  Thank you, Emma."

Peter blinked back tears as the three joined hands.

Emma bowed her head and began.  "Dear Father... Dad, thank You for this wonderful meal Joshua has brought to us.  And thank You for all the many, many blessings You've given us... most especially the time with Joshua.  Thank You for the day to come.  I... I know it might be really hard at times but... but You're with us.  And so are our loved ones... so many of them.  I love You.  And Joshua.  And Peter.  Thank You for Peter.  We love You.  Amen."

"Amen," Joshua and Peter echoed.

Emma bit her lip.  "It wasn't very graceful."

Joshua patted her hand.  "I loved it.  And so did Dad.  There was a lot of grace in it, Emma."

Emma smiled brightly at him and then, after a loving gaze at Peter, they both dug in.

"Oh... yummy..."

"Definitely yummy," Peter assented.

Smiling at them both, Joshua took a bite himself and soaked in their love and enjoyment.

*~*~*

Just before 9:00, there was another knock on the door. 

"I think I know who that is..."  Joshua smiled at Emma and Peter.  "I'll answer."

Maryam and Yosef embraced their son when he opened the door.

"How is she?" Maryam whispered.

"A little anxious but good."

"And you?"

"The same," Joshua admitted as he clasped her hand.

"He will listen to you, Yeshu.  He must."  Yosef rested his palm against Joshua's cheek.  "Our formidable boy."

Joshua smiled and patted his father's hand.  "Thank you, Abi."  He drew in a deep, calming breath and waved them in.

"Shalom, Emma and Peter!" Yosef greeted. 

"Shalom, Yosef," Peter responded.  "How are you?"

Emma flew to Maryam who hugged her tightly.

"Very well.  I am looking forward to lunch with you and carpentry lessons with Andrew as soon as we see our ladies and Joshua off."

Maryam smiled.  "And I am excited for our day together."

"Shopping...  It has changed much from our time when one simply went to the market for everything," Yosef opined.  He patted Emma's shoulder.  "I hope you enjoy the time."

Emma beamed at Maryam.  "I know I will."  Her smile faltered when she glanced at Joshua.

Joshua reached for her hand.  "How about we step on the balcony for a few moments before we all head out?"

Emma nodded and took his hand.

When they were outside, Joshua spoke softly.  "Emma... I'll be all right."

"I just know some of the things Derek will say to you..."

"Emma, I already know everything that happened."

"I... I know.  But I mean... to you, about you."

"Oh.  Yes, his putdowns will probably run the gamut.  And it will hurt.  I... I created him.  I still love him."

"Exactly..."

"But I don't love what he's made of himself.  And he will know that, feel that.  Whatever pain he causes me... he will feel that."

Emma looked at Joshua in alarm.  "Like... like really feel it?"

"Yes.  Emma, please don't think Dad and I haven't been working on Derek this whole time.  We have.  But he's never heeded us.  We had an easier way planned for him but he refused to take it.  Now the way will be more difficult for him."

"And for you?"

Joshua nodded.  "But worth it."  He kissed her forehead.  "I'll see you this afternoon.  Please, enjoy your day.  It really does mean a lot to Ama to have this time with you."

After drawing in a deep breath, Emma smiled.  "It'll be fun."

"And this morning will be fun for me, too.  Three hours of running commentary from John?  Priceless."  Joshua grinned. 

Emma laughed.  "That does sound fun.  So... you ready?"

"Ready," Joshua agreed before they headed back inside to begin their journeys. 

*~*~*

Emma smiled as she and Maryam entered their third thrift store of the morning.  Whether it was some sort of heavenly foresight or simply keen shopping skills, Maryam seemed able to immediately pin point where in the store they needed to go.

Maryam pointed to the back right corner of a sprawling room.  "There.  Candle holders.  Candles, too.  Although we can make our own candles."

"Really?  I haven't the slightest idea how.  Would you teach me?" Emma requested.

Maryam smiled and squeezed her hand.  "I would love to."

Carrying their bags of curtains, the two women headed to the corner.

"Oh!  This is beautiful!" Emma exclaimed, seizing a candelabrum.  "And I like that it has room for three candles.  This would look really nice on the dinner table instead of those plain jar candles we've been using.  And it's only four dollars!"

Maryam plucked a couple of matching candlesticks out of a bin.  "You could put these on your counter if you ever do a buffet."  She fished another two out. 

"Cool!  Thanks!  Hmm...  I probably should have grabbed a basket up front."  Emma looked around to see if any were nearby.  Her eyes alighted on a beautiful, old-fashioned picnic basket on the floor. 

Maryam knelt down to examine it.  She noted that it was in superb condition.  "Yosef and I will buy this for you and Peter.  You have a beautiful park so close to the apartment.  You and Peter should enjoy it together."  She set the candlesticks inside it. 

Emma's eyes filled.  "Thank you, Maryam.  Sometimes it... it's still so hard to believe that I have someone who would want to go on a picnic with me."

Maryam hugged her.  "Believe it, Emma."

Emma nodded against her shoulder.

Maryam patted her back.  "Now... there are some throw pillows across the store.  Then I know a place two blocks from here that has a fine collection of picture frames.  They may have an area rug, as well."

"If we find one, do you think they'd hang onto it for me until Thursday when we have Andrew's van?"

"Oh yes.  They are good people.  I am sure they will be happy to."

Feeling very blessed, Emma smiled and followed Maryam to another corner of the store where they found the perfect pillows to go with Peter's couch.

*~*~*

"The billboards...  I still don't like the billboards.  Look at how they block your sky.  Although that is an adorable child."

Joshua smiled as the car passed a sign advertising a children's museum.  "It's their way of getting word out, John.  They save a lot of people from making wrong turns but, you're right, they do mar the view some.  AraLynn is adorable, though."

John smiled at his cousin.  He wondered what it would be like to have so many names in one's head.  Noisy, surely. 

Joshua pointed to another billboard.  "And that one?  It saved someone from driving off the road and out of view during a snowstorm.  They slid into it and it stopped them.  So... I can use billboards, too."  He grinned at his passenger.

"So you can.  But you may regret that one."

Joshua laughed when he saw a brightly colored billboard looming in the distance. 

"They have delicious French fries and sundaes..."

"And I suppose that's where you're wanting to go for lunch?"

"Oh, only if you want to..." John replied casually.  "Hey, do you remember how I'm six months older than you?"

Joshua smirked.  "You don't need to pull that.  We'll go."

John looked to his cousin with a teasing smile but then his features softened.  "I think a sundae would do you good."

"It would..." Joshua agreed.

As Joshua made the turn, John studied him and prayed that Derek would heed his Creator's words.

*~*~*

Emma was enchanted as they stepped into the next shop.  She wondered how she'd never been there before.

"Mayum!" 

The two women looked to where a little girl was running down the aisle towards them. 

"Lily!" Maryam greeted with equal enthusiasm.  She picked the child up and balanced her on her hip then gently pushed her drooping glasses back into place.  "Where is Mommy?"

"Back," Lily replied, beginning to play with Maryam's long tresses.

"We will go see her."  Maryam turned so she and the girl were facing Emma.  "Lily, this is another of my friends.  Her name is Emma.  Can you say hello?"

Emma noticed that the child had Down Syndrome.  She held out her hand.  "Hi, Lily!"

Lily smiled shyly and took her hand.  "Hi."

Maryam kissed her hair.  "Let's go see your Mommy now." 

"Daddy, too."

"Wonderful!"  Maryam smiled at Emma.  "Her name is Azalea.  His name is Basil.  They are a very floral family."

Emma laughed.  "It's a good theme!"  She smiled at Lily who was peeking over Maryam's shoulder.

With a smile, Maryam nodded to a woman at the check out counter and continued on towards the backroom. 

"Wow..."  Emma admired the large room that was painted a brilliant blue.  Multi-colored hand prints covered the walls.  There were four long tables and four people sat at each.  Emma noticed that they all appeared to have Down Syndrome.  While some were very intent on their work, others laughed and chatted as they painted and glued and strung beads.

"Maryam!" a woman practically screamed before rushing at them.  She pulled both Lily and Maryam into her embrace.  "Oh, we so hoped you'd be here.  And you are!  Basil!"

A smiling man approached and, once Azalea had released her, he hugged Maryam.  "It's really good to see you.  And today of all days..."

Maryam nodded.  "I am blessed to be here.  Opening Day."  After transferring Lily to her mother, she rested her hand on Emma's back.  "Azalea, Basil, this is my friend, Emma.  She has recently moved to a new apartment and is in need of picture frames.  I knew this would be the perfect place.  And I hoped, perhaps, you could tell her about your store and your mission."

"Of course!  Welcome, Emma!"  Basil reached out to shake her hand.  "So you, uh, how do you know Maryam?"

"She knows, Basil," Maryam assured.

Relief shone of Basil's face.  "Oh good!  That'll make telling you our story much easier!"

Emma grinned, glad she wouldn't have to dance around Maryam's identity.  "I met Maryam and Yosef at the diner where I work and then I was also in a show with their son... Joshua."

"Oh yes!  That's why you look so familiar!  Mary Magdalene!  Basil and I saw Superstar that second Friday.  You all were amazing.  And Joshua... well, of course he's amazing."  Azalea sighed at the memory.  "Well, let Basil and I get everyone ready for lunch and then would you want to join us?"

Maryam looked to Emma.

"Sure!" Emma accepted. 

Maryam smiled.  "We would love to.  Thank you."

Emma and Maryam watched as craft supplies were pushed to the center of the tables then everyone made their way into another room.  They returned a few minutes later, each with a tray of food and carton of milk or bottle of juice or water. 

Azalea poked her head out and waved for Maryam and Emma.

"Sorry for the wait but it can get a little cramped back here.  We're doing sandwiches today so help yourselves.  Oh and the sink is just around the corner if you'd like to wash up.  Basil's going to set up another table so we can talk."

"I make sandwich for Mayam!" Lily announced.

Maryam tousled her hair.  "Thank you, Lily.  I would like that very much."

After washing their hands, Emma made up her plate while Maryam patiently waited as Lily finished assembling a sandwich for her.  When it was ready, Lily led the four adults back to the workroom. 

Basil set his daughter's tray at a tiny table just for her and placed some paper and crayons beside it.  "Why don't you draw a picture for Maryam?" he suggested.

Lily, her mouth full of sandwich, nodded and began to draw.

Azalea, Basil, Emma, and Maryam all sat down.  After Azalea said the blessing, they resumed their discussion.

"So this is your first day here?" Emma began.  "No wonder I hadn't noticed the store before."

Basil nodded.  "The idea came to us shortly after Lily was born but we had hoops to jump through: legal, financial, emotional.  Finally it all came together, though!"

"I'd read about a similar store online," Azalea added.  "See, people with Down Syndrome and similar conditions sometimes have a hard time finding employment.  Sadly, they can be taken advantage of when they do find jobs.  Then there's the matter of caretaker burn out or just plain busyness.  Several of our employees have been out of school for years.  When they can't live independently... and some definitely do... that can be a real strain on parents and other caretakers.  The parents have to work to support the household and yet paying a caretaker can be prohibitively expensive.  So... from 8:00 to 5:00, they come here.  It also builds their self esteem.  They get to come home with a paycheck, too.  And there's a lot of pride in making something with your own hands and seeing the joy it brings to people.  We actually could have opened two months ago but we needed to build up inventory.  Everything you saw in the showroom... our employees made it."  Azalea smiled proudly.

"That's really cool."  Emma grinned when uproarious laughter sounded from the work tables.  "Everyone seems so happy..."

"This is a great group.  They've really bonded over the last couple of months.  And bloomed, too.  There were a small handful who were so shy that they barely spoke.  Not any more!"  Basil beamed. 

Maryam squeezed the couple's hands.  "It is beautiful what you have done here.  Yeshua and the Father are very, very proud."

Tears welled in Azalea's eyes.  "Thank you.  That means so much."

"Yeshua is looking forward to visiting himself," Maryam added.  "Friday, I believe."

"We'll be looking forward to it!" Basil cheered.

"He's going to love everything out there."  Emma waved towards the showroom.  "And, of course, everyone in here.  So... how did you meet Maryam?"

Azalea lowered her voice.  "When Lily was born.  But we have to go back a bit before that.  Basil and I have been married for ten years.  For six of those, we struggled with conceiving.  Then, blessedly, I became pregnant."

Basil took her hand.  "We were thrilled... beyond thrilled."

"So was our family.  Until we did our prenatal screening...  They told us our baby had Down Syndrome."  Azalea looked adoringly over at her daughter.

"Abortion was never an option for us... much to our parents' dismay.  Both sets!  We were floored!  Worse yet, they wouldn't lay off."  Basil clucked his tongue.

"By the time I hit my eighth month, I felt like I'd lose my mind before I even got to have Lily.  So Basil, wonderful husband that he is, carted me off to this quaint little cottage... in the winter."

Emma cringed.  "Uh oh..."

"There hadn't been an indication that I might deliver early so neither of us thought anything of it," Azalea continued.  "All we thought was no phone, no parents... quiet.  So away we went.  And the first two nights... heavenly.  It snowed and snowed and we joked that maybe we'd get stuck and not have to face anyone for a week or two.  But then the third night my water broke.  I woke up screaming.  I knew our little girl was coming that night.  And we really were snowed in!"

"I actually had taken my cell phone but I'd let the battery run down.  I plugged that sucker in and called 911... only to be told there was no way they could reach us."  Basil shook his head at the memory.  "The woman who answered tried to tell me what to do but I was so panicked and the connection was so bad that I could hardly hear her.  And then there was a knock at the door."

Emma stole a glance at Maryam who was smiling softly.

"I ran down to see who it was, praying that somehow an emergency responder had gotten through, and instead I found this couple: Maryam and Yosef."  Basil blushed.  "I was in such a state that I just grabbed Maryam's hand and asked her if she knew anything about delivering babies.  She nodded and I suddenly... I felt so calm.  They came in and I just stood there in a daze as Maryam went to see Azalea.  Then Yosef ordered me to go sit with my wife."

Azalea laughed.  "And he did.  And while I wasn't exactly in the state of serenity Basil was, I felt the calm, too.  As soon as I saw Maryam, I knew we'd be okay.  And three hours later... we were holding Lily."

"Wow..."  Emma marveled.  "So... Maryam actually delivered Lily?"

Maryam nodded.  "She was so beautiful and she is still so beautiful."

Lily approached and climbed onto Maryam's lap.

Emma smiled at the tender scene then turned to Azalea.  "I'm still not clear on how you knew, though.  I mean about who they are."

"That came about an hour after Lily was born.  Basil and Yosef had gone to prepare breakfast and Maryam was sitting with me.  We were both admiring Lily and I asked Maryam if she had any children.  She said she had a son.  So I asked his name and she said..."

A proud smile lit up Maryam's face.  "Yeshua."

"See, Basil and I had really strengthened in our faith during all the upheaval.  We'd read a lot of biblical scholarship.  I think part of it was we... well, we related to Maryam and Yosef.  Especially Maryam.  Since... since not everyone was sharing in our joy," Azalea hinted, mindful of Lily's ears.  "We knew the Aramaic names.  What were the odds?  Maryam... Yosef... Yeshua.  And just the sheer unlikeliness of Maryam and Yosef showing up just when we needed them.  I just knew.  Meanwhile, a chance comment from Yosef to Basil about he and his son, Yeshua, both being carpenters...  Well, that's all it took."

Emma brushed at some tears.  "That's really... it's awesome."

"It was.  And still is."  Azalea again reached for Maryam's hand.  "So from there Basil and I started planning for Lily's future.  I stayed home and cared for her and it was during one of her naps that I first read about the other store and became determined that we should have one here."

"I don't suppose you take volunteers, do you?  I mean not that I have any training or anything..."  Emma frowned.

"That's okay!  We'd love to have more help and we could train you," Azalea enthused.

"Wait... the program.  From the show.  I remember thinking it was cool that Mary Magdalene was also the choreographer.  So you can teach dance?" Basil questioned.

"Oh, umm, yeah, I guess."  Emma nodded.

"That's perfect!" Azalea cheered.  "See, there's a rather alarming link between Down Syndrome and obesity.  Basil and I were hoping to figure out a way to get more physical activity in here.  A dance class would be a wonderful addition!  Would you want to lead us on that, Emma?"

Emma replied with an eager nod.  "Sure!" 

As the three planned, Maryam taught Lily how to braid hair.  While the little girl tried her hand at braiding Maryam's hair, she glanced at a clock on the wall.  12:30.  Yeshua would likely have reached the town of Hardsham, Massachusetts.  Maryam prayed for her son and looked to Emma, glad to see her so excited and relieved that Azalea and Basil were keeping her mind off what lay ahead for her Joshua.

*~*~*

John and Joshua stood in front of the Church of Merciful Compassion in Hardsham.  The former shook his head at the sign.

"Ironic..."

Joshua nodded.  "And it's lost on many of them, I'm afraid."

John withdrew his cell phone from his pocket and handed it to Joshua before pulling him into a bear hug.

Joshua clapped his cousin on the back.  "Thank you, John.  And thank you, again, for coming with me.  And for the sundae."

John smiled.  "I'm glad you enjoyed it.  So..." 

The door to the church's adjoining community center opened and two men walked out.

"I think maybe you should reconsider the Dales' financial aid case, Derek.  I know Mariah.  She comes into the hospital sometimes to volunteer.  Her kids would do well at the school."

Derek shrugged.  "Not much the school can do with them when their mother is undermining Catholic teaching.  Four children, no husband.  There are better candidates.  It's not our fault she can't keep her legs together."

Joshua grimaced.

"Son of a snake..." John hissed.

Joshua patted his shoulder.

The other man stared at his feet and muttered.  "So says the man who couldn't keep his pants up."

Derek grabbed the man's arm.  "What did you say?"

"Be brave, Ray," Joshua murmured.

Ray looked squarely at Derek.  "You heard me.  Maybe you have the rest of the board in awe of you, Derek.  But I know who and what you are: a hypocrite.  One day you won't be able to hide behind your wealth and status.  Jesus knows, Derek.  He knows.  And He hasn't forgotten."

John gaped.  "Does he know that you're here?"

Joshua only smiled and shook his head.  "Not yet..."

Derek's fist hovered in the air but Ray didn't flinch.

"Ahem."

Derek turned to find Joshua and John who had stepped around the corner.

Derek hastily lowered his fist and released Ray.  "Can I help you?"

Joshua held out his hand.  "Joshua Davidson.  I'm your 1:00."

Derek blinked and pulled out his cell phone.  "But I don't have a..."  There, at 1:00 on his calendar, was the name Joshua Davidson.  It sounded vaguely familiar but, unable to place the name, he shrugged.  "Well, Mr. Davidson, I prefer to take my meetings at my office but since you're here... why don't you join me downstairs?  Say, how did you know I was here?"

"The Financial Aid Subcommittee meets at 11:30 on the fourth Tuesday.  It's in the bulletin," Joshua replied.

"Oh.  Right."  Derek nodded.  "Well, Ray, off you go."  He playfully pushed the man then smiled at Joshua and held out the door.  "Come in."

John watched as Joshua stepped inside.  He closed his eyes and again prayed.  When he opened them, Derek and Joshua were gone but Ray remained.

"Who is that man?" Ray questioned.  "Something about him..."  He briefly rested his hand over his heart.

John smiled.  "He is the One who knows."

Ray blinked several times then turned back to the door and gaped.

*~*~*

Derek motioned for Joshua to take a seat at a table before he settled into a chair across from him.  "Let me get my tablet up and running and I'll show you some properties, Mr. Davidson." 

Joshua met Derek's cheesy grin with a shake of his head.  "Joshua, please.  And I'm not here to look at properties, Derek."

Derek tried to mask his relief.  He didn't want this dark skinned man moving into Hardsham.  For all he knew, he was one of those crazy Muslims.  Or maybe a Jew.  Davidson sounded Jew-y.  That was bad enough.

"Then what brings you here, Joshua?"

"A friend."

Derek inwardly groaned.  He didn't have time for games.  "And can I get this friend's name?"

Joshua stared into his eyes.  "Emma Dawes."

Derek's hand slid away from his tablet.  "What about her?" he asked through gritted teeth.

Joshua maintained eye contact.  "You hurt her.  Badly."

"What do you know?" Derek scoffed.

"Everything."

For the first time, Derek felt fear at hearing the eery echo of Ray's word.  He quickly pushed the unfamiliar feeling away.  In the same instant, he realized why the man's name sounded familiar to him.  He recalled searching for information about Emma after that damn letter of hers had shown up and thrown Jodi into a tizzy.  He'd read an article about her stupid Jesus Christ Superstar show... with this man. 

Derek let out a dark laugh.  "Well, I'll be...  Jesus Christ has come to pay me a visit.  What's the matter, Jesus?  Did you decide to get it on with your Magdalene and she gave you some sob story?  Well, that's all you have.  A story.  Her words against mine.  And that slut's words aren't worth anything here."

In spite of the pounding in his chest, Joshua remained calm.  He shook his head.  "She's not a slut.  And her words aren't all I have."  He removed John's phone from his pocket. 

With some nervousness, Derek looked on as Joshua tapped on the phone.  The color began to drain from his face when Joshua held the screen towards him.

"Get your hands off that girl this minute!"

"Girl?  All is I see is an ungrateful, sniveling whore."

"You don't want to know what I see when I look at you.  Let her go or I will call the police.  Nine... one..."

"Remember what I said.  You keep your mouth shut or bad things will happen to you, Emma.  Nothing you wrote in that letter was true.  You came onto me and..."

"Enough."

Joshua slipped the phone back into his pocket and looked to where Derek remained, staring at where the phone had been.  He peered at the dumbfounded man and crossed his arms over his chest.  "I'm no lawyer but that looked like very good evidence for an assault case."

For a few moments, Derek could think of no response.  Then one came.  "And your precious Emma would actually press charges?  She'd let me get up on that witness stand and talk about how she enticed me?" 

"That's a lie!" Joshua averred.

Derek pushed away from the table and grabbed Joshua, yanking him from his chair.  "You think you know everything?  You think you scare me?  You ugly, little Yid.  I could crush you... make you disappear.  This is my city."

Joshua shook his head.  "This is my world.  And you are not as powerful as you think you are."  He grabbed the man's wrist.

Derek felt his fingers stretch of their own will. 

Joshua stepped away.

"What the..."  Derek stared down at his hands, clenching and unclenching his fists.

"You're fine.  Physically."

"You won't be for long."  Derek lunged towards Joshua and backhanded him.

Joshua turned his cheek.  "Feel the need to do it again?"

Derek stumbled backwards.  The man's calmness and fearlessness troubled him.  And yet he'd sensed a weakness.  He grinned.  "She was good... your Emma.  I still think about her sometimes... everything she let me do to her.  And that's the word, Joshua... let.  She let me."

Joshua's face flushed.  "She was terrified of you!  The sick mind games you played on her, Derek!  The way you manipulated her so that she felt like she owed you!  The threats!  She loved you!  She cared about you and your family and what you did to her..."

"She came onto me!"

"She was trying to comfort you!  She was only trying to be a friend to you but..."

"All you're doing is echoing the lies she spun for you... her latest in what I'm sure is a very long stream of boyfriends."  Derek chuckled when Joshua turned away.  "What's the matter, Jesus?  Realizing your Mary isn't the saint you thought?"

Joshua spun around and stared at Derek.  He began to speak. 

"'No... no.  This...  It's wrong, Derek.  I didn't mean...'"

"'Shh...  This is right, Emma.  So right...  Don't you know I love you?  Don't you love me?'"

"'Y-yes but not...'"

"'Couldn't you tell I loved you when I did all of those nice things for you?  The money for school, the car...'"

"'Yes...'"

"'This is what people do when they love each other, Emma.  Can't you show me that you love me?'"

Tears poured down Joshua's cheeks as he went silent.

Derek was quiet for a few moments, stunned at the man's veracity.  Then he recovered.

"Emma remembers it like she wants to remember," he taunted. 

Joshua stepped closer.  "Those weren't from Emma's memories.  They were from mine."

Derek rolled his eyes.  "And you're a lunatic on top of..."

Joshua's hand jutted out and he grabbed Derek's arm.

Derek fell forward onto his knees.

Joshua continued to sob.

Derek's entire body began to shake.  He felt again all that he'd experienced when he'd had sex with Emma.  But there were other feelings: despair, fear, loneliness, self-loathing, a desire to simply be loved, and physical pain.  Apart from that was another pain... this pain was all at once deeper and angrier and yet less all-consuming.  It was bound up with something else... something Derek didn't recognize: pure agape.

Then the flood of memories and feelings ended, leaving Derek with his alone.  He lurched forward, his forehead resting on the carpet.

"Who... are... you?" he questioned as he tried to regain his breath.

Joshua knelt beside the fallen man and whispered.  "I am the Lawgiver.  I am the Witness.  I am the Lord of all.  I am Jesus."

Derek began to weep.  "Forgive me... forgive me," he pleaded.

Joshua closed his eyes.  After hearing from his Dad, he let out a ragged sigh.  "You ask for forgiveness only because now you fear me and my Father.  You feel no remorse for the pain you caused Emma, Jodi, Jocelyn, and Zoe.  You feel no remorse for the sin of judgment that you encouraged in so many people here in this church... my church.  You have no remorse for the way you stole Emma's faith and crippled that of your wife and daughters."

"Then... then I am damned?"

Joshua pulled Derek up and shook his head.  "There is still time to find your way back to me, back to my Father.  But all of your adult life you have ignored the counsel of the Spirit.  Will you listen and heed me now, Derek?"

Derek glanced at Joshua and quickly away.  He could not stand the mix of anger and tenderness on his face.  "What do I need to do?"

"Give up everything.  Your wealth, your status, your family."

"But..."

"How is a man benefited if he should gain the whole world and he should lose his soul?" Joshua queried.

Derek hung his head.  "What do I do first?"

Joshua handed him some paper and a pen that had materialized.  "This will be your resignation letter from the Compassionate Mercy Board.  You will recommend Ray as your successor."

As Derek accepted the pad of paper, a document slid out.  He grabbed it.  "The divorce papers..."

Joshua gave a grave nod.  "You will sign them as Jodi asked you to."

"You... you're encouraging divorce?"  The old victorious gleam returned to Derek's eyes.

Joshua shook his head.  "I'm not ending your marriage.  You ended it years ago."

Stricken, Derek nodded.  He slunk back into his chair and began to write as Joshua looked on.  Joshua rested his hand on Derek's shoulder but the man flinched.  Joshua removed his hand and did not try again. 

*~*~*

"Wow...  I'm still just... wow!"  Ray hugged John.  "I mean... wow!  You're...  It's just... wow.  To see you like this!"

John laughed and warmly returned the man's hug.

Ray drew in a deep breath and steadied himself.  "You were always one of my favorites, you know?  I always wanted to be like you... bold, brave, a voice for justice!  But then..."  He sighed.  "Life happened, I guess."

John squeezed his shoulder.  "There's still time, my friend.  And I think you'll get your chance."  He waved to where Derek and Joshua were exiting the community center.

Ray was shocked by how downtrodden Derek looked, so unlike his usual aggressive, showy self.  However, his gaze didn't linger long on him.  Ray's vision blurred as he looked to Joshua... Christ Himself.

Joshua glanced at his cousin who nodded.  He hurried towards Ray and pulled him into his embrace. 

Ray neither moved nor spoke, only clung to Joshua.

"What do you need me to do?" Ray asked after a few silent moments.

Joshua clasped his hand.  "Come with us to Derek's house?  Jodi and the girls trust you.  John and I would only alarm them on our own.  Derek needs to get his affairs in order and then..."

Ray nodded then bowed his head.  "Jesus... Joshua... I trust you in all things but you're going to have to forgive me because I'm having a very hard time imagining Derek at a monastery.  But this is what St. John tells me..."

Joshua chuckled softly.  "You're forgiven... and understood.  It won't be easy.  Which is why I have another favor to ask of you, Ray."

Keeping hold of Joshua's hand, Ray looked up at him.  He couldn't help but smile.  Joshua looked completely unlike how he'd long imagined Jesus and yet he found himself unable to imagine Jesus looking any other way.  "Anything."

"He'll be allowed two phone calls a month.  I'd like them to be to you.  At least at first.  His... recovery is going to take a while and I don't want him lashing out at Jodi and especially not at Jocelyn or Zoe.  But I thought you could relay messages.  Same with letters... if they're appropriate."

"Of course.  Good idea."  Ray frowned when he thought of all the times he'd witnessed Derek's subtle bullying of his wife and daughters and said nothing.  He'd been too afraid.  Not anymore.

"It's time to tear down the old life and build up a new and better one, Ray," Joshua counseled.

Ray looked over at Derek whose gaze was averted.  He knew Joshua was speaking about both of them.  He nodded.  "Yes.  It is."

Joshua smiled.  "I'll drive Derek.  Can you follow us?  John could ride with you, if you'd like."

Ray grinned.  "Yeah.  I'd like that."

"Then off we go."

Ray watched in amazement as Derek heeded, without argument, when Joshua directed him to get into his car.

*~*~*

"Mom, two cars I don't recognize just pulled into the driveway."  Zoe scooped up her cat and stepped away from the window.

Jodi entered the living room and approached the window.  She gasped when she looked out and saw her husband exiting the backseat of a gray car.  Two Middle-Eastern men stood on either side of him.  And Ray.  She wondered what Ray had to do with whatever this was.

"Zoe, go to your room."

"But Mom..."

"Go!" Jodi shouted.

The noise drew Jocelyn out of her room.  She beckoned for her sister and pulled her just out of view.

Jodi hid the cleaner and rag she was holding and
plucked off her rubber gloves .  She quickly checked herself in the mirror.  When the strange quartet reached the front door, she opened it and flashed a plastered on smile.

"Well, hello, Honey!  Such a pleasant surprise.  Hi Ray.  Who are your friends?" she asked.

Derek only looked briefly at her.  "We need to talk."

"Jodi, this is Joshua and this is John," Ray introduced.

"Oh, well, okay...  Come in, come in!  Can I get you gentlemen anything to drink?"

Ray shook his head.  "No thank you, Jodi."

Joshua smiled at her.  "Thank you but no." 

Jodi blinked when she looked at him.  There was something wild in his eyes... yet also kindness.  Flustered, she only stepped back and allowed the four in.

In the hallway, Zoe struggled to keep hold of her cat. 

Jocelyn rolled her eyes.  "Settle down, Peri!  Not a good time!"

Zoe began to back away.  "Stop it!  Dad will get mad a-and..."

The cat refused to obey.  She leapt out of Zoe's arms and ran into the living room.

Jocelyn sucked in and let out a deep breath.  "I'll go with you."  She felt her little sister's hand shake as she took it.

Bracing themselves for a verbal assault, the sisters stepped into the living room.  They gaped when they saw Peri curled up on one stranger's lap.

Derek glared at them and opened his mouth.

"She's beautiful," Joshua preempted.  "Peri, huh?  Short for Periwinkle?  Cause of her eyes, I bet."

In spite of her fear, Zoe smiled and nodded.  "Yeah.  She was a birthday present from my Grandma."

Joshua smiled.  He lowered his head and murmured to the cat.  "Go to Zoe."

Peri jumped off Joshua's lap and waited at Zoe's feet until she picked her up.

"Go, girls," Derek ordered.

"No.  They can stay," Joshua countered.

Jodi, Jocelyn, and Zoe all looked in shock at the man who had dared to defy their husband and father in his own home. 

"I don't want them hearing about..."

Joshua glared at him.  "You think they don't know?  Especially after the way you've been acting these past couple of weeks?  Both of you." 

Jodi stared down at the floor when Joshua's glance flitted to her.

Derek sighed.  "Whatever."

Joshua smiled at the two girls.  "Please, sit down."

Ray patted Jocelyn's shoulder when she sat beside him.  It surprised him when Zoe took a seat between Joshua and John.  He supposed it was possible she sensed who they were but, after a moment's reflection, it occurred to him that her reasons and Jocelyn's may have been far less mystical.  They trusted him and two apparent strangers more than they did their own parents.  He shuddered when he realized how potentially dangerous that was for a twelve and fourteen year old.

"Derek, please explain to your family where you'll be going and why," Joshua encouraged.

Derek stared at a blank spot on the wall as he spoke.  "I'm going to a monastery.  I will be there for several years.  I'm going because... of some personal issues."

"Coward!" Jocelyn shouted, leaping to her feet.  "Creep!"

Jodi and Zoe looked at her in alarm.

"Jocelyn..." her mother warned.

Derek jumped up and headed towards his eldest.

Joshua's eyes flared.  "Sit, Derek."

Derek spun to face Joshua and then, cowering, returned to his chair.

Tears ran in a torrent down Jocelyn's face as she stared at Derek.  "I know what you did!  Mom may have bought your lies but I know!  You are a sick, twisted, awful person!  And you are not my father!  Not in any way that means anything!  And you're not Zoe's, either.  And don't look at Mom like that.  She didn't cheat on you.  You're not our father because we say you're not!  And I'm glad you're going away!"

Ray was astounded when not a single tear ran down Derek's face.  A similar soliloquy from any of his children would have killed him on the spot.  He hugged the girl when she fell back into place beside him.

Zoe took up where her sister had left off.  "Emma loved us.  I... I was little but I can still remember.  She loved us a-and you never did.  And you hurt her!  You made her go away!"

Aghast, Jodi jumped up from her chair and moved to grab her younger daughter when she collapsed beside Joshua and buried her face in his upper arm. 

"Zoe!  Get away from that man!" she cried, reaching for her arm.

Joshua patted Zoe's back and peered up at her mother.  "I would never hurt your little girl.  Neither of them."  He smiled at Jocelyn. 

"Why are you here?" Jodi demanded.

"Because they're my children, too.  And they deserve to live in a happy, loving home.  They deserve to not spend their days feeling nervous and scared.  I want that for you, too, Jodi.  And Peri," he added when the cat draped herself around his shoulders.  "Please, go speak to Derek.  In the kitchen.  Please," Joshua requested, reaching for the woman's hand.

Tears seemed to come of their own accord as Jodi felt the man's fingers close around hers.  Though, only moments before, he had seemed so formidable, Jodi saw only gentleness in his eyes.  She nodded and headed to the kitchen.

"The truth," Joshua reminded as Derek followed Jodi.

The man gave a reluctant nod but knew his defeat.

When her parents were out of the room, Zoe sniffled and gazed up at Joshua.  "Are you an angel?  I asked God to send an angel."

Joshua shook his head.  "No, sweetheart.  I'm not an angel."

"Oh."  Zoe's face fell.

Joshua smiled tenderly at her and her sister.  "Zoe, Jocelyn, there are many, many angels surrounding you and helping you.  There always will be.  But today... today I needed to come myself.  Do you understand?"

Zoe stole a glance at her sister who looked to Ray.

Ray squeezed Jocelyn's hand and nodded.

Zoe clung to Joshua's right arm and rested her head against his shoulder as she wept.

Peri slid off Joshua's shoulders and curled up against the girl.

"Why don't I move so you can sit with Joshua and your sister?"John offered, standing and smiling gently at the older girl. 

Jocelyn gave a silent nod, her intent gaze focused on Joshua. 

Joshua remained still when she reached out and briefly sat her hand on his cheek.

"I'm really here, Jocelyn," he assured.

Teary-eyed, Jocelyn sat beside Joshua.  "Are... are you mad at me?" she asked quietly.

Joshua gripped her hand.  "No, Jocelyn.  I'm definitely not mad at you."

"But I... I... saw Dad touch Emma in... in a way he shouldn't have a-and I didn't tell and... and..." 

Joshua pulled the teenager to him with his free arm.  "Jocelyn... no.  You were a very little girl and scared and confused.  There were numerous people... adults... who should have heeded the signs.  But they didn't.  And I was angry about that.  But not at you.  You shouldn't have seen that and you shouldn't have had to keep that to yourself all these years.  My Dad and I are very glad you knew you could talk to us about it.  And we listened... never with anger at you.  Never.  I love you two very, very much.  Got it?"

Zoe at last looked up and smiled through her tears.  "Got it."

Jocelyn drew in a ragged breath then also smiled.  "Got it."

"So... so what happens now?" Zoe asked.

"Your father is telling your mom the truth.  All of it.  Then Ray, my cousin, John..."

Jocelyn gasped.  "The Baptist!"

John laughed.  "That's me."

"Cool..."  Zoe swiped at her eyes and grinned at the saint.

John returned the smile.  "Thank you."

Joshua chuckled softly then resumed speaking.  "Ray, John, and I will take your father to a monastery where he's going to try to make peace with himself and with me.  He's signed divorce papers and other documents that will ensure your mom has enough to take care of the three of you... and Peri."  He patted the cat who purred with contentment.

"So does that mean we can move?  Mom really wants to move to Connecticut where our Grandma lives but Dad..."  Jocelyn frowned and hung her head, remembering the fights she'd overheard. 

"It's hard to live here," Zoe murmured.  "Some of the kids know a-and tease us."

Ray grimaced. 

"Will Dad still be able to contact us?  When... when you leave... he might get mean a-and even if it's just letters or emails or calls..."  Jocelyn bit her lip.

"Not directly," Ray responded.  "Joshua has asked that all letters come through me first.  He won't even have your new address."

Joshua smiled at Ray and nodded.  "That's right.  And phone calls are a privilege there.  Only two a month.  Those will also go to Ray.  No emails.  They don't even have the Internet."

"Do... do we have to hug him good bye?" Zoe asked quietly.

"Not unless you want to."

Jocelyn let out a sigh of relief.  "Could we... hug you?"

Joshua's eyes welled.  He grieved for the years they'd spent starved of affection.  He nodded.  "Yes.  I'd like that very much."

Ray and John watched with tears in their own eyes as the two girls clung to Joshua.  After a few moments, they stepped out into the front yard to give them privacy.

Joshua kissed and stroked the girls' hair.  "I love you both," he reiterated.  "I promise you things will get better.  You'll get a new house and a new school.  And I'm going to talk to your mom.  I think it would be good if the three of you went to counseling together.  I know it's been hard to talk to her.  Especially lately.  But that will get better, too."

"Will we... would Emma..." Jocelyn began but then broke up.

"Will you ever see Emma again?" Joshua checked.

Jocelyn nodded. 

Joshua again embraced the sisters.  "Emma would like that very, very much.  She really does love both of you.  And she misses you, too.  I'll talk to your mom about that also."

"Will we ever see you again... like this?" Zoe questioned.  "I mean before we get to Heaven... if we go to Heaven."

Joshua smiled tenderly.  "Of course you'll go to Heaven eventually.  I need my Zoe and my Jocelyn there!  And, yes, you'll see me again.  One day this summer, both of you and your mom will be looking at houses near your Grandma's.  And you'll see one and you'll know it's perfect.  And your mom isn't even going to want to look at it because the yard will be a mess.  But just before she pulls away, the landscaper will appear with his plans.  I'll be the landscaper."

The two sisters grinned at each other then up at Joshua. 

Derek and Jodi re-entered the room.  The latter's shock and regret was evident on her face. 

"Am I allowed to take anything with me?" Derek asked, disregarding his wife's distress.

"Two changes of clothes and your Bible," Joshua answered.

Derek stared down at his feet.

"It's in the den.  Inside the TV cabinet, behind the National Geographics," Joshua informed him.

Derek nodded and left the room.

Sniffling, Jodi stared at her folded hands as she spoke.  "I... I'm sorry.  So sorry.  The phone call a-and not... not paying attention... not wanting to pay attention a-and... that poor girl.  Poor Emma.  A-and my girls... what your childhood has... has been...  God forgive me..."

Jocelyn and Zoe released Joshua and he went to their mother.

"Jodi..." he murmured, folding his arms around her. 

Jodi wept into his shoulder.

After a few moments, the two girls approached and circled their arms around their mom and Joshua.  The four remained together until Jodi had calmed enough to speak to Joshua.

*~*~*

Carefully Taught

Peter sighed after biting into a sandwich from Moishe's Deli. 

"As good as last time?" Andrew asked.  He chuckled when Belle's eyes grew wide as she peered out of her baby sling. 

"Oh yeah.  Sorry, Belle.  You're not quite old enough."  Peter lightly ruffled the baby's hair then surveyed
the theatre lobby where they were enjoying their lunch. 

"I
t's good to be back here, isn't it?"  Andrew smiled as he took it all in.

"It really is," Peter agreed.  "I'm glad you all thought of it."

 "Andrew and Yosef figured that privacy would be a good thing," Fr. Mike informed him, with a wry grin, before digging into a bag of chips.

"I am limited in what I can say among strangers."  Yosef smiled.  "One wonders what a fellow diner at Moishe's would think were I to make reference to that fool King Herod.  Andrew would be at something of a disadvantage, too."

"Just a little!  Although, actually, all of us would be constrained at this point," Andrew observed.

"You're right.  So... it's 1:30.  You think Joshua's headed back yet?" Peter asked.

Yosef shook his head.  "No.  He may have finished speaking to Derek but I think he would have visited the man's daughters.  And Yeshu would not rush those little ones."

Peter perked up.  "Jocelyn and Zoe?  I didn't realize Joshua would visit them, too.  Emma will be so relieved to have a report of them.  Well... I mean I hope it'll be a good report.  I can tell that she still loves those girls."  He frowned.  "It's staggering how many people can be hurt by one person being abusive.  And I... I feel like I've been changed by it myself.  I notice things more... catcalls on the street, commercials, magazines, the way some people at work talk...  It's not that I never noticed before.  But my first wife would roll her eyes and ignore it all.  My Mama... well, the miscreants back home have learned not to mess with her!  But Emma... those things upset her.  I was talking to a few of the guys before a meeting started and, almost in the same breath, they fretted over their daughters potentially going wild during summer vacation and yet wink, wink, nudge, nudged each other over their sons' escapades with girls.  I tried to challenge them and they just stared at me then laughed as if they thought I was joking.  But I wasn't.  I really wanted to know how they squared that double standard in their heads."

Fr. Mike shook his head.  "And, in my opinion, that double standard doesn't do the young men any favors, either.  For one, it gives them the false impression that sex is more important than a true connection with someone else.  For another, those young women are their sisters, friends, cousins, girlfriends... and, more than any of that, children of God like them."

"I'm afraid, in some ways, not much has changed in thousands of years... or only by degree.  And, in some places, not even that."  Andrew peered down at his baby girl and snuggled her closer. 

Yosef
noticed Andrew's distress and patted his back.  "I see so much love, so much kindness in this world," he assured.  "However, sometimes I look at some who proclaim to follow Yeshu and God the Father and I am astounded.  I wonder if they, too, would have threatened my Maryam.  But with each generation, there is hope.  Always hope.  Andrew, you and JenniAnn will teach Belle to not accept hypocrisy.  Peter, you and Emma will do the same with your children.  Mike, you speak the truth to all the children, young and old, who come to you for counsel."

The angel of death drew in a steadying breath.  "Yeah."  He smiled gratefully at Yosef then kissed Belle.  "Please listen, sweetheart."

Fr. Mike smiled gently at the two.  "She'll do just fine.  You and JenniAnn have a good handle on not automatically heeding whatever the powers that be say.  Well, except for One obvious exception."

Yosef laughed.  "He is quite the exception... and a questioner of authority himself."

Peter smiled.  "So does Joshua take after you in that, Yosef?"

"Yeshua was far more brazen than I ever was.  Of course, he knew of what he spoke with a depth I never knew.  But, yes, Maryam and I both taught him that it was important to be respectful of others but to not be dazzled by their supposed power.  Even the powerful can make mistakes.  I shudder to think of what might have happened had I heeded the elders who encouraged me to divorce and cast out Maryam."  Yosef sighed raggedly and looked down at his ring.

Fr. Mike set a hand on the carpenter's arm when he saw tears well in his eyes.  "You never would have, Yosef.  I believe that.  Everyone doubts sometimes... but you didn't for long."

"No...  I could not.  I loved her.  I knew she could not have done what they said she had.  Isaiah had foretold a virgin birth and there was no one more suited to being mother to the messiah than Maryam.  Then, of course, Gabe was not to be ignored.  So the next morning I told the elders that I would have Maryam as my wife or be stoned with her and then they would be free to finish their tables, chairs, doors, and so on by themselves."  Yosef brightened.  "They did not like the prospect of that.  And so it was my first rebellion."

Peter felt a sudden impulse to hug the man.  After sitting down his sandwich, he heeded it. 

Yosef warmly returned the embrace as Andrew and Fr. Mike looked on with smiles of their own.  When they moved apart, Yosef rested his hands on Peter's shoulders.

"In some ways, your path is harder, Peter.  Maryam always knew that what was happening was right and good... the will of God.  The words of the others, they hurt her but that truth was like a shield around her.  You will have to remind Emma, at times, of all that Joshua and Maryam have said to her.  No matter how strong the voice... and they are strong voices... they can be difficult to hear in a sea of remembered voices," Yosef counseled.

Blinking back tears, Peter nodded.  He turned and looked apologetically at Fr. Mike.

The priest cocked his head.  "Peter, what is it?"

Peter swiped at a stubborn tear.  "Fr. Mike, I think the world of you.  What you've done for Emma and me and for the show... amazing.  And I consider JenniAnn and Owen and Kemara friends.  But sometimes... sometimes I'm so angry at the Catholic Church.  Filling her head with nonsense about it... it being better to die than be raped and... and... things with... with..."

"Maryam... Mary?" Yosef asked gently.

Peter silently nodded.  "I'm sorry."

Fr. Mike shook his head.  "Why should you be, Peter?"

"It... it's your religion."

"It is their religion, Peter.  But it's not the total of their faith... Joshua, the Father, and the Spirit are."  Andrew took in a deep breath and stroked Belle's back.  "JenniAnn and I chose to baptize Belle in the Catholic Church because we know Fr. Mike will be a major presence in Belle's life and a wonderful adviser to her.  We wanted that established from the start."  He smiled at the priest.  "And JenniAnn sees so much beauty in the traditions and in the history but Peter... she gets very angry at times, too.  Angry to the point of tears.  I'm telling you this because she's not shy about it once you really get to know her.  Neither is Owen.  Kemara is newer to it but I'm sure there are things that make her unhappy.  And Fr. Mike here..."  Andrew again looked to him.

"Peter, there are a lot of priests who think of themselves as married to the Church.  I suppose, in some ways, I'm one of them.  But I entered into this with a mindset that everyone will tell you should never be brought into a marriage: I wanted my partner to change.  And I still do.  And I try to bring about that change in my own small ways.  I agree that the way the stories of the virgin martyrs are taught can be deeply harmful.  And as much as we all love Maryam, I know that some of the teachings attached to her can hurt deeply.  Those things anger me, too.  I hear so many things in the confessional... things that, in the beginning at least, shocked me deeply.  But there aren't any that I grieve so deeply as people coming to confess sins that aren't even theirs.  Survivors of rape, incest, assault..."  Tears flooded Fr. Mike's eyes. 

"What do you tell them?" Peter questioned.

"That I love them.  That, more importantly than that, God loves them.  And I tell them that He created them to live abundantly.  I tell them that His mother loves them so much and that, whatever else they've been taught to believe about her, we know this much is true: she was once a pregnant, unwed girl.  She understands the pain of judgment that they feel and neither she nor her Son want them to carry around a guilt that belongs to someone else any longer.  Sometimes they listen and... and sometimes they don't.  And then, at night, when I'm alone, I pray to Joshua to forgive me for all the anger I feel.  Anger at the perpetrators and at the so-called religious folk who planted those soul-deadening ideas.  And he does forgive me."  Fr. Mike gave Peter a tearful smile.  "He understands the anger, Peter.  And so do many of us Catholics.  Got it?"

Peter sucked in a deep breath.  "I... I do.  Thank you."

"You're welcome.  And if you and/or Emma ever want to come talk to me, give me a call or stop by.  I went into the priesthood to help shepherd Joshua's sheep.  I don't check at the door to see if they're Catholic and I don't seek to make you so if you're not," the priest promised with a grin.

Peter laughed.  "Okay.  Thanks.  Yeah, we will."

Yosef squeezed his shoulder.  "Emma will be surrounded by a great many friends, Peter.  Neither will you be alone.  And this afternoon... it will help."

"It will," Andrew assented.  "JenniAnn's already talked to Maryam a little about some of the concerns she's had and I could tell how much it helped her."

"Good."  Peter peered over at Andrew who was snuggling Belle.  He smiled.  "I guess I need to let go of the past, too.  What happened to Emma... what she was taught and told... it can't be changed.  But we can make now better."

Andrew reached over to squeeze his hand.  "We can and we will."

"So... are you three doing anything while the girls are meeting?" Peter asked.

"Building a gazebo!" Yosef happily declared.  "A new portal."

"Do you need any more help?  Not that I have much expertise but..."  Peter looked hopefully at the angel of death.

"Peter, we'd love to have you," Andrew replied. 

"Great, thanks!  Fr. Mike, are you going to be there?"

The priest gulped down some soda and nodded.  "I may be a little later.  I'm meeting with a parishioner at the hospital but, yeah, I'll be there."

"So what's this new portal for?" Peter questioned.

"It's just replacing the willow tree," Andrew responded casually.

Peter frowned.  "I hope having us all traipsing around isn't causing problems."

"No, no.  Not at all.  It's a longtime coming and Joshua offered so... we're taking him up on it.  The tree... it... well... it's..."  Andrew's face flushed.

"There was a tree in my parents' yard that Maryam and I liked very much.  We spent many a happy hour there.  It is very pleasant sitting beneath a beautiful tree with a girl one loves."  Yosef grinned and elbowed Andrew.

Fr. Mike burst out laughing. 

Peter chuckled as Andrew's cheeks grew more crimson even as he smiled down at Belle.  "I see.  In that case, I'm even happier to help with the gazebo.  I can't say I'd like people treating my and Emma's balcony as a door."

Andrew smiled.  "Understandable.  You know, as an angel, I just never thought I'd have the experience of listening to a girl recite Matthew Arnold's 'Longing' to me and then hearing someone clear their throat and turning to find her dad looking just a little dazed.  That's a special memory."

Fr. Mike clapped him on the back as he continued to laugh.  "Poor Andrew...  Poor JenniAnn...  And poor Robert!"

Andrew shook his head and stroked Belle's face.  "And one day I'll probably find myself in Robert's place."  He kissed her forehead.  "I hope you find someone to read you poetry, Belle," he murmured.

Belle cooed back at her daddy.

Peter gave both an affectionate smile.  Watching them, he began to feel even more hopeful and excited about his future with Emma.  "So, umm, what's it like for you being a dad, Andrew?  And you, too, Yosef.  And, Fr. Mike, I imagine you have tons of kids looking to you.  Any tips?  Stories?  I'd like to be a father someday so it's never too early to start learning, right?"

"Never too early," Yosef agreed.  "One of my favorite things about being a father was reliving the wonder of childhood through Yeshua.  He would shriek with happiness over a bird or become entranced by a beetle... things adults are often too busy to notice."

Fr. Mike nodded.  "It's one of the reasons I love visiting the parish school so much.  A caterpillar becoming a butterfly is recognized for the miracle it is."

"'The kingdom of Heaven belongs to such as these,'" Andrew recited as he peered into Belle's eyes.  "Being her dad is a lot like Heaven," he added.  "Even when she has a stinky diaper at 3:00 in the morning."

The other three laughed and their conversation continued in a light, encouraging vein until Peter had to head back to his office.  Though reluctant to part from his friends, Peter knew the afternoon would pass much easier as he mulled over their words.

*~*~*

JenniAnn smiled when she peeked into Belle's nursery and found Andrew changing her diaper. 

"Looks like I got back just in time!"

Andrew craned his neck and smiled at her.  "I think you planned that."

JenniAnn laughed.  "Just lucked out.  So how was lunch?"

"Really great.  Therapeutic, actually."  Andrew scooped Belle up and began to sway.  "How was shopping?"

"A blast! 
The whole afternoon was so nice.  It worked out really well, too, because Emma and Maryam distracted Kemara when Violeta and I picked up her and Owen's godparents gifts.  Kemara's showing them around her place now but I came back to get things ready.  I thought the conservatory would be nice.  And big enough." 

"Good idea."  Sensing JenniAnn's nervousness, Andrew transferred Belle to her and wrapped his arms around both of them.  "I think it's really great you're all doing this."

JenniAnn nodded against his shoulder as she kissed Belle's hair.  "So you all had a good talk with Peter?"

"Kinda difficult but good.  Just like I'm sure yours will be."

"Yeah..."  JenniAnn smiled up at him.  "You always make me feel better."

Andrew returned her smile.  "And you always return the favor."  He stepped back and squeezed her hand.  "C'mon, I'll help you get things set up.  You're definitely going to need more seating in there.  And Yosef stopped by True Light so he won't be back for another hour or so."

"Aww, thanks.  Andrew?"

"Hmm?"

"I was thinking about something earlier.  About you."

Andrew chuckled as they headed up the stairs.  "Uh oh."

"A very good thing.  It was just that, while I am a little nervous, I know that I've talked about a lot of it with you.  And you've always listened and never told me I was overreacting or... or anything.  So I always felt, if not comfortable, then at least okay talking to you about really tough subjects.  I'm really grateful for that.  And... and it makes me feel really good about us raising Belle together.  Cause she'll have that openness, too.  With her Daddy."

Andrew paused outside the door to the conservatory and hugged JenniAnn, resting his cheek on her hair.  "Always," he promised.  "I'll always listen to you, Laja, and to Belle."

"Thank you."  JenniAnn sighed contently and smiled as Belle gazed adoringly at Andrew.

*~*~*

JenniAnn was making the rounds, ensuring everyone had enough to eat and drink, when she noticed Emma standing alone near one of the glass walls and staring outside. 

"Emma..." 

JenniAnn turned to see that Maryam was just behind her.  They both noticed when Emma swiped at her eyes.  Wordlessly, they headed towards the young woman.

"Emma, what's wrong?" JenniAnn gently queried when they reached her.

Emma shook her head and smiled sadly.  "Nothing.  Just being my own worst enemy, apparently.  I... I'm good at that."

Maryam embraced her.  "It is not nothing, Emma.  Tell us, please."

"I... I was just thinking of how... how I realize now that what Derek did to me... that's on him.  But what I did with that?  That's on me.  I... I made myself so miserable that it took me forever to recognize Joshua.  Why did I believe all those things?" Emma questioned. 

JenniAnn realized with a start that Emma was looking at her, not Maryam.  She reached out to set a hand on her back.  "You mean things you learned in school and at Mass?  All the stuff about virginity and purity?"

Emma nodded.

Standing nearby, Kylie startled when she heard the last word.  "Oh..."  She approached the other three women.  "Did they do the flower thing with you, too?"

"Flower thing?" JenniAnn asked, sure she wasn't going to like whatever Kylie had to say.

Kylie blushed.  "Oh, umm, I'll tell you in a little bit.  I don't want to interrupt Emma."  She looked tenderly at the other girl.  "Emma, you look a little pale.  Maybe you should sit down."

"I think that is a very good idea," Maryam agreed, leading Emma to a rattan love seat. 

Standing nearby, where she'd been talking with Kemara and Violeta, Monica hurried to fill a cup of tea for Emma.

Violeta snuggled Belle closer for a moment then approached the group.  "Would you like to hold her, Emma?  Belle always makes me feel better."

Emma looked to JenniAnn who readily smiled and nodded.  "Yes, please."  When Belle was in her arms, she relaxed and gazed down at her.

Diana and her girls had been perusing the flowers and plants, with Gloria dutifully informing them of their scientific names, but all four drew nearer when they saw Emma's distress.  On their way, Gloria tapped Tess' arm and alerted her.  She followed with Tiva, Chloe, and Cecilia. 

As a hush fell over the room, Rose, who had been visiting with Cira, Crystal, Brittony, and Makena, saw what was happening.  She led them nearer.  Nita, Freya, and Mere followed close behind.  Not wanting to be left out, Fawn and Lulu forfeited prime sunning spots and curled up in the midst of the women.

When Emma finally tore her gaze away from the baby, she looked up to find herself surrounded by concerned, loving faces.  "Wow..."

The women laughed softly as they made themselves comfortable.  Maryam took a seat beside Emma and motioned for JenniAnn to sit to her other side.

JenniAnn took in and let out a deep breath before speaking.  She smiled at all her guests.  "I, umm, am really glad to have all of you here.  It's been nice to have a chance to just visit.  But the thing is... I actually asked all of you here for a reason.  I thought that Bible study we went to at Maddy's church was really awesome.  But it was kinda hard to talk at much depth cause we didn't really know any of those ladies.  And I know many of us here have only known each other for a few months... such powerful, important months, though.  I feel really close to all of you who are here.  So Maryam and I were talking while all of you and the guys were doing the scavenger hunt on Easter.  We thought it would be good to all come together, angels and humans but ladies all, and talk honestly and openly about some things."  Not sure how to proceed, she looked to Maryam for help.

Maryam squeezed her hand and began.  "Yeshua and our Father love you all so very much.  Unfortunately, sometimes the message of that love has been lost amidst other messages not of their choosing.  I know some of you have been hurt by those messages and others have watched in sorrow as assignments struggled and sometimes broke under the weight of them.  As difficult and awkward as it may be to have this discussion, I feel it is necessary." 

Several heads bobbed in agreement.  After a few moments of silence, Makena spoke first.

"It was really meaningful for me to play the adulteress in our movie and not just because it meant acting alongside Joshua."  The angel smiled.  "The thing is, I knew Mara.  That's her name.  I was there that day they tried to stone her."

The humans all gaped in wonder.

"I'll have you know that Joshua... Yeshua... was every bit as wonderful that day, even when he didn't know what was coming.  After the Pharisees and other would-be killers were gone, he smiled at me.  Just for a moment.  I... I knew he didn't recognize me.  But maybe he did on some level.  I was entranced and I watched as he spoke to Mara, as he freed her.  I wish you could all have seen the transformation that came over her.  So beautiful."  Makena swiped at a tear.  "I knew I had to speak with her so I offered to walk her back home.  I was in Search and Rescue at the time and not very worldly-wise.  It didn't occur to me that her home wouldn't be safe.  She started packing what few things she had as soon as we reached the house.  I helped her and, as we worked, she told me her story.  Her parents had betrothed her to a man when she was thirteen.  She didn't love him.  He wasn't at all a kind man.  But she obeyed.  What choice did she have?  A few years into the marriage, she fell in love with another man.  Thus began the affair that's remembered all these many, many years later.  As she confided all this in me, I couldn't make sense of one thing."

"Why hadn't the man been accused and threatened as she was?" Tiva guessed.

Makena nodded.  "Exactly.  It takes two people to commit adultery.  Not knowing any better, I asked about him.  Mara began to sob.  That's when she told me that her lover had fled when the others came upon them.  He had abandoned her, knowing what was likely to become of her.  And he knew the other men wouldn't dare to speak against him.  But her word... it was worthless in the eyes of those in power.  That was the first time I realized that there was such great inequality among men and women on Earth.  It was the first time that I knew what it felt like to be angry."

"What happened to her?  To Mara?" Emma asked, her voice barely above a whisper.

Makena smiled at her.  "We finished gathering her things and then she ran off and joined Joshua and his band of followers.  She became a very close friend of Mary of Magdala.  I sometimes think that's why the two are so often conflated.  They were like sisters."

Emma sighed with relief.  "Good.  Even when I... I didn't believe in Joshua, I remembered that story.  I wished someone would do for me what Jesus did for the adulteress, for Mara.  A-and he did.  But until I spent all that time with Joshua, I couldn't really imagine that sort of forgiveness and love.  Whenever I thought of Jesus or... or God the Father or... or the Virgin Mary... I just thought about all the other things I was taught.  I thought they'd be angry and disgusted with me."

Maryam stroked Emma's hair and shook her head.

Violeta bit her lip then slowly raised her hand. 

"Violeta, you do not need to raise your hand.  What is it you would like to say?" Maryam encouraged.

"I, umm, I'm confused.  Why do people call you the Virgin Mary?  No one calls Joshua the Virgin Jesus."  The young angel blushed. 

"Throughout history, female virginity has usually been more prized than male virginity," Gloria replied then clucked her tongue.  "It still feels that way."

Diana nodded.  "I have to admit, I've wondered that myself, Violeta.  I understand needing a qualifier since there were other Marys but why not Mary, mother of Jesus?  Or even 'wife of Joseph' or 'of Nazareth'?  That Joshua was born of a virgin is miraculous and fulfillment of the scripture.  I know that.  But as evidenced by these two and their brother and the little one to come..."  Diana paused to give Hailey's and Kendra's shoulders an affectionate squeeze.  "I've not been a virgin for a long time.  Through the years, I'd think about you a lot, Maryam, and I felt close to you as another wife and mother and woman of faith.  I always wondered if my Catholic friends felt that, too, or if the stress on the virgin part made them feel... distanced?"

"Yes..."  Emma replied.  "It made me feel like... like Mary wouldn't want to have much to do with me after I lost my virginity to... to Derek."

"Sweet Emma..." Maryam murmured.  "That was never true."

"I... I know that now.  But not then.  How... how could a virgin possibly understand what I was going through?" Emma questioned.

JenniAnn twisted her ring, trying to gather up the nerve to speak.  Whatever the truth was about Maryam, she knew there was at least one human virgin in the room.  "They could, Emma.  If they wanted to, if they cared to," she began.  "I mean... no one except God could ever understand perfectly because no one but Him knows you perfectly.  But compassion requires an attempt.  And I guess right now truth is required, too, so...  I'm a virgin.  Thing of it is..."  She peered over at Maryam who smiled encouragingly and nodded.  JenniAnn drew in a deep breath and continued.  "The thing is, I've had a crush on Andrew since I was four and I've been in love with him since I was seventeen a-and more and more so with every passing day.  And, well, he's an angel.  Which is really a good thing especially considering... I'm asexual.  The only reason I ever thought about maybe having sex was cause, well, I really, really wanted a child.  But, turns out, God had that under control, too." 

Looking intently at JenniAnn, Emma handed Belle to her.

"Thank you," JenniAnn murmured as she cuddled her daughter.  "Much wished for girl," she cooed to Belle.

"But... but you..."  Emma's mouth opened and closed as she struggled to put her dismay into words.  "You were there at... at the club.  And the next morning...  You were so nice to me."

"Why wouldn't she be?" Violeta asked, a slight edge to her voice.

JenniAnn patted her hair.  "Hon, there's a reason Emma would wonder."

"Yeah..."  Hailey spoke up.  "I don't think these issues are just in the Catholic Church.  They talk quite a bit about being pure and saving yourself in our girls' Bible study, too."

Kendra nodded.  "A lot of the girls just roll their eyes.  I kind of listen.  I mean I think it'd be good to wait until I found a guy I wanted to spend the rest of my life with.  But that doesn't mean I think I'm really holy or anything.  I'm just... not ready."  She snuggled against her mother.

"Me neither," Hailey agreed.  "But then that's hard, too.  Because some of my friends have had sex and when they talk about it and I say I haven't, they get weird on me.  Like they don't trust me anymore and think I'm looking down on them but I'm not.  Joshua said not to judge!  And, well, one of my friends... she's my best friend, actually, she was raped by her mom's boyfriend when she was twelve."  Tears welled in the high schooler's eyes.  "She didn't have any choice in not being a virgin anymore.  So how could I be holier than thou about it?"

Remembering that difficult time, Diana kissed her eldest daughter's hair.  "Sweet baby," she murmured.

Emma bowed her head, realizing that she'd been making her own judgments.

Monica sighed.  "I've watched this all unfold and wondered how I would handle it were I human.  I've always been, maybe, a bit too focused on what others think of me."

Tess smiled to herself.

Noticing, Monica smiled at her former supervisor before becoming serious again.  "It must be so hard to grow up as a girl.  So many mixed signals, both within places of worship and outside of them."

"Look at the media," Kemara piped up.  "Scantily clad women are used to sell nearly everything and people are more or less okay with that and yet if any of us actually dressed like that, we'd be called sluts or worse.  And if any of us were raped, we'd still have to deal with people saying 'She was asking for it.  Look at how she was dressed!'  In the twenty first century!"

"Even depictions of female angels seem to be more sexualized than male ones," Cira added. 

"It's the old virgin and whore dichotomy," Brittony observed.  "And it hurts us all." 

"It does," JenniAnn assented.  "For one, it's ridiculous.  For another, it just turns us against each other.  So many times I've just smiled and nodded my way through 'girl talk' because I didn't want to reveal I was a virgin cause I was afraid then the other girls wouldn't talk to me."

Several of the angels nodded, having found themselves in similar situations.

"Growing up Catholic, I did hear about Mary's perpetual virginity and how it signified her purity and total devotion to God," JenniAnn continued.  "It sounds goofy now but, when I was younger, it made me honestly afraid of the prospect of having sex cause I thought, even with a hypothetical husband, it would mean God wasn't going to want me as close to Him any more.  I eventually realized that was insanity since I knew so many married women who, honestly, had a better grip on their faith than I did.  And, Emma, I'm sure you heard and were given to read the same things I was.  When it's drilled into you that virginity equals purity equals closeness to God... it's only a small leap to assuming that virgins are holier than non-virgins and then only another small leap to feeling like virgins probably think they're holier than non-virgins and are judging them.  But, Emma, I promise you that I don't think I'm any holier than you and I am so, so sorry for what happened to you.  I think you're a wonderful, beautiful person.  We... we all are."

Understanding, Violeta knelt on the floor near Emma and JenniAnn and rested her hand on the former's. 

Emma smiled tearfully at Violeta then at JenniAnn.  "I... I see that now.  And I do trust you.  But... but it just goes back to what I said earlier.  Why did I just unthinkingly swallow everything they told me?"

"Because what else did you have?" Kylie asked.  "Maybe I'm wrong but I feel like maybe we're a lot alike, Emma.  I know your dad was out of the picture.  Mine died when I was a toddler.  My mom and I... she was never abusive or negligent or anything but I always felt like she kind of just tolerated me."

Recognizing her own upbringing, Emma nodded.

"So my church was really, really important to me," Kylie continued.  "I didn't do much questioning myself cause if I talked myself out of trusting the church then who did I have left?  God, of course.  But I couldn't talk to Him the same way I could our preacher or one of the ladies at Sunday school.  And they said that the country was falling apart because of broken homes and divorce and stuff like that.  So I didn't question it when they told me that divorce was a huge sin.  I... I stayed with Jett, even as he got more and more violent, because I thought divorcing him would mean God would be ashamed of me."

Nita, who was not often among humans, wiped at her eyes with the handkerchief Maryam had given her.  "That... that's so sad.  I'm so sorry."

Kylie smiled gently at her.  "Thank you.  I'm okay now.  More than okay."

"Ashamed..." Emma echoed.  "I... I felt that every time b-but... I also... I felt like a lost cause."

Maryam embraced her tightly and kissed her hair.  "You were never lost, dear.  Not really."  She pulled away and cupped Emma's face in her hands.  "Let us help you and be with you now, yes?"

Emma replied with a wavering smile and nodded.  She stared down at her hands for a moment and then looked out at the others.  "I, umm, had this teacher who I thought was really cool.  She knew so much about so many things.  She was my eighth grade teacher and so she helped us with our Confirmation preparation.  We were all supposed to pick Confirmation saints so she was telling us stories about various saints.  And she read to us about a couple saints... girls... who... who died fighting off would-be rapists.  And she remarked about how amazing that was because they were protecting their own purity and commitment to... to Christ a-and keeping those men from committing mortal sins."

Violeta gasped and looked from JenniAnn to Kemara, willing one of them to say that surely Emma had misunderstood.

Kemara hugged the angel but said nothing. 

"B-but..." Violeta stammered.

JenniAnn sighed raggedly and swayed with Belle.

"A-and because I trusted her, I accepted that at face value," Emma continued.  "So... so when Derek... when I didn't fight him...  If I was really holy then... then I would have done what those saints did.  I would have fought him even if... if he'd killed me."  She finished and slunk against Maryam, resting her head on her shoulder.

Freya, who had until that moment been silent, rose from her chair and knelt in front of Emma.  She peered up at Maryam. 

Maryam smiled tenderly at one of the most ancient of the angels and nodded.

"Emma, I never had the chance to tell you what it is I really do," Freya began.  "Like many angels, I started in the choir.  That's where I learned to play the clarinet.  But, for millennia, I have served Joshua and the Father in another way.  I, like Adam, Andrew, Eli, and Henry, am an angel of death.  I have stood by and prayed and wept as men, women, and children have died in violent ways.  I have witnessed more rapes and more abuse than I care to recall.  But I have also witnessed something else.  I have seen God's love for His children remain; just as strong, pure, and committed after as before.  If someone feels they must fight then they should fight.  But failing to fight off a rapist is no sin.  Nor is it the victim's responsibility to see to the salvation of the attacker.  They will face judgment for their sin... and it is their sin and their impurity alone... in God's time.  God wept over the pain of the women... girls, really... who you mentioned.  He wept for you, too.  He didn't blame you then and He doesn't blame you now, Emma, for what Derek did.  Remember that always.  I've been around humans long enough to know that sometimes they don't think about the implications of their words.  I'm sure your teacher just didn't realize the full import of what she was saying."  Freya gave Emma an encouraging smile and squeezed her hand.

Emma rubbed at her eyes and returned the angel's smile.  "Thank you.  That... it helps a lot, Freya.  So, umm, what was the flower thing, Kylie?"

Kylie frowned.  "Oh, well, it's pretty upsetting.  Freya was so helpful and hopeful and I don't want to bring everyone down again."

"Is it still weighing on you, baby?" Tess questioned.

Wanting to be truthful, Kylie nodded.

"Then I think it's worth talking about," Emma encouraged.

"Okay."  Kylie turned to JenniAnn.  "I need a flower.  Is it okay if I pick one?"

"Sure," JenniAnn agreed.

Kylie walked around the conservatory.  "I don't want to take one that's only just bloomed..."  Spotting a tulip blossom that was just beginning to fade, she plucked it.  Before speaking, she went to Diana and whispered to her.

Diana squeezed the young woman's hand.  "They'll be fine.  Go on." 

Kylie cast an apologetic look to the others.  "Sorry.  I didn't mean to be secretive.  Hailey and Kendra, I was around your age when they did this in Sunday school and I was kinda traumatized so I just wanted to check with your mom first.  So remember... this is a bad thing and totally screwed up."

The two sisters nodded.

"We'll remember," Hailey promised.

"Okay.  So... one of the ladies leading our lesson showed up with this really, really pretty flower.  She put it on her desk, in a vase, and didn't say anything about  it while we discussed our Bible reading.  Then, after we'd finished that, she took the flower out of the vase.  She asked us all if we thought it was beautiful and, of course, we all said we did.  She asked us if we wanted it.  Naturally, we all did.  She said she was going to pass it around so that we could all enjoy it and that we should feel free to touch it and hold it.  As the flower got passed around, it start looking worse and worse."  Kylie winced as she pinched a petal and bent another.  "By the time it got to me, it was barely a flower any more.  Most of the petals had fallen off and those that remained were all beat up.  I wanted to cry.  And then the teacher said that we were like that flower.  While it was still beautiful when she was holding it, it wasn't by the time we had all handled it.  It... it wasn't worth anything any more.  She said that's what it would be like if we had sex before we were married.  She pointed to the remains of the flower that I was holding.  A-and no one raised their hand when she asked 'Now does anyone want the flower?'"

"I do."

Maryam beamed at her son as he walked towards them. 

Joshua hugged the angels and women as he passed them then stopped in front of Kylie.  "I'd like the flower," he repeated.

Smiling through her tears, Kylie handed the tulip to Joshua. 

"Thank you, Kylie."  Joshua kissed her forehead then stared down at the blossom.

"Joshua..." Kylie murmured as the color was restored to the tulip and its broken petals healed.

"It was always valuable to me," Joshua assured as the others looked on with smiles and tears in their eyes.  He tucked the bloom into Kylie's headband and smiled.

"Thank you."  Kylie hugged him tightly before letting him go.  She saw Emma anxiously staring at him. 

Joshua turned to face Emma and headed towards her.

JenniAnn rose quickly from her chair.  "Sit here, Joshua."

"You don't have to get up.  I can crouch."

JenniAnn blushed.  "After seeing that... I need to pace.  Badly."

Joshua chuckled and embraced her, kissing Belle.  "Okay.  Thank you."  He sat down and took Emma's left hand in both of his.

"We can all leave if you want, Emma," Monica offered.

Emma shook her head.  "No.  I'd really like having you all near if... if you could stay."

"Of course," Kemara promised as the others nodded assent.

"Thank you."  Emma smiled at all of the ladies before focusing on Joshua.  "So... how did it go?  Did Derek listen?"

"Not very happily but yes.  He did."  Joshua sighed and smiled slightly at his mother when Emma began to weep into his shirt.  "He's still as selfish as when you knew him, Emma.  But he knows now, without a doubt, that he's in the wrong, that he wronged you, his family, his community, Dad, and me.  Derek is going to be staying at a monastery for a good many years.  You won't have to worry about him contacting you ever again."

"Praise be to you, oh Lord," Diana murmured.

"Amen," Tiva added.

"Thank you," Emma whispered.  "Are... are the girls going to be upset?"

"No.  Emma, I saw Jocelyn and Zoe.  Jodi, too."

Emma sat up straight.  "You did?"

Joshua nodded. 

Emma smiled and turned to the others.  "Jocelyn and Zoe were the little girls I was babysitting.  And I really did love them so much."

Joshua stroked her back.  "I didn't say anything to you first because, if Derek hadn't agreed to go to the monastery today, I might not have seen them... yet.  But he did.  Emma, the girls are doing as well as can be expected but Derek's very presence in their home made it an unhappy one.  Jodi knows the truth now.  She's sorry for not believing you, Emma.  She's going to leave Hardsham after the school year ends and she and the girls are going to make a life for themselves in Jodi's hometown in Connecticut."

Emma closed her eyes and took a few deep breaths.  It was even more good news than she had ever imagined getting.  "Jodi... she's not angry with me anymore?"

Joshua shook his head.  "No.  And the girls would really like to see you sometime.  I told them you would like that very much."

Emma threw her arms around his neck and wept happy, grateful tears.  "This... this has been an incredible day filled with so many awesome people," she declared.  "And now... now it's even better."  She kissed Joshua's cheek.  "Thank you for going."

"You're very, very welcome."  Joshua smiled at her and then gazed around the room, smiling at each of the others.  "So you ladies had a good talk?"

Everyone began to speak at once, eager to share about the peace and understanding they'd come to. 

Maryam laughed.  "Does that answer your question, my own?"

Joshua grinned.  "It does."

The group soon settled down and took turns telling Joshua about all they had discussed and learned together.

*~*~*

Shortly after Joshua's arrival, he and the ladies left the conservatory and made their way to the front yard where those who wanted to help worked on the gazebo.  Others continued to make themselves more acquainted with Dyeland.

Andrew paused in his work to watch as JenniAnn emerged from the hedge maze with several of the newcomers.

"Andrew and Adam built that?" Freya asked.

JenniAnn smiled proudly and nodded.  "A few years ago.  Weekend project."

Freya shook her head in amazement.  "I didn't know they had it in them.  You think you know people after a few hundred years!"

Cecilia grabbed her hand.  "Let's go through it again!"

Andrew chuckled as the two ran back into the maze while JenniAnn set about answering Nita's and Mere's myriad questions.

Hearing, Yosef laid down his hammer and approached.  He smiled at the angel.  "Looking forward to tomorrow?  It is a big day for you."

Andrew blushed slightly.

"You haven't changed your mind, have you?" Joshua asked as he, too, took a break.

The angel of death shook his head.  "No.  I just hope Laja doesn't get the wrong idea at first.  I mean I know she'll love the donkey.  But, well, she's a modern woman and..."

Joshua laughed and clapped him on the back.  "Andrew, JenniAnn is not going to think you're trying to buy her enduring affections with livestock.  She gave you a ring, the ring meant a lot to you.  And now you're giving her a donkey because you know he or she will mean a lot to her.  Isn't that how it's supposed to go?" he teased.

Andrew replied with a wry smile.  "It's not exactly a standard issue exchange, no."

"And what about the two of you is standard?" Joshua countered with a grin. 

Yosef laughed and squeezed Joshua's shoulders.  "Ah, my boy has you there, Andrew."

"He does..."  Andrew admitted with a smile.  "But I guess...  That's what's weighing on me a little.  We're not standard.  How will I know when... if... I'm being too, umm, non-standard?"

Peter came rushing towards them.  "Fr. Mike, John, and I got the last floorboard down.  Looks like the railings are really coming along!  Any ready to be attached?"

Yosef nodded and waved his hand towards a section of railing.  "This part is.  I will come help you."  He patted Andrew on the arm then helped Peter carry the railing away.

Joshua led Andrew over to a bench and sat beside him.  "You and JenniAnn have been growing closer for several years now.  And this past year... well, it's been something to see." 

"I... I'm glad you feel that way.  But these past few months...  I've...  Well..."  The angel began to fiddle with a loose screw.

"Andrew, I know everything's that's happened.  I may not be able to access it all right now.  But I know."

Andrew smiled wanly and nodded.

"Tell me?"

Andrew looked across the yard to see JenniAnn twirling slowly with Belle in her arms.  He sighed.  "Last month, when you sent us back to Willowveil, and... and I told her about the day you died...  There were times when I... I just couldn't seem to let her go."

"You would have let her go if she'd asked you to, Andrew.  I know that.  But I also know JenniAnn and I don't think she was inclined to be let go of at the time," Joshua counseled.

"No..."  A true smile returned to Andrew's face as he remembered the hours afterward when they'd laid together while reminiscing and making plans.  A moment later, he frowned.  "But isn't that kind of a problem?  After Monday, I'll be leaving again."

"Andrew, here's the truth.  It's going to be harder for JenniAnn when you leave now.  It's going to be harder for you to leave.  Because you have grown closer emotionally, spiritually, and, yes, physically.  And there's Belle to consider, too.  But it won't be unbearable for any of you and the times you are together will be even sweeter.  The two of you have tried to hold back to spare each other pain in the past and it's never really gone very well, has it?"

The angel of death shook his head and dragged his hand through his hair.  "Nope, not very good at all, actually.  Tears, yelling, listening to way too much Coldplay and Snow Patrol, occasionally throwing things..." he admitted.

Joshua chuckled.  "Yeah...  Great if you're a soap opera character.  Not the best if you're an actual person."  He looked out at the yard and smiled.  He saw Emma grinning giddily as Peter helped get the first gazebo railing piece in place.  Diana, Kendra, and Hailey raced through the yard when Zeke and Sy stepped out from the willow tree's branches.  Kylie giggled as Adam made faces at Belle.  Owen stood in front of his easel, painting the chaotic scene.

"Andrew, do you think they'll be sad when I go back Home?" he asked.

"Of course!" Andrew exclaimed.

"So maybe I should have stayed away.  Not gotten so close to them... not hugged them so much.  Definitely not kissed any of them.  It woulda been easier for them when I leave."  Joshua's eye brow crooked upwards as he peered at the angel.

Andrew smirked.  "Point taken."

Joshua hugged him.  "You and JenniAnn will be fine.  Trust yourself, Andrew.  I do."  He clapped him on the back. 

Andrew breathed in deeply.  "Thank you, Joshua.  I feel better."

"Good. 
Now, c'mon."  Joshua rose to his feet.  "Just a couple more nails and we should have this other section of railing done."

Feeling much more settled, Andrew happily returned to work alongside Joshua and looked forward to the day to come.

*~*~*

Peter turned away from the skyline when Emma stepped out onto the balcony.

"For you."  She handed Peter a mug then brought the second to her lips.  "Mmm...  Not as good as Maryam's but pretty good if I do say so myself."

Peter took a sip of the warm liquid, his eyes immediately giving away his pleasure.  "I love it!  What is it?"

"Spiced milk."  Emma took another sip then sat down on the wrought iron bench.  She set her mug on the table before patting the spot beside her.

Peter happily claimed his place next to Emma.  "So how are you feeling?" he asked. 

Emma bit her lip for a moment as she searched for the right word.  "Freed."

Peter placed his mug beside hers and wrapped his arms around her.  "I'm so glad, Emma."

"Me too.  I don't think I even realized how much I've been fearing Derek coming back into my life.  And I don't even mean just these past few weeks.  But for years.  And now that fear... it's just gone.  Cause Joshua told me he won't make contact again."  Emma drew in a long, deep breath and rolled her neck then smiled serenely.  "And I'm not just happy for me.  For Jocelyn and Zoe.  Jodi, too.  And... and for us."  She peered up at Peter.  "I know it's not like we'll never have another problem.  And I know I'll still struggle at times but after today..."  Emma stroked Peter's cheek.  "I really did believe you when... when you said you loved me.  But I guess I was still afraid... of me.  That maybe I was too scarred and too messed up to... to stick with this even though I love you so much, Peter.  I wondered what it would be like when I can't go running to Joshua or Maryam and have them talk to me and hug me.  But now I know I have lots of other people who will listen.  You, of course.  But sometimes..."

Peter nodded.  "Sometimes you need another person.  I understand."

"Good.  So now I know I have lots of people.  But how about you?  How did your lunch go?" Emma questioned.

"Really great.  I've never had a talk like that with other guys before.  It was... real.  I mean we talked about goofy, fun stuff but deep stuff, too.  I know I can go to Andrew or Fr. Mike when I need to talk.  And, even though I'm Protestant, I might have to hit Yosef up for some intercession."  Peter grinned. 

Emma laughed.  "Yeah...  I, umm, know I won't be going back to the Catholic Church but... I guess we're all just kind of our own thing now, anyway.  We'll probably never fit neatly in any denomination knowing what we know and meeting who we have.  But I'm really okay with that.  Joshua is with us and that's what matters."

"All that matters," Peter agreed.

"But I do still want to keep going to church."

"Me too."

"But I think, umm, when the time comes... I'd like to get married in the theatre.  Maybe have Zeke do it?"

Peter smiled.  "There's an idea!  I'd love that."

"I just feel like... like Joshua would seem closer there.  I mean I know he'll be right there regardless but still..."

"I think it's perfect."

"And you're really okay with everything Maryam and I got for the apartment?" Emma checked. 

"I love it all.  And once we get the rug picked up from that place you were telling me about and the stuff from your apartment... well, then it'll really be home."

"You're really sure you're okay with that?  I just..."  Emma pulled away and fiddled with her bracelet as she stared down at it.  "I hope you're not letting me do whatever I want because you're afraid of upsetting me."

Peter rested his hand over hers.  "Emma, I promise you that I will always be honest with you.  I've just never really cared about home decor.  I do love everything you two brought in because it... it means I'm not alone anymore.  And, even more than that, it means you're here.  I'm sure, at some point, we'll disagree.  And maybe even fight.  But that won't change the fact that I consider myself very, very blessed to have you here and in my life.  And I love you very, very much."

Emma swiped at her eyes before kissing him.  "I love you, too, Peter," she murmured.  "Thank you." 

"Thank you for being here."  Peter kissed her brow.  "So... you're doing good with everything that happened today?"

"Yeah.  While he was working on one of those gazebo railings, I asked Joshua if he'd tell me more about how things went with Derek.  I just... I guess I needed to know if Derek had hurt him.  He did say he slapped him but that it didn't hurt very much... of course, that's Joshua saying that.  I... I imagine getting slapped wouldn't hurt that much physically compared to..."  Emma shuddered before drawing in a deep breath and continuing.  "He said that Derek wrote a resignation letter to the board and a really upstanding, compassionate guy is taking over.  Ray Stanzer.  I sort of remember him.  A nice doctor who came to our school for career day once.  Joshua says that Ray has suspected for a while that Derek was bad news.  Ray's going to keep quiet and stall those who question Derek's departure until school's out and Zoe and Jocelyn are safely away.  After that, Joshua doesn't think that Ray will mince words with... with the principal or the parish priest when they ask what happened with Derek. 
So that's good.  I really don't think they fully knew what was going on.  But they shoulda paid more attention so... so maybe now they'll be more likely to intervene if another kid is getting preyed upon."

"I'm very glad to hear that.  Did Joshua say anything about..."

"My mother?"

Peter nodded.

"Just that he suspected word and rumor would spread fast once Ray stopped stalling and she'd eventually hear about what... what Derek did to me."

"How will you feel if she reaches out to you?"

Emma shrugged.  "I'm not sure, to be honest.  I guess it might be nice to at least be on speaking terms with her.  But... but Maryam's been more a mother to me in a few weeks than Mom was in all those years after Dad left."

"Did you tell Joshua how you feel about her?"

"Yeah.  He said that was understandable and that Maryam would always be my mother.  And that... that he would be with me whether or not my mom makes contact.  Oh... and there was something else he did earlier that was really... really wonderful.  Kylie picked a tulip and told us about how, when she was in Sunday school, the teacher did this demonstration with a flower.  The woman passed it around and had the girls touch it and by the end it was a mess.  The teacher said that's what the girls would be like if... if they had sex before marriage.  And she asked if anyone wanted the flower then.  No one did.  Well, Joshua came in right then and said he wanted the flower.  So he took the tulip from Kylie and suddenly it was beautiful again.  And he said it had always been valuable to him.  He totally obliterated the messed up message Kylie's teacher and so many others send."  Emma clutched the cross around her neck for a moment then, with teary eyes and a smile, looked to Peter.  "Isn't that awesome?"

"It's very awesome," he replied with tears in his own eyes.  Peter pulled Emma close and kissed her hair.  He thought about all the angst he'd unloaded on Andrew, Fr. Mike, and Yosef.  He was glad he had talked to them but even happier that Emma, Kylie, and the others had had that moment with Joshua to confront those issues and heartbreaks. 

Emma smiled again at Peter when he finally released her then, shoulder to shoulder, they finished off their spiced milk and told each other about the lighter parts of their day.

*~*~*

Wednesday, April 23rd

Joshua wondered why he had been roused from a sound sleep.  Then, after a few blurry moments, he had the sensation that someone was in his room.  Rolling onto his back, he looked to the foot of the bed and jolted.  There was a figure standing there with no silhouette he recognized.

"Sorry!"

Joshua immediately recognized the voice.  "Duckling?"

"Yes..."

Joshua flipped on the bedside lamp and stared at the young angel.  It was obvious she had been crying and, for reasons he could not understand, she had apparently been trying to curl her hair.  Instead she had succeeded in tangling it up in a mass of rollers.

"Duckling, it's 2:00 in the morning.  What..."

"I'm sorry!" Violeta repeated.

Joshua got to his feet and hugged her.  "I'm not upset about being woken up.  I'm just a little confused about why you decided the middle of the night would be a good time to, umm..."  He waved to her mess of hair.

"I... I just started thinking about some of the stuff we talked about in the conservatory before you showed up a-and then I couldn't sleep so... so I thought maybe I'd curl my hair.  It worked really well when JenniAnn did it for... for New Year's b-but..."  Violeta began to cry again.  "Now... now I woke you up a-and..."

Joshua chuckled softly and embraced her again.  "It's okay.  Really.  Let's just consider it payback for all those times I woke Abi and Ama up in the middle of the night.  Now, let's sit down."

Violeta obeyed, slumping onto the foot of Joshua's bed.

Joshua made an attempt to get the first snarled curler out.  "So what was it that got you so worked up?"

"Is... is it true that there are saints who... who were named saints by the humans because... cause they died rather than be raped?"

Joshua let out a sigh.  "There's more to it than that, Duckling.  But, yes, that's often the way their stories are taught."

"They... the stories... really upset Emma."

"I know."

"A-and I think JenniAnn and Kemara knew about them."

"Yes."

"But... they don't believe that, right?  That it's better to die?"

Joshua gently pulled out another curler then stopped.  "I think you should ask JenniAnn.  She's probably up with Belle."

"Can't you just tell me?"

"Yes.  But I think it would be better if you talked to JenniAnn."

Violeta frowned.  "Okay..."

Joshua pulled her to her feet then pressed the two rollers into her hand.  He smiled encouragingly and kissed the angel's forehead.  "You can come back and talk to me afterwards if you want to.  If not, I'll see you in the morning.  I love you, Duckling."

"Love you, too..."

After another hug, Joshua watched Violeta exit his room.  He looked out the window and smiled softly.

"I hope she remembers this when she needs to, Dad," he murmured.

Joshua closed his eyes, listening to Violeta's retreating footsteps.  As he did, he remembered how set she had been on becoming an angel of death.  She had zeroed in on the role far earlier than any other angel before.  It was, after all, the task she had been created for.  Though Joshua had let her choose her own supervisor, he'd also done a fair amount of quiet nudging in Andrew's favor.  Thankfully, Violeta had chosen him and, by default, JenniAnn and all the others.  Together, they had begun to fill in the gaps of knowledge and experience that angels would normally acquire over decades if not centuries of caseworking.  They had helped Violeta find herself and her own path.  Now JenniAnn would, unwittingly, build a protective shell around his Duckling.

Joshua settled back into bed, content in the knowledge that Violeta would find the peace she needed that night and in the future.

*~*~*

Andrew and JenniAnn were sitting on his bed in Belle's nursery, gazing down at her as she drank her bottle.

"At what point does it become creepy to watch her all the time?" JenniAnn whispered.

Andrew laughed softly.  "I guess when she's old enough to say 'Mama, Daddy, stop staring!'"

"Good thought.  So we have a while."

"Yeah, we do.  Thankfully."  Andrew smiled down at Belle.  "Cause you're just entirely too adorable, aren't ya?"

Belle stopped sucking just long enough to smile.

"Aww...  You're sure you're okay, though?  You have a long drive ahead tomorrow."

The angel of death nodded.  "I'll be fine.  Besides, she's almost..."

Andrew was cut off by a knock on the door.

"Huh..."  JenniAnn started to get up to answer but the door cracked open and a pale face poked inside.

"Violeta...  What are you doing up, sweet..."  Andrew blinked, thinking maybe he was sleepier than he thought.  Violeta bore some resemblance to Medusa.

"I couldn't sleep.  JenniAnn, can I talk to you?  I'm sorry that it's so late."  Violeta's lower lip began to quiver.

"Sure.  It's not a problem at all.  We'll go in my room.  Why don't you go get your hairbrush first, though, so we can, uh..."

"Okay."

When Violeta was gone, Andrew and JenniAnn stared at each other for a moment.

"Do you have any idea what's going on?" he questioned.

JenniAnn shrugged.  "I'm not sure.  She was a little upset at points during our talk with the other girls but then she was fine all through the evening.  Joshua and John had her laughing so hard at dinner.  But I guess something set her off.  So... you handle our baby, I'll handle our teenager."

Andrew smiled.  "Okay.  Thank you.  And let me know if there's anything I should talk with her about or if I need to stay up with her or anything.  Maybe even wake up Joshua if she's really upset."

"I will.  I'm going to leave the door open, though.  If I say anything wrong, don't hesitate to interrupt."

Andrew squeezed her hand.  "I'm sure you won't, Laja." 

JenniAnn kissed his cheek and Belle's hair then crossed into her room.  After only a few moments, Violeta crept into the room.  JenniAnn motioned for her to take a spot on the settee then sat behind her, ready to tackle her hair.  First, she hugged her tightly. 

"Tell me?"

"I... I was trying to go to sleep but I kept thinking about those saint stories Emma brought up a-and then I felt funny and so I tried to curl my hair to distract myself and I just made a mess of it and it really didn't distract me so then I went to go talk to Joshua and he hugged me and talked to me for a lil bit but then he said to come talk to you," Violeta rattled off.

"Oh..."  JenniAnn had not been expecting that last bit.

"He got two rollers out."

JenniAnn smiled at the mental image of Joshua battling Violeta's hair.  "Well, that's good.  We'll get the rest out.  While I do that, why don't you tell me more about why those stories upset you?"

"Kay."  Violeta drew in a deep breath and began.  "It's just terrible to even think about it.  They must have been so scared.  A-and I kept thinking about Fantine in Les Miserables and how upset she was a-and she knew it was coming.  Not that that made it at all okay, I mean.  B-but to feel safe one minute a-and then..."

JenniAnn's eyes filled as she untwisted a chunk of hair.  She silently offered a prayer of thanksgiving that Joshua and the Father had, thus far, kept Violeta away from cases that involved rape.  She set down the brush and again hugged the angel. 

"Violeta, that will never, ever happen to you," she assured.

"I... I know.  But why does it happen to anybody?"

"There are some people in this world who just don't care about other people like they should.  They don't listen to God when He whispers to them that all life is precious, that all of us belong to Him.  And they do terrible things because of it."

Violeta silently mulled her words over.

JenniAnn rubbed at her eyes and resumed the roller removal.  After a few moments, she heard Violeta say something so quietly that she couldn't make it out.

"Sorry, what did you say?"

"If... if it was you, would... would you keep fighting if..."  Violeta's face cracked and she began to sob.

"Oh, baby..."  JenniAnn blinked, wondering where that had come from.  She pulled Violeta to her and softly rocked.

"I... I... I don't want... want you to... to... d-die!"

JenniAnn patted the angel's back.  "Violeta, listen to me, okay?  If something were to happen to me, I would do or not do whatever it was that seemed most likely to get me back to you and Belle and Andrew and everyone else.  I would never, ever put my virginity above life itself.  Those stories are upsetting and, personally, I hope it's a long, long time before Belle hears anything about them because I really don't like the message they send.  I'm sorry I didn't realize how much hearing them had shaken you."

Violeta wiped her nose on her sleeve.  "It's okay.  I'm a big girl.  I should have said something.  And I... I hope and pray nothing like that ever, ever happens to you or... or anyone we know and love or even anyone we don't know.  B-but if it did...  I didn't wanna think you believed those stories were right and I couldn't imagine you did b-but then you didn't really say anything about them so I wasn't sure."

"Aww, hon...  I'm sorry.  The truth is I did say something about them to Maryam when we were alone but I didn't earlier cause I knew I'd just start ranting.  Got it?"

"Yeah."

"Good.  But, Violeta, I'm human.  One day, hopefully not for a long time, I'm going to die.  I'm not afraid... even less afraid now cause of Joshua.  But I know that... that'll be different for you and Andrew and the others.  So I'm going to tell you the same thing I told him years ago.  You listening?"  She squeezed Violeta's hand.

The angel nodded.

"Good.  Because the truth is, in a way, Kemara, Max, Arthur, Owen, me... all of us humans... we'll keep living here as well as in Heaven.  Every time you think of us and every time you use something we taught you or that we learned together... we'll be there.  We'll live on in the world as part of you and Andrew and the others.  And I feel so honored and encouraged by that."

Violeta finally managed something of a smile.

"So just remember that.  I'll do what I can to stay here for as long as I can but when my time and the others' times to go Home do come... you'll go on and be the very best angel you can be.  And I'm sure Joshua will let me know what's going on with you and I'll be so, so proud.  And I'll tell everyone 'I knew that girl when she first left Heaven and she was kinda..."

"Snotty," Violeta suggested.

JenniAnn laughed.  "I'll try for a better word then but okay.  I'll say 'She was kinda snotty but now look at her... look at what a wonderful, compassionate angel she is!'  And then I'll get out your baby book and really brag."

Violeta laughed, too, as she thought of the highly modified baby book Andrew and JenniAnn kept up for her.  "Thank you...  I feel better."

"Good.  There's something I want you to have, though."

Violeta watched as JenniAnn went to her jewelry box.  When she returned, there was something dangling from her hand.

"I want you to keep this.  Hopefully it'll hold up for a good, long time.  This is to remind you that, no matter whether we're living here or in Heaven, we're still gonna be with you, Violeta."

The angel's eyes welled as JenniAnn fastened a pink and purple jeweled butterfly pendant that she'd long admired around her neck.  She clasped the butterfly as soon as it was around her neck.  Sniffling once more, Violeta hugged JenniAnn when she was beside her again.

"Thank you..."

"You're welcome.  Now... let's get back to tackling that hair of yours."

"So stupid..."

"Violeta, if this is the stupidest thing you ever do at 2:00 in the morning when you can't sleep..."

"I snuck out to go to the theatre..." Violeta reminded, her cheeks flushing.

JenniAnn nodded.  "Right.  Well, other than that... we'll all be very, very blessed.  You should ask Andrew sometime about the doozies of letters he'd get after my sleepless nights."

Violeta giggled as JenniAnn extricated another roller.  "Mushy?"

"Excessively so.  One time I listed off all the names of our babies if we'd been able to have babies.  And Annabelle wasn't even on the list!"

"I bet he turned totally red when he read that!"

"Probably.  Especially since some of the names were Andrew Jr., Drewsilla, Androcles, and Annie Dru."

"Umm... how old were you?"

"Nineteen.  I think some cough medicine was involved, too."

Violeta grinned and shook her head.  "Can you tell me a story about before I came here?  Something that wouldn't have been in Andrew's work files."

"Hmm... let's see...  Okay, well, one Halloween I decided to be really respectful of Andrew's feelings and not decorate..."

"Eeek.  Really?"

"Really.  But I loved my decorations so much that I couldn't not have them out at all.  So I piled them all in a section of the room... right over there."  JenniAnn waved her hand towards a corner of her room.  "And I put a curtain around it."

"There's no way Andrew didn't notice that!"

"Well, he didn't used to come into my room as much as he does now.  But, yes, he did notice.  And he told me I should decorate and celebrate and maybe... just maybe... he'd actually come to the party.  And he did."

Violeta smiled as she thought adoringly of her supervisor.  "Because he loves you more than he hates Halloween.  Loads more."

"Yeah..."  JenniAnn sighed dreamily.  "Love him..."

"Me too.  And I love you, too."

"I love you back, Violeta.  And... I think we're actually making some progress here."  JenniAnn smiled triumphantly as a large chunk of Violeta's hair lay neatly against her back.

As she continued to work, JenniAnn told more stories while Violeta listened raptly until she drifted to sleep.

*~*~*

Andrew leaned against the wall with his journal in his lap, occasionally jotting things down but otherwise simply listening.  He stared up at the ceiling as Violeta tearfully questioned and JenniAnn patiently and calmly answered.  He remembered another conversation, back at the house in West Hollow.  JenniAnn had more or less asked him what would happen to them if she was assaulted.  He'd answered truthfully: he would have been patient, he would have been with her every step of the way, he would have loved her through it all. 

Andrew thanked God his answer had never been tested.  In the end, it had been he who was wounded, he who felt lost.  She had been patient, she had been with him from the dreams to his tortured sleep terrors to the hospital room, and she had loved him through it all. 

The sound of Violeta crying gradually subsided and was increasingly replaced by her giggles.  Andrew smiled as JenniAnn told Violeta about their assorted misadventures and miscommunications.  He laughed quietly as JenniAnn explained her attachment to various items in his wardrobe.  He marveled and prayed and hoped then turned to his journal.

"'Sometimes I wonder if your mother realizes how amazing this all seems to me sometimes.  I try to tell her but somehow things that sound right in my head just aren't enough when they come out of my mouth.  I wonder if she's thinking about how she was seventeen when we met, the same age as Aunt Violeta is now.  I wonder if she realizes now how much I wanted to protect her and how tempted I was to try to keep her tucked away here in Dyeland where no one could ever hurt her... not badly.  I know I'll feel the same away about you, Belle.  I hope you and your Mama fight me on that.  Then again... I'm not so sure Mama won't be on my side.  Sorry about that, my girl.'"

JenniAnn poked her head into Belle's nursery.  "You're up," she whispered, seeing Andrew writing with the aid of a reading light.

Andrew smiled and nodded.  "I heard most of that," he whispered once JenniAnn was sitting beside him.

"I figured you probably would.  Poor girl.  Ya know, I'm a little surprised that Joshua sent her to me.  Surely he woulda been even more comforting.  I mean... he's Joshua!"

Andrew looked to her with a thoughtful smile.  "That's true.  But he knew Violeta was worried about you and, even though she would have believed every word he told her, I think it helped to hear it in your voice, from you.  It sounded like you got through to her.  And she clearly enjoyed the walk down memory lane."  Andrew clasped her hand.  "I was thinking... I don't think you have to worry about how you'll handle some of the questions Belle has when she's older.  You dealt with that beautifully, Laja."

JenniAnn brought his hand to her lips.  "Thanks.  I hope so.  Did Belle get settled back to sleep easily?"  She smiled as she peered over at their sleeping baby.

"She did.  She was doing that thing again where it looks like she's laughing in her sleep."  A weary smile spread across Andrew's face as he remembered.

"Aww...  Well, I think it's time for us to follow suit.  You look sleepy and I'm feeling a bit wobbly myself."

"Guess we should," Andrew agreed.  "Thank you for getting Violeta settled down.  I... I'm not sure how I'd handle some of her questions and moods without you."

JenniAnn smiled and slipped into his arms.  "Thankfully, you don't have to find out."

Andrew rested his chin on her hair.  "Thankfully..." he echoed then closed his eyes, wishing they could stay as they were until morning.

JenniAnn let out a reluctant sigh and scooted away.  "G'night, my love," she murmured.

"G'night, Laja."  Andrew briefly caressed her face.  "Sleep well."

After one more embrace, Andrew watched JenniAnn return to her room.  He looked to the ceiling and prayed that the day to come would be everything he hoped it would be for her.

*~*~*

New Friends

"How about you kick once if you're a boy and twice if you're a girl?" Zeke suggested as he rested his ear against his wife's abdomen.

Diana laughed and gave Zeke's hair a slight tug.  "Honey, it'll probably be at least another month before we'll feel him or her moving."

Zeke sat up.  "Really?  It seemed sooner with the others."

"It wasn't.  It's just been a while and so it's a little hard to remember.  I had to look it up myself."  Diana patted her belly then lowered her shirt and stood to stretch before continuing her morning routine.

"I wish you and the kids could go back to Albany with us today."

Diana kissed Zeke's temple.  "I know.  I do, too, but classes await.  And we'll see you and Joshua and everyone for dinner.  And then tomorrow is someone's special day..."

Zeke grinned.  "So it is.  But now I don't want you fussing over me at all.  Don't even cook dinner.  We'll just do something low key and..."

Diana set her finger against his lips and beamed.  "I haven't planned anything for your birthday.  Joshua asked if he could.  I figured he knew what he was doing."

Zeke's eyes grew wide.  "Joshua planned my birthday?"

"Yes and I don't even know what he has in store so don't be trying to get it out of me, mister."

Zeke chuckled.  "Okay, okay."  He watched as Diana pulled her hair back and put in her earrings.  When she was finished, he pulled her against him.  "I... I'm still..."  His hand brushed against her stomach.

Diana's eyes welled.  "I know.  I've woken up and wondered if I dreamed it all.  But, yes, there is definitely a baby in here.  And, right now, Baby is very, very hungry."

Laughing, Zeke released her and headed into the hall.  "Point taken.  What do you feel like having?"

"I'm just a touch woozy so I'm thinking plain oatmeal."

"Plain oatmeal it is.  I'll make a cinnamon sugar batch for the kids."

Diana squeezed him when they reached the kitchen.  "I'm glad I married you."

Zeke laughed.  "Well, I'm glad you're glad because it's a little late to change your mind.  And... I'm glad on my own behalf, too."  He caressed her cheek then leaned in for a kiss.

Sy made a show of shielding his eyes as he stepped into the kitchen.  "Good morning.  Apparently."

Diana smiled and hugged her son.  "Good morning to you, too.  Homework done?"

"Yes, ma'am."

"Where are your sisters?" Zeke asked.

"Doing hair stuff."  Sy wrinkled his nose.  "Hey, did you know that the baby is about the size of a blueberry now?"

"Oh...  I guess I wouldn't be able to feel a blueberry kick," Zeke mused.

"Huh?" his son questioned. 

Diana laughed as she sunk into a chair.  "Your dad was trying to feel the baby kicking.  He's a little excited." 

Sy smiled and nodded.  "I also read that the baby's eyes have some color already.  That's pretty amazing, isn't it?"

Diana and Zeke snuck a look at each other, both marveling at how much their relationship with their son had improved since Joshua's arrival.

"Amazing..." they murmured in unison.

*~*~*

Joshua lifted a box off the dresser and smiled at Clay.  "You checked all the drawers and the closet?"

The soldier nodded.

"Then I think this is it.  Adam already carried your suitcase out.  Kylie wheeled your books to the truck."

Clay sat down on the stripped bed and rubbed at his eyes.

Joshua set the box back down and sat beside the man, gently patting his back.  "Clay, what is it?"

"I was thinking about the state I was in when I came here.  So angry and depressed... and then... you.  Because of you, I have a fresh start with everything.  Thank you."

Joshua squeezed his hand.  "You're welcome, Clay.  It's because of you, too, though, you know.  You could have persisted in telling me no when I came in here that first day but you didn't.  And not once have you back-pedaled.  So trust yourself to keep building a life you love.  And when you have doubts, and even when you don't, talk to me and Dad."

"Can I tell you something now?"

"You bet."

"I love her, Joshua.  Kylie.  Like I've never loved anyone else.  Not even Gretchen and I thought I was head over heels with her."

Joshua smiled.  "I know."

"Do you think Kylie knows?"

"I think she thinks maybe you have a crush."

"Oh..."

"I think she's hoping it becomes more eventually."

Clay's face lit up.  "Really?"

"Yep."  Joshua chuckled.  "I can read you both really well, you know."

Clay smiled sheepishly.  "Right."

"It'll just take some time, Clay.  You've both been through a lot.  So take it slow and enjoy this beautiful friendship between the two of you and Adam."  Joshua lowered his voice.  "Adam will know when to start making himself a little scarce."

Clay let out the breath he'd been holding in.  "Good.  Because I don't want to rush into anything but I'm also pretty gun shy now so..."

Joshua squeezed his hand.  "You'll know."

"'Mamas, don't let your babies grow up to be cowboys...  Don't let em pick guitars or drive them old trucks, let em be doctors and lawyers and such!'" Caleb sang with gusto as he stepped in Clay's room.  Edward walked behind him, shaking his head. 

"With apologies to our mama, I'm glad we're becoming cowboys!" Caleb declared.

"Farmhands," his twin corrected.

"Cowboy-farmhands!" Caleb clarified.  "Definitely not lawyers or doctors, in any case."  He yanked Clay off the bed.  "C'mon!  We got three hours of the open road and then land as far as the eye can see!"

Clay laughed.  "Have you been like this all morning, Caleb?"

Edward responded with an effusive nod.  "He woke up at 4:00... and then he woke me up at 4:01.  And he hasn't taken that hat off all day.  Not that I blame him.  Cool hat."  He smiled at Joshua.  "So you ready?  No rush.  I can always knock Caleb out to buy us some time."

"Hey!  Not cool, bro!  And Jesus is watching," Caleb protested with a grin.

Joshua burst out laughing.  "I am.  And I see two brothers having a lot of fun together.  It's good to see.  So Clay?"

"I'm ready.  I told everyone good bye at breakfast so... let's go." 

Clay looked around the room once more then stepped into the hall with the other three following him.

"It's quieter than it usually is this time of day," he observed.

The other three said nothing.

As they headed towards the main entrance of the hospital it became much nosier.  Doctors, nurses, and patients lined the hall and began to cheer as Clay came into view.

Just before Clay's eyes filled, he saw Kylie beaming as she stood outside at the end of line.

"Wow..." he murmured before the onslaught of hugs and well wishes began.

*~*~*

Shortly after noon, the caravan turned onto the final road leading to the Romano Family Farm.  The Jolly Green was in the lead carrying Andrew, JenniAnn, Violeta, Kemara, Belle, Shelby, Jacob, and Joshua.  A small trailer was attached to it so Violeta's lambs could ride comfortably back.  Zeke followed in his own van with Adam, Kylie, Henry, Clay, and John.  Edward and Caleb trailed them in the moving van with their parents close behind in their own car. 

When they came into view, Randall and Dot hurried to greet them.

"Moving day!" Caleb shouted as he made a beeline for his aunt and uncle.

Dot laughed as she hugged him.  "How much coffee have you had, my boy?"

"None!  This is all me!"

Randall smiled widely.  "Well, that's good!  Because you're going to need a lot of energy out here."

"Joshua..."  Dot embraced him tightly when he approached.  "I'm so glad you could be here like this for our big day."

Patting her shoulder, Joshua nodded.  "Me too.  Caleb, Edward, and Clay are all so excited.  Sergio and Melanie less so but I think they'll feel better when I show you all what I have in store."

"Joshua, I don't think a bigger surprise than what you revealed last time is possible," Randall kidded as he hugged him in greeting.

Joshua chuckled.  "Maybe not."

Randall lowered his voice.  "Also, there's a sort of change in circumstance with Andrew's deal.  All good.  Just something new to consider.  Let's get the boys settled and have some lunch then the three of us can visit?"

Joshua nodded.  "Sounds good."

Randall clapped him on the shoulder then pulled his wife, nephews, and Clay into a group hug. 

"Welcome home, boys!" he hollered.

On cue, John Denver's "Thank God I'm a Country Boy" blasted from the speakers.  The crowd laughed and cheered as they set about unloading the moving van.

*~*~*

After lunch, Joshua gathered the twins, their parents, Dot, Randall, and Clay into a parlor that the boys would be sharing.  He smiled gently at Melanie who was brushing at tears.  She had just finished unpacking her sons' clothes.

"Melanie, why don't you come up front here for this," Joshua invited.

The woman approached and rested her head on Joshua's shoulder.

"It'll be okay," he promised.  "Trust me, those two aren't out of your hair yet."  Joshua grinned at Edward and Caleb as Melanie laughed softly.  "So did the twins tell you about where we were on Easter?"

Sergio nodded.  "Still having a hard time wrapping my mind around that... it sounds like something out of Lewis Carroll."

Joshua chuckled.  "A little.  No Mad Hatters, though.  But they told you about going through the portal in the theatre?"

"That they did," Randall answered.  "Is that what you're doing here?"

"Yes."

Melanie perked up.

Joshua stared at some wood paneling for a moment then withdrew a carving knife from his pocket.  "Dot, you mind if I do a little carving here?"

"I'd be honored!  Can I put frames around it?"

Joshua laughed.  "Sure."  He quickly carved some drama masks into the wall and then a tree a couple feet away.  "The masks are the theatre, the tree's Dyeland."  He fished four more carved tokens from his pocket and gave them to the Romanos.  "Caleb, Edward, and Clay; the ones I gave you Sunday work here, too.  If you want to go to Manhattan, put the coin on the masks and if you want to go to Dyeland then the tree.  I'll add a return to Albany to the portal at the theatre now that you know about this.  Okay?"

The three young men nodded eagerly. 

"Can I show Mom and Dad?" Caleb requested.

"Sure.  But go to Dyeland since I haven't added the return yet at St. Genesius'."

"Gotcha."  Caleb rested his token on the tree and then stepped through the wall space between the two carvings.

"Oh!" Melanie cried.

A moment later, Caleb was back.  "It's kind of warm there.  I hope it cools down a little for the cook-out."

Joshua smiled.  "It will."

"Wow..."  Sergio approached and brushed his hand against the wall.  "It still feels... wall-ish."

Joshua laughed.  "Because it is.  The portal only functions with that token.  Otherwise it looks like and is a normal wall."

"So... is this something you were doing back in the day?  Did you have something that sent you from, I don't know, your Ama's house to Lazarus' place in Bethany?" Randall queried.

Joshua nodded.  "Yeah.  These."  He pointed to his feet.

Dot laughed.  "So no portals back then?"

"No," Joshua replied with a grin.  "Probably for the best.  I'd have gotten accused of witchcraft on top of everything else."  He hugged Melanie and Sergio.  "So you both good now?  You can see your boys whenever you want."

"Very good," Sergio answered.

Melanie nodded and kissed Joshua's cheek.  "Thank you."  She turned to her sons.  "Now I promise that we won't be dropping in unannounced.  But it's just good to know we won't have to wait three plus hours to see you after... after getting used to having you right there."

Edward embraced her tightly as Caleb patted her back.  "We know, Mom."  He smiled at Joshua.

"I'll leave you all to finish getting settled.  Randall, could we check out those animals now?" Joshua asked.  "I think Violeta's probably ready to burst."

Laughing, Randall nodded.  "I think she got in about five hundred questions about lambs over lunch.  Let's go.  You all holler if you need me in here for anything."

On the way out, Joshua rested a hand on Clay's shoulder.  "Adam and Kylie said they'd like to help you get comfortable.  I'll send them in."

Clay smiled appreciatively.  "Thank you, Josh."

After giving him an amused, knowing smile; Joshua followed Randall out of the room.

*~*~*

"Who wants to see some lambs?" Randall shouted once he and Joshua were outside.

The others thundered towards him with Violeta and the two kids in the lead.

Adam and Kylie approached Joshua.

"Is Clay ready?" the latter asked.

Joshua smiled and squeezed her hand.  "Yep.  And glad for the help."

Adam glanced down at Kylie whose cheeks were slightly pink.  He suppressed a chuckle and settled for a sly grin directed to Joshua.  "Sounds good.  We'll see you later then, Boss." 

"See you in a little bit, Joshua."

Joshua kissed Kylie's hair when she hugged him.  "Have fun."

"We will."  Kylie smiled at him then took Adam's hand and stepped into the house.

Joshua hastened to catch up with the others.  He smiled as he listened to Violeta pepper Randall with more questions.  The angel practically skipped as she walked beside the farmer.

"So Mary and Silvio are old enough to go home with me now?  Because I don't want to separate them from their moms if it's too soon."

"They're weaned and ready for their new home.  I think Mary's excited to see you again," Randall replied.

"Really?" Violeta asked, wide-eyed.

Andrew chuckled. 

Randall smiled and nodded.  "Sure.  And Joshua, too.  At least this time you don't have a video camera for her to threaten to knock over."

Joshua laughed at the memory.  "She was determined!"

"Still is!  Stubborn as a mule but a sweetheart.  I'll go get her and Silvio.  Violeta, kids, why don't you sit yourselves under that tree there and I'll bring them to you," Randall suggested.

JenniAnn handed Belle to Andrew.  "We don't have the video camera but I definitely want video of this."  She fished her cell phone out of her purse and turned it on Violeta, Shelby, and Jacob.

"Are these her first pets?" Zeke asked Andrew.

The angel of death nodded.  "She's around JenniAnn's and my dogs all the time but they'll be the first pets of her very own."

Randall soon returned with a lamb under each arm. 
As before, Mary rushed at Joshua as soon as she was on her feet.

Joshua stooped down to cuddle her.  "Well, hello again Mary!  Let's go say hi to Violeta, Shelby, and Jacob.  Okay?"  He carried her to the three and after Mary got a good look at Violeta, she seemed to remember her and plopped herself onto the angel's lap.

"I love her!" Violeta squealed as she snuggled the lamb.  "So soft..."

"She's so cute!" Shelby cooed. 

"Can I pet her?" Jacob asked

"Sure!  You both can!" Violeta encouraged.

Randall knelt near them and placed the other lamb on the ground.  "And here's Silvio.  We call him Silly, though, and you'll learn why soon enough.  He's a character.  And these two are inseparable so I'm glad they're gonna get to stick together."

"Oh... I love him, too!" Violeta cried before kissing Silvio's snout and becoming oblivious to all but her wooly charges.

"She'll be such a good lamb mommy!" JenniAnn commented as she returned her phone to her purse.

Andrew squeezed her shoulders.  "She's had a very good example."

"Aww, love..."

Kemara handed JenniAnn a tissue.  "Looks like you need this."

JenniAnn dabbed at her eyes.  "Yeah..."

After a few moments, Joshua and Randall moved back to give Violeta some time to gush over her lambs.

"One down, two to go," Randall whispered.  "Who's next?"

Joshua looked across the lawn to where Henry was feeding one of the horses an apple. 

"Henry first," he decided.  "Between him showing off his cat and Violeta with Mary and Silvio, that'll keep JenniAnn distracted while we talk with Andrew."

"Sounds like a plan.  You wanna go get Henry and meet me in the barn?"

Joshua nodded, smiling as he anticipated Henry's happiness.  "You bet."

Once Randall was headed to the barn, Joshua approached the angel of death.

"Henry, you ready to come meet your cat?" he questioned.

Henry nodded mutely.

Joshua hugged him.  "What's the matter?  You seem nervous."

"I guess I am a little," Henry admitted.  "What if he or she doesn't like me?  I mean I'm not... "  He gave a tentative smile as he looked over at Violeta. 

Joshua smiled gently.  "Cats don't need the sort of energy in their keepers that lambs do.  Your cat is going to love you.  C'mon."  Keeping a hand on his back, he steered Henry to the barn.

"Here they are!  We have four and you can have your pick, Henry.  And don't worry about the others.  Dot's niece just moved out on her own and wants a couple cats so two will be getting a home with her.  She hasn't seen em yet so no preference there."

Henry smiled as he watched the four kittens play.  "They're all so cute.  Do they have names?"

Randall shook his head.  "Since we knew they'd be adopted, we've just been using 'sweetie,' 'baby,' 'cute ems,' that sort of thing."

Henry studied the kittens some more then looked up at Joshua imploringly.  "I don't know how to pick."

Joshua smiled.  "I don't think you have to.  Looks like you've been picked."  He pointed.

Henry looked down to see that one of the cats had moved away from the other three and was staring intently at him.  "Hi, kitty," he greeted, holding out his hand. 

The kitten rubbed up against Henry's palm and mewed.

Randall chuckled.  "He even looks a bit like you, son."

Henry smiled as he noted that the cat's coat was similar to his hair color.  Darker marks near the kitten's eyes looked a little like glasses.

"You can pick him up," Joshua encouraged.

Henry scooped the kitten up and closed his eyes as it nuzzled his neck.

Joshua reached over to squeeze Randall's hand, silently thanking him. 

Randall brushed at a tear, touched to think that one of his cats would bring comfort to someone who faced so much pain each and every day.

"He's precious," Henry murmured as he continued to cuddle the contently mewing bundle of fur.

"What are you going to name him?" Joshua questioned. 

"Lloyd."

Joshua smiled.  "Why Lloyd?"

"I wanted to name my cat something to do with Superstar and we have an Andrew and a Tim already so that left Lloyd, Weber, and Rice.  Lloyd suits him, don't you think?"  He turned the kitten so Joshua and Randall could see his tiny face.

"Definitely a Lloyd," Randall agreed.

Henry smiled at the man.  "Thank you.  I really appreciate this."

"You bet.  And it's my honor.  Wouldn't be here to be giving away cats if not for your Boss Man's intervention.  Heck, wouldn't have ever been here at all."  Randall beamed at Joshua who clapped him on the back.

"Now can you do us a favor, Henry?" Joshua requested.

The angel eagerly nodded.  "Anything."

"Go introduce Lloyd to the others.  And keep JenniAnn distracted."

Henry chuckled.  "Okay...  Can I ask why?"

"We need to talk to Andrew and it'd be best if she didn't notice his absence," Randall replied.

"This is JenniAnn we're talking about.  She'll notice."

Joshua laughed.  "True.  We just need her to not fixate on his absence and go looking for him."

"Got it.  Andrew's okay, right?"

"Definitely okay," Joshua assured.

"Is he getting a pet?"

"Not exactly..."

Henry grinned.  "He's getting her a pet?"

"Ding, ding, ding."  Randall grinned. 

"The extra cat?" the angel of death guessed.

Randall shook his head.  "No.  But we'll find a home somewhere for him or her."  He turned to Joshua.  "Unless you have an idea?"

A smile spread across Joshua's face as an idea came to him.  "Actually... I do.  Kemara loves cats.  You're sure you're good to part with another one?" he checked.

"You bet!  Dot and I have a few farm cats but this group's mother was a stray who apparently found the barn inviting.  She's back to her wandering ways now," Randall explained.  "We weren't looking to get any more cats so we'll be happy to see all four of these little ones off to good homes.  Did you want Kemara to pick or are you going to pick for her?"

Joshua eyed the three remaining kittens as he pet and cuddled them.  "Kristina is the niece wanting two?"

Randall laughed.  "Yeah.  Still gets me how you can do that."

"She's very dramatic so... black and white suit her.  Plus, these two are the most attached to each other."  Joshua stroked two intertwined kittens.  "And this little guy..."  He picked up a cream colored kitten with stripes and slate points.  "He's Kemara's.  I can feel it."  He nuzzled the kitten between the ears.

Henry smiled at the contented, mewling kitten as he snuggled Lloyd against his chest.  "She'll love him, Joshua."

"Then we're set!" Randall cheered.  "Let's go introduce him to Kemara and then sneak Andrew away." 

The three left the barn and headed towards the others.

"You getting two kittens, Henry?" Zeke shouted when he saw them coming.

Henry simply shook his head.

Standing behind her, John pointed down to Kemara's head and gave Joshua a questioning look.

Joshua nodded and approached the two. 

"Oh!  He... or she... is adorable!" Kemara gushed.  "Let me guess, they just glued themselves to you like Mary?"

Joshua smiled and shook his head.  "I think he likes me but I picked him up.  I wanted to introduce you two.  Kitten, this is Kemara.  Kemara, this is a kitten to be named later... hopefully soon."  He placed the cat in her arms.  "By you."

"By me?  Why?"

John chuckled.  "I believe my cousin is giving you this cat, Kemara."

Kemara peered up at Joshua.

"What do you think?" he asked.

"Really for me?"

Joshua pulled her and the kitten into a hug when he saw her eyes mist.  "Really for you."

John patted the woman on the back then drifted over to where Henry was enthusiastically introducing Lloyd to his friends.

Kemara sniffled.  "Thank you, Joshua," she murmured.  "I love him."

"I'm glad.  Now you won't be alone in that beach house of yours... not that you ever were.  But it might be nice to have someone to curl up with as you watch the sunset, huh?"

"Yeah...  His eyes are so pretty... so blue."  Kemara smiled as the cat batted at a lock of her hair.  "You created a very beautiful cat, Joshua."

Chuckling, he kissed her hair.  "Thank you.  So what are you thinking for a name?"

Kemara studied the kitten for a few moments.  "Warren.  He looks like a Warren, don't you think?"

"Definitely a Warren," Joshua agreed.  "Now, how about you go introduce Warren to the others?"

"Sure!  Are you coming?"

"In a little bit."  Joshua looked across the yard to see that Randall was already leading Andrew away from the others.  "Need to check on something then I'll be back.  Have fun!"

"Okay!"

Joshua smiled after Kemara as she hastened towards the others.

"Oh my gosh!  You have a kitten, too, Kemara!  He's lovely!" JenniAnn cried.

"Lots of new animals!" Jacob cheered.  "Maybe your cats can be friends with our cats."

"They can teach them how to catch mice!" Shelby added.

Henry chuckled and looked down at Lloyd.  "How about that?  You've only been with us for a few minutes and already you have lots of new friends."  He grinned up at Kemara.  "So you feel up to organizing a feline play date?"

Laughing, Kemara nodded.  "Sure!"  She settled near Henry and soon both Warren and Lloyd were being lavished with attention and affection.

*~*~*

"Now, he's still pretty skittish and not that fond of men.  He didn't come from a very good situation,"
Randall related as he led the other two towards a spacious pen.  "I got a call yesterday from a friend with a dog rescue group.  They raided a place and found this fellow a few weeks back.  They'd been trying to tend to him themselves but just didn't have the space or expertise to keep it up.  Poor guy was beaten.  He's healed up nicely.  Not very trusting, though.  But there's a real gentleness about him so I thought you might want to see him, Andrew.  Joshua, you I'm sure he'll be fine with."

Joshua's eyes welled as they drew closer to the enclosure and he was better able to see the animal. 

After catching sight of the three, the donkey began to back away, into the far corner of the pen.

"It's me," Joshua softly called.

The donkey halted.

Andrew and Randall watched with reverent interest as Joshua leapt over the fence and made his way towards the wary creature.

The angel of death felt tears form in his own eyes as he studied the donkey.  His coat was dove gray with white circles around his eyes and nose.  The darker cross on his back stood out in stark contrast in the sunlight.  He was beautiful despite nasty scars on his back and side.

"It's okay.  You're safe now," Joshua soothed.  "You'll always be safe now."

The donkey brayed softly as Joshua gently brushed his hand over the scars.

"I'm sorry," he whispered.  "You didn't deserve that."

Randall abruptly turned away and swiped at his eyes with his bandanna. 

Andrew squeezed the man's shoulder as he watched Joshua place his forehead against the animal's.  After a few moments, the donkey nudged Joshua's hand, begging to be pet.

"Randall, look," Andrew directed.

The farmer turned around to see the donkey trod quickly away from Joshua then look back at him as if challenging him to a game of tag.  Randall chuckled as Joshua obliged.

After a few moments, Joshua hugged the donkey.  "There's someone I want you to meet.  Andrew, please come here."

Randall opened the pen's gate and waved the angel inside.  At first, the donkey's fear seemed to rekindle as Andrew entered.  Joshua gently rubbed his back to calm him.

"This is Andrew," he introduced.  "And I love him, too."

Andrew held out his hands, palms up, to show that he had no whip and meant no harm. 

Slowly, the donkey trod towards him.

To further encourage and relax him, Andrew knelt.  He smiled when the donkey began to sniff at his shirt.

Randall chuckled.  "He probably smells Belle's formula."

"I think you pass, Andrew," Joshua teased. 

"Yeah?"  Andrew stroked the donkey's mane.  "Am I okay, buddy?"

The donkey brayed in approval.

Looking into his gentle, dark brown eyes; Andrew knew he had to be JenniAnn's.  Keeping his hand on the donkey's back, the angel of death turned to Randall. 

"He's perfect.  I'd like to buy him, please."

Though Randall was inclined to give Andrew the donkey, especially considering the very little expense he'd cost him, Joshua had warned him off it.  It was important to Andrew to purchase the donkey himself.  The man nodded.  "Glad to hear it."

Andrew took a few bills from his wallet and handed them to the farmer.

"She'll love him, Andrew."  Randall clasped his hand for a moment.  "Congratulations.  May you have many more happy years together." 

Blushing, Andrew smiled.  "Thank you.  I hope so."

Joshua beamed.  "I have a good feeling about it.  Now... let's go get JenniAnn."

The three returned to where the others were still gathered near the large barn. 

"There you are!"  JenniAnn made her way to the men and grinned.  "I think Violeta's in love."  She waved to where the young angel was still seated on the ground, nuzzling and petting her lambs.  "And Henry and Kemara are just as enchanted."  JenniAnn sighed and hugged Joshua.  "Good job all around.  And big thanks to Randall."

"Entirely my pleasure," Randall replied.

Joshua stroked JenniAnn's hair.  "And mine, too.  But now... I need some cuddle time myself."  He held out his arms to accept a gleefully cooing Belle.

JenniAnn smiled as she handed the baby over.  "Sure thing.  And I just changed her.  So what were you fellows off doing... if you can say?"

Joshua and Randall looked to Andrew.

JenniAnn stepped nearer to him and hugged his arm.  "Are you okay?"

The angel nodded.  "Oh yeah.  Definitely.  I just, umm...  There's something that I'd like you to see is all but first I wanted Joshua to...  Well...  Could you, umm, just come with me... please... Laja?"

Confused by Andrew's flustered demeanor, JenniAnn stole a glance at Joshua who replied with a wide smile.  She looked back to Andrew.  "Sure..."

Randall cleared his throat to cover an amused snort that had snuck out.

Keeping hold of Andrew's arm, JenniAnn let him lead her away.

Once they were a few yards off, Joshua grinned at Belle and kissed her forehead.  "Lemme tell you about how much fun it is to grow up with a donkey!"

Randall chuckled and listened as Joshua regaled Belle with stories of Yoktan, soon drawing the others around him in a crowd.

*~*~*

"You're sure you're okay?  You look a little piqued."  JenniAnn stretched up to set the back of her hand against Andrew's forehead.  "Hmm.  You feel normal.  Been meaning to ask... will you be more susceptible to the flu and colds and such now?"

Andrew smiled and shook his head.  "No.  Same story as always.  I'll get sick if it suits the assignment.  If I need to lose my voice to, I don't know, get through to someone about the importance of speech then I guess I'll get laryngitis but if not... healthy as a horse."

"Oh good.  So what are we on the look out for?"

"Just up there."  Andrew waved towards the donkey's enclosure which was just coming into view.

"Oooh.  That was empty last time we were here, wasn't it?  Did Randall get something new?"

"Yeah."

"Is he or she cute?"

"I think so."

"Aww.  Lemme guess... you're getting a pet, too?"

Andrew shook his head.

"Probably for the best.  I think Lulu would maybe be jealous.  You're her boy!"

The angel only smiled as they continued to walk. 

"Oh..."  JenniAnn stopped as they neared the pen and she caught sight of the donkey.  "Oh... he's... or she?"

"He," Andrew clarified.

"He's so cute!  And look how pretty his coat is!  Do you think I can pet him?" JenniAnn asked without taking her eyes off the donkey.

Andrew nodded.  "Sure.  But maybe don't go into the..."  He quieted as the donkey headed directly towards JenniAnn's outstretched hand as she leaned over the fence. 

"So darling..." JenniAnn cooed.  "And so pret..."

Andrew knew the moment she saw the scars.  He saw her eyes fill and her breath catch in her throat.

"A-andrew?  What happened to him?" JenniAnn implored.

"Randall said a rescue group found him during a raid.  He'd been mistreated."  Andrew cast a sympathetic look on the donkey and lightly stroked JenniAnn's back.

"Poor love..."  JenniAnn gave a ragged sigh then found the opening to the pen and stepped inside.  "Sweet boy..." 

Andrew opened his mouth to urge some caution but it was too late.  JenniAnn had her arms around the jack's neck.  To the angel's relief, he simply set his head on her shoulder and brayed quietly.

"I know Randall will take very, very good care of you," JenniAnn consoled.  "His donkeys seemed very happy last time we were here.  So that's gotta be good, right?"  She kissed his muzzle then turned to Andrew with tears in her eyes.  "Look at how sweet he is!  Who could ever hurt him?"

Andrew watched, fighting his own tears, as, like Joshua, JenniAnn gently caressed the donkey's scars. 

"You really are very pretty... or handsome, I guess I should say!" she complimented.  "And so gentle!"

"Randall says he has some trust issues with men.  Of course, he loved Joshua."  Andrew tentatively reached out to stroke the donkey's mane.  Though he remained focused on JenniAnn, the jack seemed content to have Andrew paying attention to him, too.  "And he's clearly fond of you," the angel added.

"Such a sweetheart!" JenniAnn raved.  "Thank you for bringing me to see him, Andrew!  Gonna definitely have to make a return visit."

Andrew took in a deep breath and brushed his hand through his hair.  "I... Laja, I didn't just want you to see him.  See, I...  Well, actually Yosef..."

Though one hand remained buried in the scruff of the donkey's neck, JenniAnn peered at Andrew and reached over to stroke his arm.  "Love..."

Andrew placed his hand over hers.  "It's just... you didn't want a ring but I... I want you to have something.  Some... some sign of my commitment to you a-and to Belle and to... us.  I mean I have my ring and one day... well, one day I'm going to tell Belle about when you gave it to me... both times.  And how I felt... both times.  So loved.  I guess I wanted you to have a story, too.  For her... and for you.  And something to remind you that I love you even when I can't be with you.  And so Yosef..."

"A comfortable donkey and an obedient home..." JenniAnn whispered.  She turned away from Andrew and rested her head against the donkey's neck.

"He said it... it worked for him.  The donkey.  Yoktan.  And I'm not..."  Unsure what to think of her reaction since he couldn't see her face, Andrew kept prattling on, gently running his left hand through her hair as his right hand recklessly shot through his own.  "Laja...  It's not like I felt I had to do this.  I just... I wanted to.  Something.  For you.  And I thought... after I met him... that he had to be yours.  And now I feel it even... even more, Laja.  So... I bought him.  For you."

A few silent moments ticked by, seeming eternal to Andrew.

JenniAnn at last let go of the donkey and faced the angel.

Andrew sighed when he saw she was crying.  "Laja, I'm sorry if..."  He was cut off when JenniAnn flung herself at him, sending him stumbling back into the fence. 

"I love you," she murmured before kissing his cheek.  "And thank you."  She kissed his brow.  "I love him."

Andrew grinned as she kissed his other cheek.  "So, umm, we're good?"

"Very."  JenniAnn's embrace tightened.  "He... he's much better than jewelry.  Much more special."  She brushed her thumb against his beard.  "Thank you." 

Andrew wrapped his arms around her waist and sighed happily.  "You're very welcome and I'm glad you like him.  And... I think he's glad, too."  He chuckled when the donkey set his head down on JenniAnn's shoulder and voiced his annoyance with having attention shifted from him.

JenniAnn giggled.  "Sorry, uh...  Hey, does he have a name?"

Andrew shook his head.  "Maybe he did once but I think he needs a new one, one for making new, good memories.  I think you should name him, Laja."

Devoting her attention to the donkey, JenniAnn contemplated her options.  "I'm thinking a Y name... for Yeshua, Yosef, and Yoktan.  And he is so gentle... and his coat's color...  Dove-like.  How about Yonah?  Like Jonah.  It means 'dove.'  What do you think?"  She snuggled the donkey.  "Are you a Yonah?"

The donkey replied by nuzzling her in return.

"I think Yonah it is."  Andrew smiled as he resumed stroking the donkey's mane. 

"So you think we can bring him back to the others and introduce him or would that be too much?  And how are we getting Yonah home, anyhow?"

Andrew contemplated JenniAnn's question.  He hadn't thought of that...  Surely they couldn't bring Yonah through the farmhouse and into the portal.

"Oh!  Look!"

Andrew turned to where JenniAnn was pointing and smiled. 

Maryam and Yosef were approaching, the former astride Yoktan.  When they drew nearer, the donkey stopped and Yosef helped Maryam dismount. 

"How goes it?" Yosef called as he and Maryam walked towards Andrew, JenniAnn, and Yonah. 

Before either could answer, Yoktan trotted towards Yonah and set his head on the other donkey's neck.

"That's adorable!  But what's he doing?" JenniAnn asked.

Maryam laughed softly.  "That is how donkeys hug each other.  Yeshua asked us to come along with Yoktan and the trailer.  The two can ride back to Dyeland together, with the lambs, and then Yoktan will remain with Yonah until we return Home.  He will help him grow comfortable, show him how to play with Mary and Silvio, how to graze."

JenniAnn frowned and patted Yonah's back.  "That's really lovely and I'm very grateful and it'll be awesome to have Yoktan around... just sad to think Yonah would have to be taught all that.  Poor love.  But he can be happy and free now."

As JenniAnn nuzzled her donkey, Yosef shot Andrew a knowing look.

"Good advice, yes?" he asked.

Andrew chuckled.  "Yes.  Thank you again."

JenniAnn straightened up and smiled.  "Oh right..."  She hugged Yosef and then Maryam.  "Thank you for suggesting and inspiring Andrew's gift." 

"You will be very happy together," Maryam opined.  "I believe Yeshua is telling Belle the same.  Shall we go introduce them?"

"Yonah will be okay with the group?" JenniAnn checked.

Yosef nodded.  "You and Yeshua will be there.  He trusts you both and seeing Yoktan mingle fearlessly will help."

"Good!"  JenniAnn gave Yonah another hug and pet Yoktan who began to lead the group at a leisurely pace.

"Will the two of you be able to stay for dinner tonight?  It's a potluck/cook-out sorta thing," Andrew explained.

"We would love that," Maryam accepted.  "Thank you."

"You're welcome!  I spose it's a bit much to be getting together for dinner nearly every night but, well, seems best that everyone spend as much time as possible near Joshua before..."  JenniAnn sniffled.

Andrew wrapped his arm around her shoulders.  "I agree." 

Maryam and Yosef nodded in unison, praying that Monday would not be too trying for them all.

*~*~*

"And here they are now!"  Joshua turned to face the six as they headed towards them.  He took Belle's hand and helped her wave to her parents. 

Yoktan hurried towards his boy but then politely stopped to give Yonah a chance to catch up.  The two nuzzled Joshua until he'd pet them both then Yoktan brayed and gently set his head on Joshua's arm, eye to eye with Belle who cooed in greeting.  After a moment, Yoktan forfeited his spot and nudged Yonah.

Yonah timidly approached and, with encouragement from Joshua, mimicked the older donkey.

As before, Belle cooed and smiled.

Yonah brayed in response.

Belle gurgled.

"They're talking!" John exclaimed.

"Andrew..."  JenniAnn kissed his shoulder then rested her head there as they watched their baby and donkey make friends.

*~*~*

Soul Mates

On the drive back from Albany, Zeke found himself with a lone passenger: Joshua.  He suspected this was something of an early birthday present from the others and was grateful for it. 

After several minutes of singing along together to a CD of hymns, Zeke turned the stereo off.

"Lord, can I ask you a question?"

"Sure."  Joshua could tell something had been on Zeke's mind and he was glad for the opportunity to hear about it.

"So you said that, in Heaven, we'll be like the angels, not married and not given in marriage.  But then I look at your parents and listen to how they speak about each other... husband and wife."

Joshua smiled as he glanced in the side mirror and saw the gray car behind them.  "Old habits die hard... especially when someone's not particularly wanting them to die.  My Ama loved being a wife and my Abi loved being a husband.  Plus, using anything other than 'husband' and 'wife' was going to cause confusion before you all knew who we are."

"I get that, I do, but they still... they act married.  And it's beautiful.  But is that just for them or..."

Joshua reached over to pat the man's arm.  "They're soul mates, Zeke.  That's what you see, not marriage.  And that bond is eternal... there's nothing 'til death do us part' about it.  You and Diana are soul mates, too.  So don't go around thinking I'm planning an eternity where you two wander around in white robes and play harps and never touch each other or have deep conversations with each other, only gaze in misty eyed wonder at the awesomeness that is me."  Joshua smirked and shot Zeke a playful grin.

Zeke smiled and let out a sigh of relief.  "I think I would have been very content to bask in the awesomeness that is you, Lord... but I am glad to hear that.  Can I tell Diana?"

"Of course."

"But no sex, right?"

"No sex.  The depth of connection in Heaven is so perfect and complete that choosing to have sex as a means of connection would be like choosing to experience great art by looking at a grainy photo of the Mona Lisa when you have the opportunity to get a personal tour of the entire Louvre."

"Wow."

Joshua smiled.  "Yeah."

"Can I ask another question?"

"Ask away."

"So Andrew and JenniAnn... are they... that... right now?"

"No.  They're soul mates, too.  But, like you and Diana, their relationship plays out in the mortal worlds with all the complications that entails.  Sometimes they're perfectly in sync but sometimes they muddle through."

"Sounds familiar..."

Chuckling, Joshua nodded. 

"But they have a chance at that... at what your parents have?  Just like Diana and me?"

"Sure."

"Does everyone?"

"Yes and no."

Zeke looked to Joshua with alarm.

"It's not a bad thing, Zeke, that not everyone does.  In fact, it's a good thing.  Everyone is created with a deep connection to someone."

"You?"

"Yes.  Some choose to sever that connection but it was given to them.  And some want no other soul-deep connection beyond that.  Like my cousin.  There are many people he loves dearly but he has no soul mate beyond me.  And, in Heaven, he is loved and respected for that while, at the same time, my parents are loved and respected as soul mates to each other as well as to me.  It's not like it is here where, in some places, singletons are more highly esteemed and, in others, married people are.  And it's also not the case that one's soul mate was once a romantic and/or sexual partner.  Some people's soul mates are their parents, kids, siblings, friends, and so on.  Everyone is loved for who they are regardless of whether or not they have an additional soul mate.  And having a soul mate doesn't take away from any other relationship.  Right now, at times, you and Diana have to choose between focusing on each other or the kids.  That's not an issue in Heaven where there is no time... only eternity.  Got it?"

"Got it!  It's going to be hard to not go around telling people all this, Lord."  Zeke shook his head as he made a turn.

"You can.  You'll just have to frame it as a theory.  People will find it hard to believe you really spoke to me like this.  Well, except those inside the JCS crowd.  And that's why I'm glad Kylie's starting up that Bible study.  You're all going to need to lean on each other."

"And what a blessing that is!" Zeke exclaimed.  "The apostles went to the ends of the earth, far from each other."

"They did.  But my plans here are different.  Not that there won't ever be any travel."  Joshua beamed.  "You'll have a little one to introduce to the world.  And then, eventually, grandkids, too.  Your tribe's gonna increase, my friend."

Zeke grinned from ear to ear.  "I can't wait to meet our new baby... although I hope you'll excuse me if I do hope to wait at least a few years before meeting any grandchildren."

Joshua laughed.  "I understand."

"Since you brought it up in a manner...  My boy's pretty smitten with your Ivy."

"Huh..."

Zeke looked to Joshua with a sly smile.  "Don't pretend like you don't know."

"Well... I may have known that was afoot," Joshua explained.  "Although I didn't know it would start up while I was still here.  They were cute dancing at the party, weren't they?"

"They were.  And I like the idea of Sy having a girl he can talk to about all that's happened.  But Lord..."

With a sigh, Joshua sobered.  "I know, Zeke."

"Things are better than they used to be.  Much better.  But I know they're not going to get too far into whatever their relationship will be before someone says something stupid.  Worst part is, I'm not so sure it won't be someone in our own church.  Some of them have views about interracial relationships and with Catholics on top of that."

"Yes, they do."

Zeke's eyes misted.  "I just don't want to see them crushed like that, Lord.  Please give Diana and me the words to comfort them when that time comes."

Joshua squeezed the man's shoulder.  "I will, Zeke.  You know I will."

"I do..."

"Good.  Now, on a lighter note... wear comfortable clothes tomorrow."

Zeke's face relaxed and he laughed.  "I still can't believe you're planning my birthday party."

Joshua shrugged.  "Seemed appropriate.  I planned your birth."

A lump formed in Zeke's throat and he nodded.  "You... you did, Lord.  And thank you mightily for that."

"You're very welcome, my Zeke."  Joshua briefly squeezed the man's hand and, after a few moments of companionable silence, he turned the stereo back on and flicked to a particular track.

Zeke smiled before joining Joshua in song.

"'Morning has broken, like the first morning.  Blackbird has spoken, like the first bird.'"


*~*~*

That night, after everyone but the Dyelanders had left, Joshua accompanied Violeta to the stables where they did a final check of the animals.

Joshua's heart swelled as he watched Violeta plop down between Mary and Silvio and wrap an arm around each of them.

"Time to go night-night," she murmured.  "I'll sing you a lullaby.  Here goes...  'Tender shepherd, tender shepherd.  Let me help you count your sheep...'"  She smiled up at Joshua as she continued.

Joshua hugged Yoktan and Yonah then waited patiently until Violeta had finished her song and kissed her lambs good night. 

"You did very well, Duckling.  I could tell Mary and Silvio were very relaxed and feeling cozy.  Yoktan and Yonah liked your song, too," Joshua relayed, wrapping his arm around the angel's shoulders.

Violeta rested her head on his shoulder.  "Thank you.  I feel bad leaving them alone, though."

"They're not alone.  They have each other.  Having this time just the four of them will help Mary, Silvio, and Yonah bond.  And if the conversation dries up... well, Yoktan can keep it going," Joshua teased.

Violeta laughed.  "Okay."

"They'll likely fall asleep soon and then be very excited to see you in the morning."

"I hope so!  And it's almost Wicked night!"

Joshua smiled.  "It is.  I'll be glad to have Ivy back with us.  Have you..."  Joshua paused when he noticed someone approaching.  "Max."

"I bet he's wanting to talk to you.  I'll go inside."  Violeta kissed Joshua's cheek.  "G'night!"

"Good night, Duckling," Joshua replied as he embraced her.

With a parting smile, Violeta ran into the castle.

Max chuckled as he approached.  "Her energy level sure is enviable!  I wish I could borrow some of it on work mornings when a new, big comic is coming out."

Joshua smiled.  "It's been a good day for her."

The young man nodded.  "She loves those lambs.  I'm glad you and Randall could do that for her.  It'll be nice for Violeta to come back to them when she has difficult assignments.  Although Maja might have a time of it when Andrew and Violeta are both gone... a baby, a donkey, two dogs, and two lambs to care for."

"Something tells me JenniAnn won't have to deal with it alone."

Max shook his head.  "No.  We'll all be helping her.  And I was thinking, once I start school, maybe I'd ask Andrew if I could stay with him at Serendipity or maybe even ask Maja about crashing at the castle on nights I have late classes.  Just because the portal is so much closer to here than it is to my place.  And then I figure I'd have some time in the mornings to help Maja out if needed.  Do you think it'd be okay to ask?"

"Of course.  I think they'd love that, Max, and I'm sure your Maja would appreciate the help," Joshua encouraged.

"Good.  Thanks."

Joshua could tell Max had more on his mind.  "Hey, since the gazebo's done, you wanna come break it in with me?  Just the sitting part.  Not the portal part."

"Sure," Max agreed.

Once they were seated, Max heaved a sigh.

"You're upset, Max.  Tell me?"  Joshua reached over to take his hand.

Max shrugged.  "Maybe it's stupid..."

"I doubt it."

After drawing in and letting out a deep breath, Max spoke.  "Josh, I'm really, really happy with my life right now and very grateful to you a-and to your Dad for it.  But sometimes I... I feel like... like I'm going to screw it all up somehow.  I love Andrew and Maja so much but I... I'm not really their son.  I'm the son of two people who walked out on each other a-and on me.  As much as I love Rose... how... how do I know my true colors won't eventually come out?"

Joshua moved closer and hugged Max's shoulders as he began to cry.  "Max, who you are isn't your genealogy.  Trust me.  My own genealogy isn't exactly filled with wholesomeness."

In spite of his tears, Max let out a laugh.  "Yeah..."

"The family you choose... that says more about who you are, Max.  And look who you've chosen to spend your days with!  You have an angel who loves you with a father's self-sacrificial love.  You have a woman who adores having a son to buy socks for."

Max rubbed at his eyes and smiled.  "Yeah... I... I do."

"All that warmth, all that love you feel for Andrew and JenniAnn... those are your true colors, Max.  Those are what you bring to Rose.  You come from good stock.  Don't let anyone ever tell you different... least of all yourself.  Understand?" Joshua checked.

"Yes."

"Good.  Because what's more... you're my kid, too.  And I love you more than life.  I will never leave you, Max.  Never," Joshua vowed.  "Not you and not Rose.  And you know what else?"

Sniffling, Max peered at Joshua.  "What?"

"I think you're wonderful husband material for Rose."

Max hugged Joshua tightly.  "Thank you."

"Feel better?"

"Much better.  But there is one more thing I've been wondering about and I'm not sure how... or if... I should bring it up.  It's about Andrew."

"I think I know a little about Andrew.  Maybe I can help."

Max laughed.  "Yeah, just a little...  The thing is, Josh, it... it feels really good to call JenniAnn Maja... Mom, basically."

Joshua nodded.  "Sure."

"But I'm never going to be a mom.  That'll be Rose.  We hope.  And I hope one day I'm a dad.  A really good dad.  And I've been thinking that maybe... maybe I'd feel less nervous about that if I had someone to call Dad myself... I haven't since my father packed up and disappeared.  I know I can call your Dad... Dad.  And I will.  But I mean..."  Max bit his lip, searching for words.

"Someone physically here?  Someone you can hug and talk to, face to face?"

"Exactly.  And that should be Andrew but I guess I think maybe it's a little awkward.  I mean I've called him Andrew for a couple years now because that's who he was to me when... when we were in Afghanistan.  So maybe it's too late..."

Joshua shook his head.  "It's not too late, Max.  I think that would mean a lot to Andrew.  And I think you have a very keen sense of yourself to know it would make you feel less nervous about your own potential fatherhood to have a Dad.  You know what's in your own heart, Max.  Trust yourself.  Don't worry about something lurking there that's going to pop out and wreak havoc.  You're a good man and I know you will always give your very best to your family and, eventually, your patients.  Now, how about we head into the castle?  I bet Andrew's still awake."

"Yeah probably.  But maybe him and Maja are busy with Belle or... or each other."

Joshua smiled brightly.  "Trust me, they're never too busy for their eldest.  Come on." 

Grinning, Max walked with Joshua to the castle.

*~*~*

"I love you... I love you... I love you," JenniAnn murmured, hugging Andrew tightly, as they stood in the doorway between the nursery and her bedroom.  "My most awesome anam cara ever."

Andrew chuckled.  "Stiff competition there."  He kissed her hair.  "I love you, too, and I'm glad you're so happy, Laja.  And I'm glad for Yonah.  He deserves to be loved and fussed over."

"So much...  Although I was thinking... what'll we do with him and the sheep when it storms?"

Andrew didn't have the heart to tell her that most people left their livestock in their stables and prayed and hoped for the best.  "I talked to Vincent tonight.  He thinks we can expand the tunnels to connect to the stable and then to my basement... although it may make our time there a little smelly."

"I don't care... so long as they're safe.  Are you okay with that?"

Andrew nodded.  "Sure."

JenniAnn rested her head against his chest.  "Thank you.  Now I really should go to bed...  And you, too."

Andrew embraced her once more then let her go.  "Good night, Laja."

"G'night, Andrew."  JenniAnn tiptoed to Belle's cradle for one more kiss then, after squeezing Andrew's hand, slipped into her own room.

Andrew was just turning down the bed when there was a soft knock at the nursery door.  A moment later, Joshua peeked in. 

"Hey," Andrew greeted quietly.  "Everything okay?  Anything I can do to improve your stay?" he asked, his eyes twinkling.

Joshua chuckled softly.  "I'm great and the accommodations are perfect, thank you.  But Max is in the library.  He'd like to talk to you.  I'll sit with Belle."

Andrew's eye brow arched.  "Max?  Is everything okay?"

"Definitely.  He just needs to talk."

"Okay.  Sure."  Andrew hugged Joshua.  "Thanks.  JenniAnn's still awake if you want to peek in and say good night."

"I do, thank you.  See you in a bit, Andrew."

Joshua settled onto a floor pillow near Belle's cradle.  He smiled up at the projected stars coming from her frog nightlight and then peered down at her. 

"You have a good, strong family, Belle.  Cherish it always," he whispered before gently kissing her cheek and then stepping away to check on her mother.

*~*~*

"Max?" Andrew called as he stepped into the library.

Max rose from where he was crouching to look at some books.  "Here.  Sorry to show up so late but..."

Andrew approached and hugged him.  "It's not too late.  And you stop in when you need to, no matter the time.  I know your Maja feels the same way."

Max nodded appreciatively.  "Yeah, I know.  Thank you.  Actually... I'm here because of that.  Well, sort of."

Andrew waved Max over to a couch and sat beside him.  "What's on your mind, Max?"

"Maja.  I mean not Maja herself.  Although... I mean... I do think of her a lot.  But right now I mean the name Maja."

Andrew smiled.  "She loves it, you know.  I still remember the way her face lit up the first time you used that."

Relaxing, Max also smiled at the memory.  "I guess it seemed natural.  My mother was out of the picture for so long and Maja was the first woman to... to treat me like a son since my Grandma died.  I wanted so much to call someone Mom or some version of it and so... Maja."

Andrew hugged his shoulders.  "I'm glad you have her, Max."

"Me too.  Thing is... getting that ring for Rose made our future seem so much more real to me.  I've been thinking a lot about what it'll be like to be a husband a-and a dad.  They both make me nervous and I talked to Joshua about that.  That helped.  I also told him that... that I think I'd feel more secure about that if... if I had someone myself to call Dad," Max related.  "And, not even considering my hypothetical kids, I'd... I would really like that for myself.  And you've been that for me... a dad.  So I was hoping... could I call you Dad?"

Andrew's eyes filled with tears and he pulled Max into a bear hug.  "I... I would be honored and I would love that, Max."  He pulled back and smiled at the young man.  "Thank you for being a wonderful son.  I love you."

"I... I love you, too... Dad."  Max smiled tearfully when Andrew mussed his hair.  "Do you think Maja's still awake?"

"I'm sure she is.  Joshua probably told her to hang on for a few minutes.  You wanna go tell her?"

"Together?"

"Sure," Andrew agreed.

The two stepped out of the room and rapped quietly on JenniAnn's door.

"Come in," she called.

Andrew waved Max in first and smiled when he dashed towards JenniAnn and hugged her tightly.

Beaming, Max waved to Andrew.  "Maja, Dad.  Dad, Maja.  I believe you've met... a lot."

JenniAnn giggled.  "We have but..."  Her eyes welled.  "Wait..."  She looked to Andrew and saw that he'd been crying.  She reached to him with her free hand then turned back to the boy.  "Aww, Max.  You're calling Andrew Dad now?"

Max nodded.  He opened his mouth to say more but only a yawn came out.

Andrew embraced them both.  "I love you two so much.  And now... my first official act as your father, Max... go pick a guestroom.  You're staying here tonight.  It's too late to start on that long walk."

Max grinned.  "Okay, Dad."  He kissed JenniAnn's cheek.  "Good night, Maja."  He gave another hug to Andrew.  "Good night, Dad.  I love you both."

"We love you, too," Andrew and JenniAnn replied in unison as they watched him shuffle out of the room.

Andrew sighed. 

JenniAnn kept hold of his hand and sat on the settee.  "That's really wonderful, Andrew.  I always hoped things might come to that.  Especially at his stage in life, Max needs a father and I knew you'd be there regardless but... but for him to call you that... it... Andrew?"  JenniAnn cocked her head when she noticed that Andrew was rubbing her hand in a repetitive fashion and his shoulders were heaving.  She tugged at his hands.  "Love, sit and..."

Andrew fell to his knees and rested his head in her lap.

"My love, what is it?" JenniAnn questioned as she softly stroked his hair.

"Just hit me all... all of a sudden.  I... I thought I was going to stay in Afghanistan to keep my assignment company but God must have known I... was... I was going to bring back our... our son."

Tears streaked down JenniAnn's face and fell into the angel's hair.  "You did..."  She looked up to dry her eyes and spied Joshua standing in the doorway between the two rooms.  He smiled tenderly at her and approached, resting his hand on Andrew's back before kneeling beside him.

"You did," he echoed.  "And I am so proud of you for it, my son."

JenniAnn fell to her knees, too, and the three embraced until Belle squalled from the other room, begging to be included which she quickly was.

*~*~*

Thursday, April 24th

Peter jolted awake when he heard Emma's door creak open.  Not wanting to alarm her in case she was only getting up to use the restroom, he cracked open his door to try to see where she was.  He soon spotted her near the balcony door.  After pulling on his robe, Peter went to join her.

"Emma?"

Emma turned and smiled wanly at him.  "Sorry if I woke you up."

"You did but I'm not sorry for it," Peter countered with a tender smile.  "You wanna talk?"  When she replied with a nod, he took Emma's hand and led her to the couch.  "What's up?  Did you have a nightmare?"

Emma nodded. 

"I'm sorry.  Do you want to talk about it?"

"I do want to talk... but not about that.  It was a flashback a-and I'm embarrassed by it," Emma admitted.

Peter hugged her.  "Okay then what do you want to talk about?"

"Joshua."

"A good topic.  What about him?"

"It's just... I keep thinking about Monday and how hard that's going to be.  I... I went from not believing in him at all to... to believing in him and loving him and having him right here.  I guess... I've forgotten what it feels like to love him and believe in him and have him not be right there.  Physically, I mean.  What if I'm not good at it?  Joshua said that someday people will see a woman of great faith in me but it's hard to imagine, Peter."  Emma sighed raggedly.

"To tell you the truth, Emma, I'm a little nervous about it myself.  Even though it was only a few months ago that I believed without seeing... it's hard to imagine going back to that.  But I know we can.  And we won't be alone.  We'll have our friends and we'll know others walked that path, too."  Peter kissed her forehead then reached for the Bible on the coffee table.  "Have you ever read the Acts of the Apostles?"

"A little in school."  Emma blushed.  "A lot of Catholics don't read the Bible as much as they should..."

"I think that applies to a lot of people, not just Catholics.  But it's okay.  We can read it together.  For right now..."  Peter flipped to a particular passage.  "This is after Pentecost, when the apostles were filled with the Holy Spirit.  Peter gets up to preach and he quotes this psalm: 'I saw the Lord always before me.  Because he is at my right hand, I will not be shaken.  Therefore my heart is glad and my tongue rejoices; my body also will rest in hope, because you will not abandon me to the realm of the dead, you will not let your holy one see decay.  You have made known to me the paths of life; you will fill me with joy in your presence.'  I've always loved that.  And I think Peter really felt that, Emma.  He still felt Joshua walking beside him even after he'd gone back to Heaven.  I think we'll feel that, too."

Emma squeezed his hand.  "I hope so.  Do you think this is the last we'll see of him until we're dead?  And Maryam and Yosef, too?"

"I hope not.  I guess we could ask him."

"I thought about it... but if the answer is yes then I think I'd rather not know."

"True."

"Maybe he'll come to our wedding," Emma suggested drowsily. 

Peter beamed.  "Maybe he will.  He'll be there either way."

"Yeah...  Are you really tired?"

"I'm doing okay.  And we don't have to get up early since we're both off.  Why?"

"Could you read me more, please?"

"Definitely.  Anything in particular?"

"Something with Joshua in it," Emma requested as she pulled a throw off the back of the couch and spread it over them.

"Okay.  Hmm..."  Peter considered and flipped back a few pages.  "Let's start with Luke.  There are some good Maryam moments in that, too."

Emma smiled.  "Sounds good."

"Good."  Peter sighed when she snuggled against him and then began to read.  "'Many have undertaken to draw up an account of the things that have been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed down to us by those who from the first were eyewitnesses and servants of the word.'"

*~*~*

God Strengthens

After a leisurely breakfast at the apartment, Emma and Peter stopped by the theatre to pick up the van from Andrew.  They found him in the office, going through papers while JenniAnn danced with a giggling Belle. 

"Good morning!" Peter greeted.  "Andrew, aren't you off the clock now, so to speak?"

"Oh yeah but I wanted to get this desk into some sort of order.  But we won't be here long," the angel replied.

"We're taking the donkeys for a hike to the Fields of Gold," JenniAnn informed.

Emma returned her smile.  "Sounds fun!  How was Yonah's first night?"

"Seemed good!" JenniAnn chirped.  "Violeta beat me to the stable and found both donkeys and both lambs snuggled together.  She got a photo."  She pulled out her phone to show it off.

"So cute!" Emma enthused.  "Is Joshua still back in Dyeland?"

Andrew shook his head.  "He left fairly early this morning to do some grocery shopping with Kemara.  Zeke's birthday preparation, I think."

Emma and Peter both smiled. 

"So do we have any idea yet on where everyone's supposed to go for Zeke's party?" Peter asked.

"Nope.  But Joshua said he'll send out the address in plenty of time," JenniAnn answered.

Emma chimed in with a smile.  "The Lord will provide."

Chuckling, Andrew nodded.  "He will.  I think Joshua just wants to allow for as little time as possible for people to inadvertently slip the details to Zeke who I'm told is being driven to the party blindfolded."

The others laughed at the mental image.

"Until then..."  Andrew grabbed his keys off the desk and held them out.  "I hope everything goes well with the move!"

"I'm sure it will."  Peter took the keys then wrapped his arm around Emma's waist.  "You ready?"

"Definitely."  Emma beamed at him before turning back to Andrew, Belle, and JenniAnn.  "We'll see you later then!"

"Take care and have fun!" JenniAnn called.

"Remember to lift with your legs and not with your back!" Andrew added with a grin.

Peter laughed.  "Noted.  Thanks!  See you soon!"

When the two were gone, JenniAnn sighed happily and turned to Andrew.  "They're adorable together.  I'm so glad everything worked out with them.  I was worried for a while there."

Andrew hugged her, stroking Belle's back as he did.  "Me too.  But now they're on their way."

"To happily ever after..." JenniAnn added dreamily.

Andrew only smiled.

"A realistic happily ever after!" JenniAnn insisted.  "Of course, we don't know that fairy tale characters didn't get their own dose of realism.  Maybe Beauty and the Beast's first real fight erupted over, I dunno, leaving dirty dishes on the counter."

Andrew burst into laughter.  "Maybe."

"Ooh.  We should ask Joshua, once and for all, which of us is Beauty and which is the Beast," JenniAnn teased. 

"We should!" Andrew agreed.

Giggling, JenniAnn stepped over towards the desk to survey Andrew's progress.  "Looks like you've made headway!  I was thinking, before we leave the city, maybe we could get some take-out from the bistro and take it with us on the hike.  I've been craving it."

"Sure.  Sounds good.  Although speaking of the bistro... you're allergic to turmeric," Andrew informed with a sly smile.

JenniAnn looked up at him with surprise.  "Seriously?  How would you know that?"

Andrew reached for her hand.  "A Lion told me."

After a moment's confusion, JenniAnn remembered their visit to the bistro with Joshua and how Andrew had preempted her initial order.  She blinked.  "Aww..."

Andrew hugged her and smiled up at the ceiling as his chin rested on her hair.

*~*~*

"So Zeke's favorite food is meatloaf and mac and cheese..." Kemara mused as she helped Joshua unload groceries in the Willowveil kitchen.  "Comfort foods."

Joshua nodded.  "And not just any meatloaf and mac and cheese.  I'm going to use his grandma's recipes.  But I'm going to hold off on that until later.  You want to help me bake some bread, though?"

"Sure," Kemara agreed.  "Just out of curiosity, why are you cooking and baking and not just... summoning?"

Joshua smiled.  "Because I think a birthday celebration calls for some effort and because I was hoping you'd agree to help with the bread so we could spend some time together."

"Oh."  Kemara's face briefly flushed as they washed their hands. 

"So I've been wanting to ask how you felt about that talk Ama and JenniAnn led on Tuesday," Joshua began as he pulled out two mixing bowls.

"It was really good.  I didn't say a whole lot but I got a couple things off my chest."

"Just a couple?"

Kemara shrugged.  "A lot of the things that really bother me weren't on topic."

"I see."  Joshua began to measure out ingredients.  "Would you want to talk about them with me?"

"I..."  Kemara crouched down to pet Warren who was batting around one of Lulu's toys.

Joshua set down the flour and placed a hand on the woman's back.  "It's okay.  Remember that I won't be angry.  Sometimes the truth is hard to hear... even for me.  But it still needs to be heard.  Sit down, Kemara.  I'll bring you a bowl."

Kemara obeyed and waited patiently.  After a few moments, Joshua sat a bowl and whisk in front of her then sat across the table from her with his own.

Joshua silently mixed, waiting patiently for her to speak.

When Kemara started, the words come out in a rush.  "Sometimes I get really frustrated being Catholic.  And I feel stressed.  Before I converted, I believed that it was enough to believe in you, to believe that you died for us, to believe what's in the Creed.  But after I converted there were novenas and Holy Days of Obligation and venial sins and mortal sins and going to confession and having to go to Mass and..."  Kemara blinked back tears as she frantically stirred.  "It's not that I don't want to be holy and that I don't want to spend time with you but it's hard to keep up and then I worry about what would happen if I committed a sin and then got hit by a car before I could confess!"

Joshua reached across the table and rested his hand on her arm.  "Kemara, stop."

Kemara released the whisk and stared down at her hands.

Joshua moved to the chair next to her and hugged her.  "Kemara, listen to me.  I didn't set out to found Catholicism or Protestantism or any other -ism.  All I wanted was for people to hear my word, heed it, let the Spirit into their lives and words and acts, and draw closer to me and to Dad.  And I wanted all of you to know that I love you.  The rules, the traditions... there's value in having them.  Well, most of them.  But I promise you that no one has gone to Hell because they were hit by a car before they reached a priest.  I'm always listening.  If they regretted their sin and wanted to repent, I would hear that.  And I promise you, too, that I certainly haven't damned anyone for failing to go to Mass on, say, the Feast of the Immaculate Conception.  Frankly, my maternal grandparents are a little weirded out that there's an annual commemoration of their, uh, special time."

In spite of herself, Kemara laughed.

Joshua smiled.  "Don't get me wrong.  They're thrilled that people care so much about my Ama and about me and are interested in them but..."

"Yeah..."  Kemara wrinkled her nose.  "It would be weird."

"And here's another thing about it.  Zeke and Diana and their kids don't celebrate it.  Arthur doesn't.  Catherine doesn't.  Do you think I intend to damn them?"

"Of course not."

"Then why would you worry so about it, little one?"

Kemara's hands clenched.  "Because they're not Catholic and I am!  I chose that."

"Well, I was born Jewish but I chose to stick with it... and I broke quite a few laws.  Am I damned?" Joshua questioned.

"But that's different... you were breaking laws to heal people.  I sometimes don't go to Mass just because I don't feel up to it," Kemara confessed.

"And so you just don't have anything to do with me the whole day?  No praying, no thinking about me?"

"Well, no..."

"Kemara, sometimes you do need to push yourself a little.  Everyone does.  But not because a church or a religion tells you to," Joshua stressed.  "Having a relationship with me is like having any sort of relationship.  It requires time and communication.  When the communication stops... the relationship becomes strained.  If you don't go to Mass but instead spend time in prayer or study or just plain rambling to me, you're still in communion with me.  And I know how hard for you it sometimes is to go to Mass and be surrounded by families and couples.  So it might be that you'll feel closer to me among your friends as you talk and pray and remember and study the Bible together.  That's not a bad thing.  In fact, it's a very good thing.  And on the days you do go to Mass and feel that connection... that's a very good thing, too.  For where two or three are assembled in my name, there am I in the midst of them.  Kemara, I didn't say *where* my followers should assemble or even when... only that when and where they did, I would be there.  And I am."  Joshua kissed her hair.  "I promise."

Kemara pulled out her handkerchief from Maryam and dried her eyes.  "I... I know.  Thank you.  So... should I not have become Catholic?"

"You should have.  That's where the Spirit led you.  And some of the observances and traditions are incredibly meaningful to you and me.  I meant what I said when I found you in the chapel.  It does mean so much to me when you come to St. Mary Magdalene's for Adoration of the Eucharist.  I love those times with you, little one."  Joshua hugged her again.  "And it also means a lot to me and to Ama that you carry your pocket rosary around and pray it.  Would you do either of those things if you weren't Catholic?"

"No.  It wouldn't have occurred to me."

"Then I am very glad you're Catholic, Kemara.  You're where you're meant to be in terms of religion.  But it's like anything outside of Home.  Heaven is where you truly belong and anything else... it may be a good fit but it's not going to be a perfect fit.  So you take everything you can from Catholicism but, please, no more beating yourself up over the parts where you don't quite fit.  I don't quite fit in any denomination or religion myself.  But I'm still everywhere," Joshua assured with a smile.  He gently lifted Kemara's chin.  "I love you, little one.  I want you with me for eternity.  Sound good?"

Kemara nodded as fresh tears welled in her eyes.  "Sounds good...  I love you, too, Joshua."

The two embraced until Joshua began to chuckle.

Kemara pulled away.  "What is it?"

"Warren's jealous, I think."

Kemara turned to find her kitten staring at them with an expression of displeasure.  "Sor..."

Warren leapt into the air and sprawled across not only her lap but also Joshua's.

Kemara laughed.  "Well then!"

Joshua smiled as he rubbed the cat's belly.

Kemara peered at Joshua.  "Wow..."

"Hmm?"

"It's just that it usually takes cats a while to let people near their undersides.  But then of course he'd trust you to not hurt..."  Her words died away and she bowed her head.  If only she could be as trusting...

"Hey there..."  Joshua used his free hand to gently stoke her hair.  "Warren here hasn't been subjected to years of guilt trips.  But now you know, too.  I won't hurt you."

Kemara nodded then rested her head on Joshua's shoulder as Warren soaked in their affection.

*~*~*

After getting the bread in the oven, Kemara left to work on a project at True Light.  Joshua remained, awaiting his next visitor.  It wasn't long before Owen arrived at the castle.

"You here, Joshua?" he called.

"In the kitchen," Joshua shouted back.

Owen smiled as he entered the room, setting a bag on the floor.  "It smells delicious."  He greeted Joshua with a hug.  "Are you baking or is JenniAnn?"

"I am.  Bread for Zeke's party tonight.  You just missed JenniAnn.  She headed to the Fields of Gold with Andrew, Belle, and the donkeys for a picnic lunch."

"And Violeta?" 

"Hasn't left the stable since breakfast," Joshua answered with a grin.  "I'll bring lunch out to her in a few minutes.  Andrew and JenniAnn brought a bunch of food from the Mediterranean Bistro.  You hungry?"

"I could eat," Owen replied eagerly.  "Actually, I was coming to ask you if I could make good on our bet.  The show was a hit and so... loser buys drinks.  Loser being me.  But since privacy is desirable given your secret identity..."  He reached into the bag he'd brought with him.  "Root beer from the Tunnels to go with lunch?"

Joshua laughed.  "Awesome.  Yes, I think that will fulfill the bet very well, Owen."

As Owen popped the lids off the bottles and set the table, Joshua dished out the food.  They sat down across from each other and joined hands.

"Dad, thank you for this delicious lunch and the drinks, too," Joshua began.

Owen smiled.

"Thank you for this time together.  May our shared lunch help Owen and me to draw closer.  May Andrew and JenniAnn find their time together... enriching.  And may Violeta actually take five minutes away from Mary and Silvio to eat.  Amen."

"Amen," Owen echoed with a chuckle.  "Joshua, I gotta admit that I'm a little surprised by how you pray sometimes.  The Lord's Prayer is just so... elegant."

Joshua smiled.  "And what I just said wasn't?"

"Well..."

Joshua laughed.  "I'm more comfortable now.  Much more comfortable.  You have to remember that my memories of Dad... they weren't with me at the time.  I still felt incredibly close to Him but who was He exactly?"  He shrugged.  "I wasn't entirely sure but I had my belief that He was good and loving.  So I could be a little more formal at times.  But I did often pray like you've just heard.  Every day, multiple times a day.  We didn't put those in the Bible, though.  It wouldn't serve any good purpose for people to try to figure out why I was praying for specific things.  A little intrusive, actually."

"Gotcha.  So like Andrew and JenniAnn probably wouldn't relish the idea of someone trying to decipher why you wanted their time together to be enriching and, likewise, your friends back then wouldn't want us picking apart your prayers for them?"

"Right."

Owen took a bite of his lavosh and contemplated Joshua's words.  Then he cast a sly look at him.  "So... can *I* know why we prayed for Andrew and JenniAnn to have an enriching time together?"

Chuckling, Joshua nodded.  "Sure.  I'd just like to see them more... settled before I go Home."

"I'd like to see Andrew moved in here for good, personally.  I mean things are better with my parents now... thank you for that... but I grew up with the ice king and queen.  Not that I'm pointing any fingers because you know I screwed up, too, but that didn't really help me with forming my own relationships.  I think it would be good... healthy... for Belle to grow up in a two-parent household with affectionate, loving parents.  Yuck.  And now I sound like a talking head on TV yammering about family values."  Owen wrinkled his nose.

Joshua smiled and reached over to pat his arm.  "There's nothing wrong with family values.  They only become wrong when they're elevated above every other responsibility and lead to the exclusion of members of the family."

"Yeah..."  Owen's eyes misted as he briefly thought of his own past. 

Joshua squeezed his hand.  "I agree with you.  About Belle and her parents.  So we'll see...  I'm working on it."

Owen grinned.  "Then it will happen."

Joshua only smiled and sampled some hummus.

"Joshua?"

"Hmm?"

"Can I ask you something personal?  I mean... like about me... personal?"

"Sure."

"Am I supposed to stay single forever?  Because I will if you want me to.  I promise.  It's just..."  Owen pushed some food around on his plate and sighed.  When he looked up, there were tears in his eyes.  "It's really hard sometimes... being alone.  And please..."  He reached for Joshua's hand.  "Please don't think... I'm not talking about going back to my old ways.  I'm really not.  No messing around.  If... if I could find someone and only be with that one man for my whole life then I would be happy.  Blessed.  But if that would in any way jeopardize my relationship with you then I won't.  I just won't."

Joshua rested his other hand over the artist's.  "Thank you, Owen, for being so willing to sacrifice something that you want so very much for me.  But I don't need... nor want... that sacrifice.  When you find that one man who you will love more than life itself and who loves you with equally selfless devotion, who encourages your faith and who grows with you in that faith... I will rejoice and live in that love."

Owen wept grateful tears, keeping tight hold of Joshua's hand.  "Thank you..." he murmured. 

"You're welcome.  Did you really expect me to say different?" Joshua gently asked.

The man quietly considered the question.

Joshua saw the pain and confusion in his eyes... lessened considerably of late but still there.  "It'll get better, Owen.  I promise it will," he vowed.  "Day by day, the old wounds and the remembered slurs will fade."

With a wavering smile, Owen nodded.  "Thanks, Joshua.  But your words... I'll never forget them." 

"Good."  Joshua squeezed his hand then the two resumed eating.

"When..." Owen intoned after a few quiet moments.

"When what?"

"You said 'when'... not 'if.'  'When you find the one man...'"  Owen tilted his head and peered at Joshua.  "Is that, umm, significant?"

Joshua laughed and grinned.  "It is..."

A giddy smile spread across Owen's face.  "Thank you.  Even if that's years away, just knowing he's on the horizon makes it all more beara..."  He set down his fork and his face clouded.

"Owen, what's wrong?" Joshua questioned.

Owen shook his head.  "Nothing.  It just hit me like a ton of bricks... here I am feeling sorry for myself over non-existent 'plus ones' on invitations and holidays spent watching couples looking at each other with dewy eyes and you...  You did make that sacrifice, Joshua.  For all of us.  Was it... bearable?"

Joshua looked tenderly into the man's imploring eyes and nodded.  "Bearable, yes."

"But not easy..."

Joshua shook his head.  "During the three years most everyone focuses on... then it was easier.  But before that...  You really want to hear this, Owen?  It's not Sunday school Jesus material."

"I like you a lot better than 'Sunday school Jesus,'" Owen insisted with a grin.  "If you want to tell..."

"I do." 

"Then I'd love to listen."

Joshua nodded.  "Okay.  Well, when I was fourteen, a new family moved to Nazareth.  They had a thirteen year old daughter and I thought she was the most beautiful creature God had ever set on the Earth.  Well, after my Ama."

Owen smiled. 

"Boys and girls didn't mingle as much then as now unless their families were close.  But whenever I had the opportunity to speak with her... Owen, she was an even more lovely person inside than out."

"You wanted to marry her?"

"Yes.  But I knew...  I could see it in Ama's and Abi's faces whenever I brought her up.  There was this pained look they'd exchange.  We didn't talk about it much.  We didn't have to.  I simply understood that I was the messiah and that was that.  But I couldn't help what I felt."  Joshua sighed.  "Strange feeling... unrequited love.  So wonderful and hideous at once."

Owen sighed, too, and nodded.  "So what happened?  Was she upset that you couldn't marry her?"

Joshua bowed and shook his head.  "No.  She had no idea how I felt.  She didn't feel the same.  She loved another boy.  They were betrothed when she was fifteen, married as soon as her intended finished building their house and Abi and I furnished it to his expectations."

Owen cringed.  "Ouch."

Joshua shrugged.  "We were the only carpenters in the village."

"Still... that had to hurt."

"It did.  But Abi was at my side, encouraging me.  We were always close but I think we drew even closer then.  And the girl and the boy went on to have a beautiful marriage.  They even named a son for my Abi after he died.  And one of their grandsons... he was named Yeshua."  Joshua looked to Owen with a bright smile.  "It worked out perfectly and exactly as it was meant to, Owen.  But I do understand what it's like to watch everyone around you pair off and there you are...  So when you feel that: talk to me.  I'll listen.  I'll be your Abi."

Owen returned Joshua's smile.  "I'll do that.  Thank you, Joshua."

"You're welcome, Owen.  Now... I have a commission for you."

The artist listened with interest as Joshua pitched an idea for a painting to him.

*~*~*

Emma hovered between her bedroom and bathroom, placing items in one of two boxes.  The smaller box she would take to Peter's apartment.  The larger box was loaded with household supplies she no longer needed or objects attached to troubling memories.  As she tossed a ball cap into the larger box, Emma reflected on how glad she would be to part with the box and its contents. 

While going through the counter beneath her bathroom sink, Emma found one item that brought her to tears.  She clamped her eyes shut as she pulled a pocket knife out from behind a large, dusty jug of vinegar.  Staring down at the object, Emma recalled its history.  She had bought it back in Hardsham shortly after everything had imploded.  Emma could still remember being in her room, hearing her mother vent to a sympathetic but nosy neighbor, and dragging the blade across her belly.  She had brought the knife with her when she'd ran away to New York.  At some point it had gone missing... now she knew where it had gone... and she'd moved onto the busted pair of scissors.

Emma let the pocket knife drop into the waste bin.  Wincing, she lifted the hem of her shirt and examined her scars. 

"Emma..."

Startled, Emma dropped her shirt back into place and looked up to see Peter standing in the doorway.  He looked terrified.

Emma reached out to grab his arm.  "I... I found a pocket knife I used to use.  And I threw it away.  I didn't cut myself.  I swear!"

Peter let out a sigh of relief.  "Good.  I'm sorry that I startled you.  I got those last two boxes loaded so umm..."

Sensing how awkward he felt, Emma squeezed Peter's hand and led him to the bed.  She indicated for him to sit then took the space beside him.

"I was just looking at them... my scars.  And thinking how... how ugly they are."

Tears filled Peter's eyes, matching hers.  "Oh Emma..."

"I... I wonder if... maybe... Joshua could... could heal them if I asked?  But... but maybe he wouldn't since I... I did this to myself.  He probably would have offered if..."  The tears began to roll down Emma's cheeks.

Peter held her tightly.  "Emma...  I think Joshua didn't offer because maybe he sees the scars as I do.  I'm sorry that you felt so much pain and had so little support that cutting was the only way you could cope.  But now I see the scars as an emblem of survival, growth, and even of healing.  When I saw them that night... I could tell they were older scars.  And I know there... there are newer ones now.  But soon they'll have faded, too.  And they'll be a reminder of your survival just like the others.  If you want to ask Joshua then I think you should.  But, Emma, don't you think, in some way, it would be like wiping out your past?  With everything that happened to you... you were still there, Emma.  Every moment of your life is precious to me and if I feel that way... I'm sure Joshua feels it even more."

"You... you think?"

"I do."

"And... you won't mind them when... you know... eventually..."  Emma blushed.

"No, sweetheart.  I won't.  I know I won't," Peter vowed.

"Then... I won't ask Joshua about making the scars go away.  Cause... cause other than doctors, you're the only one who will see them so if you don't mind them..."

Peter softly rested a hand at her side.  "I don't," he reiterated.

"Then neither do I," Emma concluded, the beginnings of a smile appearing as she rested her hand over his.  She sighed and looked back to the counter.  "So we probably don't need dusty vinegar at the apartment, right?"

Peter laughed.  "No, I don't think we do."

"Then down the drain it goes."  Emma returned to the bathroom and dumped the jug.  "Now we can go through the food and then we can go home and get ready for the party." 

With a smile, Peter nodded.  He loved when she referred to their apartment as home.

*~*~*

As Joshua steered the Wilsons' van into a parking lot, Diana let out a gasp.  Zeke smiled from behind his blindfold.

"Is it another castle?" he joked.

"No... no, honey," Diana replied.

"Is this the place where..."

"Shh!" Hailey interrupted her sister.

Sy grinned.  "I think so, Kendra."

Joshua smiled as he parked the van.  He noted the cars in the lot and determined that all the guests were inside and waiting.   Unbuckling, he swiveled around to face Diana and Hailey who were on either side of Zeke.  "You can take the blindfold off now."

Diana hastily undid the knot at the back of her husband's head then kissed his cheek.  "Happy birthday, honey."

"Thank you."  Zeke smiled at his wife before looking to Joshua and the building behind him.  "Wait...  But this place closed up!"

"A new owner bought it.  Technically they're not opening until next week but I called and explained the story and they agreed to host a private party tonight," Joshua explained before unlocking the doors.  "C'mon!  Let's go check it out."

Zeke was in a daze as he stepped out of the van.  He squeezed Diana's hand then hugged Joshua.  "Thank you, Lord.  It... it means a lot to be back here... and with my girl." 

Joshua clapped Zeke on the back.  "I knew it would.  Kids, you know where we are?"

"Mom and Daddy met here!" Kendra exclaimed.

Diana nodded as she smiled and brushed at a tear.  "Singles night with the church.  I'd never bowled in my whole life so your Daddy spent the whole evening trying to teach me.  I never did get very good at it... but that didn't matter."

Zeke's own eyes welled.  "And six months later I proposed to your Mom right here in this parking lot.  Looking back, maybe not the most romantic spot."

"It was perfect," Diana insisted as she hugged her husband's arm.  "And we got married pretty quickly after that."

Joshua beamed.  "And nine months later..."

"Me!" Hailey added.

Diana and Zeke pulled their children and Joshua into a group hug.

"What a life it's been..." Zeke murmured.

"It's been a joy to watch it unfold," Joshua replied.  "Now, let's get inside.  Dinner's waiting and then... bowling!"

Kendra's smile stretched from ear to ear as she grabbed Joshua's hand and swung his arm as they walked.  "Do you bowl, Joshua?"

"Sure."

Sy chuckled.  "Not sure I like anyone's odds against the guy who created the laws of gravity and motion."

Joshua burst out laughing as he led the family into the bowling alley.

As soon as they were through the door, the waiting cast and crew along with Maryam, Yosef, and John erupted with cheers and shouts of "Happy birthday, Zeke!" while the birthday boy smiled and let the tears of happiness roll.

*~*~*

Zeke stared in amazement at the plate of food in front of him. 

"It looks exactly like what my grandma first and then my mom after her used to serve up for me on my birthday.  The meatloaf is even cut the same.  I guess I shouldn't be surprised but..."  Zeke drew in a deep breath and clasped Joshua's hand.  "Thank you, Lord."

"You're very welcome, Zeke," Joshua replied, keeping tight hold of his hand.  "Happy 45th birthday!"

The others clustered around and sang to Zeke then reclaimed their places at the tables in the party room, awaiting grace.

"Zeke, would you like to lead?" Joshua asked.

The man nodded and got to his feet.  He took Joshua's hand again and Diana's with the others quickly taking the hands of those next to them. 

"Father, Lord, thank You for this wonderful celebration and this delicious meal.  Thank You for the many friends and my beloved family gathered here.  May our lives forever intertwine and bring glory to You and love and support to each other.  Thank You for this amazing life and thank You for... for being here.  Amen."

"Amen," the crowd responded.

Everyone waited for Zeke to take the first bite of his meal.  Once he had, he sighed dreamily and slumped back into his chair.

Adam chuckled.  "Looks like you did good, Boss."

Diana smiled over her husband's blissfulness then leaned back to speak to Joshua.  "Any chance of getting those recipes, Joshua?  We never did find them after Zeke's mom died."

"You bet.  They're in your purse," Joshua replied.

Diana laughed.  "Good.  Thank you."

After Zeke had finished his meal and was taking a break before going for seconds, Joshua rose from his chair.

"Before people start heading out to bowl, there's something I wanted to say and do.  First of all..."  Joshua turned and indicated Zeke.  "I just wanted to thank you, Zeke, for bringing such passion and skill to your role as Judas and for being so encouraging with all of us."

The room was filled with thunderous applause and people lightly pounding on the table.

Joshua swiped at a tear and continued to smile.  "I know it was really hard to do what you did night after night... especially after you figured out who I am.  But you did, Zeke.  And I am so proud of you.  But I know there was one aspect of the show that really disappointed you... so I thought we'd remedy that tonight."

Andrew moved two stools to the front of the room and rested Joshua's guitar atop one.  He then propped his camera up across from them.

Joshua helped Zeke to his feet and they moved to the stools. 

"What Zeke found disappointing was that 'Jesus' and 'Judas' are always angry at each other... or disappointed in each other... during their songs," Joshua explained.  "So while Zeke and I have had a lot of opportunities to sing more pleasant songs together, the only songs we have on video involve a lot of screaming... sometimes screeching just to shake things up."

The others all laughed.

"So, Zeke, Diana told me that you've recently taken a shine to this song.  I love it, too, and I think... I think it pretty well sums up how things with Yehuda and me are now.  So... I'm hoping you'll sing it with me."

With tears in his eyes, Zeke nodded and hugged Joshua.  "Anything, Lord."

Joshua patted his back then lifted his guitar.  After taking his seat, he began to strum.

Zeke smiled softly as he recognized the tune.  After a brief prelude, he began to sing.  "'
I know I need You.  I need to love You.  I'd love to see You but it's been so long.  I long to feel You.  I feel this need for You.  I need to hear You.  Is that so wrong?'"

As Zeke vocalized, the audience of friends and family dabbed at their eyes and held each other.  Emma swayed softly before resting her head on Peter's shoulder.  Owen clasped JenniAnn's and Kemara's hands.  Arthur circled his arms around Monica's waist as they leaned against a wall.  Andrew kissed Belle's hair and sighed.  Rabbi Yakov brought Tiva's hand to his lips and kept it there as they both stared at Joshua with awe and love. 

Zeke began to sing again.  "'Now You pull me near You.  When we're close I fear You.  Still I'm afraid to tell you all that I've done.  Are You done forgiving?  Or can You look past my pretending, Lord?  I'm so tired of defending what I've become... what have I become?'"

Kylie sniffled and accepted the tissue Clay held out to her.  When she looked over to whisper a quiet thank you, she saw that he was weeping.  She dropped the tissue into her lap and hugged his arm.  Fr. Mike, who had heard the song many a time on the Christian radio station he favored, held his breath as he waited for what he was sure would come: Joshua taking up the song. 

Struggling to control his emotions, Zeke managed his last line.  "'I hear You say...'"

Maryam and Yosef clasped hands and looked with intense love and pride at their son.

As he continued to play his guitar, Joshua looked to Zeke and the crowd with glistening eyes and a tender smile.  "'My love is over.  It's underneath.  It's inside.  It's in between.  The times you doubt me, when you can't feel, the times that you question: 'Is this for real?'  The times you're broken, the times that you mend, the times you hate me and the times that you bend.  Well, my love is over.  It's underneath.  It's inside.  It's in between.  These times you're healing and when your heart breaks, the times that you feel like you've fallen from grace, the times you're hurting, the times that you heal, the times you go hungry and are tempted to steal.  In times of confusion and chaos and pain, I'm there in your sorrow, under the weight of your shame.  I'm there through your heartache.  I'm there in the storm.  My love, I will keep you by my power alone.  I don't care where you've fallen, where you have been.  I'll never forsake you.  My love never ends, it never ends...'"

Joshua and Zeke hummed and sang together for a few more moments before the song concluded.  When it had, the two embraced.

"Th-thank you...  I... I loved that.  I love you, Lord," Zeke managed as he clung to Joshua.

"I loved it, too.  And you.  So much.  I'm so glad you were born, Zeke."  Joshua kissed his cheeks.  "You remember what your name means, don't you?"

Zeke smiled through his tears and nodded.  "God strengthens."

"And you have strengthened so many people by sharing my love with them.  And you will strengthen so many more."  Joshua rested his hands on Zeke's shoulders and smiled proudly at him.  "We have much to do together in the next forty five years and beyond."

Beaming, Zeke fell against Joshua for another hug that soon included Diana and the three children.

"A perfect birthday..." Zeke murmured from inside the warm embrace of those he loved best.

*~*~*

For Good


Friday, April 25th

Joshua entered the kitchen the following morning to find JenniAnn humming.  He smiled. 

"Sounds familiar."

JenniAnn spun around and returned his smile.  "Aww... yeah.  Earlier I was humming that song you and Zeke sang last night but then I came back to this one.  I... I'll feel so much more now every time I hear it or sing it or hum it.  What wondrous love..."

Joshua hugged her.  "It'll be even more special to me now, too."

"Good."  JenniAnn kissed his cheek then turned back to the coffee she was preparing.  "So what are your plans for today?"

"Last night Cira and Crystal asked me to come to the Phoenix one more time before I go.  Tim, Tyson, and Jeff overheard and then made the same request on behalf of the fellows at True Light.  So those two visits will be this morning.  Then I'm having a picnic lunch in the Fields of Gold."

"Nice!  Who with?"

"You."

JenniAnn set the creamer back on the counter and turned to face Joshua.  "Me?"

Joshua smiled.  "Sure.  I mean unless you had other..."

"No!  I want to go.  Definitely.  I'm just... curious about why."

Joshua again embraced her.  "It's a good thing.  Trust me."

"I... I do.  Can I tag along with you on this morning's visits, too?"

"Sure.  Kemara mentioned that she was meeting Arthur for lunch to get a couple interviews for a publication so maybe we can bring her with us, go to the Phoenix after breakfast, make it to True Light around 10:00 or 11:00 and come back here?"

Before JenniAnn could answer, they heard footsteps hurrying towards them.

"Morning!" Violeta cried before kissing Joshua and hugging JenniAnn.  She glanced at the coffee maker.  "I'll come back later.  Wanna go see my lambs!"

JenniAnn laughed.  "I've already been out there.  The lambs and donkeys are as content as can be... but still pretty sleepy seeming.  I think you can wait two minutes to get some coffee and toast first."

"Okay..."

Joshua chuckled.  "Duckling, we're headed to the Phoenix and True Light after breakfast.  Would you like to go with us or stay here?"

Violeta bit her lip and thought.  "Can I stay?"

"Sure.  But we won't be back until after lunch... so you need to promise me something."

Violeta grinned.  "Sure!  What?"

"Eat lunch.  I don't want to come back here at 2:00 and find you shaking with low blood sugar.  You gotta take care of that human form of yours, you know," Joshua reminded.

JenniAnn turned back to the coffee maker and quietly giggled.  Violeta was absolutely obsessed with her lambs.  She had snuck out to the stable the previous night and overheard Violeta reading Anne of Green Gables to the animals.

"Okay.  Can sheep eat apples?" Violeta inquired.

"Yes.  But in pieces, especially since yours are so small," Joshua patiently answered.

"What about donkeys?"

"They love them."

JenniAnn poured Violeta some coffee then opened the refrigerator.  "Here."

"Yay!"  Violeta turned her shirt into a pouch which JenniAnn dutifully loaded up, placing a corer on top.  "Thank you!"

After Joshua had handed the angel her coffee, she bolted into the hall.

"You forgot toast!" JenniAnn shouted.

"I'll eat an apple!"

Joshua laughed and shook his head as he listened to her quickly retreating footsteps. 

"So... question."  JenniAnn poured black coffee into Joshua's mug and handed it to him.  "Is Violeta's human form made from sugar cane or coffee beans by any chance?  Cause it's gotta be something hyper-inducing!"

Laughing even harder, Joshua shook his head.  "No... that's just Violeta."

A scruffy and alarmed looking Andrew entered the room with Belle.  "Morning.  Violeta's sure wired this morning.  We nearly collided out there.  Lambs?"

"Lambs," JenniAnn and Joshua asserted, each nodding.

Andrew smiled and slid into a chair.  "I'm glad they've hit it off.  Nothing like having something cute to cuddle with.  Isn't that right, sweetheart?" he asked before kissing Belle's curls.

JenniAnn let out an enamored sigh and poured coffee for the angel of death.  "Joshua, Kemara, and I are visiting the shelters this morning.  Did you want to come?"

Andrew glanced at Joshua who seemed inclined to let him make the call.  "Actually, if it's okay with you, I think I'll stay home with Belle."

Knowing Andrew was trying to get as much daddy-daughter time as possible before his return to assignments, JenniAnn nodded readily.  "Definitely okay.  Can you, umm, manage lunch on your own?  Joshua and I are... going on a picnic."

As JenniAnn poured and mixed her own coffee, the angel of death snuck a look at Joshua who smiled serenely.  Andrew grinned, hoping this was the talk he'd been waiting for.

"Absolutely," he replied.  "I'm sure you'll have a great time.  If it rains... you know who to blame."  Andrew shot a devilish look at Joshua.

Joshua chuckled.  "No rain this afternoon.  There will be this evening, though.  A light, pleasant rain.  The perfect kind for snuggling up on the couch, sipping tea, and having a nice fireside chat," he commented casually.

Andrew bowed his head and smiled at Belle.

"What about in Manhattan?" JenniAnn asked.  "You got a show to get to, after all."

"No rain.  Cool.  A little chilly even," Joshua informed them.  "But we'll be inside watching the adventures of Elphaba and Glinda."  He smiled happily before sipping his coffee.

"I hope Ivy's okay," Andrew mused.  "Violeta said she's been fairly quiet with texting but had said something about how she realized now why she had to be back in Nebraska this week."

Joshua nodded.  "Ivy's well.  And excited.  So am I, actually.  I mean I've seen Wicked.  But not like this."

JenniAnn reached across the table and squeezed his hand.  "I wish everyone could know how your face lights up when you talk about spending time with us."

Joshua squeezed her hand back.  "Me too."

Belle let out a stream of babbles.

"Us, too," Andrew translated for her before placing his hand over the others.

*~*~*

Joshua, JenniAnn, and Kemara were pleasantly surprised when Kelly opened the door at the Phoenix Inn.

"Good morning!" the angel greeted.  "Catherine called my place and said that you'd be by.  She asked if Maryam, Yosef, and I would like to join you.  Of course we said yes!"  She hugged each of them.  "You came at a good time."  Keeping hold of Joshua's hand, she led him to one of the rooms and knocked.  "Gracie, he's here."

"Come in!" 

Kelly opened the door and Joshua was practically yanked inside.

"Look at my baby!"  Gracie smiled at the two women.  "You can look, too."

Confused but not wanting to disappoint, JenniAnn smiled.  "Thank you, Gracie."

Inside the room, Maryam and Yosef stood near a desk, peering down at a glossy image.

"Good, strong hands.  I can tell already.  Perhaps he or she will be a carpenter," Yosef suggested.

Gracie pulled Joshua towards his parents and pointed.  "My baby."

Maryam stepped aside so Joshua could get a better view.  "Good morning, my own."

"Morning, Ama, Abi," Joshua replied.  He smiled down at the sonogram image.  "Your baby is beautiful, Gracie."  He turned and rested a hand on her shoulder.  "I'm very, very happy for you."

Gracie's only response was to continue smiling at the picture.  After a few moments, she snatched it up and brought it to Kemara and JenniAnn.

"So adorable!" JenniAnn gushed.  "Look at those little hands!"

Kemara smiled.  "I agree with Yosef.  Those are great hands."

Beaming, Gracie plopped onto her bed and gazed at the image.  Maryam took a seat beside her and began to whisper reassurances.

"So everything looked good?" JenniAnn quietly asked Kelly.

Kelly nodded.  "Perfectly healthy.  The doctor was very pleased.  And I've asked the agency to keep me assigned to Gracie for the duration of her pregnancy.  God, of course, had already agreed."

"Gracie herself looks much healthier than the last time I was here," Kemara observed. 

"Catherine's been making sure she eats enough.  That alone has got to help.  Where is Catherine, anyhow?" JenniAnn asked.

"I'm here."

JenniAnn turned to see her cousin approaching with a book tucked under her arm.  Cira and Crystal were following her, matching smiles on their faces.

"Is that a photo album?" Kemara asked. 

"Of a sort," Catherine replied.  "Joshua and Yosef, we'd like you two especially to see this."

The two men drew nearer.  Cira and Crystal each latched onto one of Joshua's arms.

"We're not sure what your plans are after Monday," Catherine began.  "But we wanted you to know that you're always welcome here.  So we made this.  We're going to leave it in the living room so all the ladies and kids who come here will know who you are... and that you're loved and trusted."  She held it out to Yosef since his arms were free.

"'Friends of the Phoenix Inn,'" Yosef read.  He flipped through the pages of labeled photos of the Dyelanders and angels, lingering over the image of him and his wife.  "'Maryam and Yosef, patrons.'"

"We really wanted to put patron saints," Cira whispered.  "But we thought that might concern some people."

Yosef smiled.  "Wise choice."  He laughed when he moved onto the next page.  "'John, accounts payable.'  My kinsman has gone into financing now?"

With a smirk, Catherine shook her head.  "So that one's quite a stretch... but we figured that John believes in holding people accountable for the kindness and respect they owe to God and others."

Joshua laughed.  "That's perfect."

Yosef turned the page then looked to his son and recited the inscription.  "'Joshua, Carpenter and Co-Founder.'"

Catherine's eyes welled.  "I... I know now that, without you, I couldn't have opened this place, Joshua.  And I... I..." 

Cira and Crystal released Joshua so he could pull Catherine to him and lead her out to the empty hall.

Joshua gently stroked her face.  "Catherine, what is it?"

"I'm not sure why but these last couple years especially... maybe because Jacob's getting older a-and not my little baby any more... it... it had been so hard to work with... with expectant mothers.  I thought of Jamey so much and when Gracie came... I wasn't sure I... I could keep doing it but then... after you... Cora's drawing..."  Catherine flung her arms around Joshua's neck.  "Thank you.  Vincent and I... we have so much peace now and I... I feel genuinely and completely happy for Gracie."  She heaved a sigh and smiled up at Joshua.  "Thank you," she repeated.  "And I do hope you'll visit us like this again.  Some day."

Joshua smiled and brushed away her tears, smoothing her hair behind her ears.  "You can count on it."  He kissed her forehead.  "I am so glad you have that peace now, Catherine.  You and Vincent both.  And I'm glad I get to celebrate with you two tomorrow."

"Me too!  Our little Belle..."  Catherine again hugged him then drew in a deep breath.  "The kids are hoping you'll read them a story.  Will you?"

"Of course."

"Good.  And Vincent wanted me to ask you...  He usually resumes classes on Monday but if you'd prefer he wait..."

Joshua shook his head.  "Actually, I was hoping to spend the morning there... make my farewells... for now."

Though saddened by the thought of their impending parting, Catherine was relieved the Tunnel folk would have that chance.  "I'll tell him.  Thank you.  Now... let's get the others and get storytime started?"

"Definitely," Joshua agreed.

A few short minutes later, everyone was gathered together in the children's playroom.  With a child on each knee and another flung against his back with their arms around his neck, Joshua read.

"'Congratulations!  Today is your day.  You're off to Great Places!  You're off and away!'"

Joshua continued with animation and gusto, all the while praying that the little ones in the room and their mothers would find their ways to the places he and his Dad had chosen for them.

*~*~*

"We have to stop by the wood shop first," Arthur told his visitors as they headed down one of the True Light shelter's many hallways.  "The guys have done a lot of work since you were last here, Joshua and Yosef, and they're pretty psyched to show it off."

When they stepped into the large room, they found several men hard at work on their projects.  However, they all stopped when they noticed the visitors. 

Tim waved Joshua over.  "Look what we've figured out!"  He lowered his voice.  "You inspired it."

Yosef eyed the items the men were working on.  "Those look very familiar..."

Tyson laughed.  "You should think so," he whispered.

"We've been trying to think of ways we can give back to True Light for putting us up," Tim explained.

"We decided we wanted to do something to help with recovery efforts after disasters and wars," Jeff added.

Tim picked up what looked like a box and approached Joshua with it.  "Open it, please."

Joshua obeyed, smiling when he saw the contents.  "That's wonderful!  Formula, bottles, a blanket, diapers...  Look at this adorable little onesie!"  He set the clothing down and pulled out two slightly arched pieces of wood.  "And these?"

"They screw into the bottom once the box has been emptied," Tyson answered.  "So then you get this..."  He motioned to another man who lifted a similar box from the floor.

"A cradle!" JenniAnn cried.

Jeff nodded.  "They'd be difficult to transport if they rocked.  Not stackable.  But once the parents receive them, they'll have supplies and a cradle."

Arthur beamed.  "Headquarters loves the idea.  That's why I asked Kemara to come.  We're writing up a proposal to various baby supply manufacturers so we can get plenty of contents inside them."

Kemara set her hand on Joshua's back.  "He swore me to secrecy.  Everyone wanted to surprise you."

Joshua squeezed her hand.  "I understand.  And I am surprised.  Happily surprised.  This is wonderful!"  He began to hug the men, congratulating and thanking each of them.

Yosef continued to stare at the cradle, his mind wandering back.  Maryam laced her fingers through his. 

"It... it is wonderful," Yosef choked out.  "I know these will be very much appreciated.  It is a horrid feeling to not be able to provide for your child."

"You will keep many parents from feeling that," Maryam added, smiling affectionately at each of the men.  She hugged Yosef, knowing he was thinking of their flight to Egypt.  She lowered her voice.  "You always did well, Yosef mine."

Yosef smiled at her and then, calmed, joined her in embracing the enthusiastic men.

*~*~*

Andrew lay beside Belle on the blanket he'd spread over the floor for her tummy time.  Belle wriggled and pumped her head up and down several times before resting her cheek on the blanket and letting out a dramatic sigh.

Andrew laughed.  "Well, now what was that for?"

Belle smiled. 

"Oh.  Right."  Wrinkling his nose, Andrew picked her up and moved her to the changing table.  "Have to say, sweetheart, I never thought I'd be doing this as much as I have been."

Belle kicked her legs as she babbled.

Andrew smiled and shook his head.  "Not really helpful, you know."  Nonetheless, he managed to remove and replace her diaper.  After taking a wipe to his hands, he scooped her back up and carried her to the rocking chair.

Content, the baby rested her cheek against her daddy's shirt and peered up at him.

Gazing back into her sweet eyes, Andrew felt his own begin to fill.  He softly stroked Belle's cheek.  "Do you have any idea how much of a miracle you are to me, little one?  And to your Mama, too.  I... I couldn't have ever imagined loving someone other... other than God so much and so quickly.  And I just... I want everything to be perfect for you, Belle.  But I know it can't be cause neither your Mama nor I are perfect.  We love you so much and we'll do everything we can to give you the best life we can.  It's just sometimes... there's a lot of history on... on both sides.  More even, maybe, than she realizes.  And I think, sometimes, it makes us a little too worried that we'll hurt each other.  Without meaning to, I mean.  So I just want you to know that if, when you're older, you sense that something's a little off with us... please don't ever worry about it.  We'll figure it out.  We always do.  It just takes time.  We love each other... and I hope that's what you see most often... that and how much we love you.  And how much God loves you."  Andrew smiled and lifted Belle so he could kiss her cheeks.  "He was your first overnight babysitter, after all."

Smiling herself, Belle reached out and patted Andrew's beard.

"My girl..." the angel of death cooed as he snuggled his baby to his chest.

*~*~*

"How does chicken berry salad with a blueberry scone on the side sound?" Joshua asked once he'd spread a thick blanket over some grass in the Fields of Gold.

JenniAnn laughed and nodded.  "Very good.  Thanks."

"Is this a poppyseed dressing or raspberry vinaigrette day?"

"Ooh.  Poppyseed, please."  JenniAnn grinned when two matching salads appeared with small plates holding scones. 

"How about raspberry cider to drink?" Joshua offered.

"Yum..."  JenniAnn giggled when crystal goblets and a decanter were added to the spread.

"Now the blessing..."  Joshua knelt and reached for JenniAnn's hands.

"Joshua?"

"Hmm?"

"Do you think you could say the blessing in Aramaic?  I just... I'd like to hear it once more before..." JenniAnn stared at their linked hands. 

Giving her hands a squeeze, Joshua nodded and obliged.  When he was finished, they settled onto the blanket and he poured the drinks.

"I prayed in thanksgiving for the food, the time together, and the time to come," Joshua explained.

"That sounds promising... the time to come."  JenniAnn smiled and soaked in the sun.  "It is a beautiful afternoon... just like you said."

"I'm glad you think so."

"There's so much beauty here...  I can remember when I first came back to Dyeland after being away so long, it just took my breath away.  I mean not that there aren't many, many beautiful sights back on Earth but..."

"This is home for you," Joshua finished between bites of salad.

JenniAnn nodded.  "It's sort of like what I imagine it'd be like to move from one's parents' house to one's own house.  Mom and Dad's place is still home.  But your place... it's your chosen home, the home you make."

"Sure.  So, hey, that day at Cora's when you asked me if I was okay with you and Andrew..."

JenniAnn set down her fork and stared.

Joshua smiled and set his hand on her arm.  "Relax!  Please.  I'm totally okay with you and Andrew."

Sighing with relief, JenniAnn resumed eating.  "Good.  This is super delicious, by the way.  Thanks!"

"You're welcome.  So I wanted to ask... are you okay with you and Andrew?"

"Well, yeah...  Of course.  I love him."  JenniAnn glanced down at her ring.  "He has a ring, I have a donkey.  It's official now," she remarked with a grin.

Joshua chuckled.  "It is."

"Although I think it's maybe more the kids who make it official..." JenniAnn mused.

"Also true.  But what I meant by asking is are you okay with your lifestyle with Andrew?"

JenniAnn quietly ate for a few moments.  "I miss him when he's gone.  But I also... I wouldn't have him not go.  I know he loves his work, even when it's sometimes painful.  He loves being your angel.  So he has to go on assignments.  But I am... I just... I... I thought we were safe..."

Frowning, Joshua moved to sit beside her and embrace her.  "Dear one, what do you mean?"

"I thought... since we aren't having sex... I... I wouldn't need him so badly.  But the thought of him going off on assignments again soon a-and then returning but... but to his house and..."  JenniAnn sucked in a breath then looked into Joshua's eyes before hastily looking away.  "Is this because I... we... slept together?  I mean... oh, that sounded bad.  Why is there no easy way to say you fell asleep in the same place with someone without it sounding sketchy!?"

Joshua stifled a laugh.  "Yes, I agree that euphemism has unfortunately made it complicated."

Realizing how ridiculous she probably sounded, JenniAnn drew in another deep breath and managed a smile.  "Of course you know what I mean."

"I do," Joshua assured.  "And it's not.  Or, rather, it's that and a million other things.  JenniAnn, you've loved the same guy for fourteen years.  You've been through so much together, the good and the bad.  I'd be concerned if you didn't feel deeply attached to Andrew after all of that.  But I also think maybe you're getting panicky for no good reason.  You spoke truthfully when you said Andrew has to return to his assignments.  But does he really have to move back to Serendipity?"

"Well, where else would he go?"

"JenniAnn..."  Joshua cocked his head and gave her an imploring look.

After a moment, JenniAnn jolted.  "A... a comfortable donkey and an obedient home...  He... he supplied the donkey.  I supply the home?"

"Now that sounds like a wonderful idea!" Joshua cheered.

JenniAnn giggled and blushed.  "I... I just thought... maybe it was asking too much and... and improper."

Joshua again took her hands in his.  "Dear one, never be afraid to ask for what's good and right.  Why wouldn't I want the father of your child to live with the both of you?  I trust you and Andrew and I want you to be happy.  And I want Belle to feel secure and safe and so, so loved.  When it storms at night and she's scared or when her tummy aches or when she loses her first tooth... she shouldn't have to wait for Daddy to come over.  He should be there with her and her Mama.  And the two of you deserve that closeness, too.  Andrew... his work will become more difficult.  You know him, JenniAnn.  You know he'll insist on taking assignments that will be doubly difficult for him as a father... because he'll know that a father is exactly the person his assignment needs.  He'll need to lean on you even more than he does now.  And you on him."

JenniAnn let out a ragged sigh.  She closed her eyes and, a moment later, tears trickled down her cheeks.  "I... I want this so badly, Joshua.  But I... I fear it, too."

Stroking her hair, Joshua spoke softly and soothingly.  "Why do you fear it?"

"For him...  Already... Andrew says he's... he's changed.  He used to be fine going it alone with only you for regular company.  And then... then he was fine being the calm, quiet, collected one among Tess, Monica, and Gloria.  But now... now he's gotten used to... to all of us.  To... me.  If... If I give him this life then... then I do so knowing that... that one day I will take it from him.  Not willingly.  But I... I'll die, Joshua.  A-and what then?  What happens when I've made him accustomed to not only finding peace in Heaven after devastating assignments but... but also with me, in our home?  What happens when... when our... our baby grows old a-and dies and he..."  JenniAnn slumped into Joshua's embrace and sobbed.

Joshua's eyes welled as he held her.  He sang his Ama's lullaby twice through and, when it had calmed the woman, he spoke.  "So long as Andrew chooses to serve Dad and me as an angel of death, he will know sadness and pain.  But we would never force him to stay in that role if it became too painful.  I promise you that.  And I promise, too, that he will not be alone when Belle goes Home.  JenniAnn, think about my cousin, about my parents.  They all died.  I died.  And yet...  Here I am.  And they're around, too.  I have my ways.  You remember the pieces of silver Yehuda was leaving?"

JenniAnn nodded.

"Do you know who first found them?"

"Eli."

"Eli and Sophia."

"Wh-what?"  Sitting up and brushing at her tears, JenniAnn gaped at Joshua.

"He needed her.  If Andrew needed you, I wouldn't keep you from him," Joshua vowed.

"Oh... oh... Joshua!" JenniAnn cried, hugging him tightly.

Joshua smiled as she kissed his cheek.  "Now don't be afraid any more.  And how fortuitous...  We're having this discussion the very day you, Andrew, and Belle will have the castle to yourselves for most of the evening."

JenniAnn smiled and let out a happy, contented sigh.  "I've been conned... in the best way possible.  So, umm, how do I tell... or rather invite Andrew?"

Joshua grinned.  "Oh, I dunno...  Maybe while snuggled on the couch, sipping tea, and having a nice fireside chat."

Recognizing his words from that morning, JenniAnn's smile grew.  "Yeah!  Good idea."

"And there's something I want you to have for that.  But we've got to go pick it up after we finish lunch.  We'll swing by Willowveil to get Andrew and Belle first."

Intrigued, JenniAnn eagerly dug into her salad, mulling over Joshua's words and the ones she should use when confronting Andrew that evening.

*~*~*

Andrew had wondered what was going on when JenniAnn and Joshua had returned from their picnic and asked him to go shopping with them.  His curiosity was piqued when Joshua stalled in front of a quaint storefront. 

"Lily's Loot," he read aloud.  "Laja, this looks like your kind of store."

Joshua smiled and opened the door.  "It's an everyone kind of store.  You'll love it, too, Andrew."

"Welcome!" Azalea greeted from behind the check-out counter when Andrew, JenniAnn, and Belle entered.  "Beautiful day, isn't...  Joshua!"  She ran into his waiting arms.

"Hi Azalea.  The store's beautiful!" Joshua complimented.

"I'm so glad you think so!  And so glad you came!  Your Ama said today would be the day so... Lily's beside herself.  Let me go get her and Basil?"

"Absolutely."  Joshua released the woman and smiled after her.  He turned to Andrew and JenniAnn.  "Basil's her husband, Lily's her daughter.  We met after Ama delivered Lily... she's a snowstorm baby."

JenniAnn marveled.  "Wow...  That's a story to tell!"

"JOSH!" a high-pitched voice shrieked.

Grinning, Joshua crouched down and caught Lily in his arms when she dashed towards him and flung herself at his chest.  "Well, hello Lily!  How are you today?"

"Good.  Coloring.  I draw a doggie."

"I'm sure your doggie is beautiful.  I'd like to see it but, first, I need to introduce my friends to Mommy and Daddy."

"Shoulders?" Lily requested with a puppy dog face.

Joshua chuckled.  "Okay."  He lifted the little girl onto his shoulders and approached Azalea and Basil.  "Good afternoon, Basil!  I love this place!  How are you both doing?"

"Great... even better now."  Basil managed to hug Joshua even as he held onto Lily. 

"So happy..." Azalea added.  "Could I get a picture, though?"

"Of course," Joshua agreed.

After Azalea had snapped a photo of him and Lily, Joshua tilted his head to Andrew and JenniAnn.  "Azalea, Basil, please meet Andrew and JenniAnn and their daughter, Belle.  Andrew and JenniAnn, Azalea and Basil were at the show one night.  Andrew directed and JenniAnn was the makeup artist."

"Awesome!" Basil enthused.  "Great, great show!"

Azalea nodded and drew nearer.  "It really was.  Oh... look at that little pumpkin!  She's precious!"

Andrew beamed.  "Thank you.  We're very blessed.  As are you."  He smiled at Lily whose chin was planted in Joshua's hair. 

"This store is amazing!" JenniAnn gushed.  "I can't believe I've never been here.  What a wonderful place to buy gifts!"

"Thank you.  We just opened," Basil proudly explained.  "So... is there anything in particular you're looking for?"

Joshua nodded.  "Yes, actually.  My Ama scoped the place out for me."  He turned to Andrew and JenniAnn and smiled.  "I wanted to get you both something in honor of Belle's baptism.  But I figure a day early is good, too."

"Joshua..." JenniAnn murmured.

"You've given us so... so much already," Andrew added.

Joshua only smiled and approached a display of mugs.  "I know you have your color-coded ones but I think it's time for an upgrade."

"Everyone's been having a blast making those," Azalea relayed.  "Basil and I were so pleased.  We wanted to have a bunch of them ready before Mother's Day and Father's Day come around.  So that shouldn't be any trouble!"

Basil chuckled as Joshua perused the selection.  "I guess shopping would be a little easier if your arms weren't occupied."

Joshua squeezed Lily's ankles and smiled.  "Probably.  But I'm doing good.  How you doing up there, Lily?"

"Good!"

Basil reached up to pat his daughter's back as he moved to stand beside Joshua.  "How about you tell me what you want and I'll grab em for you?"

With a smile, Joshua nodded.  "Yes, please."

While the two men looked at mugs, Azalea struck up a conversation with Andrew and JenniAnn.  "So how long have you two known Joshua?  I mean face to face like this."

"Just since the show started," JenniAnn replied.  "I came to the theatre to take Andrew to lunch and... and there Joshua was.  It took me a few weeks to clue in but... but it's been wonderful ever since."

"Aww.  Boy, that had to be a shock, though!  Jesus playing Jesus!"  Azalea turned to Andrew.  "I bet you weren't expecting that from one of your actors."

"Well...  I knew.  I'm an angel, Azalea.  I've known Joshua since I was born a long, long time ago."

Azalea blinked.  "Wow..."  Then she looked curiously at JenniAnn and Belle.  After that she glanced at Joshua, remembering how warmly he had smiled when he'd introduced the couple and their child.  Whatever the situation was, he was clearly very pleased with them.  Azalea smiled brightly.  "I'd love to hear your story sometime!"

Beaming, Andrew let out the breath he'd been holding.  "That'd be great. 

JenniAnn felt her eyes begin to fill.  Though Azalea had clearly been shocked for a moment, she saw no judgment in her eyes.  "Maybe... maybe we could go out for dinner sometime?  I'd love to hear more about your family's story and the story of this place."

"We'd love that!  Basil and I don't really get out too much other than to come here.  Our, umm, friends sometimes get embarrassed when Lily starts spouting off at restaurants so... invitations kind of dried up," Azalea admitted, biting her lip.

Andrew set a hand on hers.  "We'd love to have dinner with you, Basil, and Lily.  I think we're going to have an avid talker ourselves in a few months."

As if to lend credence to her father's statement, Belle let out a stream of babble.

Azalea laughed.  "Then it's a plan!"

Over by the coffee mugs, Basil and Joshua were deep in discussion.

"Wow...  He's an angel?"

"Of death."

"And she's... not?"

"JenniAnn's one of us: human."

"That's... something.  I sort of got the impression from the Bible that that wasn't exactly encouraged but obviously if you..."

Joshua smiled.  "I do approve.  Very much.  It's not the same scenario as is described in Genesis... Andrew and JenniAnn are what was supposed to be, what Dad and I willed.  But JenniAnn's hung up on the idea that people will think they're the same as in the old story and think poorly of Andrew for it.  So... I was hoping you and Azalea could befriend them.  You two tend to tell it like it is."

Basil laughed.  "Do we ever..."

"They need that.  And since you have no history with them, I think they'd be more open with you two."

"Of course.  It's not like we have an abundance of friends..."

Joshua smiled gently.  "I know.  They'll be good ones to you."

"Does Andrew by any chance like sports?  Or JenniAnn?"

Joshua laughed.  "Not so much JenniAnn but Andrew yes."

Basil grinned.  "I've missed having someone to go to games and watch the televised ones with.  Azalea's never been interested."

"Then there you go."

"There you go!" Lily echoed.  "Down now."

Joshua lifted her from his shoulders.  She hugged his knees then went to her mother.  With his arms free, Joshua hugged Basil.  "Thank you.  Now... Ama said you had some delicious tea."

With a smile, Basil nodded.  "Fair trade.  That and the coffee and chocolate are the only things we bring in."  He escorted Joshua to a corner of the store.

Joshua picked up a tin of tea and a box of truffles.  "Perfect.  Could you check me out and then I promised Lily I'd look at her drawing."

"Joshua, just take..."

Joshua rested his hand on the man's shoulder.  "I'm paying.  I'll look forward to, years from now, telling people I was one of your customers the very first week Lily's Loot was open," he confided, his eyes twinkling.

Touched by Joshua's support and what seemed to be assurance that their store would have a lengthy existence, Basil grinned.  "Thank you."

"You're welcome.  Thank you for being here.  These are perfect for the occasion."  Joshua smiled at the mugs Basil was still holding that read "Daddy's Mug" and "Mama's Mug."

Basil glanced over at the two who were talking animatedly with his wife and daughter.  "I'm definitely going to be looking forward to hearing that story!"

"And sharing yours, I hope?"

"Not sure ours is going to even come close to being as thrilling."

"I think it's thrilling," Joshua countered.

Basil's face shone.  "Thank you..."

"You're welcome."  Joshua beamed at him then raised his voice.  "Azalea and Lily, could you please do me a favor and show Andrew and JenniAnn the backroom while Basil checks me out?"

"Sure!" Azalea replied, happy to show off.  She laughed when Lily grabbed JenniAnn's hand and started pulling her to the room.

JenniAnn giggled before disappearing behind the curtain dividing the two rooms.  "See ya in a bit!"

Andrew smiled at Joshua.  "Thanks... for whatever you're hiding there."

"You're welcome."  Joshua replied as the angel, too, stepped behind the curtain with Azalea.  As soon as they were alone, Joshua again turned to Basil.  "Will you pray for them, please?  Tonight's going to be a good night but an emotional one for them."

Basil set his hand on Joshua's and nodded.  "You'll be hearing from me."

"As usual," Joshua murmured.  He set down the chocolate and tea and hugged the man.  "Thank you for that."

Basil sniffled.  "We love you so much, Joshua.  I hope..."

"You'll see me again before the year is out," Joshua promised.

With a relieved sigh, Basil returned Joshua's hug and then set about ringing up his purchases.

*~*~*

Around 4:00 that afternoon, Violeta at last left her lambs so she could wait with the others near the gazebo.

"They should be here any minute now.  Mom and Dad said they picked Ivy up about ten minutes ago," JenniAnn relayed, handing Belle to Andrew so she could check her phone again.  "Of course, traffic between her place and their house may be a bit heavy with all the schools letting out."

Violeta frowned at her cell.  "I wish she'd text..."

Joshua chuckled.  "Duckling, she's probably catching up with Allison and Robert.  Ivy wouldn't be rude."

"Yeah..."

"So are we still all having dinner here before..."  Andrew was cut off when Violeta shrieked and pointed. 

The back wall of the gazebo was beginning to shimmer.

A moment later, Ivy stepped through with a stuffed duffel bag. 

"Hi!" she greeted, hurrying down the steps and hugging all of them.  "I'm so glad to be back!"

"We're so glad to have you back," Joshua replied, kissing her forehead.

"I have to say... I feel much more comfortable with this than I did with coming through a tree."

The others looked up to see Robert with a garment bag slung over his shoulder and Allison standing beside him. 

Allison playfully rolled her eyes.  "They feel just the same, Robert."

"I know.  But it's just the thought of it..."

Letting it rest at that, the couple hugged their welcome party.

"Are you two staying for dinner?" Joshua asked.  "We thought we'd eat at about 5:30 then go our separate ways after that."

"Sure!" Robert agreed.  "How's your stay been, Joshua?  Has my daughter and her... Andrew been good hosts?" he teased.

Joshua laughed and nodded.  "They have been.  And, unlike my first hosts, they haven't consigned me to the stable."

Laughing, too, Allison gave his hand an affectionate squeeze.  "I'm glad to hear it, Joshua."

"I wish I could sleep in the stable..." Violeta murmured.

"I can't wait to see your lambs!" Ivy cried.  "And Yonah, too!"

"Why don't we go make the introductions now?" Joshua suggested.

"Okay!" Violeta raced off towards the stable.

Andrew smiled and shook his head then arched his eye brow as he looked at Belle.  "Wow... this human form of mine is gonna have a time of it keeping up if you take after your Aunt Violeta."

JenniAnn giggled.  "Yours and mine, both!  I vote we go at a more leisurely pace."

As the seven made their way around the castle, Ivy stepped near Joshua and took his hand.

Joshua smiled and gave her hand a squeeze.  "How was school?"

"Actually... I wanted to talk to you about that.  I really, really didn't want to go back.  I so badly wanted to stay with you, Yeshua."

"I know..."

"But then on Tuesday I noticed that Estella seemed really out of sorts.  We had made plans to do homework together that evening but then she told me she just wanted to go home and go to sleep.  For a while, I didn't think anything of it.  Just that she was tired from Easter festivities.  But I just felt weirder and weirder about it so around 6:00, I rode my bike over to her house.  Her brother let me in and I went to Estella's room and... and she didn't answer."  Tears welled in Ivy's eyes.

Joshua halted and caught her up in his embrace.  "I know, Ivy.  Dad told me.  If you hadn't gone into her room, no one would have found her until the next morning and it would have been too late... the pills would have killed her.  Thank you for being a good friend to her and for visiting her every night this week while she was in the hospital, for reminding her how much I love her.  That's my girl," he whispered proudly.

Ivy drew in a deep breath as she rested her head against his shoulder.  "I'm glad I was there.  And I'm glad Estella will be okay.  I... I would have missed her so much!  And I think it was a real wake-up call to her parents cause they're spending the entire weekend just hanging out together at the house... no meetings, no social events... just being together."

Joshua patted her back.  "Because of you, Ivy.  I'm very glad that Estella lived... and will live with the knowledge that she has a true friend who loves her very much.  And I'm also glad that we have this weekend together, too."

"Long weekend?" Ivy checked with a smile.

Joshua chuckled.  "Yes.  We'll have tonight, tomorrow, Sunday, and Monday together."

"I'm so glad, Yeshua...  And tonight's going to be so much fun!"

"It will be," Joshua agreed.  "But first..."  He tilted his head towards Violeta who was running towards them with Mary and Silvio frolicking behind her.  Yonah and Yoktan followed at a more leisurely pace.

"This is them!" Violeta introduced.  "This is Silvio... Silly... and this is Mary."  She kissed each of their heads.

Ivy stooped down and pet them.  "They are so cute, Violeta!  And soft!"

Violeta beamed.

While the two girls fussed over the lambs, JenniAnn went to Yonah.  She whispered to him then led him to her parents.

"Mom, Dad... meet Yonah.  Yonah, this is my Mom and Dad."

Yonah eyed them warily for a moment until Yoktan nudged him.

"JenniAnn, keep hold of him," Joshua directed.  "He thinks you're giving him away."

"Oh!"  JenniAnn hugged Yonah and nuzzled him.  "No... you stay with me, Yonah."

Once the donkey was settled, Allison reached out to stroke his forehead.  "Oh, sweetie... he's precious!"

Sensing the jack was still unsure of him, Robert stepped back towards Andrew.  "So... you bought him for her?" he questioned.

With a slight blush, Andrew nodded.  "Yeah.  I did."

"Huh.  Well... good for you... both.  You... know her very well."

Andrew kissed Belle's curls and turned to Robert.  "I try my best."

Robert rested his hand on the angel's shoulder.  "I know you do, Andrew.  Thank you."

Behind them, Joshua smiled. 

*~*~*

A half hour later, Joshua knocked on Belle's nursery door and poked his head inside.

"Hi!" JenniAnn greeted.  "Come in!  Oh... you look so handsome!  And thematic!"

Joshua smiled and glanced down at his black slacks and green sweater.  "Thank you.  I clean up well, I guess."

After picking Belle up from the changing table, Andrew chuckled.  "So how are the girls?"

"Kemara just arrived, all ready to go.  Violeta and Ivy are almost ready.  Allison's helping with hair."

"Oh.  Maybe I should go see if I should help."  JenniAnn headed to the door.

"They'll be fine," Joshua assured.  "Actually, I was hoping maybe we could talk before dinner?"

Andrew and JenniAnn exchanged a quick glance.

"Sure," Andrew agreed.

Joshua waved them to Andrew's bed then pulled the rocking chair in front of it.  He took a seat, rested the gift bag he was holding in his lap, and smiled lovingly at the two parents and Belle.  "I wanted to give you the gifts I picked up at Lily's Loot.  But, first, I have something else."

Andrew and JenniAnn looked on curiously as Joshua pulled a small card from the bag.  He handed it to Andrew.

The angel of death smiled when he saw it was his driver's license.  "Wasn't this in my wallet?"

Joshua grinned.  "Yeah... but I need to tell you something about it.  Andrew, you need to hang onto this one.  It's your permanent ID now.  Andrew Darcy is now a legal entity, complete with the appropriate paperwork and abilities and rights... including the right to adopt."

JenniAnn gasped.

"Belle's adoption will be finalized but she won't be adopted by only JenniAnn.  Andrew, your name will be included.  I've already let Kelly know to make the appropriate changes from her side.  Both of you will be Belle's legal parents," Joshua explained.

Holding Belle with one arm, Andrew pulled JenniAnn to him with the other when she began to softly cry.  "Thank you, Joshua."

JenniAnn nodded.  "I... I was worried that if... if something happened to me... Belle needs to stay with her Daddy."

Joshua reached over to pat her hand.  "I know.  Worry no more."

"Thank you..." JenniAnn whispered, squeezing his hand and sighing happily as she gazed at Andrew and Belle.

"And I want to tell you a few things about Belle herself," Joshua continued.

Andrew and JenniAnn peered intently at him.

"First, medical history... which is pretty good, by the way.  On her father's side there's some history of the same type of seizures you have, JenniAnn.  Manageable but something to keep an eye on.  She'll be prone to allergies but I know you two can deal with that."  Joshua smiled proudly at the two parents and softly tweaked Belle's chin,  receiving a wide smile in return.  "Her mother, had she been diagnosed, would have been told she had ADHD.  Between the history and the drug use, it's likely Belle will find herself dealing with that.  However, I think the Tunnel-brand of education will suit her better than a more modern setting."

JenniAnn smiled.  "Vincent will be pleased... and Andrew and I were hoping to educate her Below, too.  At least through the grade school years."

"Very good!" Joshua replied.

"Is... is there anything else?" Andrew questioned, his voice quiet and shaky. 

Knowing all the conditions and diseases likely flitting through the angel of death's mind, Joshua hurriedly shook his head.  "No.  Belle comes from a hardy lot."

Andrew and JenniAnn both let out the breaths they'd been holding.

"But there's something else I want you to know about her history, about where... and who... she came from," Joshua continued.

Andrew bent to kiss Belle.  As he did, Joshua mimed for JenniAnn to put her arm around him.  She readily obeyed.

"Andrew, this may be difficult to hear but, ultimately, I hope it brings you some peace," Joshua began.

Surprised that Belle's history would have anything to do with him, Andrew looked up in alarm.

Joshua reached out to take his hand.  "Andrew, your Belle is Badriya's niece."

"Oh love..." JenniAnn cooed when Andrew's face cracked and he began to sob.  Tears trickled down her own cheeks as she tightened her embrace.

"H-how?" Andrew questioned, looking towards Joshua despite a view obstructed by his tears.

Joshua's own voice shook as he continued.  "You know that Badriya's parents died when the children were quite young."

Andrew nodded.

"What you didn't know is that there were three children, not just two: Badriya, Behnam, and Adila.  Their aunt and uncle agreed to take the children but insisted they could not afford to care for all three.  Cousins stepped up to say they would take the girls.  They were immigrating to the U.S. and knew the girls would fare better there.  However, Badriya's uncle refused to let them both go."

"He wanted the eventual bride price..." Andrew interjected, a harsh edge in his voice.

Hearing it, Belle began to cry.

"Oh my girl...  I'm sorry," Andrew soothed, snuggling and kissing her.  "I... I love you so much, Belle."  He looked to JenniAnn and stroked her cheek.  "And my Laja..."

JenniAnn smiled through her tears and brought his hand to her lips.

Joshua's gentle eyes studied the three, ensuring they were fine before he continued.  "Andrew, you're right about the bride price.  The cousins decided they would take Badriya.  They hoped things might improve before Adila came of age.  However, Badriya... she insisted they take Adila.  So... they did."

"If they hadn't..." Andrew peered down at Belle who had calmed.  He knew she would not be there if Badriya had traveled to America instead of her sister.  Fresh tears filled his eyes and a lump formed in his throat as he caressed her hair and her cheeks and held her tiny hands in his.  "Belle..."

JenniAnn and Joshua watched patiently as Andrew doted on his baby.  After a few moments, the angel took in a few deep breaths to steady himself while JenniAnn stroked his back and Joshua rested a hand on his arm.

"What happened to Adila that... that she would abandon her baby?" Andrew finally asked.

Joshua frowned.  "Her cousins... her parents now... did the best they could for her.  But so much trauma and separation at such a young age...  It followed her.  In high school, she fell in with a troublesome crowd.  That's when the drug use started.  And it's continued.  Her parents have tried to get her help but, once she came of age, their hands were largely tied.  About a year ago, she met a man at a party... Belle's birth father.  It was a one night stand.  Adila doesn't even know his last name.  He's not a bad kid.  Neither of them are... but both are terribly irresponsible.  Adila's parents still financially support her and she knew they would be very angered by the pregnancy so she hid it.  They still have no idea she had a child... our Belle.  After she gave birth, Adila left Belle in the alley... where her true parents found her."  Joshua smiled with brimming eyes at Andrew and JenniAnn then crouched in front of the former and took his hand.  "Badriya is so, so pleased that you have Belle, Andrew.  She will be watching out for this little one and loving her."  He stroked Belle's hair. 

"I still... I wish they could have... have met.  That I could have saved..."  Andrew again broke down.

JenniAnn clung to him and kissed his hair as he shook with sobs.

Belle nuzzled her face against his chest.

"Andrew, you did everything you could for Badriya," Joshua reassured.  "Everything.  And she is happy now... and free.  And, one day, you will tell Belle about her and she will live in Belle's memory, too.  When Belle struggles with the knowledge of what her birth mother did, she will have Badriya's example and love and warmth to counter it... and yours, too.  Both of yours.  And mine.  Dad's.  So many people."

"A-and Adila?  What will become of her?" JenniAnn asked.  She closed her eyes briefly, feeling strange about finally knowing the name and history of the woman about whom she had such complicated feelings.

"One day she will realize how dire her situation is and she will take her parents' up on their offer to pay for rehab.  There will be relapses but, ultimately, she will triumph over her addictions.  She will think about Belle... and wonder.  There will be an angel there to tell her that her daughter lives... and thrives.  And that will be enough.  Adila will never try to take Belle from you," Joshua promised.

"Thank you," Andrew and JenniAnn whispered in unison.

Joshua smiled and took their hands.  "I love you three so much.  I want only the best for you.  And tonight... I would like for the two of you, Andrew and JenniAnn, to discuss what that is."  He returned to the chair and handed JenniAnn the gift bag.  "To help things along."

Smiling softly, JenniAnn took the bag and removed its contents.  "Oh, Joshua..."  She held a mug reading "Daddy's mug" up for Andrew to see then examined her own.

Andrew smiled.  "They're perfect."

"And the tea, too!"  JenniAnn displayed the tin of red velvet herbal tea. 

Andrew chuckled and grinned at Joshua.  "I didn't even know that existed."

"Lily's Loot can keep you in stock," Joshua replied, returning his smile.

"Ooh and chocolate..."  JenniAnn beamed at Joshua and moved to kiss his cheek.  "Thank you."

"You're welcome."  He embraced her then rose from the chair.  "I'll give you some time to yourselves now but I'll see you in the dining room soon?"

"Yes.  Definitely."  Andrew nodded and, shifting Belle, rose and hugged Joshua.  "Thank you... for everything."

Joshua patted the back of his head.  "You're welcome. "  After another smile for all three, he left the room.

Andrew and JenniAnn looked at each other for a moment then moved into each other's embrace, snuggling Belle between them.

*~*~*

At dinner, Andrew and JenniAnn shared with the others an abbreviated version of what Joshua had told them.

Robert blinked back tears while Allison swayed and clung to Belle who was in her arms.

"How are you, Andrew?" Violeta quietly asked her supervisor.  She would not soon forget the toll Badriya's death had taken on him.

Though his eyes glistened, Andrew smiled.  "I'm doing good, thank you.  It means a lot to know that JenniAnn and I will..."  He reached for JenniAnn's hand.  "We'll be able to help Badriya's niece... our daughter... fulfill her dreams.  Badriya had so many dreams...  And now Belle can, too."  He beamed at the infant.

Allison looked to Joshua.  "So amazing...  And, from a Grandma perspective, I have to say it's a load off my mind that we have Belle's medical history now.  Thank you, Joshua."

Joshua smiled at her.  "You're welcome.  I'm glad I was finally about to share it with Andrew and JenniAnn."  He turned to them.  "I wanted to tell you so many times before but I also knew it would be best to wait until you'd have some time to yourselves to talk without interruption."

JenniAnn nodded.  "Thank you..."  She sighed and smiled at Andrew.  "It'll be a good night.  For everyone.  I know the four of you will love the show!"

Ivy beamed.  "I'm so excited to see Elphaba fly!"

"I'm wondering if anyone is going to recognize Joshua," Kemara pondered.  "I mean it's not outside the realm of possibility that a few devoted theatre-goers would be there and also have seen our show."  She grinned at Joshua.  "What do you think?"

Joshua chuckled.  "I think, if I am recognized, I'll just tell them that Jesus loves witches and wizards, too.  And flying monkeys.  Big fan of the flying monkeys!"

"Chistery was always one of my favorites," JenniAnn shared.  "I'm gonna bet not a one of you has dry eyes after his big moment."

"I know I won't!" Joshua declared.  "So, Allison and Robert, what are you doing tonight?"

"We're staying Below.  Catherine and Vincent invited us for a little grandparents' coffee and dessert," Allison replied.  She snuggled Belle.  "It's been really wonderful how this little one has brought us even closer to them."

"But then we'll see you all tomorrow morning for breakfast, right?" Robert checked.

"Right," Andrew replied.  "JenniAnn and I figured we'd have breakfast here around 9:00 so everyone has enough time to get ready for the baptism at 11:00."

Belle cooed.

Joshua beamed at her.  "Big day, sweet Belle."

Allison rose from her seat.  "Would you like to take her for a while, Joshua?"

"I would love to."  With a contented smile, Joshua cradled Belle.  Not long after, she drifted to sleep with her fingers wrapped around one of his.

"Need a picture..." Violeta decided.  She quickly snapped one.

Andrew and JenniAnn silently gazed at the two, praying that Belle would always remember what it felt like to be in the arms of God.

*~*~*

Joshua watched with pride as the lead actress belted out the showstopper.

"'So if you care to find me, look to the western sky!  As someone told me lately: 'Everyone deserves the chance to fly!'  And if I'm flying solo, at least I'm flying free.  To those who'd ground me, take a message back from me.  Tell them how I'm defying gravity!'"

Joshua tore his gaze away from 'Elphaba' long enough to glance at the three girls.  Kemara was watching intently, smiling as the powerful song continued.  To his other side, Ivy had a tear running down her cheek.  Next to her, Violeta gaped and held tightly to the arms of her chair.  Joshua knew they'd be in for quite the discussion during the rapidly approaching intermission.

When the song ended, the crowd broke into applause.  After they'd quieted, Joshua put his arms around Ivy's and Kemara's shoulders. 

"Powerful stuff.  How are you doing?" he questioned.

Ivy brushed at her tears.  "It's wonderful...  I mean I've listened to the soundtrack several times but seeing it...  'Elphaba' is amazing!  The bullying was hard to watch, though."

Kemara drew in a steadying breath and nodded.  "It was.  But I loved how strong Elphaba stayed, how she never lost who she was even when she did try to belong more."

"I like that a lot about her, too," Joshua agreed.  "Duckling, what do you think?"

"Will she be okay?  Elphaba?" Violeta asked with genuine concern. 

Joshua stretched to squeeze her shoulder.  "Just keep watching.  I wouldn't have picked this for your birthday if it was going to leave you really sad."

Violeta smiled.  "Yeah... that's true.  I like how, even though Fiyero is there, it's mostly about the two girls and their friendship.  That's pretty cool."

"It is," Joshua agreed.

"Although Fiyero's nice.  He kind of reminds me of a younger Hugh Jackman," Kemara opined with a grin directed towards Violeta.

Ivy burst out laughing.  "What do you say to that, Violeta?"

"Kind of..." Violeta agreed with a smile.  "Mr. Jackman's more handsome, though.  Just a little."

Joshua chuckled.  "I'm glad we have that settled.  So did anyone want to go to the lobby or do you want to wait out intermission here?"

"I'd like to go out.  Stretch my legs.  People watch a little," Kemara responded.

"Sounds good!"  Ivy got to her feet and filed out after Violeta with Kemara and Joshua following.

The four made their way to the lobby where they looked at the souvenirs.  Joshua bought the girls programs and they claimed a bench and immediately began to pore over them.

"Look at all the detail on Glinda's dress!" Ivy chirped.

"Definitely sparkly," Kemara agreed.  "Elphaba's has a lot more to it, too, than I realized."

"Oh... this part hasn't happened yet.  It looks sad!"  Violeta pointed to an image of the wicked witch and her sister.

Joshua patted her hand.  "Sometimes family members just don't get along, Duckling.  Thankfully, you don't have to worry about that."

Violeta smiled and nodded.

Joshua peered over her shoulder and pointed to a picture.  "I like that.  Abi and I would have had a great time making that.  I think we could have done well with metalworks."

Kemara laughed.  "And how would a dragon have gone over in your hometown, Joshua?"

The carpenter grinned.  "Not well."

"I wonder what happened to the lion?" Violeta queried.

"Sitting next to you," Ivy replied, giggling.

The others burst into a fit of laughter and only ceased when they, all at once, had the feeling they were being watched.  Looking up, they saw a woman only a foot away from them.  She was gaping.  After a moment of stunned silence, she raised her finger and pointed at Joshua.

"You're Jesus!" she cried.

Joshua tilted his head, trying to puzzle out what exactly she meant.

The woman ran at him and hugged him.

Though surprised, Joshua warmly returned her hug.  "Hi."

The stranger startled and pulled away.  "I... I'm sorry.  That was rude to just... just touch you like that."

Joshua patted her arm.  "It's okay.  Really.  Hugs are good."

Letting out a sigh of relief, the woman smiled.  "Thank you.  I... see... my husband and I saw your show.  We go to lots of theatre and Superstar has always been a favorite but your production... the best."

Behind the two; Ivy, Kemara, and Violeta beamed at each other and Joshua's back.

"Thank you so much.  That means a lot!"  Joshua turned to the girls.  "Violeta and Kemara here were in the show, too.  Violeta played my mother and Kemara played Joanna, one of my followers.  And Ivy is a family friend, Ta..."

"And I also think their production was the best," Ivy interrupted, smiling at the woman.  "What's your name?"

Grateful for the save, Joshua squeezed Ivy's hand when she joined them.

"Talita," she replied.  "It's just so perfect to see you all here."  Talita smiled at Violeta and Kemara.  "You both were wonderful, too."

"Thank you," Kemara and Violeta replied in unison.

"I don't remember you from the meet and greet after the show, Talita.  I'm pretty good with remembering faces but..." 

Joshua was interrupted again when a man headed towards them and abruptly stopped. 

"Whoa."

Talita turned around and held out her hand.  "Milo, this is Jes..."  She blushed and turned back to Joshua.  "I'm sorry.  I probably shouldn't keep calling you Jesus.  What's your name?  I'm afraid I can't remember."

Joshua smiled gently.  "It's okay.  My name's Joshua."

"Thank you.  Milo, this is Joshua.  He played Jesus in the Superstar production at St. Genesius', remember?  And his friends were in it, too.  This is my husband, Milo," Talita introduced.

Milo gave Joshua a strong handshake.  "Hello, Joshua.  It's an honor to meet you.  Your show was truly..."  He glanced at his wife.

Talita bowed her head. 

"Maybe we could step into the vestibule over there?" Joshua suggested.

"Yes.  Please," Talita replied.

"We'll stay here," Kemara offered.

Talita backed away.  "Oh.  Oh no, it's okay.  I'm already infringing on your time with your friend."

"Actually, I'd like to look at that statue over there.  We could all go?" Violeta suggested.

"Oh yeah!  I wanted to look at that, too.  Hey, it's Cupid and Psyche, isn't it?" Kemara asked, looking over at the Romanesque statue.  "We should get a photo for Andrew and JenniAnn."

Thus assured, Talita smiled and, along with Milo, followed them to the nearly empty vestibule.

While the three girls studied the statue, Joshua stood to one side with the couple.

"We didn't stay for the meet and greet," Talita explained to him.  "We... we wanted to.  But we almost didn't go at all.  I...  Well, I'd gotten a really scary diagnosis earlier that day and we..."

"We were both so scared, Joshua.  And downcast.  After the doctor called, we just sat on the couch and sat there in a stupor and then cried and..."  Milo drew in a shaky breath.  "We decided seeing the show would be good distraction but we weren't very social that afternoon."

Joshua blinked back tears.  With a word from the Father, he saw it all.  Talita hemorrhaging, the rush to the E.R., the tests, the uneasy return home two days later, and then the phone call. 

"It truly was a good distraction," Talita assured.  "Seeing you bring Jesus' story to life... it reminded me that, no matter what comes, He's with us.  He... He'll get us through.  Thank you for reminding us of that."

From her vantage point, Violeta saw Joshua move to take the woman's hand in both of his.  Guessing what he planned to do, she hastened to him and wrapped her arms around his waist then smiled gently at the couple.

"I'm sorry.  I really didn't mean to eavesdrop but I heard and I just wanted to tell you both that I'll be praying for you," the angel promised.

Joshua smiled at her then took Talita's hand in his.  "I'll be praying, too, Talita.  I hope your next doctor's appointment leaves you both feeling more hopeful."

"Thank you," the woman softly murmured with grateful tears in her eyes.

Violeta sighed when she felt Joshua stagger and lean on her. 

Milo gazed at his wife who was staring intently at Joshua's hands.  Her free hand rested lightly over her stomach.  Neither noticed that, for a moment, the color drained from Joshua's face.

A bell rang signaling that the patrons should return to the theatre.

Milo frowned.  "I guess we should head back in."

"Yes..." Talita regretfully agreed.  She wandered at the warmth she felt in her gut and was hesitant to move lest the comforting feeling going away.  "I am glad we saw you, Joshua.  It was good to talk to you.  God bless you."

Joshua smiled wanly at her and Milo.  "Thank you.  It was good to talk to you both, too."  He hugged them.  "God is with you," he assured.

"Th-thank you," Milo choked out before leading his teary-eyed wife back into the theatre.

Ivy and Kemara hurried over and joined Violeta in giving Joshua a group hug.  Clustered in their warm and loving embrace, Joshua smiled as his strength returned to him.

"Thank you.  That helps a lot," he assured them.

"Do you need something to drink or... or anything?" Kemara checked as they moved apart.

Joshua shook his head.  "No.  I just needed that hug."

"Amazing..." Ivy whispered.  "You... healed her?" 

Joshua nodded.

Kemara wiped at a tear and took his hand.

Squeezing it, Joshua gave a bright smile to assure them.  "So... ready to go see what's become of Oz?"

Returning his smile, the three nodded and walked with Joshua back to their seats.  While they had every intention of enjoying the second act, each knew it could never top what they had witnessed in the vestibule.

*~*~*

True to Joshua's word, a light rain fell against the windows of the Willowveil library where Andrew, JenniAnn, and Belle were gathered.  JenniAnn was seated on a couch, book in hand.  Andrew rested his head on the throw pillow in her lap and lightly patted Belle's belly as she dozed on his chest.

"'How can we be so different and feel so much alike?' mused Flitter.  'And how can we feel so different and be so much alike?' wondered Pip.  'I think this is quite a mystery!' Flap chirped.  'I agree,' said Stellaluna.  'But we're friends.  And that's a fact!'  The end."

JenniAnn set the book on the arm of the couch and reached down to stroke Andrew's hair.  "Not exactly sure who I just read to sleep... baby or her Daddy or both."

The angel opened his eyes and smiled.  "I'm still awake.  Just very content.  But Belle is definitely asleep.  I'm gonna try to transfer her to her cradle without waking her up and then maybe we can dig into that tea and chocolate?"

JenniAnn nodded.  "Ooh, yes."

Andrew slowly sat up and, keeping a secure hold of Belle, rose from the couch.  He knelt by her cradle, bending slowly until she was nearly in it.  Holding his breath, he set her down then smiled triumphantly. 

"Good job," JenniAnn murmured, kneeling beside him.

They sat silently for a few moments until she got to her feet and went to fetch the kettle.

Andrew gazed at the sleeping infant, marveling at how beautiful and perfect she was.  "I love you," he whispered before going back to the couch and sliding a small box out from where he had stashed it earlier.  He set it on the table then studied the flames in the fireplace.  He prayed the evening would bring both JenniAnn and him peace and greater understanding.

Soon JenniAnn returned with the kettle.  She set it on a trivet then began to prepare the tea, pausing when she noticed the box.

Andrew picked it up and handed it to her.  "I made something for you."

"Oh love..."  JenniAnn hugged him before opening the box.  "Andrew..."

The angel watched as she studied the carved donkey.

"It's beautiful...  How sweet the eyes are...  He looks so real.  Thank you.  I..."  Still clutching the carving in her right hand, JenniAnn again hugged Andrew.

Andrew stroked her hair and rested his chin on her head.  "I'm so glad you like it, Laja.  And Yonah."

"I love Yonah.  On his own account, of course, and also cause of... of who he came from and what he means."  JenniAnn pulled away and caressed Andrew's cheek, peering intently into his eyes.  "'Where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay.'"

Andrew smiled and nodded.  "Always, Laja."

JenniAnn returned his smile then sighed and finished with the tea.  She handed him his mug.  "You first."

Andrew took a sip.  "Delicious."

JenniAnn followed suit.  "I concur.  A nice change from chai."

Andrew chuckled.  "Probably a good thing."

"But we have chocolate for caffeine."

"We do," he agreed, opening the box.  "You first this time."

JenniAnn selected a promising looking truffle.  "Ooh...  Joshua has good taste in chocolate."

"I guess the inventor of the cocoa bean would," Andrew jested before snagging a chocolate for himself.  He sighed contently.

After each taking another sip of tea, JenniAnn curled up beside Andrew and hugged his arm.  For several moments they were both silent as their eyes traveled from the fireplace to the window to Belle.

"It really is cozy in here," Andrew opined. 

JenniAnn nodded.  "We should spend evenings in here more often."

Andrew made no response.  A lump was forming in his throat.

JenniAnn drew in and let out a deep breath then knelt beside the angel so she could better see his face.  She reached out to cup his chin in her hand.  "Andrew...  I... I've spent too much of my life caring about what... what other people think.  A-and to an extent, maybe that's a good thing.  B-but I think sometimes it goes too far.  I never wanted to... to 'inspire scandal' and I especially never wanted to do anything that would make people think poorly of you.  But I think... I've been overzealous.  And... and probably hurt you without meaning to.  And I... I really didn't mean to!"

"Laja...  I know... I know," Andrew assured, brushing his lips against her forehead.

JenniAnn sunk against him, sighing when his arms closed around her.  "But now...  so long as we're happy a-and God is on our side... a-and He is.  Told me so at lunch."

Andrew smiled as he rested his cheek against her hair.

"Stay with Belle and me?  Here... at Willowveil.  Please?  For good," JenniAnn requested, leaning back just enough to meet his gaze.

Feeling relief and joy radiate through him, Andrew pulled JenniAnn back to him.  "Laja..."  He realized with alarm that he could feel her heart pounding.  "Laja, of course.  Yes!  I..."

"I love you," JenniAnn murmured as she clung to him, feeling herself begin to relax.

Andrew smiled.  "I was going to say that.  I love you, too.  Thank you, Laja.  You've made me so happy."

"I should have asked before," she lamented.

Andrew shook his head.  "Now was perfect.  So perfect."

Smiling, JenniAnn shook her head.  "So long as you think so.  I had something more... eloquent in my head."

Andrew chuckled.  "Laja, it would never have occurred to me to think about how I would want someone to ask me to move in with them.  But if it had... that's what I would have wanted."

"Love..."

"Celebratory dance?" Andrew suggested.

Giggling, JenniAnn nodded and let him escort her to an area of the floor in front of the window.

Withdrawing his cell phone from his pocket, Andrew selected a song. 

JenniAnn's eyes welled the moment she recognized it. 

Together, in the rain-drenched moonlight, they danced to an old favorite that had taken on new meaning that night.

"Something in your eyes, makes me want to lose myself,
Makes me want to lose myself, in your arms.
There's something in your voice, makes my heart beat fast.
Hope this feeling lasts the rest of my life.
If you knew how lonely my life has been
and how long I've been so alone.
If you knew how I wanted someone to come along,
and change my life the way you've done...

It feels like home to me, it feels like home to me,
If feels like I'm all the way back where I come from."

*~*~*

Joshua and Kemara smiled at each other as Ivy and Violeta enthusiastically sang beneath their shared umbrella while walking from the gazebo to Willowveil.

"'Like a comet pulled from orbit as it passes a sun.  Like a stream that meets a boulder, halfway through the wood.  Who can say if I've been changed for the better?  But because I knew you... I have been changed for good!'"

By the time they reached the front door, the song was nearly over.

The two teenagers faced each other and clasped hands. 

"'And because I knew you...'"

"'Because I knew you...'"

"'Because I knew you...  I have been changed for good...'"

Joshua and Kemara clapped, causing the girls to blush.

"Sorry.  I guess we got a little carried away," Ivy apologized.

Joshua hugged her.  "No reason to apologize.  I thought it was sweet."  He hugged Violeta next.  "I'm glad you had a good time."

Kemara hugged her program to her chest and beamed.  "It was so good and even better going with the three of you."  She embraced Joshua.  "Thank you."

"Yes, thank you, Yeshua."  Ivy moved in to kiss his cheek, giggling when Violeta went for the other cheek at the same time.

Joshua chuckled.  "Thank you both.  Now... Kemara, you're staying here tonight, right?"

Kemara nodded.  "I hope Warren's behaved while we were gone."

"I'm sure he has," Joshua assured as they stepped inside.

"Can we tell Andrew and JenniAnn all about the show?" Violeta asked, bouncing.

"Duckling, they may already be asleep.  They've got a big day ahead of them.  I'll check on them and, if they're not sleeping, I'll let you know.  If they are then I'm sure you'll still remember everything tomorrow morning and you can tell them then."

"True..." the angel agreed. 

"Why don't you get ready for bed and I'll let you know?" Joshua suggested.

"Pajamas sound good," Ivy said through a yawn.

Kemara nodded.  "Definitely.  I think I'm going to turn in so..."  She hugged Ivy and Violeta and lingered for a few moments longer in Joshua's hug.  "Good night.  I'll see you all at breakfast!"

"G'night, Kemara!" Ivy replied.

"Sleep well, little one," Joshua added.

Violeta wrinkled her nose.  "I hope you don't have nightmares about Winkies!"
 
Kemara laughed.  "I'll try not to, thanks."

"I'll stop by your room before I turn in myself," Joshua promised the other two girls.

"Okay!"  Violeta grabbed Ivy's hand and started towards the stairs.  "We can sing some more... in our jammies!"

Ivy laughed.  "Okay."

Joshua smiled after them then locked the door, stashed the key, and made his way up the stairs.  Upon reaching the second floor, he poked his head into Belle's nursery and saw that it was empty.  Smiling, he made his way to the library.  Perhaps Andrew and JenniAnn had decided to follow his suggestions to the letter.  The library would have offered them a comfortable couch, a fireplace, and a good view of the rainfall. 

Peeking into the room, Joshua first spied Belle's cradle.  As he approached, he noticed Andrew and JenniAnn asleep on the couch.  Andrew was facing the cradle.  It looked like he had dozed off while watching over their equally serene baby.  JenniAnn was turned towards him, her cheek nestled against his chest.  As his eyes welled, Joshua quietly settled into one of the chairs.  He remembered what they could not.  He saw again the vast galaxy of spirits yet to be born.  He had known each by name even though they were nameless to themselves and to each other.  Joshua's mind focused on the memory of two spirits in particular.  He recalled the one reaching out to the other.  Knowing little else, they had a sense of him and his love for them and they had felt the warmth and the potential of the other.  They had clung to each other until he had called one forth into existence. 

"Find each other again," Joshua whispered, echoing his own words from so long ago.  Silent tears streamed down his cheeks as he thought of the trials coming their way in the years ahead.  But he knew they would triumph and, in time, when JenniAnn was called forth into eternal life with him, they would know the full truth.  In the womb of his mind and heart, they had first found each other.

Joshua sighed and got to his feet.  He knelt by Belle's cradle and softly kissed her hair.  Moving as quietly as possible, he knelt by the couch and rested his hand over where Andrew's lay on JenniAnn's shoulder. 

"Never forget how much I love you," he murmured.

Without waking, JenniAnn sighed and Andrew smiled.

Joshua crept out of the library and climbed the stairs up to his room.  Hearing singing coming from the room across from his, Joshua tapped on the door and stepped inside.

"Guess they're probably asleep?" Violeta checked.

Joshua nodded.  "Soundly."

"That's okay!  Ivy and I think we're gonna be Elphaba and Glinda for Halloween!" Violeta gushed.

Ivy smiled.  "I'm not dying my hair blonde, though."

"The Glinda in the movie had red hair!" the angel pointed out.

Joshua chuckled and pulled them into his embrace.  "That she did.  I'm sure you'll both have a wonderful Halloween."

Ivy nodded but there was a sadness in her eyes.  "You've been crying..."

Violeta startled and peered up at Joshua.  "You have..."

Joshua smiled to reassure them.  "I'm fine.  Just very proud of my kids."  He kissed each girl's hair.  "We should probably get to sleep.  We have a baby to get baptized tomorrow."

Ivy beamed.  "Yeah..."

"Is John really gonna help?" Violeta questioned.

"Yep."

"But... will the Church allow that?" she pressed.  "I mean I've read some things about how various groups do baptisms and they can be kinda particular..."

Joshua lowered his voice to a conspiratorial whisper.  "I'm not as particular."

"Good enough for me!" Ivy asserted.  "G'night, Yeshua!"

"Good night!" Violeta echoed. 

After one more embrace, Ivy and Violeta settled into their beds. 

"Good night, girls."  Joshua smiled tenderly at them both before turning off the light and closing the door.

Soon after, he got into his own bed.  Despite having already said the Shema and other prayers, Joshua continued to talk to his Dad, reminiscing about his own baptism.

"I remember how it felt, Dad.  Hearing Your voice like that.  'You are my beloved Son...'  The joy... the comfort...  There were times I wished I could hear You as clearly... just like they wish they could hear us.  But I always knew You were there, even when You were silent.  I hope Belle always knows that, too.  And I hope everything went well with Andrew and JenniAnn.  Looked like it..."

Joshua smiled at the sound of the Father's laughter.  It was the last sound he heard before drifting to sleep.

*~*~*

Child of the Light

Saturday, April 26th

Fr. Mike hummed merrily as he carefully packed his bag.  He smiled when he heard footsteps in the hall.  His house guest had learned that spontaneously appearing in the room did a number on his nerves.

"I have it!" John called.  He stepped into the priest's study and set a bottle of water on the table.  "Straight from the Jordan."  He clucked his tongue.  "It's not like it used to be... I had to ask the Father to cleanse it which He did."

The priest observed that the water was crystal clear.  "Thank you!  I thought it would be a cool addition, especially with you and Joshua right there."

"Yes, definitely.  Am I dressed well enough?" John asked, eying himself and his ensemble of khakis and a beige sweater in the mirror.

"Well, if you want to go get your camel hair then I'm sure there's time."

The saint wrinkled his nose.  "I do not..."

Fr. Mike laughed.  "You look fine.  Very nice.  That's one of the many good things about being a priest.  I don't spend much time picking out clothes and what little I do have to buy my mother gets for me." 

"Will your parents be there today?"

"Oh yeah.  A bunch of the Dyelanders/Asterians and other friends will be there.  A good thing as far as building a supportive community for Belle.  Slightly problematic as far as the way Andrew and JenniAnn wanted to do the rite.  Usually the parents or godparents hold the baby for most of the ceremony.  They want Joshua to.  And he will.  I guess those who don't know will just find it curious."  Fr. Mike shrugged.  "We'll make due.  I just hope a bunch of people don't use Maryam and Yosef in the litany...  That might raise some eye brows!  But Kemara had everything printed up in a program so that should help and..."  He put one last item in the bag.  "I'm ready!"

John peered into the bag.  "I only had the water and my two hands..."

Fr. Mike laughed before noticing that John was not amused.  In fact, he looked slightly worried.  "If only it could be so simple...  Let's go get some breakfast at Willowveil and then we'll go to the chapel to practice, okay?"

John beamed and enthusiastically nodded.  "Okay!"

Arms around each other's shoulders, the two began their short journey to the nearest portal.

*~*~*

Raquel came running out of the portal so quickly that she scarcely noticed it had changed.  She made a beeline towards where Andrew stood with JenniAnn at his side.  Belle cooed in her arms.

"Look at her!  She's gotten so big!!!  Oh Belle!  Sweet Belle..." Raquel reached for the baby.

Andrew chuckled.  "Good morning, Raquel."

Blushing, Raquel turned to Andrew and kissed his cheek.  "Good morning, sweet boy.  And sweet girl."  She kissed JenniAnn, too. 

Laughing, JenniAnn settled Belle in Raquel's arms.  "So glad you're here!  Where's Nico?"

"Here."

The three turned to see that the captain was still in the gazebo, studying the craftsmanship.

"Beautiful work..."  He turned away from the railing and hastened down the steps, pulling Andrew and JenniAnn into a hug.  "Congratulations!  A fine day for your family!  Raquel and I are so pleased we could be here."

Before either Andrew or JenniAnn could reply, a voice shrieked.

"You're here!"

Nico laughed.  "Ah, Violeta..."

The teenager flew at the man and hugged him.  She was only less restrained with Raquel on account of Belle.

"Happy Belle's Baptism Day!" Violeta greeted.  "Want to come meet my sheep?  And Joshua!  Joshua most of all!"

Andrew chuckled.  "Sweetheart, let's at least get their bags inside the castle."  He waved to where they remained on the gazebo floor.

"Oh, okay!"  Violeta hurried to the bags, flung one over her shoulder, and jetted towards the castle.

Dragging his hand through his hair, Andrew shook his head.  "So... she's really excited about her lambs."

Raquel smiled.  "As well she should be.  They're her babies.  And babies are the best little things ever."  She kissed Belle's forehead.  "Aren't you?  Aren't you, sweetie?" 

Belle laughed and began to babble.

Andrew and Nico each took a bag and carried it to the castle.  Then the group followed Violeta who skipped to the stable.

"Oh my..."  Raquel halted and stared at the man leading a donkey bearing a girl with fiery hair.  "Is that your Joshua?" she asked JenniAnn.

Her voice failing her, JenniAnn nodded.

"I can tell he must have been a wonderful Jesus.  Is the girl his?"

"Umm..."  JenniAnn tried to figure out how to answer.

"That's Ivy," Andrew explained.  "She's a mutual friend.  She grew up without a father so Joshua's really stepped into the role."

"Good man," Nico complimented. 

"C'mon, I'll introduce you."  Andrew waved the two nearer.

Spotting the newcomers, Ivy patted Yoktan's mane.  "Thank you for the ride, Yoktan.  Yeshua, I think that's Raquel and Nico there, isn't it?"

Joshua turned to check and smiled.  "Yes.  You want down to meet them?"

"Yes, please."

Joshua helped the girl dismount then, together, they walked towards the group.

"Good morning!" Joshua greeted.  "Raquel and Nico, Andrew and JenniAnn have told me so much about you!  They're so thrilled you're here... looks like Belle is, too."  He chuckled when he noticed that Belle was sucking on a fistful of Raquel's scarf.

"Oh no!" JenniAnn cried.

Raquel laughed.  "It's just fine.  No worries." 

"Raquel and Nico, this is Joshua," Andrew introduced.  "And this is Ivy."

"Pleased to meet you both!" Nico shook their hands.  He tilted his head and studied Joshua.  "You, sir, make for a very striking Christ.  Our Andrew did well in hiring you."

Joshua beamed.  "Thank you."  He clapped Andrew on the back.  "It was an honor to work for Andrew and to meet his friends and family."

JenniAnn swiped at a stubborn tear and was grateful when Yonah approached.  She buried her face in his neck for a few moments while she collected herself.  "We all love Joshua and are just so happy you two are meeting him," she managed.

Keeping Belle steady with one arm, Raquel offered Joshua her hand.  "Good morning, Joshua.  So nice to finally meet you.  The kids have spoken very highly of you."

"Thank you, Raquel.  They've all been very kind."  Joshua smiled at Andrew and JenniAnn before returning his attention to Raquel.  "Did your travels go smoothly?"

"Oh yes.  A little rushed but good.  The ship docked in Fort Lauderdale just last night but Nico found us an early bird flight that worked out very well.  And no delays if you can believe it!"  Raquel laughed when she noticed Violeta sitting on the ground near the stable with her lambs, casting pointed glances.  "I think Violeta there is dying to introduce us to her lambs so..."

Joshua grinned and nodded.  "She's very proud of them.  Here, let me walk with you.  It's a little muddy."

"Well, thank you, young man!"  Raquel took his arm and headed to the stable.

"Very polite," Nico mused.  "Say, is he looking for a job, do you know?  We could always use another carpenter aboard the ship.  You did say he actually is a carpenter, didn't you?"

Ivy giggled quietly.

Andrew smiled.  "He is.  But Joshua already has some work lined up for himself.  I'm sure he'll be touched that you asked, though, Nico."

JenniAnn quietly sighed, wishing she could tell the man that Joshua would be on every voyage.

"Worth a shot!" Nico replied.  He smiled at JenniAnn.  "I hear our Andrew here has exquisite taste in gifts.  Care to introduce me to your donkey?"

With a smile, JenniAnn nodded.  "Most definitely he does.  And I'd be happy to.  Nico, this is Yonah.  Yonah, this is Nico.  Sometimes he's a little nervous around... huh."  She watched in amazement as Yonah instantly warmed to the man.

Nico smiled as he stroked the donkey's mane.  "I had a handsome, sturdy jack myself when I was a boy.  His name was Ahab... I already had seafaring ambitions.  Sweet creatures, aren't they?"  He frowned.  "You've had some rough patches, haven't you?"  He patted Yonah's scar-riddled back.  "No more of that, my boy.  You're in good hands now with JenniAnn."

JenniAnn smiled and hugged her donkey.  "Thank you, Nico."  She reached for Andrew's hand.  "We're blessed to have him."

"He's already taken a shine to Belle," Andrew added.  "As you can tell..."  He chuckled when Yonah sped ahead of them and stood nose to nose with a gleeful Belle.

Nico smiled at the sight.  "Lucky little girl!  Lambs, dogs, and donkeys."

As they neared the stable, Nico noticed Joshua sitting on the ground with Mary on his lap, her head tucked under his chin.  He gaped.  "My... that's a bit on the nose, isn't it?" he quietly mused.

The only one to hear him, Ivy simply smiled. 

*~*~*


Belle didn't have the slightest idea what was going on but was very pleased to be the center of so many people's attention.  Her parents, grandparents, Shelby, both Jacobs, Devin, Raquel, and Nico were all gathered in the Willowveil ballroom, enjoying breakfast and time with her.

"Oh... I suppose I should let someone else have a turn but I don't want to give you up!" Raquel lamented as she cradled the baby.

Andrew set down his glass of orange juice and shook his head.  "You get extra time, Raquel, since you've had to be away from Belle much longer than anyone here.  Well, except Nico."

Seated next to his wife, the captain smiled at Belle.  "I can wait... but only a bit longer."

"I'm so glad you both made it!" Catherine gushed. 

"And in time for breakfast," the elder Jacob added before gleefully loading his fork up with pancake.

"We're glad, too.  We wouldn't have missed Annabelle's big day," Nico insisted.  "And it's going to be very nice to meet all of your new friends, Andrew and JenniAnn."  He looked to the grandparents.  "I already met that Joshua fellow when Violeta insisted we come see her sheep.  He seems like a fine fellow."

"The best..." JenniAnn murmured, reaching for her cross. 

Devin pushed his food around his plate, still trying to figure out why everyone seemed to have lost their minds over the guy.

"I thought Joshua would be joining us for breakfast.  Is he still planning to?" Vincent checked.

Andrew nodded.  "He'll be here any minute now.  Doug, the owner of the theatre, and his son are coming and they've never used the portal before so Joshua went to meet them.  Maryam, Yosef, and Kelly will be coming with them, too."

Raquel finally tore her gaze away from Belle long enough to look at Andrew.  "Maryam and Yosef?  Were they in the show with you?"

The angel shook his head then stopped.  "Well, sort of.  They stepped in right at the end of our run.  They're Joshua's parents."

Nico looked curiously at Andrew.  "Interesting."

His wife looked to him.  "How so, my dear?"

"The names.  Variations on Mary and Joseph.  Apropos."

Raquel laughed.  "True!"  Reluctantly, she transferred Belle to her husband then turned to Andrew.  "I'm sorry we couldn't make it to your show.  The others have told me so many wonderful things about it but..."  She sniffled.  "Well, it was nice to meet Joshua!"

JenniAnn reached over to squeeze her hand.  "It's okay, Raquel.  We're glad you could meet him, too."  As she took a sip of her tea, she thought about the call she and Andrew had made to Raquel weeks before, inviting her and Nico to the show.  The woman had confessed that, as much as she wanted to see them, she didn't think she could bear watching the Crucifixion.  Though she and Andrew had both longed to have Raquel meet Joshua, he had warned them against pressing and told them that it would bring up too many memories and imaginings concerning Dawn's murder.  But now the two would be able to spend some time together and JenniAnn was sure that Raquel and Maryam would be fast friends.

"So how was your most recent cruise?" Allison dreamily questioned.

"Delightful!  We went along the eastern coast of Europe," Raquel replied.  "It's one of my favorite cruises."

"Did you get to see Arendelle?" Shelby asked with a smile.

Raquel laughed.  "Not exactly.  But we did stop in Norway and I picked up some keepsakes for two little princesses and a little prince."  She smiled at Shelby and Jacob whose eyes grew wide.  "Shelby sweetheart, could you please get my purse?"

Skipping to the coatroom, Shelby did as she was asked.

"Now let's see..." Raquel removed three small boxes and set them on the table then waved Jacob over.  She handed a box to each of them.  "For you and for you."

The two children opened their boxes and smiled.

"Thank you!" Shelby chirped.  "It's so pretty!  I've never seen this sort of stone before."

"It's called thulite and it's native to Norway.  I thought crosses were fitting given the occasion."  Raquel picked up the third box and opened it.  "This one is for Belle.  Sisters should have matching necklaces."

Shelby beamed and hugged Raquel and then Nico.  "Thank you!" 

"You're very welcome," Nico replied.

Jacob continued to stare at his. 

Raquel frowned.  "I know it's a little... pink."

Jacob tore his gaze away from the necklace and smiled.  "I like it.  Pink isn't only for girls.  Psyche says so.  She likes Andrew's pink shirt especially when he doesn't button..."

"Oh..."  JenniAnn giggled nervously.

Andrew's face began to resemble the shade of Shelby's cross which he was fastening around her neck.

Vincent cleared his throat.  "Jacob, could I please see your gift?"

The boy hugged Raquel and Nico.  "Thank you!"  He brought the pendant to his father and smiled at the gift givers.  "I really do like it.  The three gray parts of the stone remind me of the Father and Josh... Jesus and the Spirit."

Catherine squeezed his hand, proud that he'd taken such meaning from it.  She smiled at Raquel and Nico.  "Thank you.  It's a wonderful gift."

"I can't wait to show Joshua!" Shelby cried.

Her eyes misting, JenniAnn put the necklace on Belle.  "It's perfect..."  She embraced the couple and kissed their cheeks.  "Thank you."

Raquel smiled at the cross nestled against Belle's sweater.  "You're all very welcome."

Shelby put her hand on Raquel's arm.  "Can you tell us more about Norway, Raquel?"

As Raquel was regaling them all with details, Andrew noticed a group of people approaching.  He smiled and waved through the ballroom's large windows.

"Is that Maryam and Yosef and company?" Nico asked.

JenniAnn nodded.  "That's them!  And, of course, Fr. Mike and Kelly you've met.  That's Doug in the red shirt... looking a little dazed.  Toby's beside him... also looking a little dazed."

"A little."  Raquel smiled as she watched them draw nearer to the castle.  "What a beautiful couple!  Who is the other fellow?  Looks around Joshua's age."

"His cousin, John.  He'll be assisting Fr. Mike with the baptism," Andrew replied.

Allison, Robert, Catherine, and Vincent all glanced at each other, wondering if the other couple would see the significance of that.  If either Raquel or Nico did, they gave no sign of it. 

"We're here!" Fr. Mike called as the group entered with Kemara and Owen who had been waiting on the porch for them. 

The others all moved to their feet to welcome the arrivals. 

"So glad you're all here!" Andrew greeted, hugging each of them.  "Doug, Toby, Maryam, Yosef, and John; I'd like you to meet our friends: Raquel and Nico Moretti."

Raquel beamed at the four.  "Very pleased to meet you."  She turned to Maryam and Yosef.  "We've heard so many great things about your Joshua."

"You must be very proud," Nico added.

As Joshua blushed, his parents nodded.

"Incredibly so," Yosef responded with a wide smile. 

"Oh...  Your boy has your eyes," Raquel noticed when she swiveled to shake Maryam's hand.  "Such beautiful eyes."

Maryam took the woman's hands in both of hers.  "Thank you, Raquel.  Very much."

As Raquel continued to look into Maryam's face, she began to feel a kinship she could not explain.  "You're welcome..." she whispered.

Doug approached Andrew and JenniAnn.  "I must admit... when I first met you, Andrew, I thought at most you had a studio apartment in the city but this..."  He marveled at the room.

Chuckling, Andrew clapped him on the back.  "I'm full of surprises!"

Doug nodded and looked in Joshua's direction.  "And you're not the only one."  He smiled tenderly before turning back to Andrew and JenniAnn.  "Look how proud and happy he is..."

Andrew and JenniAnn both wrapped an arm around the newcomer as Joshua smiled brightly and stood behind his parents as they fussed over Belle.

*~*~*

After breakfast, the group began to part ways.  John and Fr. Mike went to the chapel to practice.  Owen and Kemara and the kids volunteered to give Doug and Toby a brief tour.  Violeta stationed herself near the gazebo with her lambs in order to greet people as they arrived.  The others lingered in the ballroom.

Allison grabbed her daughter's hand as she began to pile up dishes.

"Why don't you and Andrew go get ready?" she suggested.  "We can take care of things down here.  And watch Belle."

"Aww, thanks, Mom.  But we invited everyone.  Guests shouldn't have to..."  JenniAnn looked up in time to see her father corner Andrew.

Allison smiled.  "Please.  Go."

"Hey, where's..."  JenniAnn searched the room.  Maryam and Yosef were still there, the latter holding her baby as he talked with Nico, Devin, and the elder Jacob.  Maryam and Raquel were seated near a window, deep in conversation.  Catherine and Vincent had began to clear another table.  But Joshua was no where to be seen.

Hugging her daughter, Allison sighed.  "You'll see him soon.  Please, let us take over here.  I'll be up to do your hair in a bit."

Blinking back tears, JenniAnn nodded.  "Okay.  Thank you, Mama."

When she turned around, Andrew was waiting for her. 

"Your dad and Ivy are going to pick up Doreen.  But first he wanted to make it clear that he's kicking me out of the ballroom," he told her with an amused smile.  Then he drew in a deep breath.  "And I think Joshua has something planned."

JenniAnn nodded and took his hand.  "I think so, too.  C'mon."

They made their way to her room.  JenniAnn removed Andrew's suit jacket and dress shirt from her closet and, rather than giving them to him, kept hold of the ensemble and his hand.

"Laja, where are we..."  Andrew's voice trailed off as they stepped into the suite across from hers.

JenniAnn set the clothes on the bed and took both of his hands in hers.  "I thought maybe this could be your room?" she asked hopefully.

With tears in his eyes, Andrew nodded.  "Yes.  Please." 

JenniAnn moved into his embrace.  "Good." 

The two remained as they were for a few moments until JenniAnn spotted something on the dresser.  Reaching for it, she smiled.

"I guess Someone had already decided this was to be your room."  JenniAnn held the note out for Andrew to see. 

"'The room suits you, Andrew.  Meet me in the Willowveil chapel after you've changed.  JenniAnn will be there, too,'" he read, also smiling. 

JenniAnn stretched up to kiss his cheek.  "Then I guess I should go get ready.  Meet you there?"

Andrew kissed her forehead and nodded.  "Sounds good, Laja."

Returning to her room, JenniAnn found her own note.  She tucked it away in her Bible then began to prepare for Belle's baptism and whatever it was Joshua had planned as a prerequisite.

*~*~*

Andrew sat in the chapel, with Joshua at his side, feeling more than a little overwhelmed by the last twelve hours.  He was grateful for the breather.

Joshua squeezed his shoulder.  "We didn't have much time to talk this morning.  How are you doing with everything, Andrew?"

After a deep breath, Andrew smiled.  "Good... nervous..."

Joshua hugged him.  "About the baptism or about life in general?"

"Tiny bit the first, mostly the second," Andrew admitted with a sheepish smile.  "I am so, so happy right now but... but this isn't the life I ever expected for myself!"

Joshua only smiled.

"But it's the life you expected... planned..." Andrew translated.

"Yes." 

"But what if I..."  Tears welled in Andrew's eyes.  "What if I hurt her?  I... I wouldn't mean to but... what if I'm just worn out or stressed or conflicted about an assignment and some thoughtless comment comes flying out and..."

"You probably will hurt JenniAnn.  And she'll hurt you.  But that's when you talk it over and ask for forgiveness and forgive.  Hurting someone's feelings doesn't mean you shouldn't be together.  Look at my parents.  Abi told my Ama that he would divorce her!  She was devastated.  But now look at them!" 

Andrew smiled.  "Good point."

"Those times you build each other up... the times that a certain smile or look makes everything better... the times a tender touch drives away all the harshness and coldness of the world... those times are going to happen a lot more often," Joshua assured. 

Andrew let the words sink in before he let out another deep breath.

Joshua spied another frown forming.  "And what else?"

"Well... there are..."

Joshua clasped the angel's hand when he saw his discomfort.  "It's me.  You know you can tell me anything."

"Yeah..."  Andrew rested his other hand over Joshua's.  "I know.  Thanks.  I guess I'm concerned about being so close, so often, and then very far away.  I mean things... even from this time last year... are different between us.  A lot of it's because of Belle... our sweet baby."  He smiled as he thought of the girl.  "I know it is.  But some of it...  It's like...  'Who, if I cried out, would hear me among the angels' hierarchies?  And even if one of them pressed me suddenly against his heart: I would be consumed in that overwhelming existence.'  I downplayed that whenever Laja would quote it, Joshua.  And I do... I think sometimes she took it a step or two too far... thinking she existed for me and things like that.  But now I get why she was so drawn to it.  I... I have pressed her to my heart and I don't know if she felt consumed or not but I know what I've felt lately.  Bound to her, a little more each day.  And if... if she feels that, too, and I leave..."  Andrew swiped at a tear. 

"She does feel that.  And she worries over how accustomed you've become to having her near, Andrew.  But me?  I don't worry.  Because I know you both, inside and out, and I know that the longing you have felt and will feel... it's going to make your time together even sweeter.  And it's already made you both even more gentle, compassionate people.  Don't you think you understand the widow, the widower, the student away from home, the soldier across the seas from his family... all of them... a little more?  And don't you think that empathy will grow?"

Andrew nodded.

"You're strong enough to bear it.  So is JenniAnn," Joshua promised.  "And it will make her a better teacher Below and a better friend to the women at the Phoenix.  A better mother, too.  But you won't always be apart during assignments, Andrew.  Remember that first day you met Clay?"

The angel of death smiled.  "Of course.  I can't imagine these past weeks without him."

"Neither can I.  You know why he first opened up to you?"

Andrew thought back.  "JenniAnn.  He thought she was my girlfriend."

"He did.  And he wanted to hear a message of hope.  He needed to hear that she was at your side when you were healing.  And you were able to tell him that.  There are other assignments who will need those sorts of message and Andrew-with-JenniAnn-and-Belle is going to have a whole lot more success getting them to accept those messages than only-Andrew would.  You'll still be doing the work you've done for decades.  You'll continue to escort people Home because I know you love that and because you are such a comfort to them.  But there will be other assignments that will take more time and more work.  Those assignments don't need glowing revelations.  They need someone who they can relate to and who they believe can relate to them," Joshua explained.

"They need a couple..." Andrew murmured.

Joshua nodded.  "Some of them, yes.  Others might need to see parents.  Either way... they'll have what they need through you and your family."

"It would be an honor."

The two men turned to see JenniAnn had entered the chapel.

Joshua smiled and stood.

Andrew remained in the pew and gaped.

Chuckling, Joshua pulled him to his feet.  "Not a bride..." he whispered.  "But we stand for her."

JenniAnn blushed as she walked down the aisle.  "Sorry if I'm late.  Shelby came up with Mom to do my hair and turns out 'the Elsa braid' takes some doing..."

"Not late at all," Joshua assured, hugging her.  "You look beautiful."

"Thank you."  JenniAnn kissed his cheek then noticed that Andrew was still staring.  Her blush deepened.  "I... I hope this dress is all right for the baptism.  I thought maybe it was too, umm, hippie wedding-y when I saw it at the Goodwill on Tuesday but Maryam said I should get it and Emma said that since it's beige and not white that no one would think that and..."

Andrew reached for her hands and squeezed them.  "It's perfect, Laja."

While the two embraced, Joshua moved to the altar.

When they pulled apart, JenniAnn turned to Joshua and noticed that he, too, had changed clothes.  He still wore the jeans that rooted him to the modern world but he had traded in a thermal shirt for a tan tunic that hearkened back to his earthly life.  A sunbeam poured through the window, perfectly illuminating him.

Transfixed for a few moments himself, Andrew stirred first.  Keeping hold of JenniAnn's hand, he stepped into the aisle and led her to Joshua.  Without discussion, they both knelt in front of him.

Joshua smiled at the two.  "I asked you here this morning to give you my blessing.  You've had it since the beginning but now I want you to hear it."  He set a hand on both of their heads.  "Daughter of Eve, Son of God... my children both... may you grow together in wisdom, knowledge, and understanding.  May you together gaze in wonder at the beauty of a sunset, thrill to the sound of Belle's laugh, and feel my touch in the winds, the water, and each other.  May your children and your children's children look to you both for guidance and compassion.  And when you do not have the words to counsel your children or each other, listen for my voice.  I am there with you.  I will give you the words.  When you dance, dance with me.  When you cry, cry with me.  Among your friends, I am with you.  Among your enemies, I am there, too... giving you strength and courage."

JenniAnn flinched.  A peculiar but not unwelcome feeling stirred inside her, starting at the center of her heart.  It felt as if something warm was flowing through the four chambers, ventricles, and arteries.  It filled her lungs and then subsided, leaving her feeling completely relaxed and peaceful.  She looked at Andrew to see if he had felt it, too, but his eyes were closed and downcast.  He only opened them when she reached over to brush a tear from his cheek.

"May your love for each other grow day by day, filling your home with warmth and comfort," Joshua continued.  "Confide in each other, trust in each other.  Pray together.  We long to hear from you."  He drew in a deep breath and stroked their hair.  "Love each other as I love you... unceasingly, unconditionally, eternally.  We, the Father, Son, and Spirit, bless you, Andrew and JenniAnn, and we are with you always."

With the blessing finished, Andrew and JenniAnn gazed at each other for a few moments.

Joshua waited, wondering how they would respond. 

JenniAnn reached over and set her hand at Andrew's neck.

All was still and silent until both Andrew and JenniAnn pulled each other to their feet and, in unison, kissed Joshua's cheeks.

Joshua laughed and kissed their cheeks in turn.  "Thank you."

Andrew grinned.  "Laja's idea.  She tapped 'Now we kiss him, right?' against my neck.  Seemed like a good idea to me!"  He hugged Joshua.  "Thank you for the blessing."

JenniAnn nodded and clung to Joshua.  "Thank you..." she murmured.  "We love you."

"Very much," Andrew added.

Joshua pulled Andrew into the embrace.  "I love you both, too."  He sighed happily.  "Now how about we go get your daughter baptized?"

"Definitely," the two responded at once.

Hand in hand, the three left the small chapel to make their way to the larger one where family and friends were gathering to welcome Belle into their community of faith.

*~*~*

The chapel was filled with friends, old and new, looking on with happiness as Fr. Mike led the procession down the aisle.

"'For the beauty of the earth, for the glory of the skies, for the love which from our birth, over and around us lies; Lord of all, to thee we raise this our hymn of grateful praise,'" the congregation, led by Zeke and Tess, sang.

Towards the back; Mick, Josef, Beth, and Logan sat together.  The latter two were intent on their programs while the two best friends whispered back and forth.

"So that's the Jesus guy?" Josef asked.

"Which one?"

"Tunic guy."

Mick nodded.  "Think so."

"Damn...  They're really taking that seriously, aren't they?" Josef commented.  "Shouldn't the parents or godparents be holding..."

Beth scowled and elbowed him.  "We're in a church!  At a baptism!"

The vampire bowed his head.  "Yes, ma'am."

Mick snickered and instantly felt his wife's elbow dig into his own side.

"'For thyself, best Gift Divine, to the world so freely given, for that great, great love of thine, peace on earth, and joy in heaven: Lord of all, to thee we raise this our hymn of grateful praise,'" the opening hymn concluded.

While Belle's parents, godparents, and Joshua stood near the baptismal font with her, Fr. Mike and John stayed at the center of the chapel's crossing.

"Good morning, beloved friends and family of Belle, Andrew, and JenniAnn!" the priest greeted.  "On their behalf, I'd like to thank you for coming today to help us welcome Belle into the Catholic Church and, even more importantly, into the entire community of believers.  In this community, may Belle always know and feel the love of God surrounding her.  Just as we've all shared in Andrew's and JenniAnn's joy as they've welcomed little Belle into their lives, I hope we can all take seriously our shared roles in loving, supporting, and encouraging this child through all her days." 

After bestowing smiles on the crowd, Fr. Mike and John turned to the baptismal font and those gathered around it.

John smiled warmly at Andrew and JenniAnn before asking the questions that he and his friend had rehearsed.  "What name have you given your child?"

"Annabelle Luna Chandler-Darcy," Andrew and JenniAnn replied in unison.

"What do you ask of God's Church for Belle?" John followed up.

"Faith and baptism," the parents answered.

Fr. Mike resumed the rite.  "You have just asked to have your Belle baptized.  In doing so you are accepting the responsibility of training Belle in the practice of your faith.  It will be your duty to bring her up to keep God's commandments as Jesus taught us, by loving God and our neighbors.  Do you, Andrew and JenniAnn, understand what you are undertaking?"

"We do."

Fr. Mike turned to the godparents.  "Are you, Owen and Kemara, ready to help Andrew and JenniAnn in their duty as parents?"

"We are."

"Very good."  The priest stood next to Joshua and rested his hand on Belle's hair.  "Belle, the Christian community and the saints and angels welcome you with great joy.  In the name of God's people, in Heaven and in the mortal realms, I claim you for Jesus our Savior by the sign of His cross.  I now trace the cross on your forehead, and invite your parents and godparents a-and Joshua to do the same."

At the back of the church, Mick blinked.  "Okay...  Yeah, that's weird."

That time the response came in the form of Logan lightly kicking his shin.

Andrew, JenniAnn, Kemara, and Owen all traced the cross onto Belle's forehead.  Lastly, Joshua did then lightly kissed the spot. 

A ripple of laughter went through the congregation when Belle babbled.

Fr. Mike laughed.  "And now let's let that be our cue to begin the Liturgy of the Word.  John and Emma will read to us."

After greeting Emma with a hug near the lectern, John opened the Bible and began to read.

"'The beginning of the good news about Jesus the Messiah,the Son of God, as it is written in Isaiah the prophet: “I will send my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way-- a voice of one calling in the wilderness, ‘Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him.'"  John drew in a deep breath before continuing but still his eyes welled when he looked to his cousin.  He smiled gratefully when Emma patted his back.  "'And so John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.  The whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem went out to him. Confessing their sins, they were baptized by him in the Jordan River.  John wore clothing made of camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey."

When John wrinkled his nose, only some among the congregation knew the reason.

"And this was his message:  'After me comes the one more powerful than I, the straps of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie.  I baptize you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.'  At that time Jesus came from Nazareth in Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan.  Just as Jesus was coming up out of the water, he saw heaven being torn open and the Spirit descending on him like a dove.  And a voice came from heaven."  John cleared his throat and swiped at a tear before finishing.  "'You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.'”

In the front pew, with the two sets of grandparents on either side of them, Maryam and Yosef clasped hands.

John again hugged Emma.  "Your turn, my friend."

"Stay with me?" Emma requested, tears already in her eyes.

John nodded and took her hand after she found her page.

"'People were bringing little children to... to Jesus for him to place his hands on them, b-but the disciples rebuked them.'"  Emma smiled when John's hold of her hand tightened.  She found Peter in the pews and, seeing his beloved face, felt even more peace as she continued.  "'When Jesus saw this, he was indignant.  He said to them, 'Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these.  Truly I tell you, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it.'  And he took the children in his arms, placed his hands on them and blessed them.'"

Only when she was finished did Emma look to Joshua who smiled so proudly and tenderly that she began to cry.  John steered her towards him and JenniAnn patted her arm as Joshua embraced her.

The Los Angeles contingent, Devin, Doreen, Raquel, and Nico wondered at this silent, emotional exchange but said nothing.

Fr. Mike turned to the congregants.  "Please be seated.  Many of you know how I can yammer on.  But I'll try to keep this short."

After some laughter and shifting in the pews, the priest continued.

"When Andrew and JenniAnn first approached me about baptizing Belle, we already knew that the rite would need to be tweaked some due to the circumstances of their extraordinary family.  As our preparation for this day continued, we faced new challenges... but good challenges.  While JenniAnn and I were born and raised Catholic, we both know that the spirit of God shines in people of many different faiths and denominations.  And, of course, there's Andrew who actually predates the Catholic Church."

Andrew smiled good-naturedly as the others laughed. 

"So while we very much want to welcome Belle to the Catholic Church, we mean what I said earlier.  We want to welcome Belle to the entire community of believers... all of us.  And, even more importantly than that, we want to start our girl down a path that will draw her ever closer to God, to our Redeemer, to Immanuel... to Jesus."  Fr. Mike stepped towards where Joshua and Belle sat in the front pew.  He caressed the baby's curls and smiled at Joshua before directing his attention back to the congregation. 

"Some of you may be wondering why it is that Joshua has been holding Belle for much of the ceremony instead of her parents or godparents.  Well, as you all know, many of us spent several weeks mounting a production of Jesus Christ Superstar in which Joshua played Jesus.  He did a spectacular job and I know his performance will linger with many of us for the rest of our lives.  During those weeks, Joshua and Belle had a lot of bonding time.  It was during some of that time that Andrew snapped the photograph of them that you see on the cover of your program."

Josef looked at the cover of the program he was holding.  What he'd taken to be a generic piece of Christian feel-good art was indeed a photograph of Joshua and Belle.  The baby was snuggled against the man's shirt and his face was partly obscured as he rested his cheek against her mass of curls.

"We were discussing that photo when we got to thinking that, really, that's what baptism is.  At least in part, it's the parents' opportunity to make it known that they have entrusted their beloved child to Jesus.  Now, Andrew and JenniAnn placed Belle in God's arms long before this day.  But today is when we celebrate that.  And we celebrate, too, our own baptisms and births.  When you look at Joshua and Belle here, we hope it reminds you that God holds you as securely and as tenderly as Joshua now holds Belle."

Fr. Mike settled into a chair near John's in the apse.  He remained silent for a few moments to allow everyone time to pray and reflect.  When he rose to his feet, Tess, Ivy, and Maryam stood, too.

"Tess will now accompany Ivy and Maryam as they sing a song penned by Maryam herself," the priest introduced.

Maryam and Ivy held hands and stood at the center of the crossing while Tess began to play the piano.  There was not a dry eye as Maryam sang her lullaby with Ivy's sweet, gentle voice echoing her.

Joshua beamed at them both as he snuggled Belle.

"'When the way is hard, when you feel alone and do weep, remember this, oh my child, my love is always yours to keep,'" they finished.

Joshua stood so they could all hug and kiss Belle before returning to their seats.

"Who is that woman?" Mick asked in a hush.

"Joshua's mom," Logan answered.

Josef tried to cover how impacted he had been by the song.  "Talented family..."

Beth only nodded and swiped at a tear.

Fr. Mike stood and raised his hands, indicating for the others to rise.  "My dear brothers and sisters, let us ask our Lord Jesus Christ to look lovingly on Belle who is to be baptized, on Andrew, JenniAnn, Kemara, and Owen, and on all who know and seek Him."

Once Joshua, Belle, her parents, and her godparents were again gathered around the baptismal font, John continued.  He looked to the heavens but rested his right hand on his cousin's.  "By the mystery of Your death and resurrection, bathe this child in light, give her the new life of baptism and welcome her into Your holy Church."


Standing so near to Joshua as John spoke the words proved too much for JenniAnn.  Andrew wrapped his arms around her as she began to weep.

"Lord, hear our prayer," the congregation responded.

Mick and Josef exchanged a concerned look.

"Through baptism and confirmation, make Belle your faithful follower and a witness to your gospel," John prayed.

"Lord, hear our prayer."

Eli rose from his place in the pews.  "Lead Belle, by a holy life, to the joys of Your kingdom."

"Lord, hear our prayer."

Rabbi Yakov and Tiva stood together for their petition.  "Make the lives of Belle's parents and godparents examples of faith to inspire her."

"Lord, hear our prayer."

"Keep her family always in your love," the Wilsons prayed.

"Lord, hear our prayer."

"Renew the grace of our baptism in each one of us," the grandparents recited together.

"Lord, hear our prayer."

Even though he had been privy to all of the plans, Fr. Mike was caught off guard by how much emotion he felt.  "Together, we... we now ask the saints to pray for us."  His eyes welled as he looked to Maryam.  "Holy Mary, Mother of God."

"Pray for us."

Fr. Mike clasped John's hand.  "Saint John the Baptist."

 "Pray for us."

Maryam hugged her beloved's arm.

"Saint Joseph."

"Pray for us."

Joshua closed his eyes; willing his love to his parents, cousin, and friends.

"Saint Peter and Saint Paul."

"Pray for us."

"Saint Mary Magdalene."

"Pray for us."

"Saint Michael."

"Pray for us."

"All holy men and women, living and ever-living."
 
"Pray for us."

"All of God's angels."

"Pray for us."

Joshua reached for the priest and patted his arm, soothing him.

Fr. Mike drew in a calming breath and smiled at Joshua before continuing the rite.  "Almighty and ever-living God, you sent your only Son into the world to cast out the power of Satan, spirit of evil, to rescue humanity from the kingdom of darkness, and bring us into the splendor of your kingdom of light.  We pray for this child: set Belle free from original sin, make her a temple of your glory, and send your Holy Spirit to dwell with her.  We ask this through Christ our Lord."

"Amen."

John held a small jar out to Fr. Mike which he dipped his fingers in.

"Belle, we anoint you with the oil of salvation in the name of Jesus our Savior; may He
who lives and reigns for ever and ever strengthen you with His power."

"Amen."

Fr. Mike anointed Belle, placing a cross over her heart.

After a few moments of contemplative silence, he resumed.  "My dear brothers and sisters, we now ask God to give this child new life in abundance through water and the Holy Spirit."

Moving to stand beside Joshua and Belle at the font, Fr. Mike raised his eyes.  "Father, you give us grace through sacramental signs, which tell us of the wonders of your unseen power.  In baptism we use your gift of water, which you have made a rich symbol of the grace you give us in this sacrament.  At the very dawn of creation your Spirit breathed on the waters, making them the wellspring of all holiness.  The waters of the great flood you made a sign of the waters of baptism, that make an end of sin and a new beginning of goodness."

"Through the waters of the Red Sea you led Israel out of slavery to be an image of God's holy people, set free from sin by baptism," John continued.  "In the waters of the Jordan your Son was baptized by John and anointed with the Spirit.  Your Son... Your Son willed that water and blood should flow from His... His side as He hung upon the cross."

At the same moment, both Kemara and Owen reached for Joshua.  He smiled tenderly at each of them, lending them strength so they could speak.

"After His resurrection He told His disciples: 'Go out and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit,' Owen recited. 

"Father, look now with love upon Your Church, and unseal for her the fountain of baptism," Kemara requested.  "By the power of the Spirit give to the water of this font the grace of Your Son.  You created humanity in Your own likeness: cleanse us from sin in a new birth to innocence by water and the Spirit."

Dipping his hand into the baptismal font, Fr. Mike prayed.  "We ask you, Father, with Your Son to send the Holy Spirit upon the water of this font.  May all who are buried with Christ in the death of baptism rise also with Him to newness of life.  We ask this through Christ our Lord."

"Amen."

Fr. Mike smiled gently at Andrew, JenniAnn, Kemara, and Owen as he spoke.  "Dear parents and godparents: You have come here to present this child for baptism.  By water and the Holy Spirit, Belle is to receive the gift of new life from God, who is love.  On your part, you must make it your constant care to bring her up in the practice of the faith.  See that the divine life which God gives her is kept safe from the poison of sin, to grow always stronger in her heart.  If your faith makes you ready to accept this responsibility, renew now the vows of your own baptisms and birth.  Reject sin; profess your faith in Christ Jesus.  This is the faith of the Church.  This is the faith in which this child is about to be baptized."

The four nodded.  Andrew entwined his fingers with JenniAnn's.

"Do you reject Satan and all his works?"

"I do."

"Do you reject sin, so as to live in the freedom of God's children?"

"I do."

"Do you believe in God, the Father almighty, creator of heaven and earth?"

"I do."

"Do you believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord, who was born of the Virgin Mary, was crucified, died, and was buried, rose from the dead, and is now seated at the right hand of the Father?"

"I do."

Mick, Josef, and Beth all looked at each other curiously.  Andrew had definitely said "I do."  While enthusiastic Christmas celebrations had suggested to them that the angels were very comfortable with Christianity, they'd never heard one so unquestionably align himself with its Founder.

Logan only smiled and kept watching and listening.

"Do you believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy catholic Church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and life everlasting?"

"I do."

"This is our faith.  This is the faith of the Church.  We are proud to profess it, in Christ Jesus our Lord."

"Amen," the congregation assented.

"I would now ask that the grandparents and Maryam and Yosef please gather around the font," Fr. Mike requested.

The six stood behind the parents and godparents so as not to obstruct the view of the congregation.

Fr. Mike looked to Belle's parents and godparents.  "Is it your will that Belle should be baptized in the faith of the Church, which we have all professed with you?"

"It is," Andrew, JenniAnn, Kemara, and Owen replied.

Joshua lifted Belle so her head was near his.  "It's going to be a little wet but you'll be just fine.  I've got a good hold of you, my girl," he whispered.

Overhearing, Andrew and JenniAnn smiled.

Joshua kissed Belle's cheeks then lowered her over the font.

"I baptize you in the name of the Father," Fr. Mike intoned as he poured water on the baby's forehead.

Belle squinted for a moment but kept peering at Joshua.

"And of the Son," John continued, trickling more water.

"And of the Holy Spirit," the priest finished, pouring water a final time.

Weeping happy tears, Joshua lifted Belle and held her close.  "You did so well, sweetheart.  I love you so much, Belle."  He kissed her and then placed her in JenniAnn's arms.  "Thank you," he murmured.

Tears trickling down her cheeks, JenniAnn nodded.

Andrew hugged Joshua tightly then let him go to his parents who each draped an arm around his shoulders.

After drying his own eyes, Fr. Mike resumed.  "God the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ has freed you from sin, Belle, and given you a new birth by water and the Holy Spirit, and welcomed you into His holy people.  He now anoints you with the chrism of salvation.  As Jesus was anointed Priest, Prophet, and King, so may you live always as a member of His body, sharing everlasting life."

"Amen."

John anointed Belle's forehead, chuckling when she stuck her tongue out at him.

Laughing himself, Fr. Mike soldiered on.  "Belle, you have become a new creation, and have clothed yourself in Christ.  See in this white garment the outward sign of your Christian dignity.  With your family and friends to help you by word and example, bring that dignity unstained into the everlasting life of heaven."

"Amen."

Andrew and JenniAnn looked on curiously.  They had been told not to worry about obtaining a baptismal garment and didn't know what to expect.

Maryam stepped forward and handed a white, embroidered bib to the priest. 

"Maryam..." JenniAnn murmured. 

Maryam smiled and patted her arm.

Fr. Mike laid the piece over Belle, revealing the outline of a cross and a dove.

Since his arms were free, Andrew hugged Maryam for both himself and JenniAnn.

John stepped away and brought the Easter candle nearer.  He held it out to Andrew.  "Receive the light of Christ."

Vincent handed Andrew a white candle, made in the Tunnels. 

After squeezing the man's hand, Andrew tipped the candle and lit it.

Belle's eyes lit up and she cooed when she saw the light.

"Parents and godparents, this light is entrusted to you to be kept burning brightly," Fr. Mike directed.  "This child of yours has been enlightened by Jesus.  She is to walk always as a child of the light.  May she keep the flame of faith alive in her heart.  When the Lord comes, may she... she go out to meet Him with all the saints in the heavenly kingdom."

There was an awed silence for a few moments as most of the congregation reflected on how neither Belle nor any of them had to wait.  Joshua was there among them.

Fr. Mike beamed at all those gathered.  "Dearly beloved, this child has been reborn in baptism.  Belle is now called the child of God, for so indeed she is. In confirmation she will receive the fullness of God's Spirit.  In holy communion she will share the banquet of Jesus' sacrifice, calling God her Father in the midst of the Church.  In the name of this child, in the Spirit of our shared identity as children of God, let us pray together in the words our Lord has given us."

In one voice, everyone prayed.  "Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name; thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.  Give us this day our daily bread; and forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us; and lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.  Amen."

After a nod from Fr. Mike; Allison, Catherine, and Maryam stood behind JenniAnn while Robert, Vincent, and Yosef took their places behind Andrew.

Resting his hand on JenniAnn's head, the priest blessed her.  "God the Father, through his Son, Mary's child, has brought joy to all Christian mothers, as they see the hope of eternal life shine on their children.  May He bless the mother of this child.  She now thanks God for the gift of her child.  May she be one with her in thanking Him for ever in heaven, in Christ Jesus our Lord."

"Amen."

JenniAnn kissed Belle and then handed her to Andrew before embracing the three women standing behind her.

Fr. Mike turned to Andrew.  "God is the giver of all life, human and divine.  May He bless the father of this child.  He and JenniAnn will be the first teachers of their child in the ways of faith.  May they be also the best of teachers, bearing witness to the faith by what they say and do, in Christ Jesus our Lord."

"Amen."

Andrew, too, kissed Belle and returned her to Joshua before embracing Robert, Vincent, and Yosef.

John's smile lit up his entire face as he spoke.  "By God's gift, through water and the Holy Spirit, we are reborn to everlasting life.  In His goodness, may He continue to pour out His blessings upon these sons and daughters of His.  May He make them always, wherever they may be, faithful members of His holy people.  May He send His peace upon all who are gathered here, in Christ Jesus our Lord."

"Amen."

Fr. Mike raised his hands.  "May almighty God, the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit, bless you."

"Amen!" the congregants enthusiastically responded.

"One more time!" Fr. Mike encouraged.

"Amen!" everyone cried, smiling.

The priest chuckled.  "Very good.  We're going to end with a song and then you're all invited to a picnic lunch in front of the castle.  Keep the celebration going!  Now... please join the St. Genesius' Jesus Christ Superstar orchestra in singing our closing song."

Andrew and JenniAnn gaped and laughed when the angels made their way to the other side of the apse, some with their instruments, and began to sing.

"Oh happy day..."

"Oh happy day..."

"Oh happy day... when Jesus washed..."

"When Jesus washed..."

"When Jesus washed..."

"When my Jesus washed..."

"Washed my sins away..."

Soon the church erupted as everyone joined in. 

Drawing on his long ago choir boy past, Mick found himself really getting into the song.  He was even more surprised to notice Josef belting it out.

The two looked at each other and smiled sheepishly, oblivious to the fact that the very man they were singing about was in the room and gazing tenderly at them as he cradled the newly baptized Belle.

*~*~*

Sacrifices

As the others celebrated in the yard, the four from Los Angeles secluded themselves on the porch to protect the vampires from the full glare of the sun.

"This wine is really good.  Much better than the usual stuff.  I mean not that Andrew and JenniAnn haven't done well in the past but..."  Josef took another sip.  "What brand is this, anyway?"

"True Vine Winery," Beth read from the bottle.  "Never heard of it.  But it is really good."

"Joshua probably made it," Logan mused.

"Why would you say that?" Mick questioned.

Logan froze with a glass partway to his lips.  He hadn't realized he'd spoken aloud.  "I... I don't know."

"Do you know him?  Joshua, I mean?" Josef pressed. 

Logan shook his head.

"Wait...  He's not one of us, is he?  I sensed something..."

"No!" Logan replied, a little too loudly.

Mick's eye brow crooked upwards.  "Sheesh.  Just asking..." 

Sensing that the questioning was making Logan nervous, Beth put down her sandwich and reached over to set a hand on his arm.  "Logan, do you want to go inside and walk around the ballroom with me?  I need to stretch my legs."

Mick smiled at his wife when Logan nodded.  He was grateful for the care she'd always shown for their younger, not very socially adept friend.

Beth stood and reached for Logan's hand.  "Okay, let's go."

Smiling, Logan took her hand and followed her into the castle.

"So what do you think his deal is, anyway?  Some sort of delayed vampire puberty?" Josef hypothesized.

Mick shook his head.  "He went through puberty before he turned.  Thank God for that.  Who wants to spend eternity with a squeaky voice?"

Josef shuddered.  "I'm glad he has Beth... he needs some feminine companionship, even if of a sisterly sort.  Hey, how's Beverly doing?"

Mick stared out at the jovial crowd.  "Not good.  Damn thing about it is the doctor says the chemo and radiation are working.  But it's like she's just... choosing not to fight.  Logan's beside himself."

"I'm sorry.  I'll try to be around more.  I didn't know..."  Josef stared down at his hands. 

Mick patted his back.  "You have your demons, too.  Gotta outrun them.  I understand."

"Yeah..."  Josef drew in a deep breath before smiling out at the gathering.  "Good to be back here.  Nice to have a reminder every so often of what life should be like."

Mick nodded and wondered why his gaze kept wandering back to Joshua.

*~*~*

Beth linked her arm through Logan's as they walked around the circumference of the ballroom. 

"So how's your mom doing today?" she gently asked.

"Okay, I guess.  She insisted I come today.  She says I need to get out more."

"I'm glad you did.  Someone needed to bring a little class to our pew."

Logan chuckled.  "You brought plenty, Beth."

"Okay, boy class."

"Gotcha."

"So how did you know that about Joshua's wine, anyway?"

Logan's face flushed.  "I don't really know but..."

Beth stalled and hugged him.  "Logan, it's okay.  Whatever it is, you can tell me.  I won't even tell Mick if you don't want me to."

"I... went to see the show," he admitted.  "Jesus Christ Superstar.  By myself.  I took the portal a-and went.  Andrew and JenniAnn don't even know.  I, umm, didn't actually buy a ticket."

Beth tilted her head.  "Why?  You know they wouldn't have minded and they probably would have comped it.  They invited all of us.  It's just... you know how Josef and Mick can be about the whole religion thing."

"Outsiders looking in..." Logan echoed the oft-heard phrase as he nodded.  "I got to the theatre and was going to back out because I thought maybe Josef and Mick were right.  But there was this guy... Michael... he said he had a ticket but he wouldn't be able to use it so he offered it to me.  So I thanked him and took it.  I didn't recognize the lady at the counter so, when she took my ticket, I just snuck inside."

"I'm sorry, Logan.  If I'd known you really wanted to go, I would have gone with you.  Left Mick watching ESPN or something."

Logan shrugged.  "It's okay."

"So did you talk to Joshua after the show?"

"No."

His answer made Beth wonder all the more at why Logan had made the comment about the wine but she let it go.  "Why not?  He seems nice."

Logan stared down at his feet.  "I wasn't sure he'd want to talk to me."

Beth halted.  She turned to look at the young man and set her hands on his shoulders.  "Logan, why would you say that?"

Tears brimmed in his eyes.  "I... I chose my... my mother o-over him."

Beth pulled him into a hug.  "Logan, what do you mean?"

Logan paced as he told her of his visit to St. Genesius'.

*~*~*

April 12th

Logan felt like he wanted to fly up into the air and shout hurrays and Hallelujahs but he knew doing so would only alarm the others in the audience.  Still, he had to do something!  He was bursting with energy and enthusiasm.  His friends!  His friends had brought such awesomeness to life!  Okay, so they weren't all his friends.  But a lot of them were.  He had to be the first to congratulate Andrew, JenniAnn, Max, Rose, Violeta, and the others!

As soon as possible, Logan leapt up from his seat and raced into the lobby.  He quickly located the door he was sure the cast and crew would come through.  He stood near it, humming "Superstar" and grinning.  Then he began to hear voices... their whispering voices as they walked through what must be a hallway behind the wall.  Logan knew he shouldn't listen.  Yes, the vampirism had "blessed" him with supersonic hearing but he'd learned to tune it out.  After all, it was impolite to eavesdrop.  But the possibility of hearing behind-the-scenes tidbits was too tempting.  Logan listened.

"Lord, did you see all those people tonight?  Almost a full house!"

"Yes, Zeke.  Almost!"

"Oh Joshua... it's just still so... so amazing that... that all these people are getting to see you... see the real Jesus a-and even if they don't know it..."

"Laja..."  A sigh.  "It is amazing."

Logan stepped away from the wall and stared at it.  Some man... "Judas," he thought... had called Joshua "Lord."  And then JenniAnn... Logan knew the third voice was hers... had referred to him as "the real Jesus"... and Andrew had assented!

Logan stumbled further away.  Just as the door cracked open, he turned and fled the theatre.  After several blocks, he threw himself onto a park bench and sobbed beneath the moonlight.

He thought of what he'd felt when Joshua Davidson had first walked on stage... as if Luke Skywalker, Superman, Batman, Harry Potter, and Gandalf had just appeared before him. 

Jesus was real.

He was wonderful.

And Logan knew he would never see him again.

*~*~*

Saturday, April 26th

Beth gaped at the vampire crumpled on the floor.  She shook her head.  Logan sometimes got entirely too wrapped up in what he watched and read.  Surely this was just another case of that.  She patted his mass of hair.

"Logan...  Hey, look at me.  Shhh..."

Logan didn't budge.

Beth knelt beside him and wondered if his mom's illness had finally driven the poor kid over the edge.  She wrapped her arms around him.  "Logan, maybe we better head back to L.A.  You could come to the apartment and we can all play World of Warcraft together.  How about that?  We can explain to Andrew and JenniAnn late..."

"Logan..."

Beth looked up to see Joshua standing in the entry to the ballroom.  She frowned as she looked back down at her friend.  The actor's presence was not helpful!  Plastering on a smile, Beth spoke to Joshua.  "He's fine.  I think we're heading home, though.  It was very nice to meet you!  Could you please tell Andrew and..."

Joshua shook his head and approached.  He sat cross-legged near the two.  "Logan, do you think you could look at me?"

The vampire shook his head. 

"Okay.  Well, I know you can hear me.  So I'm going to tell you a story.  Once, there was a beautiful family of two parents and two little boys.  The brothers and their mom and dad loved each other very, very much.  Sure, sometimes the brothers squabbled over toys but they were each other's best friends and the mom and dad were very proud of their sons.  One day, after the boys had grown into young men, the dad and the elder brother took a trip to visit a medical school the son hoped to attend."  Joshua's voice began to waver.  "There was some bad weather and, on... on the way back, they got into an accident.  Neither survived.  The younger brother and the mom were heartbroken.  The boy did everything he could to try to support his mother.  But he was only nineteen, hardly prepared to be the man of the house.  And he hurt so badly himself."

Though he remained huddled on the ground, Beth realized that Logan had ceased shaking. 

Joshua reached over and set a hand on his back.  "He helped his mother plan the funerals and choose the burial clothes.  He fended off the overzealous sympathizers and reporters.  And he sat with his mother, holding her, in the silence of a church as they stared at two caskets.  He took to heart the request she made of him: 'Don't you ever leave me, Logan.'"

Logan finally sat up and looked at Joshua briefly before hanging his head.

Beth felt tears pool in her eyes.  She had seen the family photographs at Logan's house: two boys, two parents.  So many times she had wanted to ask Beverly or Logan about the two missing people but something had kept her from it.  Now she felt sure that she knew.  But how had Joshua known?

Joshua reached for Logan's hand.  "So a few days after the funeral, you met with a friend from the comic book store... a friend who had told you things about himself, things you hadn't believed at the time.  But, in your grief, you began to believe him.  And, soon after, you discovered his claims were all too true.  You knew then how you would keep your promise to your mother.  You made a request of him.  In the brief pause before he answered, you thought of your brother, your father, your grandparents... and me.   You believed that your choice meant you'd never be Home with us."

Beth gasped.

Tentatively, Logan set his other hand over Joshua's.

"You made a choice, Logan... one I wish you hadn't.  But I can understand why you did.  I love my mother, too."  Joshua smiled sympathetically and lifted the man's chin.  "There's something you've forgotten.  You have another brother... me.  And, a long time ago, I made a sacrifice for you.  And now nothing can ever separate you from my love.  Nothing in your past, your present, or your future.  Not this... horrible condition... that has taken over your body.  Not unless you let it, Logan."

Suddenly feeling desperate, Beth knelt beside Joshua.  "Heal him.  Please!  I know you can and then... then Mick and..." 

Joshua looked tenderly at her but shook his head.  "Now is not the time."

Beth began to sob.  "Please..."

Joshua's eyes filled.  "Bethie..."  He pulled her to him with his free arm.  "I know that, right now, you don't understand.  And you're angry at me.  But, in time, you will understand why I won't heal them right now.  But listen to me... both of you... the cure is out there.  It will be found.  Have patience.  It will come to you, Logan, when it is meant to.  Just as you chose to become a vampire, you will have to choose whether or not to remain one."

Logan sniffled and nodded.  He clung to Joshua's hand.  "I... I will choose not to be one any more.  As soon as I can."

Joshua smiled.  "Good."

"My mother...  Could you..."

"The means of your mother's healing are already with her.  She needs to make her own choice, Logan.  I grieve with you both for the losses you have faced.  But you both need to start seeing that there's still beauty in this world.  There's still so much living to do!  Help Beverly see that, Logan."  Joshua leaned towards him.  "Which means that you're going to have to leave the basement and the house entirely and get out a little more.  Walks at dusk can be lovely.  Can you go over and look under that table where the cake is?"

Surprised but eager, Logan rose and went to where Joshua indicated.  He smiled when he pulled out a large crate.

"Bring it over here, please," Joshua requested.

Logan dutifully obeyed. 

Joshua smiled as he peered into the box and pointed to each of the plants inside.  "Moonflower, hydrangea, butterfly bush, lilies, primroses," he identified. 

Logan pulled out two trowels and two small rakes with carved wooden handles.  "You..."

Joshua nodded.  "Monogrammed and everything."

The vampire grinned like a little boy. 

"After the party, you go home and you bring your mom into the yard and you tell her that the two of you are planting a moonlit garden.  And then you do it," Joshua directed.  "At first, she's not going to help you.  But you keep going out there every night.  She will get better, Logan."  He pulled the man to him and kissed his forehead.  "Trust me, little brother.  Now go out and talk to my Ama... my mother... she'll have some gardening tips for you."

Logan put down his treasures long enough to hug Joshua.  "Thank you!  You... you really are like... like Batman and Superman and Harry Potter and Gandalf and Luke all... all at once."

Joshua chuckled.  "Thank you." 

Logan looked to Beth whose head was bowed.  Her shaking shoulders revealed that she was still weeping.  He looked to Joshua.

Joshua smiled and nodded.

Understanding that he needed to leave the two alone, Logan hugged the crate to his chest and went in search of Maryam.

When the room was empty except for them, Joshua gently stroked Beth's hair.  "Bethie...  Look at me."

Slowly, Beth lifted her head.

"Tell me."

Beth swiped at her eyes and accepted the handkerchief that Joshua offered her.  "You... you say you won't cure Mick now b-but that the cure is coming?"

"Yes."

"Will... will it come in... in time for..."  Beth drew in a deep breath and slowly let it out.  "I... I'm going to be thirty four soon a-and...  And... and I didn't think... I thought... Mick was enough.  A-and he is.  In a way.  B-but seeing Andrew a-and JenniAnn with... with Belle..."

Joshua pulled her into his embrace.  "Before you were in your mother's womb, I knew you, Bethie.  And I know the children yet to be formed in your own womb."

Beth let out something that was a mix between a sob and a laugh and a snort.  "A... a baby."

Joshua chuckled.  "Babies."  He took her hand, gently pulled her to her feet, and led her to one of the windows.  "And when you begin to doubt, remember that I kept my promise to another Elizabeth and gave her a much longed for child."  He pointed to his cousin who was racing around with Jacob on his back while the other children ran after them and shrieked happily.

"St. John..." Beth murmured. 

Joshua beamed.  "Behold your patron." 

Beth smiled at the jovial, energetic man in the yard.  "Mick...  Will you tell him?  Or Josef?"

Joshua continued to gaze out the window, looking to the side where Mick and Josef sat.  He shook his head.

"They wouldn't believe you..." Beth realized.

"No.  Mick has decades of guilt weighing on him... Josef has centuries.  Too much for me to break through in an afternoon in any way that would be healthy and helpful to them.  I'll talk to them.  So will my parents.  John, too.  But we will not say who we are.  It will be better to let the truth rest with them, let them consider and wonder." 

Beth nodded, recognizing the wisdom in that.  She had struggled to get Mick to see she truly loved him as he was and wanted a life with him.  That had taken years.  She had known better than to rush him.  Of course the One who created him and Josef both would be even more gentle and patient. 

With a sigh, Beth recalled a childhood of Sunday school and "This Little Light of Mine" that had given way to an adolescence spent striving to excel in school and then an adulthood of lusting after the "lights, camera, action" of TV news.  She hadn't left much time for God during those years...  not until a handful of angels had dropped into her life.  Even then she had kept Him at a distance.  It wasn't that she never thought of Him.  In truth, she thought of Him often.  She pondered His existence as she laid beside her sleeping husband and watched the steady rise and fall of the cross on his chest.  Somehow, through everything that had happened to him and everything that he had done to survive, Mick had kept hold of that cross and some piece of the faith it represented.  On those nights Beth prayed that, somehow, God would heal him.  But, even in those moments, God had seemed very far away.

The angels said He loved all His children and Beth accepted that.  Angels wouldn't lie.  But she figured He loved her as she loved... dolphins, maybe.  They lived at a great distance and, though she admired them and was pleased by them, she had no personal connection to them.  One dolphin was as good as the next. 

Catching the woman studying the dolphin ring Mick had given her for Christmas, Joshua guessed at Beth's thoughts.  "You're not a dolphin, Bethie.  Although they're pretty special to me, too.  You're Elizabeth Turner St. John and you're mine and I love you."

Beth sighed raggedly then leaned into Joshua who closed his arms around her.

"Everything will be fine," Joshua reassured, stroking her hair. 

It occurred to Beth that she should probably say something worshipful or, at the very least, grateful.  However, no words would come and she felt too comfortable and blissfully peaceful to risk ruining the moment by babbling something incoherent.  But, then again, there were certain words that could never fail.

"I love you, too," she murmured.

Joshua smiled at her.  "Thank you.  Now... the boys will be getting worried.  How about we go sit with them?"

Beaming, Beth nodded.  She kept hold of his hand until they stepped out onto the porch.

Mick jumped to his feet the moment he saw his wife and glared at Joshua.  "What hap..."

Beth gently pushed him back into his chair.  "Nothing happened.  I'm fine.  Joshua and I just got to talking about, well, his being Jesus.  I got a little emotional.  Not every day you meet someone who died for you, after all."  She smiled at Joshua.

Thinking she was only talking about the show, Mick relaxed and smiled, too.  "So what's it like being the Big Guy?"

Joshua took the chair Logan had vacated.  "I've enjoyed it very much."

"You certainly made an impression.  So what are you?  Like Belle's Super Godfather?" Josef asked.  "I've never seen a baptism quite like that."

Joshua grinned.  "Super Godfather.  I like that.  Something like that, sure.  So... Beth talked to me a little about the work you two do.  Helping people recover missing loved ones and combating human trafficking... tough work but very meaningful.  I'd love to hear more."

Beth continued to smile but blinked back tears.  She had been surprised when Joshua said they'd spoken about Mick's and Josef's work.  Their jobs hadn't come up in the ballroom.  But then she realized that wasn't what he meant.  What were her prayers for protection if not talking to Him?  She looked on proudly as the three men spoke.

*~*~*

Emma stared in awe at the baby sleeping peacefully in her arms.  Belle was absolutely precious in her baptismal gown. 

Sitting next to them, Peter gently stroked Emma's back.  "You look very happy."

Emma nodded.  "I've missed this."

"I'm sure Andrew and JenniAnn would be more than happy to let us babysit sometimes.  And soon there will be another baby and two more parents in need of a break."  Peter smiled at Diana and Zeke who were listening to a story Fr. Mike was telling.

"Yeah...  You think they'd let me?"

"Of course."

"Did you ever babysit when you were younger, Peter?"

Peter chuckled and nodded.  "Just family.  To hear my siblings and cousins tell it, I was a teenage tyrant."

"I find that hard to believe!"

"I've mellowed.  Being the oldest brings out the tyrannical side, I think.  I just wanted Mama and Dad and Abuela to know they could trust me to keep the kids safe."

"Do you, umm, think maybe I'll meet your brother and sister and their kids soon?"

Peter grinned.  "If they have anything to do with it... yes!  Actually, JenniAnn was telling me about the awesome zoo and children's museum they have in her hometown.  It'd only be a nine or ten hour drive for them.  Double that for us.  But since they have little ones... I figured that'd be easier for us to have the long drive.  Or we could fly.  Or use the portal... although that may lead to some awkward cover stories if my family asks about our journey.  Anyway, maybe this summer we could meet up?  I haven't said anything to them so if..."

Emma beamed at him and enthusiastically nodded.  "I'd love that.  And I think a road trip would be fun!"

Peter rested his hand on hers.  "Good.  I'm glad you think so."

Andrew and JenniAnn approached with food laden plates.

"Thank you so much for taking Belle!  I was getting a lil wobbly," JenniAnn confessed.

"Much appreciated," Andrew added.  "I can take her back now if you want to grab some lunch.  Definitely getting better at doing things one handed."

Emma laughed but shook her head.  "I'm really fine.  Peter and I had a late breakfast.  Thanks, though."

"Emma and I were just talking and we'd love to be added to your list of babysitters."  Peter smiled at them and subtly tilted his head to Emma who was gently straightening Belle's gown after she'd shifted.

"That would be great!" Andrew enthused.  "Belle obviously feels very comfortable with you."

"Are you free next Wednesday night?" JenniAnn asked.  She knew neither she nor Andrew had any plans but could tell how much Emma needed to know she had their trust.  And given Andrew's Promotion Day celebration was being pre-empted by Belle's baptism, she figured maybe she could make it up to him then.

Emma's head shot up.  "I am.  Peter?"

"Definitely."

"That would be great!" Emma gushed.  She peered down at Belle again.  "Having that to look forward to will take some of the sting out of..."  She sighed when she looked to Maryam, Yosef, John, and Joshua who were gathered on the porch with Andrew's and JenniAnn's California friends.

All four of the adults hung their heads for a moment before Andrew spoke.

"I'm glad we have each other to help us through that."  He hugged JenniAnn to him at the same moment Peter wrapped his arm around Emma.

"Me too," Emma quietly agreed.

"And they're only a prayer away," Peter added, brushing at a tear.

From all those yards away, Joshua seemed to hear them.  Turning from Josef, he smiled at them, making them all feel better.

*~*~*

Doreen sat beneath a tree, studying the nearby crowd.  Her granddaughter had stuck by her and introduced her to several people.  But finally Doreen had convinced Ivy to go visit with her friends.  She'd felt some shock when the girl had dashed over to an African American boy whose entire face had lit up into a beautiful smile upon her approach. 

Doreen wished Mark was there but he was at a teacher's retreat and wouldn't return until late into the evening.  She wouldn't see him until morning Mass.  She needed to talk to someone who knew of what had happened during the summer but Andrew and JenniAnn were busy playing host, Kemara was doting on her goddaughter, Robert and Allison were visiting with the angel Ivy had identified as Eli, and Violeta... well, she was a sweet girl but too young for a heart to heart of the sort Doreen needed.  Besides, the angel's attention was devoted to her wooly babies who were eating bits of apple out of her hands and those of the children gathered around them. 

"Cupcake?"

Doreen startled and looking up to find Joshua holding a cupcake out to her.

"Sorry if I startled you.  It's pink lemonade.  Very good.  I brought milk, too, if you're interested."

Doreen smiled.  "I am.  Thank you." 

Joshua sat down beside her and handed her his offerings.

Feeling somewhat awkward, Doreen took a few bites before speaking.  "My granddaughter thinks very highly of you.  She has a framed photo of the two of you on her bed stand."

"I think very highly of her, too.  Ivy's a sweet girl and her faith is amazing."  Joshua looked tenderly across the yard to see that Ivy and Sy had settled near Diana and were deep in conversation with her.  Based on Diana's hands continuously drifting to her belly, Joshua could guess at the topic.  He smiled.

Doreen followed his gaze.  "Do you know them very well?  That family?"

Joshua nodded.  "Very well.  The Wilsons are a wonderful family.  Zeke was my Judas and Diana was Susanna, one of my followers.  Zeke's a deacon with his church."

"What denomination are they?"

"Baptists."

Doreen tried to mask a cringe.  "And what do they think about..."

"Catholics?"

Doreen nodded.

"Well, they haven't met all of them," Joshua teased.  "But they definitely like Ivy, JenniAnn, Fr. Mike, Kemara, and Owen.  Belle, too."

The woman laughed.  "I only meant...  I've had past experience with them not believing we're truly Christian."

"Oh the Wilsons are very clear on Catholics being Christian," Joshua assured.  "Naturally, they don't agree with every tenant of Catholicism... most Catholics don't even... but they know that much."

"Good."

Joshua lowered his voice.  "You can trust them with your girl.  And as for Ivy and Sy... Zeke and Diana are already on the alert for anyone who would cause them heartache."

Doreen's face flushed.  "Not even a year ago, I would have been one of those people."

"And now?"

"I know better.  You..."  Doreen peered at the man for a moment, wondering why she trusted him when she knew so little about him.  "You may not believe this but, over the summer, angels appeared to me."

Joshua smiled.  "I believe you.  I see angels all the time.  Right now even."

"Oh, I know.  But I mean... they had a message for me."

"Ah."

"I...  See, I hadn't been a very good grandma to Ivy.  An even worse mother to my daughter, I'm sorry to say.  The angels... and JenniAnn and Kemara... they helped me see how wrong my judgment was.  I'd considered myself Christian... Catholic specifically... my whole life.  They helped me realize I wasn't.  Not really.  I didn't trust in the power of the Lord's sacrifice.  I was racist, sexist, anti-Semitic, homophobic..."  Doreen's blush deepened.  "I'm sorry to say that I probably wouldn't have given you the time of day on account of your, ummm..."

"Tan?" Joshua offered with a gentle smile.

In spite of her embarrassment, Doreen laughed.  "Yes.  And to have thought Ivy favored a black boy..."  She shook her head.  "I'm ashamed to consider what I would have said and done back then.  I'm ashamed that, even this week, when I saw you embrace her and then again when she ran to the boy... there was a moment..."

Joshua reached over and sat a hand on Doreen's arm.  "Are you listening to that old voice when it rears its ugly head?"

"Oh no."

"Then that's very good.  The longer you ignore it, the quieter it will get until, one day, you'll realize you haven't heard from it in a very long time."

"I'd like that."

"Keep praying over it.  God hears you and he'll help you.  You know, even Jesus had to learn to ignore the hateful words and beliefs around him.  First of all, most people didn't think very highly of Nazarenes.  But that was nothing compared to the vitriol directed at Samaritans and Canaanites.  But the former he made a great hero in one of his parables and the latter..."

"The Canaanite woman... but first He turned her away, Joshua."

Joshua smiled.  "Maybe.  I like to think that, after that woman knelt in front of him, he knelt down, too.  And I think he whispered something to reassure her but then told her there would be a lesson for many in her story and he asked her if she would help him teach it.  And then he told her that he was sent only to Israel.  She, quite rightly, contradicted him.  But he persisted, saying it would not be right.  He even equated her to a dog!  Which, nowadays, maybe wouldn't be so much of a put down.  There are a number of people who would say dogs are superior to us."

Doreen laughed.  "I have to admit... our little Leo is kinder than a lot of humans I've met."

Joshua smiled.  "There you go.  But in their time and place dogs were not valued.  Jesus was only echoing what he'd heard so many times over.  And I think, for a moment, all those followers who were gathered around... their chests probably puffed up a bit.  There was Jesus saying they truly were superior!  But then..."

"'Even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table,'" Doreen recited.

Joshua chuckled.  "Imagine the faces!  The smug smiles beginning to waver... and then fading entirely when Jesus praised her faith and promised her that her little one was healed.  In that moment, he showed them that he had cast off the centuries of prejudice and hatred... and he silently challenged them to do the same.  It wasn't easy.  I bet there was a lot of awkward silence after that.  But they did change.  And you'll keep changing, too, Doreen.  I know it.  I trust you."

Doreen blinked.  Suddenly, she was back in the chapel at the hospital after Ivy's accident.

"I don't doubt that you love Him, Mrs. Lee, but do you trust Him?  Do you trust that that... was enough?"

JenniAnn.

"We believe Jesus was punished enough for all of us.  The Redemption happened.  For you, for me, for Francesca, for all of us.  It doesn't make any sense to keep punishing Ivy!"

Kemara.

"Three other girls... they'd posted terrible things about Ivy online.  It hurt her so, so much.  But even at that, she knew who to reach out to.  The same Person she always has."

Violeta.

"He sent you Ivy, an echo of her mother in many beautiful ways.  You still have time to listen to her, Doreen.  And to Him.  You have time to come back to them."

Andrew.

"Please come back to us, Doreen."

Joshua...

Tears spilled down Doreen's cheeks as she realized why the man's voice had seemed so familiar to her, why she trusted him.  He was no stranger.  He, too, had been in that chapel and with her a million times before and since.

Joshua knelt in front of her and took her hands in his.  "Doreen..."  His own eyes welled.

Doreen rested her hand on his cheek.  "Lord?"

Joshua nodded and embraced her.  "I'm here.  I'm always here."

Seeing her Grandma in tears, Ivy came racing towards them with Sy at her heels.

"Grandma!  What's... oh.  You... you know."

Joshua smiled up at the girl and nodded.

Doreen's only response was to beckon for her granddaughter.

Ivy knelt and fell into their embrace.

Joshua kissed their hair then looked up at Sy.  "You're part of this, too, now."  He smiled when the teenager also knelt and softly stroked Ivy's hair until she pulled him into the group hug.

 After a few moments, they released each other.

Doreen smiled adoringly at Joshua and Ivy then looked to Sy who smiled back before shyly looking away.  Though she was eager to hear more about Joshua, she knew that would have to wait.

"You must be Sy," Doreen greeted.  "I'm very pleased to meet you, young man."

Sy grinned and took her hand.  "Thank you, Mrs. Lee.  I'm really happy to meet you, too."

Ivy let out an elated little cry as they clasped hands.

Beaming, Joshua hugged her.

"Why don't you tell me a little about yourself, Sy?" Doreen requested.

Ivy and Joshua listened happily as Sy told Doreen about his family, his classes, basketball, his recently surmounted troubles, how he came to recognize Joshua, and his hopes of, one day, becoming a minister.  That he looked first to Joshua and then to Ivy for approval was lost on neither of them nor Doreen.

With laughter and tears; Ivy, Joshua, and Sy told Doreen about the show, the rehearsals, and the time they'd spent together. 

"And then we went to visit Vincent's people to celebrate Passover and Maryam and Yosef were there and..."  Ivy stopped talking when she noticed her grandma's eyes go wide.  "Oh!  We have to re-introduce you to them and John now that you know!"

"We are here."

The four looked to see the couple and John standing a few yards away.

John grinned.  "We saw the enthusiastic hugging and guessed another realization had been made."  He crouched down near Doreen and held out his hand.  "I'm Yohannan... John for now.  Their cousin."  He waved to Joshua and his parents. 

Doreen gaped as she took his hand.  "The Baptist..."

Chuckling, John nodded.  "That, too."

"Pleased to... to meet you, sir."

John patted her on the back.  "None of that is necessary.  I am only John."

"Only John..." Sy echoed with a smile.

Joshua smiled, too, then went to his parents, drawing them nearer.  "Doreen, this is my Ama and my Abi, Maryam and Yosef."

Doreen gazed at Yosef for a moment but then her eyes lingered on Maryam.  She looked so lovely and gentle and so like her Francesca's sculpture.  Tears welled in her eyes as she thought of the daughter she had taken for granted and then lost... never telling her how much she loved her.

Maryam knelt beside the woman and wrapped her arms around her.  "She knows, Doreen.  She knows."

Doreen drew in a deep, cleansing breath as she clung to the woman whose guidance she had sought so often in the past months. 

*~*~*

Around 4:00, the party began to break up with many of the guests returning to their homes for the evening. 
Knowing Doreen, Allison, and Robert had obligations that would keep them away from Dyeland until after his departure, Joshua made the return trip to Nebraska with them and bid each good bye in their own homes.

Much to Rabbi Yakov's and Tiva's delight, Joshua wanted to attend a service at Beth El once more before departing.  Upon hearing this, the couple had expressed their desire to have the entire St. Genesius group attend along with him.  They planned to reconvene at the theatre and make their way to the synagogue from there. 

As Joshua was combing his hair, there was a light tap on his door.

"Come in!" he called.

JenniAnn smiled as she stepped into his room.  "Hi."

"Hi there!  Everyone about ready downstairs?"

JenniAnn nodded.  "Nearly so.  And Raquel and Nico are super excited to babysit.  Thank you for suggesting that."

"I figured they'd want to make up for lost time.  So what's on your mind?"  Joshua moved to sit on the edge of his bed and patted the spot next to him.

"Today was so lovely..."  JenniAnn let out a dreamy sigh as she sat down.  "And this morning in the chapel... I wasn't expecting that but it was perfect.  Thank you."

Joshua hugged her.  "You're welcome.  Thank you and Andrew both for wanting my blessing."

"We did... very much."

"And for letting my family and me take part like that in Belle's baptism."

"We wouldn't have had it any other way."  JenniAnn returned Joshua's hug.  "But speaking of your family...  Kelly mentioned that she has tomorrow and Monday off so I invited her and your parents to stay here.  Since they're coming to the cast party, it just seemed like it might be easier plus... it'd be really nice to have them over.  I would have invited John, too, but I think he and Fr. Mike have plans."  She laughed.  "Something about giving St. Mary Magdalene's a more impressive online presence."

Joshua laughed.  "That sounds like that could be very interesting.  We'll have to ask for details after Mass.  As for my parents and Kelly: thank you.  I know that meant a lot to them and it will be nice to have them here."

"Totally my pleasure but, umm, I was trying to decide on rooms...  Max wants to stay over so he's in what will be Andrew's room.  Vincent and Catherine said we could keep Jacob for the night and, of course, Shelby wants to stay over, too, so they're next to Max.  Raquel and Nico are next to the chapel.  Ivy and Violeta will stay across the hall."  JenniAnn waved in the direction of their room.  "I thought maybe Kelly could stay in the one next to theirs and your parents could have the one just to the other side of here but, umm...  I really, really don't wanna pry but I also don't want anyone to be uncomfortable... especially not them!  And so... I, umm, wanted to check with you... is the one king bed fine or... or..."  The rosy hue in JenniAnn's cheeks deepened.

With a grin, Joshua squeezed her hand.  "They'll be just fine with the king bed.  In fact, I daresay they'd prefer that to matching twin beds.  Let's just say that whether the Catholic Church is right or the Protestant churches are... I grew up in a house with two cots and I had my own and we certainly didn't make Abi sleep on the floor.  So you can do the math."

Very much relieved, JenniAnn giggled.  "Good.  And actually... that makes me feel better on a couple different counts.  Like maybe that means... it's just... I was thinking about what you said about if Andrew needed me after I've died and I wondered... if I would still feel the same and want to, well, act the same."

"The desire for affection neither dies nor fades, JenniAnn.  Angels and humans are alike in that."  Joshua bumped his shoulder against hers.  "Ama and Abi will be touched that you're not scandalized."

"Far from it.  I, umm, think I might have been a little heartbroken if it turned out they had just this sorta dutiful, practical connection.  Like if they'd only gotten married for appearances or protection or faith or... I mean not that faith isn't huge!  Obviously it's most important but..."

Joshua chuckled.  "I know what you mean.  I think I might have been a little heartbroken myself if Abi had stuck with us just because he felt he had to.  But that was never the case.  He told me once that he'd loved Ama on some level since he was four years old and he didn't know how not to love her."

"I think I know the feeling," JenniAnn murmured.

"You do," Joshua agreed with a gentle smile. 

JenniAnn rested her head on his shoulder and looked around the room.  "Even though it's not even been a full week... it... it's going to feel strange to have this room be empty."

"It won't be empty.  I'll still be here and I'm leaving all of my stuff.  I'm going to need my comb, clothes, all of that when I come back.  Although about the clothes..."  Joshua pulled JenniAnn up from the bed and led her to the closet.  "I want you to hang onto this."  He pulled his autumnal colored henley from its hanger.

JenniAnn's eyes filled and she hugged it to her chest, remembering that first moment of clarity in Cora's kitchen.  "Thank you."

Joshua hugged her.  "You're welcome.  And the Aran sweater is for Kemara.  Give it to her when you think she needs it.  I'll take the gifts you all gave me... definitely including the fleece blanket... with me.  And my rose.  You'll have another one over here soon."

JenniAnn smiled as she thought about Andrew moving his things to Willowveil.

"I can always bring those things back when I return," Joshua continued.  "But everything else stays.  People can 'borrow' what they need to.  Okay?"

JenniAnn nodded against his chest. 

Joshua sighed and stroked her hair.  "Dear one, you will have so much joy between now and when you see me again.  I promise you that.  Look forward to that, don't dread my leaving."

After drawing in a deep breath, JenniAnn smiled.  "Okay."

"Good.  Now... let's go check on the others and head out."

"Sounds good.  I hope Betty, Moishe, and Samson are at the synagogue.  I'm sure they'd like to see you before..."  A lump formed again in JenniAnn's throat.

Joshua clasped her hand tightly.  "I hope they're there, too."  Smiling, he led her to the door and towards the stairs.

"Oh!  Wait!  Just one more thing."  JenniAnn hurried to the linen closet in the hall.

Joshua watched with amusement as she withdrew a paper bag and headed into the room next to his.  He followed.

JenniAnn pulled a chocolate from the bag and set it down on one of the pillows then bit her lip before pulling another one out.  "Do they have sides?"

Remaining in the doorway, Joshua smiled and nodded.  "Abi would be closest to the balcony door, Ama would be to this side."

JenniAnn spelled out Y and M on the appropriate pillows.

"Sure beats the stable in Bethlehem," Joshua commented with a grin when she rejoined him in the hall.

JenniAnn shrugged and smiled up at him.  "I dunno.  They got a baby in the stable.  I'd take a baby over chocolates."

Moved, Joshua hugged her once more before they went to meet up with the others in the ballroom.

*~*~*

After the Havdalah service had ended, Joshua and his friends remained with the congregation for coffee and dessert.  Knowing they would be able to see him the following day, the cast and crew kept at a distance to allow Joshua to bid good bye to the Levines and the Frankls.

"Joshua!  My friend!  Very good to see you."

Joshua turned to see Moishe headed towards him with Betty and Samson on either side of him.  He hugged each of them in greeting.  "Shalom!  I was hoping you three would be here tonight.  Moishe, Betty, Samson, these are my parents, Maryam and Yosef, and my cousin, John," he introduced.

There were handshakes and shaloms all around.  Betty kept hold of Maryam's hand.

"Your boy... he is truly a godsend.  You must be so proud."

Maryam beamed at her son and nodded.  "Very much so.  Thank you."  She listened intently as Betty told her about their reunion with Samson.

"Joshua, you must tell me when St. Genesius' does another show," Moishe pressed.  "I would like to cater lunch or dinner or both for all of you."

Joshua smiled appreciatively at the man.  "Thank you, Moishe.  I'm sure everyone will love that but I hope it's okay to put Emma or Peter in touch with you.  I'm actually leaving town on Monday with my family."

Though Emma had warned him of this, Samson couldn't hold back the tears that welled in his eyes.

Overhearing, Betty turned from Maryam to face Joshua.  "Leaving..."  She shook her head.

"B-but you have such talent," Moishe sputtered.  "You... you made me root for that Jesus!"

Joshua chuckled and hugged the man.  "Thank you.  But I have other work that's calling me elsewhere.  Don't worry, though.  You haven't seen the last of me.  One day, you'll be wiping down the counter at the deli, Moishe, or ringing up an order, Betty, or sweeping the floor at Dusty's, Samson, and you'll hear the bell at the door ring and it'll be me."

Rabbi Yakov approached and rested an arm across Joshua's shoulders.  "And Joshua knows he is always welcome here.  He's promised to visit for the synagogue's centennial."

"Four years from now..." Tiva murmured.

Joshua squeezed her hand.  "I have a feeling I'll be back in Manhattan before then."  He lowered his voice.  "Gotta get my rugelach fix, after all."

Tiva laughed and hugged his arm.  "Any time, Joshua."

Joshua kissed her forehead. 

"Well, you... you will have to come visit us, too, then," Betty invited.  "And your family, as well, if they come with you."  She gave a teary smile to Maryam, Yosef, and John.

"I'll do that," Joshua promised.

"He keeps his promises," Yosef assured.

"Always," Maryam and John averred at once.

Moishe tried to mask the emotion in his voice.  "Well then it's settled."

Samson wordlessly hugged Joshua.

Joshua patted his back.  "I'm so proud of you, Samson," he whispered.  "Proud of the life you're making for yourself, proud of the forgiveness you showed, proud of you and Dusty both for watching out for Emma."  He lowered his voice even more.  "I'll stop into the diner before I leave on Monday."

Relieved, Samson let out a sigh.  "Thank you, Joshua."

"You're welcome."  Joshua smiled reassuringly at him when he pulled away. 

"We should be on our way," Moishe mumbled.  He hastily hugged Joshua.  "Safe journey to you and your family."

Betty kissed his cheek.  "May the Lord watch over you in all your ways."

"Thank you, Betty.  May you and your family always feel His love," Joshua replied, his voice growing husky.

Betty nodded and dabbed at her face with the handkerchief Maryam pressed into her hand.  "Thank you..."

Maryam smiled gently and nodded.

"Until next time," Moishe choked out.

"Yes."  Joshua clasped his hand once more then let him go.

As the Frankls walked away, Rabbi Yakov shook his head.  "I have not seen that man cry in all my years here except twice... and both times concerned you."  He squeezed Joshua's shoulder as tears welled in his own eyes.  "Joshua, I..."

Maryam, Yosef, and John politely stepped away to give the three privacy as the rabbi began to sob.

"I... I have waited my whole life for... for your coming and now... now to leave," Yakov choked out.

"Perhaps we could postpone our trip for a couple of days?" Tiva suggested.

Joshua embraced them both and shook his head.  "No.  Helena is so looking forward to your visit.  I know you won't disappoint her, even for two days.  She needs the pick-me-up before finals madness starts.  She needs her parents."

The rabbi nodded.  "You're right... of course you're right." 

"You'll have a wonderful time," Joshua assured, patting their backs.  "Could you come with me to the coat closet for a moment?"

Grateful for the solitude, the Levines nodded and followed him. 

Joshua picked up a bag he had stashed there before the service.  "I made you both something."

"Oh Joshua....  Thank you!"  Tiva laughed when she pulled out two bottles of True Vine wine.

Rabbi Yakov smiled.  "We'll toast you with it, Joshua.  And remember good times." 

"There's something else..."  Tiva pulled another tissue paper wrapped item from the bag.  She gently unwrapped it, her eyes instantly filling.  "It... it's so beautiful.  Yakov..."  She held the item out for her husband to admire.

"A hand-carved menorah..."  The rabbi reached for Joshua after he'd taken in the design etched into each of the candle holders and the base.  "Vines... rose of Sharon... lilies of the valley... you."

"To... to remind you that I... I'll be with you," Joshua choked out as he clasped the two to him.  "I love you both so much.  Tell... tell your kids, too.  As best you can."  He kissed their cheeks.  "Thank you for being part of this.  And thank you for welcoming me here.  It made me feel like I was back home again... I mean before they tried to hurl me off a cliff."  After swiping at a tear, Joshua grinned at them. 

Tiva and Yakov laughed even as they wept. 

"We were so glad to have you," Yakov murmured.

"And we will be glad to welcome you back when the time comes," Tiva added, dabbing at her eyes. 

Joshua sighed as he gazed lovingly at them both.  "Thank you, Yakov and Tiva."

The three remained huddled together for a few moments more before they collected themselves and rejoined the others in welcoming the week ahead.

*~*~*

Light Has Dawned

Raquel swayed as she held Belle and softly sang to her in her nursery.

"'Down in the valley, valley so low.  Hang your head over, hear the wind blow.  Hear the wind blow, dear, hear the wind blow.  Hang your head over, hear the wind blow.'"

Standing near the window, Nico turned and smiled at the two.  After a few moments, he realized that Raquel was crying.  He hastened to her side and held her, swaying along with them.

By the time the lullaby was over, the baby had drifted to sleep.  Raquel kissed her and gently laid her in her cradle.  Nico knelt down and kissed Belle's curls himself before leading his wife to the couch.

"Thank you," Raquel murmured.  "It just came on so suddenly... a memory.  Singing that song to Dawn when she was a little girl and her echoing it back in that sweet little voice of hers.  Sometimes I... I still can't believe that I'll never... never see her with her own little one... never hold my grandbaby...  Never..."

Nico wrapped his arms around Raquel and held her close.  There were no words.  He could not erase her sorrow or promise it would get better.  Raquel knew her daughter was safe and surrounded by love.  Andrew was a constant reminder of that.  Still... there was an emptiness that could never be filled.

Once she had regained some composure, Raquel lifted her head from her husband's shoulder.  "Did you know that Kelly had a son?"

Surprised, Nico shook his head.  "I figured angels having children was extremely rare with Andrew being one of the few."

"Maybe it is.  But, if so, Kelly's one of the few, too.  She told me about her boy when the two of us and Maryam got to talking after lunch.  Jesse.  She raised him after his mother died when he was small.  He was killed as a teenager... gang violence.  Not his own doing b-but he fell victim to it, anyway.  And she... she saw it happen.  Then I told them about Dawn's murder and how... how the hardest thing for me is knowing she loved that man.  The betrayal and heartbreak on top of the pain.  Kelly squeezed my hand but Maryam...  Nico, I saw such compassion in her eyes but something beyond that.  Understanding.  Like she knew exactly what I felt.  B-but she can't."  Raquel shook her head and peered into Nico's eyes.  "You asked her and Yosef at breakfast if they had other children a-and you heard Yosef say that Joshua was an only child."

"Yes," Nico agreed.

"So... so why do I feel as if Maryam belonged with Kelly and I in our sorrow?" Raquel pressed. 

The captain closed his eyes for a moment, wondering if he should... or even could... give voice to an idea that had haunted him all day.  After a steadying breath, he looked to his wife.  "I believe Maryam lost a child, too, Raquel."

"B-but then why would Yosef... unless the other child's death is still too difficult to speak of."

Nico shook his head.  "I don't believe there is another child."

"B-but that doesn't make sense.  Joshua is their child and he's clearly still alive, Nico!"

"What if... if he wasn't once?"

Fresh tears formed in Raquel's eyes.  She rose from the couch and headed to the hall.  "You're not making any sense and I..."

"I think Joshua is Jesus, Raquel.  Maryam is... is Mary.  Yosef is Joseph.  John is, well, John."

Raquel halted at the threshold and slowly turned back around.  "That... that's not possible."

Nico went to her and took her hands in his.  "Six years ago, would you have believed angels would be helping you in the aftermath of Dawn's death?"

"No..."

"Andrew and JenniAnn... they're good, loving, accepting people.  We know this.  But I cannot believe that they'd meet a man and a mere two months later make him the centerpiece of their daughter's baptism.  And John!  They decide to let a relatively new friend's cousin co-officiate?  And Maryam and Yosef... treated as if they were grandparents?"

"They... they asked us to be grandparents."

"They did, yes.  Something I think you should reconsider agreeing to, by the way.  But they've also known you for over five years.  They are not acting towards Joshua and his family as they would to people they barely have a history with.  And Raquel... didn't you feel it when we met Joshua?  And again when his family arrived?  Warmth.  Comfort.  Love.  I felt as... as if I had a history with them, too.  You must have, as well!  You do not speak to idle strangers of Dawn.  And yet you did to Maryam.  Why, my darling?"  Nico hastily swiped at his tears in order to better see those of his wife.  "Please... let's just step into the chapel.  I saw something there that..."

Raquel stared at her husband, rapidly blinking back tears.  "I... I... need... need to be alone."  She spun around and headed towards their room.  As she came around the corner, she nearly collided with someone coming up the stairs.

"Raquel..."

Raquel clamped her eyes shut and shook her head.

"Come with me.  Please."

Opening her eyes, Raquel stared at the source of the soothing voice.

Yosef rested his hand on his wife's shoulder.  "I will start some tea, yes?"

Maryam smiled at him and nodded before devoting her attention to the weeping woman.  "Raquel, could we speak in the chapel?"

Raquel responded with a mute nod then walked with Maryam towards the chapel.

Before heading to the kitchen, Yosef poked his head into the nursery and waved to Nico who was still seated on the couch.  The captain blinked a few times before going to Yosef.

"Your wife and mine are in the chapel.  I said I would start tea but then I will come back.  Perhaps we could speak?" Yosef suggested. 

Dazed, Nico nodded.

"Could I get you anything while I am in the kitchen?"

"I could really use a beer."  Nico blanched when he realized what he'd said... and to who.  "No, I..."

Yosef smiled.  "I think I would like to share a drink with you."

Calmed, Nico returned the smile.  Then, once Yosef was gone, he settled back onto the couch and prayed for his wife.

*~*~*

Raquel stared at the painting in the chapel.  The old classic portrait of Christ had been replaced by a painting that clearly depicted Joshua.  Seeing it, she knew everything her husband had said was true.  Which meant the woman sitting next to her was...  She shivered.

"I never stopped missing him."

Raquel swiveled just enough to see Maryam with her peripheral vision.

"I loved Yohannan and his family...  Yohannan the apostle, I mean.  I lived with him after Yeshu returned to the Father.  Of course, I love our cousin Yohannan, as well.  And his family.  I adored Elizabeth and still do."  Maryam blushed.  "I am sorry, Raquel.  I thought, perhaps, you or Nico or both knew but still... I did not expect to have this talk without Yeshu here.  He stayed in the city with Andrew and JenniAnn to get groceries.  Thus, I am a bit unprepared."

Raquel shook her head, warding off the undue apology.

Maryam continued.  "What I want for you to know is that, even though I believed with all my heart, soul, and spirit that my Yeshu was in Heaven... even though I felt so much love for my Yeshu's followers... I still longed for him to be near.  Such longing... it is not a sign of lack of faith but instead a sign of undying love.  How can we not long to touch, soothe, kiss, and hold the children who were once a part of us?"  She reached out for Raquel's hand.  "Yeshu understands.  Our Father understands.  They do not blame you for your sorrow and they are very proud of the joy you still find in your life and bring to others.  They want for you to embrace all that life here offers but they know that you will never cease hoping for the Life to come... Life which will reunite you with Dawn.  In time, Raquel, you will enter into that Life but just as I had work to do before I could go to my Yeshu... you have work, as well.  You have a husband to love, journeys to make, friends to laugh and cry with, and a granddaughter to help raise."

Raquel turned to fully face Maryam.  "Belle..."

With a bright smile, Maryam nodded.

"I... I told Andrew and JenniAnn no when they first asked shortly after they brought Belle home from the hospital.  I didn't think it was fair to Allison, Robert, Catherine, and Vincent.  Better that Nico and I be great aunt and uncle..."

"You will be a blessing to Belle by any title," Maryam assured.  "But I think it would bring you some healing if you were to be another grandmother.  God has made a way for you, Raquel, through Andrew and JenniAnn and their little one.  Please take it.  Dawn wants this for you.  She is overjoyed that you have found such love with Andrew and his family."

Raquel smiled as she thought of it.  It would be wonderful to be called "Grandma" or whatever pet name Belle took to.  She laughed as she imagined taking the girl on her first cruise.  Christmases.  Easters.  Birthdays.  But, after a moment, Raquel refocused on Maryam.  Her eyes again welled and she reached for the woman.  "You... you do know..."

Maryam moved into Raquel's embrace and wrapped her arms around her.  "Yes.  I do.  He... he loved them all so much.  Even... even the soldiers."

The two women wept together, healing tears that reminded Raquel that she was far from alone.

*~*~*

Yosef returned to the nursery carrying two cans, one of which he held out to Nico.

"I hope I chose correctly.  I have seen many people drink this beer... but then I have also seen many people drink the other.  I chose this because I have much admired their commercials with the horses.  John showed me some on his phone."

Nico smiled as he took the red and white can.  "My favorite.  Thank you.  And, yes, the Clydesdales are impressive."  He opened the can and took a sip then noticed Yosef struggling with his.

Yosef smiled sheepishly.  "We did not have tin cans in Nazareth."

"Allow me?"  Nico took the can and opened it.  "Your tab was turned.  Only that part there will open."

"Ah."  Yosef took a sip.  "I prefer wine... but this is good."

Nico chuckled then covered his mouth and looked over at Belle.  Thankfully, she hadn't stirred.  "Maybe we could move to the hall?"

"Of course."

The two settled into chairs on either side of Belle's door.  They sat in companionable silence for a few moments before Nico spoke.

"I... I can't believe I'm drinking beer with... with St. Joseph."

Yosef smiled.  "There is much about my life that I sometimes cannot believe.  But it is wondrous.  So what is it that gave us away?"
 
"The chapel."

"Oh?  During the baptism then?"

Nico shook his head.  "No.  I mean the small chapel.  Behind us.  I had begun to wonder... your names, the way I felt being near all of you, and, yes, the baptism.  But then, after you had all left for the synagogue, I stepped into the chapel here.  I could tell Raquel was struggling and I wanted to say a prayer for her.  I saw the painting of your Joshua and... I considered that maybe JenniAnn was merely taken by his portrayal.  But to place it on the altar itself?  She is a devout girl.  She wouldn't kneel to the image of a man who was merely an actor.  I knew then..."

Yosef reached over to squeeze his shoulder.  "I am glad.  Yeshu will be very happy."

"He will be back soon?"

"Yes, very soon.  He only stayed behind to get groceries with Andrew and JenniAnn.  Weeks ago, he and JenniAnn had an unfortunate run-in at the grocery and he wanted to return with her... leave her with a happy memory of the place."

Nico frowned.  "What happened?"

"There was a woman who assumed the two were a couple and she had very strong views against that given they are not of the same race.  She should be glad I was not there," Yosef grumbled.  A moment later, a smile lit up his face.  "She has 'changed her tune' as they say.  She and her ilk had a meeting with Michael."

"Michael?"

"The archangel.  As a result, they are all quite clear on who exactly Yeshu is."

"God..."

Yosef's smile grew.  "Yes.  They have already begun to reform their ways.  Michael is persuasive."

Nico chuckled.  "I can only imagine."  After another sip, he sighed.

"Tell me of your wife?  Your concerns for her?" Yosef encouraged.

"Do you know of her daughter?  Dawn?"

Yosef nodded.  "Sweet girl."

"I wish I could have met her.  Her death... it will always be with Raquel but of late... more so.  Please know that she is absolutely thrilled with little Belle and loves her dearly.  But, I think, seeing Andrew and JenniAnn enter into this new phase of their life... it has made Raquel reflect on how, if she had lived, Dawn herself might have a baby or two by now.  And I think Andrew and JenniAnn know she aches over that loss.  When she first visited them after Belle's arrival, they asked her if we would like to be grandparents but she said no.  She didn't feel it would be fair to the grandparents.  But I think at least part of it is she is afraid of somehow... passing her sadness onto the child?  Does that make sense?" Nico questioned.

Yosef replied with a sage nod.  "I do not agree with it... but, yes, it makes sense.  I can tell Raquel is truly a parent and a good one.  When Yeshu was small, Maryam and I would sometimes worry.  We had read the prophecies... we knew that... that our boy would suffer.  But our chief worry was that we would pass those fears onto him.  We wanted him to have a happy childhood.  We quickly learned that, in such moments when the worry and fear would rise up in us, we needed to pray and confide in each other.  Then we could put those feelings away and bring our Yeshu as much joy and love as possible.  I believe we succeeded.  He has turned out well, yes?"  Yosef grinned at his listener.

Nico laughed.  "More than well."

Yosef reached over and squeezed his hand.  "Talk to your wife, Nico.  Confront the pain with her, pray with her, and then she will not fear passing it along to Belle.  And go get your granddaughter."

"While she sleeps?"

"She no longer sleeps."

Nico glanced into the room and noticed a tiny, flailing hand.  "How did you know?"

"Breathing sounds changed," Yosef explained.  "I spent many a night listening for them."

Laughing softly, Nico returned to the nursery and snuggled Belle to his chest.  "Hello there, my piccola."

Yosef smiled at the two.  "She will be ready for a bottle soon.  I left tea waiting in the kitchen for Raquel and Maryam.  Perhaps we could sit with them?"

Nico beamed.  "I would like that."

At the same time the three reached the staircase, Maryam and Raquel stepped around the corner.

"Raquel..." Nico murmured.

Wordlessly, she smiled at him.

Nico sighed when he saw it was a truly happy, peaceful smile.  "You... had a good visit?"

"The best."  Raquel held Maryam's hand for a moment then went to her husband, wrapping her arm around his waist.  "You?"

"Wonderful."  Nico craned his head so he could smile at Yosef.  "And now we wait?"

Maryam gave an enthusiastic nod.  "Yeshu will be so happy when he returns!"

"He doesn't know?" Raquel questioned.

"It is possible the Father has told him.  He is currently limited in a manner of his choosing," Yosef explained.  "I think he enjoys the surprise of not being omnipotent."

"He will very much enjoy this surprise," Maryam assured.  Then, taking Yosef's hand, she led them all to the kitchen where they chatted happily as they waited.

*~*~*

"I'm so glad we did that!  I like that grocery store a-and it woulda been sad to only think about what happened with Bea..."

The rest of the sentence died on JenniAnn's lips when she stepped into the kitchen and saw the four adults and her baby gathered around the table.

"Joshua," she called, not taking her eyes off Nico and Raquel.

Joshua stepped into the kitchen with Andrew, their arms laden with bags.

JenniAnn spun around and began to hurriedly take the bags from Joshua whose glance traveled back and forth between the Morettis and his parents. 

Yosef rose and assisted Andrew.

When Joshua opened his mouth to say something, a stubborn lump prevented him from speaking.

Maryam went to her son and embraced him.  "Yeshu, perhaps you could take Nico and Raquel to your room to visit?"

Joshua nodded.  "Yes... yes, Ama.  I... I would like that very much."

"Raquel, would you like me to take Belle or do you want to keep her with you?" Andrew asked, softly stroking the woman's back.

"I... I think you should take her."  Raquel smiled tearfully at him before transferring the baby into his arms.  When she was free, she went to Joshua and peered into his eyes for a long moment.

Though he had been preparing himself for the meeting since he had first stepped into the chapel, Nico was shaken.  He staggered to Joshua.

Joshua pulled the couple to him and wept.  "I am so glad...  I wanted so much to talk to you... honestly, freely.  Come."  He squeezed their hands and then
, after smiling at his parents, Andrew, JenniAnn, and Belle, he led Nico and Raquel away.

JenniAnn turned to Maryam.  "Did... did you get to talk with Raquel about...?"

"Yes.  We had a very healing visit, talking about our children.  Raquel... she will feel even better after speaking with Yeshu.  Nico, too," Maryam assured.

Andrew sighed happily.  "We've all tried very hard to help Raquel with her grief but this... this is what she needs."  He smiled up at the ceiling then looked back down at the table.  He tried to suppress a chuckle.  "So who was enjoying the Buds?"

Yosef grinned.  "Nico and I had a drink together."

Though somewhat surprised, JenniAnn laughed.  "I'm glad... but let's all be thankful there are no spies from their marketing team here.  Next Super Bowl we'd all be watching a commercial with St. Joseph frolicking among Clydesdales."

Maryam giggled.  "He does look very handsome, even more so than usual, astride a horse."  She looked to Yosef with the most innocent of smiles.  "Very princely."

Yosef blushed.  "Maryam..."

Andrew and JenniAnn laughed, judging by Yosef's grin that he was far from displeased. 

A moment later, Yosef's grin stretched into an exaggerated yawn.

"You must be tired," JenniAnn sympathized.  "Can we show you to your room?" she offered.

Knowing her husband was putting on a bit of a show, Maryam played along.  "We would appreciate that very much.  Thank you.  But first let us help you put away the groceries."

"Oh, it's really fine.  Andrew and I can manage," JenniAnn replied with a shake of her head.

Yosef flashed another grin.  "We would like to help.  Truly.  Maryam enjoys admiring the modern cookware and things."

Maryam eagerly nodded as she began to empty bags.  "This is true."

Andrew smiled, unsurprised by their insistence.  "Thank you, Maryam and Yosef.  So have the kids settled in?"

"Oh yes.  Violeta, Kelly, and Ivy got Shelby and Jacob settled into their beds shortly after we all returned.  Then they went out to check on the animals.  Max, as well.  They came inside not long before you," Maryam answered.

"It's just so quiet..." JenniAnn mused.  "Well, it has been an eventful day.  I'm sure they're all tired."

Maryam and Yosef simply nodded agreeably before helping to put the last few groceries away.

"Now to head to bed ourselves, I suppose," Andrew suggested.  "Belle's already dreaming."  He smiled down at the baby in his arms.

JenniAnn reached for Maryam's hand.  "I'm sure you know the way but..."

With a nod, Maryam took her hand.  "Thank you for your kindness in letting Yosef and I stay with you.  It will be nice to be under the same roof as Yeshu again and with all of you." 

JenniAnn smiled at her, unable to find the words for a response.  With a gentle tug, she pulled Maryam towards the hall with Andrew and Yosef following.

"I'll be staying in Belle's nursery," Andrew relayed as they started up the stairs.  "Don't hesitate to get me if there's anything... anything at all... that you need or want."

"I am confident the two of you will have already seen to everything," Yosef praised.  "Today was a very important day and not only for Belle."

"You... you know?  About the chapel?  The blessing?" JenniAnn asked.

Maryam squeezed her hand.  "We do not know what Yeshu said.  That is between the two of you, Yeshu, and the Father.  But, yes, we do know Yeshu has given you his blessing.  He is so proud of you both and loves you so."  She smiled as they reached the second landing and passed her son's closed door. 

When they came to the room chosen for Yosef and her, Maryam hugged JenniAnn and whispered in her ear, looking over her shoulder to Andrew.  "As the years go by and struggles come your way, remember what you felt this day and this night."

Andrew felt a tear slide down his cheek.  He nodded.

"Y-yes," JenniAnn promised.  "I will... we will."

Maryam kissed her cheeks then Andrew's and Belle's.  "Have a pleasant night together."

"We will see you three for breakfast," Yosef added, following up with hugs.

"We'll look forward to it," Andrew replied, reaching for JenniAnn with his free arm.

"As do we."  Yosef smiled at them then closed the door.

Andrew and JenniAnn stared for a few moments.

"There's something going on..." JenniAnn murmured.

Andrew nodded.  "Definitely."

JenniAnn blushed.  "She, umm... Maryam said to have a pleasant night... together."

"She did." 

"Would you... want to stay in my room?" JenniAnn asked with a nervous twist of her ring.  "We could move Belle's cradle."

With a smile, Andrew nodded again.  "I'd like that."

JenniAnn smiled up at him.  "Okay." 

The three headed down the stairs and, when they reached Belle's door, Andrew turned to JenniAnn. 

"Could you take her and I'll grab the cradle?"

"Absolutely."  JenniAnn lightly kissed the sleeping baby.

Andrew picked up Belle's cradle and headed to JenniAnn's room.  "Hey, did you leave the CD player on or..."  He halted at the threshold.

"Love, what is..."  Peeking around the angel, JenniAnn saw what had stilled him.

There had been some modifications to her room.  The CD player was indeed on and a love song from the 30s was resounding from it.  The swing Andrew had put in was gathered up at the ceiling, leaving a wide space at the center of the room.  The open area was surrounded by dozens of flameless votive candles.  At the center was a card with "Maja and Dad" neatly written on the envelope.  Beneath it was a wrapped present.

Stepping over the candles, Andrew knelt down and took up the card.  JenniAnn sat beside him.

With a sniffle, Andrew opened the card and began to read.  "'Dear Maja and Dad... surprise!  I hope this isn't too over the top.  I'm sure you're both blushing by now.'"  Andrew chuckled and looked to JenniAnn.  "You are."

"Not the only one..." she replied with a smile.

"Figured."  With a sigh, Andrew began to read again.  "'Sorry about that.  But I wanted you both to know how much I love you and... and how glad I am that you have each other.  Being around the two of you truly has given me hope.  From the moment I saw you together, I knew God had to be on your side.  I'm glad it's official now.  Sorry again.  I sort of begged Joshua to tell me where you three had disappeared to earlier.  His answer made me really happy.  Congratulations on over fourteen years of various forms of together."

JenniAnn giggled.  "That's an eloquent way of summing up a few years of stumbling and a few years of... of wonderfulness."

Andrew looped his arm around her waist and kissed her hair.  "It is.  He finishes 'I love you so much.  Your son, Max.  P.S.  Sorry about the book.  Violeta's idea.  She edited it.  So have fun with that.'"  Swiping at a tear, Andrew laughed and glanced at the gift.  "Oh boy...  Should I?"

Red-faced but grinning, JenniAnn nodded.  "Might as well!"

Andrew began to tear off the paper.  "And we have...  101 Questions for Lovers.  Except Violeta has crossed out lovers and written 'anam caras' and..."  He stifled an outburst of laughter as he held open the book for JenniAnn to see.

"It looks like the Pentagon got a hold of it..."

"I really have no idea where she got the habit of crossing out inapplicable sections of books..." Andrew teased, recalling their welcoming a new baby book that JenniAnn had taken a Sharpie to.

JenniAnn smirked and reached for a note that had fallen from inside the book.  "'Hi!  So, Andrew, you recommended this book to the Courtlands when you were their marriage counselor cause you said it had fun and interesting questions anyone who has been in a relationship for a while should revisit.  I thought you and JenniAnn should have a copy so I ordered it but then when it arrived... well, I'm going to have to talk to you about some of the questions because I didn't get them.  So I put pink question marks by those.  And some just weren't right for you both... so I exed them out.  But most were good!  So I highlighted the good ones.  I love you both!  And Belle!  And Max!  And everyone!!!  Love, Violeta.'"   JenniAnn let out another giggle then sighed, tears forming again.  "That's slightly worrisome but... it is so lovely that they did this.  Our Max and our Violeta...  So blessed...  Oh..."

Andrew smiled softly as a familiar song began to play. 

"'Heaven, I'm in heaven.  And my heart beats so that I can hardly speak and I seem to find the happiness I seek when we're out together dancing cheek to cheek.'"

"How about we get Belle settled a-and then break in this beautiful dance floor?" Andrew suggested.

Snuggling the baby nearer, JenniAnn nodded.

Once Belle was settled, her parents each kissed her before stepping back onto the dance floor their boy had made for them.

*~*~*

Raquel sipped at the spiced milk that Joshua had summoned for them.  It was astounding...  She'd just spent the last several minutes revisiting moments from her life with Dawn and the familiar ache hadn't been there.  In talking with Joshua, she felt as if her daughter was truly there.  She supposed she was, in a manner.  Dawn was with God... and so was she.

Joshua smiled at the woman then took her hand in his right and Nico's in his left.  "Dawn wants you both to know how happy she is that you're together, that you've married.  She danced at your wedding, you know.  A wonderful, joy-filled, loving dance.  And she's thrilled by all you've experienced since.  All the people you've met, the places you've been, the things you've learned.  She especially loved that the two of you took rumba lessons."