"Praise the wisdom of the Father,
Who has spoken through His Son.
Speaking still, He calls us to
The Glorious Impossible."
~~ Carl Cartee



Hi all,

Welcome to the annual Christmas story!  I'll be updating this story every day until I'm finished... no later than January 6th.  For the most part, I'll be updating this web page in the evenings.  I'll actually be writing this as I go as a way of keeping Christmas myself so I doubt I'd ever get a chance to update it before getting home from work.  In any case, I hope you all have a joyful Chanukah and blessed Christmas and happy holidays!

God bless,
Jenni

Note for 12-30-19- This isn't where I meant to end today's update.  I'm feeling a touch under the weather and was making really goofy typos so decided to make it an early night.

Note for 1-4-20- So I think I actually caught something... still not feeling great.  Nonetheless, I attempted to write but didn't proofread to the extent I'd like to just because I really want to get back in bed.  I hope to finish the story tomorrow and post a good chunk then and a final bit on the 6th but, depending on how I feel, there's a chance I may need to wait to finish this.  We'll see!  ETA on 1-5-20- Still not feeling great but I added a tiny bit because I didn't want to lose the dialogue in my head.  And... ETA on 1-6-20- Still not 100% and I really care about what's supposed to be the next scene.  So I've set it up tonight but I won't be adding more to the story until probably this weekend.  I just don't want to phone the rest in due to feeling crummy.  And... I may rethink this tradition before next year!

The Glorious Impossible

December 22nd        December 23rd        December 24th        December 25th        December 26th

December 27th        December 28th        December 29th        December 30th        December 31st

January 1st        January 2nd        January 3rd        January 4th        January 5th        January 6th

And the rest...

*~*~*~*~*~*

34 A.D.- Christmas


Lazar was lost in thought as he piled some firewood outside his home.  Only a high-pitched squeal roused him.  Turning towards the noise, the man spotted Yemimah seated in the courtyard, chattering with a sparrow who had landed on her outstretched hand.  Smiling, he approached the child.

"Ah.  So you have found a friend... again?"

Yemimah giggled and nodded.

"Dinah."

"The sparrow is named Dinah?"

"Uh huh."

Lazar watched as Yemimah gently flapped her hand and the sparrow went flying.

Yemimah beamed up at the sky as the bird ascended then turned to her uncle.

"Yeshu," she informed, pointing at the heavens.

Lazar scooped the child up and hugged her.

"Yes, Yeshu is in Heaven."

"He come back?"

Lazar sighed and kissed the child's hair.

"Some day, little one."

As Yemimah nuzzled against him, Lazar marveled at all that had come to pass.  Yeshua... the boy he had once played with, the boy he'd told wild stories with about all the adventures they would have as men... had died.  Then lived again.  Lived still.  Just as he did after his own deliverance from the grave... but what Yeshua had accomplished was so much more.  Now nothing was the same.

And yet...  Tears pricked Lazar's eyes.

How could you mourn someone who wasn't truly dead?  Someone who was Life itself?  And if he felt so conflicted... how must Maryam feel, on this day especially?  Thirty four years ago that very night, she had delivered the Deliverer into the world and now he had returned to his Father while she remained. 

Lazar gazed around him, searching for Maryam and Yoninah, who had accompanied her for this brief respite in Bethany.  There was no sign of the women returning from their walk.

"Mmm..."

Yemimah sniffed the air appreciatively.

Lazar smiled at the child in his arms.  He'd been so flustered when Mary had returned with the foundling.  At first, he had feared the child was flesh of her flesh... the product of an illicit union.  But he knew Yeshua wouldn't have let his little sister stumble in such a way nor be taken advantage of.  He'd been dumb-founded when Mary had explained about the little girl being abandoned, deformed and squalling, and then Yeshua....  Mary had pointed out the thin, tell-tale scar on Yemimah's lip.  Lazar had shook his head in disbelief.  True, Yeshua had healed Mary herself but that had been different.  To restore damaged flesh...  But then he had heard about the lepers...  Lazar hadn't had much time to ponder it.  Not long after Mary's and the little one's return, he'd taken ill.  A few days of delirium had followed.  And then...

"Lazar... come out!"

Lazar could still hear the exact tone of his friend's voice... could still see the tears in his eyes...

Not long after, Lazar would find himself weeping for Yeshua.

"Mmm..."  Yemimah repeated.

Once again roused from his remembrances, Lazar swung the girl around briefly, delighting in her shrieks of laughter.

"Now... let's go see what your Ama and Martha have prepared that smells so good."

"So good..." Yemimah echoed with a nod.

Once they were inside the house, Yemimah scrambled down from her uncle's arms and ran to her Ama who was stirring honeyed figs.

After removing the figs from the heat, Mary knelt down and embraced her daughter.

"Shalom, baby.  Did you help Uncle Lazar?"

Yemimah nodded while, across the room, Lazar softly laughed.  Although he supposed she had greatly helped his mood.

Suddenly, Yemimah gasped.

"Forgotted!"

Lazar peeked out the door after the child ran back into the courtyard.  He watched as Yemimah snatched up a bundle of flowers she'd picked while he'd chopped wood.

"Please tell me she's not getting dirty," Martha called from her position near the stove.  "It's almost supper time."

"No more than usual," Lazar reported.  "She is only three, Martha."

Martha sighed and looked to her sister.

"She is so much like you.  Sometimes I have a hard time believing you didn't birth her."

Mary only smiled and shrugged.

"She was meant to be mine.  Yeshu said so."  For a moment, her lip trembled but, after taking a deep breath, Mary recovered.

"Maryam and Yoninah have been gone for quite some time," Lazar observed.  "Perhaps..."

He was cut off by a squeal from the courtyard.

The three siblings watched from the window as Yeshua's mother and aunt returned from their walk and were immediately greeted by the toddler.

"Yemmy..."  Maryam picked the little girl up and kissed her hair.  "Such a delightful greeting!"

"For you."

"Aww..." Yoninah cooed when Yemimah thrust her bouquet in Maryam's face.

"Oh...  They are beautiful!  Thank you, sweet girl."

"I hearded Yeshu.  Told me to pick em for you."

Maryam's eyes welled.  So often, first as a boy and then as a man, her Yeshua had picked flowers for her.  Now he had again through this precious, little one.

"Then thank you to both of you... you and Yeshu," Maryam murmured.

After swiping at tears in her own eyes, Yoninah set a gentle hand on her sister-in-law's back.

"I think we should get inside.  It's getting a bit chilly, yes?"

"Yes," Maryam agreed.

As Maryam carried her, Yemimah snuggled against the woman.

"Maryam, Yoninah," Lazar greeted them at the door.  "I trust your walk was pleasant?"

"Very," Yoninah replied.  "It was beautiful... nice to take a few moments to admire the beauty of nature... of... of the One who gave us this beautiful world."

"Yemimah...  Look at you!"  Martha clucked her tongue.  "And you're getting your dirt all over Maryam!"

"I do not mind," Maryam assured.

"Yemimah, let's go get you cleaned up."  Mary reached for her daughter but she continued to cling to Maryam.

"Perhaps I could go with you?" Maryam suggested.

The child smiled and nodded.

"You don't mind?" Mary checked.

"Not at all!"

"All right then."

The two women took Yemimah into the room she shared with her mother.

"Arms up," Mary directed.

Her daughter obeyed.

Maryam chuckled when the little one's soiled belly was exposed. 

"Yemmy...  How did that happen?" Mary questioned as she began to scrub the dirt away.

"I finded hare and it was cold so I made it warm."  Yemimah mimed snuggling something against her chest.  "Then it hop, hop, hop away."

Mary and Maryam exchanged an amused look.

"Maybe let's not tell Aunt Martha about the hare..." Mary suggested.  "Our secret."

Yemimah nodded as Maryam wiped her face with a damp cloth.

"That reminds me of something Yeshu would do," she mused, smiling at the child who grinned back at her.

"Mar-yum?"

"Hmm?"

"Tell the story, pease?"

Mary froze.

"Yemimah, maybe we..."

Maryam shook her head and smiled.

"No.  I would love to tell the story.  How about we finish getting you cleaned up and after we've prayed and had our supper, I will tell the story?" she offered.

Yemimah clapped her hands and danced around.

"Baby Yeshu story..."

Maryam scooped her up and cradled her.

"Such a story..." she murmured.

*~*~*

After the little group had finished the last of their fish, bread, and honeyed figs, they gathered around a fire pit in the courtyard. 

"This reminds me of when you, Yosef, and Yeshua used to visit us," Lazar reminisced to Maryam.  "Yeshu and I would stay up as late as we could... telling stories around the fire.  I wish I had written them down.  Perhaps there was some greater meaning... like his parables."

Maryam smiled and shrugged.

"Perhaps.  But perhaps not.  He was also just a little boy with a vibrant imagination."

"I used to be so jealous but Ama wouldn't let me stay up with you," Martha recalled.  "And then when I had my chance to listen to Yeshua... I wanted to clean and cook instead."

Mary hugged her sister.

"But you listened when he asked you to," she reminded.

Martha nodded.

"I did...  Although sometimes I feel like I still need him to remind me that cleaning and cooking can wait."

"I think we all need that reminder sometimes."  Yoninah looked up at the sky.  "And I think Yeshu will whisper it to us.  We just need to listen for him."

Yemimah, bored by the talk of cooking and cleaning, yawned.

Noticing, Maryam squeezed the child's hand.

"Tell me when you see the first star, Yemmy," she encouraged.

Snuggled in the woman's lap, Yemimah searched the sky then gasped.

"There!  Star there!"

"All right then..."

Though they'd heard it many, many times before, the adults all listened as keenly as Yemimah as Maryam began her tale.

"It all started with a visit from an angel..."

Yemimah stared up in wonder at Maryam as she told about Gabriel, the reunion with Yosef, the trek to Bethlehem, and the stable.

"And then I heard the sweetest cry I had ever heard... and saw the sweetest face I had ever seen..."  A tear slid down Maryam's cheek and she gathered the child in her arms still closer.  "My Yeshu... our Yeshu... was born."

Yemimah's gaze shifted to the starry sky.  She closed her eyes, conjuring that beloved face.

Maryam looked down at the child in her lap and smiled.  She had wondered how she would face Yeshua's birthday.  But their tradition held... it was only changed.  There were others who wanted to hear the story now... needed to hear it.

And she would tell it every year until she went Home to be with her husband and her son.

*~*~*

Sunday, December 15th, 2019

Shortly after midnight, Maryam, Jemima, and Joshua bustled around the Willowveil kitchen, setting out the supplies they would need for the morning.

Jemima laughed to herself as she pulled mixing bowls and whisks from out of the cupboards.

"JenniAnn is so much more understanding than my aunt.  She would have rather died than have someone rustling around her kitchen when she wasn't around."

"Well, Andrew cooks about as much as JenniAnn does," Joshua pointed out.  "So, to be fair, she doesn't feel as proprietary about the kitchen as Martha did."

"That's true.  And good for Andrew."

"I raise em well," Joshua joked.

"You were quite good around the kitchen," Maryam observed.

"I was raised well."  Joshua smiled and kissed his mother's temple before turning to the pantry.  "Now where did that honey..."

Jemima cocked her head.

"I think I just heard the front door."

Joshua frowned.

"I told Andrew and JenniAnn that I was fine with watching the kids over..."

"I can't believe this... I can't..."

"The bedrooms are upstairs."

"That's not Andrew and JenniAnn!" Jemima cheered, recognizing the voices.

Joshua gripped his mother's hand tightly.

Ibrahim and Raheem were in the hallway.

"Yemimah, perhaps we should check on the children and prepare for bed?" Maryam suggested after embracing her son.

"Oh...  Yeah.  We should," Jemima agreed.  She snuck in a quick peck on Joshua's cheek then left the room with Maryam.

Left alone, Joshua peered up at the ceiling.

"Dad...  Is this...  Does he know?" he asked.

The only voice Joshua heard was his mother's.

"Yeshua is in the kitchen.  I am sure he would be delighted to see you both," she directed.

Joshua's question was answered as soon as Ibrahim came into view.  There was wonder, astonishment, regret, and love writ across his face.

As Raheem politely hung back, Joshua approached Ibrahim who began to sob.  Joshua pulled him into his embrace and stroked his hair.

Unable to speak, Ibrahim clung to Joshua.

They remained that way for several moments with Raheem also weeping nearby.  Finally, Ibrahim spoke.

"I... I should have known... earlier.  Why... why did it take me so... so long?"

Joshua rested his forehead against Ibrahim's and brushed the tears from his face.

"You were so wounded... so distrustful.  And yet you were... and are... a good friend to me, Ibrahim."

"But when I..."  Ibrahim's face flushed with embarrassment when he thought of his early accusation against Joshua.

Joshua shook his head.

"You were forgiven for that.  Don't think about it any more.  You have been a good friend to me, Ibrahim.  Truly.  A good son."

A new wave of tears flooded Ibrahim's eyes.  For so long, he had longed to hear those words.  And, coming from Joshua, they meant more to him than they ever could have had they come from his father.

Joshua again embraced Ibrahim tightly and softly rocked as the man wept.

Suddenly, Ibrahim raised his head from Joshua's shoulder.

"Liyana...  Does she know?"

Joshua smiled and nodded.

"For some time.  Please don't be upset with her for not telling you.  You needed to come to the truth on your own, in your own time."

Ibrahim nodded.

"I... I had a dream... a memory."

"I know," Joshua confirmed.  "The swings."

"The swings..." Ibrahim echoed.

"As it happens, we're planning to have a big breakfast here in the morning, after services.  I think that would be a wonderful time to share your happy news... and hear Liyana's story.  And Raheem's."

Raheem chuckled.

"It's a doozy..."

Joshua beamed at him.

"Until then... and since I suspect you won't sleep... maybe we could pick up where we left off?" he suggested to Ibrahim.  "There's a swing set out back."

Ibrahim's face lit up.

"I... I'd love that."

Raheem approached and squeezed his cousin's shoulder.

"I'm so happy for you Ibrahim... but you did wake me up," he teased.

Ibrahim and Joshua chuckled.

"So... I'm going to go find a spot to take a nap.  You take all the time you need."

"Thank you for bringing him, Raheem."  Joshua embraced him.  "Now... go get some sleep!"

"Happily!  On both counts."

After giving Ibrahim a hug, Raheem departed. 

"Now..."  Joshua beamed at Ibrahim.  "The swing set awaits!"

Marveling at the surroundings, Ibrahim followed Joshua into the backyard.

"This is all so astounding... you most of all but... this." 

Joshua chuckled as Ibrahim waved his hand around to indicate their surroundings.

"Dad and I love creating worlds.  Why stop at one?  Raheem may have told you but, in case not, this is Asteriana, commonly known as Dyeland.  The castle is called Willowveil and Andrew and JenniAnn live here with Belle and Avi.  It's usually where my family and I stay when we're around because, with the portal, it's the most easily accessible for the most people.  Other there..."  Joshua waved to a nearby house.  "Is where Violeta and Ivy stay.  That's Andrew's workshop and... well, there's so much to show you but we'll save that for a sunny day."

"Magnificent..."

"I think so," Joshua replied, smiling proudly.  "And here we are.  It's a little chilly, though, so..." 

Ibrahim's eyes grew wide when Joshua stared a few feet off and a fire appeared.

"I guess I better get used to that sort of stuff," he mused.

"Kind of.  I try not to show off.  But this is a special occasion," Joshua explained with a grin.  He waved for Ibrahim to choose a swing then settled down beside him.

"To think... all those years ago...  You met my mom at her job?"

"The halal grocery where she was working was expanding and needed some shelves so..."

"So there you were."

Joshua nodded.

"But I was really there for her.  And for you.  She needed a friend... someone who, she assumed, didn't really know her or your father so she could speak freely."

"And why did she want you to speak to me?"

"I guess I made a good impression."

Ibrahim laughed.

"I can't imagine you making a bad impression although... I guess some Pharisees and Sadducees might debate me on that."

"Definitely.  Anyway, she thought you needed a man to speak to.  She didn't want you left thinking we were all bad."

As he began to pump his legs, Ibrahim thought.

"I... I wish I hadn't forgotten you.  I mean... I did have a vague memory of one of my mom's friends coming to see me.  But the face, the name... gone.  Until tonight."

"You remembered on some level," Joshua assured.  "And it's a good thing you didn't retain a clear memory of my face.  Wouldn't you have found that suspicious when I showed up so many years later, looking exactly the same?"

"Good point." 

"And I valued that time together, Ibrahim.  Truly."

"I did, too.  But..."

"Hmm?"

Ibrahim ceased swinging and peered into Joshua's eyes.

"So then when you showed up... you knew you were going to get shot?"

Joshua sighed and dragged his hand through his hair.

"Yes and no.  Right before I showed up, when I was still in Heaven, I knew.  I knew everything.  But when I come to Earth and the other created worlds then, often, I'm a lot like I was 2,000 years ago.  I put away a lot of that knowledge.  I knew there was a chance of a shooting... I knew there was a chance I'd be shot... but I didn't know either with certainty."

"You... you were willing to lay down your life.  Again."

Joshua nodded and reached over to clasp Ibrahim's hand.

"I told you that I would be back when you really needed me."

Ibrahim's eyes filled as he realized that he was, truly, responsible for what had happened to Joshua.  And yet... his heart wasn't as heavy as it had been before when he'd feared his speeches at the mosque had put Joshua at risk.  Now he realized he was just one of the billions who Joshua had been willing to die for... had died for.

"I'm sorry that you didn't have the support of an earthly father throughout your life, Ibrahim.  I know... truly know... how that hurt you.  But don't ever think that you're without a father.  The Father is always, always with you.  And so am I.  And so is the Spirit."

"I won't forget," Ibrahim vowed.  "I... I can't forget now."

Joshua smiled and affectionately patted his cheek.

"Good.  And also know that Liyana is right.  She's right about a lot but specifically I'm talking about her insistence that you're a wonderful father to Judah.  And you will continue to be.  That doesn't mean you won't stumble.  My own Abi misstepped a time or two.  That's part of being human.  But you will always be the exact dad that was chosen for Judah and he will always be the exact son that was chosen for you and Liyana."

Hearing this, Ibrahim rose from his swing and, once Joshua had, too, he embraced him tightly.

"I... I love you," Ibrahim murmured.

Joshua beamed.  He knew that was the first time Ibrahim had said those words to another man since his father had walked out.

"I love you, too, Ibrahim.  So much."

After they finally broke apart, the two men returned to their swings and spoke of lighter things until the sun came up and it was time to prepare the bread and honeyed figs that Joshua wanted to make for everyone.

*~*~*

That morning, several of the Friends gathered in Willowveil Castle's ballroom for brunch and fellowship.  They were delighted by Ibrahim's happy news and he was equally thrilled to learn of Liyana's breakthrough on the day of the health fair and Raheem's path towards the truth following his miraculous healing.

"You know, I did wonder about where all the blood on your shirt came from," Ibrahim recalled.  "But I just figured you had grabbed Joshua or something."

Raheem shook his head.

"No... it was my blood."

"That's how I was convinced.  Matthew told me there was no way that was Joshua's blood," Hura recalled.  "So then I knew."

"And Iz and I heard through the bedroom door while they were talking about it," Amala added.  "So... that's all it took for us."

Seated beside her, Christopher shook his head in wonder.

"And then I practically begged them to let me go to Bible study with them... having no idea who Joshua really was.  So they brought me through the portal... same way you came, Ibrahim.  And that was astounding enough.  But then... I... I remembered how, when I'd first met Joshua years ago at JCS, I'd told him that I wished he was really Jesus.  And... and he said 'He's right here.'  I thought he meant, you know, in spirit... but it hit me.  He was being very literal.  And then I knew."

After Christopher finished speaking, each member of the group briefly filled Ibrahim in on how they'd come to learn the truth about Joshua... or identified themselves as angels who had always known.

"No way!" Ibrahim exclaimed when Andrew shared that he was an angel of death.

Andrew laughed.

"Should I be concerned that you're more surprised by me being an angel than any of the others?"

Ibrahim chuckled and shook his head.

"No.  You're an incredibly kind man.  It's just..."  His face flushed when his gaze briefly alighted on JenniAnn who was seated on the arm of Andrew's chair, his arm tucked around her waist.

"Me?" JenniAnn guessed with a grin.

"Well... yeah...  You just seem very... attached."

"Very," JenniAnn agreed with a giggle before kissing a now-blushing Andrew's temple.

"They're anam caras... soul friends," Joshua explained with a smile.  "It's not like marriage which, as we all know, can mean many different things to different people.  It's not even 'til death do us part.'  It's a soul-deep connection that lasts eternally."

"So I'm stuck with him forever," JenniAnn teased.

"Afraid so," Andrew shot back before his face softened and he brought one of her hands to his lips.  "I feel very, very blessed."

"Love..." 

Joshua chuckled as the two stared into each other's eyes.

"So, yes, they're very attached.  And they're not the only ones.  And human anam caras can be married.  I can say with great authority that you, Ibrahim and Liyana, are also anam caras."

The couple beamed at each other and then at Judah who was sleeping in Liyana's arms.

"It's all so amazing, isn't it?" she asked her husband.

"Very," he agreed.  "But... I feel like I must have missed so much since, by necessity, a lot must have been hidden from me.  So... if you don't mind... I'd love to hear a story from each of you that, maybe, you wished you'd been able to tell me.  I mean... not that I suspect that my situation was constantly on your minds but..."

Ibrahim heard muffled laughter and saw the knowing looks passed around amongst the others.

"Friend, constant prayers were said for you!" Zeke assured.  "And I imagine many, many stories have been saved up for you, too."

Touched, Ibrahim's eyes filled. 

"I... I would love to hear them."

Joshua squeezed the man's shoulder then peered out at the others.

"So... who would like to start?"

In Isolde's lap, baby Bram cooed.

Marco chuckled.

"I guess us?" 

"We do have quite the story," Isolde averred as she caressed the infant's rosy cheeks.

"We do," her husband agreed.  "Well... as we said earlier, Isolde and I were vampires.  But we didn't say our ages so...  I'm a whopping 523 years old."

"And I have one year on 'im.  I'm 524," Isolde stated with a grin.

Ibrahim balked then looked to Joshua for confirmation.

Chuckling, the carpenter nodded.

"They're telling the truth.  Barring my parents, John, Jemima, several of the angels, and, of course, myself... Isolde and Marco are the oldest among us."

"Wow..."

Marco laughed. 

"Trust me... sometimes we don't feel all that mature.  Especially lately.  Nothing makes you doubt your 'adulting' skills as much as a baby.  But..."  He bowed and nuzzled his son.  "He's worth it."

"Definitely," Isolde agreed, drinking in the sweet smell of Bram's hair.  "Anyway...  I didn't say much about this at the time... moreso because I didn't wanna worry Liyana."  She smiled at the younger woman.  "Your own due date was quickly approaching and I didn't wanna freak ya out.  Or Ibrahim."

"Thank you for that."  Liyana laughed.  "I didn't need any help in that department.  But... I did get the impression it was a difficult labor.  I mean... it was nearly a day between the time we got the text saying you were headed to the hospital and when we got the one saying Bram was born."

"Over twenty hours of labor..."  Marco bowed his head and squeezed his wife's shoulders.  "I wasn't even doing anything but I was about at my breaking point.  Seeing her like that..."

*~*~*

Saturday, November 16th, 2019

Isolde lay, exhausted and as pale as the hospital bed sheet.  Her rosary was twisted around one hand while Marco clasped her other hand.

"Do... do you think maybe we should reconsider a C-section?" he asked.

Isolde's eyes fluttered open.

"It's too late for that, I'm sure."

"I... I'm sorry," Marco apologized.  "Maybe... maybe we should have waited until you were older.  I should have waited..."

"Uh... ya think?" a nearby nurse muttered.

Isolde shot her a look. 

"Not that it's any of your business... but I'm older than him.  I just have good genes."

The nurse gaped, surprised she'd been heard and struggling to square this proclamation with Marco's older appearance and his words. 

"I think you should leave..." a second nurse directed to the other.

Once the naysayer was gone, Isolde relaxed and cupped Marco's cheek.

"It takes two to tango, ya know."  She gave him a weary grin.  "And I was just as eager to tango... if not more."

Marco smiled and nodded.

"This is true...  I'm just sorry this is so difficult for you.  Maybe... maybe we should call Joshua and... and see if he can..."  He lowered his voice.  "Do anything?"

"Ah, mo chuisle...  This is simply the way of it.  My own ma labored for nearly a day with me.  I got my small frame from her which makes it harder but... she managed.  So will I," Isolde reassured.  "The wee one just needs a bit more time, I spose."  She stroked her belly.  "It must be scary to think of comin' out into the big, ol' world.  But ma and da long to see ya..."

As if the baby heard, Isolde's body suddenly tensed.

"Another contraction?" the nurse asked.

Isolde nodded.

Marco moved to kneel behind his wife as she began to push. 

Clutching Marco's hand and her rosary, Isolde closed her eyes. 

She thought of Maryam... laboring to bring Joshua into the world. 

And she thought of Joshua on the cross... laboring to bring eternal life to them all.

Isolde rallied and pushed as hard as she could.

The nurse checked her and looked up excitedly.

"The head!  I see the head!" 

The doctor was paged but before she arrived, Isolde pushed again.

"There you are!" the nurse cheered as she caught the baby.  "It's a boy!"

Isolde and Marco smiled wearily as the baby wailed heartily.

The doctor rushed in.

"Well... when you decided to come, you came fast, little one!"  She patted Isolde's knee.  "Good job.  Dad, would you like to cut the umbilical cord?"

Marco looked to Isolde for direction, leery of leaving her side.

"Go, Marco..."

Isolde squeezed her husband's hand before he nodded and stepped forward.

Once the cord was cut, Marco looked on protectively as the nurse checked the baby out while the doctor coached Isolde through delivering the afterbirth. 

Soon, Marco had the adorable, sobbing infant in his arms.  His eyes filled as he placed the baby in his mother's arms.

"Look at him... look at him..." Isolde murmured, weeping happily as she studied every inch of her baby boy.  "He's perfect... so perfect..."  When she reswaddled him and snuggled him against her chest, the baby stopped crying.  "I... I've waited over 500 years for you," she whispered into his tiny ear.

"He... he is perfect," Marco agreed.  He kissed Isolde's hair.  "You... you did so well, mo cailin.  So well..."

Isolde beamed and kissed her husband.

"I love you so much...  I love both my boys so much..."

"This little boy needs a name," Marco reminded, stroking the baby's cheeks.

Isolde studied him.

"I like... Bram."

Marco balked.

"Bram?"  He lowered his voice.  "Considering our past, you want to name him Bram?  Like... Bram Stoker?"

Isolde giggled.

"I suppose that is a weird connection but I dunno...  He just looks like a Bram to me."

Marco peered down at the infant.  With his bald head and wizened face, he did look like a Bram.

"How about... Bram Patrick Crocetti?" Marco suggested.

"Bram Patrick Crocetti..." Isolde repeated reverently.  "I love it...  I love you, Bram Patrick Crocetti."

Bram peered up at his parents and knew he was loved.

*~*~*

A few hours later, Marco was watching over his sleeping wife and child when there was a soft knock on the door.  Marco's face lit up when he turned to find Joshua.

The man leaped up from his chair and embraced his Lord.

"Joshua..." he whispered.  "I'm so glad you came!"

"Of course!  I wanted to give you, Isolde, and the little one some time to yourselves... but I was quite anxious to see him on this side."

Marco clasped Joshua's hand and led him to Bram's bassinet.

"Joshua, this is Bram Patrick Crocetti...  Bram... this is... is Joshua.  Our... our everything," Marco introduced.

Joshua squeezed Marco's shoulders then tenderly stroked the baby's head.

"Hello, Bram.  Good to see you again.  Oh, little one...  you are going to love your ma and da.  And you will be so loved."

"We love him so much already," Marco murmured.  "It... it's amazing how quickly something so small can take over your life."  He sighed happily then tore his gaze away from his son to look at Joshua.  "Isolde told me that... right at the end... she thought of your Ama giving birth to you.  And... and then of your Passion.  That gave her the strength to bring him into this world.  And... and we wouldn't have him at all if not for you... for the cure.  Thank you, Joshua.  So very much..."

Joshua hugged the teary-eyed father.

"Marco... it was my pleasure.  I'm so happy for you and Isolde and baby Bram.  And now... how about I sit with Isolde and Bram and you go take a break?  You're looking a little stiff."

Marco chuckled.

"I haven't moved much in the last several hours.  A break would be nice.  Thank you, Joshua."

"You're very welcome."

After kissing Isolde's forehead and stroking Bram's head, Marco left the room.  Joshua claimed his chair and began to pray as he gazed lovingly at the mother and child.  Marco hadn't been gone for long when Isolde stirred.

Joshua watched as she gently caressed her belly and then, remembering, sat up and looked to the side of her bed where Bram continued to sleep.  And then she noticed Joshua.

"Joshua..."

He rose and perched on the other side of Isolde's bed, embracing her as she began to cry.

"I... I was starting to get so scared that... that maybe something would go wrong.  A-and then I thought of you... and of your Ama.  And then... there he was."

Joshua kissed her brow.

"You did so well, sweet girl.  I'm so proud of you.  And your ma and your da... they're so thrilled.  And Marco's, too."

Isolde tightened her grip of Joshua.

"I miss them so much...  But I'm so glad you're here.  You're our past... our present... our future.  His, too."  She smiled at Bram.

"I'll always be here for all three of you... and the others when their time comes."

Isolde laughed.

"Maybe don't mention that to Marco just yet.  I think he was a bit traumatized by the long labor but... I do want more.  Very much."

Joshua smiled and mimed zipping his lips.

"He's... such a miracle.  Our miracle, your miracle," Isolde mused in awe.  She drew in and let out a deep breath then rested her head against Joshua's.  "Last night, I... I started to think about when I was raped and turned and... and how I just wanted to die.  I begged you to... to let me die.  But if I had... no Bram.  And... and I've lived 524 years on Earth without 'im but now... now I can't imagine a second without 'im."

"And you won't have to, Isolde.  He's yours forever.  And I heard you... the Father heard you.  But even in the darkness of that day... we already knew the light... and the life... that would come.  We knew Bram."

Isolde sniffled.

"Yeah..."  She beamed at Joshua and then at her boy who had begun to fidget.  His eyes opened and his mouth stretched to wail.

"Can I?" Joshua checked.

"Of course!"

Joshua picked up the baby, immediately calming him, and sat back down beside Isolde.

Marco returned just then, carrying cups of tea.  His heart soared at the sight of his beautiful, brave wife and his sweet baby boy in the arms of their God.

*~*~*

Sunday, December 15th, 2019

"How wonderful..." Ibrahim praised as the Crocettis' story came to a close.  He looked to Joshua.  "You were among our first visitors after Judah was born.  I wish I'd known then..."

"I knew," Liyana reminded.  "I thanked Joshua and his Dad for both of us."

Joshua smiled at the memory and nodded.

"She did.  And you let me hold and coo at Judah even just thinking I was a well-meaning carpenter and friend, Ibrahim."

"I'm so glad that my son will grow up knowing about you.  And all these little ones, too..."  Ibrahim smiled at the Friends who had children snuggled against them.

"2019 did bring us quite the baby boom," Emma observed.  "Little Etta in February..."

Edward stroked the sleeping baby's hair as Zadie cradled her.

"Then Joe in August..."

Beth patted Mick's arm as he stood and swayed with their fussy son.

"Then Bram and only a few days later came Nova."

Logan beamed as he held his baby girl.

"And nothing's been the same since..." Zelda mused adoringly.  "She's so precious..."

"And I'm sure she won't hold a grudge against her Daddy for spending the last week of Zelda's pregnancy wishing she'd look like Baby Yoda," Salma teased.

Logan burst out laughing but shook his head.

"Okay, just to clarify, I didn't really want Nova to look like Baby Yoda.  I wanted Nova to look like Nova... I just thought an additional baby who resembled Baby Yoda would be nice."

"You and a higher percentage of the population than I'd like to admit," Joshua jested.  "And I agree Baby Yoda... so called... is precious."

"So called..." Logan echoed.  "Come to think of it... you would know his real name.  And Mando's.  And the plot of The Rise of Skywalker..." 

Joshua laughed and put a finger over his lips.

"And I'm telling absolutely none of it!" he insisted.

Logan sighed dramatically.

"All right..."

"Anyway... back to the real babies," Emma prodded.  "So then came Mr. Judah and next..."  She beamed at Kylie who was heavily pregnant.

"Name to be determined," Kylie chortled.

Clay patted his wife's belly.

"But we'll know soon.  Not long after the first of the year.  Unless she decides to come early, of course."

"Maybe she'll share a birthday with Joshua!" Kyle suggested. 

"Maybe... maybe not," Joshua replied with a grin.

Ibrahim laughed.

"You are full of secrets... as I would imagine you need to be."

Joshua looked across the room and winked at Mason and Renee, recognizing their cue.

"Well..."  Mason cleared his throat.  "As it happens... Joshua isn't the only one with secrets..."

The rest of the group all looked expectantly at the couple as they prepared to tell their story.

"I'll start," Renee began.  "It all went down yesterday afternoon.  Unexpectedly, Josh here showed up at my apartment.  He said there was an exhibit that he wanted to see at the MOMA and invited me along.  And, of course, I was thrilled.  So we went.  And that was very nice... always love spending time with Josh.  After we grabbed some lunch, we headed back to my apartment.  But... when we arrived... it wasn't empty."

*~*~*

Saturday, December 14th, 2019

"I'm so glad we did this!  I don't get to museums nearly as often as I'd like to.  And it's so exciting to go with someone who knows the history... all of it."  Renee beamed at Joshua. 

"It was a delight to have you experience the museum with me, Renee.  I love seeing the various pieces through my children's eyes."  Joshua hugged her.

"Aww, Josh...  I'm sure you have places to go but... do you wanna come in for some tea or something?" Renee offered.

"I'll stick around for a bit," Joshua agreed, trying to keep from looking as excited as he felt.

"Awesome!"  Renee unlocked her door then stepped aside for Joshua to enter.

"You first.  Please," he requested, taking the door from her.

"Oh, all..."  Renee quieted when she glimpsed the inside of her apartment.  There were candles everywhere and Mason stood in the center of her living room, holding a single red rose.

Joshua gently nudged Renee through the door then closed it behind them.

"Umm... oh...  Mason..."  Tears cascading down her face, Renee approached her boyfriend.

Mason clasped her hand and led her to her favorite chair.  He handed her the rose then knelt in front of her.

"Renee, my lovely Renee...  You've been such an incredible support to me over this past couple of years... you... you helped me find my way back to... to Josh..."

Standing nearby, Joshua smiled lovingly at the couple.

"You were by my side as I got sober.  You... you were at the end of the phone line every time I... I had a nightmare."

Smiling through her tears, Renee cradled Mason's face and rested her forehead against his.

Drawing in a deep breath, Mason paused before continuing.

"I can't imagine going through life without you by my side... every day... so..."  He reached into his pocket and held a ring out to her.  "Would you do me the great honor of... of becoming my wife?"

Renee began to nod enthusiastically before her voice came to her.

"Yes.  Yes!"

Joshua clapped and cheered as the couple kissed and Mason slid the ring onto Renee's finger.  As the kiss lingered, he politely turned away and pulled a chilled bottle of his grape juice from out of the refrigerator.  When he'd filled three flutes, Renee and Mason approached.

"You knew!" Renee guessed.

Joshua chuckled and nodded.

"Mason asked me to come up with a way to get you out of the apartment for a couple of hours.  So... MOMA it was."

Renee embraced him then stepped back to allow Mason to do the same.

"Thank you for that."  Mason clapped Joshua on the back.  "It made me feel much less rushed."

"It was a beautiful proposal..." Renee cooed.

"It was," Joshua agreed.  "And now... a toast."  He dispersed the glasses then resumed speaking.  "To you, Renee and Mason...  It's been a delight to see you two meet... become good friends... fall in love... support and love each other... and, now, take this important step.  Dad, the Spirit, and I will be with you in every step that follows... loving you, always."

"And we love you, too, Josh," Mason effused.

"So much!"  Renee clasped Joshua's right hand in both of hers.

Joshua's eyes misted as he thought of how far Mason had come, of how hard Renee had prayed for her troubled boyfriend.  And now here they were... all three of them together.  Overcome, he only nodded.

After exchanging a look, Renee and Mason set down their juice and enfolded Joshua in a group hug.  They were happy to be engaged... and happy to be in the presence of the only One they loved more than each other.

*~*~*

Sunday, December 15th, 2019

When Renee and Mason finished their story, the others erupted into applause. 

"Did you know?" Ana-Maria asked Renee's cousin, Roger.

Smiling proudly, Roger nodded. 

"They called me right afterwards.  And... Mason asked me to be his best man.  Funny...  We met in a bar fight.  Now we're family."  Roger chuckled.

"Just one of the amazing and mysterious ways God works, I guess!" Ana-Maria replied.

"Definitely."

"So... date set?" Fr. Mike checked.

"Well... we're not entirely sure yet.  Our priest wants to meet with us a few times... turns out the Episcopalian Church doesn't have formal pre-Cana classes like the Catholic Church does.  But they still like to discuss things," Mason explained.

"Which I'm all for.  I love talking."  Renee laughed.  "Anyway, we're thinking sometime in the autumn.  We'll get married in our church but..."  She turned her gaze to Emma and Peter.  "We were hoping... only if it works out and isn't inconvenient... that maybe we could have the reception at St. G's?"

Emma and Peter exchanged a quick look then nodded at the couple.

"Sure!" Peter agreed.

"We should have a couple dark weekends right at the end of September and early October.  Does that sound good?"

"Wonderful!" Mason enthused.  "We appreciate that.  It just... it seems right since that's where we learned the truth about Josh."  He smiled at the carpenter.

"I love that idea," Joshua averred.

Before anything more could be said, Iz, Liam, and Jacob came tearing into the room with a panting Takoda following them.

"Mom... Dad...  Can we go play outside?  We want to have a snowball fight!" Iz asked, his words rapid and his face flushed with excitement.

"There's a really good hill for sledding, too," Jacob boasted.

"I don't know..."  Raheem looked out the window.  "I don't want you breaking any of these windows..."

"Such beautiful, old windows..." Hura added, gazing admiringly at them and taking particular note of Joshua's handprint in one of the panes.

Andrew chuckled.

"Trust me, these windows have withstood many, many snowball fights.  And..."  He approached a window and peeked out at a thermometer.  "It's forty two degrees.  Decent-ish."

"I think some time outside would do us all good," Joshua declared.  "We've been sitting for a while.  And I'd like to spend some time with the kids.  We can reconvene in an hour or so?  Maybe two if we can get a decent bonfire going?"

"Something tells me you'll get a decent bonfire going, cousin," John teased.

Joshua smirked.

"Yes.  Because you're hauling the wood for it, cousin."  Laughing, he slung an arm around John's shoulders.  "Or I suppose we could do it together.  Okay, everyone into coats and gloves and hats!" 

"I'll go upstairs and tell the other littles," Takoda offered.  "And maybe Joccy and I can stay inside with the ones who are too little to go out?"

"You don't have to do that.  I'll stay," JenniAnn offered.

Joshua noticed the dejected look on Takoda's face.

"JenniAnn, they'll be fine.  Most of them are napping, anyway.  You should get some fresh air," he encouraged.

"Well... okay.  Just... one of you come get us if you need help, Takoda."

Smiling, Takoda nodded eagerly.

"Will do!"

With that decided, the gang prepared to go outside and enjoy the beautiful winter day.

*~*~*

Monica sat in the gazebo behind Willowveil, sipping coffee and watching as several of the adults pulled children along on sleds while others built snowmen and stockpiled snowballs.  She sniffed the air, taking in the scent of the bonfire that had just been started.

She wasn't alone for long before Arthur joined her. 

"It really is such a beautiful day," the angel admired.

Arthur nodded and wrapped an arm around her.

"A beautiful day with a beautiful lady," he complimented.

Monica's cheeks flushed as she beamed.

"You know...  When I was over there helping with the bonfire, Andrew and Joshua suggested that Liam stay over at Willowveil tonight.  Jacob is.  JenniAnn can bring them to class with her in the morning."

"Hmm...  That might be nice."  Monica rested her forehead against Arthur's.  "But then how would we fill the time?"

Chuckling, Arthur caressed her cheek.

"I think we could figure it out."

As they sat together, the couple thought about the gift that Joshua had given them that year.  It wasn't one that they would share about with the group.  But there was no question it had changed their lives.

*~*~*

Friday, June 14th, 2019

Monica sat in her food truck during a lull, scrolling through messages on her cell phone... messages from Arthur.  The log went back for months and months...  Her eyes welled as she read the heartfelt, tender well wishes. 

"I can't wait to see you tonight..."

"The cappuccino machine at the shelter is acting up.  Made me think of you, lady."

"I know I just left the house... but I miss you already."

The more recent texts were much different in tone.

"Left early.  Started the coffee machine.  I'll try to be back for dinner."

"Late night here.  Don't wait up."

The angel was very close to a proper sobfest when the bell at the food truck's window chimed.  Hastily wiping her eyes, Monica rose.

"Be right there.  Menu's on the..."

She froze when she saw a familiar, smiling face.

"I'll take the chicken sandwich, please.  With fruit salad as my side," Joshua ordered.  "And I'd like to eat it in there."

The sight of her beloved Master chipped away what little control Monica had over her emotions.  She fumbled with the lock on the door and burst into tears.

"There now..."  Once he was inside, Joshua engulfed the angel in his embrace.  "I'm here now.  And we're going to sit... and we're going to talk."

"Your... your food..."

"It can wait.  Talk first, eat later.  But..."  He waved to some cups that instantly filled with cafe latte.  He handed one to Monica and claimed the other for himself.

"O-okay..."  Monica set her cup down on a table then plopped onto the bench beside it.

Joshua took a seat beside her and clasped one of her hands in both of his own.  He was silent, waiting for Monica to speak. 

"It... it's Arthur.  And... and me.  We're just not... not... clicking lately."

Joshua nodded.

"It's like... we... we live together and yet somehow... he feels far away."

"Do you think you feel far away to him?"

"I... I guess so.  I don't think Liam has noticed anything is wrong.  There's that at least."

"You and Arthur aren't together just to raise Liam and help out some of the Tunnel kids.  You're together because you love each other... you were created to love each other."

Monica bowed her head.

"I... I think it may have started once we began fostering some of the Tunnel kids..."  Monica took a sip of her coffee, sighed, and resumed speaking.  "I... I'd just missed being needed by a little one."

Joshua again nodded encouragingly.

"So... sometimes I'd sleep in my room so... so they could come get me if they wanted.  And then there was that stretch a couple months ago when Arthur had to work the night shift at True Light and... then when that ended... I just stayed in my room."

"Why?"

"I don't know why!" Monica burst out.  She gripped Joshua's hand and lowered her voice.  "I'm sorry."

"It's okay, Monica.  But I think you do know why...  And I think it would help you... and Arthur... if you would acknowledge it," Joshua prompted.

Tears slid down Monica's cheeks and, when Joshua held an arm out, she moved nearer and rested her head on his shoulder.

"You... you got shot," she murmured.

"Yes... I did."

"And... and it made me realize anew how... how dangerous what Arthur does could be.  And... and how even if... if he lives a... a long, long life... he... he's still going to... to die.  And... and I won't.  Ever.  I'll just... keep going."

"Oh, Monica..."  Joshua kissed her hair.  "Yes.  Arthur will eventually die.  But I'll be there with you.  The Father will be there with you.  And Arthur will still be with you.  We have plans for both of you.  And they definitely don't involve you perpetually wandering the Earth like some sort of Bronte heroine!"

In spite of the tears leaking from her eyes, Monica laughed.

"I... I know the whole anam cara thing is eternal but... it's hard to imagine it."

"I know.  And that's where faith comes in.  It's going to look different for everyone.  What happens with you and Arthur may not look like what happens for Andrew and JenniAnn.  But you'll all have beautiful continuations of the love you share now.  Trust me.  Please."

"I... I do.  I just... I love him so much."

"I know you do.  And Arthur loves you very much, too.  And he's been very confused these past two months... and hurt."

"My poor love..."  Monica rubbed at her temples.  "I... I hurt him..."

"Yes.  But now you can heal him.  How about this...  I happen to know that someone at True Light is hoping to take on extra shifts.  So if you go there right now and ask Arthur to come home early... he'll leave as soon as he calls that fellow in.  I also happen to know that Iz is campaigning for a sleepover at Willowveil... something Andrew and JenniAnn and Raheem and Hura will all comply with.  So... you head over to True Light, I'll finish your shift here, I'll get Liam from his classes, and he can join in on the sleepover.  And, most importantly, you and Arthur can have a much-needed night to yourselves.  Thoughts?"

Monica laughed at Joshua's eager, pointed expression.

"I think I am very grateful to have you as a boss."

"And I'm very glad to have you as my child, Monica.  Now... go!" 

Giggling, Monica rose to her feet, embraced Joshua, grabbed her purse and phone, and fled the food truck.

*~*~*

"Okay... okay...  I understand that.  Trust me, I know what it's like when you're low on help," Arthur spoke into his phone as he sat at his paperwork-strewn desk.  "But we have a van.  So if you could just let us know where someone could pick up the delivery...  Yes, I know that's not standard.  But I have ten men who need those sleeping bags...  Okay..."  He began to scribble onto a piece of paper.  "Thank you!  We'll have someone come over yet this afternoon.  Thank you!"

After hanging up, Arthur pulled off his glasses and rubbed at his eyes and temples.  To his surprise, when he'd replaced his glasses, he saw Monica standing in front of his desk.

"Monica!  What's going on?  Is Liam..."

"Liam is fine," Monica reassured.  "I... I was just hoping maybe you could come home early?  Joshua is covering for me at the food truck and... I thought it would be nice for us to spend some time together.  Just the two of us."

Arthur gaped for a moment.

"If you want to... I mean," the angel hastened to add.

Arthur began to nod enthusiastically.

"I... I would!  Definitely!  Just umm..."  He looked around his desk.  "Just give me an hour maybe?  I'm sure I can get someone to cover the rest of my shift and I need to arrange a pick-up for some sleeping bags but... yeah... an hour should do it.  That okay?"

Monica's face lit up and she nodded.  That would give her time to make some preparations.

"Yes.  Perfect."

Chuckling from sheer happiness, Arthur rose and embraced Monica.

"This... this is great.  Thank you for asking me."  He kissed her forehead.  "I... I'll see you really soon at the house."

"Sounds good."  Monica caressed his cheek.  "I... I love you, Arthur."

"I love you, too, Mon...  I... I've missed this," Arthur confessed, tears welling in his eyes.

"Me... me, too," Monica agreed, tilting her face upwards for a kiss.

Arthur happily complied, pulling his beloved closer.

"All right, you two!  Break it up!  No fraternizing!" Tyson barked from the hallway.

When Arthur and Monica turned to him, faces flushed, the man erupted in laughter.

"Kidding... kidding...  But... I think I'll just close your door, Arthur..."

Still blushing as she smiled, Monica shook her head.

"No, no.  No need.  I was just leaving.  Good to see you, Tyson."

"Good to see you, too, Monica.  Really good."

Monica briefly bowed her head, considering that Arthur's friends and colleagues might have also noticed something was off.

Arthur gave the angel an affectionate squeeze.

"See you in an hour?"

"In an hour," Monica echoed with a nod.

"Can't wait."

"Me neither..." 

Monica squeezed Arthur's hand, smiled once more at Tyson, then left the office.

"Headed out early?" Tyson asked.

"Hope so.  Dustin's been looking for extra shifts so... I think he's available."

"If not, I can stick around."

"Tyson, you don't have to..."

"I know.  But something tells me this is important."

Arthur felt a lump form in his throat.

"Yeah... yeah, I think it is.  Thanks."

"You bet.  Just give me a buzz if you need me."

"Will do."

With a wave, Tyson was gone.

Arthur moved to close his office door then sunk into his chair and began to cry joyful, relieved tears.

*~*~*

Just over an hour later, Arthur entered Veritas carrying a potted miniature rose bush.
  To his delight, he was greeted by the strains of soft, romantic Celtic music and an enticing aroma.  When he entered the kitchen, he found a candlelit table and Monica stirring something on the stove.

"I'm home."

Monica spun around and smiled at Arthur.

"Good!  I was just finishing up here.  Nothing special... spaghetti.  I got the sauce from Marco and Isolde."

"Smells delicious.  I, umm, I got you..."  Arthur held out the plant.

Beaming, Monica accepted the gift.

"Thank you.  They're beautiful!  And I'm glad they're not cut flowers.  Not that I don't love those but... these will live."

"That's what I figured.  I'm glad you like them."

While Monica made a place for the roses near a window, Arthur frowned.  He'd been so relieved when she'd visited his office that his words and actions had just flowed out of him naturally.  Now things felt stilted and awkward.

"There... perfect."

Arthur smiled at the angel as she bent to smell her roses.

"Beautiful..." she praised.  "Now... I'll get our dinner dished up."

"Is there anything I can do?" Arthur offered.

"Umm... pour our drinks?  There's a bottle of Joshua's wine chilling."

"Sounds good."

Arthur retrieved the bottle and filled the glasses Monica had set on the table.

"Anything else?  The spaghetti looks amazing.  And the rolls, too."

"Thank you.  And no.  I think we're ready.  Just let me wash my hands."

"Right.  Me too."

Once that was done, Arthur pulled Monica's chair out for her.

"Thank you, love."

"You're welcome.  Thank you for making this wonderful dinner."

"It was my pleasure.  Would you lead the blessing, please?"

"Sure."  Arthur reached across the table and took Monica's hands in his.  "Joshua... Father... thank You for this delicious meal and for the precious hands that prepared it."

Monica squeezed Arthur's hands.

"Thank You, especially, for this much-needed time together... thank You for covering for Monica and ensuring I was able to leave work early.  Thank You for taking care of our beloved boy.  Thank You for this life we share.  Amen."

"Amen."

Monica smiled at Arthur then released his hands. 

After returning her smile, Arthur twirled some spaghetti onto his fork.  He sighed contently as he took his first bite.

"Delicious," he complimented.

"I'm so glad!"  Monica took a bite and was pleased.  "So... how was work?"

"A little crazy.  We had five new guys come in.  And then that truck with our shipment of sleeping bags broke down and got stuck in Jersey.  But I got a special pick-up scheduled.  How was the food truck?"

"Busy.  I had to send Takoda out about midday to restock our bread and lettuce."

"Wow."

"Yeah."

The two ate silently for a few moments before Monica set down her fork and peered at Arthur.

"I owe you an apology."

"Monica..."  Arthur shook his head.

"But I do!  I... I put the children above our relationship when I really didn't need to... there's no reason they couldn't have knocked on our door if they needed something.  And then... then after Joshua was shot, I... I pulled away even more."

"That was a shock to everyone," Arthur countered, his voice crackly as he recalled that horrible afternoon.

"I know...  But I... Arthur, I should have talked to you about how it made me feel."

"Our Creator was gunned down by an Islamophobic, anti-Semite.  No explanation needed, Monica.  We all felt that deeply."

"Yes but..."  Monica shakily drew in a breath.  "It... it also made me think about...  If Joshua could be so vulnerable... come so... so close to death... again... then... then... so could you," she choked out.

Arthur reached out for the angel's hand.

"Monica..."

"And I... I know that!  I've always known that.  I mean we... we met in the aftermath of a mass shooting!  But something about that... it... it just made the possibility seem all the more... possible.  The people who come to True Light... they aren't always... well.  And when you go out to try to help those on the streets... anything could happen."

"It could.  But Monica... I've been doing this work for decades.  And it's not happened."

"I know..."

"But... I can see how what happened to Joshua scared you and made that possibility seem more plausible.  But I promise you... I'm always careful.  I want to come home to you and to Liam."

"I... I know," Monica repeated.  "But one day..."

"One day... I will die.  That's a fact.  And you won't.  Ever."  Arthur sighed and began to stroke his anam cara's arm.

"And I... I don't know what that looks like.  So... I... I got scared a-and pulled away.  But today... Joshua reminded me that, whatever happens, he and the Father have a plan.  A good plan... for us.  But still... we need to make the most of every moment we have in this life."

"We do..." Arthur agreed, bringing Monica's hand to his lips.

Overcome with affection and love, the couple both abandoned their chairs and embraced.

"I am sorry," Monica reiterated as she stroked some hair behind Arthur's ears.

"I'm sorry, too.  I... I should have spoken up...  Should have fought to right things," Arthur counter-apologized.

"Let's just agree to never let this happen again?"

"Agreed!"

Both beaming, they kissed and then, with some reluctance, returned to their chairs to finish their meal.  Their conversation was no longer forced but joyful and easy as they told each other all the things they'd saved up over the past two months.

*~*~*

That night, Monica awoke with a smile on her face.  She felt Arthur's chin against her hair and his left arm tucked against her chest as they spooned. 

It had been a truly beautiful evening!  After dinner, they'd shared a twilight walk which had ended in a dance beneath the stars.  Then they'd come inside and prepared for bed... and for the first time in too long, she'd joined him in his room... their room.

Monica sighed contentedly.

"I know..."

Twisting around, Monica realized that Arthur was awake and smiling at her.  She caressed his face and then nuzzled against his neck.

"It feels good to be home," she murmured.

"It does," he agreed, running his hands through her hair.

"I love you so much, a stór."

"And I love you so much, milady."

Still smiling, they both kissed then drifted back to sleep, confident that their struggles were behind them.

*~*~*

Sunday, December 15th, 2019

Monica sighed happily as she raised her head from Arthur's shoulder.

"Thank God for Joshua," Arthur proclaimed before realizing how funny it sounded and beginning to laugh.

Monica joined in on his laughter. 

"Yes, indeed.  Thank Him for Him.  But now... we better go be social.  Besides, I want to go see the mice."

"The mice..." Arthur repeated, shaking his head.  "Andrew deserves to be sainted."

"You wouldn't do the same for me?" Monica asked with a teasing grin.

Arthur pulled Monica to her feet and embraced her.

"I adore you... and, yes, I would do anything I could for you.  But... I wouldn't like it."

Laughing, Monica looped her arm through Arthur's.

"I'm not so sure Andrew's too keen on it himself..."

*~*~*

Inside the barn, Andrew and JenniAnn were introducing Ibrahim to their many pets.

"And these are my goats: Gertie, Gracie, Glori, and Gwyn.  And Violeta's sheep... Mary and Silly are the mom and dad.  And they have seven children.  I'll let Violeta fill you in on all their names and idiosyncrasies later," JenniAnn promised.

Ibrahim laughed.

"Got it.  One question... how are you keeping them from, umm, getting with their brothers and sisters?"

"Well... we really wanted to get Silly fixed but Violeta refused.  So we made a compromise.  Silly's... parts... are safe.  But the offspring have all been fixed," Andrew explained.  "So no inbreeding."

"Ah good."

"Yep.  And this here is my horse, Starbuck."  Andrew stopped to stroke the horse's mane and give him some treats.

"Is he named after the coffee chain?"

The angel of death chuckled and shook his head.

"No.  I love the book Moby Dick.  He's a character in the book.  I named the horse after him.  I believe Starbucks is named after him, too."

"He's beautiful...  Can I?"  Ibrahim held his hand out towards Starbuck.

"Sure!" Andrew consented.  "All of our animals are friendly... maybe overly friendly."

"Such a beautiful boy..." Ibrahim complimented the horse.  "Very handsome!"

Behind him, a donkey brayed.

"Uh oh...  Jealous!"  JenniAnn opened Yonah's pen and stepped inside, nuzzling her donkey's neck.  "You're just fine...  Besides, you're not being neglected.  You have a friend."  She reached over and pet Yoktan then beamed at Ibrahim.  "This whiny fellow is my donkey, Yonah.  But this... this is Maryam's and Yosef's donkey.  Yoktan.  He's the donkey who carried Maryam to Bethlehem."

Ibrahim gaped.

"You can pet him," Andrew encouraged.  "He loves people."

Dazed, Ibrahim moved into the pen and rested a hand on Yoktan's back.

"Hello, Yoktan.  Wow...  You're quite the celebrity!" 

"Yoktan made a few appearances in St. G's Jesus Christ Superstar," Andrew relayed.  "He's a real crowd-pleaser."

"And very sweet..."  Ibrahim smiled as the donkey affectionately nosed his shoulder.

"He is.  Yonah's always so happy when he comes to visit.  Although he and Starbuck are quite the friends, too."  JenniAnn smiled at their menagerie.  "They all get along pretty well.  We sometimes have to be a little careful that the goats don't push the sheep around.  But other than that.. one, big happy family!"

"And then there's the little family..."  Andrew winked at JenniAnn then, once Ibrahim had bid adieu to the animals, they exited the barn where Arthur and Monica were admiring the latest addition to the building... several tiny houses built along the side of one wall.

"We've seen a couple scampering around," Monica shared.  "Just moving between houses."

"A couple of..." Ibrahim prompted.

"Mice!" JenniAnn proudly declared.  "Andrew built a mouse village!"

Arthur chuckled as Andrew let out a sigh.

"Yep... I did that," he admitted.

"Oh... don't be like that!  It's just more proof of how absolutely awesome you are, my love."  JenniAnn stretched up to kiss the angel of death's cheek.

Andrew smiled at her and wrapped an arm around her.

"You know what they say: happy anam cara, happy life."

Arthur laughed.

"A little clunkier than the original rhyme but sure."

"Okay... how did you end up building a mouse village?" Ibrahim questioned.  "You obviously love animals but..."

JenniAnn looked dreamily up at Andrew.

"He's wonderful..."

"And she's got a big heart," the angel added.  "Even for very, very small things.  The mouse village came into being after we had a pretty bad cold snap in October..."

*~*~*

Thursday, October 17th, 2019

Andrew was putting a final coat of stain on a special-order chair when his carpentry shop's door flew open.  A moment later, a sobbing JenniAnn was at his side.

"Laja!  What's wrong?  Are the kids..."

"There are baby mice in the barn!" the woman wailed.

Andrew cocked his head.  He was expecting something of greater import.

"Well, Laja... it was bound to happen sometime.  I'm actually surprised we haven't found mice in there before."

"I didn't see the parents!" JenniAnn added, tears still pouring down her cheeks.  "What if... if they got trampled or... or eaten!  And now the babies will starve and..."

"Eaten?  Laja... I really don't see any of the other animals eating mice.  Or even catching them.  Mice are so quick.  Our animals are, well, lazy."

"Well... I don't know!  But I didn't see them!  And they're tiny, little pinkies and all wiggly... so... vulnerable."

Andrew gaze her a hug and kissed her hair.

"Laja, please take a couple of deep breaths.  Then show me where they're at."

"Okay..."

Andrew took JenniAnn's hand and followed her back to the barn.  When they entered, everything seemed as it should be.  Yonah appeared a little antsy but Andrew put that to distress at seeing his beloved JenniAnn run out of the barn in hysterics.

"Where are they?"

Her hand shaking, JenniAnn pointed to the corner of an empty stall where they kept feed.

"All right."

Andrew crept forward and peered into the dim corner.

"I... I had to use my cell phone flashlight to see them."

"Okay."  Andrew turned his on.  He shown it into the corner and, sure enough, saw a writhing mass of baby mice... suckling.  "Laja...  their mom's right here.  They're nursing."

"Really?" JenniAnn checked, immediately perking up.

"Yeah...  Maybe they were just covering her when you looked.  Come here."

Kneeling beside Andrew, JenniAnn followed the beam of his flashlight.  She smiled when she saw the little creatures. 

"Aww..."

"Yeah..."  Andrew frowned.  "But where there's a mom and her mouselings... there's probably a dad and the rest of his harem."

JenniAnn giggled.

"Harem?"

"Or whatever you want to call it.  They're not monogamous."

"For shame, mousies!" JenniAnn jested. 

Suddenly, another mouse scurried around the two and nested down with the mother and babies.

"Where did that come from?" Andrew asked.  He shown the flashlight into the aisle between the two lines of pens.  After a moment, another mouse scurried across.

"Yay!  They're not abandoned!" JenniAnn cheered.  "And I think that one had some straw.  They're building up the nest!"

Andrew dragged his hand through his hair.

"I wonder how many of them there are?"

"Probably not many since we just noticed them."

"I hope not...  I'd rather they not be getting into the food although... given where they decided to hunker down... that ship has probably already sailed."

Andrew rose and carefully lifted a bag of feed.

Nothing.

He lifted a second bag and, as he did, the feed began to pour out of a hole... seemingly chewed into the bottom of the bag.

"Great..."

"Do you think they harmed the food?  Should we throw it out?" JenniAnn asked.

"I don't know...  It's probably fine...  Anything they would have come into contact with, the pets would have likely come into contact with while grazing and roaming, anyway.  Still...  Not loving this." 

"Well... maybe if... if we just leave food out... especially for them... they'll stick to that?  I mean... they probably only came in here because they were desperate.  It's so cold... imagine those tiny, naked babies outside..."

Andrew couldn't help but chuckle as JenniAnn's lower lip began to tremble.

"Oh, Laja...  I think you're smitten.  Most people would be freaking out right now... and buying traps."

"No traps!"

"I'm not suggesting we get traps.  Just saying...  Most people wouldn't be brainstorming ways to make mice more comfortable but..."  Andrew crouched back down and squeezed her hands.  "I suppose I should be glad you view what so many people are repulsed by as lovable... be it mice or, I dunno, an angel of death."

"Aww, love..." 

Andrew leaned in for a kiss and was just about to go in for another when he heard the unmistakable sound of a mouse squeaking.  Looking down, he saw two more were in the aisle... glaring with their black, beady eyes.

Releasing JenniAnn, Andrew stared the pair down.

"Listen... if your pack is going to be having babies in my barn... the least you can do is keep quiet and let me kiss my girl."

JenniAnn laughed so hard that fresh tears trailed down her cheeks.

The mice made no further noise but scurried past them, joining the others.

"Good job.  Stick up to those bullying mice!" JenniAnn kidded.

Andrew smiled at her.

"They are kinda cute, huh?"

"Uh huh..."

The angel again dragged his hand through his hair.

"Well, I guess we have to just let them be for now since the babies are so tiny.  But we need to get them out once they're more mobile and the weather improves.  I don't want them driving the other animals crazy... scurrying over them and startling them."

"I suppose..."

"Laja... they're not pets.  We can't keep them."

"I mean... maybe not exactly keep them as pets but...  There's this guy in the U.K. who I follow on Facebook.  He found some mice in his garden and he made them the most adorable little houses.  He takes photographs and actually makes a bit of money on them.  They're so precious!  Maybe..."  JenniAnn looped her arms around Andrew's waist and peered up at him.  "Maybe my very talented carpenter anam cara could make me some mouse houses for Christmas?"

Andrew stared down into her pleading, hopeful, amused gaze then laughed and kissed her forehead.

"Fine.  I'll make some mouse houses for our little intruders.  But not as your Christmas present.  That should be for you... not for vermin who just so happen to be cute."

JenniAnn shrieked with glee and flung her arms around Andrew's neck.

"Thank you, thank you, thank you!  I love you so, so much!  I don't think many men would put up with this sorta weirdness!  But I just... they're so cute!"

Andrew smiled and returned her embrace.

"Many men would be missing out...  You're worth a little weirdness, Laja."

"Love..."

Andrew once again moved into kiss JenniAnn and succeeded... only to be interrupted by another squeak.

"Seriously!?" he demanded as JenniAnn laughed.

*~*~*

Sunday, December 15th, 2019

"We never did find out which of the mice was a little prude.  But... I got the houses built... right alongside the barn so they get some heat.  And, once the babies were grown, we left a trail of food to the houses, they followed, and... here they are."  Andrew waved to his handiwork.

"Isn't it cute?"  JenniAnn smiled as she studied the little houses then giggled when a tiny nose poked out of a window.  "I'm excited for Spring.  I think we'll see them out and about a lot more."

"They are very, very blessed mice," Ibrahim pronounced.  "I assume Joshua knows about this endeavor?" 

"He probably helped with some of the houses, didn't he?" Arthur asked.

"I showed him some designs so I could get his advice," Andrew replied.  "But... I wanted to make them myself.  For Laja.  And it was actually good practice.  Now that Belle's a bit older and more careful with her things, Laja and I wanted to give her a nice dollhouse for Christmas.  So... I used these to test some ideas on."

"Oh!  She'll be so thrilled!" Monica exclaimed.  "These are so precious... I can only imagine what her house will look like!"

"I have it hidden in my shop if you'd like to see," Andrew offered.

"Yes, please!"

The group turned to head to Andrew's shop when Joshua came jogging up to them.

"Hey there!  Admiring the mice I see?" he asked with a grin. 

Ibrahim laughed.

"We were... and now we're going to check out the dollhouse Andrew is building for Belle."

"Great!  I haven't seen it in a few days.  I'd love to see the progress, Andrew."  Joshua rested a hand on his back.  "Belle is going to love it!"

When Andrew reached the shop, he opened the door then immediately halted... staring into the room in surprise.

After peeking around Andrew's shoulder, JenniAnn shrieked with delight and hurried to the man standing near Belle's dollhouse.

"Nick!"

"Ah, JenniAnn!"  The saint embraced her.  "I hope you all don't mind the intrusion.  I heard that Andrew was building a dollhouse for little Belle and my curiosity got the best of me.  Such a fine job, Andrew!"

Andrew was next to hug Nicholas.

"Thanks, Nick!  That means a lot coming from you."

"Belle will love it!"  Nick clapped Andrew on the back then gave his attention to Joshua. 

"Nick..."  Joshua stepped nearer and hugged him.  "I'm so glad you came.  I hope you'll be sticking around.  They'll be very upset at the Chrysalis if you don't at least visit."

"Well... I may need to check with my Boss on that."

Joshua chuckled.

"Your Boss gives his permission."

"Excellent!  Then I'd like to stick around through Christmas Day."  Nick smiled at the others.  "Monica, Arthur... so good to see you again."  He hugged them both.  "And Ibrahim..."

Though confused, the man smiled as Nick shook his hand.

"We've been praying for you, young man."

"Thank you, sir.  But... 'we?'"

"Ibrahim, this is Nicholas of Myra," Joshua introduced.  "Commonly known as..."

"Santa Claus!" the others shouted.

Nick laughed.

"I'm afraid I'm not nearly as prolific a toymaker as the stories make me out to be and I don't have a single elf but... yes, I'm that Nicholas.  You've had several friends in Heaven praying for you, Ibrahim."

Touched, Ibrahim's eyes filled.

"Wow...  Thank you."

"You're very welcome!  We're so pleased that you found your way to Joshua."  Nicholas beamed at the carpenter and then at Ibrahim. 

"I... I am, too.  Everything... it's been so incredible."  Ibrahim gripped one of Joshua's hands.  "You're... so incredible."

Joshua hugged him.

"Thank you.  But now... we better head outside.  I have a feeling some little ones are going to come looking for us otherwise and I don't want Belle's surprise ruined.  Everyone will be excited to see you again, Nick."

"I'm excited to be here!  And very excited for you, Ibrahim, and your friends who are celebrating your first Christmas among the Friends!  Trust me, the fun doesn't stop!" Nick boasted. 

Grinning, Ibrahim nodded at the man.

"I'm definitely getting that idea..."

With a proud smile, Joshua led the little group back out into the yard. 

It wasn't long before Nick was spotted and surrounded by a throng of Friends, eagerly welcoming him back.

*~*~*

Saturday, December 21st, 2019

Ibrahim smiled dreamily as he prepared breakfast for himself and Liyana.  The past week had been dream-like. 

A Sunday full of revelations and stories had been followed by a Christmas party at the Chrysalis on Monday.  Then there'd been a lunch at True Light on Tuesday.  Both had featured visits from Santa and Mrs. Claus... aka Adam and Kylie... much to the delight of the children.

Ibrahim had been touched although, at that point, not surprised that Joshua had happily ceded the attention.  He'd delighted in seeing the kids with their toys and Adam and Kylie buoyed by the enthusiasm.  Nick, too, seemed perfectly happy to hand the spotlight off to the two.

Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday found the gang at St. Genesius' for their annual Christmas show.  Demand for tickets had grown so much that, not wanting to disappoint anyone, Emma and Peter had extended it to three nights.  And Ibrahim had been there all three nights.  The show didn't change from night to night but he didn't care.  The old story was new to him in many ways and he relished each rendition of "Silent Night" and "We Three Kings" and all the others. 

Laughing, the man recalled Raheem's induction as a member of the Ugly Christmas Suit Band.  He wouldn't soon let his cousin live down his performance of "The Christmas Can-Can" while donning a suit covered in sequined ornaments.  But he also wouldn't tease him too terribly... he had a feeling there would be a suit waiting for him next year.

And now, once again, he had a whole day with Joshua and the Friends ahead of him... but first he had a wife to feed.  After giving the scrambled eggs and sausage a final few stirs, Ibrahim ladled them up along with a helping of fruit.  After adding two glasses of milk to the tray, he carried it to the bedroom where Liyana was nursing Judah.

"You're a hungry lil boy this morning," she cooed.  "Yes, you are...  I love those puffy, lil cheeks...  Yes, I do..."

"He gets those puffy, lil cheeks from me," Ibrahim teased.

Smiling, Liyana looked up at her husband.

"I love your puffy, little cheeks, too."

Ibrahim laughed when she reached up to poke one.

"Mmm.  Smells delicious," Liyana complimented, eying the contents of the tray.

"I hope so.  Eggs and turkey-ish sausage... I think."

"Turkey-ish?  You think?"

Ibrahim set down the tray and shrugged.

"Adam gave it to me.  I figured if an angel gave it to me, it had to be okay.  But he literally said it was 'turkey-ish sausage.'"

"Ah!  Gotcha.  I'm sure it's fine.  For reasons I still don't entirely understand, Adam has the ability to, well, summon meat.  Except it's not really meat.  It just seems like meat."

"Interesting...  I wonder if it's somehow related to the fish that Joshua multiplied?"

"Maybe!"

Ibrahim grabbed a plate and loaded up a fork then held it out towards Liyana.

"Here... since your arms are occupied."

"Aww.  Thanks, honey." 

"Sure thing."

"I imagine you'd like to get to Willowveil as soon as possible?" Liyana asked in between bites.

"I would...  I know we're not set to start until 10:00 but... maybe there are things I could help with."

Liyana beamed at her husband, knowing he mostly wanted to spend the extra time with Joshua.

"I'll get ready as soon as Judah and I are done eating.  Won't take long."

"Thank you."  Ibrahim pushed some hair behind his wife's ear then kissed her temple.

"I really am so happy for you, Ibrahim.  This past week... you... you've been like the man I first met.  Except... more."

Ibrahim wrapped an arm around his wife.

"I know that I'll still feel the pain sometimes... of my father's abandonment, my mother's death, everything that happened at the mosque... but... I know now that I have a Father who loves me and... and will never leave me.  I feel... peace."

Sighing happily, Liyana rested her head on her husband's shoulder and sent up a silent prayer of thanksgiving.

*~*~*

Takoda was surprised when he walked into the Willowveil ballroom and found Marty wiping down tables.

"You could lend a hand instead of staring," the old scribe quipped.

Takoda startled.

"Sorry...  It just caught me off-guard to see you, well, cleaning."

"The Friends are coming over for cookies and caroling in three hours.  Since Andrew and JenniAnn have given me my own nook here, wiping down a few tables to help prepare is the least I can do."

"Sure."  Takoda joined him in his work.  "They really go all out for Christmas, don't they?" 

Marty smiled and nodded.

"You were here last year, weren't you?"

"I was."

"So, umm, how do they do Christmas presents?  I mean they obviously can't buy for everyone."

"They don't," Marty assured.  "Gift giving mostly happens within families.  Those who stay here on Christmas Eve typically divide up around the castle on Christmas morning so they can have their family Christmases.  Most of the gifting happens then."

"Oh."

"Why?"

"I just... I thought I might get a gift for someone but if it would be weird..."

"Andrew and JenniAnn?  I'm getting them something for putting up with me."

"Oh, yeah.  Of course.  I mean... they've done a lot for me this year.  I got them some dishes I found when Joccy and I were out thrifting.  Seems like they might need them the way the group is growing.  And I picked up a little something for Adam, too.  For all of his help.  It's goofy but I thought he'd get a kick out of it.  It's a chess set but all the pieces are turkeys.  Anyway..."

"Jocelyn..."  Marty stopped what he was doing and gave his full attention to his fellow angel.  "You're wondering if it would be acceptable to get Miss Jocelyn a gift?"

Biting his lip, Takoda nodded.

Marty shrugged.

"I don't see why not.  You have been palling around with her an awful lot.  If memory serves, she was the first to really befriend you once you came here."

"Yeah..."

"Do you need ideas or..."  Marty waved, prompting Takoda to continue.

"Well, I mean I have an idea.  Sort of.  She'd mentioned that her great-grandfather was full-blooded Algonquin.  Her grandparents used to take Joccy, Zoe, and their mom to All Nations gatherings and she loved them but... her father... well, you know about him."

Marty nodded gravely.

"He put the kibosh on that.  Anyway, I'm sure Wahkan knows the principality of the Algonquin Nation.  I have a little money and I thought maybe he could ask him... or her... to find something for me.  Nothing big.  Maybe just, like, earrings or a little trinket box or... or something."

Marty squeezed the young angel's shoulder.

"I think that's a lovely idea, Takoda.  It wouldn't be weird at all."

Takoda's face lit up. 

"Great.  I'll... go get in touch with Wahkan.  Oh..."  He looked down at the rag in his hand.

Marty laughed and took it from him.

"Go.  I'll finish here."

"Thanks!"  Beaming, Takoda fled the room.

Marty returned to his task but was soon interrupted.

"Hello, hello!  We thought we'd come early to help out," Raheem explained as he entered with his family.

"First time baking Christmas cookies!" Hura cheered.  "I hope they turned out okay."

Marty surveyed the tray that Amala was holding.  Christopher followed with an equally laden tray.

"They look delicious.  You made so many..."

"The decorating kept Iz busy... and quiet."  Hura laughed.  "And... we've already lost him."

Raheem backtracked into the hallway to check on his son.

"No worries.  He's just playing with Ichabod."

"Hey, Khalids!"  Andrew smiled at the newcomers as he rolled a cart stacked with cups and plates into the ballroom.

"I hope you don't mind that we came early.  We thought maybe we could help out.  And... I think Liyana, Ibrahim, and little Judah aren't far behind us," Raheem relayed.

"Great!  There is a little work to be done before everyone arrives."

"That's right," Joshua agreed as he entered pushing another cart.  "We've got some apple cider to make...  A cocoa bar to set up..."  He stashed the cart near a table then smiled at everyone.  "But first... good morning, beloved ones!"

As Joshua made the rounds, hugging everyone, the Azizis arrived.  They, too, received hugs from Joshua after which JenniAnn, Yosef, Maryam, John, and Jemima also joined them to prepare the room for their party.  With so many helpers, the work was quickly done and the group gathered around the fireplace to pass the time together until the others arrived.

"I'm so looking forward to today," Ibrahim gushed.  "Last Sunday was... magnificent!  And all of this week.  I loved hearing everyone's stories about Joshua... about this group.  I feel so blessed to be a part of it all now."

"Sunday was great," Raheem agreed.  "I heard stories I hadn't yet.  But it did make me wonder..."  He looked to Ibrahim.  "Is there anything about these past months that now, knowing what you do about Joshua, it just... feels different?  More... meaningful?"

Ibrahim thought for a few moments then looked over at Joshua who was seated on a couch between his parents.

"So many things, actually...  Just the fact that he left Eternity... Paradise... to be with us.  Again.  Even knowing... there would be pain."  He sighed.  "But something that really sticks out... it, well, it was my breakdown actually..."

Liyana reached over and squeezed her husband's hand.

"I felt so lost.  But... looking back, I know I wasn't."

As the others listened and Joshua looked on tenderly, Ibrahim told his story.

*~*~*

Tuesday, June 11th , 2019

Ibrahim, Joshua, and Liyana were largely silent during their ride back from the courthouse.  It had been a difficult day of testimony, covering all the paraphernalia that the police had uncovered at Cameron's apartment.  Through it all, the young man had sat absolutely still, showing no signs of remorse.  Not even when, shaken by the contents of a half-written letter, Liyana had let out a sob.

"I'm going to go start some tea," Liyana declared as they entered their home.

Ibrahim nodded to his wife.

"Sounds good.  Thank you."

"I'll give you a hand, Liyana," Joshua offered.

"Thanks!  I'd appreciate that."  Liyana smiled at him then turned to her husband and squeezed his hands.  "Come to the kitchen in ten minutes or so?"

"Sure."  Ibrahim nodded once again then turned and headed to his study.  He collapsed into his favorite chair and began to mentally review the day.

And then he began to feel dizzy.

He clutched at his chest as his heart began to pound... faster and faster and faster. 

He fell from his chair and onto his hands and knees.

He couldn't breathe...  He gasped but no air came in.

And someone was going to get to Liyana and Joshua...

And he was there... frozen and dying... he was dying... unable to help them.

Ibrahim began to sob.  He felt his throat closing up.

Suddenly, Joshua was beside him, his arms tightly wrapped around him.

"It's okay, Ibrahim.  You're going to be okay," Joshua consoled.

Ibrahim was vaguely aware of Liyana's frantic voice but he focused on Joshua.

"It's okay...  You can breath."  Joshua rested a hand over Ibrahim's heart.

Ibrahim let out a ragged sigh as the horrible pounding began to slow.

"C'mon, take a deep breath for me."

Ibrahim obeyed.

"Now another one."

Ibrahim gulped in some air then, slowly, let it out.

"Good...  Good job, Ibrahim."

Ibrahim continued to breath then he buried his face in Joshua's shoulder and sobbed like he hadn't since he was a little boy.

"You're fine...  You're gonna be just fine.  I've got you, Ibrahim.  Everything's okay..." Joshua murmured.

Clinging to Joshua as if his life depended on him, Ibrahim began to shake. 

Liyana knelt beside them and also wrapped her arms around her husband.

"I love you, Ibrahim...  I... I love you so much," she cried.  "And... and everything's going to be fine.  Just... just hold on.  You'll see."

Ibrahim peered up at his wife and Joshua and managed a trembling nod.

*~*~*

"All the test results look really good, Imam Ibrahim.  You've got a good, strong heart."  The doctor paused and smiled at his patient.  "So... I think we're looking at a run of the mill panic attack.  Have you ever had one before?"

Ibrahim shook his head as he lay in his hospital bed.

"Well, it's nothing to be ashamed of.  It happens to the best of us.  I had a couple during medical school."

"It... felt like more."

"Many people are surprised by how big and all-encompassing a panic attack can feel.  But if you'd feel better, we can certainly keep you overnight for observation," the doctor offered.

Feeling panicked by the need to make a decision, Ibrahim looked up to Liyana and Joshua.

Liyana, too, looked to Joshua.

"It looked like a panic attack to me, Dr. Silver.  I think he'd do better at home," Joshua decided.

The doctor looked back to Ibrahim who nodded.

"I want to go home.  Please."

"Sure.  I'll get you released.  But I do want you to meet with your psychiatrist as soon as possible.  I think the two of you need to look at upping the dosage on your anti-anxiety meds."

Ibrahim hung his head.  He hadn't been taking the pills.  He didn't think he needed them.

"Yeah.  Okay," he mumbled.

Joshua patted his hand.

"What if... if it happens again?" Ibrahim questioned, his voice cracking.

Dr. Silver smiled gently.

"It could.  What used to help me is reminding myself that it was a panic attack, that I'd had previous panic attacks, and that I'd survived them and so I could survive this one, too.  Then find something to focus on.  Something that pleases you or makes you happy."

Ibrahim looked to Liyana and managed a smile.

"Okay, thanks, Dr. Silver."

"You bet!  Now let's get you out of here."

"Yes, thank you." 

"Thank you, Dr. Silver," Joshua and Liyana echoed.

With a final smile and wave, the doctor disappeared into the busy hallway.

"I'm sorry," Ibrahim whispered once he was gone. 

"Oh, honey..."  Liyana perched on the edge of his bed and hugged him as he began to tear up.  "No... you did nothing wrong."

"She's right," Joshua counseled.  "You did nothing wrong.  You've had so much on your plate... and today... today was not an easy day at court."

Ibrahim shook his head. 

"It... it wasn't."

"I think it's time we stay away.  At least for a few days," Joshua suggested.

"I think that's a wonderful idea," Liyana agreed.

"And... if you're amenable... maybe I could stay over tonight?"

Liyana's face lit up.

"Oh, yes!  That's an even more wonderful idea!  We could watch a funny movie!"

"Joshua, you've spent enough of your day dealing with..."  Ibrahim went silent when Joshua patted his hand.

"I want to.  Please."

"I... I want you to," Ibrahim admitted.

"Then that's what we'll do.  We can pick up some popcorn on the way home."

"And candy?" Liyana requested with a smile.

"And candy," Joshua agreed, grinning.

In spite of how lousy he felt, Ibrahim also smiled.

"I think I should get to pick the movie," he declared.

"I suppose..." Liyana conceded before kissing his forehead.

Ibrahim took in a deep breath and stroked her face then closed his eyes as weariness overcame him.

*~*~*

That evening, Ibrahim was sprawled across the couch with his head in Liyana's lap.  To their left, Joshua was settled into a recliner.  The coffee table in front of them was covered with an array of candy, popcorn, and soda.  On the TV screen, one of Ibrahim's favorite movies played.

"'You're not gonna die on the planet, Guy.'"

"'I'm not?  Then what's my last name?'"

"'It's... uh... um... I don't know.'"

"'Nobody knows.  Do you know why?  Because my character isn't important enough for a last name, because I'm gonna die five minutes in!'"

"'Guy, you have a last name.'"

"'DO I? DO I?  For all you know, I'm just Crewman Number Six!  Mommy... mommy...'"

All three laughed at the on-screen antics.

"I hope I'm never so messed up that Galaxy Quest can't make me feel better," Ibrahim opined.

"You're not messed up... just going through a rough patch," Liyana corrected. 

"Exactly," Joshua concurred before grabbing a Snickers.

Ibrahim smiled at him.

"Oh good.  I'm glad you like Snickers.  That means you like nuts.  Like me."

Joshua rolled his eyes.

"Har, har, har...  Getting an early start on dad jokes, I guess?"

Ibrahim laughed when Joshua launched a bag of cotton candy at him.

"Ooh, thanks, Joshua.  Just what I wanted."  Liyana grabbed the cotton candy and began snacking.

Ibrahim smiled when she handed a gob of it to him.

"Thanks, my love."  He sighed happily, ate the candy, and then again looked to Joshua.  "I'm really glad you're here."

Joshua smiled tenderly at Ibrahim.

"I'm glad I'm here, too, Ibrahim.  Very glad."

Ibrahim smiled then refocused on the movie and the calmness he felt in the presence of his wife and Joshua.

*~*~*

Saturday, December 21st, 2019

Ibrahim beamed at Joshua.

"And now I know...  It was God Himself who held me during my panic attack and, I now suspect, helped it to end."

"A little," Joshua confirmed.  "I could have stopped it entirely but..."

"It needed to happen," Ibrahim finished.  "I understand.  It was my wake-up call.  I realized how much of my life was being lived for other people... and not in a good way.  I became an imam because my mom wanted me to.  I was going to the courthouse every day because I thought I needed to make a stand.  And those weren't bad things... but they weren't meant for me.  I don't have it in me to be a public figure... at least not right now.  Right now... I just want to be a husband and a father and a friend."

"And you're doing a wonderful job with those," Liyana assured.

"Thank you, my love.  I... I want to model healthy behaviors for Judah.  I want him to find what he's really passionate about and pursue that... even if he's in his thirties and still trying to figure it out.  Speaking of..."  Ibrahim looked to Joshua who smiled encouragingly at him.  "I think I might have a lead there.  I realized that while I really miss talking to our congregation one-on-one, I'm probably not at a sturdy enough mental place yet where I could do any sort of counseling like that.  But I'd still like to do something to give back.  So...  Arthur offered me a job at True Light and I've decided to take it."

The others cheered and congratulated Ibrahim as he beamed.

"Thank you.  I'll be working a lot with the logistics... ordering supplies, keeping inventory, etc.  But I'll be part of the community and that's what I really want."

"I'm so happy for you!" Joshua gushed, hugging the man.

"Thank you...  And thank you for getting me to this place in my life, Josh."  Ibrahim returned Joshua's hug then beamed at his wife and child.  "And thanks to my beautiful wife for her unending support... and to this little guy for being so absolutely adorable that I can't help but smile."

Liyana squeezed her husband's hand.

"We're both very, very blessed to have you in our lives, Ibrahim.  I... I couldn't have picked a better father for our son."

"Love..."

Yosef smiled tenderly as he took in the touching scene.  He clasped Maryam's hand then gazed at Joshua.

"Children are truly among God's greatest gifts," he intoned.

"They are..." Maryam agreed, also looking to her son.

Yosef's eyes misted as he thought of one of his most recent experiences with Yeshua. 

Seeing the look on his Abi's face, Joshua guessed at his thoughts and remembered.

*~*~*

Monday, November 18th, 2019

"Right this way, please, to the visitors' room," the corrections officer directed Joshua and Yosef.

The two men followed their host into a nondescript room with little more than two couches and a clock on the wall.  Cracked and scuffed tile covered the floor and most of the walls were taken up by large windows.

"He'll be in soon.  An officer will be with you at all times."

"I understand.  Thank you."  Joshua smiled calmly at their host.

"Right...  Well, have a good visit.  I hope you get whatever it is you're looking for."

"Thank you.  Me, too."

The guard peered at Joshua, shook his head slightly, and departed.

Once they were left alone, Yosef studied his son whose head was bowed.  Over two thousand years had passed but the carpenter remained in awe of his boy... God and man.  He had seen Yeshua enthroned, overseeing the affairs of his many, many worlds.  He'd witnessed him command legions of angels.  He'd seen him confront Satan himself... and seen the latter cower. 

But, somehow, these quieter, smaller moments shook Yosef even more.  The Great I Am was sitting in a jail visitation room... preparing to meet with the man... his own child... who had tried to kill him.

"Abi?  You okay?"

Yosef stirred, wiped at his eyes, and squeezed Joshua's hand.

"Yes, yes.  Only... thinking."  He brought Joshua's hand to his lips.  "I love you, Yeshu."

Joshua embraced Yosef.

"I love you, too, Abi."

"How... do you think it is going to go?"

Joshua sighed and dragged a hand through his hair.

"I'm not sure.  I just know I have to try."

"Yes..."

Some movement caught Joshua's eye.  He looked out a window and saw Cameron approaching, flanked by two guards.

"Here we go..." he murmured.

Yosef nodded and patted Joshua's shoulder.

As they'd discussed, neither stood as Cameron wheeled himself into the room.  Joshua hadn't wanted to loom over him.

"We'll be watching," a guard barked at Cameron.  "So don't try anything."

"I'm not stupid.  Like this, even the old man could take me out," Cameron retorted.

The guard rolled his eyes then looked to Joshua. 

"We're going to leave you alone... per the D.A.'s request.  But we'll be watching from just outside."

Joshua could tell the man didn't approve of this change in protocol so he smiled sympathetically.

"I understand.  Thank you very much."  He stood and held his hand out.

Taken aback, first one guard and then the other shook his hand.

"So... just right out here..."  The second guard motioned to a window.  "Yell if you need anything... sir."

Yosef smiled to himself.  Sometimes people found themselves awed by Joshua without really knowing why.

"Absolutely will do," Joshua assured.  "Again, thank you."  He smiled at them both then sat back down.

After nodding in reply, the two guards moved into the hallway and closed the door behind them.

Joshua gave his full attention to the young man.

"Hello, Cameron.  How are you doing?"

He shrugged.

"How do you think?"

Joshua ignored the question.

"This is my father, Yosef."

Cameron looked at the man and, for just a moment, his color faded.

"Your... necklace."

Confused, Yosef reached up towards his neck then smiled.

"Ah, yes.  A friend's little girl made it for me." 

Joshua beamed as he thought of how proud Daisy had been of her handiwork, created especially for her daddy's namesake.

"It's... a Jesus fish," Cameron balked.

Yosef nodded.

"So it is."

"But..."

Confused, Cameron looked back and forth between the two men. 

"So you're not Jews?"

Joshua flinched at the hateful inflection on the last word.

"We are," he affirmed.

"So then you shouldn't have that," Cameron spat out at Yosef.

Yosef's face hardened as he clasped the ichthus. 

"He has every right to wear that," Joshua insisted.  "He believes that Jesus... Yeshua... is and was the Son of God... God Himself.  But even if he didn't, it's not your job to police other people's jewelry.  Do you think Jesus would be upset if someone just happened to like the 'Jesus fish'?"

Cameron smirked at Joshua.

"I don't know.  Why don't you tell us... 'Jesus'?"

"He would not be," Joshua replied without hesitation.  "He'd find it infinitely more troubling when someone professes to be Christian and yet embraces hatred."

For the second time, Cameron blanched but the reaction was only momentary.

He muttered something under his breath.

"What was that?" Joshua questioned.

With a wicked gleam in his eyes, Cameron grinned at Joshua.

"Just saying that I wish my aim had been a little higher... right through the heart."

Yosef jolted and moved to stand.

Joshua held his arm out in front of his Abi.  He didn't take his gaze off of Cameron as he spoke.

"Do you think that would have made you feel better?  Would you have felt like you'd accomplished something?"

"I don't care what you believe.  You're still a dirty Jew who made friends with terrorists."  Cameron spat at Joshua.

Unflinching, Joshua continued to stare as he casually brushed the spittle away as if it were nothing more than a bit of lint.

As horrified as he was, Yosef had to stifle a laugh.  His son had swagger...

"Says the man who shot at innocent people while he hid...  You couldn't even face us?"

Cameron's face flushed red.

"I think you were scared to face us," Joshua continued.  "I think, deep down, you knew what you were doing was wrong.  And if you heard so much as a tiny, humanizing snippet of conversation, you knew you'd lose your nerve.  So you had to hide."

Cameron gripped the arms of his wheelchair tightly.

"If you saw the wedding ring on Raheem's finger... or the locket around Salma's neck... if you looked into my eyes..."  Joshua sighed then smiled softly.  "You know, thanks to you, I've reunited with a young man I met while playing Jesus.  He's been a blessing to me and to my friends in the wake of your violence.  But there's something only you and I and the Father know.  Isn't there, Cameron?"

Surprised, Yosef peered at Joshua, hanging on his next words.

"I've actually reunited with two young men who I met at St. Genesius'.  Haven't I?"

"Him?!" Yosef cried out.

Joshua nodded.

"How... how do you remember?" Cameron demanded.  "You must have met hundreds, if not thousands..."

"I remember everyone," Joshua replied, his voice gentle.  "I remember that your grandparents brought you.  But you didn't want to go.  You'd already started reading and watching all that hateful, awful stuff on the Internet.  You hated the changes we'd made.  The Shema... Joseph and Nicodemus... Kaddish...  Because you didn't want to remember that Jesus was Jewish.  And you didn't want to remember that he was brown, either."

"How do you..." Cameron repeated before Joshua continued.

"You mumbled a hello to me when your grandma prompted you.  And I commented that I liked your shirt... and I did.  I'd been to that Hard Rock Cafe.  Good times!  That's when you finally met my gaze.  And, for just a moment, you softened.  The hatred started to melt away.  You saw me as a real, live, human being with feelings.  And on the day of the shooting... you couldn't risk letting that happen again.  So you hid."

"Shut up!  Shut up!  Shut up!" Cameron screamed.

The guards moved to the door but when Joshua held his hand up, they stopped.

Yosef calmly and proudly looked on.

"How do you know this?" the young man seethed.

"I know you, Cameron."  Joshua's eyes welled.  "I just wish you knew me... really knew me... like you used to."

"I don't know what you're talking about!" Cameron shouted.  "I think you're crazy!"

"My son is not crazy," Yosef defended.

Joshua briefly smiled at his Abi then turned back to Cameron.

"Your grandma had a nativity set that was a family heirloom.  She loved it.  One Christmas, she unpacked it and the baby Jesus was missing.  She was devastated."

The color began to drain from Cameron's face.

"She called your mom in a panic.  You overheard her side of the conversation and, immediately, burst into tears.  You went into your room and retrieved the figure... which you'd taken after the previous Christmas.  You'd been five and you didn't want Jesus to be stuck in a box for eleven months.  It didn't even occur to you that, by taking it, you'd hurt your grandma."

"My... my mom must have told you," Cameron guessed.

Joshua shook his head.

"Your grandma talks about it often, though."

"But... she died two years ago."

Joshua's only reply was a tender gaze.

The three were silent for several moments.

"I... I'm tired," Cameron declared, his voice weak and boy-like.

"We'll head out then.  I'll be praying for you, Cameron," Joshua promised.

"And I will, as well," Yosef added.

Cameron made no reply as the two stood up and walked to the door.

The nearest guard opened the door for Joshua and Yosef.

"Everything go okay?  Looked a little heated."

Joshua nodded.

"It went fine, thank you.  My father and I will be on our way now.  Thank you so much for your time and cooperation."

Yosef smiled.  The guards were beaming as they shook Joshua's hand and then his own.  The first officer reappeared and, after Joshua looked once more at Cameron through the glass, he escorted them out of the jail.

Cameron remained in the visitation room, staring down at his hands.

"Burke, let's go," one of the guards shouted.

Cameron flinched and wheeled himself out of the room.

"I love that guy.  Just something about him," a guard mused as they made their way back to Cameron's cell.

"His family cracks me up.  So he's Joshua... and then his dad is Yosef... and I read that his mom is named Maryam.  So that's Jesus, Joseph, and Mary.  And then their last name: Davidson.  Like Son of David... get it?"  The second guard chuckled to himself.

Cameron felt tears welling in his eyes.  He said nothing as he wheeled himself into his cell and the door was shut and locked behind him.

Once alone, Cameron moved towards his cot.  With some difficulty, he got onto it and laid down.  As he stared up at the ceiling, he began to feel chilled.  When he stuck his hands into his sweatshirt pockets, his right made contact with something.  Shocked, he withdrew the item.

With a mixture of delight, awe, and horror; Cameron studied the object in his hands.

It was a tiny baby Jesus, exactly like his grandma's in shape and size.  But this one had dark skin and black hair... like Joshua.

"'Jesus, Joseph, and Mary...  Like Son of David... get it?'"

Cameron began to quake as the guard's words came back to him along with the memory of Joshua's soft gaze and all the things he had known about him.  He was overcome as the enormity of it hit him.

He had tried to kill God... and those who God loved.

"'I don't care what you believe.  You're still a dirty Jew who made friends with terrorists,'"

"'I wish my aim had been a little higher... right through the heart.'" 

Cameron howled as his own words returned to him.  His own heart ached as he wept bitter, sorrowful tears.

"I'm sorry...  I'm sorry..." he cried out.  As he thrashed, he toppled off the bed and landed on the cement floor. 

Joshua was gone.  He'd had a chance to apologize but he hadn't taken it. 

After an attempt to lift himself, Cameron gave up, collapsed, and continued to weep into the concrete.

"He can still hear you."

Startled, Cameron lifted his head.  He was surprised to see sandalled feet only a few inches from him.

"Let me help you there."

The mysterious man grabbed Cameron around his chest and hefted him onto the cot.

Cameron gaped as he got a full view of the man.  He wore a red robe over a light blue tunic.

"Who... who..."  Cameron lifted his hand to his throat.

"Made yourself hoarse from crying it seems.  I know the feeling."  The man smiled.  "You and I have more in common than I'd like to admit, young man.  But we'll have plenty of time to talk about that.  For now..."  He held his hand out.  "My name is Paul.  Paul of Tarsus."

Cameron's eyes grew wide.

Paul chuckled and sat down beside Cameron.

He nodded resolutely.

"I think this will be fun.  Nice place you got here, by the way.  Oh, don't look at me like that!  You should have seen some of the places I found myself in."

Paul laughed again then clapped Cameron on the back.

"So, my dear Cameron, in the name of God our Father and our Lord Yeshua, the Messiah... let's talk."

*~*~*

Outside the jail, Joshua hugged his Abi tightly. 

"Thank you for coming.  It made it easier... having you there."

Yosef patted his son on the back.

"You are most welcome, my boy.  It means so much to me when you include me... I know you do not need your old Abi any more."

"Don't need, no.  But want?  Very much."  Joshua beamed at Yosef. 

His eyes filling, Yosef squeezed Joshua's hand.

"And now... what will happen to him?"

"That's up to him.  We'll see how well he listens to his new tutor."

"Tutor?  Is he seeking a degree?"

Joshua chuckled. 

"No..."

Yosef grinned.

"What did you do?"

"I may have gotten a little tired of a certain someone begging to come back down here so... I put him to work."

"Cephas?"

"No.  He still has to be patient."

"Hmm...  Mary?"

"She's waiting, too.  Think... very opinionated."

Yosef chuckled.

"Paul..."

Grinning, Joshua nodded.

"Yeshu, I mean this with all respect but... I think I feel a little sorry for Cameron."

Laughing, Joshua slung an arm around his Abi's shoulders.

"I do, too, Abi.  I do, too..."

*~*~*

Saturday, December 21st, 2019

Joshua smiled to himself.  Paul was still meeting with Cameron every evening... and progress was definitely being made.  He hoped, one day very soon, to receive a phone call from the jail, requesting a visit. 

"Joshua, the kids brought something up on the way here," Hura began. 

"And what was that?" Joshua inquired, smiling at Amala, Christopher, and Iz who, with Ichabod, had joined them.

"Do you all celebrate Chanukah?" Amala asked.  "Like... do you light a menorah?"

Joshua looked to Andrew.

"We do actually..." 

The angel of death stood and stepped into the storage room.  He returned soon after carrying a silver menorah and a box of candles. 

"An assignment gave this menorah to me many, many years ago.  I've lit it every year and, when I moved here, JenniAnn agreed that we should keep the tradition going.  It's going to be especially meaningful this year, having Joshua and his family present."

"Do you think we could come tomorrow night?" Christopher prompted with an eager smile.  "I've never actually celebrated Chanukah."

"Sure!" JenniAnn agreed.  "I figure people will be hanging around, anyway.  We don't do the whole traditional thing, I'm afraid.  I'm still not entirely sure how dreidels work but..."

"Ooh!  I can teach you!" John offered.

JenniAnn laughed at his boyish excitement.

"But, it seems, John will give lessons.  Thank you, John."

"And maybe we could make latkes and jelly doughnuts?" Andrew suggested with a hopeful, mischievous grin.

"I would be more than happy to do that," Maryam agreed with a laugh.  "I'm sure Yemimah will help me.  It'll be good to do something for our hosts."

"Aww.  You know you don't have to do anything," JenniAnn reminded.

"But... doughnuts..." Ibrahim murmured.

He sounded and looked so crestfallen that the rest of the group erupted in laughter.

Joshua patted Ibrahim on the back.

"No worries, my friend.  We'll make absolutely sure you get some doughnuts.  Although I do wonder if we'll be so eager come tomorrow after we've eaten our weight in cookies..." 

Everyone looked to where Joshua had gestured.  The Albany clan was approaching... with a half-dozen trays of cookies.

"Ho!  Ho!  Ho!" Caleb greeted as he and Lacey entered the ballroom. 

"We come bearing lots and lots of cookies," Lacey added.

"So I can see!"  Smiling, Joshua rose and embraced them once they'd set the cookies down.

"Well... Kylie's gone into nesting mode and Dot eagerly jumped in.  So they've been baking up a storm.  I'm afraid all Caleb and I managed was a couple dozen no-bake cookies."  Lacey smiled at her husband.  "Half of which he's eaten."

Joshua laughed and clapped Caleb on the back.

"I don't blame you!" 

Randall was the next to enter with Felix wriggling in his arms.

"Dow!  Dow!" the little boy begged.

"Down," Randall repeated, stressing the last syllable.  "And all right!  You would have run right into a snow drift if I'd put you down earlier and you know it, ya ragamuffin!"

The toddler only grinned and, once down, made a beeline for Ichabod whose tail wagged wildly as he realized yet another person was going to pay attention to him.

Edward and Clay hurried in to deposit the heaviest trays.

"Hi all!  Be right back.  Have a squalling baby to help free from her winter clothes," Edward announced in a rush.

"And I have a very pregnant wife to help out of her boots," Clay added.

Smiling, Joshua followed the two out into the entryway where Adam was helping Ada-Marie to remove her coat, mittens, scarf, and cap while Dot hovered over Kylie as she lowered herself into a waiting chair. 

"Oof.  Sorry, Ky.  Can't say I miss that," Zadie commented, wincing over the other woman's discomfort.

"Oh, I'm fine.  Just get winded so easily.  But only another week or two!" Kylie cheered as Clay replaced her boots with comfortable slippers.  "And then we get to see this little one."  She patted her belly.

"I can't wait," Dot cooed.  "Another little one to cuddle and spoil!"

Clay chuckled.

"You and Randall are definitely good at that."

"Gramma..." 

Dot turned to Ada-Marie whose lower lip stuck out.

"What is it, baby?"

"My hair..."

"Oh, it did get a bit mussed didn't it...  Here, let me fix that for you, sweet pea."

As Dot tended to Ada-Marie, Kylie's eyes filled.  She peered up at Joshua, silently thanking him for bringing the Romanos, and Dot especially, into her life.

Joshua smiled back and gently squeezed Kylie's shoulder.

"What's wrong, my dear?" Clay quietly asked his wife as he thumbed away some tears.

Kylie laughed and shook her head.

"Oh, it's just me being emotional.  Just watching Dot with Ada-Marie... such a good grandma.  I... I'm so grateful the kids have you and Randall, Dot.  And so do Clay and I.  And this little one will be so blessed, too..." 

"Oh, Kylie..."  Dot hugged her tightly.  "You've all been such a blessing to us."

"And it's been a delight seeing all of you grow closer," Joshua complimented.  "I can't wait to keep watching your journey together."

"And I think I speak for all of us when I say, we can't wait to continue this journey," Edward replied as the others nodded.

"But for now... let's focus on getting you comfortable."  Clay carefully helped Kylie to her feet and the group joined the others in the ballroom.

Ibrahim smiled.

"The more people who show up, the less guilty I feel about arriving so early."

With a chuckle, Andrew shook his head.

"No one needs to feel guilty.  JenniAnn and I understand that when Joshua's here, people could drop in at all hours and that's more than fine with us."

"Absolutely," JenniAnn agreed.  "But since we have some time...  Any body have more stories for Ibrahim?"

"Ooh!  I can watch the littles," Violeta called from the doorway.

"Hey there!" JenniAnn rose and hugged the young angel.  "I didn't hear the door."

Ivy approached with Sy at her side.

"We came through the basement.  I was feeling wimpy and didn't want to brave the cold.  G'morning!"

"And I definitely wasn't fighting her on that.  I just wish I could have tunneled from the portal to their place," Sy jested, shivering dramatically.

"Hmm...  Maybe we can work on that sometime.  But for now...  Good morning to you all!  Violeta, if you're sure, I think we'll take you up on that.  Raquel and Nico are already in the library with Belle and Avi, reading stories, but could probably use a hand once more kids start showing up."

"I'm sure!"

"I'll go with you," Jemima offered before turning to the others.  "Not that I don't want to hear the stories but... I love spending time with the little ones."

"We'll make sure you're filled in later, Jemmy," Joshua promised.

"Thanks!" 

With promises of stories to hear, toys to play with, and more pets to visit, Ada-Marie and Felix were easily persuaded to go with Violeta and Jemima.  Baby Etta was less agreeable and so remained in Zadie's arms.

"Iz, maybe you should..." Hura began.

"There aren't any kids my age here yet," Iz interrupted.  "Can I stay?"

Joshua looked to Kylie, knowing she wanted to speak.  She nodded back to him.

"Iz, you can stay.  But if you have questions, speak up," Joshua encouraged.

"Okay!"

"Well...  There was something I got to thinking would be good for you to know about, Ibrahim.  I think it really drives home how Joshua has really perfect timing," Kylie begun.

"So I'm learning."  Ibrahim smiled at Joshua and then at Kylie.  "I'd love to hear your story."

"Great!  So this actually happened the day before the Archbishop's party for Joshua..."

*~*~*

Tuesday, April 30th, 2019

Kylie fought back tears as she pinned some laundry onto the clothes line. 

She felt selfish for feeling as she did.  If things had gone just a little differently, she could be at a funeral right now... Joshua's funeral.

The mere thought sent shivers down her spine and more tears welled and began to trail down her cheeks.

"Kylie!"

Startled, Kylie turned to the source of the voice.  A very concerned looking Dot was standing nearby.

"Sweetie... you're crying!"

Without waiting for a response, Dot pulled the younger woman into her arms. 

The tenderness of the gesture broke what remained of Kylie's reserve and she began to sob.

"Come on, baby girl...  Let's sit down and talk.  The laundry can wait."

Dot guided Kylie back into the house and sat her down at the kitchen table.  The two visited each other so often that Dot easily found some tea and started a kettle boiling.

"I... I'm sorry.  I'm really okay.  This week... it... it was just... a... a lot and..."

Dot stroked Kylie's hair.

"It really was.  I imagine it'll take a while for all of us to move past this... even though Joshua's doing so well.  It's still..."  Dot shook her hair.  "So awful to think about..."

Kylie nodded.

"It is but... I mean I do think that's probably a lot why I'm so... out of control right now."

"Kylie... crying doesn't mean you're out of control."

"I know... but just that... I can't stop it.  I... I need to go check on Felix," she announced abruptly.

"Okay."

Kylie left the kitchen and checked on Felix.  To her relief, he was still napping peacefully.  Kylie whispered a prayer of gratitude that Adam had taken Ada-Marie to the zoo for the day.  She wasn't there to witness her mother's distress.

After stepping into the bathroom to scrub her face, Kylie returned to the kitchen where Dot was pouring tea.

"Sorry.  He's still napping."

"Good.  Now... tell me what's going on.  Please."

Kylie took a sip of tea then inhaled and exhaled deeply before meeting Dot's gaze.

"I... haven't exactly been feeling well.  It started shortly before Joshua showed back up.  I... I was going to make an appointment but then everything happened so... I decided to look into the most obvious possibility myself and... I'm pregnant.  I took a test this morning after Clay left for work."

Dot's face lit up and she moved to jump to her feet and celebrate but then thought better of it.

"And... that upset you?" she asked carefully.

"I... I mean... I'd love to have another baby.  So much.  And... and I know Clay wants more children but... so soon?  We... we're doing okay.  But money is tight and..."

"You know Randall and I would help however we can!"

"I do."  Kylie reached over to squeeze her friend's hand.  "I really do.  But Clay wouldn't like that.  We'll find a way.  We have to.  I just don't want to stress him out more and... that made me feel guilty... guilty that my reaction wasn't pure joy.  Because... cause something awful happened... something that... that could have... have killed Joshua or... or Salma or Raheem or the imam or... or... all of them.  And here's this little life that God's trusted us with.  I... I should be celebrating."

"Oh, Kylie..."  Dot moved her chair closer and hugged her, giving her a shoulder to cry on which Kylie readily took.  "God understands.  Life can be so complicated.  He knows that you're just concerned... but that you love and want this baby."

"I... I do..."

"So we'll pray on it and I'm sure you and Clay will find a way."

"Yeah..."  Kylie nodded against Dot's shoulder.

"And... I suspect, because I know it's true for myself, that you've not been sleeping very well since the shooting."

"No... not really," Kylie confirmed.

"Everything seems much more drastic when you're sleep deprived.  So... I think you need to take a nap, little mama.  I'll stay here and listen for Felix."

"Are you sure?"

"Absolutely," Dot confirmed.  "I'd love to spend time with my grandson when he's up and around."

Kylie hugged Dot.

"Thank you.  I... I'm so glad that we have you and Randall to be there for the kids since Clay's parents are so far away and my mom... well...  Thank you.  And I'll take you up on that."

"Good girl."

Dot followed Kylie to her room and tucked her into bed.

Kylie smiled as Dot kissed her forehead.

"Night, night, sleep tight, Ky."

"Thank you..."  Kylie smiled at Dot then snuggled into her pillow.

Within a few moments, she had drifted off to sleep.

*~*~*

Later that afternoon, Dot was sitting on the porch, rocking Felix, when she saw Clay approaching.  There was a spring to his step that made her smile.

"Hey there, Dot!" Clay greeted.  "Is Kylie inside?"

"Yep.  She's laying down for a nap."

"A nap..."  Clay frowned as he stroked Felix's wisps of hair.  "Is she okay?"

"Just a little rundown by everything going on.  You should go see if she's up," Dot encouraged.

"Yeah... okay."

Still concerned, Clay wasted no time in making his way to his and Kylie's bedroom.  To his relief, he found his wife sitting up in bed, reading her Bible.

"Hey, Ky.  How are you doing?" Clay asked softly as he perched on the edge of the bed and rested a hand on Kylie's forehead.

Smiling, Kylie took his hand and brought it to her lips.

"I'm fine.  Just got tired and Dot kindly offered to watch Felix while I napped."

"Yeah.  I saw them when I came in.  You're sure nothing else is going on?"

Kylie bowed her head.

"Well... actually, I... I have some news."

"Good news?" Clay asked hopefully.

"I... I think so."

"Great!  Because I have some good news, too!  We need some good news after last week...  Do you want to go first or..."

"Maybe I should go first."

"Okay, go for it."

"Well... I just haven't been feeling very well lately."

Clay frowned.

"That doesn't sound like good news, darling."

"No...  But... but maybe the reason is." 

Once again, Kylie clasped Clay's hand.  This time, she rested it over her abdomen.

Clay's eyes widened.

"You... you're pregnant!" he exclaimed.

Kylie nodded.

Clay laughed.

"Damn... we're fertile!"

Giggling, Kylie nodded again.

"Apparently...  I didn't think it was likely since I'm still breastfeeding.  But..."

Clay hugged his wife.

"That's wonderful news!  I mean... it is, right?"

"It's only... money's already tight and..."  Kylie sniffled.

Clay lifted her chin and grinned.

"Well... I think that's where my good news comes in.  Ol' Reggie told me today that he's retiring.  And... he put in my name to take over as head coach.  We met with the principal and there are still details to iron out but... it'll be a fairly substantial pay hike.  The only downside is it will mean more time spent at the school... away from you and the kids.  So I said I had to talk to you about it but..."

Kylie could tell how much the offer meant to Clay.  His eyes were gleaming.  The basketball team had given him a sense of camaraderie that she knew he missed from the army.  The boys were in awe of him and quick to his defense whenever a rival made a crack about his face.

"You really want this," Kylie finished for him.  "And... I think you should definitely accept the offer."

"Really?" Clay double-checked.

"Really," Kylie stressed before kissing him.  "The kids and I can get used to eating hotdogs and pretzels for dinner so we can be with you at games.  Congratulations, coach!"

"And congratulations, mama!"  Clay again rested his hand on her belly.  "I can't wait to meet you, little one."

"Me neither!  Oh, Clay...  I'm so relieved!"  Kylie hugged him and kissed his neck.

"I... I just...  Sometimes I think about where I was only a few years ago...  Desolate in a hospital bed.  And now... here I am with my beautiful wife and a third kid on the way and a dream job and..."  Clay sighed happily.  "So many friends and Joshua..."

"We are very, very blessed," Kylie murmured.

"We are..."  Clay rested his forehead against hers and they prayed in thanksgiving for the life God had gifted them.

*~*~*

Saturday, December 21st, 2019

"Now...  His answers aren't always that quick... and sometimes they don't look like what you're expecting or even wanting but... they do come," Kylie affirmed. 

"So I'm learning anew," Ibrahim agreed.  "You know, shortly before Joshua arrived, I'd been praying to Allah for a renewed sense of clarity in my mission.  Things just felt... off.  I definitely wasn't expecting to find myself as a Christian with a new job but... here I am.  And I feel better... more myself."

"And we're all very glad for that."  Raheem beamed at his cousin then turned to Clay and Kylie.  "And glad for your newest bundle of joy."

"Have you chosen any names, Clay and Kylie?" Maryam asked. 

"Well... sort of," Clay replied.  "We could abandon them once we see the baby.  But we're thinking Oliver for a boy."

"And Maisy for a girl," Kylie added.

"Aww!  I love them both," Emma, who along with Peter and Sawyer had arrived mid-story, complimented.  "And Maisy would go so cute with Mercy if..."  Her face flushed and her voice trailed off.

"Mercy?" Zadie questioned.

"If?" Caleb echoed.

Peter laughed and stroked Emma's back.

"I'm afraid the cat's out of the bag, my dear.  Might as well tell them."

"Guess so!"  Emma laughed then smiled at the others.  "Peter and I have decided to start trying for baby number two.  Sawyer's still so little that we thought about waiting but..."

"But I'll be pushing forty soon so...  No time like the present."  Peter squeezed Emma's hand.

"That's so exciting!" JenniAnn gushed.  "And, yes, Mercy and Maisy do sound super-cute together.  So I'm guessing you've picked Mercy for a girl?"

Emma nodded.

"Of course, we'd be very happy with another boy."  She smiled at Joshua.  "But... it is fun to think along the lines of girl stuff.  Although..."  Her smile faltered.

Raheem noticed that Hura was peering at the other woman, her gaze especially gentle.

"It's kind of difficult, too," Emma finished.  "I know bad things can happen to boys... do happen to boys... but I guess because of what I went through, girls just seem so much more vulnerable."

Protectively, Zadie snuggled Etta closer.

"If we do have a girl, I'm afraid I'm going to be very, very over-protective of her and stifle her," Emma admitted.  "And I don't want to do that."

"I'll be there to help you," Peter vowed.

"And the rest of us can speak up if we feel we need to," Dot promised.

"I... I know..."  Emma smiled again.  "That helps.  It really does."  She caught Hura's gaze.  "There's just a lot to think about."

Joshua looked back and forth between the two women, knowing they were each thinking of an afternoon some weeks before.

*~*~*

Wednesday, October 16th, 2019

As Emma lay on her exam table, Hura gently traced a few of the scars on the woman's abdomen.

"Are they ever painful or itchy?" the doctor asked.

Emma shook her head.

"No.  They're just... there."

"Okay.  Good.  You can lower your shirt and sit up now."

Emma did so then looked expectantly at Hura who settled onto a stool.

"So..."

"So I think I can definitely help," Hura assured.  "I can't say they'll disappear completely but... they could fade.  But before we talk about treatment options, I think we need to talk about goals.  Would you be happy if they were simply faded?"

"I think so.  It would be nice if they weren't so obvious.  But..."

"But?" Hura prompted gently.

"Am... am I vain for even thinking about this?"

"No!  Trust me, I see plenty of vain people in here... please don't repeat that."

Emma laughed.

"I won't."

"Like it or not, so much is tied up with the way we look... self-esteem, chiefly." 

"Yeah..."

"Now... I'm asking this as a friend and not as a doctor.  Because as a doctor, I believe you should have total autonomy over your body.  But... have you talked to Peter about this?"

"He knows I'm here," Emma replied.  "He's supportive.  He said the scars have never bothered him but, if they bother me, then it's worth exploring options."

"Good man.  I'm glad you're not feeling pressured."

"Oh no!  Definitely not.  I... well, I've actually been thinking about it since Sawyer was born.  I... I was so happy that Peter and I were going to have a baby but..."  Emma peered down at her hands.  "A few times, I saw nurses whispering with each other and... I felt like it was probably about my scars."

"Oh, Emma..."

"I mean... I get it.  They don't know how far I've come.  They were probably a little scared about a woman who cuts herself having a baby."

"You're more charitable than I am, apparently.  Whispering around a patient like that is very unprofessional."

"I suppose...  Anyway, Peter and I have started talking about trying for another baby in the new year and... and I really, really want a girl this time.  I mean I'd love the baby no matter what.  But I... I suppose I want a chance to do better for my baby girl than my mom did for me.  And, yes, maybe it's a little bit about the superficial stuff like tiny dresses and big hair bows and those itty bitty patent leather shoes."  Emma smiled dreamily as she imagined it all.

Hura also smiled, her eyes misting as she thought of her baby girl, now almost a woman.

"Those shoes are adorable," she agreed.

"Uh huh...  And I've found myself reading articles about raising girls in today's world and one was about how, if you're comfortable with it, you should sometimes let your daughter see you get dressed so she can see a 'real' woman's body and not just have visions of impossible super models in her head.  And that seemed like a really good idea to me.  And I remembered Diana saying she did that with her girls and Hailey and Kendra are so healthy and well-adjusted.  But... what would my daughter think when... when she saw me?" Emma implored with tears in her eyes. 

Hura clasped Emma's hand.

"Emma, she would see that her mother is a strong woman who has overcome a lot in her life...  That's what I see.  I know that's what Peter sees."

"Yeah..."

Hura went to Emma's coat which was hanging on the door and retrieved a handkerchief from the pocket.

"How did you know that was there?" Emma asked as she gratefully accepted it.

Hura smiled.

"Don't we all have them?"

Emma returned her smile and nodded.

"Yeah...  Maryam's so good to us."

"She is.  Speaking of... have you talked to Joshua about this?"

"A little.  I kinda casually mentioned that I had an appointment with you.  I... I suppose I thought I needed to give him a chance to stop me.  Maybe he wants me to keep the scars as... as penance for..."

"Emma...  That doesn't sound like Joshua," Hura gently countered.

Emma heaved a sigh.

"I know..."

"So what did he say?"

"He said he thought it was a really good idea."

"If you asked... maybe he could heal them?" Hura suggested.

"I'd feel weird about that...  And he didn't offer.  But... maybe he'd help whatever treatment plan you have in mind along.  I mean... this isn't like the time Randall was dying.  I don't need to be scar-free to live."

Hura shook her head in wonder.

"I heard that story... Randall told it to Raheem and me after he heard about what Joshua did for Raheem.  Amazing.  And you're right.  And, in my experience, sometimes the process of healing scars is very therapeutic emotionally.  It might not be the same if, poof, suddenly they were all gone."

"Especially since I put them there," Emma replied.  "And, yes, the penance angle was wrong.  But I just mean... I chose to cut myself over several years.  I feel like I need to choose treatment, too.  Even if it also takes years.  It doesn't feel right to just have Joshua wave them away."

"I understand that.  But I don't think we're looking at years.  But probably months.  And since I think laser treatment would be the most effective, we'd stop if and when you get pregnant.  And, like I said, it might not be full-proof.  But I think we could get noticeable improvement," Hura informed.

Emma nodded resolutely.

"I want to go for it.  And... I'm glad I'll be going through this with a friend."  She clasped Hura's hand.

Hura gave her hand a squeeze back.

"Absolutely.  All your sessions will be with me, I promise."

"Good."  Emma beamed at Hura.  "Oh and... please don't mention the baby thing just yet.  I don't want people to be on a 'bump watch.'"

Hura chuckled.

"I promise I won't.  I know how that is.  I was the first of my siblings to get married and my mother hounded Raheem and me.  She stopped just short of measuring my waist circumference every time we visited."

The two women laughed and exchanged more banter before settling into more serious discussion of the treatment options that would help Emma.

*~*~*

Saturday, December 21st, 2019

Joshua smiled appreciatively at Hura before turning his attention to Emma and Peter.

"The baby you do get will be blessed to have you as parents," Joshua encouraged.  "And to have Sawyer as a big brother."

"Did you ever wish you had a big brother, Joshua?" Iz asked.

"Nope.  Because he had a fantastic older cousin," John replied with a grin.

Joshua smiled and rolled his eyes at John before giving Iz his full attention.

"Sometimes when I was little.  Especially when other kids could be kind of mean.  My Abi and Ama always stood up for me."  He smiled at them.  "But I thought it would be nice to have a big brother.  And then I sort of did.  After an aunt and uncle died, my parents adopted my cousins.  Two of them, Yosef and Yaqob were older than me, although not by much."

"That's cool.  I sometimes wish I had an older brother," Iz confessed.

"Sorry, bud," Raheem apologized.  "But your mom and I did give you a pretty great older sister, huh?"

Iz smiled at his sister and nodded.  Then his gaze traveled to Christopher who was seated beside Amala.

"Could you be my big brother?" 

Christopher blinked in surprise and stared at the little boy with his wide, expectant eyes.  He blinked again to ward off tears.

Amala squeezed her boyfriend's hand.

"I... I'd like that a lot, Iz.  I always wished I'd had a younger brother."  Christopher beamed at the boy then happily accepted his hug.

"Aww!" Hura exclaimed, wiping at her eyes.

"And to think you didn't want Amala going out with him," Raheem whispered, giving her a wink.

"Oh hush!"  Hura playfully swatted at her husband who chuckled.

"Very good!" Joshua cheered.  "And now... I think the onslaught has begun."

He gestured to the window beyond which several more of the Friends were making their way from the portal to Willowveil's front door.

Soon, the ballroom was brimming with people, all excitedly chatting and checking out the many, many cookies and other treats awaiting them.

In the midst of the gaiety, only JenniAnn frowned as she and Andrew stood in the doorway.

Noticing, Andrew squeezed her shoulder.

"What's wrong, Laja?"

"Oh... just noticing how packed in we are.  I think in a few years, we'll have outgrown the ballroom... and it's the biggest room any of us have access to.  Well, except the auditorium at St. G's and that's not ideal with all the bolted down chairs."

Andrew looked around, deciding she was right.

"Hmm...  Well, maybe we could knock down that wall and expand into the living room.  We hardly ever use the parlor.  We could make that the new living room."

"Good idea.  But... can you do that?  It's a bit more than building chairs and tables and carving."

The angel of death smiled.

"I've done construction and remodeling before.  Maybe, given it's for a good cause, Joshua could be persuaded to return those skills to me... need to know basis and all.  Because you're right.  We're going to need more space."

"It's a good problem to have," JenniAnn mused.

Andrew wrapped an arm around her waist and squeezed.

"That it is, Laja.  And we'll figure it out.  But for now..." he raised his voice.  "Let's get this caroling party started!"

Hearing Andrew, the others cheered.

"Everyone, get what snacks and drinks you want and then find a seat," JenniAnn invited. 

The group happily obeyed and within fifteen minutes, they were sprawled around the ballroom, facing the makeshift stage.

"So I guess I got volunteered to emcee this thing," Eli announced.  "So here's how this is going to work: if you want to perform a particular song, grab one of the scraps of paper scattered around and write down your name/names and the song.  We'll pass a bowl around to collect them.  Don't worry about duplicating.  We can all listen to the same song more than once if it comes down to it.  After we get through those, we'll do some group singing.  Everyone say hi to Logan at the computer.  He's going to be projecting lyrics for us."

Logan stood and bowed dramatically to cheers and applause.

"And, of course, to Tess who will be accompanying our singers on the piano when appropriate," Eli continued.

"Hey, babies!" Tess cried, momentarily rising from the bench.

"Now to start us off and give you time to fill out those cards, we have Emma and Kylie with Faith Hill's 'A Baby Changes Everything,'" Eli announced.

While the others cheered, Joshua made his way to his mother's side and sat beside her.

Maryam's eyes welled as the song began and she rested her head on her Yeshu's shoulder.

"Teenage girl, much too young, unprepared for what's to come... A baby changes everything," Emma sang.

"'Not a ring on her hand, all her dreams and all her plans...  A baby changes everything.  A baby changes everything...'" Kylie followed.

"'The man she loves, she's never touched.  How will she keep his trust?'" Emma implored.

Yosef sighed and clasped Maryam's left hand in both of his, grateful as always that he'd followed his heart and God's will.

"'A baby changes everything...'"

 "'A baby changes everything...'" Kylie echoed.

"'And she cries... ooh, she cries,'" they belted out together.

In the crowd, Liyana peered down at her sweet, sleeping baby.  She looked across the room at the Davidsons and tried to imagine Joshua so small in Maryam's arms.  Her heart ached as she thought of Maryam having some idea of what was to come for her little one. 

Guessing his wife's thoughts, because they were also his own, Ibrahim stroked her back and let tears trickle down his cheeks.  His tears increased as the song neared its end.

"'My whole life has turned around...  I was lost but now I'm found.  A baby changes everything.  A baby changes everything...'"

When Kylie and Emma finished, Ibrahim rested his forehead against his wife's. 

"I... I feel like it's doubly true for me.  Joshua... and Judah," he murmured.  "They changed everything."

"I know the feeling, my love."  Liyana kissed his cheek then stroked Judah's hair. 

Both parents smiled when Judah emitted a soft coo.

"Thank you, ladies!  Beautiful!  Maryam, good thing you gave everyone handkerchiefs," Eli jested.  He looked down at his note.  "And you may not want to put those away yet, ladies and gents, because next we have a choral number especially dedicated to someone in this room who is not Joshua."

As the group chuckled, a number of the men rose to their feet and moved to the stage.  By the time they were all assembled, the group included Fr. Mike, Rabbi Yakov, Kyle, Mason, Zeke, Sy, Peter, Adam, Henry, Andrew, Max, Shane, Eric, Edward, Caleb, Arthur, Eliot, Jeff, Tyson, Tim, and Owen.  Eli remained with them and spoke.

"So many of you probably realize that, up here, we have most of the male cast and crew of our first production of Jesus Christ Superstar plus a few others.  We wanted to get together to honor someone who many of those up here on stage met for the first time during those days.  I think Fr. Mike found the perfect song for us to sing," he explained.

The audience listened curiously as they began.

"'The great forerunner of the morn, the herald of the Word, is born.  And faithful hearts shall never fail, with thanks and praise his light to hail.'"

Grinning proudly, Joshua craned his neck to look at his cousin who was gaping at the men.

"'With heavenly message Gabriel came, that John should be that herald’s name.  And with prophetic utterance told, his actions great and manifold.  John, still unborn, yet gave aright, his witness to the coming Light; and Christ, the Sun of all the earth, fulfilled that witness at His birth.'"

"Aww..."  Seated beside John, Jemima noticed he was moved to tears and wrapped her arms around him.

Still smiling, Joshua rested his hands over his heart then waved them to his cousin, sending his love.

Still stunned, John mimed the message back to Joshua.

"They're singing a... a song for me..." he murmured.

"Of course they are you big, beautiful lug," Jemima teased.

"'But why should mortal voices raise, the hymn of John the Baptist's praise, of whom, before his course was run, the Father said unto the Son:  "Behold my herald who shall go, before your face, your way to show, and shine, as with the Day-star's gleam, before your own eternal beam.'"

The next lyrics flashed onto the screen and, together, the group sang the final verse.

"'All praise to God the Father be.  All praise, eternal Son, to Thee, Whom with the Spirit we adore, forever and forevermore!'"

As soon as the song was over, the crowd erupted in cheers.  John made his way to the front of the room, receiving several pats on the back along the way, and began to hug each one of the men.

Jemima made her way to Joshua's side.

"Did you know about that?" she asked.

Joshua nodded.

"Fr. Mike visited with me about it.  There are always songs for me, of course.  And usually a handful for Ama and Abi.  And John, good sport that he is, just smiles and listens and sings along.  It was about time he get some love during one of these.  They thought about performing it at St. G's but decided this was better... more personal."

"Well... he was definitely verklempt," Jemima reported.

They smiled up at John, along with Maryam and Yosef.

When everyone had settled down, Eli stood alone on the stage, holding a bowl. 

"Well, I for one loved that!  Oh geez...  John, watch where you're..."  Eli cringed as the baptizer stumbled on his way back to his seat.

"Sorry!  I'm okay!  Just a little misty eyed still," John reported, beaming.

"Good.  I was just about to check your egg nog," Eli joked.  "So now... I'm going to draw a name out of the bowl to see who goes next..."  He reached in, plucked out a piece of paper, and unfolded it.  "And... we have Takoda with 'The Huron Carol.'  And he has a special guest!" 

Takoda took the microphone and smiled out at the Friends.

"So, umm, this song is very special to me.  It was written by Jean de Brébeuf, a Jesuit missionary who worked among the Huron people in Canada in the 1600s.  It sounds really beautiful in the Wyandot language which, regrettably, I can't speak.  So... I asked my supervisor to be here."  He pointed to Wahkan who had snuck into the room.

Wahkan smiled and made his way to the stage, first stopping to embrace Joshua.

Once he had joined Takoda and hugged him, Wahkan spoke to the crowd.

"It's my honor to be here with you.  I wish to extend my gratitude to all of you for befriending Takoda and helping him to heal.  As a small token of our appreciation, Takoda and I would like to share this song with you.  It was taught to me by Acona, the principality of the Wyandotte Nation," Wahkan introduced.  "We would love it if you would sing the chorus along with us.  Takoda will sing it once for you... don't worry.  It's in English... well, with a tiny bit of Latin," he added with a grin.

The crowd listened, transfixed, as Wahkan's deep, clear voice sang out.

"'Estenniayon de tsonwe Iesous ahatonnia onn' awatewa nd' oki n' onyouandaskwaentak ennonchien eskwatrihotat n'onyouandiyonrachatha Iesous ahatonnia, ahatonnia. Iesous ahatonnia...'"

Wahkan began to beat on a drum as Takoda took over the song.

"'Twas in the moon of wintertime, when all the birds had fled, that mighty Gitchi Manitou sent angel choirs instead.  Before their light the stars grew dim
and wandering hunters heard the hymn... 'Jesus your King is born, Jesus is born... in excelsis gloria
...'"

Seated among the children, Joccy looked in awe at Takoda.  She began to sway along to the beat of Wahkan's drum.

"'Within a lodge of broken bark, the tender Babe was found.  A ragged robe of rabbit skin enwrapp'd His beauty round.  And as the hunter braves drew nigh, the angel song rang loud and high.'"  Takoda raised his hand.

"'Jesus your King is born, Jesus is born... in excelsis gloria...'" the group sang together.

Intensely moved, Joshua peered around him.  His gaze settled on Joccy briefly then traveled to Takoda.  Briefly, he closed his eyes and prayed as Takoda continued to sing.

"'O children of the forest free, o sons of Manitou, the Holy Child of earth and heaven is born today for you.  Come kneel before the radiant Boy Who brings you beauty, peace and joy...'"

"'Jesus your King is born, Jesus is born... in excelsis gloria...
in excelsis gloria... in excelsis gloria.'"

"'
Iesous ahatonnia...  Iesous ahatonnia... Iesous ahatonnia...'" Wahkan finished.

As Takoda beamed, the crowd clapped furiously. 

"Takoda!  You've been holding out on us!" Peter shouted.

"Yes!  That was even better than when you sang at the prayer vigil!" Emma gushed.

Wahkan proudly patted his protege on the back as he blushed and bowed his head.

Andrew stepped onto the stage and hugged Wahkan.

"That was amazing!  You sounded awesome!  Please tell me you're staying," he encouraged.

Wahkan chuckled.

"I do have to get back to an assignment... but I think I can swing taking the afternoon off.  Those cookies do like absolutely amazing.  And I do have a soft spot for cocoa."

"You can definitely take the afternoon off," Joshua asserted as he embraced both Takoda and Wahkan.

"Good."  Wahkan grabbed Takoda's sleeve before he attempted to slip off the stage.  "Make sure you see me before I leave.  I have something for you."

Guessing it was the present for Joccy, Takoda's eyes lit up.

"Sure.  Thanks!"

Wahkan cocked his head towards where Joccy sat.

"Go on now."

Joshua approached Eli.

"Can you call a quick break, please?  I want to introduce Wahkan around."

"Absolutely, Boss!"  Eli turned on the mic.  "Folks, we're gonna take a few minutes.  Refill those drinks and those plates.  But don't wander too far away."

Joccy was beaming when Takoda reached her.

"That was awesome!  I know I've heard that song before.  I think Sarah McLachlan sang it.  But your version..."  Joccy squeezed the angel's hand.  "You really should try out for the next show St. G's does."

"Oh, I don't know about that..."

"Well, I think you should.  Kids, don't you think Takoda sounded amazing?"

Takoda laughed as the children shrieked with glee.

"Maybe.  We'll see.  I'm just glad you liked it."

"Definitely!  I really wanted to take video to show Jayden.  I think he would have loved it.  He loves world music.  But I didn't want him to ask where I was."

Takoda's smile faltered at the mention of the boy Joccy had befriended... or possibly more... at college but he recovered quickly.

"Yeah, well, umm, maybe I can sing it at St. G's next year where we don't need to be so secretive."

"I hope you do!"  Joccy hugged the angel.  "It really was beautiful.  Anyway... I'm gonna go get more cookies.  Could you watch the kids?"

"Sure."

As Takoda sat down amongst the children, he felt a strong hand rest on his shoulder.

Turning around, he saw Nick.

"Oh, hey, Nick."

"Have hope," the saint whispered.  "I don't see this Jayden thing lasting."

Takoda laughed uneasily.

"Oh, I... I'm not..."  He shook his head.

"I may be dead, technically speaking, but I'm not blind, young fellow," Nick informed with a wink and cheeky grin.

For just a moment, Takoda thought he truly looked like Santa...

*~*~*

After the break, the children delighted the adults with a rendition of "Away in the Manger."  It didn't matter to Joshua that they were highly off-key and that some of the littlest ones had spent the number silently gaping at their beaming parents.  He knew they loved him and, after they were finished, they crowded around him, vying for a knee to sit on or a hand to hold.  They settled for Maryam, Yosef, and Nick, rotating every few minutes, so each had time with Joshua.

After a few more numbers, Eli pulled the last card from the bowl.  He smiled appreciatively.

"It seems we have a first time solo singer.  Raheem would like to perform 'The Glorious Impossible' for us, accompanied by Amala on piano," he announced.

As the group clapped eagerly, Tess vacated the piano bench and hugged Amala who replaced her.

Blushing, Raheem took the microphone from Eli.

"Thank you, Eli.  I wanted to, umm, to perform a song for Joshua... who has given us so much.  And given this is my first real Christmas, I eagerly listened to many, many songs that were new to me.  I loved so many but 'The Glorious Impossible' stood out to me because I feel like so much of these past few months was impossible... at least based on human imagination and ability.  And yet... here I am.  Healthy and whole, surrounded by my family and more friends than I ever thought I would have.  And with a new faith... and with a greater appreciation for the immense and unending love of God.  So..."  Raheem drew in and let out a deep breath, peered lovingly at Joshua, and began.

"'See the Virgin is delivered, in a cold and crowded stall.  Mirror of the Father's glory, lies beside her in the straw.  He is Mercy's incarnation.  Marvel at this miracle!  For the Virgin gently holds the Glorious Impossible...'"

Joshua rested his chin gently on Omar's hair, his eyes full of love and joyful tears.

"'Love has come to walk on water, turn the water into wine, touch the leper, bless the children.  Love both human and divine.  Praise the wisdom of the Father, Who has spoken through His Son.  Speaking still, He calls us to the Glorious Impossible.  Hallelujah...  Hallelujah...  Hallelujah... Glorious Impossible!'"

Hura sat, with her arms around Iz, and tears streaming down her face.  She had heard her husband practicing often enough to know what came next.  Her enamored gaze shifted from Raheem to the carpenter... the king... the messiah.

"'He was bruised for our transgressions and He bears eternal scars.  He was raised for our salvation and His righteousness is ours.  Praise, oh praise Him, praise the glory of this lavish grace so full.  Lift your souls now and receive the Glorious Impossible!'"

With a wave from Raheem, the others joined in for the closing.

"'Hallelujah...  Hallelujah...  Hallelujah... Glorious Impossible.  Hallelujah...  Hallelujah...  Hallelujah... Glorious Impossible.  Glorious Impossible...'"

When the song was over, Amala raced to her dad's side and hugged him as he wept, overcome by the song.

Promising the children to return, Joshua joined the father and daughter on-stage and embraced them both.

"Thank you...  Thank you both for that beautiful gift," he effused.

"Thank you for... for saving my daddy," Amala squeaked out as she wept.

"Twice..." Raheem murmured.

Joshua nodded and smiled tenderly.

"I... I'd do it again," he vowed.

"I... I know you would," Raheem replied solemnly before breaking into a grin.  "But please don't.  I don't think our collective nerves could take it."

Joshua laughed and, once again, pulled the two into his embrace.

"What a beautiful note to end this segment on," Eli praised, his eyes glistening. 

"Thank you," Raheem replied.  "But now... I'm ready for my first-ever caroling session!"

Amid excited hoots and hollers, the stage emptied save for Tess who returned to the piano and, with a few clicks from Logan, the lyrics for "Angels We Have Heard on High" appeared and the singing resumed.

"'Angels we have heard on high,
sweetly singing o'er the plains.
And the mountains in reply,
echoing their joyous strains!'"

*~*~*

After the caroling, as many of the Friends got into their winter wear and prepared to head home, Takoda met with Wahkan in his room. 

"Well, here it is."  The elder angel held a flat, rectangular box out to his protege.

Eagerly, Takoda accepted it and opened the box.

"Does it meet with your approval?" Wahkan checked.

Eying the piece, Takoda nodded.  He ran his fingers over the turquoise and coral beads and rubbed the smooth, cool pendant at the center. 

"It's beautiful."

"I thought so.  I would like to have a word with you, though, Takoda."

Tearing his gaze away from the necklace, Takoda looked up at his supervisor.

"I can't help but be concerned.  What exactly are your intentions when it comes to Miss Lowery?"

Takoda felt his cheeks burning.

"I... nothing.  She's my friend."

"Good.  I only... I want you to be careful.  You've seen the very best of angel/human relations.  Andrew and JenniAnn are a fine, inspiring couple.  I wouldn't have asked Andrew to take you in if I felt otherwise.  But... JenniAnn is an anomaly.  Most women... humans in general, actually... wouldn't make the sacrifices she's made and continues to make.  I don't want you getting your heart set on a future that... that may be impossible, Takoda."

Bowing his head, Takoda nodded.  He did admire Andrew and JenniAnn and, sometimes, he felt envy.

"I just... I want to protect Joccy," he admitted.  "Do you know about her father?"

Wahkan nodded.

"Very unfortunate."

"Yes.  She's had a difficult life.  She deserves... kindness," Takoda insisted.

Wahkan sighed.  He'd seen the result of Takoda getting too wrapped up in the lives of humans.  And this felt different... stronger even... than his friendship with Daniel and Robin. 

"She does," he agreed finally.  "But now... I better get back to work.  I hope she loves the necklace.  I'm sure she will.  Merry Christmas, Takoda."

"Merry Christmas, Wahkan."  Takoda hugged his supervisor.  "And thanks for fetching this for me."  He held the necklace up.

Wahkan smiled.

"Not every day I find myself in a jewelry store... even a native one.  I enjoyed the novelty of it.  Let me know how it goes."

"Will do!"

"Be well, Takoda."

"Be well."

With a final wave, Wahkan began to glow and then disappeared.

Once his supervisor was gone, Takoda beamed at the necklace.

It was truly beautiful.  He could just imagine it with a black, flowy dress that Joccy was fond of.  But it would look just as nice with a sweater and jeans.  He imagined her eyes glistening as she opened it.  Then looking at him...

Takoda startled when someone knocked on his door.  Hastily, he closed the box and stashed it beneath his bed before opening the door.

"Hey there!" Joccy greeted.  "Vincent's reading Little Santa for his grandkids in the library.  Wanna come listen?"

"To a kids' book?"

Joccy shrugged.

"He's a good reader."

Takoda smiled and nodded.

"Yeah, sure.  I'll come."

"Good!"  Joccy laughed, clasped his hand, and then dashed to the library.

Takoda felt a surge of warmth in his heart at her touch and, no longer carrying about the juvenile nature of the book, happily proceeded to the library.

*~*~*

Sunday, December 22nd, 2019

After an afternoon spent taking their caroling and cookies on the road to True Light, the Chrysalis, the Phoenix Inn, the V.A., and Olivia Olsen's assisted living facility; many of the Friends returned to Willowveil to commemorate the first night of Chanukah.

"You should say the blessings," Andrew encouraged as he and Joshua moved a table onto the stage so, from anywhere in the crowded room, the menorah could be seen.

"No... this is your home, Andrew.  You should say the blessings.  It's tradition," Joshua countered.

Andrew considered.  He did like saying the blessings... and he definitely liked how JenniAnn looked at him when he spoke Hebrew.

"How about I recite the English translation?" Joshua offered, knowing by the pink tinge to the angel's face exactly where his thoughts had gone.

"Yeah!  That would be great.  Best of both worlds," Andrew agreed.

"I think so."  Joshua patted him on the back. 

"Good.  Joshua, there's something I've been wanting to talk to you about since yesterday afternoon."

"Oh?"

"Well...  JenniAnn noticed how crowded the ballroom's been.  So I was thinking maybe we could knock out the wall there and make the living room and back hallway part of the ballroom.  So we'd have more room.  But we can't exactly hire contractors so..."  Andrew smiled hopefully.  "Could I maybe have my construction know-how back, please?"

Chuckling, Joshua nodded.

"Sure."  He rested a hand of Andrew's arm.

Suddenly, Andrew's mind was buzzing with so many ideas and possible solutions.

"But..." Joshua continued, "leave it until the new year.  Enjoy the holidays.  We can go over plans before I leave."

Mentally filing his plans away, Andrew smiled and squeezed Joshua's hand.

"Of course.  Thank you.  I appreciate it."

"My pleasure.  I certainly don't want anyone kicked out into the entryway when we get together." 

Joshua grabbed a tablecloth and draped it over the table.

Andrew centered the menorah on top of it.

"There...  Looks nice," Joshua complimented.  He glanced out the window.  "It's almost sunset.  Let's let everyone in."

"Sounds good!" 

Andrew ran through the ballroom and pulled open the doors.

Soon, the room was filled with Friends and the enticing scent of doughnuts, latkes, and brisket courtesy of Adam.

Once the sun had set, Joshua and Andrew returned to the stage along with Yosef and Maryam.

As the others sat in hushed silence, Joshua smiled at his parents.

"Ama and Abi, could you please tell us the story of Chanukah?" he requested.

Smiling as they recalled the many, many times their little boy had begged for the stories of his people, the couple assented with nods.

"Once, nearly two hundred years before Yeshu was born, there was a king named Antiochus.  He was not, as you say, multi-cultural," Yosef shared, causing chuckles throughout the room.  "He wanted everyone to worship the Greek gods.  This was, obviously, very wrong for the Jews because it would mean breaking the first commandment: 'You shall have no other gods before Me.'  And who would want to worship them, anyway?  That Zeus was a philandering, disgusting ra...'"

"Yosef..." Maryam quietly cautioned.  "The children."

Joshua chuckled.

"Ah, yes.  Of course.  Well, many of the Jews decided to fight back against Antiochus.  One brave man, Judah the Maccabee, was the leader of these fighters.  Despite being at a disadvantage, they drove the enemies out of Jerusalem."

"Unfortunately," Maryam continued, "the king and his people had dishonored the Temple.  And so the Jews had to clean it up and rededicate it.  They wanted to light the menorah but found they had only oil enough for one day and yet... miraculously, the oil lasted for eight days and eight nights, lighting them as they restored the Temple and reminding them of God's love for them.  And so, at Chanukah, we light the candles to remember the victory of the Maccabees and God's miracle of the oil."

"Thank you, Ama and Abi."  Joshua smiled at them both then rested a hand on Andrew's shoulder.  "And now we're going to light the first candle.  You'll notice there will be two candles."  He touched the middle one.  "This is the shamash, the helper candle.  We'll use it to light the other candles.  And now... the blessings.  Andrew will recite them in Hebrew and I'll follow in English.  Andrew, please."

After ensuring his yarmulke was straight, Andrew lit the shamash and prayed.

"'Baruch atah Adonai, Eloheinu Melech ha’olam, asher kid’shanu b’mitzvotav v’tsivanu l’hadlik ner shel Hanukkah.'"

"'Praised are You, Our God, Ruler of the universe, Who made us holy through Your commandments and commanded us to kindle the Chanukah lights,'" Joshua translated.

"'Baruch atah Adonai, Eloheinu Melech ha’olam, she-asah nisim la’avoteinu bayamim hahem bazman hazeh,'" Andrew continued.

Amidst the crowd, JenniAnn beamed at Andrew as she swayed with Avi.

"'Praised are You, Our God, Ruler of the universe, Who performed wondrous deeds for our ancestors in those ancient days at this season.'"

Andrew lit the first candle.

"'Baruch atah Adonai, Elohenu Melech ha’olam, shehecheyanu, v’kiyimanu, v’higiyanu la’zman hazeh.'"

"'Praised are You, Our God, Ruler of the universe, Who has given us life and sustained us and enabled us to reach this season.'"

"Amen," Joshua, Andrew, Maryam, and Yosef concluded together.

"Amen," the others echoed.

"And now..." Joshua grinned.  "We eat!"

Excitedly, the Friends began to enjoy their meal, the first Chanukah meal for many of them.  After a few minutes, John and Jemima began making the rounds, teaching whomever wanted to learn how to play with dreidels.

"So... what do you think?" Joshua asked as he sat down beside Christoper who had been so eager to attend.

His face stuffed with doughnut, Christopher only stared at a laughing Joshua for a few moments.

"It's... yummy," he replied with a grin.  "But, really, I loved it.  I think I'm going to need to get my own menorah."

"Well... as it happens... Andrew, Abi, and I thought there might be a run on menorahs," Joshua explained.  "So we've carved several in our spare time over the past few weeks.  They're in the entryway.  Why don't you go pick one out?"

"Really?!" Christopher exclaimed.

"Yep, really.  Go, see what you can find."

"Okay, cool!  Thanks!"

Joshua chuckled as Christopher hurried out into the hallway.  He'd no sooner disappeared than Raheem approached.

"Hey, have you seen Amala?" he asked.

Joshua nodded.

"She's in the entryway.  Andrew, Abi, and I carved some menorahs for everyone.  I told her she could pick one out for your family," he answered.

"Oh good.  Well, I'm sure she'll find a good one.  Thanks, Josh!"

"You're very welcome... and I'm sure she will."

Raheem wondered at the mischievous gleam in Joshua's eyes but supposed he was just happy.  With friends and doughnuts, how could he not be?

*~*~*

Christopher smiled when he stepped into the entryway and spotted Amala.  She was standing just to the side of the menorah and candle laden table, staring up at something.  When she heard her boyfriend approaching, she smiled.

"Hi!  Joshua told you about the menorahs, too, I take it?"

"Yep!  How amazing is that?"

"Very!  Hey, what's that?"

"What's what?"

"Come here..."  Amala waved the boy over then pointed above her.  "It's some sort of decoration, I guess.  But it's not like anything I've seen around here."

Christopher's face flushed.

"That, umm, that's mistletoe."

"Oh...  I've heard of that.  Just never knew what it looked like.  It's so high up, I almost didn't see it."

"Well, it is poisonous.  With all those pets and kids, Andrew and JenniAnn probably didn't want to take any chances.  Kinda surprised they have it.  The tradition is pretty pagan."

Amala shrugged.

"According to what I've been reading lately, a lot of Christmas traditions have pagan origins.  Like Christmas trees.  But I don't think it matters.  God created trees.  God created mistletoe.  And, besides, Andrew and JenniAnn are pretty romantic.  I can see them going for it."

Christopher's blushed deepened as he realized Amala knew about the mistletoe tradition... and they were definitely standing beneath it.

Amala smiled.

"I don't believe in luck.  But I do think tradition has its place, ya know?"

Christopher nodded.

"Uh, yeah..."

It was Amala's turn to blush.

"Do you wanna..."

"Uh huh..."

After exchanging shy smiles, the two teenagers moved closer together and kissed for the first time.

Ivy and Sy, who were just about to enter the hallway to select their menorah, spotted the two and immediately returned to the ballroom.

They smiled at each other.

"You think that was the first?" Sy asked in a whisper.

Ivy nodded.

"I do."

"Our first kiss was at Christmastime," Sy recalled.

"It was..." Ivy assented, her smile dreamy.

Sy cupped her chin.

"Bodes well for them, I think."

Ivy glanced at her engagement ring and then peered up at her fiance, caressing his face.

"I think so, too."

As they exchanged kisses, the couple in the entryway stood with their foreheads rested against each other.

"Ya know," Christopher mused.  "I've heard comedians joke about how Chanukah gifts don't come close to Christmas gifts.  But... I think that was one heckuva Chanukah gift."

Giggling, Amala nodded.

"The best," she agreed.  "But now... menorahs."

"Menorahs," Christopher repeated.

Smiling, they drew apart, both still giddy.

*~*~*

Monday, December 23rd, 2019

The next morning, JenniAnn awoke while it was still dark outside.  With a sigh, she turned to the alarm clock.

4:05

Avi no longer nursed at 4:00 but sometimes her body forgot that.

After spending a few minutes trying to get back to sleep, JenniAnn gave up.  Careful not to jostle Andrew, she got out of the bed, donned her robe, and tip-toed to Avi's nursery. 

Her sweet baby boy was fast asleep.  She brushed some hair from Avi's face... it had begun to grow so quickly... then left the room.   Next, she checked on Belle.  She smiled when she saw that, at some point, Belle had left her own bed and snuggled up with Shelby whose overnight stays had become increasingly common.  After admiring the adorable scene for a few moments, JenniAnn made her way to the kitchen.

Despite the early hour, coffee didn't appeal to her.  She settled on some tea and started a kettle boiling.

Deciding she'd like some company, JenniAnn loaded up a tray and headed to the attic apartments, hoping the one person who consistently rose at such an early hour was there.

"Come in," a deep, smooth voice called after JenniAnn's knock.

JenniAnn glanced down at her tray.

"Umm..."

A moment later, the door opened and Marty appeared.

"My apologies.  I didn't think..."  He sniffed the air.  "Rooibos?"

JenniAnn nodded.

"It was calling to me this morning.  Would you like some?"

"Yes, please."  Marty waved to a nearby bistro table then hurried forward to pull out a chair for JenniAnn.

"I hope I didn't interrupt."

Marty shook his head.

"I was writing... but that can wait."

"If you're sure..."

"I am."

Marty smiled at JenniAnn as she handed him a cup.

"Thank you."

"You're welcome.  So... what were ya writing?  If you can say, I mean."

Marty glanced at his book, picked it up, and set it before JenniAnn.

"The official record of the Friends' Christmas thus far.  As I was writing, I realized that, so often when I write about the Friends, I use a word I very seldom do in my other records."

"Oh?"  JenniAnn laughed.  "Let me guess...  Eccentric?  Sappy?  Frenzied?"

Laughing, too, Marty shook his head.

"I can't say those words haven't come up but... no.  This one."

JenniAnn stared at the golden word he'd pointed to.

"'I...'  The word is 'I'?" she questioned.

Marty nodded.

"I'm a part of things here," he murmured.  "I don't editorialize in my records.  'I' only appears because I was actually a part of these events."

JenniAnn's eyes misted.

"Well, I am very glad you are, Marty."

"Me too..."

JenniAnn thought she saw a tear trickle down the angel's cheek but he quickly brushed at his face.

"The community you and Andrew have built..."

JenniAnn shook her head.

"Joshua built," she corrected.

"Yes.  He is the Master Builder," Marty agreed.  "But it's no coincidence that it was during one of Andrew's assignments, with you at his side, that Joshua appeared.  It's no coincidence that your household welcomed him in.  And it's no coincidence that it's still your household where everyone gathers."

JenniAnn looked around the room with renewed awe.

"And to think I only came here because I was an angsty teen who wanted to live independently from my parents but couldn't afford rent anywhere."

Marty laughed.

"Well, it wouldn't be the first time God used a teen girl to change the world."

JenniAnn smirked.

"True.  Although Maryam's motives were much, much purer." 

"Still..."

"Still..." JenniAnn repeated.  "It was one of the best decisions I ever made."

"Yes, I would say so," Marty concurred.  "And..."  He hesitated before deciding to continue.  "I think you and Andrew are more influential than you realize.  You make the whole anam cara thing look very appealing to certain younger angels."

JenniAnn sighed.

"Yes...  Violeta is rather too often talking about a boy from her classes.  He has no idea she's an angel of course but...  Wait... angels?  Plural?"

Marty nodded.

JenniAnn thought then her eyes went wide.

"Takoda...  I mean...  I know he and Joccy are friends but..."  She frowned.  "I was getting the impression that Joccy is rather hung up on a boy at her school.  And Takoda's never said..."

"With all due respect to your Violeta, she gets a tangle in her hair and everyone knows about it."

JenniAnn giggled at Marty's assertion.  She couldn't argue with it.

"Takoda is much more reticent.  Reminds me of a much older angel, come to think of it..."  Marty winked.

"Andrew..."

"Yes."

JenniAnn frowned.  Andrew had said nothing of his own feelings during her entire relationship with Eliot.  It was only much, much later that she'd learned how truly he had been hurt by the distance she'd thrown up between him.  That didn't seem to be happening yet with Joccy...  But it could if things progressed with that fellow.  And there was another matter to consider, too...

"I love Takoda," JenniAnn stressed.  "And maybe this is a little rich coming from me given I was seventeen when I met Andrew... who is ancient... but... Joccy is only nineteen.  Takoda is nearly thirty."

Marty shrugged.

"Not exactly a fair comparison.  Takoda has only been in the mortal realms for..."

"Nineteen years," JenniAnn realized.  "He'd mentioned that he stayed in Heaven for the first ten."

Marty nodded. 

"He was even in my department for a while... mostly just doing filing.  Very naive to the ways of the human worlds."

A sudden thought occurred to JenniAnn.

"By any chance...  Do you recall when he first came to Earth?"

"I do..."  Marty said no more.

"So what do we do?" JenniAnn inquired.

"Not much more we can do than pray.  He's not owed Joccy's affections, of course."

"Of course.  I just... I don't want to see either of them hurt."  JenniAnn stared into her tea cup.  "Love... well, it sucks sometimes."

Marty chuckled.

"Maybe so.  But I presume you wouldn't relinquish the... suckiness... knowing it got you to where you are now, correct?"

JenniAnn twirled her ring and smiled.

"Correct."

"Then we have to trust that whatever God has planned for Takoda and Miss Jocelyn, whatever difficult turns their stories take, they will view it as worthwhile in the end."

"Yes..."

JenniAnn sighed, her eyes glazing.

"You can go back to Andrew.  I'll bring the tray down later," Marty offered.

JenniAnn smiled at him.  As stand-offish as Marty sometimes was, he was adept at reading emotions.

"Thank you.  I'll see you later."

"I shall look forward to it.  Thank you for the tea... and the time."

JenniAnn squeezed the angel's hand.

"Thank you for being here."

"I am very grateful to be here." 

With a final exchange of smiles, the two parted.

Marty took another sip of tea then took up his book again and resumed writing.

*~*~*

Andrew stared at the clock, wondering if JenniAnn would come back or if she had gotten up for the day.

He was just about to rise when he heard her footsteps approaching.  Settling back against his pillows, he waited.

"Ah, you're up," JenniAnn whispered as she entered the room.

"Awake.  Not up," Andrew replied with a smile.  "I was just debating with myself whether to get up and look for you... or continue to hope you'd come back to our nice, cozy bed... which could be cozier."

JenniAnn giggled when he winked and held a hand out to her.  Happily, she settled down beside him.

"I couldn't get back to sleep so made some tea then chatted with Marty for a bit," she explained. 

Andrew kissed her hair.

"He, umm, he's pretty convinced that Takoda's hoping Joccy is his anam cara," JenniAnn explained.

The angel of death sighed.

"I can't say the thought hasn't crossed my mind.  I was just hoping it wasn't true.  Joccy's mentioned wanting to get married, have a family."

"They could still have a family... just in a different way," JenniAnn reminded.

"I know but... sacrifices would still need to be made."

"Yes..."  JenniAnn nuzzled Andrew's neck then kissed it as she softly stroked his chest.  "But... Arthur and Monica made it work.  And... there's a lot to be said about sensuality apart from sexuality..."

Andrew buried a hand in her hair and nodded.

"That assumes Joccy feels the same about Takoda, though.  It... it's not always that way."

The angel's mind drifted back... back to a time when he thought he had lost JenniAnn, back to a time when Joshua had given him permission to take a few months off in Paris because he couldn't bear watching her plan her wedding to Eliot.

"Love..."

Andrew roused and smiled at JenniAnn.

"Sorry."

"It's okay.  You just got all... distant all of a sudden.  If I didn't know better, I'd think you had one of my seizures."

Andrew shook his head as JenniAnn caressed his face.

"No, no.  Nothing like that.  Just a nostalgic moment."  He'd never told JenniAnn about the aborted Paris trip... and now didn't seem like the time given her concerns for Takoda and Joccy. 

"Ah."  JenniAnn rested her forehead against his.  "Maybe we could enjoy the here and now for a little bit?"

Andrew smiled at her suggestion and nodded before kissing her.

They were still in an embrace several minutes later when enthusiastic knocks interrupted them.

"Maja!  Dad!  Come see!" Max called through the door.  "Landon just walked clear across the bedroom!"

Drawing apart, Andrew and JenniAnn smiled sheepishly.

"Be right out," Andrew shouted, not taking his eyes off JenniAnn.

"So awesome!" JenniAnn added as she brushed mussed hair behind Andrew's ears.  "Yay, Landy!"

They could hear Max's giddy laughter and then him rushing back to the room he, Rose, and Landon were staying in.

"I'm so relieved," JenniAnn murmured as she slipped out of Andrew's arms.  "I know it was worrying them a bit that Landon was still so shaky on his feet."

"Me too.  Thank God!"  As Andrew rose, he couldn't keep from smiling... both out of joy for his grandson's accomplishment but also the knowledge that the girl he had thought he'd lost was now raising children... and a grandchild... with him.

Once they were both presentable, Andrew and JenniAnn left their room, hand in hand, and went to shower praise on their little walker.

*~*~*

Later that morning, Joccy peered into Joshua's room.  She smiled when she saw him sitting in his window seat, calmly sipping coffee as he watched the snow gently fall.

Sensing her presence, Joshua turned around and smiled at the girl.

"Joccy!  Good morning!"

"G'morning!"  Joccy held up the carafe she was holding.  "I don't mean to interrupt if you're wanting alone time but... JenniAnn thought you might need a refill."

"I've had enough alone time," Joshua replied.  "A refill would be great.  Come join me?  It's very relaxing."  He glanced back at the window.

With a smile and a nod, Joccy agreed.  She refilled Joshua's mug then sat down beside him.

"Are you excited for Zoe and your mom to get here?" Joshua inquired.

Joccy nodded.

"And I know they're excited to come see you," she replied.

"And you," Joshua added.  "They've missed you, too.  Very much."

"Zoe wants to come to New York for college.  It would be nice to have her closer... I mean she and mom are both just a few steps away with the portal.  But there's just something about living in the same place as a person."

"There is," Joshua agreed. 

"Are you upset with me?" Joccy blurted out after a few moments of quiet.

Joshua wrapped an arm around the girl and gave her an affectionate squeeze.

"Joccy, Joccy... no.  Why would you think that?"

"It's just... Jayden.  I... I really like him.  But... I don't think he's Christian.  I tried to ask him once but he was all 'I believe there's truth in all religions and God is love.  You have to follow your heart.'"

"Joccy, many, many devout Christians have had relationships with non-Christians.  And, yes, many times that resulted in the spouse converting... even amongst the Friends... and I rejoice in that.  So, no, I'm not upset with you.  But...  I want you to have someone on your side who you can have open, honest, meaningful conversations with.  You say you 'don't think he's Christian' which tells me that, after his initial answer, you maybe let it drop?"

Joccy bowed her head and nodded.

"And that's okay," Joshua assured, patting her back.  "But if it was important enough to you to ask, you should get an answer.  And I know that's hard for you.  I know you grew up being taught not to rock the boat, not to say or ask anything that might upset your father.  But that wasn't healthy, my own.  I know that's one of the many reasons you love being amongst the Friends and in the Tunnels.  No question is off-limits.  Everyone knows they can speak freely."

Smiling, Joccy nodded again.

"I do love it..."

"And you were the first one brave enough to challenge Takoda... to draw him out.  That was no small thing," Joshua reminded.

Joccy smiled fondly.

"I just couldn't understand how anyone would give up a chance to spend time with you!  I mean..."  Her smile faded.  "I can't imagine going through what he did but... still... to... to be with you in Eternity..."  She sighed.

Joshua gripped her hands tightly and peered into Joccy's eyes.

"We'll have that some day, Joccy.  We will.  But please remember... I'm with you in this life, too.  Even when you can't see me.  Always."

Joccy smiled at Joshua then rubbed her nose against his, just as she used to do with her grandfather.

Joshua smiled and patted Joccy's cheek.

"I'll remember," Joccy promised.

"Good.  And now... now I think the both of us need to get some breakfast!"

Before she could answer, Joccy's stomach growled, causing both her and Joshua to laugh.

"Like I said..." Joshua teased.  He stood and held out his hand to Joccy who continued to clasp it as they made their way to the kitchen.

*~*~*

That afternoon, in the Tunnels, several of the Friends expectantly watched Ibrahim as he held a goblet.

"All right...  First sip of wine," he declared, bringing the cup to his lips.

"We maybe should have given him something else first," Logan opined, too late.  "Once you've had Joshua's wine..."

"The five bucks Trader Joe's stuff will never do again," Owen finished.

"Wow..."  Ibrahim sighed with contentment.  "That... that's some... wow..."  He took another sip.

Raheem chuckled and patted him on the back.

"Pretty great, huh?"

Ibrahim gave an enthusiastic nod.

"I'll look forward to trying some one day.  But for right now... the grape juice remains wonderful, too," Liyana complimented, raising her glass to Joshua who was holding Judah.

"I'm glad to hear it.  I'll make sure you get some once you're done nursing, Yana.  And I'm glad you're enjoying the wine, Ibrahim."

"Very much...  I could get used to this.  Responsibly, of course.  What is it they say?  One glass of red wine a day?"

"For women," Portia added.  "Men can have two... lucky.  All those antioxidants!"

A clanging sound prevented further response.  The group turned to Catherine and Vincent who were proudly smiling at the front of the room. 

"Ladies and gentlemen," Vincent began, "as many of you know, it was twelve years ago tomorrow that Catherine and I welcomed our beautiful boy into our lives... our sweet, smart, creative Jacob.  In honor of his impending birthday, Jacob has made a request of us all.  He'd like to dance the Hora.  And... he wants his fellow birthday boy to join him on a chair." 

Vincent beamed at Joshua who smiled and turned Judah over to his Aunt Hura.

"Sounds like a good time to me!" Joshua cheered as he hugged a smiling Jacob.  "Happy early birthday to you, dear Jacob!"

"And happy early birthday to you, Joshua!  Ya ready?"

"I'm ready!"

The two sat in the chairs that had been placed in front of them and, as the joyful music started up, they were lifted from the ground.  As everyone twirled around them, Joshua and Jacob gave each other high fives every time they came near each other.

*~*~*

Cameron tilted his head this way and that as he watched video of Joshua and company dancing the Hora at the previous spring's health fair.

Paul smiled at the young man's obvious delight in the music.  Slowly, over the past month, he'd been filling Cameron in on some of the goings on surrounding Joshua.

Once the dance was over, Cameron handed the tablet back to the saint.

"Is that something you and Joshua would have danced to in your time?" he asked with genuine interest.

"It's not unlike dances we'd do at weddings and other joyous celebrations.  But that particular form only came about in the early part of last century."

"Got it.  Everyone looked so happy..."

"They were."

"I... I'm glad I didn't take that away from them."

"Me too."  Paul squeezed Cameron's shoulder. 

"Do... do you think maybe Joshua would be willing to see me?"

Paul sat down on the cot so he could be at eye level with Cameron.

"He's always been willing, Cameron.  But he wanted you to want him here."

Cameron raised his head and met Paul's encouraging gaze.  He nodded.

"I... I want to see him again.  When... whenever he's available."

Paul beamed.

"Then I'll let him know," he promised.  "But for now..."

"Onto the book of Hosea?"

"Onto the book of Hosea," Paul confirmed.

"'The word of the Lord that came to Hosea son of Beeri during the reigns of Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz and Hezekiah, kings of Judah, and during the reign of Jeroboam son of Jehoash king of Israel,'" Cameron read.  "'When the Lord began to speak through Hosea, the Lord said to him, “Go, marry a promiscuous woman and have children with her, for like an adulterous wife this land is guilty of unfaithfulness to the Lord.”  So he married Gomer daughter of Diblaim, and she conceived and bore him a son.'"

Paul listened, praying that in the tale of Hosea's devotion to his philandering wife, Cameron would find a reminder of God's unfailing and unconditional love for him.

*~*~*

Tuesday, December 24th, 2019

The following morning, Joccy again made her way to Willowveil very early in the morning, hoping to spend a few moments alone with Joshua.  The previous evening, word had arrived that Cameron Burke had asked to see Joshua.  Not knowing what that reunion would be like, Joccy wanted to send Joshua along with fresh memories of love and adoration. 

She was starting a pot of coffee when she heard someone entering the kitchen behind her.  Turning around, Joccy smiled when she saw it was Takoda.  Her expression became quizzical when she noticed he was holding a wrapped box.

"G'morning, Takoda!" she greeted.  "I was just making some coffee for Joshua... or anyone.  Would you like some?"

Nervous, Takoda shook his head.

"No...  Just... umm...  I thought you might be here and... I got you something.  For Christmas.  And I know you probably want to spend tomorrow morning with your mom and sister so..."

Takoda held the box out.

Joccy's smile widened.

"Oh, Takoda...  You shouldn't have!  I mean... I did get you a little something, too.  And I wish I had it on me right now but..."

Takoda shook his head.

"It's fine.  Really."

"I'll bring your present by later but... should I open this now?" Joccy checked.

"Yes.  Please," the eager angel encouraged.

Excited and curious, Joccy tore the paper away.  She looked up at Takoda, her eyes questioning, when she saw the white box stamped with the name of a jeweler. 

"Umm..."

"It... it's not like diamonds or... or pearls or anything weird like that," Takoda assured.

With a nervous laugh, Joccy nodded.

"Okay..."  She lifted the lid and stared at the box's contents. 

"It's an Algonquin design," Takoda explained.

"It's... so beautiful.  I just can't..."

Takoda bristled, praying she wasn't going to refuse the gift.

"I just can't believe you... you got me something so... so beautiful.  So special..." Joccy murmured.  She looked into Takoda's eyes, her own brimming with tears.

"I'm really grateful for your friendship, Joccy.  And... and I wanted you to... to have something to remind you of that," Takoda replied, his own eyes filling.  "Could I help you put it on?"

"Yes... please."

After carefully moving Joccy's hair to one shoulder, Takoda took the necklace and fastened it.

Beaming, Joccy turned around to face him.

"How do I look?" she asked.

"Beautiful..."

Joccy blushed.

"Thank you.  It's the perfect gift.  Truly.  It... it reminds me of where I came from.  And who I want to be... where I want to go."

"I... I hope I'm there to see... where you go," Takoda choked out.

Joccy stepped forward and kissed the angel's cheek.

"I hope you are, too," she responded softly.

Blushing, Takoda considered saying more... telling her how he felt about her... all that he felt.

His cheek felt warm where she had kissed him... and it was enough.  He smiled at Joccy.

"Merry Christmas, Joccy."

Beaming back, Joccy squeezed Takoda's hands.

"Merry Christmas, Takoda."

*~*~*

Later that morning, Salma pensively perched on Joshua's window seat and watched him get ready for his visit to Cameron in jail.

"Which sweater do you think I should wear?" he asked, holding two out towards her.

Salma eyed the bright blue cardigan and the beige pullover.  She reached out and touched each of them.

"Definitely the beige.  It's softer and more... traditional."

"Beige it is."  Joshua yanked the sweater over his T-shirt.  "Thanks."

Salma rose to tame a few curls that the sweater had tousled.

Joshua smiled.

"Thank you again."

Salma returned his smile and caressed his cheek.

"Are... are you sure you don't want me to go with you?" she checked.

Joshua hugged the nun.

"I am.  I won't tell you that you can't go.  But... they do a pat down at security and even though they try to keep you away from other prisoners... they can't entirely.  And... they can be... uncouth.  I don't want you to feel uncomfortable."

Salma sighed.  The entire ordeal sounded triggering... even with Joshua at her side.

"You won't be going alone?"

Joshua shook his head.

"Raheem and Ibrahim are going with me.  I'll visit with Cameron alone first... but they'll be nearby."

"Then... I think I'll stay... and wait... and pray."

Joshua kissed her hair.

"I appreciate that.  We won't be long," he assured.  "There are limits on how long these visits can last."

Salma nodded.

Joshua again pulled her close.

Closing her eyes, and in the safety of her beloved Zmaray's embrace, Salma allowed herself to recall that awful day when she had held him in her arms and watched the life drain out of him.  Now she had to forgive the man who had shot him...

Salma drew in and let out a deep breath then reached into the pocket of her dress.

"Could you please give this to Cameron?" she requested.  "The other sisters and I have been making them."

Joshua peered down at the crocheted, cross-shaped bookmark.  It was green... Cameron's favorite color.  He had told Salma that and she had remembered.

"I will absolutely do that.  It's a beautiful gesture, Salma.  Thank you."

"You're welcome.  I figured he could use it as St. Paul goes through the scriptures with him."

"I'm sure that's exactly what he'll do."

Joshua kissed Salma's forehead and cradled her face in his hands.

"I'll come back here as soon as I'm finished at the jail.  And then I'd like to stop by El-Chanan and spend some time with your sisters and Reuel and whomever's about.  And then... then we'll come back here and make my parents tell my birth story."

Salma smiled.  There was no "making" Maryam and Yosef tell the story.  They loved to do so.

"Sound good?" Joshua checked.

"Sounds good."

"Then... let's go."

Together, the two made their way downstairs where Andrew, JenniAnn, Raheem, Hura, Ibrahim, and Liyana were waiting.

"You ready, Josh?" Raheem asked.

"I'm ready," Joshua affirmed.  "Ibrahim?"

Ibrahim, who was clasping his wife's hand, nodded.

"Just give me a call if the subway's backed up and you want me to come get you afterwards or anything," Andrew offered.

"Will do.  Thanks, Andrew."  Joshua squeezed his shoulder.  "But I think we'll be fine." 

A round of hugs started and, soon, the three men were in their coats, hats, and gloves.

"We'll be waiting here," Hura promised.

"And praying all goes well," Liyana added.

"Joe said to call him if you need any help," JenniAnn reminded.

Hura grabbed her husband's arm.

"Don't let him out of your sight," she urged in a hushed tone.

Raheem kissed her cheek.

"I won't.  I'll either be right with him or only separated by a bit of glass."

"Okay..."

"I love you, Joshua."  Salma gave his hand a final, encouraging squeeze.

"I love you, too, sweet Salma."  Joshua smiled at her then turned to Raheem and Ibrahim.  "Shall we be off?"

The two nodded and followed Joshua out the door.  Once they were gone, the group hurried to the ballroom and watched the trio make their way to the portal, praying that all would go well for them on the other side of it.

*~*~*

"Burke, it's time!" a guard called after rapping on Cameron's door.

Nervous, Cameron turned to Paul who was calmly reading an essay that he'd assigned.

"Are... are you going with me?"

Paul looked up and shook his head.

"No.  You don't need me.  You misspelled 'diaspora,' by the way.  Only one r."

Cameron chuckled, the correction oddly calming him.

"I'll remember.  Thank you."

Paul smiled.

"You'll be fine.  Remember, Joshua is less of a stranger than I am.  And you feel comfortable with me."

Cameron nodded.

"Yeah... thanks."

The door opened.

"Really starting to wonder about your mental health, Burke," the guard commented.  "Always yammering to yourself."

Cameron shrugged.

"Well, let's go.  You don't want to keep Mr. Davidson waiting.  He's an important man."

Cameron bowed his head and smiled.  Near as he and Paul could tell, the guards had no idea who Joshua was.  But that didn't stop them from fan-boying over him.

Cameron wheeled himself into the hallway.  Before the door closed, he looked once more at Paul who smiled and waved.

But as they made their way to the visitation room, the calmness that Cameron's mentor had passed along to him began to fade.  Cameron's mind raced with all he wanted to say to Joshua... or maybe he was meant only to listen.  And then there were the other two men... the two men he had shot at.  Joshua had said he was bringing them along.  What would Cameron say to them?  "Sorry" seemed so shallow...

The visitation room came into view.  Cameron could just make out Joshua behind the glass.  He was standing and speaking with the other two men... Raheem and Ibrahim.

Spotting Cameron, Raheem and Ibrahim stepped away from Joshua and joined two other guards outside the room.

Cameron's guard, Jerry, opened the door for him.

"In you go, Burke."

Cameron wheeled himself inside. 

"Good morning, Cameron," Joshua greeted.

Cameron moved closer.  He peered up at Joshua, opened his mouth to return the greeting, and then, seeing the immense love and compassion in Joshua's eyes, bowed his head and began to sob.

Joshua stepped forward and rested a hand on the young man's shoulder.

"Cameron..."

Still not looking up, Cameron wrapped his arms around Joshua, rested his forehead against Joshua's sweater, and continued to weep.

"I... I... sor... sorry..." he choked out.

"I know, Cameron... I know."  Joshua stroked Cameron's hair as tears trailed down his cheeks.

"So... sorry..."

"I know...  I forgive you, Cameron.  I do," Joshua stressed.  "I love you so much."

At last, Cameron lifted his head.  Through a blurry haze, he met Joshua's gaze.

"I... I love you, too."

Joshua beamed.

*~*~*

Outside the visitation room, Raheem and Ibrahim wept in each other's arms.  To their side, one of the guards was gaping.  Beside him, another crossed himself and began to pray.

The cousins continued to watch Joshua and Cameron.  At last, the latter released the former.  Joshua sat down on the couch and listened intently as Cameron spoke to him.  After a few moments, Joshua stood again and knocked on the window.

"Raheem and Ibrahim, come in, please," he requested.

After quickly drying their eyes, Raheem and Ibrahim joined Joshua and Cameron inside the room.

"Raheem, Ibrahim... this is Cameron.  Cameron, this is Raheem in the red.  And this is Ibrahim... formerly the imam at the Manhattan Mosque," Joshua introduced.

Cameron's face fell.

"Formerly...  Did I..."

Ibrahim found himself oddly compelled to comfort the younger man.

"I was unhappy as an imam," he answered.  "Not because I didn't see value in Islam," he hastened to add.  "I did... and still do.  But... I can't be an imam any more, anyway."  Ibrahim smiled at Joshua.  "I've converted to Christianity."

"Me too," Raheem added.

Cameron looked to Joshua in surprise and then let out a ragged sigh.

"What I meant for evil... God meant for good," he recited.

Smiling proudly, Joshua nodded.

*~*~*

"And he told us how sorry he was... how wrong he now realizes he was.  We forgave him, of course.  If Joshua could, how could we not?  Then we just chatted... like old friends," Raheem told several of the Friends who had gathered around him and Ibrahim upon their return.

"And you should have seen Cameron's face when Joshua gave him a cross bookmark that Salma had made for him.  You'd have thought he'd been handed treasure," Ibrahim relayed.

"Amazing..." Rabbi Yakov marveled.  "Though not surprising... knowing our Joshua."

Raheem looked around and spotted Jemima.

"He asked Joshua to find a way to extend his apologies to the nurse he mistreated.  Joshua promised he'd get word to you, Jemima.  He asked me to tell you."

Smiling, Jemima peered up at the ceiling and whispered a prayer of thanksgiving before responding to Raheem.

"I'm so glad!  Not so much for me...  It hurt in the moment, of course.  But it didn't last.  I am glad for Cameron, though.  It was so sad watching Joshua, well, mourn him.  But now he never has to again!"

Ibrahim nodded.

"Even though he's in jail... I suspect this may very well be the merriest Christmas of Cameron's life."

"I imagine you're right," Andrew agreed.  "To be free of all that hate... and now to be free of the guilt."

"Joshua promised to come visit Cameron another couple of times.  He'd like to apologize in person to you, Yosef."

The old carpenter squeezed Maryam's hand and nodded to Ibrahim.

"Of course, I will go," he vowed.  "I am so pleased for the young man."

Joccy let out a shaky sigh.

"And... and then I imagine Joshua will go back Home.  He said he'd stay through Christmas... and a little into the new year.  That's not long now," she lamented.

Takoda patted her hand.

"No...  But he won't stay away for long.  He never does."

"He loves you all very, very much," Maryam reassured Joccy.  "Yeshu will come back."

Zoe hugged her sister.

"And we'll fill the time with lots of fun stuff.  Like campus visits for me!"

"Welcoming Kylie's and Clay's baby!" Emma reminded.

"You want to help me pick out a prom dress?" Amala offered.

"Do you want to help me make wedding favors?" Ivy added.

Joccy laughed and nodded.

"Yes to everything.  And you're right... the time will fly.  And... we still have at least a week."

"We do," Peter concurred.  "And tonight... tonight will be very special as always."

The others smiled at Maryam and Yosef, awaiting their annual story.

*~*~*

That evening, as stars illuminated the sky beyond the windows of Willowveil's ballroom, the Friends all gathered together. 

Maryam, Yosef, and Joshua sat closest to the fireplace with the smallest Friends clustered around them, each holding LED votives.

"Ama... Abi... tell me the story of when I was born, please?" Joshua requested with a smile.

Beaming, the couple began.

"It all began when I was visited by an angel.  He came with the most wondrous news... a baby was to be born to me... a son... my son... the Son of God," Maryam relayed.

"And that same angel appeared to me and told me to not be afraid and to marry Maryam... my beloved," Yosef continued.  "And so I did."

"And we were happy... and nervous... and very excited.  And then news came that we had to travel to Bethlehem for a census.  And so, with Yoktan, we set off.  We had only just arrived in Bethlehem when my labor pains began..."

As Joshua continued to look with love upon his parents, his mind filled with the voices of so many, across time and space; past, present, and future; who had told his story.

"There was no room for them in any of the inns," Yohannan preached to those gathered around him in Sheol as they awaited Yeshua's arrival.

"So they were shown to a stable," Cephas told the men with him in prison.

"And in the stable, Maryam brought forth Yeshua and wrapped him in swaddling clothes," Tzipora proclaimed, smiling at her children and grandchildren.

"And she laid him in a manger," Mattay preached in Ethiopia. 

"At that same time, there were shepherds in the fields, guarding their flocks," Loukas spoke to himself as he wrote.

"An angel of the Lord appeared to them and God's glory shone around them and they were scared," Cora whispered to the baby in her womb.

"But the angel said to them..." Sophia intoned as she swayed with baby JenniAnn.

"'Fear not!  I bring you good news that will bring joy to all people!'" Eli exclaimed.

"'Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord!'" Renata recited as she bounced Peter on her knee.

"And more angels came," a sleep deprived Andrew murmured as he rocked with Belle.  "And they said 'Glory to God in the highest heaven,
and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.'"

"Then the angels left, returning to Heaven.  And the shepherds went in search of the miracle... the baby... the savior...  And they found him with his parents, laying in a manger," Yehuda told his family in Heaven.

"They spread the word... and all who heard them were amazed," Lucius recalled as he gazed out at the lights of Manhattan.

"But Maryam treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart," Mary added reverently, moving to stand beside her beloved and take his hand.

Joshua sighed happily as he saw the couple in the little apartment, humbly decorated but filled with love.  Mary had come... and all would be well.  He opened his eyes and gazed across the room to where Joccy and Takoda sat, shoulders touching.  A final voice came to him.

"'
The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things they had heard and seen, which were just as they had been told,'" an older and wiser Takoda read to the baby in his arms.

Joshua looked out at the starry sky and smiled at his Dad, thankful for that glimpse of the future.  His attention returned to his parents and to the Friends.  He smiled at the Azizis... Liyana listening intently with Judah in her arms and Ibrahim's arms around her, his eyes filled with joy.  His gaze traveled to the Khalids, all listening in rapturous attention along with Christopher who was clasping Amala's hand.   Near them, Salma sat with Isra and Behnam and their children.  She caught Joshua looking at them and returned his smile.

For a few brief moments, theirs lives had hung in the balance... Ibrahim's, Raheem's, and Salma's... but they had been saved.  Now so had Cameron.  The tragic, painful, hate-fueled moment that had joined them was redeemed.

Joshua knew that another time of trial was coming for the Friends.  Once again, they would find themselves packed into a hospital waiting room.  Once again, they would worry that they would need to make a good bye that they weren't ready for.

But then they would find themselves gathered at Willowveil, celebrating the miracles they had witnessed, thanking God for answered prayers.

"Yes," the Birthday Boy reminded himself, "all will be well."

The End

Works Cited:
John 11- The Raising of Lazar(us)
Dracula by Bram Stoker
The Mandalorian
The Rise of Skywalker
Moby Dick
George the Mouse in a Log Pile House- georgethemouse.com
"Silent Night" composed by Franz Xaver Gruber and Fr. Joseph Mohr
"We Three Kings" composed by Rev. John Henry Hopkins, Jr.
"The Christmas Can-Can" by Straight No Chaser
Matthew 14:13-21/John 6:1-15- fish and loaves miracle
Galaxy Quest
Jesus Christ Superstar
The Shema
Kaddish
"A Baby Changes Everything" by Faith Hill
"The Great Forerunner of the Morn" by the Venerable Bede
"The Huron Carol" by Jean de Brébeuf
"Away in the Manger" by Unknown
“Glorious Impossible” by Carl Cartee
"Angels We Have Heard on High"- Traditional
Little Santa by Jon Agee
Exodus 20:3- first Commandment
The Books of the Maccabees
Chanukah blessings
The Hora
Hosea 1:1-3
Genesis 50:20- "What you meant for evil..."
Matthew 1 and Luke 2- the Nativity

This newsletter is dedicated to John Dye for inspiring this crazy Christmas story tradition that took waaay too long this time!

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