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Chapter 1

Joan fumbled for the box and read the directions again. “No,” she said, her voice tinged with desperation and despair. “No, no, no! This can’t be happening.”

“Actions have consequences, Joan.” The older woman sitting across the battered folding table was watching her with compassion. “You learned that a while ago.”

“Consequences?” Joan was somewhere between spitting anger and tears. “It was one time, and I was careful. The girl two doors down has been with half the guys on campus!”

“Let me worry about her consequences. You worry about yours.”

It was on the tip of Joan’s tongue to ask God to take care of it, but one stern look stopped that thought cold. She settled for another low moan and dropped her head into her hands. “What am I going to do now?”

Gentle hands stroked her hair and rested lightly on her shoulders. “You have to trust me, Joan. You won’t be alone.” The remnants of anger dropped away at the tender ministrations, and the young woman dissolved into tears and clung to the form of the old woman.

It took several minutes of weeping before she subsided into some semblance of calm and pulled away. Her face felt blotchy, the skin hot and too tight, and she walked to the tiny bathroom of her apartment to wash away the tears. When she returned, God was standing in the open doorway. “You should have something to eat, Joan. Something with protein and iron. You know how your mother feels about you skipping breakfast.” She waved as she pulled the door closed behind her, and Joan dropped down onto the couch.

Her mother. She hadn’t gotten to that part of the thought process yet. She had called three times a week to check on Joan her freshman year. This year had been a little more relaxed, but there was still at least one call a week. Her dad was less likely to call, but more likely to make the hour-long trip to visit Joan at college on the spur of the moment. Joan had always been something of a daddy’s girl, even though things had remained strained between them after the mess with Ryan Hunter.

What was she going to tell her parents?

***

Joan procrastinated for a week before she gave in and went to break the news to her parents. During that week, she tried to pretend that nothing was wrong, but she was pretty sure that she’d failed a test in her humanities class. She’d only managed to fill in about a third of the questions before her nausea had gotten the better of her and sent her running from the lecture hall. Between that and how tired she was, her grades would be in the toilet by the end of the semester.

When she walked into the house, the smell of garlic and onions wafting from the kitchen made her stomach roll, and she quickly sat down on the stairs, praying that it would settle. She’d thrown up three times already today, once in her apartment and twice on the side of the road, but she wasn’t sure if it was morning sickness or nerves.

She had just begun to feel like she could stand without embarrassing herself when she heard her mother’s soft tread on the steps above her. “Hey, sweetie.” The sound of her mother’s soft voice nearly caused her to break down and confess everything. In less stressful times, she had joked that this was her mother’s superpower. It wasn’t quite as amusing now. The older woman must have read something in her expression (Joan had never had much of a poker face) because she stepped closer and brought her hand up to the side of Joan’s face. “Is everything all right? You look a little pale.”

“I’m fine, Mom.” A perfectly healthy pregnant nineteen-year-old, she thought to herself bitterly. Nothing to worry about. She made herself smile. “Dad’s in the kitchen?”

“He’s making lasagna.” Helen didn’t seem reassured by her daughter’s smile. “What’s wrong?”

Joan knew that her next smile would further alarm her mother, so she didn’t try. “I need to talk to you both.” She took exactly three steps into the kitchen before her stomach lurched, sending her running for the bathroom. She stayed on the cool tile floor for several minutes afterward before wearily standing up and rinsing out her mouth. Her mother was waiting outside, her face full of concern.

“Do you need to lie down? I knew you were sick. You always get this pinched look on your face when you are.”

“I’m not sick, Mom.”


“I think the toilet would disagree.”

“I’m not sick,” she repeated, her voice small and miserable. She wrapped her arms around her middle and looked down at her shoes. “I’m pregnant.”

Helen stopped fussing over her daughter and simply stared. “What?”

“What?!”

Joan winced and turned to her father, who was standing at the other end of the hall. This hadn’t been how she wanted her parents to find out. The look of disappointment and anger on her father’s face was like a knife to her heart.

“What’s his name?”

“I can’t tell you that.” This was technically not true, but Sam was long gone and she didn’t want her father dragging him back. It had hurt quite enough the first time, thank you.

“Why not?”

“Because I made a mistake, ok?” Her voice rose to match her father’s as she lost what little control she had of her emotions. “Joan screwed up and slept with someone she didn’t know. And now I’m paying for it.”

“Take care of it,” Will said roughly after what seemed to be an eternity of silence.

“Will-,” her mother began.

“No, Helen. She isn’t ready for something like this. The two of you need to go and fix this mistake.”

“No,” Joan said. “I won’t do it.” It was a kneejerk reaction to the anger in her father’s voice more than anything, but something about it felt right to her.

Her father turned to her, his expression fierce. “You want to be saddled with some stranger’s child? You have three more years of college left, then law school. Do you plan on hauling a baby to class with you? Taking it to work? What if you meet someone and all he can see is someone else’s kid? You aren’t ready for this responsibility.”

“I don’t know!” Joan felt tears prick her eyes, heard them in her voice, and she hated herself for it. “But I know it wouldn’t be a stranger’s child. It would be mine, and I want the chance to raise it.”

“I won’t help you make this mistake, Joan. Take care of it.”

Joan’s face crumpled as he walked away. Her mother reached out to comfort her, but the girl ducked away and bolted for the door. Jamming the key into the car’s ignition with trembling hands, she started the engine and pulled raggedly away from the curb.

She had to pull over at the park a mile away from the house or risk throwing up again, this time in her car. The brisk March air felt good, made her a little numb, and she sat down on a park bench beneath a bare-branched tree and tried not to think. After a while she felt the slight tremor as someone sat down beside her.

“You have to trust me, Joan.”

Joan looked at the little girl dressed in a purple parka with multi-colored gloves and a light green hat. “Is this part of your plan,” she asked bitterly. “What am I supposed to do now?”

The little girl looked at her with a gentle expression. She didn’t speak again for a long time, but the silence didn’t seem as empty as the one with her father had.

“If you do what your father wants you to do, your life will be easier,” she said.

Joan looked at her in surprise. “Are you saying I should do it?”

“I said your life will be easier. Easier doesn’t mean better. I told you two years ago that I was preparing you for battle. That battle won’t be easy, but it will be worthwhile. And if you make the convenient choice now, you won’t be ready for the hard choices later.”

Joan was quiet for a long time. Her small companion remained beside her, swinging her legs and watching the other children play on the playground. “What do you want me to do?”

The little girl smiled and pushed her glasses up the bridge of her nose. “Go back to your apartment and pack a bag. Leave your phone, your credit cards, and your car behind. Take the train to Chicago. Go to Saint Mary of the Angels and ask for Father Forthill. Tell him the truth, and he’ll take it from there.”

“But what about school? I’m in the middle of the semester.”

“Leave everything behind, Joan. Don’t look back.”

Joan nodded and stood up. Little Girl God stood up as well and surprised her with one of those quick, energetic little kid hugs. “You need to take care of your son, Joan. I picked him out especially for you.” With that, she dashed off to join the children playing with a backwards wave.

***

Father Forthill contained his sigh when one of the laymen came hurrying up to him, but it was a near thing. He was supposed to be at the Carpenter’s house to watch over the children, and he was running behind. If he made Michael late to the physical therapist, Charity would . . .well, she wouldn’t actually do anything to him. Being a priest had some perks, after all. But she would not be happy.

Michael, however, would understand, so when the young man informed him that a girl had asked for him by name he went out to meet her with a smile on his face.

She was standing off to the side near the altar, and he didn’t recognize her as a resident of the parish. Someone sent by Dresden, probably. When he introduced himself, she tried to smile and failed, and long years of doing what he loved told him that he was dealing with one of the world’s walking wounded. “My name is Joan.”

A saint’s name, unusual for her generation. “What can I do for you, Joan?”

The girl took a step closer, her body language guarded even though her face was an open book of mingled worry and hope. “Ok, this is going to sound strange, and you probably won’t believe me, but God told me to come here, to you specifically. He said you’d know what to do.”

The priest nodded and felt himself smile. It was good to be reminded that he was still on the clock. “Come along, then. You can tell me all about it on the way.”

“Where are we going?”

“I’m late for an engagement. I suspect that God intended me to bring you along, which is why He delayed me in the first place. If God sent you, you should probably meet the Carpenters.”

“Yeah, that sounds like Him.” She frowned. “You seem to be taking this pretty well.”

“I’ve had some experiences over the years.” He led the way to the battered church station wagon. “Why don’t you tell me about yours?”

The story poured out of her on the drive to the Carpenter’s house, the flow of words impossible to stop once they began and the story incredible, unbelievable, and obviously true. Taking her to the Carpenters was definitely the right thing to do.

Charity was waiting by the door, impatient and making no effort to hide it. “I’ll explain when you get back,” he told her. “Go, before I make you even later.”

She nodded and held the door open for Michael’s wheelchair. Michael wheeled himself down the ramp, rolled to a stop in front of Joan, and introduced himself. The girl shook his hand and made another attempt to smile. “Joan Girardi.”

“It’s a pleasure to meet you, Joan,” Michael said warmly, holding onto her hand a moment longer before releasing it and heading toward the minivan. Charity followed, tossing the pair of them a curious look before turning her attentions to Michael and his wheelchair. The vehicle was backing out of the driveway as Father Forthill led Joan into the Carpenter house.

***

Charity pulled the minivan into the driveway with a sigh of relief. She had wanted to get home before school let out to tidy up the kitchen and get dinner started, but traffic had not cooperated. It would probably be a mac and cheese day. There had been a lot of those since November.

She set up the wheelchair and helped her husband into it. Hopefully it wouldn’t be needed for much longer. She grabbed the sack of groceries she had picked up during Michael’s appointment, and followed him into the house. The television was turned off, which was a little unusual. Hope was a big fan of Sesame Street, and if Molly wasn’t home (and she wasn’t, since the truck was still gone) she watched it all afternoon. She headed into the kitchen to put away the groceries and stopped in the doorway. All of her children except the two oldest (Daniel was probably still at work, and Molly had better be with Dresden) were seated at the table. Matthew was helping Amanda with her homework, Hope and Harry were coloring, and Alicia was carefully cutting up carrots. There were cookies cooling on the counter, and the girl she’d forgotten about was washing potatoes in the sink.

Father Forthill hurried over and took the bag from her arms. “I hope you don’t mind,” he murmured. “Joan noticed that you didn’t have anything started for dinner and decided to help out.” He began to put the groceries away with an easy familiarity, and Charity spent a moment doing absolutely nothing, which was so enjoyable that she decided to thank the girl for it.

Joan flushed a little and managed a small smile. “No problem. I had Alicia and Hope and Harry, and they’re great helpers. Hope even made the cookies.”

“Joan, can you handle things for a few minutes? I need to speak to Michael and Charity.” The girl nodded and turned back to scrubbing the potatoes, and Father Forthill steered Charity out the door. Michael was waiting in the hallway, and he wheeled his way to their newly built ground floor bedroom. The priest waited until he’d closed the door behind him before turning to Michael.

“She’s an instrument,” Michael said quietly. “Do you know why she’s here?”

“I think so.”

Charity looked at the two of them. “You mean an instrument of God?”

“Exactly. The rest of the story is hers to tell, but that much is clear.” Father Forthill sat down and regarded them both seriously. “I think God sent her here to heal. She’s been hurt badly. She needs a refuge. That’s why I brought her to you.”

Charity could tell from Michael’s expression that he wanted to shelter the girl. This was the first sign they’d seen since he was injured that God would continue to use him, and he was desperate for the connection. To go from a sword-wielding Knight of the Cross to being crippled and dependent on others was a harsh step, and it hurt to see him struggle in his new role. “We’ll talk to her,” she finally said. God wouldn’t mind a little caution.

Father Forthill nodded and stood up. “I’ll send her in.”

Joan knocked at the door a few minutes later. Charity let her in and guided her to the chair beside the bed. Michael was in his wheelchair, exhausted from the physical therapy but unwilling to rest until the matter was settled, and she sat down on the bed next to him.

It was Michael who began the conversation, focusing on Joan with his remaining eye. “Do you have a place to stay while you’re in Chicago?”

The girl looked surprised, like she hadn’t considered it, and Charity was struck by how young she was. Probably the same age as Molly, as a matter of fact, and already on the front lines. Joan shook her head, looking a little confused, and Michael looked at Charity, his opinion evident.

“We could use some help around here,” Charity blurted out, coming to her decision about Joan at that moment. “You’re welcome to stay here. We couldn’t pay much, but you can have an upstairs bedroom for as long as you need.”

Joan looked hopeful for a moment, then her face closed off. “Father Forthill didn’t tell you, did he?”

“He said that whatever it was, it was your story to tell.” Charity kept her voice carefully neutral.

“I’m pregnant,” she said flatly, looking at them fiercely. “The father isn’t in the picture, and I’m planning on keeping the baby.” She crossed her arms, her face full of stubborn determination and a hint of pain.

Charity wondered for a moment what had inflicted this wound on Joan, but deemed it irrelevant for the time being. “You’re welcome to stay here,” she repeated firmly. Joan held onto her defiance for a moment longer before realizing it wasn’t needed. Charity reached out to the girl and pulled her into a hug, ignoring the dampness on her shirt from the girl’s tears. Maybe she’d needed this as much as Michael.

***

Joan slipped into the rhythm of the Carpenter house fairly quickly. The children liked her, including Molly, and Charity was glad to see the two girls form something of a friendship. Molly didn’t have many friends of her own anymore; the time spent with Dresden kept her too busy for much more than family. And Molly was the first person to make Joan laugh while they were cooking dinner together. At least her daughter’s cooking skills (or lack thereof) were good for something.

Father Forthill, with a little judicious prompting, had gotten Joan on the church’s insurance plan. He was holding off on involving the Order, at Michael’s request. Charity waited until she had the card in hand before she approached the girl about medical care. After some initial resistance, far more than she was really expecting, she managed to talk her into visiting a midwife who attended Saint Mary’s. Patricia had a small office near the church, very cozy and inviting, but Joan sat ramrod straight on the edge of the waiting room couch, her face a mask of tension. Even Patricia’s warm, gentle demeanor didn’t manage to put Joan totally at ease, although she seemed to loosen a little once the medical history and physical exam were over and the three of them were talking in the little kitchen. Patricia had cleared out her schedule at Charity’s request, and they spent about two hours chatting over cups of herbal tea and answering Joan’s questions.

The older woman waited until they were alone and on the way home before she brought up Joan’s discomfort. Joan had answered every question she’d been asked honestly, as far as she could tell, even the few that Michael had raised in private about her experiences with God, so Charity felt secure in asking this one. “Why don’t you like doctors?” She watched out of the corner of her eye as Joan pulled in on herself a little and waited patiently for the reply. She’d raised seven children and dealt with Harry Dresden on a regular basis; she knew when she didn’t need to push to get an answer.

“The last time I went to see a doctor, I was diagnosed with Lyme disease,” Joan finally said. “Do you know much about it?” Charity shook her head, and Joan continued. “You get a rash, fever, vomiting, and if it goes on long enough, hallucinations.” She started to cry a little, and Charity pulled over to the side of the road, undid her seat belt, and turned to the girl. Joan was staring straight ahead, her hands clenched into fists on her lap and tears running down her cheeks. “I spent three months in a mental facility disguised as a camp, where they convinced me that God wasn’t real.”

Charity didn’t know exactly what it felt like to know you were an instrument of God. From what little she’d been able to gather, Joan’s experiences so far had been wildly different from Michael’s, but there was still a common thread between them, a bedrock certainty that God was there and that things would eventually work out. To take away that faith would be . . .well, far worse than Michael’s physical injuries. Michael was still Michael, just with different abilities and responsibilities. If one took away his faith, he would cease to be. “How long had you been . . .?”

“Less than a year. I was seventeen, and the only person that I told about it thought I was crazy.” This was an old wound, then, but one that still ached. “I sort of fell apart for a while. I had this friend from that time, her name was Judith, and she was just . . .” She shook her head. “Words can’t really describe her. She was trying so hard to feel alive, and no matter how hard I tried to reach that part of her, she just kept making these choices that got her hurt. The last time I was at a hospital at all was for her, and then she died.” Joan choked a little on that part. “I guess it soured me a bit on the medical practice.”

“Do you want to keep seeing Patricia?”

Joan nodded her head. “I need to get over it. It’s stupid when you think about it. They didn’t make Him go away, and I know better now.” She didn’t bother trying to smile, but she did relax her hands. “We better get on the road.”

Charity nodded and put her seat belt on. The rest would come out when the girl was ready. No sense pushing further. She pulled into traffic and changed the subject.

***

Joan liked the Carpenters: the kids were sweethearts, Michael interesting to talk with, Charity a wonderful person (if occasionally intimidating), and Molly was swiftly becoming as good of a friend as Grace had been in high school. But she was very conscious of her status as their invited guest, and so at first she just ignored the way Charity hovered over Michael. As she grew more comfortable in her place with them, she started picking up on Michael’s frustration when he tried to do something and Charity swept in and did it for him. It was a familiar tale to Joan, who had seen the same thing happen with her brother and mother. She watched it for a week before deciding to do something about it.

She started small, distracting Charity with a dropped jelly jar when she could see that Michael was getting ready to clear his dishes. It soon became clear that this wasn’t enough; there were some things he wanted to do and couldn’t, things from before that had been important to him. So she had Molly drop her off at the public library during one of the girl’s odd private tutoring sessions, and began her research.

She talked to Michael about what he wanted to be able to do and what he could do, to Charity about what could be afforded, and enlisted Daniel and then the rest of the children to make it happen. Eventually, as the project progressed, she handed it over almost completely to Daniel, since he knew more about what was needed. She only added her input when it came to wheelchair accessibility. This was a family project, not something she should take credit for.

In the end, it took about two months to put the wood workshop together in a way that both Daniel and Michael would be able to utilize the tools available. The look of honest enjoyment as Michael came to the dinner table smelling of sawdust was as satisfying as anything God had asked her to do.

***

God had adopted a new form for her stay in Chicago: a bright, sunny girl her age who was involved in an apprenticeship with Patricia. Joan had freaked when she had realized it at her second appointment. She was so not ready for Him. Joan had somehow managed to avoid God for the whole visit, but it left her rattled. It had taken Charity an hour to calm her down. She still didn’t know for sure what had set Joan off. The next time at the midwife’s was a little different; God pounced on her before she could become frightened.

“I’m here for you, Joan.”

“I can’t do anything for you. I’m sorry, but I can’t.”

“I know, Joan. I’m not asking you to.”

Joan relaxed but still wasn’t breathing normally. “You’re not?”

“No. I’m just here to support you.” The girl grinned. “I love seeing them develop into the people they become.”

Joan’s feelings warred between relief and abandonment. “I don’t have to do anything?”

“You’re doing what you need to do right where you are. That’s what I want most of my children to do.”

“Oh.”

The midwife visits got a little better after that. It was a relief to still see God sometimes and to be given such reaffirming with every appointment. Since Joan had not seen God in any other form for almost four months, it took her a couple of seconds to realize that the punk across the park from Charity’s kids was God.

He nodded at her.

Joan hesitated for a couple moments; it was time to get back to work. She wasn’t sure she was ready for this. The young woman had a feeling that He would be asking her to leave this cozy little sanctuary.

God was waiting for her.

“Charity?” Joan finally called to the woman pushing her son on the swing.

Charity looked at her.

“I need to go for a walk.”

Charity nodded. She would keep an eye on the children. Even the one that had been quietly adopted.

Joan took a deep breath and then took a step toward Goth God. Then she took another step and then another step. Before she knew it, she was standing before God.

“Uhm, hi?”

Goth God smiled. That was always slightly creepy to Joan. “It’s good to see you outside of the clinic.”

“You want me to do something.”

“Yes.”

“All right, what?”

“I want you to get a round trip bus ticket.”

“Round trip? So I’m coming back?”

“This time. You can leave some of your things behind if you want.”

“Okay… so where am I going?”

“Missouri.”

“Missouri?”

“Drury, Missouri.”

“Hey, that rhymes.”

God waited patiently.

“So what am I doing in Drury, Missouri?”

“Talking and sharing with people how life changes and how change is not always bad. Be honest about your experiences. They’ll need it. Oh, and get a job for your duration.”

“How will I know who to talk to?”

God smiled again. “I’ll put them in your way. You best be getting back. Charity is waiting.”

Joan turned. Charity was watching Joan’s meeting with a determined intensity. Joan watched when the realization sunk in, when Charity knew who she was talking to. Charity crossed herself, kissed her thumb and bowed her head. God smiled at the act, turned on his heel and walked away.

“I’m not done talking to you,” Joan called to him.

Bon Voyage,” God called back.

***

Azazael pulled back from Scott Carey’s dreams with satisfaction. The boy was coming along nicely. Not quite the loose cannon of Max Miller, thankfully, and he didn’t really have the potential of Sam or even Ava, but he was developing an interesting ability, one that would be highly useful.

It was still impossible to tell if the boy could be the vessel, but at the very least he was becoming a fairly powerful psychic. The Demon could work with that.

He took another moment to enjoy Scott’s confusion and fear before moving on. He had some deals coming due across the Midwest United States, and a few more scattered across the globe. Duty called.

And, of course, destruction, but that was another matter.

***

Chapter 2

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