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Holy Week by JaneLebak
Holy Week by JaneLebak
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Holy Week
A Father Joe Story
by Jane Lebak (4/99; 7/03)

 

Catholics filled the aisles and doorways as Jun made her way through the side entrance of Utoland City's St. Augustine's church. The congregation all wore Easter dresses and suits, the children with bonnets or boutonnieres, the adults looking especially trim. Most of them carried umbrellas streaked with rain. Jun had worn a pleated plaid skirt and white blouse; the few times she'd seen a Catholic school in session had left her with the indelible impression that Catholics love plaid. She didn't dip her fingers in the holy water font or stop in the body of the church but went straight to the preparation room. Ministers from the last Mass cleaned chalices and patens while ministers for the next portioned Communion hosts and poured wine into a decanter. Everyone was talking at once, and four altar servers were trading long white garments.

"Hey, it's Asakura's sister! Asakura, your sister's here!" The boy Jun recognized as Masahiro grabbed her by the hand and dragged her through the tumult. "Asakura! Aw, man, where is he?"

Jun found a spot in the corner. In the confusion, Joe didn't see her as he returned to the sacristy and got a drink of water. He walked as if hobbled. One of the Eucharistic Ministers said, "Losing your voice?"

Joe sounded raspy. "Five Masses so far." He pushed his heavy glasses back up to the bridge of his nose, then ran a hand through his short hair.

"Yeah, but this is the last one. You'll make it." Masa inserted himself into a small space before Joe. "Your sister's here." Then he scampered off again.

Joe scanned the room momentarily until Jun stepped forward and gave him a hug. "Happy Easter!"

He chuckled. "You didn't have to come. This is the craziest day of the year."

She shrugged. "Thought you could use a friendly face."

A second priest showed in the doorway behind Joe, who said, "You've got to meet Father Patrick--sent directly by God to save my life."

The second priest laughed. When he spoke, he revealed a Nigerian accent so thick with character that Jun wished she could bottle it. "I assure you, that's not quite the case."

Joe looked extremely tired. "Even if an entire choir of angels came down from Heaven and set you on my doorstep, I couldn't be any more serious. Jun, he's my new associate pastor."

Jun's mouth opened. "Really? That's terrific!"

Masa returned and started talking as though the world had been waiting for him. "Hey, Asakura, all the servers showed up, so I'll go sit with your sister and make sure no one hassles her."

"Good thinking. There's no telling what might happen to her in the church." Joe's voice cracked a bit toward the end, and Masa missed the sarcasm. Jun only giggled as Masa grabbed her by the hand. Behind her, Joe gathered the ministers to pray briefly before the service.

Masa gave Jun a whispered commentary through the Mass, and he bragged to anyone who would listen that he escorted Asakura's sister. Joe looked energetic once the service started, but Jun could see past the facade to the fatigue. For one thing, he didn't sing when the congregation did, and usually he would. The second priest frequently whispered something to Joe and then assumed one or more duties Joe generally handled on his own. He hesitated when he mentioned the Mass intention for Giuseppe and Catarina Asakura. At the sign of peace, Joe walked only past the first few rows shaking hands rather than half the church. Masa didn't shake his hand--he high-fived him. Joe chuckled, but Jun could hear the strain in his voice. Separating the Communion hosts onto the patens, Joe's hands shook so much that Father Patrick took over and finished the job for him.

Afterward, Jun returned to the sacristy and hung up the vestments as Joe removed them. He looked pale, and she'd been right about his hands trembling. Several parishioners asked if Joe had anyplace to go for Easter dinner, and Joe said he had plans. Jun frowned but said nothing until everyone had gone. In the empty church, Joe said, "Would you mind doing me a favor?" He handed her the keys and asked her to lock the doors. Then they made their way to the parking lot where rain pattered in an unending drizzle. "Do you have an umbrella?" Jun asked as she opened hers.

"I work for St. Gus," Joe rasped. "I can't afford an umbrella."

As they stepped outside, Jun held her umbrella so both fit beneath. "I thought that was the last service. Why's the lot full?"

"Sugar and caffeine social--I mean, coffee and donuts downstairs." Joe blinked unsteadily in even the sparse light diffusing through the uniform cloud cover. "Even for free coffee, I don't think I can deal with it right now."

"You said you had plans for the rest of the day?"

"Sleeping until whenever I happen to wake up, even if that's Tuesday."

Jun could see why. "I planned a little Easter dinner out at the mansion."

Joe swallowed. "It's not necessary."

"It'll be fun! The junior members are looking forward to it." Jun rested a hand on his arm. "Why don't you pack and stay overnight? I can drive you here tomorrow before daily Mass."

"There won't be one. One of the EMs is doing a communion service." Joe bit his lip. "If you don't mind me falling asleep in the car--"

"That's fine." Jun smiled. "Dinner won't be until six, so you can get a good nap beforehand. You're bushed."

Jun insisted Joe stay upstairs while she packed his overnight bag in the basement apartment. She returned to find him holding a small black box. "I got you all the normal things, but are there any priest-things you need?"

Joe held up the case. Jun grinned. "Is that what Ken called Mass-in-a-box?"

"If only it came with its own priest-in-a-box."

At Jun's white convertible, top up, Joe found Ken in the back seat reading the Sunday paper. Joe returned his greeting half-heartedly with his voice still hoarse. While Jun and Ken carried the conversation, Joe settled into his seat and tried to relax. The talking kept him from drowsing.

Joe had only recently realized how Ken and Jun had achieved an intimacy beyond that of many married couples. During Joe's second year at seminary, Jun had gone for therapy to settle some personal issues. One was why she kept clinging to Ken hoping he'd notice her. When she'd ended therapy, she had taken a walk with Joe around the seminary grounds and confided that she no longer expected nor wanted any kind of romantic attachment to Ken. "He doesn't make me a better person when I'm with him than when I'm alone. I haven't found anyone who does." Joe had asked, a little amused, whether Ken even noticed her resolution. Maybe Ken never did. Once Jun had relaxed and stopped getting angry at him for not loving her, she had become better able to act as the very competent and capable second in command the Gatchaman team needed. Questioning Ken's orders no longer threatened the possibility of a relationship.

As they drove, Jun was saying, "Ken, you really should see him in action. At the end of the service, he got up at the podium or whatever Catholics call it and waved a paper and said I have in my hand a copy of Mrs. D's grandmother's recipe for dandelion soup, and I'm not afraid to use it."

Ken said, "For the Cafeteria?"

As Joe nodded, Jun said, "You called it seed-time, right?" When Joe didn't reply, she continued, "He said he'd volunteered the youth group to tend the parish garden and that a dollar in seeds equals something like forty dollars in tomatoes, and that something was going to grow in the parish garden and whatever it grew was going into the Caf." Jun glanced over her shoulder as she drove. "Joe, you're awfully quiet."

"I'm awfully tired."

"I'm sorry. We should let you sleep."

Joe shrugged. "The Caf was in serious trouble last week. I hate asking for money, but on Palm Sunday things had reached a head. I had to announce that if we didn't get money from somewhere, we wouldn't be able to keep the Caf open all seven days. And that's a shame, because so many people depend on it."

Ken said, "Let me guess. The little children of the parish gathered together their nickels and dimes, and when you counted it up, you had ten thousand dollars?"

Joe's voice was giving out rapidly. "When we counted, it was about ten bucks. A couple of new people asked if they could eat there, though. A lot of people come on Palm Sunday who never show the rest of the year. Oh, thanks." Ken had just leaned forward and handed Joe a cough drop. "After the last Mass one man asked lots of questions, like what we serve and how many people attend. I was annoyed. If you're desperate, who cares what we're serving? It doesn't need to be gourmet. The man wrote in his daytime planner and another parishioner talked to me until the man suddenly interrupted and handed me a voucher for three hundred pounds of rice, a hundred pounds of beans, a hundred pounds of spaghetti--"

Jun's jaw dropped. "You're kidding!"

Joe's voice was low. "I'd just met Jay Soucy of Soucy's Groceries, about five blocks from the church. I had no idea what to say. Apparently he usually goes to church over at St. A's. I'd been trying for weeks to get to the man, but his secretaries always stopped me."

Jun whistled. Ken said, "Lucky break."

"He also gave me," Joe said, "the personal home phone numbers of the owners of Five Star Markets and Food 4 You, both of whom had conveniently avoided me too."

Jun choked on a laugh. "Joe, that's terrific!"

He nodded. "It's been an up and down week."

"I'll say." Ken leaned over the front seat. "I notice you got married."

Joe's laugh sounded a little less gravelly now that the cough drop was doing its job. Raising his left hand, he showed Jun and Ken he was wearing a plain gold band. "Nuns always got to wear wedding rings. Now they're encouraging priests. It's my mother's. One of my parishioners works in a jewelry store and sized it." Joe's brows furrowed. "Then he wouldn't take any money."

Jun said, "They size any ring you buy. No big deal."

Joe said, "There was a price posted for sizing. I don't know why he didn't charge it."

Ken said, "Because it's you. People think God will take care of them if they take care of you."

Joe winced. "I'd like to think they have loftier motives."

Jun said, "To some extent, he's right--that it's because of you, not that everyone's bribing God. You don't think I'd help the St. Gus Cafeteria if it weren't your church, do you? I might help some soup kitchen, but this one isn't especially better than the others."

Joe's chin dropped. "I don't like that."

"Your parishioners want to say thanks, that's all." Jun smiled. "It's okay. If it's something little they can do for you when you're giving so much for them, why shouldn't they?" When Joe didn't answer, Jun said, "How'd you finally get an associate pastor?"

Joe said, "After you left last week, I got on my knees and begged God for someone to help. Then I said, This is stupid, and I got on the phone and begged the diocese for someone to help. One or the other came through."

Ken chuckled derisively, but Jun smiled. "See--I told you it would work out."

* * *

The days before Easter always kept Joe far busier than any others in the Catholic calendar, including Christmas. The Sunday before, Palm Sunday Mass was always the most crowded because of those who went once a year to get palm. Joe had never seen the point in that--when he'd left the church, he'd left completely--and ironically that day had the longest Mass in the lectionary. On Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday he'd participated in Lenten penance services at four different parishes, the next night was Holy Thursday; the next night started the Triduum: Good Friday, Holy Saturday, and Easter Sunday. Each day had its own services, all of them as long as or longer than a Sunday Mass. Each had its own homily, its own preparation, and its own set of rules. At the end of this grueling week, Joe kept remembering those days with the vivid fear of a flashback.

After the Holy Thursday service had let out (and that was another long one) Joe had chatted with the folks in the sacristy: the altar servers, the Eucharistic ministers, the lectors. He was tired already, and it was only the beginning. A full night's sleep sounded increasingly appealing. As he removed his vestments, one of the EMs said, "Father, is it wrong to receive Holy Communion if you haven't brushed your teeth?"

Joe's eyebrows raised.

"I mean," and the middle aged woman giggled nervously as a few others also chuckled, "what if someone has garlic breath?"

Joe said, "Do you think garlic breath offends God?" He took a deep breath and tried to act like Father Ron would have. "I don't mean to disparage the Presence, but you chew the host, don't you? And that doesn't cause Christ any pain."

The woman gaped. "The nuns told me never to chew the host."

Joe blinked. "The nuns were wrong. Jesus wants you to receive the sacraments. He's not going to get upset over a little plaque or onion breath."

That silly conversation had kept repeating in Joe's tired mind as he made his way to the rectory. As he'd reached the front door, he had noticed the motion sensitive light was already activated, and he'd stopped. A shadow had skulked beside the doorway.

Joe said, "Who's there?"

A large, muscular man stepped from the darkness. The hair stood on the back of Joe's neck, and he noted the way the man carried himself. This was a Gallactor.

Joe tried to keep his voice neutral. "What do you want?"

The man said, "Please... I need to talk to you. I have to talk to you."

Joe could see it. He recognized the truth instantly, and his stomach tightened at the thought. All he wanted was to collapse into bed. For a moment he thought about casting the entire weight of the Roman Catholic Church between himself and this man. The Holy Thursday service officially began the Triduum, the holiest three days in the calendar, and until Easter Sunday he wasn't allowed to celebrate any of the sacraments. His hands shook even as he found his keys in his pockets. "What do you want to talk about?"

The Gallactor said, nearly a whisper, "I want to go to Confession."

Taking a deep breath, Joe unlocked the rectory door. "Come on in."

He turned on the main office lights and then guided the Gallactor one room further, to his private office. He gestured to the sofa and took a seat not behind his desk but rather facing the Gallactor. In the light of the office, on the old couch, the man looked less imposing. He had careworn clothes, ragged hair, and stubble on his chin. He probably had head lice or body lice. More important than any of that, though, Joe could see the haunted expression on the man's face.

I should tell him no. Joe said, "Do you need help starting?" The Gallactor stared at Joe's feet. Joe said, "Are you Catholic? Were you raised Catholic?"

The man nodded again. "But I left. Years ago."

"All I need to know is if you had your first Confession."

The man swallowed as he assented. Joe found a pamphlet on his desk and handed it to him. "That's got the formula on it. You can use it if you want."

The Gallactor wouldn't raise his head. "Do you know who I am?"

You're a murderer. You're probably someone who took shots and me and my teammates. You're a conspirator who wanted to end the world.

The words choked Joe. "You're a child of God."

The Gallactor looked at the paper in his hands and read, "Forgive me, Father, for I have sinned. It's been seventeen years since my last Confession."

Trying not to flinch, Joe listened as the man detailed atrocity after atrocity. His heart pounded. He repeatedly reminded himself that Jesus said there was more joy in heaven over one conversion than over ninety-nine saintly lives. His jaw was clenched, and he had to keep his palms pressed against his legs to keep his hands from shaking. "Your brother was dead, but now is alive," Jesus had recounted, but Joe found that theoretical joy so far from what his heart told him. He prayed and tried not to hear too much of what the man said. He kept telling himself, Right now, I am the Catholic church. I am the face of God. If I turn my back, he's truly hopeless.

All the same, God was listening--there was no real need for Joe to listen. So he sent his mind back in time, back eight years to when his broken body had lain in a hospital and his broken soul was just beginning to toddle its first steps toward Catholicism.

And during that one lonely day, Father Ron had heard worse from him. Joe believed that. Six months after Cross Karacoram, Joe had finally voiced a desire to rejoin the Church. Father Ron had suggested that if he was sure, he should start with the sacrament of reconciliation. Joe had stammered that he hardly would know where to begin, so that evening the chaplain dropped off a booklet with an examination of conscience, plus another pamphlet on the sacrament of reconciliation and one on receiving Holy Communion. Joe had studied all three in disconnection and futility. Even the formulaic responses didn't seem familiar. He'd always said the words in Italian ten years ago. The next day, when Father Ron had visited, the priest had shut the door and left instructions with the nurses that no one be admitted. Joe had balked. "If I tell you," he said, "if I Confess to you, you'll know everything. You'll know all about who I am, and what I did, and you'll never want to talk to me again." There had been a genuine panic in Joe's heart, and perhaps Father Ron had detected it. The priest said, "All I see now is someone very frightened and needing God in his life." Joe had said, "Do you know who I am?" Father Ron said, "You're Joe Asakura." Joe had said, "I was Condor Joe of the Kagaku Ninjatai," and Father Ron had replied, "That's who you were. Do even you know who you are right now?"

So Joe had agreed. That first Confession took over an hour, and at the end of it Joe sat pale, head bowed, spent inside and out. Still very sick, he needed a lot of stamina to sit up that long and work that hard. Father Ron had intoned the prayer of absolution, "God the Father of mercies, through the death and resurrection of His Son, has reconciled the world to Himself..." and Joe had listened with raw exhaustion. He'd just confessed everything. From the time he'd walked into an abandoned church at age ten and screamed to God's face that he hated Him, to the time he'd shot a priest through the heart, to the rage and the passion that had driven him to hunt and hunt and hunt Berg Katse to the exclusion of everything else he valued, and even to the point of being willing to cast his own life away in the service of the wrath. The sacrament finished, Father Ron had remained silent, and Joe also kept quiet, tired of talking, abiding in motionless fear as he waited for the man inside the priest to tell him that even though God had forgiven him, he never could.

And then, "Joe," the priest had said softly, "would you like to receive Holy Communion?"

Mute with surprise, Joe slowly raised his head.

The priest had removed a small round box from his pocket. "I brought a host with me."

Joe had bit his lip. His throat was too tight to say yes.

Father Ron had said, "The body of Christ," and Joe could only whisper his Amen.

With a tiny click, Father Ron had closed the pyx and slipped it back into his pocket. Joe had his jaw clenched, his hands tight in fists. With his head down, he swallowed shallowly, then shuddered, and there in the hospital bed he cried. Father Ron laid his hands on Joe's head and prayed softly over him, and still Joe felt the tightness in his chest, the cleansing salt of the tears, and a horrible relief he hoped never would end but which he feared feeling fully. It took a while to come back to himself. After Father Ron left the room, Joe shut the lights. It wasn't even three o'clock. He curled on his side to stare at the wall. Then, for the first time, he'd tried hard to feel, and he'd wondered then if he'd ever be able to pray.

Joe coaxed his thoughts back to the present, back to a dusty rectory office and the things this Gallactor was still confiding to him--or rather, to God through him. The man had gotten to the years after the war, and Joe listened yet again to the same story. This had happened to him five times in the year since Gallactor had located him, often enough for the bishop to grant him authority to lift excommunication. Ex-Gallactors sought him when they wanted to change their lives. Three of the burly, shifty-eyed men came to St. Gus every Sunday, driving all the way across Utoland City with kids in tow to come to him. It was as if they felt only he could understand them, since he had been their Enemy all those years.

When the man had stopped for a while, Joe took a deep breath and tried to listen to God in the silence. He regarded this unclean, bedraggled man sitting on his office couch and probably leaving fleas in the carpet. "And now?"

"And now," the man whispered, "I want to be forgiven."

All Joe wanted was to scream, You scum! You horror! You've renounced your humanity! Instead, trying hard not to hope the man would languish in hell, he prayed softly, "God the Father of mercies, through the death and resurrection of His Son..."

After Joe finished the closing prayer, the man wiped his eyes. As they stood, the man babbled, "I'll come back. I'll be here Sunday, for Easter. I never dared, even though my kids go to Catholic school. I've wanted to come back so long now..."

As they got to the door, the man said, "I didn't think you'd do it. I thought you'd turn me away."

Joe took a deep breath, then reached forward and embraced the man.

Five minutes later, after shutting all the lights and heading to the basement apartment, Joe stopped in the bare, vinyl-floored laundry room and stripped off his clothes. Child of God or none, he didn't want to pick up the man's head lice. As late as it was that Holy Thursday night, he'd stripped in front of the washer and started the load. Then he had showered as if he could scour away with water and cheap shampoo all the inhumanity a former enemy had divulged.

***

By the time Jun's car reached Nambu's mansion that Easter morning, Joe slept in the front seat, but he roused groggily as she pulled into the garage. Ken carried Joe's duffle bag and Mass-in-a-box and set him up in one of the guest rooms. Jun told Joe to lie down for a little while, and what happened was he fell asleep for four hours. Following the scent of roasted leg of lamb, he descended the marble steps to the first floor and found everyone else in the midst of dinner preparation. The housekeeping staff had off Sundays, so Jun coordinated the cooking much as she did at the Snack, only this time her staff were the junior Gatchaman team, including one new face.

Putting a Corningware pot into the oven, Jun said, "What was that song they sang at church today?"

Joe took a seat at the kitchen table the better to stay out of everyone's way. "Which one?"

"If I knew, I wouldn't be asking...the one where everybody got up."

The hoarse, sore sound vanished from Joe's voice as he sang slowly, "Those who were / In the dark / Are thankful for the sunlight..."

Jun said, "No, the other one."

"Oh, you mean Something Which Is Known." He sang a few lines, and she nodded and hummed along with the tune. When they reached the alleluias in the middle, though, the one junior member Joe didn't recognize suddenly joined. Jun turned and stared, and the boy stopped.

"I forgot you were Catholic," she said.

"That was my mother's favorite song." The boy hunched his shoulders and walked quickly from the kitchen. Jun swallowed hard, then turned back to the stove.

Ken pulled Joe aside and brought him to the rec room. "You'd never met Goro, had you?"

Joe shook his head. "He's Atsumi's replacement?"

Three weeks ago, the junior owl had been killed during a mission; Nambu had said he would wait to find a substitute, but then Goro arrived only a week afterward. "I've got no idea what to do about him, and he's not even sure he wants to stay on the team. He's only twelve, so there's about five years between him and the others. That's about Masa's age, right? I thought maybe you could get him to open up a bit while you're here. Maybe get him to talk during a driving lesson."

Joe eyed Ken critically. "If I can see straight. What changed Hakase's mind?"

"Goro's parents were ISO antiterrorism. He was already under consideration for the team when they got gunned down by the group they were investigating."

Joe turned as he heard Jun calling everyone for dinner. "No wonder he reacted to the song."

In the dining room, Joe found a meal straight from the pages of a magazine. Jun had scanned the newsstands until she'd found a publication detailing the necessary culinary elements of a Sicilian Easter, and she'd faithfully recreated the entire thing, even to having Ken find the only Italian bakery in Utoland City with the right kind of pastries. Delighted, Joe enjoyed the camaraderie and the food, drank wine with the others and listened to their stories. Around the table had gathered all the original Gatchaman team, plus Nambu, Eric Getz and his wife Mako, their two children, and the five members of the junior Gatchaman team. The general noise level escalated the longer they lingered, and Joe smiled more. He hadn't eaten this well since the last time he'd visited the mansion: taking the vow of poverty to extremes, Joe lived barely at the subsistence level. Wine and coffee felt positively opulent, as if Joe were being entertained by an emperor rather than his ex-teammates.

Afterward, Jun chased everyone from the dining room but the junior team, responsible for clean-up. As Nambu left, Joe caught him briefly and said that whenever Nambu had a moment, he needed to speak to him.

Eventually they gathered in the rec room to watch a movie on the home theater. Ken looked uncomfortable as he negated a few of the suggestions; Joe realized Ken thought he might be offended by the content, and he nearly laughed. A few low-voiced words to Ken set straight the matter, and shortly a selection was made. Five minutes into the movie, however, Nambu returned for Joe, and Ken stopped the film.

"Don't worry," Joe said. "I'll catch up on the plot when I get back."

Ken studied Joe momentarily, clearly not asking a question. Joe forced a grin and left.

In Nambu's office, Joe sat on the opposite side of the desk, glaring at the far wall, and folded his arms. "I was wondering if you could give me a physical," he said after a little hedging. Looking concerned, Nambu asked some questions, then escorted him to the examining room and tested all Joe's known trouble-spots: his eyes, then his reflexes and finally his heart and lungs. This Joe found familiar, although he had to remind himself to answer honestly. Even eight years and ten thousand mortifying medical questions after Cross Karacoram, he still had the urge to run rather than talk to a doctor.

Nambu told him to get dressed and join him in the front office.

Joe found Nambu poring over his medical records. "Sit." Nambu looked up, a bad sign. "We need to talk."

By now it was too late to run. "What's the verdict?"

"Diagnosis is, you're right. Your eyesight is deteriorating far too rapidly for my peace of mind, and your nerves aren't responding properly. This isn't anything new. It's all the Cross Karacoram injuries acting up again."

Joe said, "Why?"

"I can make an educated guess," Nambu said blandly. "You arrived this afternoon completely worn out, then slept four hours, and yet you still look like you could use another nap."

Joe chuckled. "Holy Week is a wringer."

"Were the previous weeks any different?"

"All of Lent, really."

"And before that?"

Joe twisted his mother's ring on his finger. "Before that--we had a lot going on during Ordinary time, too, and Christmas, and Advent. I know what you're implying. But what can I do about it?"

"There isn't a pill or a procedure, Joe. I think you know that."

Joe glowered. "Spell it out."

"You need to do less. Your health is precarious even in the best of times, and you need to take better care of yourself than the average person. The only good thing I can see is that you're still working out a little and you haven't lost any more weight in the last year. I know you joke about having the body of a man twice your age, but in some respects it's true. You're wearing yourself out by working far too hard without any relief."

Joe said, "Honestly, I don't have a choice."

Nambu said, "And honestly, I don't see that you can't have a choice. You must make the option for yourself."

Joe turned away. "Is there a vitamin or a therapy or a drug?"

"Overmedication is malpractice the way unnecessary surgery would be, and at any rate, there is nothing I can do. And there's nothing you can do. There are things you can not do, and you have to not be doing them. I'd start by insisting you get eight hours of sleep a night and take reasonable breaks during the day."

Joe only shook his head.

"What's the objection?"

"My parish needs me."

Nambu steepled his fingers. "I know God and I aren't always on the best of terms, Joe, but I think God would rather have you work at eighty percent for thirty years than one hundred percent for three."

Joe huffed. "It's not quite that bad."

Nambu sat forward. "What did you suspect when you came to me?"

Joe inhaled sharply.

Folding his arms, Nambu said, "Have you talked to any other physicians?"

This time Joe only stared at the dull gold band on his finger.

"At the very least, right now you're in such shape that I want you here the rest of the week."

Joe shrugged. "I'm scheduled up the hilt. Maybe later in the summer."

Nambu leaned into the desk. "Look at me," he said softly, in that iron voice which had steeled five children through the most rigorous training ever devised. "I want you to listen to what I have to say, because I'm not joking."

Two minutes later, Joe exited Nambu's office white as a sheet.

* * *

He would not think about what Nambu said. He would not think about what Nambu said. He would go to bed.

Like a nightmare, though, visions of Holy Week kept Joe from sleeping; when eventually he got to sleep, they kept him restless. It seemed everything impacted his sleep nowadays. On Good Friday morning, at least, Joe had let himself stay in bed an extra hour. There would be no morning Mass, and he'd showered the night before after the Gallactor left. He wouldn't have breakfast because Good Friday is a day of fast to Catholics. That had left the morning empty, and he'd figured the extra rest wouldn't hurt.

After morning prayer, he had phoned the diocese headquarters. He could hear the sky drizzling with a grim drumming on the cracked pavement of the parking lot. It always rained on Good Friday. On Bishop Sato's voice mail Joe left a message saying, "I'm sorry, your grace, but I wrecked Easter." He gave the barest detail he could. A priest must never reveal anything confided during Confession, and in fact Joe wasn't supposed to even use that information ministering to the parishioner who'd made the confession. It was like keeping a secret from himself. He'd broken the rules about the Triduum, though, and he felt he had a duty to tell his superiors.

Every Friday, Joe did housekeeping. Laundry was just as easy now as it was on the Kagaku Ninjatai: Joe had gone from one profession straight to another where he seldom had to decide what to wear in the morning. The black clothes, unfortunately, required ironing, and that he took care of first.

Shortly after Joe had started, the window slid up and a scrawny blond boy wriggled through. Joe didn't turn his head. "Hi, Masa."

"Hey, man, could you help me out?" Masa dropped his bookbag on the floor and started unbuttoning his shirt. "The headmaster said if I showed up all wrinkled one more time I'm suspended, and Mom didn't iron nothing anyhow."

Joe finished a black shirt while Masa handed him his smaller white one. Joe said, "It'd be a shame, after St. Gus scraped together the tuition for you."

"Not next year, though. I think I'm going to get an A in Literature, man!" Masa grinned. "You saw last semester I got all Bs and Cs. I never got a C before!"

"Impressive." While smart, Masa had never applied himself in grammar school. Joe had pulled enough strings to get him admitted to Utoland City Catholic Middle School, but the admissions board refused a full scholarship because he'd had over a hundred absences the year before. He got a partial, but Masa's mother hadn't had even that much. This year, with only ten absences, Masa might well get a free ride, and Joe wouldn't have to finagle the church's budget to create an "emergency" tuition fund after Masa's mother made the first installment and ran out of money. It helped that several other Archangels already attended UCCMS, and Masa had started another chapter of the gang over there, policing the school grounds much as the first group patrolled the church. Joe looked at the boy sitting on the steps adjusting his red armband. "Should you be wearing a gang emblem to school?"

"Who's going to take it off me? Not those dweebs who keep saying they're going to kill us, that's for sure."

"As long as they don't come after you with guns." Joe tossed Masa the warm, pressed shirt. "I was thinking about the faculty, actually. Make sure you get the bus on time."

"Yeah." Masa stopped buttoning his shirt to think a minute. "You know, you'd have been a cool dad."

"I am a dad," Joe said. "I've got all you guys."

One hour later, still cleaning, Joe heard his secretary arrive. The middle-aged woman stuck her greying head into the bathroom and sang to the tune of Jesus Christ is Risen Today, "Joe's in trouble with the bishop again... How surprising!"

Startled, Joe knelt up from where he'd been scrubbing the bathtub. "He called back?"

"Twice. The ringer was off." They had to do that because so many people phoned the rectory to get the holy week Mass schedule. She squinted. "No joke? You're in trouble?"

"I must be, if he called twice."

"What did you do?"

"I don't want to talk about it."

"Why does the upstairs smell of bug spray?"

Joe shook his head. "I really don't want to talk about it."

"Poor Father Joe." Teresa laughed as she returned upstairs.

Joe put away the cleanser and sponge and tried to call again. He shortly found the bishop was no longer at his desk. After that he had to take care of preparations for the Good Friday service. Next he went to cook food he wasn't allowed to eat at the Cafeteria.

Joe was in his office talking to two sacristans when he heard Teresa take a call in the main office, and he paused in case it was the bishop. He'd apparently missed another call while in the Caf. This time the message had said, "Keep trying. We need to talk before Sunday." Joe felt queasy, and his hands trembled again. He was desperately hungry, but he was saving his one small meatless meal until after Good Friday services. The other parishioners also looked pale and hungry.

In the outer office, Teresa kept saying, "That's awful!" and then waiting and saying, "Of course. Oh, no..." and so on in that vein. It sounded like he'd need to say a funeral on Monday. He excused himself from the sacristans and went to Teresa's desk as she hung up.

She looked pale. "Father Joe? It's Enrique Hoyos."

Joe's mouth opened. "Oh no--" He and Enrique had worked together at Our Lady Queen of Angels when Joe had been an associate pastor, but they hadn't seen each other in two and a half years. Enrique ran the youth group there.

"He's okay." Teresa lowered her head. "His family scraped together enough money for his mother to come visit from Equador. Only she died suddenly during her visit. They don't have money to bury her here or to send her body home, and OLQA wanted to know if we could help."

A ringing began in Joe's ears. "And you told them we could." There was no accusation in his voice. Teresa nodded. Joe ventured further. "How much do they need?"

"Three thousand dollars. He'll come by for it tomorrow."

Joe felt the blood drain from his head. He was already doing the math.

Teresa froze. "Wait a minute. We just paid all the bills, didn't we?"

Joe said, "Don't worry. I'd have said the same."

Teresa pulled out the parish checkbook and rifled through the register. Joe said, "$254.72."

"Close. $257.42." She looked up. "I don't have it either."

"You don't have it because I don't think we've paid you recently." Joe frowned. "I have less than the parish does."

Teresa said, "Is there anyone we can ask?"

Joe shrugged. "I asked any of our large donors last week to keep the Caf open. No one's got anything. It's a hard time for everyone right now."

Teresa whispered, "What do we do?"

"We pray." Joe checked his watch. "But right this minute, I've got Good Friday services."

The Easter collection was usually a large one, and Joe suspected St. Gus would net three thousand easily. The trouble was, Enrique needed the money Saturday. Joe could surprise the congregation with a Good Friday collection, but it probably wouldn't get enough, and it would make light of the most solemn day of the year.

Joe prayed before the tabernacle fifteen minutes before the service. Hi, God. Remember last Sunday when I got down on my knees and begged for an associate pastor? Put that on the back burner. Right now I need three thousand dollars, and I know you've got it. You came through for St. Gus about the Caf, and I'm sorry to ask again, but I've got no idea where the money's going to come from. Then he vested up in the sacristy. He was hungry and tired and had a headache, and now he found himself distracted by money. He cleared every stray thought, then probed for God wherever he might find Him. It took a while.

* * *

Monday morning at Nambu's mansion, Joe awakened with the odd feeling of his fingers being sniffed and nibbled. He opened his eyes and found himself face to face with the blurry white and brown shape of a rodent.

Joe leaped up and away from whatever it was, gasping twice before hitting the ground, and once away from the bed he groped for his glasses to figure out what that thing was. Hakase never had rats in here! Hoqshi must have done this!

Once Joe had his glasses, he found the animal was in fact a spiny grey-white and brown sphere of quills. It quickly waddled under the blankets to hide.

Someone's going to pay. Joe grinned. On second thought, Hoshi didn't have this kind of charisma. It was probably Miyagi, if anyone, although Jinpei or Ken weren't beyond silly pranks.

If nothing else, the spiny specimen in Joe's bed deterred him from sleeping any longer, so he sat at the desk and said morning prayer, then got a shower and shaved. While he finished up, the second door to the bathroom opened and the newest junior team member stood squinting at him in puzzlement.

Joe said, "Goro? I didn't know you were my sinkmate."

"Huh?" The kid studied him momentarily, rubbing a hand through his crew-cut brown hair.

"Do you need me to get out of here for a bit?" When the boy only shook his head, Joe kept shaving. The boy perched his awkward adolescent body on the side of the tub and watched Joe while he went through the ritual. Joe said, "Do you guys still call each other sinkmates?" When the boy didn't reply, Joe said, "Every pair of rooms shares a bathroom. Ken and I were sinkmates until we moved out. Come to think of it, why are you down this corridor? I though the juniors were up the other way."

Goro said, "Hoshi threatened to kill me if I moved into Atsumi's room."

After a moment, Joe said, "You wouldn't happen to have lost a rodent, would you?"

Goro's mouth opened. "You found Yuji? My hedgehog?"

"Yuji found me. Under my blanket."

Goro ran into Joe's room and returned holding the quilled creature, somehow not being stabbed. Joe saw he'd cupped the hedgehog gently from either side and was carefully keeping his fingers clear of the center in case the hedgehog curled into a ball. "I must have left the bathroom door open, and they like to explore. I've got three. This one climbs into anything."

Chuckling, Joe relinquished the bathroom to Goro, then dressed and headed to breakfast. His head had started aching, and his vision swam. Throughout breakfast, a tense Joe said nearly nothing. Ken beside him remained equally quiet, although Jun seemed to be enjoying herself. She turned to Joe and said, "What time did you need me to drive you back to St. Gus?"

Nambu said, "Actually, Jun, Joe's going to stay for the week."

Joe's hand tightened on his coffee mug. "That's not certain."

Slowly, Jun said, "It'd be wonderful to have you here, Joe. You know that."

Nambu said, "We agreed you needed some time off."

"I didn't agree to anything." Turning to Jun, Joe still seemed irritated. "Actually, if you have the chance, could you drive me to the bishop's office sometime today?"

Ken said, "I can. I've got a few errands to run anyhow."

Joe said, "Whoever. It might take a while."

Jun said, "He'll approve a vacation, especially now that you've got Father Patrick."

Nambu pushed his chair back from the table. "Given what we talked about, I'm sure he will."

Joe stared daggers at the man as he left, then rose and followed him. In the hallway, Nambu stopped to let Joe catch up. "I can't believe you!" Joe was breathing unsteadily. "Aren't you a professional?"

"You have to learn to accept help," Nambu said flatly. "Speaking of help, Jun mentioned the parish garden. We've got lots of open space, if you'd like us to grow some vegetables for the Cafeteria."

Joe's face was flushed. "I approached you as a doctor, and you turned around and used patient information in public! So much for confidentiality! And I know a lot more about confidentiality than I did eight years ago--I've lived both sides of the story, and Hakase, it's a right and not a privilege."

Nambu averted his glance. "What kinds of vegetables could the Cafeteria use?"

"Don't change the subject!" Joe shook his head. "Consider my trust lost. I've got a lot more options now than I did when I was eighteen and had to resort to unlicensed doctors." It didn't feel good when Nambu winced, but Joe knew the barb had struck. He knew he was being unchristian even as he spoke. "I'll take my medical records with me when I leave so they don't make the front page of The Utoland Times." A forgotten rage churned in the back of his throat. There were words he once used to vent it, words a man in his vocation really shouldn't be saying, words he'd never said to Nambu to begin with.

He made his way back toward the kitchen. Behind him, Nambu said, "Joe, I'm sorry."

Joe wouldn't speak. He had no idea what would emerge if he did.

"I forget I can't act for your own good the way I did before. But I still want you to stay."

Joe kept his teeth locked as he stalked back to the kitchen.

* * *

Nambu's remarks had been a blow. Maybe he should have expected that kind of behavior, but it had been so long since he'd been on the team. Nobody manipulated him nowadays--well, nobody ranking him. He avoided the others to avoid their questions. To avoid his own, he instead remembered the past week like an obsession.

On Holy Saturday, Joe had awakened to another rainy morning with no answers to the Enrique money problem. The best he could do would be telling the funeral parlor to bill St. Gus and finding the money whenever they could. Enrique would know what had happened, of course, but Joe hadn't seen a way around it. An emergency fund was a parish luxury St. Gus and OLQA just didn't have.

On the other hand, after a day of fasting, the same old breakfast had tasted unusually good.

Joe shaved and showered quickly because of all he had to do today, but when he looked back he found the toilet filled with rusty water.

Joe examined it more closely. Definitely rust. He flushed and watched the basin fill again with rusty water.

It wasn't summer yet. It wasn't hot enough to justify rust washing out of the pipes. He didn't think the constant rain could have anything to do with it either. He checked the water in the sink, and it ran clean. That wasn't good. He opened the top of the toilet tank, but to his pinpoint vision, everything looked normal.

With a ceramic clank, he set the top back on the tank, then craned his head toward a spot on the ceiling. "And who do You think is going to fix this?" he thundered. "I don't have the money to fix this, that's for sure! Well?"

It was a good thing there weren't any parishioners in the parking lot. Joe's heart pounded, and his chest hurt. He tossed his towel over the shower curtain and walked away until he could come back calmer. The next time he flushed the toilet, the water ran clear, and he decided not to press his luck.

The telephone tag with Bishop Sato's office had gotten ludicrous by mid-morning. It would have been faster to write a letter, Joe fumed. He wasn't mad at the bishop for being busy. He knew Easter weekend was a harried time for everyone, and secretly he gladdened that the bishop worked as hard as the rest of them. On the other hand, he really wanted to get the reprimand over with so he could say the Vigil with a clear conscience.

Some parishioners gathered at noon to decorate the church for the Vigil, and Joe helped. Teresa had orders to get him if the bishop phoned. While he wasn't useful for climbing ladders and was even less useful for planning tasteful decorations, the parishioners enjoyed having his help anyhow, particularly the adolescent Archangels with their red armbands. They laughed as they worked, and meanwhile the choir rehearsed. Joe glanced up whenever they said the "A-word." Catholics have an "alleluia-drought" during Lent (when it shouldn't be said or sung) but the choir had to rehearse for Easter's songs anyhow. He teased them before returning to the rectory.

As Joe left the church, he saw a red car leave the parking lot, and he walked back to the rectory wondering who that had been. Hopefully not Enrique. Teresa would have summoned him.

He walked into the office to find Teresa staring with tearful eyes. "Father Joe," she whispered.

He realized suddenly that God had come through. Somehow, either they didn't need the money any longer or else they had it right here in the office.

She grinned. "We have the money."

Joe felt the smile unfurl in a way he couldn't contain. "How?"

"It's an extremely anonymous donation. I've been sworn to secrecy." Teresa clutched the check. "I'm not kidding, either."

"Tell me!" Joe found himself laughing as he made a half-hearted grab.

Teresa darted just beyond arm's reach. "Wouldn't do you any good. It's a bank check. Just an account number."

"You're cruel," Joe said. "Who was it? I didn't tell anyone."

"Neither did I. But someone just walked into this office and handed me a check, saying 'Here's my donation for the season.' I said, 'You know, we've already spent it,' and the person replied, 'I figured you had.'"

* * *

Joe lowered himself into one of the chairs by Teresa's desk.

"Exactly three thousand," she said.

God-- He didn't even have the words. Trying to come up with a thank-you, he kept finding nothing at all.

Teresa was saying, "We won't even have to wait for it to clear."

Joe said, "And now you've got to--"

"Already filled out the deposit slip. I'm off!"

Joe said, "Speed all the way to the bank. Maybe God will get you out of a traffic ticket too."

She laughed as she departed.

As Joe retreated to his office, he felt a tingling pain shoot up his right leg. His hands were numb, and now that he thought about it, his vision had gotten blurrier in the past few days.

Please, no, not now. I've got so many things to do in the next two days.

Before he made it all the way to his desk, the outer door opened, and Joe found a rain-dotted Enrique Hoyos standing meekly in the doorway. Joe offered a smile, and Enrique tried to shake his hand and ended up hugging him instead and getting rain and tears all over Joe in the process."I'm really sorry. I wish it wasn't something awful that made us get together again."

Enrique swallowed. "Thanks so much for helping, Father Joe. I know you don't have the money any more than OLQA does."

Joe shrugged. "God had it."

Teresa had written the check and left the envelope on her desk. Joe spent a few minutes talking with Enrique, then spent another few minutes in the empty rectory after Enrique's car hummed out of the lot. Suddenly solitary, he listened to the quiet. He checked his watch: only three o'clock. The Vigil began at eight and ended around eleven, but Joe had no expectations of getting to bed before midnight. Tomorrow he would have to say five Masses, starting at 7:30. At his desk, Joe removed his glasses and slipped them into his pocket. He had a headache. Because it would be Easter, he knew the church would be packed for every Mass. The "A&P People," as Father Ron so cheerfully called them. He would see faces he wouldn't see again until Christmas, people who had no idea how to follow the missalettes and didn't know when to sit and stand, who thought a standing-room crowd was normal--in short, people on a totally different spiritual level from the regular congregation. Somehow he had to reach them all.

As he sat, the phone rang. Joe waited until he remembered Teresa was on her way to the bank. "St. Augustine's."

"Joe Asakura! At last I reached you. You're answering your own phones now."

Joe said, "We did away with the secretary. It's cheaper like this. Plus I got her life insurance policy." He replaced his glasses and sat up straighter. "I'm glad we finally got hold of each other, your grace."

Bishop Sato sounded happy. "These are the busiest days of the year. How are you holding up?"

Joe sighed. "Things keep working out, somehow."

"Hm." The bishop paused momentarily. "There's something I need to talk to you about."

Joe said, "I know I shouldn't have heard that Confession."

"Don't think twice about it. I'd have done the same thing."

Joe stiffened in his chair. "But--"

"Remember about the sabbath being made for man and not vice versa? You did fine. Christ died to save the sinners, not the lawyers. Besides, I know you wouldn't break a rule unless you thought you could get away with it."

Joe found himself laughing. "In that case--"

"In that case, why am I calling every couple of hours? Tomorrow morning you're getting your very own associate pastor."

Joe nearly jumped out of his chair. "I'm getting an associate?"

"In the flesh. Borrowing him, I suppose. Last week after you harangued my secretary, we struck a deal with a diocese in Nigeria. A priest of theirs is attending Utoland City University Divinity School, and they wanted room and board from us. We agreed, but we're putting the man to work. His name is Patrick Onasanya."

Joe cautiously said, "Will he and my congregation be mutually intelligible?"

"I hope so, since he's taking classes here." The bishop chuckled. "You have nothing to worry about. You still sound tense."

"I'm in shock." Joe took off his glasses and rubbed his eyes. His hand tingled. "Thank you. Everyone else must have been clamoring to get this guy."

"The truth is," the bishop said, "I'm worried about you. You need him. Use him as much as you can, letting him pass his classes, of course. Make him say daily Mass for you so you can sleep later. Find something. Don't just create more work so you don't get your own load lightened and then in December you have to do the work of two priests."

Joe took a deep breath. "Thank you, Bishop Sato."

"The other thing I wanted to do was make sure we get a chance to talk sometime next week."

Frowning, Joe wound the phone cord around his finger. "What about?"

"I'd rather explain in person. You don't need an appointment. Just drop by."

"You're moving me?" Joe's heart pounded. "What have I done wrong?"

"Nothing--nothing, Joe. You're not needed anywhere else right now. Relax. You're extremely tense, and I'm sure you don't have to be. Don't think twice about it, but just make sure you drop in. And have a happy Easter."

Joe sounded disbelieving. "You too, your grace."

As Joe had hung up the phone, he'd found his hands still shaking. He'd need at least a short nap if he was going to make it through Saturday night for the Vigil. With the ringer off, he'd locked his office and headed down a staircase blurry and doubled once again, doubled for the first time in eight years.

* * *

The Monday afternoon after Easter, Ken dropped Joe off at the entrance to St. Savior's Cathedral, the headquarters of the Utoland City diocese. Joe fingered the junior owl's wristband in his pocket and said, "I'll buzz you when I'm ready."

"Such cheer," Ken said. "It's too bad the bishop can't make you run in and salute like old times."

Joe just walked up the rain-glistening steps. He stayed a few minutes in the cathedral, then walked outside again to the main building and from there to the bishop's office. Wearing the priest uniform into such a grand office, he felt more comfortable than he would have in plain clothes; maybe he shouldn't have. The bishop had said to keep it informal. Joe waited only five minutes before the bishop admitted him.

Joe felt Bishop Sato's scrutinizing gaze land on him like a wet windblown newspaper, but he forced a smile anyhow. "Happy Easter, your grace."

"You too. Please, sit." The bishop settled on the couch. "Don't look so nervous, Joe. It's not good for you." He took a deep breath. "I want you to take some time off."

Joe jumped. "Who's been talking to you?"

The bishop started at Joe's reaction. "I said I was worried about you. You've got all the signs of burnout, and I can't afford to have any of my priests burning out, especially not three years out of seminary. That message you left for me Friday morning clinched it. You probably can't even hear it in your own voice, but I can. You're desperate. You're losing perspective. You've been working hard, but you need a break."

Swallowing, Joe realized how his throat had tightened. "Who broke confidentiality?"

The bishop said, "Nobody. But maybe there's something else you need to tell me?"

Joe folded his arms. No, it couldn't have been Nambu, because Nambu hadn't known about the tingling or the blurriness before Sunday, and the bishop had asked to see him on Saturday. The other doctor, then? The one retained by the diocese? He'd never trust a medical professional again.

"I'm not quite sure what to think," the bishop said. "What's going on?"

Joe explained softly, but with a steel edge, what Dr. Nambu believed about the continuous stress.

The bishop seemed extremely disturbed. He was too genuine to have faked that kind of surprise if he'd been forewarned. "In that case, you've got two very valid reasons to take a few days off. You haven't had any vacation at all since your ordination, have you?"

Joe said, "I'm needed."

"You've got an associate pastor now. He can handle the sacramental duties for the parish, and anything else can wait a week. That's all I'm suggesting." The bishop's voice was very gentle, peaceful, almost soothing. Joe started to unruffle. "I need every priest I've got. We're losing three more this year to retirement, and we're only ordaining two."

Joe tried to take a deep breath. His hands were trembling in his lap.

The bishop said, "Do you have someplace you can stay?"

Swallowing, Joe nodded.

After a moment, Joe said, "Is that all?"

"In light of what you just told me, no." The bishop leaned back and folded his arms. "Do a rough calculation of just how much work you're doing for your parish."

Joe listed off the activities of a typical day, and the bishop watched with a studying stare. After Joe finished, the bishop said, "That's at least ninety-five hours a week."

Joe shrugged.

"It's never-ending. You can't maintain that pace. No wonder your health is going downhill."

Joe opened his hands. "Every priest does as much. I'll be all right."

"I'm not going to take the chance you won't. And I dispute your assumptions about your fellow priests--they work hard, but not to that extent. I want you to cut that down to forty hours a week."

Joe's jaw dropped. "I can't--"

"Find a way. Figure out your priorities in the parish and meet those needs first, then let the rest slide."

Joe's fists clenched. "But they need me to--"

"Joe," the bishop said softly, "do you remember that vow of obedience?"

Joe inhaled sharply.

"I don't like to overrule you that way, but if you must, think of it as a direct order. You are to immediately reduce your work week to forty hours. You're acting as if God Almighty can't get a thing done unless you do it yourself." The bishop leveled his gaze on Joe. "Next item on the agenda, stop donating your salary back to the church." When Joe protested, the bishop raised a hand. "It wasn't hard to figure out. I do look at the parish budgets, although I have to admit you were clever about hiding it."

"We'll go bankrupt," Joe said.

"God will find the money somehow."

"God did find it. By giving it to me."

"That salary is yours. You already give enough to the church. You aren't eating enough. You don't ever get any extras for yourself. It's not as if eleven thousand a year is the lap of luxury, but at least it gives you some 'wiggle room'." Joe wore a deep scowl as the bishop continued, "You're a priest, but before that you're a human being. You do have limits. You'll accomplish more if you're energetic and happy with your vocation."

Joe said flatly, "Yes, sir."

After a moment, he added, "I'm sorry."

Something in his tone coaxed the bishop to look back at his ashen face.

"And you're a very good priest." The bishop stood from the couch and made his way back to his desk. "I can't say that enough. You're well worth the three dispensations you needed to get ordained in the first place, at age twenty-three no less, and you've already surpassed my wildest expectations. I'm astonished by you and all you're accomplishing at St. Augustine's. Their last pastor burned out and is still bitter about the experience, but you turned that church around. Your people love you."

Joe had his arms folded and his chin down. He said nothing.

The bishop said, "Your name frequently comes up on the short list of candidates for the next bishop."

Joe bit his lip. "Don't do that to me."

"A successor won't be my choice. It wouldn't happen soon, at any rate, and you don't stand a chance because you don't play politics. I just think you ought to know I'm not the only one impressed. If you take it easier for a little while, it'll be better in the long run. Trust me."

In the lobby five minutes later, Joe buzzed Ken's bracelet and said he had a few errands to run. If Ken didn't mind, could he pick him up at St. Gus in an hour? Ken said, "I can drive you there," but Joe said, "I get around town fine by myself, thanks."

He caught the crosstown bus from the steps of the cathedral. Ordinarily he'd have prayed the rosary during the ride, but today an elderly woman recognized him. She changed seats to be near him and talked enthusiastically about the holy week services, then followed up with an invitation to dinner with her family. Joe was just as glad that when he got off the bus, she stayed. The crosstown route left him a mile from St. Gus, and he could transfer to a second bus that would bring him closer. Despite the rain and his aching legs he wanted to walk, but just then the bus pulled in. The driver hollered, "Hey, Father Joe, get in! We'll wait!"

He slowly climbed the steps. As Joe handed the driver the transfer, the driver turned to one of the kids in the first seats and barked, "Get up! Can't you read?"

The seat had a sticker stating, "Please save these seats for the elderly or handicapped." Joe tried not to think as he sat. Unlike the crosstown, this bus was crowded. The route ran directly through three inner-city neighborhoods that had earned the nickname "the devil's corridor." Someone in the back had a loud radio, and the interior had accumulated a general body odor.

A young woman had pushed her way up to the front of the bus, and finally finding Joe, she beamed. "Father Joe! Happy Easter!"

Joe nodded. "You too, Linda."

Grinning, she said, "You'll never guess what happened! I got a real job--I'm an overnight accountant at the clinic downtown! It pays so much better than fast food, and I'll be able to stay home with Jocelyn!"

Joe blinked. "That's good. Then your mother can watch her at night? But aren't you going to be burning the candle at both ends?"

"It's only a few years. I couldn't stand to leave her in daycare where there might be rats or someone might hurt her." Linda smiled broadly. "She's so sweet, Father. Thanks."

Joe said, "Do you have a picture?"

Linda fished in her purse momentarily, then showed him the smiling face of a six-month-old wearing a bow in her silky fine hair. One year ago, a pregnant Linda had turned up at the rectory deserted by her boyfriend. She didn't want an abortion but thought she had no options. Joe had pounded on enough area agencies for social services that she could have the baby if she wanted, and she'd decided to have the baby. He'd mediated between her and her mother so Linda could have a place to live while she finished high school. This was the result: a third shift accounting job, that chubby face in the photo, and a young woman who had pushed her way through the crowd on the bus to thank him for it.

Five minutes later, Joe walked into the rectory and went straight to his office. "Teresa, I need to talk to you now." She followed, closing the door as he sat behind his desk.

Looking at his drawn face, paler still in contrast to the black shirt, she said, "What's wrong?"

Joe directed his glare like a Las Vegas spotlight out the window. "I'm going to be gone the rest of the week." He gave her the briefest explanation possible. She sat looking serious, saying nothing until he finished.

Teresa said, "I'll handle everything."

Joe just stared through her in exhaustion.

"I've worked here longer than you have. I've seen three pastors already. I know what needs to be done."

Joe cast his gaze at his lap. She added, "Go pack for the week. I've been scared for you too."

Downstairs, Joe radioed Ken, who said he'd probably take another hour to get back to the church, so Joe made lunch and packed while his soup heated. He didn't have much to prepare. A week's worth of clothes emptied the drawers, but he did need a few reference books to write Sunday's homily. That done, he choked down lunch that didn't taste like anything.

Without something else to accomplish before Ken returned, Joe headed to the church and unbolted the door, then locked it again behind himself. Kneeling in the benches before the tabernacle, he started the rosary but didn't get further than the second mystery before he found he had no idea where he was in the prayer. He stared at the beads, blinked rapidly, then huddled forward against the back of the next bench. "I'm sorry," he whispered, then said it again as tears started to come. A grief as real as the death of his parents, as the death of the Condor: he let go and sobbed, hating the way he couldn't stop, his rosary crunched together in his hands, his shoulders and arms tight like steel cables. "I just couldn't keep going. I failed you again."

What a useless, useless crybaby--couldn't do a damned thing for anyone. Joe made his way to the sacristy and found the box of tissues, then stood for a while with his hands over his eyes, breathing deeply. He'd only been at this job three years. It was all dissolving so fast.

He was just as glad that when he returned to the rectory, Teresa was away from her desk. His locked office door insured no one would walk in as he phoned Father Ron.

After listening to all Joe had to say, Father Ron said briefly that he agreed with Nambu and the bishop.

Joe said, "What should I do?" His voice surprised him by holding steady. There was a knock at his door which he ignored.

Father Ron said, "Relax for a week. It's not like you have a choice about the hours. Burnout's a bad situation, Joe. What was the first thing Father Martin said when you took over St. Gus? 'Sure you look happy now, but you'll never get anything done again.'"

Joe said, "Close enough." Someone knocked again, and Joe swiveled his chair so he faced the back wall.

"Try to remember what it was that attracted you to the vocation. Do what you'd tell a married couple to do: remember why you fell in love."

"There's so much else to do." This time, the bracelet chirped, so Joe figured it must be Ken outside. Well, Ken could wait. "The parish--"

"No, no, Joe. You're like a neurotic new mother who comes in saying her baby needs her so much she can't even take a shower." As Joe smirked, Father Ron continued, "Keep some perspective. Set your priorities."

They spoke a few more minutes before Joe returned to the front office. Ken sat on one of the couches, and Teresa talked on the phone. She told the caller to wait, then turned to Joe. "Pretty much everything fell into place. Father Patrick said he can take all the daily Masses except Wednesday, and I've got Amelia lined up to do a service instead. Father Patrick will handle confessions, so you don't need to come back until the Saturday five."

Joe shook his head. "Youth group."

"Enrique Hoyos will run youth group for you on Thursday." Teresa nodded as Joe started. "He happened to call while you were at the church, and he asked if there was any way he could repay us. I told him what was going on, and he volunteered to handle the kids."

Joe blinked. "Oh."

Teresa stood and smiled. "I've got your number out there, but I won't call unless there's an emergency. Have a good week. And take care of yourself."

Ken took Joe's suitcase and carried it through the rain to the car. As they settled in, and still thinking about Enrique's sudden return, Joe noticed the car's color like a thunderbolt. Red. No, he thought. There have to be a hundred thousand red cars in the city. It can't have been Ken.

They drove in silence for a while, weaving through the city streets with the tires hissing against the runoff water, and then taking off once they reached the freeway. Shortly the graffiti-covered buildings yielded to cleaner row-houses, followed by cookie-cutter subdivisions, and shortly afterward they'd reached the seacoast where the houses stood far back from the highway and had generous portions of land surrounding them.

Ken glanced at Joe over his shoulder. "Long day, huh?"

Joe nodded without returning the glance.

They drove in silence for another mile until Ken said, "I never really apologized to you for staying away all those years. I just returned and you took me back without question."

Joe's stomach tightened, and he swiveled to look out the side window. He didn't want this now. He didn't want to hear it. But maybe it was like the Gallactor's confession; maybe Ken needed to say it. Joe didn't prompt him to continue, but he didn't derail him either.

After a moment more, Ken said, "When I saw that your people were willing to die for you...the least I could do was call you my friend again. I'm sorry. There I was, being a total heel, and you were probably praying for me."

Joe laughed darkly. "I'm not that holy. Every time I'd try to pray for you, I'd start saying things like, 'And God, make that idiot come to his senses,' and I'd have to stop."

Ken laughed out loud. "Really?"

Joe waited to see if Ken had finished his agenda.

"So what's all this about? Why'd you have to go talk to the bishop today? What did Hakase tell you last night?"

Joe's hands tightened in his lap. "It wasn't much."

"You're lying to me." When Joe didn't object, Ken said, "You didn't tell me last time everything started falling to pieces on you, and look where it got us."

"Is that why you apologized to me, as prepayment for confidences received?" Joe glowered through the floor of the car, as if he could see the road passing under their tires, and when he looked back he found Ken biting his lip.

"That's not fair."

"Maybe it's not. But you're manipulating me."

"You're leaving me out of it again, and I think maybe I ought to know, even if I'm not your closest friend any longer."

Apparently unfair shots were the weapons du jour. Joe relented. "All the old problems are back. The double vision, the tingling, the numbness. Hakase says it's stress."

Ken said, "Can't you take it easy then?"

"That's why the bishop wanted to talk to me."

"Doesn't sound so bad overall."

Joe said, "Hakase said if I don't take time off, in six months I'll be totally blind."

Ken sat up straighter in the driver's seat. "No kidding?"

"A few months beyond that, I'll be test-driving the leading brand of wheelchair."

Ken's eyes shone against his pale cheeks. "You're sure he wasn't trying to scare you?"

"He succeeded. I suspected as much, though. My eyes have been going to hell on me lately."

"You've been trembling too." Ken hummed. "So why not do what they say and take it easy for a while?"

Joe's eyes lowered. "I don't really have a choice. Not that I like it. But I'm under orders."

Ken choked back a "Hah!"

Joe said, "I promised Nambu I'd be a good science ninja, but sometimes going off on my own and taking care of the dirty work myself was the way to be a good science ninja. It's different now. I made a promise to God to obey, and you shouldn't break those promises."

"All that aside, I don't see why you need to be under orders. Taking it easy is the sensible thing to do."

"I'm an old man now--I have to do the sensible thing."

"Was it sensible to do exactly the same thing before Cross Karacoram, knowing your body was failing and working yourself to death anyhow?"

Joe turned his head. "When you came to St. Gus the first time, you accused me of running away to find a soft and cushy life for myself. That's exactly what I'll have."

Ken slapped a hand into the dashboard. "Damn it, Joe, when did you ever start listening to me?"

In a low voice, "I've always listened to you. Even when I didn't agree."

"So you pick now to start agreeing?" Ken shook his head. "Look, I just told you I'd been a heel. I don't think anything of the sort, and I can't see how anyone would accuse you of doing anything other than saving your life."

"At what cost? Who pays the price for my surviving yet again?" He swallowed. "It doesn't matter. Everything will get done. Somehow. If it doesn't, it doesn't. I've saved the world often enough. It's time for someone else to get a turn." Abruptly he turned aside and stared directly away from Ken, squinting hard through the glasses and finally putting his hand up to his eyes . He murmured, "I wasn't a very good science ninja either, and the world went on."

Ken hadn't heard him at all.

When they reached the mansion, Ken brought Joe's bag upstairs, and once alone Joe meticulously unpacked, choosing drawers with far more care than he possibly needed. Goro showed briefly in the doorway but then melted into the shadows, so Joe took the opportunity to shut both doors. He lay spent on the bed listening to the rain until it came time for dinner, although when he headed downstairs he didn't eat much. Jun looked concerned, but he assured her he didn't feel hungry. The juniors broke off for an evening training session, the Gatchaman team held a planning meeting, and Joe found himself alone. He put himself to work.

At the kitchen table with his lectionary and a few reference books, Joe jotted notes in unsteady block print on a legal-sized yellow pad. He had a scowling concentration as he focused hard enough to read the small type. He'd worked longer than he realized when Ryu walked in.

Getting himself a glass of milk, Ryu paused. "What are you doing?"

Grim-faced, Joe shrugged. "I've got to prepare the homily for this weekend."

Ryu chuckled. "It's kind of like divine revenge for all those times you didn't really study. Now you've got to write a book report every week."

Joe laughed, but it had a hollow sound. Ryu wandered up behind him. "Your hands are shaking again."

Apparently the grapevine was no longer functioning. "I'm sick."

"That's no good." Ryu put down the milk and rested his hands on Joe's shoulders. As Joe sat straighter, Ryu started probing with his fingers at the muscles in his neck and back. "You're so tense. Is this all right?"

"Fine." Joe leaned forward a little so Ryu could get at the rest of his neck. Warmth spread from the larger man's fingertips, and Joe felt all his muscles slacken. It seemed nowadays he could go for weeks without another human touch, and at times he hungered for it. The team had always had their hands on one another: wrestling, helping, reassuring, shoving, hugging. No one hugs a priest. It was as if the vow of celibacy ensphered him from all human touch, everyone thinking even a handshake might lead him astray. Or maybe it was society, he thought, and everyone spent entire days fighting a yawning need for physical contact but never admitting to it. "You give great back rubs," he murmured as Ryu attended to a tight spot on his shoulder.

"Learned them on my Dad after a long day fishing."

Joe's body was liquefying, melting into pleasant relaxation. "Right after Cross Karacoram, they made life worthwhile."

"Huh?" Ryu stopped momentarily. "Really?"

"You'd always know where to do it." Joe crossed his arms and laid down his head. "I couldn't talk because of the tubes, but you'd know anyhow."

How many times had he roused groggily to find Ryu raising the head of the bed, guiding him up to slouch like a boneless doll against his strong left arm? Joe couldn't sit up on his own in the early days. Ryu would cradle him in that upright position so the right hand could knead out all the soreness in his back. While he worked, Ryu would talk brightly about the team's home life, as if Joe would be heading home the next day and needed to know the most recent squabbles or jokes. Joe would listen, dazed and drugged, and all his frustration would crumble beneath the friendly onslaught. There had been peace in those moments. Afterward, with Joe so relaxed he was nearly asleep again, Ryu would gently lay him back, lower the head of the bed, and turn out the lights. For the first month, Ryu had come every single day, once in the morning and once in the evening. Now Joe knew what it had cost the man.

Ryu said, "I thought it annoyed you. That's why I stopped."

Joe grimaced. "I didn't know how to ask for help. Or how to say thank you."

Ryu had found a troublesome muscle near Joe's spine, and he stayed there. "You know, I never got that Catholic stuff, but I remember that first time you did a church service. You got up there and said there wasn't anyone in the church less qualified to tell other people how to live."

"Probably still."

"You were nervous as hell. They probably couldn't tell, but I could. Do you still get nervous?"

"Only when I think about it." Joe yawned, then flexed his shoulders as Ryu paused.

"You looked so thrilled afterward. I couldn't figure out why."

About to answer, Joe stopped.

"I mean," Ryu said, "that's what your whole job is about, so it's good you're thrilled, but I don't get it."

Of course it's a thrill, Joe thought. Isn't that why I started in the first place: because God was right here, and if God was right here than I wanted to be standing right here too? Didn't I want never to go away, just to be right here were God was? For the first time, I liked who I was. It didn't matter that I had to vow to work where others sent me, that I was going to relinquish rights every other human being has. I'd found the most important thing in the world, and I wasn't going to wander away from it ever again. And I still have that. I'll always have that.

Ryu suddenly laughed. "I talked you to sleep."

Joe groaned and sat up. "You relaxed me too much. I've done as much as I can tonight." He started closing the books, and Ryu helped him gather them together. The larger man carried them up the steps and left them in Joe's room. Five minutes later after evening prayer, Joe had shut the light and fallen asleep. But in his sleep he was smiling.

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