Arbitratus Short Fiction

The Second Day of Fic-mas …

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Eat, Drink, and Be Miserable

 

Author’s Note: For readers of Always Darkest, in case you were wondering why Ben couldn’t spent Christmas Eve with Mal, this ought to clear things up. For those of you new to our universe, this is what happens when Hell throws a holiday office party.

“Ben! You made it!” the graceful hostess called with enthusiasm and more than a little surprise. She hadn’t seen him come in, and her two assistants had been taking bets on whether or not he’d show up. She eyed him up and down. “You’re looking … very … um …”

“Save it, Aife. I’m in no mood for games or pleasantries.” She thought he might be frowning or glaring at her, but at present it was difficult to tell. “Besides, we’re fighting.”

“Fighting? Over this? Come on, it’s not that bad.” She reached down, clapping him on his uncharacteristically meaty shoulder. “And it’s traditional!”

The eye roll was more obvious than his previous expression. “Yeah, that’s me. Mr. Tradition.”

He started shouldering his way through the crowd, toward the decorative seat on the raised platform at the center of the room. The sooner he sat down and got this started, the sooner he could change and get the hell out of here. He was glad going home no longer meant just the hundred feet or so to his old apartment above the bar. Soon this would be over and he could catch a cab across town to his new digs.

And shower.

For about a week.

Undeterred by his sour mood, Aife followed, trying to pull him out of whatever was behind his current funk. She knew he wouldn’t be happy about this, but she hadn’t expected his near total silence since she’d reminded him of the obligation.

To be fair he’d kind of bared his soul to her, at least as much as Ben ever did with anyone, and when all was said and done she’d said, essentially, ‘Thanks for trusting me with all this, but, by the way, I need you to do a thing you’re really going to hate in a few days’.

But it wasn’t like Ben to pull the silent treatment bit, even if he was furious. Something major had to be happening. Still, he had an obligation here tonight, no matter what else was going on with him. In fact, based on the little he’d revealed of what he’d been up to over the last year, and especially the last few months, keeping up appearances, keeping his cover intact, was especially important. She decided to subtly remind him of that in a way that would be safe if someone happened to get close enough to eavesdrop.

“You, of all demons, know how important it is, for those of us saddled with peripheral, less important Offices, to stick to the regulations,” she admonished. When he rolled his eyes at her a second time, she started quoting the rule book. “At the time of year when all earthly eyes are on the heavens, it is critical that Hell do its part to stay a presence literally and figuratively to advance our mission. The senior ranking noble or Agent will act as ceremonial host on the eve of …”

“I’m familiar with the regs,” he interrupted. “Why the hell do you think I’ve avoided being anywhere near an Office on Christmas since … always?” he groused. “How are demons even supposed to celebrate Christmas?” came out as more of a growl.

She grinned, hoping an attempt at humor would relax him a little. “Ironically, I think.”

He sighed. “Ironically?” He tugged at his coat awkwardly, unaccustomed to clothes not fitting exactly the way they were meant to.

Aife looked him over, letting her gaze linger like she was about to flirt. Then she cocked an amused eyebrow. “Yeah, definitely ironically.”

“Oh, screw you, Aife,” he snapped, then started laughing in spite of himself, though his amusement was short lived.

He was glad The Pit wasn’t one of those bars with mirrors everywhere. He didn’t need to be reminded what a ridiculous figure he cut in this crowd of demons and humans decked out in their finest, or at least their most festive. Since custom demanded that he appear in his demonic form, say nothing about the ubiquitous Santa suit, he wasn’t interested in the visual. This was a form he avoided at all costs; he hadn’t been forced into it in centuries. And the suit was about as awful as he expected. But it was kind of funny. Probably. From the outside.

He fidgeted in discomfort again and the pat Aife gave him this time was less amused and more genuinely consoling. She led him to the bar and gestured for Ciara to pour them a couple of their usual drinks. She knew the short, round, hairy appearance (forget the goat legs and cloven hooves that came with the package) didn’t exactly match up with how Ben saw himself. She really should have expected this reaction.

When he’d first come to her over a year ago, looking for a place to stay, they’d been sitting in his apartment flipping through channels one night and had come across the Disney version of Hercules. She’d made the offhand comment that he reminded her of a character in the film. He’d grinned and said he’d always thought he was decent enough in the looks department, but he’d never have given himself Greek god status. Aife had smiled wickedly and told him she meant Hercules’s friend, Philoctetes. Because of, you know, the whole goat-y thing. “He’s the spit of your demon form, lovey.” He’d glared for a while, then stomped off to bed, leaving her to let herself out.

She knew how miserable he had to be tonight with that bumpy, lumpy, short, asymmetrical body crammed into a cheap Santa suit. It wasn’t quite as bad as a rental, but very nearly. She’d never seen anyone fit into it properly and that was definitely true tonight. Ben pulled at some part of it self-consciously every time he moved. It was somehow both too big and too small all at once.

The arms had to be rolled up with fabric bunching awkwardly at the wrists. His demonically-shortened stature also meant, even rolled up, the pants trailed under his hooves so he kept treading on the cuffs and half tripping.

Despite its length, the breadth of the suit wasn’t proportional. Or adequate. The buttons strained across the considerable girth at his midsection in an over-taxed effort to contain him. She nearly laughed at the thought of them putting out someone’s eye if they let go. She’d never let him live it down.

Ben stretched the stiff fabric on the waist of his pants yet again, wishing he could breathe properly. He was trying to find real humor in this, but was just too damned uncomfortable. His sour tone belied the amused smirk he was trying on. “Honestly Aife, I look like Tim Burton got tapped for a reboot of The Grinch and decided to cast Danny Devito in the lead role.”

Given her memory of just a moment ago it took a herculean effort not to burst out laughing. Oh, that nearly did it. She snorted a little giggle, but clamped down on it. “You only look about half as ridiculous as you think you do. Besides, I thought I’d be the one wearing the costume this year. No one else has been around and you’re usually so good at avoiding this stuff.”

“If you’d reminded me sooner, I would have again,” he said, shooting her a dark look.

“Maybe I mentioned it back when you were still showing up for work here. Not my fault you’ve been off …” She stopped when his brow creased. She had promised not to mention school, or his other job, or the fact that he had apparently made friends with some humans. Not where anyone else might overhear it anyway. She’d have to get the rest of the story out of him at some point, but tonight was not the time for it. “And maybe this finally makes us square for Boston,” she said archly.

“Boston? Are you serious? This is about Boston?” he asked incredulously, gesturing at his horror-inducing appearance. “C’mon, Aife, that was literally centuries ago! And it was not my fault!”

“It was a little your fault,” she said with a smirk.

“How can you ..? I didn’t do …” he sputtered.

“You set the mince sniffers on me. You have to own that part at least.”

He sighed. “Okay, maybe … so that part could have been my fault, but …” His whole face became a frown. At least she thought it did; it was tough to tell with all those bulldog worthy wrinkles. “But we’re even?”

She tipped him a wink. “I said maybe.”

Ben rolled his eyes. He picked up the generous shot of her best scotch off the bar, downed it, then closed his eyes for a couple of seconds, setting the glass down with a thud. “Fine. Hand me the beard, would you?”

Mirth danced in her green eyes as she passed the finishing touch for the Santa suit to him. He fixed it over his ears, using her reactions, rather than the mirror over the bar, to decide if he had it arranged correctly. He could deal with this, so long as he didn’t have to look at it. Her nod told him it was on straight, but … what was that ..? Ugh.

“Aife … um … why does this smell like … I don’t know … bad?” he asked when he couldn’t come up with anything to compare the aroma to.

Aife’s eyes went round and innocent. “I can’t imagine,” she said sweetly. “It’s natural fiber. Wool, I think.”

“Okay, sure, but from what part of the sheep?”

She laughed. It was such a normal Ben thing to say. She took a step closer and sniffed. “Oh, oh honey, I’m … About that …”

“Aife,” he warned, an almost imperious note creeping into his voice. “What is it? What am I ..? Just … what?”

“You may have heard about … last year Stolas was the lucky noble in town.”

“And?”

“Well … he had quite a bit to drink, and got spectacularly ill …”

“How does a demon get sick from drinking unenchanted Earth booze?” he demanded.

“How should I know?” she returned indignantly. “Maybe giant demonic raven’s have fussy stomachs! Besides … I did wash it …” she assured him.

“In what? Musk ox urine and broken dreams?”

“Oh, it’s not that bad, Ben. Just a little musty.” She patted him again. “You’re just crabby.”

Ben decided to let it go. He was crabby. Downright pissy even. And it wasn’t Aife’s fault he couldn’t just leave town. He would have last week when she’d reminded him about this little shindig, but he’d promised Mal he’d be there for Christmas, promised he’d meet her dad and uncle. Shit. What was he thinking? Meeting a couple of angels after all this … He almost wished he could get sick-drunk tonight. “Yeah,” he sighed.

Ben finally hazarded a look in the mirror and finished adjusting his beard. He pulled the tasseled hat back on as far as it would go over his abnormally round head, and walked wordlessly past Aife to take his place on the raised dais so the formal part of the evening’s festivities could commence.

∞∞∞

The party was, as Ben expected, a vulgar and garrish affair, featuring a who’s who of Burlington’s damned, and their guests. The crowd was mostly made up of connected, and more importantly, contracted, souls, not to mention a handful of local-ish demons, mostly in human form, or wearing a human body. At least the Fallen hadn’t shown up. That was a small consolation, but as the smelly Santa suit started to itch in addition to being aromatic, Ben decided he’d count his blessings where he could find them.

“Ah, Lord Ronoven, I don’t believe I’ve had the pleasure before.”

He glanced up from where he’d been staring at the ice in the bottom of the glass Aife had kept full all evening. He found himself faced with a woman of early middle age, wearing too much make-up and a smart red dress. “Good evening, Margaret,” he greeted mildly.

“You know my name?” the woman asked with a startled laugh.

He dipped his chin in a nod that was as close to dignified as his demon guise allowed. “It’s my business to know. I trust your son is doing well under the new arrangement.”

“Oh yes, quite well, my Lord,” she gushed. The form of address and her tone made him twitch. He forced the cringe inward and continued to meet her eye as though he were really interested in her answer. “He’s just been made the youngest partner in the history of his firm … and more importantly, his name has been coming up a lot in certain political circles, just as promised.”

Another semi-regal nod. “Very good. I like to know the contracts made in my territory are being adequately kept up. How are you finding the party, Margaret?”

“Nice,” she hedged. “But confusing. I keep wondering how demons celebrate this sort of a holiday.”

“Ironically,” Ben returned with a smirk. She gave the appropriate polite laugh, but still looked out of sorts. “Although I suppose that’s not what you meant.”

“Well, no, actually … Why does Hell have a Christmas party?”

“This isn’t really a Christmas party, Margaret.”

She laughed again. “Could have fooled me.”

Warming to the opportunity, Ben sat forward a bit. “And apparently we did,” he observed. “You see, Margaret, the invitations may have said Christmas, but those who are more informed know it is that in name only.” He paused letting that sink in for a moment. “Here we honor the old holiday of Yule, after a fashion. The traditions we hold harken to a time before the Church co-opted it for their own purposes. We celebrate Earth’s longest night,” he said, laying on an ominous tone and forcing his expression to stay serious even as he wanted to crack up at the fear behind her eyes. “Of course, since we’re from Hell, we like to put our own spin on things.”

“W-what sort of spin?” she stammered.

“Oh, about what you’d expect. There’s the fire in the hearth there with logs stolen from groves some people still hold sacred. The fertility celebrations that will come later. I’m sure you’d enjoy those.” He winked mischievously, glad for the first time that that he looked as grotesque as he felt tonight. “And there’s the traditional pig roast that ought to get going sometime soon …”

“Oh, I do enjoy a good pig roast,” Margaret said, trying to get back into the spirit of the evening.

Ben raised his shaggy eyebrows. “Ever had long pig?”

He nearly broke out laughing as Margaret blanched paper white. She knew what that was. But she regained her composure and assumed a game faced expression. “I … um … no, but I suppose I might try …”

Good grief. She probably would too. Fortunately, this was Aife’s Office and the worst thing on the menu tonight was probably the weird Vienna sausages the local state congresswoman favored. “Yes, indeed,” Ben grinned. “Things should get very interesting around here come midnight.”

She cleared her throat and squared her shoulders, pretending he hadn’t absolutely given her the shivers. “Well, I do need to get going shortly anyway, so I suppose I’ll miss out. You were my last stop this evening. I just had to see for myself.”

“Pardon?” he asked with feigned polite interest.

“My friend Nancy said you’d know my name and about my arrangement, just like you knew me personally. And you did! What do you do, study up before these things?”

“I read minds,” he lied smoothly. “And not that it’s any of my business, but when good ole Nance dropped by a little bit ago, it became pressingly clear that the reason your young Dale has been visiting so frequently these last few months is she’s been playing Mrs. Robinson to his Benjamin Braddock. Enthusiastically.”

Margaret turned very red, and without another word, but with a very loud huff, she stormed off, probably to look for her “friend” Nancy. Judging by the crashing from one of the back rooms that followed a few minutes later, Ben guessed she’d found her.

“That wasn’t very nice,” Aife chidded, appearing at his elbow.

“I didn’t like her. Didn’t care much for Nancy either.” Ben put down his glass on the small side table Aife had provided for drinks and whatever little gifts the humans brought as tribute. He’d passed the latter on to other demons quickly, rather than having to touch or look at the items much. He fished a small button-shaped receiver out of his ear. “Was that everyone?”

She squinted around the room. “Just about. You might want to leave that in for a bit though.”

She raised her eyebrows at him as he dropped the earpiece into the glass and handed it to her.

“No need. It’s just about midnight. My ass is sore from kissing and there’s no obligation to stay for anything else once the hour chimes. I’m done.” He did manage a smile. “Nice work with the radio. Made me seem informed, like spooky informed. That’s always good for making an appropriately hellish impression. And making some of them squirm was more fun than I expected to have tonight.” He got up and unhooked the beard, dropping it into the chair, along with the hat, and tried unsuccessfully to yank the coat down. “I’m out of here.”

“You can’t go. You have to come out to the private party room. We’re just about to break out the baby oil and start the …”

“Nope.” He shook his head emphatically. “I don’t have to anything. Especially that.”

“You’ve been living like a monk for months now. What’s going on with you, Ben?” she asked critically. She knew he was working on that prophecy, knew he’d made human friends, but he’d been so out of character lately. “You used to live for the more Bacchanal aspects of these little get togethers.”

He shrugged. Something told her, without even being able to see it, that he was blushing. “Yeah, well, not tonight.”

He didn’t hang around for her to say anything else, just made his way to her small office out back where he’d changed when he arrived. With his back to the door, he performed the spell to call back his human form. He wished there was a shower here, but also just wanted to get the Hell out of Dodge as fast as possible. He shucked off the Santa suit and picked up his boxers off the neatly folded pile of clothes he’d left on Aife’s desk.

He was focused on getting home as quickly as he could manage. So he didn’t hear the door open and softly close behind him. “You just have to tease me before you leave, don’t you?” Aife asked lightly, raising her eyebrow when he startled and half turned.

His ears were almost as red as the Santa suit as he finished pulling on his underwear and hastily grabbed his jeans. “Aife, please.”

She leaned against the desk, smirking. “Okay, but one of these days, you’re going to have to really tell me about her.”

“Who?” he asked absently, donning the grey thermal henley he’d practically been living in every time it was clean lately. Damn, he couldn’t seem to get used to the cold.

“The woman who’s making you want to miss an orgy. You love a good …”

“Good night,” he interrupted. He plastered on his fakest, most obsequious smile. “It’s been a terrible evening and fuck you for having me.”

“Ben, why don’t you stay for a bit and …”

“Aife … just … Okay?” She grinned at how flustered he seemed, but didn’t say anything else. He zipped his heavy hoodie, and pulled the hood up for good measure. She couldn’t see his face, but he sounded a little friendlier when he turned to the door and added, “Maybe I will tell you about her. When I’m speaking to you again.”

“Suit yourself,” she chuckled. Then she called out to him as he let himself out into the back alley. “We’re definitely even!”

“Even?” he called back, trying to remember what she was pissed off at him about. Tonight had been too stressful to keep much in his head for long.

“Yeah, for Boston. Asshole.”

Aife’s laughter followed him into the cold winter’s night.

“That was not my fault,” he mumbled under his breath.

 

 

 

 

 

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