Arbitratus Short Fiction

The Twelfth Day of Fic-mas

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Joyeux Noël

Authors’ Note – Two holidays in a row we’ve shown you the pasts of some of our most important characters. You’ve even met Ben in his youth twice. But we’ve never shown you all who Mal used to be, where she came from. So, our final story this Fic-mas is a look into the past at the child who would one day become the young woman upon whom the fate of the world rests in Always Darkest. We hope you’ve enjoyed this Fic-mas. See you again next Fic-mas! (And maybe tomorrow. You never know.) Merry Christmas!

 

Ari glanced in the rearview mirror. A fond smile spread over his face. He knew the incessant questions must’ve stopped for a better reason than something interesting in the entomology book almost bigger than she was little Mal had spread across her lap during the most recent leg of their trip north. She’d fallen asleep, her face pressed against the window.

Eyes back on the road again, Ari eased the car over onto the shoulder slowly and pulled to the quietest, most gentle stop he could. “Mal,” he said softly. Then, a little louder, “Mal, honey?”

“Mmmm … are we there, Papa?” came a sleepy voice, followed by the sort of jaw-cracking yawn common to the very young, and totally unself-conscious. Mal was both. She was also someone who didn’t want to miss the border crossing, which he’d promised to wake her for. But he thought she might like this even more. Maybe even more than her bug book.

“Not yet, baby, but almost. I wanted you to see.” He directed Mal’s attention to the passenger side of their car.

Her breath drew in sharply. Out in the middle of a clearing, stood the largest animal Mal had ever seen in all her seven and almost a half years (the almost a half was very important to her). It was a moose! She’d always wanted to see a moose in person! “Papa! Papa! It’s a moose! It’s a boy mosse! A bull moose, I mean!” she squealed, unbuckling herself from her booster seat, and climbing up on her knees, pressing her face as close to the glass as she could, as if it would help her see it better. “Look at it’s antlers! … Did you know that the scientific name for moose is Alces alces, and an adult male can grow about seven feet high at the shoulder? He looks seven feet tall at least! And they like to …”

Ari let Mal rattle off the many scientific facts she had at the ready, in her already nimble and ever-expanding mind, about the noble moose … make that the noble Alces alces. Mal really liked it when he remembered little things, she told him, although she magnanimously said it was alright if he didn’t remember everything. He wasn’t a scientist. She was. That she was already so certain of where she wanted life to take her made him smile. With most kids he’d have thought it was simple whimsy, but with Mal … Mal wasn’t most kids. In any way at all.

She kept up a steady stream of chatter, nose pressed to the window and palms marking it, too. Ari’s smile grew as he listened. She got that zeal for learning, her passion for knowledge, from her mother, Ari mused. Ari wished she could have really known her mother. But, he supposed, she didn’t seem to know she was missing anything. He did his best to love her enough for both of them.

As the moose meandered back toward the tree line, he reminded Mal to get back into her seat. “Do you need help with the belt, honey?”

“You’re silly, Papa,” she said. “I’ve got it.”

Ari made sure she really did, then he pulled away just as the large animal was disappearing into the forest. The absence of the moose did nothing to temper her enthusiasm. She was still excitedly talking about not just the fascinating moose itself, but how it played a role in the food supply and ecosystem (her new word, of which she was enormously proud) and was especially important in Canada. Ari grinned. “Do you think that moose was going back to be with the other meese?”

“Daaa-aaad,” Mal groaned. She sometimes called him Daddy when she was hurt or sick, or very sleepy, but this was not one of those times. She called him Dad often when she thought it was time for her to be the grown-up. It was affectionate, but there was a no-nonsense tone to it that made him wonder a little how long he’d be able to think of her as a little girl. “There’s no such thing as meese. It’s not a real word,” she protested.

“Uh oh, then I guess someone should tell all the meese.”

His grin in the rearview mirror let her know he was only joking. She shook her head, but grinned back. “How much further?”

“To the border? Oh, probably about an hour. That’ll take a while though,” he answered, hoping his directions had been good, but feeling pretty confident that none of the Knights would have purposely gotten them lost. When her face fell just a little, he added, “Once we’re through there, an hour or two to Tante Jeanette’s at most.”

“Okay!” she said brightly. She was very excited to spend the holiday with her mother’s family, even more so because some of the far-flung relatives she’d already gotten to meet in their travels were coming home to Grand-père Sinclair’s for the holidays. “Um … do you want to listen to the radio? There might be Christmas music.”

Ari chuckled. That was a not so subtle hint that she wanted all the Christmas music, and to sing along at the top of her lungs, not caring one whit how it sounded. “It just so happens I brought the CD you like from the camper.”

“Yay!” she said enthusiastically, clapping her hands. Ari opened the case with one hand and slid it into the CD player. Mal was bellowing Holly Jolly Christmas immediately. Ari couldn’t think of a nicer way to pass the time. Once the music was on and Mal was occupied, the miles slipped by quickly.

The border crossing went smoothly. Mal got the giggles over the border guard’s accent, which the man seemed to find almost as amusing as she did. When she flawlessly pronounced Agence des services frontaliers du Canada from the patch on his jacket and said she was working hard to learn French, he asked Ari’s permission to give her a small Christmas present. “Joyeux Noël, little lady,” he called, waving to them as they pulled away.

“That’s Merry Christmas, right, Papa?”

“It is,” Ari answered. He had no doubt Mal would have half the French language mastered by the time the holidays were over. He laughed to himself as she rolled down her window and yelled back, waving, “Joyeux Noël, Mr. Border Policeman! Next I’m going to meet a Mountie!”

Ari could see the man laughing as they merged with traffic. “Mounties are really called the RCMP, you know,” she said to her father, flipping through her little guidebook again, the bugs long since forgotten. “That’s Royal Canadian Mounted Police. They have horses. Have I told you about that?”

Ari turned the music down a little, so she could tell him all she was learning about Canada, but found himself turning it back up after only a few minutes as she trailed off. She’d lost interest in conversation already in favor of her Christmas present from the border guard. She now had a miniature Canadian flag and she was happily spinning it between her palms, letting the fabric just brush the tip of her nose.

Mal could be almost ridiculously mature sometimes. Ari was hard pressed to determine if that was just part of her very special nature, or if it had been foisted upon her by their nomadic existence. Moments like these, where she was just a very little girl, all ringlets and giggles and childlike fascination, were both precious and acutely poignant for him.

After a while, he heard the flag stop spinning and Mal began puffing breath on the window to fog it up and draw on it. Her voice piped up from behind him again. “I didn’t think it could snow this much,” she said, distracted by the massive piles of grimy snow along Route 201. “Saint Georges,” Mal read off a road sign. “Ten Km. Papa, what’s a Km?”

“It’s a kilometer, honey. It’s a way of measuring distance, sort of like a mile, in the metric system. They use that for measuring in Canada. Actually most other countries use the metric system. All scientists use it, too,” he added, sure she’d be interested to know.

“Oh, okay.”

She thought about that for a minute or two, then began peppering Ari with questions about the metric system and why other countries used it, and wondering why if scientists used it, America had to be so dumb. Ari answered each one of her questions patiently, as best he could. When he didn’t know, he told her so, and she made a note in her little pocket notebook, so she could look it up on the computer when they got home.

Mal was always talkative, always inquisitive, but Ari started to wonder if she was a little nervous about meeting the whole family all at once. She hadn’t seen her Grand-père Sinclair since she was very small; she and Ari had gone to his wedding when he’d remarried. But she’d never been to the Sinclair’s ancestral home just outside Quebec City. It was more of a compound than a house, and several her aunts and uncles still lived in cabins on it. Most of the time Ari and Mal were all the family either of them had. Davi visited when he could, but no matter how often he did, it was never quite enough for Mal, who adored him.

Ari was looking forward to the visit. He knew the Sinclairs made a very big deal out of the holidays and had their own special ways of celebrating in addition to the traditional French-Canadian festivities. He couldn’t wait to share that with Mal. He always did his best to make every Christmas memorable for her, but there was only so special a hotel or a holiday in their camper could be. Up here, with the large French family, Mal would have a Christmas she was sure never to forget.

He knew she was looking forward to stopping for the night, too. She loved her Tante Jeanette and Oncle Michele. She adored her cousins, too. She’d seen them recently enough to be very excited. They’d all met at Disneyland for Mal’s birthday a few months ago. By the time they pulled into the driveway, Mal was tired and fidgety. It was late, and it had been a very long day in the car. He’d caught glimpses of her rubbing both eyes with her fists and fighting sleep for the last half hour.  

Mal was usually fiercely independent about getting in and out of her booster seat, but instead of leaping out of it like she usually did, the sleepy child just gaped at all the lights sparkling along the path that led up to the bright, inviting farmhouse. Ari opened her door and helped her out of her booster seat, zipping up her coat before letting her out into the frosty night.

Tante Jeanette, Oncle Michele!” she yelled, and ran up the path to meet them. She immediately leapt into Michele’s outstretched arms, giggling as his whiskers tickled her face.

“Ari,” he greeted around Mal’s arms which were wrapped tightly around his neck. “I’m glad you made it, but where is our Mal? I only see this tall young woman you’ve brought with you and not my favorite little scientist.”

Oncle, don’t be silly! It’s me! It’s Mal!” she said, laughing at him.

“Are you quite certain, cher? Our Mal is a little girl.”

“I’ve grown, Oncle. That happens as we get older …” She paused. “Well, we stop eventually, otherwise you’d be very tall.”

Everyone laughed. Mal wasn’t sure what she’d said that was funny, but she laughed, too. Michele ruffled her hair. “You must be right, Mal.”

Jeanette stretched out her hands to take Mal into her arms. Neither she nor her husband seemed to mind that she was too big to be carried like a toddler, and Mal was too tired to even protest being carried toward the house as her aunt asked her every little detail of her life on the road since they’d seen her in August.

Michele stayed to help Ari with their overnight bags. “We’re both so glad to have you, Ari. But where’s your camper? We weren’t sure it was you coming up the drive. I was surprised.”

Their aging RV was really the only home Mal had ever known and was as comfortable to them as a worn slipper, so it was somewhat surprising to Ari, too. “It needed some work,” he explained. “I left it at the dealership in Boston when we got back East. Besides, it needed some routine maintenance, too. Seemed like a good time to get a rental, since we already had places that I know Mal will feel at home to stay for a few weeks.”

A few of the older cousins had made their way down to offer their help, but Ari just smiled and waved them off, saying they wouldn’t make them bring everything in just for an overnight stay. When they all got inside, Ari discovered Mal had run off upstairs to catch up with the younger kids. It was awfully late for her, but Ari let her be.

Tomorrow was Christmas Eve, and they’d be making the last leg of their journey. Mal would need her rest, but since it would be another late night, he was hoping to get her to sleep in anyway. Maggie’s family had many traditions when it came to Christmas, all of which were going to be a whole new experience for Mal.

∞∞∞

The ride the following morning, other than being extremely cold and blindingly bright, was even nicer than the rest of their trip. Mal’s cousin Maddie, who was only a year older than Mal and who seemed to idolize her just a little, joined them in their car instead of riding north with her parents.

The sounds of the girls laughing and talking, or occasionally bursting into song in a strange and amusing combination of French and English, made Ari smile until his face hurt. Seeing Mal so happy gave him a joy so pure and full it was like being in the presence of the Divine. He laughed softly to himself when he thought that such a feeling couldn’t have been more appropriate.

Mal grew quiet as they approached her grandparents’ house down the long winding driveway. Her cousin took the cue from her and grew silent as well. The house was large, but not ostentatious. It looked like an oversized farmhouse, which it, in fact, was. The well-maintained but rather ancient piece of real estate had seen all the joys and sorrows of the Family Sinclair since they’d come over from France generations ago.

According to family tradition, it had belonged to Maggie’s mother Rose who had expressly said her dying wish was that her husband Paul could make his home there until the end of his days. When Maggie had gone off to grad school, Paul had moved back north with the smallest of her brothers and sisters and the extended family had helped him make a home for them. Mal didn’t know it, and Ari would never mention it while her grandfather lived, but one day, it would pass to her, if she wanted it.

He turned the car around the last bend and for a moment he couldn’t breathe. Maggie’s memorial was the last time he’d been to the house. He’d been grateful when the Templars handled coming up with an official story he could share with her family, her friends, but it didn’t ease the pain of her loss for him. He could only imagine how her brothers and sisters, how her father, must have felt. Ari at least had some assurance that he would see her again one day. They had their faith. But that wasn’t the same as knowing. It seemed terribly unfair.

“Papa, are you alright?” Mal asked from the backseat, sensing, just like she always seemed to, when there had been any sort of shift in his mood. “Of course, I am, honey. I’m just a little caught up in how beautiful it is.”

She turned to Maddie and nodded sagely. “He’s an artist. He gets all funny over beautiful things all the time.”

Ari smiled. That was the reminder he needed, that smiling face, and her easy acceptance of what he said made it true. The gleaming icicles on the eaves, the bright red and silver decorations that seemed to dot every single evergreen tree or bush, and on the evergreen garlands with white lights wrapping all the railings, all told him the tale of good times, a wonderful vacation to come, and future fond memories. This was going to be good for Mal, and for him too, he realized.

Ari got out of the car and smiled broadly when he saw Paul waiting on the steps. As ever, the man’s back rod straight. Even age was not stealing his military bearing. It would have looked quite severe if not for his easy grin, and the worn-out orange knit cap slightly askew over salt and pepper hair that seemed perpetually in need of a trim no matter how short and neat the man tried to keep it. He barely had the car door open for Mal when she squealed and pelted up the steps into her grandfather’s waiting arms.

He lifted her up over his head, like she weighed nothing at all, and she laughed and stretched out her arms like she was flying. Setting her down, he said, “Your grand-mère is in the kitchen making cookies with Tante Lissette and more children than I could rightly count. I’m sure they’d …” He laughed as Mal and Maddie were already halfway into the house on a tear for the kitchen. The prospect of Grand-mère and cookies and more cousins were too appealing for niceties like finishing a greeting. “She certainly takes after her mother at least insofar as an enthusiasm for cookies is concerned.”

Ari had finally caught up and he extended his hand only to find himself pulled into a one-armed hug and kissed on the cheek. He returned the greeting. “Paul, thank you so much for having us.”

“It’s been too long, Ari. Our Mal looks a little more like Maggie with every passing year. Thank you for the pictures from her birthday. I wish we could have been there,” her grandfather said with warm fondness, and what Ari could only have described as a happy sort of sorrow.

The older man wouldn’t hear of Ari bringing in all their things on his own and helped do all the lugging with the strength and agility of a much younger man. After they’d stowed the luggage away in their respective guest rooms, Ari followed his father-in-law outside to build up the wood for the bonfire that would take place after Midnight Mass. Both men found that catching up was something that could not properly be accomplished through phone calls or the occasional letter when he and Mal were someplace long enough for mail to be an option.

Mal wasn’t thrilled about getting dressed up for church because it was so cold. “Too cold for dresses,” she’d informed her father. But she softened her position a bit when Grand-mère brought out an elegant little red velvet cloak with white fur trim and a white fur muffler to match. It smelled like mothballs, probably because it had belonged to her mother when she was small. Grand-mère told her that her other grand-mère, Rose, had packed it away years ago hoping they’d one day have another little girl come along to wear it. Mal grinned hugely. She didn’t mind that it was a little stinky. It was beautiful and looked like it was made for an adventure in Narnia, from her current favorite bedtime books. It was also warm.

When the whole large group returned home after Mass, Mal pelted inside for her warmest clothes. She slowed down long enough to join everyone for the small gifts it was traditional to exchange. She got sort of sleepy while getting dressed but managed to wake herself up when she looked out the window and saw shadows moving around the stack of wood she’d noticed earlier. When she got back outside the bonfire looked like it might reach the stars and she laughed with delight every time one of the logs shifted and sent more sparks up to the heavens. Never had she even heard of a family party that went all night, but this one did, with warm drinks passed around, so much food she thought she’d never be able to eat again, and songs, some of which she knew and some she simply dedicated herself to learning.

Around sunrise, Ari realized Mal was leaning against his arm fast asleep. She wasn’t the only little one to succumb before the dawn. Parents carried children inside and put them to bed, peeled out of coats and boots, but still mostly dressed and disheveled and smelling of their Christmas fire. Then the adults wandered off their own rooms to catch some sleep until the kids woke up.

The smell of lunch cooking roused even the sleepiest members of the family, including Mal who realized that even if you thought you’d never ever be able to eat again, you could definitely sleep that feeling off. Games, sledding, and more music and laughter dominated the rest of Christmas Day. There was a week until the big family celebration and it was filled with dinners at various houses, skating parties, and Mal’s introduction to the game of ice hockey.

She’d never skated much before, but she took to it, as with most things, rather quickly, and was out on the ice looking to join in the minute her cousins started picking teams. The older boys didn’t want her to play. When she’d put her hands on her hips and demanded to know why, her cousin Jean-Claude had sneered and said, “You’re tiny. And worse, you’re a girl.” She’d protested that not only was being a girl awesome, she wasn’t all that tiny. She was even tall for her age! He’d come back with, “Yeah, well, you don’t look tough enough.”

At thirteen, Jean-Claude was both the oldest and the largest of the local cousins, and thus the de facto dictator of their little group. When he informed her that it was time for the babies to get off the ice, so the big kids could play, and he gave her a shove in the direction he wanted her to go, he found himself on the ice, his breath gone in a pained whoosh.

 When he was foolish enough to lay hands on her, Mal had deftly flipped Jean-Claude onto his back, then somehow whipped him over by his arm, so his face was almost pressed into the ice. She still held his arm up behind his back. “Take it back,” she demanded.

“Ow,” he whined angrily. “Let go of my arm!”

Mal applied pressure to his wrist.

“Ow! Cut it out! That hurts!”

“How can it?” she asked. “I’m just a weak little ole girl baby. Why don’t you just get up?”

He tried to wrench his arm away again and Mal just adjusted her grip. “Ow, ow, ow! Fine, you can play! Jeez!”

“Thanks!” she chirped sweetly. “I want to be goalie.”

“You can be whatever you want, just let me go!”

Mal released him and Jean-Claude got to his feet, red in the face, but with an expression of new-found respect for his young American cousin. “How’d you do that?”

Mal shrugged. “Krav Maga. My papa showed me.”

Jean-Claude shook his head, but as he skated out for face-off, he was grinning a little, too. She was pretty cool, for a little kid, anyway.

Later that night, as they all sat around the fireplace drinking cocoa and playing cards, Jean-Claude was asked by his Grand-père to tell them about what all the children had spent the day doing. He didn’t mention how she’d happened to find her way onto his team, but Jean-Claude did tell the grown-ups about their game of pick-up hockey out on the pond.

“You should have seen her, Oncle,” he told Ari. “I’ve never seen hands so fast!”

Mal managed to only look a little smug.

∞∞∞

The week passed in something of a blur. Mal had never played so much or slept so little. But she loved every minute of it. Her French was coming along at a startling rate, too. Ari didn’t think he’d ever seen her so happy. Before either of them knew it, New Year’s Day arrived and the whole family gathered once again to exchange the lion’s share of the gifts they’d all bought for one another and share one last meal as a big family before calling a close to this year’s holiday season.

They day was busy and exciting, and Mal was happy to be in the middle of all of it. When Ari tucked her into bed that night, Mal could hardly keep her eyes open. “Night, Papa,” she murmured.

He sat down on the edge of her bed. “Did you enjoy the holiday, honey?”

“Oh, yes, Papa. Very much.” Her eyes fluttered a little. She wanted to stay awake for a story, but she knew she just couldn’t do it.

Ari paused, not sure if he should say what he was thinking. Then again, he reasoned, she’d probably know it anyway, so he might as well. “We could stay, you know.”

Mal sat up, no longer even drowsy. “What? Why, Papa?”

Ari blinked, surprised at her reaction. “Um … you wouldn’t have to live in a camper. You could go to school with other kids your age. You could see your family all the time …”

“I … I don’t …” she trailed off, frowning.

Though the very idea unnerved him, the Templars had assured him if he wanted that life for Mal, they would help make it a secure one. He preferred staying on the move, only dealing with the Order when he couldn’t get by on his own for whatever reason cropped up from time to time. “You just seem to be fitting in so well here. Your French is so good I thought you were your cousin Marie this morning in the kitchen until I turned around. Do you want to stay?”

She shook her head. “No thanks.” She paused like she was really thinking something over. “Not unless you want to, Daddy. Don’t you like the camper anymore?”

She sounded so young, so uncertain. But he couldn’t tell if she’d called him Daddy because she was feeling especially vulnerable, or if she suddenly didn’t want to fit in quite so perfectly with the cousins who all called their fathers Papa, or some variation thereof.

He chewed his lip. “What I want is for you to be happy, Mal.”

“I am happy, Silly.” She frowned at him almost like she was confused. “I have the best dad ever, and I get to travel all the time and see and do all this cool stuff. And we can come back and visit, can’t we?”

“Well, of course we can, Mal,” he smiled, glad the dim light hid the tear that had slipped free from the corner of his eye and was now trailing down his cheek. “Are you sure, baby? Because you don’t have to … We could always try it and if you decide you don’t want …”

“Daddy, no. I told you, I like our life. I like our camper.”

“Okay, Mal, I think I understand, but this … this could be home. You must get tired of being on the road all the time, don’t you?”

“You’re being silly again. Home is wherever we are. And I’m never ever going to get tired of traveling. Not ever. I want to do it forever.”

“Okay, Mal. Sweet dreams. Sleep well, honey.”

She lay back down and snuggled under the covers. Now that he seemed to understand what she meant, she was overcome with sleepiness again. “I will. You have sweet dream, too. And thank you for giving me one of my favorite Christmases.”

He smiled softly. “Only one of?”

“Oh, it was really good, Papa.” She seemed to have forgotten her new preference for the American version of what to call him in her drowsy state. “But my favorite was the time in Ohio.”

Ari blinked, and his head tilted to one side. “You mean last year when we got stuck in that snowstorm?”

“Mmmhmmm,” she agreed fuzzily. “Was nice that we could help those people.”

Ari had invited a family in to stay with them. Their car had wound up in a ditch near where he’d had to park the camper for the night when a blizzard hit hours earlier than expected. He wasn’t even sure she was still awake, but he asked quietly, “Why is that your favorite Christmas?”

Her eyes didn’t open, but she answered him anyway. “‘Cause we helped them and got to show kindness and … Giving people who need it a place to stay when they can’t get somewhere else is the most Christmassy thing I’ve ever heard of.”

“But we hadn’t even picked up your presents,” Ari said.

“Presents aren’t what’s important for Christmas.”

“You’re right, Mal. You’re absolutely right.”

“I love you,” she whispered.

“I love you, too, honey. Joyeux Noël, Mal.”

“Mmmm. Merry …” she snorted a little snore, and rolled onto her side, hand tucked under her cheek, already drifting off almost completely.

Ari sat there for a few minutes, watching her breathing slow until he was sure she was really asleep, so he wouldn’t disturb her when he got up. He stopped again in the doorway and looked at his sleeping child again.

“Oh, Maggie,” he whispered. “You’d be so proud.”

 

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