Arbitratus Short Fiction

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Author’s Note – Here’s another little ficlet inspired by a one word prompt challenge on our Instagram. This could fit into Book II. The word was home. I don’t think it’s much of a spoiler if you’ve read Always Darkest, that our heroes are far from theirs.

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“Oh man, this is awesome,” Ben sighed happily around a huge bite of flatbread pizza covered with an unconscionable amount of pulled pork, olives, and pineapple. “Tastes like home.”

Chris nodded, chasing his bite of calzone with a satisfying overproofed west coast style IPA. “It does, doesn’t it?”

Aife, Ted, and Petra all agreed.

Chris added. “If the local brew were just a hair better, I could almost convince myself we were back on Saint Paul Street.”

Ben grinned around his beer.

“How’s yours, Mal?” Teddy asked, not missing the approving looks everyone was giving him for stuffing his face here. He actually felt halfway decent today and he knew it showed in his appetite. It didn’t hurt that this place really did feel like home. And that, for a change, that felt pretty good.

“Mmmm?”

Mal looked around the table like maybe she hadn’t actually heard the question and was trying to figure it out from the looks on their faces.

Okay, just the food. That’s all.

She took another bite of pizza.

Say something.

“It’s good.”

She’d been fine when the decided to stop here, but Mal had grown a little distant as they’d sat waiting for their order. She drove all day, Ben reasoned, maybe she’s just tiredOr maybe she needs a chance to blow off some steam. “After we finish dinner, you wanna watch me be shitty at pinball? Then you can totally grab yet another high score on the Mal Sinclair All-American Pinball Wizard Tour.”

She smiled. “Sure. Can’t pass up handing your ass to you with a pinball machine right in front of us.”

Ben flashed a smile of his own. Mal dug back into her pizza. Reasonably certain all was well, Ben and Chris resumed their conversation about which campground would be more appropriate for the weekend. It was going to be crowded no matter where they went. If not for the mellowing influence of good beer, the conversation might have turned into an argument.

It had been twenty minutes or so when they finally reached a tenuous agreement and came up for air. Ben glanced to his side, then around the table. “Where’s Mal?”

Petra shrugged. “Bathroom, I think.”

Aife frowned. “She has been gone for a while though.”

Ben hesitated, then stood. “I’m gonna go grab us another pitcher.”

Petra rolled her eyes. “After you check on Mal.”

Ben’s grin was appropriately sheepish. “Yeah. After that.” 

He walked away from the table, not even pretending to go order more drinks.

Ben finally found her outside on a park bench. Her face was in her hands. “Mal?”

She didn’t look up. “I’m fine,” she said through her fingers.

He sat down. “Don’t sell yourself short. You’re damned fine, gorgeous even,” he said, voice purposely light. 

She sniffed. “Thanks.”

He put a hand on her back. “Can I help?”

She shook her head, still not looking up. “I’m sorry. I just couldn’t stay at the table. It reminded me so much of home and…” Her voice broke.

“You wish you were there.” He wrapped her in his arms and she leaned into his chest. She hadn’t been about to ask for comfort, but she wasn’t about to turn it down either. 

“I wish all of us were.” She turned into his offered arms. “Safe.”

He rested his cheek on her head and pulled her close.

“Me, too.”

*****

Image by Karsten Paulick from Pixabay

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