For Two Cents

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Authors’ Note: If you’ve been with us for any amount of time, you already know Aife. If you don’t she’s another demon in The Arbitratus Universe who is better than her supernatural nature. This story takes place during the holidays at the same time as the events of Always Darkest. You can read more about Aife there. You can also read more about the Christmas party happening in the backdrop of this story in The Twelve Days of Fic-mas Vol. II

For Two Cents

Aife pinched the bridge of her nose, blinking several times. “Ben was right. I’m finally going blind on paperwork.” 

Almost two years into running this office and she was still wading through her predecessors backlog. No wonder he got himself the final death over how he ran this place. She grumbled a curse at him under her breath. Not like anything she said, or wished, or even spellcast could reach him now anyway. 

She knew contract review was an important part of the job of an Agent. In fact, being better at it than many of her peers was what scored her this assignment and got her out of the backwater she’d been managing in the Aussie countryside. She was especially gifted at identifying individuals whose continued presence on Earth might benefit Hell. And her ability to craft offers for extensions or modifications made the humans under her supervision loyal and useful, not just to her job, but occasionally to her personally.

Once she was through all these old, unreviewed contacts of … what was his name again? She supposed it didn’t matter. The contracts she had overseen were already well organized and wouldn’t require review of anything other than the tabs on their file folder for date and category. She had to admit, for a guy who flew by the seat of his pants as much as Ben did, his advice when he’d gotten her the assignment above had all been excellent.

She picked up another contract from a pile that was finally dwindling and squinted at it. “I need a break.” She laughed. “Especially because I’m now talking to myself.”

She smirked just a little as she picked up her cellphone and hit his contact with her thumb. She was not surprised that Ben’s answer was a terse, “What?”

“Just calling to wish you a happy Yule, love.”

“Sure you are.”

“Well, if you’re going to be that way, work it is.” She heard him sigh. “You’re definitely going to be in town for the party, then?”

Another sigh, this one exaggerated, probably for her benefit. Then again, maybe not, he was really unhappy about her reminder earlier this week as it was. “I already told you, if I could leave town, I would. But I have other obligations.” He was silent for a second, but didn’t want to give her a chance to add anything to her previous list of specifications for his duties as the ranking noble in the area. “And I’ll meet the one I owe you. But I’m leaving right at midnight. Just so you know.”

“You’re no fun at all these days, Ben.”

“You know I’ve never thought the Hell bullshit was fun, so don’t start again. We’re supposed to be friends.”

“I’m sorry, love.” She actually sounded it. “I really was just calling to remember the day.”

He was silent for a minute, thinking about it.

“I’m sorry I snapped then.”

“I know how you feel about this. Don’t worry, I’ve brought in an exceptional Lagavulin that should soften the edges of the night for you.”

“Damn nice of you,” he said somewhat sarcastically.

“I was also calling to complain,” she admitted.

He laughed softly. “Paperwork?” 

It was a favorite topic between the two of them.

“You know it. I’m still reviewing contracts from Gorson’s reign of incomprehensible laziness.” Gorson, that was his name.

Ben laughed more audibly. “He was always kind of a fuck up. Sorry you inherited his pile of crap.”

“It’s kind of a nightmare. I’m almost to the end of it though.”

“I’m sure your own contracts are much more organized.”

“Don’t worry, Boss. I’ve followed all your advice. How do you think I’ve managed to stay alive up here all this time.”

His silence was more solemn this time. “That’s why I gave it to you. I wanted this job to be a gift, not a curse.”

“Don’t get all serious on me now.”

“It’s serious business. And you called me to bring it up,” he reminded her.

“I did not. I called to remind you of the holiday.”

“But you did bring it up.”

“That I did. Mostly because I’m stalling on more reading.”

“So set it aside, Aife. They’ve waited this long. What’s another night?”

She laughed. “I suppose you’re right.”

“It’s Yule. Go have a drink. Find some attractive company. Celebrate.”

“What about you? Fancy a drink?” Her meaning was both clear, and clearly teasing. But he’d been so serious lately, she wondered if he’d take it that way.

His silence said he didn’t get that she was joking. She could practically hear him blushing. Their relationship hadn’t looked like that in a long time now, but something about the fact that it had bothered him now. She suspected it had to do with the human friends he’d made. She’d have to get to the bottom of it soon. Maybe tonight. 

Ben cleared his throat. “I’m busy tonight.”

“It’s Yule! What are you too busy with that keeps you from meeting your oldest friend for your favorite holiday?”

“I’m actually meeting someone about an important Yule gift for a friend.”

“Am I this friend?”

“Not bloody likely. Making me show up for the goddamned office party.”

“You have a date. That’s what you’re up to, you just don’t want to admit it.”

He laughed, but there was a tight, embarrassed sort of sound to it. “I don’t. I’m meeting a bookseller. I think I might have located something really important to someone. I’m not shelling out until I hold it.”

“So you can do a spell to make sure it’s the right one?”

“Exactly.”

“I wouldn’t want to keep you then, lovey.”

There was another moment of silence. “I’ll be at the party, Aife. I wouldn’t cause you trouble by copping out.”

“Wouldn’t be the first holiday you left me high and dry,” she laughed.

“Huh?”

“Nothing, Ben. If you really can’t face it, I’ll don the suit myself. No one would blame you if you slipped out of town at the last minute.”

“I can’t. I have plans. Or I’d have been gone a week ago.”

“I honestly don’t mind my demon form at all. I don’t know why you’re so fussy about yours.”

“You don’t get to say a word about my demon form! You don’t mind yours because a giant green-eyed Kellas cat is … Adorable.”

“And sexy,” she added.

“No!” he huffed. “Okay, in your case, maybe a little,” he admitted. “Just because the King had the hots for you!”

She laughed. “I suppose I might have taken advantage of that.” She paused. “Goodnight. Good luck with your book.”

He hesitated. “Happy Yule, Aife.”

“And to you, love.” She ended the call, set aside her papers, and followed his advice.

***

When she finally took back up her duties with the contracts, it was Christmas Eve, and the Pit was abustle with preparations. She had only been back at it for an hour or so, cursing incessantly under her breath at the incompetent ass Gorson, whether he still existed or not. She probably shouldn’t have allowed herself to get so distracted on Yule, but Ben had made a good point about celebrating. And tonight would offer an amusing opportunity to settle an old score with him as well. Might as well finish up the last of this paperwork when she’d have something to look forward to at the end of it.

She was almost down to the last of the pile when a polite knock came at the office door. Her neck was getting stiff. It was a welcome distraction. “Come in!”

Ciara poked her head into the office. “Sorry to bother you.”

“It’s no trouble.” Aife smiled fondly. Her descendent looked so much like her daughter Rowan, it made her heart ache sometimes. She was still so grateful she’d stepped into the office when she had and picked up Ciara’s contact. She’d keep that child out of Hell forever if she could manage it. 

“The caterer is finally here. Artax needs some help with that Gate activation. And I just finished with the crew doing the decorating. Just wondering if you could come take a look and maybe fix Artie’s lousy circle casting before we’re overrun with Hell hounds.”

“Of course.” Aife rose, setting aside the contract she’d been about to give her attention to go see to the party arrangements. 

Once things were underway and she had her designated victim…er…noble… in his appointed place on the central dais, she got back to her paperwork. Ciara would come and get her if anything needed her attention. Like Ben trying to flake out early, she laughed to herself. And she’d go back out before midnight.

“Alright,” she mumbled, picking up the contact she’d set aside earlier. “Who do we have here?” She shook her head as she read the initial details. “Your name is John Smith. That wasn’t bad enough, you had to sell your soul, too?” She shook her head. “Let’s see what you got yourself into, Mr. John Smith. If that is your real name,” she said with a smile, no longer really caring that she’d picked up Ben’s habit of talking to himself while doing paperwork. “Good grief, your wife’s name is Jane? How are you even a thing?”

She continued to read through the usual hellish legalese that set up all the contracts she’d ever seen. “So, Mr. Smith, why did you sell your soul?” she mused. “Looking to gain an inch or two?”

She’d almost started to smirk when she came to the real reason for it. “Bone cancer? Oh, Mr. Smith.” And it hadn’t even been his own life. His youngest child had been diagnosed with a rare form of it. Inoperable. Metastatic. “Oh, honey.”

He hadn’t sold his soul for spare cash, or fame, or even a bigger dick. He’d sold it for his kid. Rose. She’d been expecting … Well, the usual selfish shit. But not a kid with cancer. As she read the detailed contract, the story got more heartbreaking. 

He’d been married twenty years. He and his wife had children late, had already mortgaged themselves to the gills to afford fertility treatments. And they’d tried everything to save Rose before he’d come to the office, right before she’d taken over, in fact. Two years. He’d sold his soul because everything else had failed. Three mortgages. Trips to Mexico and then Europe for experimental treatments. His whole 401K on local bullshit snakeoil charlatans, claiming they’d balance the cancer right out of her chakras with crystals they’d bought at the mall. 

His little girl was well now, thanks to Hell. Just in time for him to have to leave her. 

It was goddamn heartbreaking.

And there was nothing here to give her even the flimsiest reason to extend his terms either. He was a middle school science teacher for fuck’s sake. Quotas could have been the only reason to sign him to begin with. He had nothing to offer but another check box in the “Damned” column in the tally of souls coming and going from Earth. 

It made her mad enough, sad enough, to want to cry. 

But this was her job. So she kept reading. Oh, oh, no. Come on!

His contract was up tomorrow. Due on Christmas. What kind of asshole would arrange … She realized all at once that she hoped Gorson’s end hadn’t been quick. Here was poor John Smith, ridiculous name and all, with one night left on Earth, when all he had wanted was his little girl to have another Christmas. 

She pushed back from her desk suddenly. She needed to walk away from this for a while. 

She left the contract on the blotter again, and headed back out into the bar. She checked in with Ciara, made sure Ben was fed and watered, no matter how surly he was being, and rubbed elbows with the appropriate glitterati of the attending damned. Still, Smith remained on her mind. 

She had some latitude with regard to contracts, but not that much. Smith had nothing obvious to offer up in exchange for an extension. And she couldn’t just cancel the contract. Some Agents had enough rank to pull that off, but even then, there had to be a good reason. She had neither the rank, nor the justifications necessary to let him off the hook. 

When she couldn’t find anything else productive to do, she forced herself back toward her office. She’d reread the Smith contract. Maybe there was a little something, some wiggle room to not have him claimed on Christmas day. 

She was only half paying attention as she headed back toward her office after stopping off once again to make sure her guest of honor had enough scotch to keep him where he was supposed to be. The fate of John Smith’s soul still weighed heavily on her. But one of her staff stopped her. “So what do you think?” The demon gestured around at the crowded room.

“Everything looks great, Ed. You and Ciara have earned a bonus, no doubt.”

“Artie is still having some trouble with the Gate. Do you have time to…?”

“Of course,” she nodded. 

Aife put John Smith from her mind, reasoning there was probably nothing she could do anyway.

She took care of the minor difficulty reopening the portal out back, touched up her lipstick, then dove back in to her duties as the hostess. She proved time and again that troubleshooting problems (from the mundane issues with the radio she had one of her assistants manning to keep Ben informed about the guests, to the repeated magical ones with an interdimensional gate that just wouldn’t stay locked on) with skill and finesse were why she was one Hell of an Agent. She had drinks with important guests. Danced with a few visiting dignitaries from Below, and actually managed to enjoy herself a little as the night wore on.

She felt a little sorry for Ben, and brought him another drink, then headed back to the bar to procure one of her own. She was waiting for Ciara to fill her order when someone cleared their throat at her elbow. “Uhem, Aife, isn’t it?” 

She turned to find a plain middle aged man with thinning hair and the slight paunch of someone whose work was probably sedentary, accompanied by a woman who was a bit older, but still striking. Both were pale and nervous. “That’s me,” Aife answered pleasantly.

“I … um … my name is John Smith. And this is my wife, Jane.”

Aife’s heart sank. She hadn’t expected the Smiths to be here tonight. Contracted souls were always invited, but it was only ever the ones who were still fresh off the blood drying on the paper, still enamored with what they’d gained, who ever showed up. Or sometimes important people who knew they were in the market to renegotiate showed up just to remind the Office how valuable they were.

People with one day left on Earth typically wouldn’t be caught in the same area code. Those people were usually somewhere trying to find a way to hide from Hell, as if such a thing were possible. 

She forced a polite smile. “Nice to meet you, Mr. and Mrs. Smith.”

The man cleared his throat again. “Can we talk? Perhaps somewhere more private?”

It was the last thing on Earth Aife wanted to do, but she took pity on them. At least if they said their piece, there might be a sense of closure for the Mrs. “Let’s go back to my office.”

She led them through the crowd and let them in to her small, but well appointed office. She gestured toward the chairs in front of her desk and she sat down behind it, trying not to look at the contract still sitting on her blotter, mocking her. She’d just been congratulating herself on what an excellent problem solver she was, not a half hour ago. But here was a much bigger problem than a glitchy spell. 

And there was nothing she could do. 

Nothing. 

Might as well get this over with. “What can I do for you, Mr. Smith?”

“Please,” he began. “Call me Jack.” She merely nodded so he went on. “I’d like to talk to you about my contract.”

She nodded again, her face creasing slightly. She decided to be blunt. It seemed kinder than getting their hopes up. And if she was honest with herself, she really didn’t want to prolong this meeting. No wonder Ben was such a solitary demon. Dealing with the consequences of Hell’s actions on Earth was the type of unpleasant that never seemed to wear off. “I expected as much, but, Mr … Jack, I reviewed it today. The situation is quite straightforward. And I’m afraid I can’t be of much help.”

“I didn’t do this lightly,” he said, sounding defensive

She nodded. “I understand that. It’s your daughter’s life. It’s not like you gave it up for two cents like some border town yokel.”

“Pardon?”

“Classical reference. What I’m saying is, I get it. But there’s really nothing I can do.”

Jane’s chin quivered and her eyes were already filling. “Couldn’t you … I don’t know … tweak it a little … Change the terms…” Her voice broke, but she went on anyway. “Or cancel it?”

“I honestly can’t,” Aife answered plainly, spreading her hands. “Hell needs reasons for alterations to contracts, and you just don’t have any. Not that the higher-ups are going to find compelling anyway.”

John Smith was as near tears as his wife, but was valiantly trying to hold himself together. “I don’t suppose you could arrange just a short extension? Two weeks, just to get my family through the holidays?” Aife started to shake her head and reply, but he cut her off with a desperate, “Please, I just don’t want my children to associate Christmas with me dying.”

This sucks. 

“Mr … Jack, I told you, I already looked it over, just a few hours ago. There isn’t a damn thing I can do.” She swallowed. “Look, I’m sorry. I really am. But in order for me to do anything at all, Hell would need something more from you. And you just don’t have anything to offer.”

Jane sat up straighter, the signs of weeping gone from her suddenly firm voice. “What about me? I could sign a contract to give Jack more time.”

“I won’t do that, I’m sorry.”

“Why not?” the Smiths asked in unison.

“Because, as satisfying as it would be for you to walk out of here and spend another Christmas with your little ones, I could get you five years at best. And then where would your children be?”

“As if you care about our family!” Jane spat.

“I had a family once,” Aife said evenly. “So, I actually do. I won’t let you leave your children parentless just so you can kick this can down the road five years.”

Jack grew thoughtful. Something about Aife’s little literary reference had tripped a memory and he was trying to find the thread of it. “Alright. That makes sense.” He chewed his lip. “What would I need to do to get more time?”

Aife sighed. “You’d need to provide Hell with something of value. The more valuable the object or service or information, the longer the terms. But Jack, you teach science to kids. You don’t have means. You’re not political. And I have to assume you don’t have a vault full of cursed artifacts under that three bedroom ranch in Williston.” Both Smiths deflated a bit. “You have nothing Hell wants or needs. And the terms of your contract are ironclad.”

“I see,” the man sighed. “Is that my contract?” He gestured to the paper on her desk.

“It is. As I said, I’ve been reviewing it.”

“May I see it?”

She’d expected that. No doubt he wanted to pour over it from some loophole or fresh argument. She could hardly deny it to him. “Of course.” 

She slid the papers across her desk.

He picked them up and started leafing through them, eyes scanning the document desperately. 

It was hard to watch.

Finally, he set the papers back down on her desk with a heavy sigh.

“I’m sorry, Jack. I truly am. Believe me when I say it gives me no joy to send you away without a better resolution than advice to spend as much time with your little ones as you can before tomorrow. But my hands are tied.”

Husband and wife both started to cry, collapsing into each other’s arms. Uncomfortable, Aife looked away. She could hardly rush them out of here now. She picked up the contract to file it away, but instead began to reread it. It was better than watching the devastated couple in front of her.

“Wait a minute,” she said, quietly a first.

Then louder, “Wait just a damned minute. I’ve got something!”

“What is it?” Jack asked, wiping his eyes.

“Page Four, Paragraph Seven … You were supposed to initial it. But you didn’t.”

Jack just shook his head, blinking several times. He couldn’t even comprehend her words in his distressed state. Jane, however, blew her nose, sniffled, but managed, “What does that mean?”

Aife felt herself almost smiling. “Well, what it means is this contract isn’t enforceable. And if the Agent who stamped it was still in existence this would make sure he didn’t stay that way for long.”

Jack seemed to be mastering himself. “Say again?”

“It’s a small thing, but, as they say, the devil is in the details.”

“Does that mean…?”

“That depends. John Smith, do you contest the validity of the contract?”

“I…”

Aife prompted him with a gesture and an exaggerated nod.

“I do! Yes, of course I do!”

“Well, then, as the Agent in Command over this Office and its associated regions and obligations, I do hereby render this contract null and void due to a clerical error at the time of initial filing.”

Aife stood, reached for something on her shelf, and stamped the contract with a garish red-inked VOID across each of the pages.

“I … is that…?”

“Merry Christmas,” Aife grinned. 

“Thank you!” Jack got to his feet and reached for Aife’s hand which he then shook with understandable enthusiasm. “Merry Christmas!”

Jane stood as well, but her expression was more reserved. “What would have happened if you hadn’t noticed that?”

“He would have been collected,” she said simply. “But I did notice. You go have a happy holiday with those kids of yours now.”

“Thank you!” Jane exclaimed, finally realising it was truly resolved. She reached out to shake Aife’s hand as well, but stopped halfway there. “Wait. What about Rose?”

“You weren’t in breach of the contract. The error was on our end. Thank your lucky stars for disorganized demons. Since it was our fault, Rose will be just fine.”

“Oh, my God, that’s wonderful!” Jack exclaimed. 

Aife found herself suddenly being hugged by two joyfully weeping people.

“Thank you, Aife,” Jane whispered. “You’re a good person.”

Aife managed to disentangle herself from them. “Well, first of all, don’t let that get around. I’ve got a bad reputation to maintain.” She paused for the inevitable polite, slightly nervous laughter. “And second of all, you can thank my predecessors egregious lack of attention to detail. He was pretty slapdash about a lot of things.”

They were beaming now, drying their happy, relieved tears. “Now, if you two will excuse me, I best be getting back to the party. We’ll be wrapping up the formal part of the evening shortly and then the real fun will begin.”

“We’ll join you!” Jane said in a cheery voice.

Aife gestured at the grandfather clock in the corner. “You certainly are welcome to, but as I said, time’s getting on and, well, you two don’t seem like the orgy types.”

Jack blanched and Jane took a step back. He finally said, “There’s going to be an orgy?”

Aife grinned wickedly. “It would hardly be a Christmas party without one.” She laughed lightly. “You’re dealing with Hell, remember?” 

Both Smiths stammered in attempts at an adequate, if not quite worldly response.

Aife gestured toward a narrow door. “Here, let me show you out the back.”

After she’d let the two of them into the alley behind the bar, she passed back through her office on her way to oversee the conclusion to the night’s festivities. She picked up the contract and tipped it into her Outbox. 

“I’m not sure if this counts as a Christmas miracle, but I’ll take it,” she observed to the empty office.

She heard a crash from on of the back rooms and several voices getting very loud. 

“Now, if I can get through the rest of the night and stay on speaking terms with Ben, that really will be a miracle.”

She hurried back out into the bar.

*****

The Things We Can’t See

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Authors’ Note – Here’s a look into a family holiday in Mal Sinclair’s past. In a way, this was what led Mal to Burlington. You can read more about Mal in Always Darkest and in Fic-mas I and II.

The Things We Can’t See

Ari glanced down at the dashboard instruments. They were going to need gas. That wasn’t a bad thing, he thought. They could both stand to stretch their legs a little. The car felt cramped compared to their RV. Mal was going to have a terrible stiff neck if she stayed in the position she’d slouched into much longer.

He’d chosen this particular route for the abundance of easy stops. Before long, they came upon a gas station with an attached convenience store and he pulled into an open pump. He reached over to shake his daughter awake. When she was asleep like this she looked much more like the little girl he used to travel with than the young woman she was becoming. He jostled her arm again.

“Mal, honey.” She groaned sleepily and he smiled. “We’re stopping for a bit. You hungry? Looks like this place has good snacks.”

Her eyes opened at the mention of food. “Huh? I mean, okay.” She stretched and yawned. “Must’ve dozed off.”

He grinned. “Quite a while ago. Right in the middle of Silent Night.”

She smiled back. “If I didn’t know I was done growing, I’d think I was about to get taller,” she said. “Lately all I want to do is eat and sleep.”

“You sure you’re done?” he teased. 

She shook her head and rolled her eyes, but it was an entirely fond expression. “Girls usually stop at around fifteen. I think I reached maximum tallness a couple years ago.” 

“Good! I was afraid you were about to tell me we were going to have to trade in for a bigger camper.” 

She laughed. “I think we’re safe from that. I’m probably all sleepy because the weather has been so nasty up here.”

“It has been sort of grey and stormy. Hopefully the weather won’t interfere with our plans.” He unbuckled his seatbelt. “Hey, I’ll pump the gas if you want to make the supply run.”

“Sure.” She unbuckled, too, stretching again. “Special requests?”

“If they have any puzzle books, I could use a new one, please. Sudoku would be great, but I’ll take anything.”

“I’ll have a look around,” she replied as they climbed out of the car. “But first I seriously need to find a bathroom.”

Mal made her way across the parking lot, purposely skating on the icy patches and grinning as the cold air woke her up. Ari stood humming a Christmas carol while he worked the pump. He was in a good mood. It had been several years since they’d slowed down and taken a Christmas vacation instead of celebrating on the road in the RV. Last Christmas Mal had commented on it, and just hadn’t seemed to enjoy their little traveling traditions as much as usual. Not that she’d complained, but Ari had noticed. 

This year, he’d announced they were going to have an honest-to-goodness Christmas. He’d taken the RV in for a full servicing, rented them a nice SUV, and handed Mal their itinerary as she’d climbed into the passenger seat, saying, “So what’s this big surprise?”

She’d squealed like a much younger version of herself at the revelation of a trip to a cabin in the mountains, right next door to a highly regarded ski resort. Mal loved to ski. Even though she usually complained about cold and didn’t much like to go outside when they were in places prone to winter weather, she always completely changed her mind around Christmas. She loved the snow, icicles, hot cocoa, all the traditional trappings of a storybook winter holiday. Ari was really looking forward to this time. And so was Mal. 

She skidded up to the car over a delightfully smooth ice patch. She fished around in the bag she was carrying and waved two books at him. “Puzzles acquired. They didn’t have sudoku so I grabbed you a crossword, and something called hashiwokakero. It’s another Japanese number puzzle.”

He widened his eyes at her. “Numbers aren’t always…”

“Don’t worry,” she interrupted. “It says on the back you don’t have to be good at math. Besides, if that’s not true, I’ll help you!”

“Thanks, Mal. Maybe we can learn it together so you’ll be prepared when I inevitably get stuck.”

She grinned and opened her door, tossing the puzzle books into the back and their bag of snacks and drinks onto her seat. “So … How much farther?”

“Oh, about an hour or so.” Ari finished up collecting his receipt and climbed into the car after her. She had already opened them each a lemon iced tea and was making a picnic of the various snacks she’s acquired. As he pulled back onto the road he reached over for some beef jerky. “I was thinking it might be nice to make an early night of it tonight. That way we can hit the slopes early tomorrow.”

Around her mouthful of Hostess cupcake she agreed, beaming. “Sounds good to me!”

They chatted on about the details for a while. Mal liked being outdoors in general and the Christmas holidays were all about snow to her. So skiing was perfect. She searched around the area near the resort for a grocery store so they could maybe pop out and get the ingredients for the delicious hot chocolate Ari always made. Other chocolate would also be acceptable.

When they tired of making plans, Mal turned up the radio and the rest of the trip was mostly one long Christmas sing along, interspersed with talk of everything they had planned and how they could fit it into two short weeks, before they went back to pick up their RV and head to a jewelry show outside of Vegas in advance of Valentine’s Day. Mal pretended enthusiasm for one of their biggest retail opportunities of the year, but Ari could see, once again, the flicker of discontent life on the road was beginning to cause. 

***

Mal woke to the smell of coffee and bacon, two of her favorite things. She looked out her window to discover Christmas morning had dawned bright and clear, with a faint dusting of fresh snow that caused everything to sparkle in the dazzling sunlight. She smiled widely at the postcard-perfect view. The day couldn’t be Christmasy-er if it tried.

She pulled on her warm fleece robe and padded down the hall in her heavy socks to find her father making breakfast. “Morning, Dad! Merry Christmas!”

He stopped what he was doing and turned to give her a hug. She giggled at how he was still wearing two oven mitts, making the hug amusingly awkward. “Merry Christmas, Mal!” 

Out here, in addition to the other wonderful aromas, she caught the sharp, fresh scent of the real tree they’d gone out and cut together when they’d arrived a few days ago. She’d been around a real tree plenty of times but this year was her first time going out and choosing it. She’d gotten impatient with the handsaw, but insisted on seeing it through herself. Ari’s face had hurt from smiling at how much she’d clearly enjoyed the experience, right down to sitting on the couch picking pitch off her hands all evening mostly so she could keep sniffing at the wonderful smell.

She poured herself a maple syrup sweetened coffee and puttered around the cabin while Ari finished cooking breakfast. She plugged in the lights on the tree, breathing deeply of the scent again and deciding that she needed a balsam candle or something for when the RV got stuffy. The cabin was already delightfully warm from the forced hot air heat it came with, but Mal got a fire going in the fireplace anyway. That seemed like the Christmasy thing to do.

Once the festive parts of the picture were complete, she hurried to set the table and help her dad bring everything over so they could eat. He’d prepared such a delicious array of choices, they ate mostly sharing a comfortable silence, punctuated only by requests to pass the butter or syrup. Once Mal declared she couldn’t eat another bite, well past when Ari had thrown in the towel on more cinnamon rolls or french toast, they cleared the table and shared the clean up duties. 

As they worked, they talked about their plans for the day, which mostly involved a little cross country skiing, watching a host of holiday movies, and a quiet dinner. When they’d dried and put away the last dish, Ari asked, “Are you ready to open presents or do you want to get dressed for going outside first?”

“Let’s open them now. I want you to have yours. It’s honestly been killing me not to just give it to you.”

She was excited to see his reaction. Presents were never a central part of their holiday. Living in an RV precluded much materialism. Their gifts were almost always small and thoughtful, or something not material at all. She’d thought long and hard over this gift, pleased to finally have some of her own money from working as his bookkeeper, instead of just hoarding her allowance. Mal grabbed the small oblong box she’d placed under the tree after church last night and passed it to her father. “You go first.”

Ari settled onto the couch next to her and accepted the brightly wrapped package. 

“Thank you, Mal! This is perfect,” he said, smiling and taking the sleek e-reader out of the package and hoping desperately the instructions were easy to follow. “I’ve been meaning to get one for ages.”

“I’m so glad you like it! I’ll set it up for you. I charged it before I wrapped it, so it’s good to go. It’ll hold literally thousands of books. And this kind has apps you can download, too. So you’ll be able to just do puzzles on it and stuff, too!”

Ari was an avid reader and often put himself to sleep doing either that or puzzle games. He could never carry too many with them since the camper didn’t offer a ton of storage space. “I don’t think I’ve ever received such a thoughtful gift. I’ll have to spend the day building my library.”

Ari rose and retrieved the small square box he’d wrapped for Mal. “Okay, your turn.” 

He handed it to her with the sudden feeling he knew exactly how a first time skydiver felt as they stepped up to the doors for their first jump. He sat back down, turning so he could see her face. 

She smiled as she tore open the paper. Her dad was a master of cool little gifts. When she saw what was inside the box, her smile faltered and her face creased into an expression of supreme bewilderment, something she was not used to feeling. Especially not as it related to her dad. She didn’t remove the gift from its package, rather poked it tentatively with one finger. 

“Um…” she started, but stopped just as quickly, this time turning the single key out into her palm.  

“You look a little confused,” Ari observed gently.

She bit her lip. There was something in his voice that told her it was a big deal, that he’d struggled with it, maybe. Her voice was quiet, almost tentative, “A little, I guess.” She held up the gift. “What’s the key to?”

Ari took a breath and then the leap he’d been so sure of before he’d actually handed her the box. “It’s to our new home … If you want it to be.”

She cleared her throat. “New home?”

He nodded slowly. “I … um … I spoke to your grandfather … There’s an empty house on the Sinclair compound.”

Her confused expression morphed into a thoughtful frown. “So? People come and go from there all the time.”

“That’s true,” he agreed. “But when he mentioned it this time…”

Ari was usually a pretty straightforward guy. It was one of Mal’s favorite things about her dad. If he thought it, he said it. It was just his way. Why was he dancing around whatever this was? She didn’t want to sound demanding, but this weird tension was winding her up a little. “Dad, just … What’s this about?”  

Ari could see his hesitance was ruining what was meant to be a wonderful gift, one from her whole family, really. “You never say it, you never complain, but I can tell life on the road is wearing on you. I can tell you’d like to put down some roots.”

“I…Okay. Wow.” What he was offering with this little key finally sunk in. She put the key back in the box and leaned forward to set it on the coffee table in front of them. “This is a lot.”

Ari took her hand so she’d look at him. “You don’t like it?” he asked, voice full of concern.

“No! It’s not that,” she hurried to reassure him. “I mean, I’ve thought about it … I’d love a home. Well, I mean, a home other than the camper. That’s home for sure,” she added, wanting him to know that she appreciated the home he’d created for them, and her desire for something else wasn’t a judgment on the one they had. “I’d love a place to … you know … do normal stuff in. Like go to school and make some real friends, and not have to check the oil all the time.” He chuckled and she relaxed a little, thinking if he could laugh she hadn’t hurt his feelings too much. “It’s just when I picture it … well, I don’t usually include the whole Sinclair clan being there, you know?”

“I thought you loved our visits there, loved the family?” 

“Well, yeah, of course I do. Especially Papa and Gran. And it’s always fun when we go visit. But … I’ve never thought of that as, like, home. You know? Like when I picture home, it’s you and me. Like home always has been. Just maybe in one spot.”

“So you …” He wasn’t sure exactly what he wanted to say, so he stopped.

She nibbled her thumbnail, trying to order her thoughts. “I’m just thinking after all this time on the road … I’m not sure I can do the whole extended family thing. It’s … lovely. But it’s … not really ‘me’. Does that make any sense?” She noticed the slightly somber expression on his face. “Oh my God, I’m being terrible right now. I’m so sorry.”

He smiled and it lit his eyes in a familiar way that told her it was genuine, not just one managed to keep her from feeling bad for opening her mouth and being a total teenager. She really tried not to do the thoughtless impulsive things that came into her head sometimes and which she sometimes saw from other people her age. The smile said he didn’t think she had. “You’re not being terrible at all. You’re being honest.”

“It’s really a sweet idea, Dad, and a wonderful gift. I just don’t think I want to accept it, if that’s okay.”

“It’s not the first time I’ve offered you a life with the Sinclairs.” He wrapped her into a hug until he felt her relax. He released her and showed a sideways grin he knew would help her feel let off the hook. “I’m honestly a little relieved you feel that way.”

“Really?”

“Well, they are a boisterous lot. And I am a bit solitary myself.”

“I hadn’t noticed,” she grinned.

Ari grew thoughtful. “I wasn’t wrong thinking that you might like a home of the non-mobile variety though.”

She shrugged, not wanting him to feel obligated. “No…”

“You can be honest about how you feel about this, Mal. I’m not going to take it personally.”

“Well … It would be kind of nice. I mean, next year will be my senior year. I know academically I’m pretty far ahead anyway, but it might be nice to actually go to school, get a real high school experience before I go to college.”

He nodded. “I can see why that might appeal to you.”

“Honestly though, wherever we are, so long as we’re together, I’m home.”

“Are you sure? This isn’t just about to become the Christmas there were no presents in your memory?”

“Dad, don’t be silly. I’ve wanted to talk to you about this for a while. I just kind of felt bad. Giving me a chance to is a pretty big present. It doesn’t have to be a gift you can wrap for me. You know that, right?”

“I suppose I do.” He seemed to think about that for a long moment. “Your grandfather is going to be crushed.”

“Well, Papa will just have to get over it,” Mal said with a grin. “I’m not moving to Canada to be hip deep in cousins and snow. In fact, I’m kind of looking forward to Vegas. It’s so cold here, I’m not so sure I want to go out on the trail this morning,” she added just to make her point.

“In that case, what do you want to watch first? Polar Express?”

“Nah, White Christmas.”

Ari smiled. “Perfect. You get the movie started. I’ll go make us some popcorn.”

*****

Failure at 40,000 Feet

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Authors’ Note: Welcome to another fabulous Fic-mas celebration. For the next twelve days you can expect a daily story in The Arbitratus Universe. Each story will feature a winter holiday theme. But don’t get too comfortable. We love to shake up tradition.

Have fun and let us know what you think!

Today’s story features an old friend who’s been with us since our first Fic-mas. For the hardcore paranormal pop culture nerds in the crowd (hello, fam!) there are a few easter eggs here that we hope you find. If you aren’t already familiar with our friend Eugene, check out Fic-mas 2017 and Fic-mas 2018. The drafts are available here on the blog, or you can click the link to read the polished work for free on KU.

Merry Fic-mas!

Failure at 40,000 Feet

Eugene adjusted himself in his seat, trying in vain to get even a little bit comfortable. He regretted … well, a lot of things, but right now choosing to fly Economy on a discount airline was right at the top of his list. He wasn’t an especially tall guy, but he still barely had room for his legs. At least he had an aisle seat. It wasn’t much, but he’d take what he could get. 

He couldn’t quite turn to stretch out both legs, but he managed to get his left leg straightened into the aisle, tight to the seat in front of him, where it wouldn’t be in anyone’s way. Now that he was marginally more comfortable, he cacophony around him encroached on his moment’s relief. He sighed and turned up the volume on his headphones. 

He started to relax into his audiobook, thinking he might even be able to drift off and ignore the unpleasantness on board Flight 1015. He closed his eyes and sank down into the stiff seat, ignoring how it smelled faintly of something unpleasant. Either the food or someone missing their airsick bag from the last flight if he had to guess. Given his previous place of residence in Hell (one of the nicer neighborhoods, but still) it wasn’t terribly hard to ignore. 

It wasn’t long before he’d drifted off, lazing in a pleasant dream of the day he’d quit being Krampus and walked out of Hell and into a life on Earth, when a firm tap on his shoulder dragged him back to earthly reality. He took off his headphones and looked politely at the flight attendant leaning over him. “Yes?”

The young man’s smile had a practiced, plastic quality that said he’d had more than enough of the passengers on this flight. The Thanksgiving crowds were not his favorite. At least it wasn’t as crowded or as raucous as the ones who packed in for the Christmas holidays. His tone carried understanding of the uncomfortable traveling accommodations when he spoke. “I’m sorry, sir. I have to ask you to keep your feet out of the aisle. It’s for safety, sir.”

Eugene nodded grudgingly and slowly eased his leg back into its cramped position touching the seat in front of him. “Sorry about that,” he said, almost meaning it. He didn’t envy the attendants on this flight, or any other for that matter.

“Thank you, sir,” the young man said, grateful to not have to argue. “Wouldn’t want anyone to trip, would we?”

“I suppose not.” Eugene offered a smile in return.

“Something to drink, sir?” was offered as a thanks for at least one thing on this flight not being a terrible trial.

Eugene smiled. “Yes, thank you. The stiffer the better, son.”

The young man, Robert, according to his name tag, nodded. “I’ll be back shortly, sir.” He moved off toward the drink cart at the front of the cabin, but hadn’t gotten three rows up when he nearly tripped over a woman’s leg. He didn’t get so lucky with his request to her to move her leg. 

Eugene shook his head as Robert patiently tried to explain the safety issue to the woman, thought all it accomplished was an increasingly shrill response. He didn’t think he’d be seeing the offered beverage any time soon. He checked his watch. Only 10:15. Damn. At least another couple of hours before landing. He put his headphones back on, turned up the volume, hoping to drown out the noise and resume his nap.

It was too loud for that now, he supposed, grimacing as another baby started crying, utterly ignored by its parents. He surveyed the cabin. He’d expected the flight to be crowded, but hadn’t anticipated the number of families heading back from their wherever their holiday weekend had taken them. 

The parents in question didn’t look especially bothered by the noise, or the snacks that sailed over seats, or the general obvious discomfort of the rest of the passengers. The kids appeared to revel in it. At least a few of these little darlings would have warranted a visit from his alter ego in about a week if he hadn’t said goodbye to his centuries old role as Nick’s dark counterpart. 

“Well,” he mumbled to himself. “That’s in the past, old boy.” 

In the past like his expense account. Like not living on a budget, like easy magic, like any number of perks that went with being Krampus. He hadn’t much cared for the form he’d been expected to live in. And Hell wasn’t exactly a great place for a vacation. But it wasn’t without its charms. 

He wondered how good old Ben was making out. He’d heard the demon had managed his departure brilliantly, and somehow to not cast suspicion on himself. Eugene also heard he’d gotten an assignment up top. He’d been enjoying himself, according to a mutual friend, for a number of years. Not as good as being able to quit, but an upgrade nonetheless. 

A potato chip landed on his lap from a few seats away, fueling additional thoughts of his heavy pack and silver switch. You weren’t doing any good anyway, Eugene. Let it go.

He tried. He really did. But as he sat there watching children argue with their siblings (and their parents), make raucous noise disturbing all the other passengers, including the babies who only added to the din, toss food, spill drinks, and generally behave like spoiled little monsters, it became harder and harder to do. 

He made up his mind to switch his listening to music and perhaps hide behind the paperback he’d purchased in the airport. He stood to retrieve it out of his carry-on bag in the overhead. A girl of about eleven nearly knocked him over as she raced her brother to the bathroom. He grumbled under his breath, but managed to get himself back into his seat. He got some Mozart queued up on his music player, which seemed more effective at drowning out the noise and buried himself behind his copy of the innocuous bestseller he’d grabbed off the rack. He’d almost managed to relax when the seat in front of him slammed into his knees.

“Are you kidding me?” he growled, pulling off his headphones and stuffing the paperback into his seat next to his leg.

He tried just pushing back against the seat with his legs. Big mistake. It rammed into him again, this time painfully. He clenched his jaw, but plastered on a smile that would have made his flight attendant proud. He undid his seatbelt and leaned around the edge of the seat. “Pardon me?” he called as pleasantly as he could manage. “Could you please move your seat up a little?”

He stopped short. The person in front of him, who’d rammed his knees like an angry linebacker, was a child of about eight. The kid grinned at him and stuck his tongue out. The grin got an edge that reminded Eugene more of a vindictive adult than a child, and the kid hit the lever to recline his seat.

“Ow! Kid, c’mon, cut that out.”

The boy’s mother looked their way. If looks could kill, Eugene figured he’d be dust in about ten seconds. “He’s not hurting you.” 

“Beg to differ, ma’am.” Having spent far too many centuries without having to keep his tongue or his tone in check, he added, “You are familiar with the concept of legs having bones, I presume.”

“If my Nicholas wants to have his seat reclined, then reclined his seat will be!” He opened his mouth to rebut her ridiculous statement, but she leaned across the boy and get closer to Eugene. Her threat was clear in her tone. Getting him added to the no fly list would absolutely make her day. “Don’t make me get one of the attendants.”

“Fine,” he growled with a roll of his eyes. The kid’s name had to be Nick. Like a reminder from the universe that giving up his work, his partner, allowed stuff like this to go on unchecked.

He leaned back into the palpably inadequate airline seat, thinking the advertisements for ‘spacious economy seating as compared to other airlines’ in their marketing material should be updated to ‘the Inquisition’s got nothing on us and you’ll pay extra with a smile’. He was both surprised and relieved when the seat in front of him returned to its fully upright position.

Grateful, Eugene repositioned himself and got his book out again. He’d read three or four pages and was almost comfortable (or at least as close to it as he was likely to get here) again, when the kid’s seat slammed into his knees again. 

“Oh, for f…” 

He stopped himself. That wasn’t going to get him anywhere. The little darling’s mother already made it pretty clear that if a scene was going to be made, she was more than happy to be the one to make it. He sighed and tried to make himself smaller in his already inadequate seat. 

It helped a little. For about three minutes, before the kid started moving it backward and forward again, seeming to make sure he connected with his fellow passenger’s rapidly bruising kneecaps. He checked his watch again. There was no way he could tolerate this nonsense for the rest of the flight. He rose and went in search of one of the flight attendants.

He caught up with a young man named Asa, who was hiding by the drink cart in between passenger cabins. “I’m sorry to bother you. You look like you’re enjoying this flight about as much as I am. But I could really use your help.” Eugene proceeded to explain his plight to the harried attendant.

 Asa nodded his understanding, but opened his palms so Eugene knew his answer would be disappointing before the guy even opened his mouth. “I’m sorry, sir. I can’t really be of assistance with this. People are allowed to recline their seats. And it’s not like we can set a limit on the number of times they do it.”

“But there isn’t room!” His legs ached, and they’d hit another little pocket of turbulence which set a number of babies who had quieted back to squalling again. 

“We meet federal guidelines, sir.” The seatbelt light went on with a distinctive chime. “I’m sorry, sir. You’ll need to take your seat.”

There wasn’t much arguing once the seatbelt signal was lit. If he didn’t sit, heaven knew the air marshall that was almost certainly on board would probably force a landing. And nothing would make little Nicky’s mother happier than seeing him get himself kicked off the flight. A plaintive note crept into his final plea. “Are you sure there’s nothing you can do?”

The young man gave a tired shake of his head. “Between you and me? I’d love to. I usually love this job, but between the week before Thanksgiving and New Year’s, I always think about changing careers. The kids are bad enough, but their parents are the worst. My fiance is a teacher. I don’t know how she does it. I really wish I could help, but my hands are tied.”

“Another seat maybe?”

“I’m sorry, sir. I really am. Can’t move you around with the light on. I really need you to take your seat and I need to go take care of the folks ignoring the sign.”

“Okay. I understand.” He did, too. The feeling of impotence in the face of legions of the callous and ill behaved was grating on him, wearing him down. He suspected he looked as tired as young Asa of the wrinkled airline uniform himself. “Thank you anyway.”

Eugene made his resigned way back to his seat, squeezed into the tight space, and did some deep breathing. Unable to get a rise out of him, it wasn’t long before Darling Nicky stopped his relentless seat torment. Eugene put his headphones back on and closed his eyes, hoping if he tried hard enough he could just sleep through the rest of this interminable flight.

He’d just about dozed off when a rhythmic thudding on the back of his seat jostled him back to full consciousness. “Oh, what fresh hell is this?” He gritted his teeth and mumbled, “I’m not going to say anything. I’m not going to say anything. I’m not going to … No, you know what, screw that.”

He undid his seatbelt, sign be damned, and turned around to see the source of this new misery. It turned out his new tormentor was a girl of perhaps twelve kicking his seat by alternating her feet. She smirked at his expression. He forced his face into a pleasant smile. “Excuse me, miss. Would you mind not kicking my seat, please? I’m trying to nap.”

“Yeah, I would mind.” Her smirk grew and she kicked it harder.

“Excuse me. Excuse me, sir!” Eugene waved to get the father’s attention. 

The man removed his headphones and answered curtly, “What?” 

Eugene’s politeness had reached its outer limits, but he tried to keep his tone pleasant and conversational. “Your daughter is kicking my seat. And isn’t inclined to stop when I ask. I thought perhaps you could help,” he bit out, doing his best to suppress his growing ire over the uninterested expression the man was wearing. 

The man didn’t exactly roll his eyes, but Eugene thought it was a near thing. Then he turned to his daughter and said without much interest in her either,. “Honeyhunny, would you mind not kicking this man’s seat?”

“I’m bored. And it’s fun.”

The man returned his gaze to Eugene. “Well, there you have it. I’ve done what I can do.” 

The man put his headphones back in and turned away, effectively ending the conversation.

Eugene couldn’t believe it, so he just stared for a minute. The girl smirked at him and resumed kicking his seat. He glared at her, but after seeing the glint his attention put into her eyes he just turned around. His knees were once again pressed into the reclined seat in front of him, the rhythmic pounding against his back keeping time with his racing thoughts. The flight attendant finally returned with the drink he’d been promised what felt like a decade ago. All it did was go sour in his stomach as he surveyed the scene around him: Children out of control, loudly and messily, disturbing others intentionally, and the more people tried to ignore their antics the louder and more atrocious their behavior got. 

And the parents … They just didn’t seem to care. No, that wasn’t right. They seemed almost to encourage it. At first he’d taken it as simple over-indulgence. But that wasn’t right either. They didn’t see anything wrong with it. 

Eugene mulled that over for a while. He’d become frustrated with his role as Krampus when it became clear to him the kids were too jaded to benefit from his correction. Now he wondered if the same thing was wrong with their parents. Or perhaps, the lack of his presence had allowed those people to finish growing up without the consequences they so sorely needed.

His eyes lit up with the realization. He’d abandoned them when he retired. These people weren’t correcting their children because he’d left his post. The kids weren’t the problem at all. The parents were. 

He couldn’t officially come out of retirement. That would mean going back to Hell, but … The magic was still his to command.

He could …

He could be a vigilante.

Righting the wrongs of a world without guidance. He smiled as he started to call his former form to himself.

It would start here on Flight 1015, but that’s not where it would end. 

Krampus would return to his former glory, unburdened by the constraints of Hell or the earthly calendar year.

He smiled.

He was going to need bigger sacks. 

*****