Authors’ Note: Today’s story happens “off camera” in Before the Dawn, Book II of The Arbitratus Trilogy. I’d be lying if I told you I didn’t get a little weepy writing this one. But, I’d also be lying if I told you it wasn’t worth it. I set out to write a story that would lend itself well to engaging in our annual tradition of sharing a recipe we love. I knew it would get Ben and Teddy in the kitchen together, but I was unprepared for how emotional they (and subsequently I) got on their way there. Despite experiencing a sense of loss and grief together, they also experienced some genuine relief at sharing it. Holidays can be hard. But wherever you find love, it feels like Christmas. ~ J
Wherever You Find Love
Ben sighed contentedly. His stomach was full, the RV was quiet, and Mal was next to him. She didn’t seem to mind that he was half napping either. He had been up most of the night doing the spell for Mal’s surprise Christmas tree. He’d been able to ignore being tired through the morning. He’d focused on making sure the food didn’t suffer from the somewhat inadequate kitchen in the RV.
Once he’d fed everyone lunch and the rest of them cleared out for some snowshoeing, he and Mal settled in on their couch for one of Mal’s favorite holiday traditions. Christmas movies.
Mal turned up the volume and scooted over to rest her head on his shoulder. He had never seen this one. It had muppets in it and was pleasantly unchallenging. Mal loved it. She kept humming along with the songs.
He reached for her hand. “You could sing along if you want. I’m not sleeping.”
“Pfft, no. You’re the vocalist in this relationship.”
“Even though we’re home alone?”
“It’s too cold for them to have gone far. I bet they’ll be back any minute. And Petra says I’m totally tone deaf.”
“I think your voice is kind of sexy. Husky. Like a lounge singer.”
“You’re sweet. But I feel like maybe Petra might be more honest about my abilities than you are.”
He peeled his eyes open and put a hand to his chest. “You wound me.” Teasing wasn’t going to be enough. Petra had obviously hurt her feelings and he wanted to fix it. He also meant what he said. “I had to lie to you about being a demon for a long time. I’m never going to be anything but honest with you ever again.”
“Honesty is one thing. But you can’t tell me you wouldn’t try to spare my feelings. Because, as previously mentioned, you’re sweet. The sweetest even. Plus nobody is going to just piss off the person who assists with their orgasms.”
His neck and face immediately heated, but he managed not to sputter with embarrassment like he once might have at Mal’s frankness about sex. “I appreciate you, but I’m perfectly capable of … what is it you say … being in charge of my own orgasms … if I had to to keep from lying to you again.”
She reached up and put her hands on either side of his face. “My God you are adorable when you blush.”
He snickered. “I guess that’s good. Because I don’t seem to be able to stop. And hopefully it reinforced my point. I honestly like your voice.”
She climbed across his legs and put her arms around him. “Thank you. Maybe I’m feeling a little insecure because she said it when we were caroling our way around the campground.”
Ben frowned. He hoped that wasn’t why Mal called an end to their musical excursion last night. “Don’t listen to her. Petra is just grumpy because Teddy is having a hard time.”
“He seemed okay when we did presents this morning.”
Ben nodded slowly. “Yeah. He was trying really hard. I think he still feels bad for breaking down during Thanksgiving. He doesn’t want to ruin the holiday for anyone.”
“Yeah,” she sighed.
The last thing he wanted was for Mal’s mood to sour because he’d brought up Teddy’s struggles. “But you’re right. He did really well. He might even really be okay. He loved the Top Gear boxed set we all got him.”
She smiled. “He really did! That was such a good idea. In addition to having a fantastic voice, and being literally the cutest human I have ever known, you are crazy good at knowing what people will like as far as gifts and stuff go. Was it always like that with you, or is it some kind of power thingy?”
Ben thought about not answering, but he’d just promised to be honest with her. It wouldn’t do to go back on that ninety seconds after the fact. He hugged her tightly. “It’s … uh … not a power thing. But it is … um … kind of a Hell thing.”
She sat back so she could see his face. “What do you mean?”
“I … In Hell … if you don’t … I don’t know … anticipate what everyone around you wants or needs … It tends to end….” He took a sudden shuddering breath and shivered as though the temperature had dropped twenty degrees.
“Hey. I get what you’re saying. You don’t need to explain.” She put her hands on his face again and rested her forehead against his. “I’m sorry.”
“You don’t have anything to be sorry for, babe.”
“I just meant that I’m sorry you’ve been through so much.”
He didn’t want to have a whole big conversation about the many breathtaking ways his past had tied his psyche in knots. So he kissed her soundly, nibbling her lower lip in the way that she not only loved, but that was usually good for changing or closing a subject. “So … Distract me from my past misery.”
She laughed and slid off his legs. “I thought we already covered the whole ‘they’ll be back any minute’ thing.”
Almost like they’d timed it, the door to the camper opened to let in their red-cheeked roommates, along with a gust of wind that carried some of the falling snow in with them. It was the perfect opportunity to dispel any seriousness that Mal might be hanging onto. “Is that one of your powers?”
She raised an eyebrow. “Maybe!” Then she pulled the blanket Aife had knitted them as a holiday present off the back of the couch and spread it over the two of them. “Close the door, guys! Jeez.”
Ben folded his legs up under the blanket. It was unbelievably soft and warm. “Yeah, seriously. It’s like Hoth out there.”
Mal quickly agreed. “Like I’m ready to go get a Tauntaun.”
Teddy was the last through the door and closed it behind them. He grinned. “Hey, do you know the temperature of a tauntaun?”
Ben hadn’t heard the joke before, but his gift for words made it easy to guess. “Luke warm?”
Teddy hung up his coat. “You’re good,” he said with another easy smile.
“He and Mal are just massive geeks. So he probably already knew that one,” Petra said, not quite testily, but not exactly pleasantly either.
Chris chimed in helpfully. “I doubt Ben voluntarily knows any joke as punny as that one. He’s dead-armed me for bad puns more than once.”
“I’ll do it again, too!” Ben laughed.
Teddy came over and mouthed, “She’s a mood today,” then joined them on the couch. “Whatchoo guys watching?” His face fell for a split second. “Oh, Muppets.”
Ben frowned. “You okay, Ted?”
“I … yeah. You bet.”
Teddy sat back to watch the show with them while the others moved around to start some hot cocoa and pick at left overs. Petra sat at the table and buried herself in the newspaper, clearly, as Teddy had indicated, ‘a mood’.
After a few minutes, Teddy sniffled. He’d complained of coming down with another cold a few days ago so at first the sound barely registered. But another minute passed and he reached for a tissue and wiped his whole face with it. Mal responded by pulling him into a hug before she could have had time to fully process that he was crying. “Oh, honey, what is it?”
He grabbed another tissue. “It’s … last year was the first time Kel was old enough to watch this one. Before that Mom thought the Marleys’ ghosts were too scary.” His breath hitched, but he went on with deliberate calm. “Once he saw it, it was his favorite.”
“Oh, Teddy, I’m so sorry. We can shut it off.”
He shook his head. “No … I … It’s nice. It makes him feel close, I guess. It’s just….”
“Hard,” Ben said. He cleared his throat. “I get it. I was gone so long when I went out shopping because I…” He had to stop for a minute, but then made himself continue. “I saw this display of mistletoe and I remembered … out of nowhere … How my brother’s wife used to keep me out of trouble by sending me off to find the stuff for Yule. And I usually wound up in even more trouble than if I’d just stayed home.” He smiled, but he had to work for it. “I could hear her voice in my ear, I swear.” Teddy passed him a tissue. “Thanks, man.”
As though Teddy sensed his discomfort over having not only been suddenly caught up in his emotions, but having shared them openly in front of everyone, Teddy came up with a smile of his own. “And here I thought you came home with the stuff so you two would have more reason to make out. As though you need any encouragement.”
Mal squeezed Ben’s hand. He took it as not just reassurance, but also encouragement to share, so maybe Teddy would do the same. Still, he tipped half a smile. “I mean, that crossed my mind.” Mal twined her fingers with his, but he didn’t look at her. If he did, he was going to get more emotional sharing his real reasons, and he seriously didn’t want to break down right now. “I also just … Once I’d thought of her, I wanted to bring it home, so … God damn it.” He stopped to swipe at his eyes again. Not looking at Mal hadn’t helped. “I wanted her, I wanted all of them, to be part of the holiday.”
Mal slid her arm behind him. “That’s the same reason I wanted to go caroling last night. Me and Dad used to do that whenever Christmas had to be in a campground. I wanted him here, too.”
Ben turned to face Teddy again. “Is there anything we could do that would help you? Like … I don’t know….”
“Could we cook something?” Teddy asked suddenly. “My family always did loads of cooking around the holidays. All of us together.”
Ben chewed his lip thoughtfully. “I remember you telling me about that last year.”
“Yeah,” Teddy nodded. “You gave me the recipe for the snickerdoodles.” He smiled then, and it was a little sad, but it was warm, too. “Kel said snickerdoodles so many times I thought it was going to drive me nuts.”
“Hey, it’s a good word.” He hopped up. “I know what we’ll do. Mostly because I know I have the ingredients and our oven won’t screw it up. Let’s make something Scottish.”
“No haggis!” Mal laughed.
“Don’t knock it till you’ve tried it,” he smirked. “But where do you think I’m hiding yards of sheep intestines, woman?”
“Ew. Is that what haggis is?”
He laughed. “Among other things. But, that wasn’t even on my radar until you brought it up.”
“No,” she reaffirmed with a serious shake of her head.
“Ben Brody, I swear.”
“Okay, okay,” he laughed, holding up his hands. He felt pretty sly, too, because Teddy now looked less emotional and more amused by the two of them than anything. “I was talking about making shortbread.”
Aife finally entered the conversation. “If I pop up to the camp store, would you dip some in chocolate?”
“More American by the day,” Ben said with mock disapproval. “But yes, I definitely would, if they’re open.”
Aife threw her coat back on and pulled Petra up by the elbow. “C’mon, love. You’re coming with me.”
“What? Why?” she groused.
“Because we’re going to freeze you out of your snit. Or just freeze you. It’s entirely up to you.”
Finally, for the first time in several days, Petra smiled in a genuine way. “Okay. That’s probably fair. But I can make no promises.”
Chris donned his coat as well. “I’ll go with you and give these guys room to work.”
Once they cleared out of the kitchenette, Teddy got up and went to their cupboards. “What do we need?”
“Flour, butter, and sugar.”
“Yep. These are super easy. Way easier than the stuff Cinne and my mother used to make, I bet. Life with modern conveniences like flour and sugar has a lot to recommend it.” He glanced at Mal, who had burrowed further under the blanket. “You want to help?”
“Pass. I’m not at baking yet.”
“It’s just chemistry,” he coaxed.
“Says the guy who needed me to tutor him in it. I’m not buying it. Besides, Chris is right. There’s not enough room. I’ll stay here and watch Gonzo be Charles Dickens.”
He bent to kiss her, then joined Teddy at the counter.
As they worked on the very simple recipe, one he didn’t even need to look up, Teddy seemed to relax into the ritual of mixing the ingredients. He chatted in a way that was almost cheerful, sharing little holiday memories that seemed to help him. Ben did the same in return, although he had to work to recall details of holidays past.
After a while, Mal called out, “Hush! This is my favorite song in the whole movie.”
“So sing it for us!” Ben demanded lightly.
She didn’t even hesitate. “Wherever you find love, it feels like Christmas!”
After a second or two, Teddy joined in.
Ben smiled, and started humming along. He didn’t need to know the words to agree with the sentiment completely.
A simple Scottish Shortbread
12 oz AP flour
4 oz Sugar
8 oz butter (room temperature)
Preheat your oven to 325 degrees Fahrenheit
Grease a 8×8 square pan (with butter)
Mix the flour and sugar together in a bowl, then cut in the butter until the mixture resembles sand.
You can then knead the mixture with your hands (the warmth from your hands helps the dough come together). Once it feels more like dough (think playdough or pie crust), press it into the pan. You can score it into logs or squares and use a fork to press patterns in it (if you want to, but why wouldn’t you?). You can also sprinkle sugar on before you bake them. Bake about 20-30 minutes until they are a pale golden color. Don’t let them brown. Let them cool completely. And if you want to, dip them in melted chocolate. It’s delicious.