Pool Shark

 

There’s something in the water.

The thought came with such easy certainty, Roz almost laughed.

When she was small she wouldn’t even go in the pool because Sean had told her the pool sharks would eat her. Home from college on summer break, he’d given her shit about it at the breakfast table this morning. She’d chucked a syrup covered Eggo at his head and gone up to her room in a huff. She’d brooded about how to shut him up about it for hours.

The sounds of Rob’s noisy old pickup pulling in next door. She hadn’t seen him since the start of summer break. He’d been off doing some junior counselor soccer camp thing. Before exams started he’d never even noticed her as anything other than the awkward neighbor kid before … But they’d been partnered up in the Chem final and it apparently occurred to him that she was a lot less awkward, and maybe a lot more graced with cleavage, than she had been.

It was hot and Rob and his brother would almost definitely go swimming. Roz’s pool was easily visible from the Danforth’s deck.

She decided she’d kill two birds with one stone and go for a swim. Casually hitting the pool alone ought to shut Sean up. And … it couldn’t hurt neighborly relations any for Rob to see her in the ruffled fuchsia bikini she could finally fill out.

She got changed, grabbed one of the big fluffy towels from the linen closet, and headed out onto their deck. Sean has raised his eyebrows at her announcement that she was going to catch some sun and go for a swim, but he didn’t say anything. Maybe he didn’t believe his baby sister’s stated intentions. He was probably just waiting to give her more crap when she didn’t go through with it.

She glanced around. No sign of Rob yet. But she could hear talking and laughing through the screens next door. She cranked up her radio so the boys next door couldn’t miss that she was outside and stood on the edge of the deck looking into the cool blue water.

It was perfectly tranquil and had the inviting Caribbean color that had always sort of fascinated her.

Throwing caution to the wind, and trying not to over-think how edgy the idea of swimming alone made her, she took a running start and splashed noisily into the water.

At first how chilly it felt compared to the warm air set her gasping and sputtering. But she quickly adjusted to the temperature and after swimming a few laps, she started to actually enjoy herself. She was having such a nice time, in fact, she got one of the pool floats off the deck. She tossed it into the water then followed it with another loud and splashy jump in.

She stood on her tiptoes in the shallow end, trying to glean any sign that Rob might be on his way outside. The quiet yard from across the fence yielded no encouraging information, so she stretched out on the float and closed her eyes. The baking sun had her sweating in minutes. She wasn’t ready to get all the way back in yet, so she let her legs hang off the float and trailed her hands through the water.

That’s better.

She had almost dozed off in the sun when the thought jolted her back to wakefulness.

There’s something in the water.

A warning from somewhere outside herself, sending a shiver over her whole body, raising goosebumps on her arms and legs.

Don’t start being ridiculous Rosalind Kelly, she chided herself. No way was she going to let a reemerging case of toddler brain send her running inside so Sean could pick on her and she could miss seeing, and being seen by Rob.

She talked herself down and pretty successfully. She started to relax again.

The tug on her ankle was so sharp, so sudden, for a second she didn’t even process it. Before she envelope opened her eyes she was ready with Sean’s most embarrassing childhood nickname and a plan to dead arm him maybe on both sides.

But he wasn’t there.

The back yard and pool was empty except for her and her blaring radio.

Another tug.

This one hurt.

She was about to call for help, but she was pulled under too quickly.

She screamed, but no one heard her over the radio. And it was over quickly in the time that existed above the surface of the water.

 

Underneath, the end went on forever.

 

 

When Rob Evans headed outside a while later it was wearing his nicest swim trunks. He wasn’t above trying to impress the neighbor either. He strode out onto the deck, cocky smile firmly in place. He looked over toward the Kelly’s pool.

 

This time everyone in the neighborhood heard the screams.

Next Time, Duck

Author’s Note – More May Writing Challenge fun. Not necessarily in cannon, but it could be.

Caleb was still half dreaming of how he’d wound up here in an alley flat on his back.

The searing pain in his chest convinced him he must be dying. He must’ve said something to that effect because he gasped at the sudden increased pressure over a painful wound somewhere between his breastbone and his left shoulder.

“What the fu …?”

“Hold still, dumbass,” a deep voice snapped.

“Eh … Wha … happen … I’m …”

“You caught a bullet,” the voice snarled. It was more irritated than angry or scared.

“I … Yeah, I guess I did.” His breath hitched. “How bad?”

He could almost hear the eyeroll in the reply. “I’m guessing pretty damn bad. You guys are all nuts.”

The pressure let up for a minute and there was the sound of rummaging in a backpack.

“What do you mean ‘you guys’?” If the newbie had blown their cover, he vowed he’d live just to beat the hell out of him. Kid was worse than Charlie. It was a hell of a thing when your current partner made you think fondly of the long ago Tinkles the WonderDog he’d been saddled with his first go round as a training officer.

A snicker in the dark as wadded fabric was pressed into the wound. “Don’t worry, I only know who you are because you guys were hunting me. Well, you were hunting my boss. But it’s kind of the same thing lately.”

The pressure happened again and Caleb swore; the sort of curse that should probably be grounds for dismissal given who he worked for. “Did your boss shoot me?”

Another snicker. “Yeah, right. You guys act like he’s the bad guy, but he’s not. He saved my life when my girl’s brother in law stabbed me just trying to get money to feed her when she was sick. Quit squirming, dude. You’re not making this any easier, you know.”

“Sorry,” he groaned. “Hurts.”

“I know it. Sorry.”

“Not a good guy,” Caleb insisted. “Are you a demon, too?” His impromptu medic’s hands were so warm either he had a fever or he was just inhabiting the body.

The young man seemed to know what he was thinking. “He’s not a bad guy. And I’m not a demon. I’ve got the healing touch. You know what that is, Templar?”

“Strong Kirlian aura.” He snickered a little himself, then bit back the cry that wanted to follow the unguarded sound. “Ah, Hell.”

“I know, man. Help is on the way though. Boss is callin’ ‘em. Sent me in to keep you from bleeding out.”

“You see who …” Caleb lost the thread in a haze of overwhelming heat and ache.

“Just caught in the crossfire, pal. Welcome to life on the streets here. Where everybody’s got more guns than brains.”

“So nothing to do with those cursed specs?”

“Not a damn thing.”

Red and blue lights started bouncing off the brick in the alleyway. Caleb could see his rescuer couldn’t even be twenty. And here he was, loyal to a demon who’d been peddling cursed objects for decades, and asserting that demon was a good guy while he kept a member of the Order from bleeding out on that demon’s order.

The boy got to his feet and slung his backpack over one shoulder. “The cavalry’s arrived. I’ll point your partner to the right hospital once the boss picks those glasses out of his pocket. You’ll be alright. I can tell. I can always tell.”

The kid started to walk away.

“Hey, um …”

“Alex,” the boy supplied. “My name’s Alex.”

“Thanks.”

Voices were approaching them from the head of the alley. The boy glanced that way, then at the fence at the back. “Boss said it’d be a shame to let someone almost as good as him eat it in an alley … I mean … You’re welcome.”

He waited a beat.

“Boss also said to tell you …”

“Tell me what?”

“Next time, duck.”

The boy turned and ran at the fence, then vaulted over it. He must’ve been just out of sight when the EMS guys started jogging toward him.

As professional help reached him, assuring him that he’d be fine, he had the fuzzy thought that while Alex and his boss might not be good guys, as the kid asserted, maybe they weren’t completely bad guys either.

Maybe.

 

Our Frightful Position

stormy sea

The world knew.

It had been told again and again.

By artists, poets, writers, and madmen. The day would come.

In his house, in its undisclosed place with its mythical name, the dead god slumbered, dreaming his dead dreams. Waiting.

We should have realized.

Nothing waits forever.

I was alone when he came for us.
On the beach, mourning the dog who wasn’t with me for the first time in over a decade. I’d walked aimlessly since well before the dawn.

I felt a vague tremor of the earth beneath my feet as light broke behind me. It was as unremarkable as the sun rising at my back as I stared out over the Pacific, noting an almost eerie calm befall the water.

Another tremor came a moment later and the glassy sea began to foam.

Then he rose.

To my dismay, he did not eat me first.

I am not one of the faithful.

He passed over me like I didn’t exist.

No, that’s not true.

His fathomless eyes met mine for just a moment. I felt my sanity waver, but he left it intact.

I think …

I think he wanted a witness.

Peace Is A Lie

I really didn’t want to wake up.

Well, that actually sounds kind of ominous. I didn’t want to wake up until I’d slept off the hangover I knew was coming my way.

But wake up I did.

Only to find my head trapped in some, hot, steamy hell of a head covering. I could feel its stiff edges resting against my collar bones and it’s weight bearing down on my head.

“What the actual … ?” I asked aloud, not expecting an answer, but also not expecting the hollow special-effect sound of my voice echoing around the damn thing.

I peeled my eyes all the way open and could sort of see out of two foggy orbs of darkened plastic.

Then I remembered.

Never let your younger brother challenge you to a holiday drinking game. His liver is in better shape than yours and his capacity for clearing a hangover is almost definitely higher. Plus, he’s been a little shit since he was three.

He proved me right as he bounded into the basement game room blaring the Star Wars theme from his phone.

I pulled the strange headgear off to glare at him and discovered it was a pretty authentic Stormtrooper mask. He beamed at my disgruntled expression. “How you feelin’, bruh?”

I rolled my eyes, even though it hurt. “Like maybe I wish I could Force choke your chipper ass into silence.”

He grinned and killed the music on his phone. “Alcohol is why they call today Revenge of the Fifth, dude.”

“Right.”

Fucker.

img_1431

 

Shaken By A Strong Wind

The dream had been plaguing me for days. I’d go to bed determined that this night would be different, that I’d break the cycle. But I couldn’t.

 

I should have paid more attention to what the dream was trying to tell me.

 

I’m in bed, and at first, I think I’m just waking up in the random way people do where we sigh and roll over and drift right back off. Then I realize that it’s cold.

 

My bedroom is never cold.

 

The heat must be broken. I reach over and shake my husband’s arm. “Joshua,” I whisper, not wanting to wake the girls sleeping next door. “The fire’s gone out again.”

Josh mumbles something unintelligible and throws an arm up over his face.

 

He’s been working so much. I decide I’ll just take care of it. I always get splinters when I fill the stove, but there are worse things.

 

I get up and slide on my robe. I tiptoe past the girls’ room and out into the living room to take care of the fire.

 

It’s too bright out there, but not because there are any lights on. The moon must be full, I think absently.

 

I nearly jump when I start to walk past the bay window and Rachel’s bell clear, but startlingly inflectionless, voice says, “Mamma, the stars went out.”

 

It takes a split second before I can breathe again. Then I answer. “Sweetie, you scared me half to death! What are you doing out of bed?”

 

Carolyn speaks then, sounding, as always, exactly like her twin. “The stars went out, and now they’re falling. We want to watch them burn it all up.”

 

Gooseflesh zings up and down my arms, my spine. I look out the window, past their identical white blonde heads stained lavender by the strange light pouring in the picture window.

And they’re right.

 

The stars are indeed falling from a sky that looks nothing like it could possibly belong to Earth.

 

The girls turn toward me then, and their light blue eyes are gone. All that’s left are puckering holes filled with the light from that alien sky.

 

It woke me up screaming every day for a week. Once I could breathe again, once I could stop sobbing in terror, I’d go make my coffee, regardless of the hour and be up for the day.

 

Why didn’t I seek comfort from Josh, or go check on my girls?

 

Because they don’t exist. And they never have.

 

I’ve never married, and I don’t intend to. I’ve certainly never had children. I can’t. And even if I could, I don’t think I’d want them.

 

Especially now.

 

Now that I know.

 

When the dream came to me again this morning, instead of getting up and making coffee, I lay in bed for a long time.

 

Thinking.

 

I finally got up a couple of hours later and dressed for a long hike. I even packed my backpack for one.

 

I walked straight through my silent living room, not looking left or right. I especially avoided looking at my bay window. It was no longer stacked with pillows as a reading nook. As the dream persisted, I started filling that shelf up with everything I could that would prevent anyone, including eyeless dream offspring, from sitting on it.

 

I walked out my front door, not bothering to lock it behind me. I knew with eerie certainty that locks stopped mattering sometime between the dark and the dawn.

 

I looked up and saw what I’d been both dreading and expecting.

 

The sky has gone purple.

 

The same purple as the eyes my twins didn’t have. My twins that don’t exist.

 

The stars aren’t falling yet. But I know they will.

 

I feel it.

 

Deep in my chest.

 

But I feel something else, too.

 

We might be able to stop it.

 

 

 

I’m sure as Hell going to try.

 

Border Planet Blues – Expansion

Bez

Author’s Note – Day Two of the May Challenge – Lost in a city.  This started in a mircofic challenge last year, I think it was. Just a snippet that I keep going back to. I’m posting what I originally wrote and the little follow up bit that occurred to me this morning as I was thinking about the challenge.

 

It wasn’t easy to work the border planets, but Bez couldn’t deny that the money was about the best you could make without joining up with the Federals. It was hard to believe that rustlers were still a problem what with gene stamping, but here she was, tracking the Temple Sibs again.

If she drew a bead on Ned Temple this time, she was going to kneecap him just to avoid seeing his face for a couple of months. Bastard couldn’t seem to get over the fact that his sister had a fling with a ranch cop. And Talulah just didn’t have the spine to bust up the gang. More’s the pity.

Bez squinted at a cloud of dust rising on the horizon. Yup, that was them.

She drew her revolver.

She was going to enjoy this.

0-0-0

What the hell? Bez groaned to herself. Not out loud. Her head hurt too damned much for that.

The mattress was lumpy beneath her, but other than the pounding headache and oil slick that was her stomach she didn’t feel too bad. So this wasn’t a bunk in a jail cell. Whore house, maybe?

She had been in a celebrating mood after she collected her fat wallet of Credits from Doc Jones.

He was real pleased she’d pinched Ned Temple when he showed up to make off with Doc’s best stud. That bull made cows with more meat on them than she could rightly explain. But then again, she wasn’t a rancher from a long line of geneticists from the Central Planets. She was just a ranch cop. And damned if she’d ever paid any attention in school.

Through the haze of what had to be the worst hangover she’d ever had, she rifled through her fuzzy memories of the take down at the Whispering Pines Ranch (which she couldn’t help but think sounded like a goddamned undertaker lived there, but it paid pretty well, so she could forgive it). She’d drawn down on Ned from a fair distance.

She’d hesitated for a second, she remembered. They were coming in hot and she wasn’t sure she could get a shot off without hitting Greyleigh, the pride of the Temple herd of non-mutated horses. At this point in her career she hated Ned Temple about as much as it was possible to hate someone who was too plain stupid to be any better than he was, but she bore no ill-will to the rest of the clan. Besides, she had a real soft spot for Talulah and if she could ever pry her off her brother’s side, the family ranch was the only means of support she’d have to go legit.

That second was all Ned had needed to shoot first. His ultra-modded electro-mag had it all over her own legal Winchester Pulse blaster for speed, recharging, and accuracy. He’d grazed her. But all that had done was piss her off. She liked that jacket a lot. It was real leather, which was damned hard to come by these days. Any concern for his horse was forgotten in the searing pain in her bicep and the stink of singed fifty year old cow hide.

She’d done exactly what she’d fantasized about and clipped him right in the knee, narrowly missing Greyleigh, but scaring the hell out of the steed anyway. She was glad she hadn’t hurt the horse, because for one thing she didn’t really like hurting animals, especially holdovers from the old days like the Temple’s raised. But even more, she decided she liked that silvery little fella personally when he tossed Ned unceremoniously in the dirt and took off.

Talulah had done the smart thing and kept her distance until she had Ned cuffed and Doc raised on her communicator to come collect the lousy little bastard. Doc had patched up her arm for her with some fancy new glue one of his researchers had recently invented so that was good as new before her jacket had stopped smoking. Unfortunately, there was nothing to be done for the leather. She decided to keep wearing it to remind herself what happened when you hesitated.

Doc had taken pity on Talulah and let her go with a pretty stern talking to and the confiscation of her equally fine Temple mare, Zeign. Then he’d called the Federals to come pick up Ned and check the fencing they’d sold him under high tariffs. If he was going to pay for shit to get shipped in from Central, it had damned well better work so he didn’t have to spend his hard earned Credits contracting with ranch cops, too.

Talulah had just about begged her to take her back into town with her and help her send a message to their folks. That was her default strategy when Ned did something breathtakingly dumb and got busted. She’d play the helpless little lady led astray by her domineering criminal brother and get let off the hook. Her parents usually bought it, too. And she’d always walk away from any bad situation richer than when she tumbled into it. Bez should have known better, but, speaking of tumbles, Talulah was an especially fine companion for one.

They hit the nearest saloon after raising one of the Temple servants for a little loan to get Miss T a transport home, gotten pretty loaded, danced an awful lot, then … gotten a room. Well, at least this isn’t a whore house. Sheets should be pretty clean for laying around in until I can shake this hangover.

Hell and damn, Bez grumbled (still not out loud). I should never drink with that woman. She’s got iron innards and more willpower than sense.

Finally she forced herself to open her eyes.

“Son of a bitch.”

It still wasn’t very loud, but the scene was definitely worth a little volume. Bitching in her head just wasn’t going to cut it.

This wasn’t the tavern crash pad she’d gone to sleep in in Little Duck (weird name for a town, but it was a cute little one, with dusty yellow roads that seemed to make it fit) . It was a very nice hotel room. Not a Little Duck place. This was a city joint.

Bez moved to get up. She paused. Stark-assed naked to boot.

She looked around. The only article of clothing she could see was her leather jacket with its freshly torn sleeve that she could have sworn she could smell across the room. No Winchester Pulse. No Credit wallet. Not even any god damned boots.

Cursing, much more loudly this time, she got up and stomped across the room to one of the windows and threw back the curtains. When she looked out of her ground floor room on the busy street, she swore again. Not only was she not in Little Duck, she wasn’t even in the nearby city of Albans. In fact, the twin suns blazing white overhead said she wasn’t even in the same system.

“I’m gonna kill her,” she growled. A passing fellow dressed much to well for the time of day for him to be anything other than a Fed, tipped her a wave and an appreciative wink. She returned the implied compliment with as rude a hand gesture as she could conjure up from her days at the Academy.

She turned and stomped over to her coat. If she zipped it up it would cover enough of her ass to go to the desk, get them to contact the Home Office, and at least get her some clothes and enough Credits to hit a transport back to her nearest safehouse. She picked it up off the chair and a note fluttered to the floor.

Bez, I’m sorry.

I had to spring him. We’ve got a big job coming. I swear I’ll make it up to you. Hope you don’t get too lost in the big city. Herodis is one of the most populated planets in the Central System. At least it shouldn’t be too hard for you to find some clothes. Although, to be honest, I prefer you without them. I’ll be in touch.

Lulu

P.S. Ned made me leave the jacket.

Bez sighed and pulled on her coat.

“I’m not just gonna kill her. But I am gonna gut Ned Temple like a fish.”

The door slammed so hard on her way out to find the desk and figure out where the hell she actually was, she heard the mirror fall off the wall and break.

 

Something Wicked

Skull

Author’s note – I’m participating in a little May Flash Fiction Challenge in a writing group I admin, so I thought it would be fun to share the fruits of that here, since otherwise I’m busy wrapping up Book II, Before the Dawn.

Today’s challenge, “Your character gets a threatening letter,” offered me the opportunity to write a little fan fiction for our own characters. How can I resist that? ~ J

 

Ben started down the steps of the RV and froze.

Mal nearly ran into his back. After a split second of thinking he did it on purpose to get another embrace, she saw his tension. His whole body looked like an over-tuned guitar string someone had plucked just to get it to snap.

She followed her original impulse and wrapped her arms around him from behind. Maybe he wasn’t playing around to steal another hug before their run, but he clearly needed the contact right now.

“Ben?” she prompted.

At the sound of her voice, something in him unlocked and he was able to breathe again.

“Sorry.” He sounded like someone had their hands around his neck. He cleared his throat and tried again. “Sorry.”

He paused, biting his lip. This was probably going to be an argument, but he felt like a live wire, like danger was suddenly all around them. He caressed her arms, wrapped tightly around his middle, and gently pried them away, squeezing her hands as he released them so she wouldn’t read the gesture as having to do with her.

He scanned the sparsely populated campground. No one appeared to be awake. The sun was barely up.

Nothing seemed out of the ordinary. Nothing except the parchment envelope placed neatly at the foot of their steps.

Ronoven, Count and Marquis of Hell
Open immediately

“Mal, I need you to head back inside and close the door. Get Chris up, too. I’ll be right behind you. I promise.”

Her arms went stubbornly around him again. She couldn’t see around his broad shoulders, but she knew the subtleties of his voice and body language well enough to know he sensed a threat and was about to do that thing where he tried to face it all on his own.

She was going to break that particular bad habit if it was the last thing she did.

“Ben, what’s wrong?” He drew in another breath and held it. “You know I’m not going anywhere so spit it out.”

Roughly an hour seemed to pass before he exhaled slowly. “Do you have your knife on you?”

“Of course.”

“Not your pocket knife. Your … I meant the weapon one.”

“I know what you meant. I always carry it now.”

“Okay.” Another long breath. “There’s an envelope on the ground with …”

“Ben.” Her voice lost some of its soft understanding. He clearly needed help. And he was going to get it whether he liked it or not.

“With my demon name,” he admitted.

Oh, how he hated that, hated that he had to say those words out loud, hated anything that reminded him he wasn’t just Ben Brody. Even more, he hated having to remind Mal of that fact.

“And my titles. Someone from Hell might be watching right now. Even if it’s not Hell, it’s still somebody dangerous enough that it doesn’t matter.”

Mal released him and drew the knife from the clever sheath Teddy had made her for the small of her back.

“Let’s see what it says. I’ll keep my eyes on everything.”

He sighed. “Okay.”

He drew his own dagger and carefully edged down the last few steps, eyes darting around, trying to look everywhere at once. He bent down to retrieve the envelope. As soon as his fingers closed around it, it grew almost unbearably hot in his hand.

He put it back down. It was treated with something not awesome for him. Something blessed, if he had to guess. Before Davi’s magic it might have lit his hand on fire, or at least blistered it. But now, it just stung. Still, it wasn’t a good idea to hang onto it. Just in case.

“You okay?” Mal stood next to him, but wasn’t looking his way. She was scanning the area, just like he, Chris, and Aife had taught her. In spite of the situation, he felt his lips quirk up at the corners. How did I ever get lucky enough to know her?

He found it easier to answer this time. She didn’t care about his, as she put it, demon bullshit. “It … um … I think it’s got something consecrated soaked into it.”

“Are you alright?” She moved like she’d take his hand to look it over.

“I’m fine,” he said hastily, holding it up before she could slip into her ‘team medic’ role. “But …” Why does asking her to do this feel like jumping off a damned cliff? He knew it was the right thing to do. For both of them. But his protective streak still had a hard time being reigned in. “Could you pick it up and see what it says? I’ll stand guard.”

She flashed him a little smile. He was trying so hard not to shut her out or close himself off to protect her. It warmed her all over when he did things like this. In her mind, it meant he really saw her as an equal. She didn’t like it when he treated her like she was better than him, exalted in some way. She bent and picked up the envelope, feeling it’s texture between her fingers, then sniffing it.

“Seems like it was maybe soaked in consecrated salt and holy water. It smells a little oceany. Feels gritty, too.”

Ben couldn’t help the lopsided grin that pulled at his lips. “Alright Miss CSI, but what’s it say?”

She slit the envelope with her knife, then put the blade back in its sheath. She unfolded the letter inside, careful not to rip the stiff, crinkly paper. It wasn’t parchment like the envelope, but it was something other than plain paper. It felt strange in her hand. The ink was rusty colored. And the letter stunk.

“Blood,” Ben said in a disgusted almost whisper.

Mal’s nose did an involuntary wrinkle that he usually found adorable, mostly because not much grossed her out. Right now all it did was make him swallow hard, his momentary smile fading into a frown with the fluid ease of muscles that remember it too well.

She quietly read the short message aloud.

“I know what you are. I know who you are. I need demon blood. This letter represents the dregs of my last acquisition. How convenient that you’re here in a body that belongs to you.” She paused for a breath and realized Ben was holding his again. “Surrender yourself in the clearing by the stream immediately, and I won’t curse the rest of your party to oblivion. If you don’t, they’ll die a bloody death, in terror, and it will be on your hands.”

He still hadn’t breathed. He tried; tried to speak, too. But his brain and body were having none of it.

Mal’s eyebrows drew together in concern. “Ben?”

Still nothing.

He was actually contemplating going to that clearing and giving himself up.

Nope, not happening, Brody. She made a snap decision.

Turning toward him, she reached into his front pocket as provocatively as she could and retrieved his lighter. Not that he really needed it with his ability to light things on fire psychically, but he liked to fidget with it.

Finally, he gasped. “Hey! Getting fresh while we’re being stalked by some dark witch or worse, because lots of magic-abusing pricks like demon blood, too, is probably a really bad idea.”

She forced a natural looking smirk onto her face even though she was, truth be told, shaking a little. “Since when does me getting fresh ever end badly for you?”

She sparked the lighter to life and held it to the corner of the note and envelope. It caught slowly, burning with a smoky orange-yellow flame that told her she’d been right about it being treated with salt. She walked the burning paper over to the campsite’s fire pit.

Ben followed, right on her elbow, dagger still in hand, eyes taking in the whole area. “What are you doing?”

“Making sure this can’t be used to track us.”

Ben smiled. “Good idea. I hadn’t gotten that far in my thinking, I guess.”

Because you were thinking of giving yourself up, she thought, but didn’t say. At that moment the flame reached the letters and they popped and sparked, burning red and deep blue alternatively. Ben’s brow creased and he mumbled in what sounded like realization. “Huh.”

“Someone you know?” she asked, half teasing.

“Actually, I think so,” Ben nodded slowly. “Most likely Zuhal. A friend. Such as they are in Hell.” His eyes watered with the stink of sulphur and the images it conjured in his mind. He almost sighed with relief that telling Mal something more of Hell seemed marginally easier this morning. “He’s probably fine though. He’s always trading his blood to lovelorn witches for …” He cleared his throat, suddenly blushing furiously all the way up to his ears. “Favors,” he finished awkwardly.

Mal dropped the letter into the pit before it could singe her fingers. She slid an arm around him for a brief hug. “Let’s go wake up the others so we can get out of here.”

Ben glanced around again, then sheathed his knife. “I like the idea of getting right the Hell out of here, but what are we going to do about this threatened curse?”

She opened the door to the RV, but turned to give him an encouraging nod. “Protection spell, obviously. I’ve been practicing. Besides, we’ve got our own badass witch, and Chris, and you.”

They got inside and turned on the lights, eliciting groans from their sleeping travel companions. “The vibe I got off that letter was it was written by somebody pretty powerful,” Ben said, chewing his lip.

She cocked an eyebrow. “Some dumb evil witch doesn’t scare me.”

Ben pulled her into his arms, feeling himself relax already, even though he was certain there was real danger here. “You’re not scared of anything,” he said, voice full of admiration as he buried his face in her tangled curls for a moment and kissed the top of her head.

Except losing you, she thought.

What she said was, “Damn right. Let’s get them up and get out of here.”

He squeezed her again. “Whatever you say, Mal.”

Thirteen? And You Thought There Were Only Twelve Days of Fic-mas!

cookie-3875210_1920

The Hearth of the Matter

Authors’ Note – If you’ve been with us on this blog for long, you know we can’t resist a Christmas surprise. Here’s a little scene that happened “off camera” in Chapter 28 of Always Darkest. From our family to yours, Happy Holidays, Merry Christmas, and may your 2018 end on a high note!

 

Chris paused in his reading to unbutton his shirt sleeves and roll them up. He sipped his coffee carefully. Ben had fixed it for him and when he’d raised his eyebrows at the bite of it, Ben grinned broadly. “It’s an American coffee.”

“Huh?”

“Like Irish coffee … but with bourbon.”

“What’d I do that earned you tending bar at five in the afternoon?”

Ben passed him the copy of A Christmas Carol he’d gotten as as a thank you gift recently, insisting that holidays were for fun, not for studying. Then he shrugged, chugging his own festive coffee with the enthusiasm of the damned. “Just because my night’s gonna suck doesn’t mean yours has to.”

Chris thought about questioning him more about what he had to go do later but decided against it. Ben seemed the sort of anxious that would just get him to clam up if he felt pushed in any way. Chris wasn’t sure he wanted hot alcohol and caffeine, but he also wanted Ben to try to relax, maybe just focus on the present instead of the future that had him tied in knots, so he just sipped at it slowly. Ben said he wasn’t worried his work tonight would be dangerous, just that he was sure it would be unpleasant.

Ben had been cooking since early this morning. Too early. Now the kitchen and dining area were approximately a hundred degrees. When Chris complained a while ago, Ben said he was exaggerating, but Chris was normally quite tolerant of the heat and he was sweating just sitting here reading.

Ben glanced up and noticed Chris’s quiet discomfort again as he pulled a steaming cake from the oven and set it on a trivet on their small counter. “It’s not that hot,” he laughed.

“Says the guy who’s primary residence used to be in Hell.”

Instead of his expression darkening like it normally might have at the mention of his status as a demon, Ben just grinned. “And now I live in the icy north side of it!”

Chris contemplated Ben from his spot at the table. “You certainly seem to have cheered up a bit.”

Ben slid a couple of cookie sheets into the oven. “Mal messaged me a picture of herself in her Christmas Eve church get up. She’s … She’s just so beautiful, Chris. Nothing much else seems to matter when I think of her.”

“She’s a lovely young woman,” he said agreeably in response to Ben’s slightly starry-eyed expression.

“I wish I could blow off work and see her tonight. I feel like I haven’t seen her in forever.”

“Didn’t you two go out for coffee yesterday?”

He shook his head. “That was a couple days ago. And Ted and Petes were there, too. So it hardly counts.”

“Petes?” Chris asked.

“Mal’s friend Petra. You know her from Saint Auggie’s right?” Ben knew Petra was a decent student, but not the nose to the grindstone sort that Chris really enjoyed working with.

He nodded. “Her brother Alex was a tremendous Latin student. Petra … not so much.”

Ben grinned and rubbed his hands together in an exaggerated plotting sort of gesture. “Cool. Something else to give her shit about.”

“She’d actually be quite brilliant, but she’s terrible at turning in her homework. Not unlike some other people I know this last term.”

Ben laughed and brushed absently his face, leaving a streak of flour all over one cheek. “I turned it all in, even when Mal’s magic knocked me on my ass. I just needed a couple of extensions. Thanks for those, by the way, Professor.”

“You’re welcome,” he said magnanimously. Then he joked lightly, “I don’t plan to be so forgiving next term. Especially not to my research assistant. So if you could go ahead and not fall for anyone else who’s going to give you magic mononucleosis that’d be ideal.”

Ben laughed. “That’s a promise I can keep!”

Chris raised an eyebrow. “You have been honest with me, right? You really are okay now?”

“Yes, Dad,” Ben said sarcastically with an amused roll of his eyes. “Trust me, if proximity were still going to kick the crap out of me I’d’ve been in bed all last weekend after we went to the movies.”

“Are you sure you aren’t really a teenager, Ben? Making out at the movies …”

“We didn’t! I’m …” He turned back to his mixing bowl. “I do not kiss and tell.”

“So there was kissing?”

Ben flushed. “Damnit, Chris! Quit picking on me! Like you’ve never had a girlfriend!”

Chris was about to respond that it wasn’t the having a girlfriend, or even whether or not they’d kissed. What was interesting to Chris was that despite having lived on Earth for nearly two decades when he was human, and in Hell for more than two millennia, he still seemed very much like a boy in so many ways. Especially since he’d met Mal. It was like some sort of spiritual reset. Chris would have bet all the considerable funds he’d accumulated over the years that the Ben he was living with right now was pretty similar to the human boy he’d been before he found himself in Hell. He might have said so, too, but the doorbell rang just as he decided how to phrase it.

Ben looked at the time on their microwave. “I swear if Aife sent the car this early, I’m gonna burn down that bar.”

“I’ll get it,” Chris offered, and went to answer the door.

Assuming it was some friend or colleague of Chris’s, Ben focused on his work. He needed to get the cookies out and cooling, make the glaze for the spice cake, and write out reheating instructions for the meal he’d made earlier that would serve as Christmas dinner for his roommate while Ben was gone to Mal’s. He couldn’t stand the thought of his best friend spending Christmas, not only alone, but eating Chinese take-out from the place up the street they were already both on a first name basis with.

He was wiping more flour from his hands on the front of the apron he’d found in Chris’s utility drawer, when he felt a gentle tap on his shoulder. Thinking it was Chris, trying once again to get him to ease up on his maniacal cooking, he half turned, “I told you, man,” and before he could get any further, her was wrapped up in long graceful arms, with soft lips covering his. When he recovered from the shock of ‘suddenly Mal’ and they came up for air, he grinned, “Wow! That was a nice surprise. I thought you were Chris.”

She backed up a step, dusting some flour off her lovely green velvet dress and tipped him an amused half-smirk. “You guys are a lot closer than I thought then.”

He laughed and shook his head. “I mean, I like the guy, but we’re not that close.”

She laughed lightly, mostly at the way his neck and ears had turned red upon being surprised with a kiss, or maybe it was because that kiss had a witness, who was sitting back at the table, nose buried in his book, studiously pretending he didn’t see any such thing. The flush spread to his cheeks when she observed, “My God, you are absolutely adorable right now.”

He couldn’t figure out why she’d think so. He was wearing an apron, and it was so covered in flour from his messy culinary efforts, he thought he could easily have been mistaken for one of the shades in Chris’s holiday reading. He was sort of sweaty, because no matter what he said to Chris, it was hotter than the seventh circle of Hell in here. And his hands were all sticky from just scooping the cookies. He flashed a smile, big enough that both dimples showed. “I was going to say something similar, but adorable just doesn’t cut it. You’re stunning.”

She curtsied. “You like the dress? It was my Goodwill find of the century.”

“Oh, yeah, I mean, the dress is great, but I meant more in general. And sort of always.”

“Even in my gross sweatshirt?” Her eyes twinkled.

“Your sweatshirt isn’t gross … it’s … well loved,” he said, almost like he was defending it to her. “Not that I’m complaining, but what are you doing here, other than catching me trashing the apartment? I thought you had to go to church and stuff.”

“Well, I mean, yeah, I still do. We’re on our way actually. I just wanted to stop and make sure you were still coming over tomorrow, and, you know, remind you that I always get up early on Christmas, so you can come over as soon as you want to.” She looked like she was somehow worried about his answer, like she just didn’t know if she should expect the holiday they’d planned.

Ben swallowed hard at the look in her eyes, even though her lips were smiling. All she wanted for Christmas was to spend it with him. That was so clear, so sharp, it cut him a little. “I … of course I’ll be there, Mal. I told you I would be. I promised, even. I would never break a promise to you.”

His voice was so sincere, his expression so sweetly concerned with reassuring her, she leapt into his arms again and kissed him soundly. It went on for several minutes. When she pulled away, he wasn’t blushing any more, but he looked rather stunned. “I can’t wait to share Christmas with you, Ben.”

He cleared his throat. “I … um … me, too.”

“I love it when you get all monosyllabic. Then I know I’ve really made an impression.” She winked playfully, breaking the almost serious mood from a moment before.

“Then I must be inarticulate at least a hundred and seventy-two percent of the time.” He chuckled and ran a flour-covered hand through his already tousled hair.

“You do know you can’t have more than a hundred percent of a known quantity, right?” She paused. “Well, sometimes you can have more than a hundred percent, but only when you’re comparing a new larger quantity to an existing small quantity, like if you get a raise. Actually, you can even have negative percentages.”

Ben raised both his eyebrows. “Christmas Eve is not the time for one of our math tutoring sessions. I won’t have time to do the homework before I see you again, Teach.”

She laughed and leaned in to kiss him on the cheek again. “Okay, I’ll let you off the hook this time, Brody. But just wait until break is over. Nose to the grindstone. We’ll have to see each other every day or something. Can’t have you getting another C in Math.”

“I may be a lost cause doing much better than that, but I think it’s worth putting in the time.”

She glanced at the clock on the microwave. “I should probably get going. My dad and uncle are waiting for me out there.”

“Um … okay.”

She took both his hands and they just stood like that for a minute, looking at each other fondly.

“I’ll miss you,” he said suddenly.

“You could come to church with us,” she hedged, hoping he’d decide to come spend the evening with them.

He shrugged, blushing faintly. “I’m not a really a ‘church’ kind of guy.”

Undeterred, Mal tried again. “We could pick you up after and go caroling or something.”

Ben hesitated. An evening of singing, wandering the snow covered streets … It sounded like the sort of holiday memory he’d love to make with her. Just forgetting about everything and going with Mal would be … Heaven.

“It’ll be fun,” she said in a joking, but still cajoling voice.

Ben grinned and looked like he was about to accept. Then Chris spoke and Ben’s face fell like someone had dashed cold water over him on an already freezing day. “Don’t you have to work at the pub this evening?”

“Shit,” he mumbled. He’d totally pushed the obligation out of his head at the sight of her, just like he had a little bit ago when she’d sent him that picture. Damn it all. “He’s right. I do have to work.”

Mal did an admirable job of hiding her disappointment. She wrapped an unselfconscious arm around his waist. “That’s okay. I’ll get to see you all day tomorrow.”

Ben cleared his throat a little nervously. “Um … yeah. Definitely. I told you I’m your Christmas present, right?”

“Having everyone I care about under one roof for Christmas would be about the best present ever.”

Her smile was so sweet and sincere, Ben almost forgot about how unpleasant he anticipated his evening was going to be. “I may have gotten you something else, too.”

“You didn’t have to get anything, Ben!” She sounded like she meant it, but her eyes were scanning the apartment anyway. “It that it?” she asked, pointing at the little gift bag sitting on top of the bookshelf by the door.

“Maybe,” he hedged with a grin.

She dashed across the apartment to pick up the bag by it’s sparkling ribbons and Ben was irrationally convinced she was going to break an ankle in her delicate, stilt-like silver heels. But she jogged back to him carrying it like she was in her running shoes. That was something he’d never understand about women. How in the hell did they function, not just in shoes, but in shoes that looked more like torture devices?

“No peeking!” he said instead of commenting on the skill of wearing shoes like an actual adult.

“If what’s inside is nearly as pretty as the packaging, I may faint,” she said, looking it over, her curiosity already killing her. It was terrible to give someone who considered themselves a scientist, or at least one in the making, a puzzle as tantalizing as an unknown package to investigate.

“It would have to be awfully pretty to get even close to adequate as a gift for you, Mal,” he said quietly. Then he flushed crimson. “That is maybe … no, definitely, the cheesiest thing I’ve ever said.”

She hugged him suddenly, forgetting Chris was even in the room. “First of all, that’s very sweet. And second of all, I sort of like it when you’re cheesy.”

Not blushing any less, but grinning much more, Ben pulled her in tighter, realizing the feel of her against his chest was the most peaceful thing he’d experienced … maybe ever. “Well, if you’re going to let me be cheesy …”

She laughed. “Don’t get carried away.” She released him and stepped away. “My dad and uncle are waiting. I should go. I just wanted to see you and make sure you were still coming over tomorrow.”

“I’ll walk you to the door,” he said, reluctant to end his unexpected time with her, especially as the hour he’d have to go over to Aife’s bar drew nearer. As they walked toward the door, Ben called over his shoulder, “Hey, Chris, when the timer goes off, would you pull the cookies out of the oven?”

“Absolutely,” Chris replied, smiling fondly at the two of them. He didn’t know quite what to make of this budding romance, but he did know that these two currently looked very happy. And Ben looked truly peaceful for a moment, his day-long nerves about whatever he had going on this evening that had him running around the kitchen like a whirling dervish all day momentarily forgotten.

Arm and arm with Ben on the way to the door, Mal asked, “Cookies? What kind of cookies?”

“The ones I gave Ted the recipe to. You liked them, remember? Snickerdoodles,” he answered and she was overcome with a case of the giggles. “What’s so funny?” he asked with mock indignation

“That’s the most ridiculous name for a cookie I think I’ve ever heard. I always forget they even exist so every time it’s like a lovely surprise. I love it!”

He smiled as he turned her toward him at the door. “What I love is how excited you get over little things like the name of the cookie.”

“Then you are going to love watching holiday movies with me tomorrow. Because my dad says I’m a nut. I had him and Uncle Davi in hysterics all afternoon doing dvd commentary.”

Ben had almost forgotten about her uncle. In all probability he was going to be spending tomorrow with not just one but a couple of angels. Instead of dwelling on it, he focused on Mal. “I’m sure I will.”

She stepped closer. “I love how much you like to cook.” She thought maybe he blushed a little more but he also seemed pleased.

“Cooking is … home. To me, I mean.”

“Home? How so?”

“I don’t know … Just … When I was growing up, I was always around the cook fire.”

“There was a fire in your kitchen?”

He paled just a little, but he was covered in flour, so Mal didn’t notice. “I mean … um … We had a wood cookstove. My mom was kind of a traditionalist.”

“That’s adorable.” He looked like it was such a fond memory that she refrained from asking why they weren’t still close.

“My sister-in-law, too. And man, could she cook. I was always at her and my brother’s house, under foot, trying to eat them out of house and home.” He looked away from her face for a second. When he looked back, his smile was firmly back in place. “That’s the most at home I ever felt, at the family hearth, so to speak. I think that’s why I like to cook so much. And the winter holidays is when it means the most to me, I guess.”

She reached up and brushed a little flour off his cheek. “So home is where the hearth is?”

He grinned this time. “Well, in Spain they call the fireplace el corazón del hogar.”

She blinked at him. “I’m not exactly failing Latin, and my French is excellent but I’ve never taken any Spanish at all.”

“It means home’s heart.”

“That’s beautiful,” she said.

“I’ve always thought it was interesting that the center of the home is the hearth, and our hearts are kind of the center of us.”

“Are you about to give me an etymology lesson? Because I don’t want to do any homework tonight either.”

“Perish the thought. They aren’t etymologically related anyway. So you’re safe. It’s just a happy coincidence.”

“If I thought it meant I could stay longer, I’d take a language lesson even if you had to fudge the whole thing.”

“You better go though. I feel like being late for church is probably frowned upon, tonight especially.”

She shrugged. “I only really go because it’s important to my dad.”

“Still. I know you wouldn’t want to disappoint him. And I know I don’t want to be the reason why you do,” he laughed a little nervously.

“He’s going to love you, Ben,” she said seriously. “Don’t you dare chicken out on me tomorrow just because you’re worried about meeting Dad. He’s nice. I promise.”

“I’ll be there. Bright and early,” he said solemnly.

She kissed him again, then wrapped the ribbons of her gift bag around her wrist and opened the door. “See you in the morning!” she called brightly.

“No peeking!” he called after her.

When he walked back toward the kitchen, Chris raised his eyes over the top of his book, and Ben could see that he was suppressing a laugh. “What?” he asked wryly.

“Nothing,” he snickered.

“Chris,” Ben said in his best mock-stern professorial voice, cultivated over the last year of being Chris’s assistant.

“It’s just … that’s a lovely shade on you.”

Ben frowned. “Huh? Shade?”

“That pink lipstick all over your face. It’s definitely your color.”

Ben reached up and touched his mouth. Yeah, that was Mal’s favorite lipgloss alright. It tasted like raspberries, sort of. He felt the rest of his face. His hand came away covered with flour and a little bit of sticky pink gloss. He grinned and shook his head. They must’ve painted quite a picture standing there smeared with cookie leavings and lipgloss. No wonder Chris was laughing at him.

“I’m one of those guys who can get away with wearing any color,” he said with a shrug. A car honked from out at the curb. Ben went to the front window and looked out. He started taking off the apron and dusting the flour out of his hair and off his face. “You got the cookies and stuff?” he asked Chris, sliding on the pair of shoes he grudgingly kept my the door.

Chris nodded. “Is that your ride to … work?” he finished, not sure what else to call whatever it was Ben was obligated to do this evening.

“Yeah. I’ll be back as soon after midnight as I can be,” he said, putting his wallet and his phone in his back pocket.

“You don’t look as stressed out about it as you did earlier,” Chris observed, rising to get the cookies out of the oven as the timer went off.

Ben shrugged. “I’ve had a pretty good evening, all things considered. And I’m going to see her tomorrow.” He smiled softly. “When Mal’s going to be there on the other side of it?”

“Yes?”

“I can get through anything.”

He slipped out the door, pulling on the hoodie that passed for a coat when it was really cold.

Chris looked at the door for several minutes, hoping fervently that was true.

 

The Twelfth Day of Fic-mas

quebec-2286405_1920

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.”

 

The Eleventh Day of Fic-mas …

stone-3475563_1920

For Auld Lang Syne

“Looks like I win by default.” The tall figure dressed in a simple, yet elegant, black tunic with subtle dark red piping, smiled. The sunrise flooding the glade with color seemed to reflect and dance in his eyes. To say he was handsome, or even pretty would be a gross understatement. He was quite possibly the loveliest being in all God’s creation. And he knew it.

“That’s not how this works. In fact, as I’ve said far too many times to count, Morning Star, I don’t need you or your brother here in order to do my job. I’d quite prefer to be left alone with my task.”

“Come now, Ashor,” he said, sounding entirely reasonable. “It’s only proper for you to allow us to witness the weighing, and to make our respective cases should any question arise.”

“Proper? That implies there’s something improper in my ignoring you, which no law or even custom would give you. Polite, perhaps. I’ll give you polite. Necessary? Not even a little. You both know it, too. I honestly think you do it just to annoy me.”

“We don’t try to annoy anyone. There are things that Michael and I are destined to …”

“Oh, look,” Ashor interrupted. “Speak of the …” He grinned and raised his eyebrows with amusement. “Devil’s brother.”

“Charming,” Lucifer observed with a raise of a single eyebrow. Amusement was not behind the expression.

Ashor smoothly ignored him. “Michael,” he called out. “Lovely to see you, as ever. I trust your Father is well,” Ashor said with a distinct twinkle.

Michael exchanged a look with his brother. “Um … well … Yes, of course, He’s well. Why would He be otherwise?” His feathers ruffled, indicating that offense was taken whether it was intended or not.

Ashor ignored the gesture. “Good, good. I was somewhat concerned. Heaven … and of course by that I mean God,” he said with a nod and a wink. “Seems to have taken an unusually keen interest in my work just lately.”

Michael cleared his throat. “We … that is … He felt it best, seeing as how Lucifer never misses one.”

“Suit yourself,” Ashor shrugged.

He turned his back on them and began the steep ascent up a mountain path. He didn’t have to, could have very easily just blinked into existence at the top, but he always enjoyed the walk. The snow crunched under foot, breaking the silence of the crisp early morning. Or rather it would have been breaking the silence if the two angels following him weren’t already bickering like children.

“Gentlemen, if you would be so kind.”

“What?” Lucifer inquired.

“Shhhh,” Ashor said, putting a finger to his lips.

“Oh, I’m so sorry,” Michael said quickly. “Is it time? Do you need silence for this?”

“No. You’re just very annoying.” Lucifer snickered. “Both of you.”

Ashor turned away as silence fell.

Smiling to himself, he continued on his way up the increasingly steep path, full of switchbacks and small rockslides, piles of snow and spots of bare ground where the tree branches overhead were too thick to allow much to collect beneath them.

The early pre-dawn light was faintly pink on the sparkling sparkling white that dominated most of the view. Ashor enjoyed observing how the plant life changed as he climbed higher and higher.

They were nearing the top where where most of what was left were ferns and evergreens. He paused for a moment in a field of cairns. Anyone who didn’t know the place would have thought he was among many graves, but quite the opposite.

This was a place the living came, either by the trail he had or as they passed through on a longer trek, to build the small rock monuments to mark an important event, celebrate a new beginning, even just say they’d been through, and yes, sometimes to mark a loss. But it was, above all, a place of life. And it was a crossroads, too. The sign right before it declared it as such.

Behind him, the brothers whispered, and he gave no indication that he heard every word as he stacked up a small pile of stones himself. Michael asked, “Is this the place?”

Lucifer replied, “No, it’s further up. He just does this. Every damned year.”

Ashor seated the final small stone, shaped like a little pyramid by the elements alone, on top of his pile, rose, and continued on his way. The path became less distinct, more difficult to follow, but he was enjoying the chill in the air, the way the crystals in the now and ice were starting to spark in the growing light, he was even getting to enjoy relative peace and quiet as the brothers hissed back and forth at each other out of even supernatural earshot. But Ashor was more than supernatural, or so he supposed he seemed to them. It was nice anyway. Michael was actually a welcome addition to this morning’s excursion. He kept Lucifer distracted, which saved Ashor from having to talk to him.

He was glad to be spared the effort. He loved this part of the day. There were huge glacial rocks up here, little scrubby mosses, even some lichens. And the trees suddenly gave way to a stunning view. Ashor stepped toward a rocky ledge. In front of him, the stars in the western sky were slowly fading, and the valley spilled on for miles to the north and south. If he’d turned around, he would have seen the sky to the east growing rosy with new dawn.

From behind him, off to the side, he heard Michael whisper, “I thought we’d be in the cave, where the veil is thin.”

“I thought so too when I first started coming, but no, every year, it’s up here at the dawn of the day. Such a strange out of the way place for it. I’d choose Stonehenge or the Great Pyramid or something grand. But that’s Ashor. Odd as you please, since time out of mind.”

Ashor cleared his throat dramatically. “Gentlemen, now I will have quiet, if you please.”

They became stone still and silent immediately.

Ashor stood, his eyes closed, as the morning sun cast the first rays of the new year in his chosen place over the valley below. Ashor opened himself, the entirety of his being, to the world, letting the collected thoughts and deeds of humanity wash over him. He took it in like water, like breath. After not more than a minute or two at most, he smiled, nodded, opened his eyes and turned to walk back down the mountain. “Lovely. Balance holds.”

“Wait, that’s it?” Michael asked his brother incredulously.

“I know. Kind of disappointing if you ask me,” Lucifer agreed.

They gave each other a very serious look and started after Ashor, catching up in a moment. “So, Ashor …” they began in unison.

“Don’t start again. The Balance is upheld, so there’s nothing for you to say. No case for you to make.”

“But, surely …”

“I know you both believe the child of prophecy has been born. And I know you’re both already scrambling after any scrap of information like it’s the Keys to The Kingdom.”

“We … I …” Michael began to protest.

“Has she?” Lucifer asked pointedly. “Been born, I mean, Keeper.”

Ashor raised a single eyebrow. “If I knew, I wouldn’t tell you.” Both their faces fell. “What I will tell you is … And this one’s on me, no charge at all … You’ll have your answer soon enough, boys. Happy New Year.”

He snapped his fingers and a sound like thunder knocked both angels onto their backs in the snow, but didn’t so much as rustle a tree branch or disturb the cardinal parked on the nearest one over their heads. Both brothers concluded, rightly, that it had been undignified magic just for them. They helped each other to their feet.

“What’s with him?” Michael asked.

“Who knows? The guy’s got issues.”

“I suppose. But, if he knows we’re aware of the prophecy, knows we’re looking, he probably sees that as us trying to stack the deck for our own sides.”

“We are,” Lucifer said. “That’s exactly what we’re doing.” He frowned, thinking.

“Are we still in agreement?”

“Come again?” Lucifer mumbled absently, clearly lost in his own head.

“Our agreement regarding the Scion and the implications of the situation.”

“Oh, that. Of course, brother. I will follow our agreement absolutely to the letter,” Lucifer replied with a sly grin as he popped back to Hell.

Michael stood there for a moment. “I’m going to have to take another look,” he murmured to himself. “I hate it when he smiles like that.” It could mean anything from he’d thought of something funny to he was about to start a war, he thought sourly as he walked back toward the ledge, thinking to enjoy the view of the sunrise over the pretty little valley.

He frowned at the dirty haze of woodsmoke hovering low over everything. The grating sounds of traffic had begun to rise to grate on his ears as well. He shook his head. “Happy New Year, mortals,” he spat. “Another year stretches before you to destroy this gift you’ve been given. Most favored, indeed,” he huffed dismissively.

Michael turned and walked back down the mountain, though he didn’t have to any more than Ashor or Lucifer did. Though he’d never admit it, long walks on Earth were a balm to his troubled spirit. It was such a beautiful place, so full of promise. It was a gift none who made their home here seemed to appreciate. Well, perhaps some did, but … free will and whatever. Michael’s musings were interrupted.

Raphael was trying to contact him. He was needed in Heaven immediately.

Enoch was at it again.