The Things We Can’t See

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

The Things We Can’t See

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You sure you’re done?” he teased. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She cleared her throat. “New home?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Really?”

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

“I hadn’t noticed,” she grinned.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Nah, White Christmas.”

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

*****

Failure at 40,000 Feet

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

Have fun and let us know what you think!

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

Merry Fic-mas!

Failure at 40,000 Feet

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Ow! Kid, c’mon, cut that out.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Oh, for f…” 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Another seat maybe?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I’m bored. And it’s fun.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He could …

He could be a vigilante.

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

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

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

He smiled.

He was going to need bigger sacks. 

*****

 

Feature Friday! Welcome Peter J. Berman

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Demons Run Lit is thrilled to welcome fellow fantasy author Peter J. Berman as our very first Feature Friday guest. His epic medieval fantasy Vengeance of Hope (pictured below) is available now! Just click the link.

Peter has also recently added a new feature to his website https://www.pjbermanbooks.com/ called Silrith’s Portal. It’s a database of the fantasy world of the Bennvikan where the Silrith series begun in Vengeance takes place.

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P.J. Berman grew up in Hertfordshire, England. Since then, after a brief but enjoyable period living in Plymouth, Devon, he has settled in the beautiful Welsh countryside of Carmarthenshire, along with his wife, their baby daughter and their crazy Labrador. Given where he has lived, he is probably one of the few people to be a fan of both Stevenage Football Club and the Scarlets.

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You can check out Peter’s website for upcoming releases, cover reveals, and more! You can also visit him on Facebook for book news, updates, and reading related fun. Additionally, Peter has a Facebook group for readers who are eager for even more insider information. Visit Goodreads for reviews of Vengeance of Hope and Peter’s thoughts on his own reading list!

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Also available for preorder King of the RepublicKing of the Republic

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Keep reading for Peter J. Berman’s exclusive interview with Jess of Demons Run Lit –

 

Jess: So, a lot of people seem to think that authors are socially awkward, and I’m afraid I perpetuate the stereotype when left to my own devices. What do you think about that? Are authors the nerds of the art world?

Peter: I don’t think I’ve met any authors who I would describe that way. As for whether it applies to me, I’ll let others be the judge.

Jess: I know we all have our own spin on it, our own demons, as it were, but for your own craft, what’s the hardest thing about writing?

Peter: Finding the time to write while raising a young child. Currently my opportunities to write War of Mercy and Blood and Greed while promoting Vengeance of Hope and King of the Republic are limited to my daughter’s nap times!

Jess: If I can we can pretend time and space don’t matter for a minute, and I could give you a night to have a book club with your favorite authors, which writers would you invite to join you?

Peter: Aside from your good self, I would invite Harry Sidebottom, Simon Scarrow, Joe Abercrombie, Peter V Brett, Conn Iggulden, Anthony Riches, Ben Kane, Alex Rutherford and Bernard Cornwell – and my wife would kill me if I didn’t invite J.K.Rowling! I should also mention that I am very much enjoying reading S.L.Briden’s ‘From the Ashes’, at the moment. The way things are going, I’ll be adding her to my list of favorite authors too!

Jess: Do you have kids? Any budding writers?

Peter: I have just the one child at the moment. She’s 17-months-old, so it’s hard to know how her writing will be, but she does dance every time she hears the faintest music, so who knows, she might do that instead!

Jess: I know I have done this with at least one character and I certainly constantly cast my work, but … Have you ever written a character with an actor in mind?

Peter: Yes, I do this with most of them. I mentally cast actors in other authors’ work as well, especially if it is something that hasn’t yet been dramatized.

Jess: I bet I already know the answer to this, since I think most writers are true to type as book hoarders … Do you have a library at home?

Peter: Not yet, but I dream of changing that one day.

Jess: How liberal are you in term of expressing ideas in your books?

Peter: While I don’t write books with the intention of being political, I do write about issues such as homophobia, the class divide and intolerance of religious diversity. 

Jess: If you could live anywhere in the world, which country would you choose and why?

Peter: I’d have to say Sweden. It’s the epitome of the Scandinavian ideal. Their history is fascinating, their countryside is stunning and Stockholm is arguably the most impressively beautiful city I have ever seen. Nature, history and ultra-modernity, all in a perfect balance. What’s not to like?

Jess: Do your novels carry a message?

Peter: Vengeance of Hope has a question that is central to the whole book and the series that follows. That question is Can freedom ever be for all? In my opinion, the short answer is yes.

The long answer, however, is that freedom for everyone is a difficult thing to achieve if there is already inequality, as it requires every member of society to be on board with that idea in order for it to work. In reality, there always seem to be a small number of powerful people who do not want to share that power with others. In Vengeance of Hope, we look at three different freedom fighters and ride with them as they attempt to solve this problem.

Jess: Do you read your own work?

Peter: While it’s very important that writers hire an editor, I think it’s also important that you proofread your work thoroughly. Additionally, when writing subsequent books in a series, it’s a good idea to reread the preceding books and make notes in order to fact-check.

Jess: Do you believe anyone can be a writer?

Peter: Yes. All you need is motivation, practice and an idea. It doesn’t even have to be a particularly amazing idea. It just has to be an idea that makes sense and that you are telling or retelling in your own unique way. As writers often say, its your story and nobody can tell it the way you can.

Jess: Thank you, Peter for taking the time to join us and share your work. Demons Run Lit thoroughly enjoyed having you for Feature Friday!

 

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If you are a fellow creator and would like to appear on Demonsrunlit.com for a Feature Friday, contact us at demonsrunlit@gmail.com and we’ll be happy to set something up. Whether you paint, or draw, write, or sing; if you’re an actor, a poet, a chef, a performance artist … If you are making the world a better, more interesting place through creativity, by building, rather than destroying, we may be able to help you share your story.

 

*****

 

The Taste of Fear

Author’s Note – This is another little fiction from a one word prompt over on Instagram. The word was taste. I saw a lot of responses that were either foodie or sexy. And I was tempted. But Ben was feeling chatty. He shared a dream with me. He does that. Let’s me have his nightmares sometimes. So this is what we got instead. The Taste of Fear. ~ J

Copy of Taste

The blackness was total.

It went past mere idea or circumstance.

It was physical.

First it was an enemy. It left him flailing, yelling, then finally panting and sweating.

After a while when it was all there was, he tired of that.

Then the dark around him, so smooth, so complete, so constant, was almost a friend. But the kind you knew would stab you in the back eventually. You just couldn’t prove it.

He didn’t remember it, but they must have grabbed him at that last stop.

Why leave him like this? If he was caught, why not just get it over with? 

He shivered. 

Over probably wasn’t on the docket. Not any time soon. But even torture might be preferable to this unending, muffling, blanket of dark silence. 

Okay, maybe not. 

But the nothingness was a torture of its own.

He wasn’t restrained or hurt. He felt around carefully. Nothing near him but the ground beneath him. So smooth, he wasn’t sure what it might be. Not earth, not pavement. It was strange but it was solid. Probably.

Stay calm. You have nothing to gain by losing your shit right now.

He rose carefully. One hand above him in case there was a low ceiling, the other protectively in front of him, for no particular reason other than reflex. Once he was upright, he reached out to explore, slowly at first. It seemed there was truly nothing around him. 

“Hello?”

Not even an echo. His voice sounded like something meant to be experienced in three dimensions squashed onto a piece of paper.

He swallowed hard. 

Oblivion.

This is oblivion.

They found you.

And instead of revenge or torment, they put an end to you. 

That’s why I don’t remember anything.

The final death.

But it’s even worse than you thought.

Because I’m still here.

In the dark.

Alone.

Forever.

An insidious, familiar, unwelcome, long despised voice whispered in his ear, “I can taste your fear.”

Panic came then. 

Ben bolted upright in bed, half falling out of it before Mal caught his arm. “Hey, hey, it’s okay,” she soothed in familiar tones, gathering him close. “You’re okay. Just another dream.”

Ben lay back down next to her for a while, letting his breathing return to normal, appreciating that she didn’t ask about his nightmares.

When faint grey light peeked in the curtains, he leaned in and kissed her cheek. She was almost back asleep. “I’m going for a run.”

“‘Kay,” she murmured.

Ben got a couple of miles in before he had to stop, leaning against a tree, gasping.

Almost like it was real, he heard the voice in his ear again.

“You’ll never be able to stop running.”

Ben gasped and looked around. There was no one there.

Still, the whisper came again.

“And I can still taste your fear.”

*****

Home

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

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

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

Aife, Ted, and Petra all agreed.

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

Ben grinned around his beer.

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

“Mmmm?”

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

Okay, just the food. That’s all.

She took another bite of pizza.

Say something.

“It’s good.”

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

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

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

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

Petra shrugged. “Bathroom, I think.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She sniffed. “Thanks.”

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

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

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

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

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

“Me, too.”

*****

Image by Karsten Paulick from Pixabay

Musical Moment

Author’s Note – Just another little moment that could appear in Book II. Because I was feeling shippy. ~ J

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She shifted carefully, trying to make her head light since it was resting in the middle of his belly. 

He reached out and smoothed her hair. “Do you need to move?”

“No, I like you being a pillow.” She turned on her side to face him and he squirmed almost imperceptibly. “Am I tickling?” she asked, purposely talking close to his skin.

He adjusted himself under her again and smirked. “Only when you’re trying.”

“Hey, turn that up.”

Ben grinned. “You like Social Distortion?”

“Is that who this is? I … I like the words.”

They listened quietly for a few moments.

How many times have you asked yourself?

Is this the hand of fate now that I’ve been dealt?

You’re so disillusioned this can’t be real

And you can’t stand now the way you feel

I don’t care about what they say

I won’t live or die that way

Tired of figuring out things on my own

Angel’s wings won’t you carry me home?

She sighed. “I feel like this guy must know you.”

Ben smiled down at her. She was achingly lovely with her curly hair spilled over his bare stomach. It was so nice to be alone for a few hours. “I guess maybe he does. After a fashion. That dude. His name’s Mike Ness. We’ve both been through some shit. I like him. I visited him sometimes, back when I could just be a spirit.”

“Does he know that?”

Ben blushed. “Of course not. I don’t … Not unless somebody summons me. His music though … You’re right. I feel like he knows me.”

I triumphed in the face of adversity

And I became the man I never thought I’d be

And now my biggest challenge, a thing called love

I guess I’m not as tough as I thought I was

I don’t care about what they say

I wanna marry you someday

When I wake up, it’s a brand new day

Angel’s wings gonna carry us away

“Even that stuff?” she smiled. He was blushing furiously.

He swallowed hard. That was a direct question and it wasn’t one he could deflect. It cut him too deeply. “Especially that stuff.”

“You’d marry me if you could?” 

“In a heartbeat,” His face was so hot it hurt. “I really would.”

She clasped his hand, the ring he’d made for her birthday, his promise for their page in that long boring book they’d first claimed on prom night, highly visible.

“Me, too.”

*****

All lyrics belong to the unbelievably talented band Social Distortion and if you don’t already listen to them, go do it, now. Ben says so.

Image by JayMantri from Pixabay

Dirty

Author’s Note – Here’s another little Arbitratus Trilogy Fanfic that comes from an Instagram one word challenge. This one could fit just about anywhere mid-Book II, Before the Dawn (coming soon, I promise). The word was ‘Dirty’. I had fun with this one. ~ J

Dirty

“Hold still,” she grumped, taking his arm and turning it over for the third time.

“Mal, I’m fine.” Ben tried to pull his arm away from her again, but her hold on his wrist was too firm. “It’s just a scrape.”

She rolled her eyes. “This is not a scrape.”

He shrugged, not exactly interested in looking at it all that closely anyway. He tried a charming grin. “Well … That’s what I get for showing off by climbing ledges to impress a girl I already know is going to sleep with me.”

He tugged at his arm again.

She adjusted her grip and went back to work. “Quit being a baby and let me clean this up.”

“Mal, come on. Just do your healing power magic thingy. I rinsed it off already in the…”

“Filthy stream next to the road? Yeah, I know. I was there.” She sounded just a little pissed off.

“Ow!” He jumped a little. “Take it easy!” he groused, trying once again, unsuccessfully, to reclaim his injured arm. 

“I’m sorry.” She stopped trying to pick gravel out of the gash. “But Ben, this is really dirty. I need to clean it up before I can try healing it.”

“I don’t see why.”

“It’d be pretty gross if I magiced you into an arm full of pebbles and leaves because I was careless and closed it all up in there.”

He wrinkled his nose. “I guess that would be kind of gross. But it’s not like it can get infected or anything … I mean I did all those spells to protect …”

“You had an Archangel tell you you could basically pass for human these days. Who knows what Uncle Davi’s spell did to all those protections.”

Ben stopped squirming. “Christ. I never thought about that.” He started chewing his lip.

She looked up at him again with concern. “Am I really hurting you?”

“No … Um … I mean, a little, but it’s okay. I was just …”

“What’s the matter, Ben?”

“Suddenly feeling a little worried about my not-deal-with-human-stuff magic maybe not being foolproof, I guess.”

Tan as he was, she almost thought he looked a little pale. “Well, I mean, obviously you still have powers and everything. I wasn’t about to drag you into town for a tetanus shot or anything.”

He rolled his eyes. “Not what I was thinking about. But good. Because gross.”

Oh. She smirked. “I’m still on the Pill, if that makes you feel any better.”

He laughed, flushing just a little. “It does, actually.”

He let her just finish what she was doing and when she closed her eyes to use her healing powers, he closed his too. Watching her do that made him feel weirdly self conscious. After a minute or two, she released his arm.

“There. All better.”

He opened his eyes and grinned at her. “Thanks.”

“The rest of you is still all grubby from wiping out.”

“Yeah. I’m pretty filthy.”

“Shower?”

“When do I ever say no to that?”

*****

Lucky 13

Author’s note – Here’s another little piece inspired by our Instagram for Friday the 13th. It features Caleb Saint Claire, of the Order of the Temple of Solomon, whom you may have met in The Twelve Days of Fic-Mas. We never meant to have him turn into a series regular, so to speak, but he’s just too much fun to not keep having back.

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Caleb skidded around the corner on wet pavement, almost wiping out. He’d lost his partner a couple of blocks ago. Damned rookie was going to be getting up and hitting the hills with a training unit every morning for the next month if Caleb had anything to say about it. And he did. You don’t get to call yourself a Knight of the Order if you crap out after chasing a homicidal demon eight blocks.

That said, Caleb was starting to lose steam, himself. Of course, he had the excuse of bleeding freely from several deep scratches. He was also pretty sure this bastard’s claws were venomous, because he had started to feel a little woozy, too. 

At least they weren’t far from the local safe house. Once the threat was neutralized, could have the counter-potion in less than ten minutes. Or sooner. He remembered his ability to call them it. It was kind of nice to not be all on your own occasionally. He ducked down an alley and reached for his radio to call for some assistance. 

His next breath was crushed out of him as he slammed with unsurprising supernatural force against the wet brick wall. Two of the creatures four arms pinned him while the others went through his pockets. 

“Hey, there, Ormru,” Caleb said wryly, wanting to see the demon flinch at hearing its name.

He wasn’t disappointed. The distraction did allow him to start to wriggle free, just a bit. But it’s hot breath in his face made him cringe a second later. “Caleb Saint Claire.”

It knew him, too. Great.

“Taking out a member of the Order is an eternity long dream of mine. The fact that it’s you will be quite a feather in my cap.”

Caleb flashed a tight smile. “I imagine it would be.”

“Doing it on Friday the 13th will be the coup of the week. I’ve always thought that unlucky slaughter worth duplicating.”

Caleb finally got his left hand around to the small of his back where he’d been inching toward. He thrust the ceremonial dagger into the demon’s middle with a grunt. Ormru crumpled to the ground, smoking already.

“That’s a myth.” Caleb walked away, cleaning his blade on the handkerchief he kept in his pocket for that purpose. 

He reached the street and Novice Helms ran up to him. “Back-up’s on its way, and I told them to bring a Healer.”

“Good.” Maybe he wouldn’t have to run the kid ragged after all. He’d have a chat with him about separating from his partner without a word, but at least the kid’s head had been in the game.

As though reading Caleb’s mind, Helms assured him, “I was right behind you, but I found a nest.”

Caleb’s eyebrows went up, impressed. “Where?”

Helms pointed at a crumbling apartment building back up the street.

Caleb grinned. “Well, isn’t this just our lucky day.”

 

Image by Daniel Dino-Slofer from Pixabay

Please

Author’s Note – Here’s another little scene that doesn’t physically appear in The Arbitratus Trilogy, but it could. It fits into Always Darkest, or Before the Dawn. Mal spends a lot of time worrying about Ben, about their future. This is just a moment of real vulnerability that she tries to keep to herself. 

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Mal came back to bed quietly. She didn’t want to wake him, but she didn’t think she could go back to sleep. At least they both preferred sleeping with the light on lately. So, that wouldn’t disturb him.

She chewed her lip for a few minutes, staring off into space. Nope, definitely not sleepy anymore. And no wonder, after the dream she’d had. 

She wouldn’t let herself focus on or recall any of the details too vividly. 

All she knew was that they’d been in danger and Ben put himself in the way of devils and angels in a place of almost total darkness and that some great Being who she thought must have been God showed up and instead of helping, instead of saving Ben, He’d turned away indifferently. 

Ben had looked at her with eyes like hot coals. He was burning from the inside. 

He couldn’t even cry out. 

He wasn’t being consumed by fire, he was becoming it. 

She fell to her knees and he just started disappearing, flaking away like paper in a hot stove. 

She screamed.

She’d woken up so sweaty and shaky, she’d needed to change her clothes and go get a cup of tea. The idea of losing him to Hell, or any other power, plagued her more and more these days. Now, she felt tremors still coursing up and down her arms. 

Maybe a distraction would help. 

Now was as good a time as any to use her journal, she supposed. She reached for it, balanced on the edge of her nightstand.Pen in hand, she stared at a blank page for a long time. 

A tear struck the empty space and made a bright purple blotch on the pale lavender paper. 

She blinked and it was joined by more. She set it aside and hugged her knees, burying her face and trying to keep her sobs quiet. 

“Please,” she whispered. 

She hadn’t prayed in a long time. And it didn’t get any more articulate than that. But she thought. Hoped. Believed. That if anyone was listening, He’d know what her desperate plea meant.

“Just please.”

*****

Image by Ulrike Mai from Pixabay

Fire

Author’s Note: Here’s another little Arbitratus Trilogy Fanfic that resulted from a one word prompt challenge over on IG. It’s something that doesn’t happen in Book II, Before the Dawn. But like so many of these little fictions, it could. 

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Their after dinner walk had gone on for longer than was probably smart. The temperature was dropping rapidly as the sun sank behind the mountains. The breeze rustled the frost stiffened trees. It was nice to be away from populations centers. There was less to worry about in terms of getting noticed, getting recognized, getting caught. But maybe they should head south again. It was too damned cold around here.

Mal untwined her fingers from Ben’s. “Sorry. I need my gloves.”

Ben was already pulling on the lopsided mittens she’d knitted him. “Same. We should head back anyway. It’s getting dark.”

They decided to cut across a couple of back yards to get back to the campground faster. “What is that?” Mal asked cocking her head.

Ben paused and listened, spending the energy on magically enhancing his hearing.

“Fire,” he said quietly.

“Where?”

He listened again then pointed. “There.”

They took off running and skidded to a stop in the yard of a large farmhouse already well on its way to burning down. Shouts and pleas for help came from inside. “Stay here,” he said firmly. “Call 911.”

“You’re not going in there!”

“Official help is pretty far out. And … there’s kids in there. I can hear them.”

She sighed and wrapped her fingers around the fabric of his sleeve. “Why do you have to be such a big damned hero all the time?!?”

“Well, you’ve got the damned part right.” He smirked and squeezed her hand, gently encouraging her to release his jacket. “I’m a demon, not a hero.”

She grabbed him by the back of his neck and kissed him quickly, then gave him a light shove toward the building. As he ran toward the calls for help she sighed again. “Pretty sure you can be both.”

She got out her phone and made the call to emergency services.

~~~~~

In bed, later that night, whispering so as not to disturb the others in the camper who were already asleep, Mal brushed his slightly singed bangs off his forehead. “How are you feeling now?”

“I’m good.”

“You really don’t hurt anymore?” He huffed a little sigh that told her he thought she was fussing unnecessarily but he didn’t want to call her out for it. “I know the burns look okay now, but I’m never sure about this magic stuff. Like what do I know about healing nerves and stuff?”

“All better. I promise.” Then he reached up, more to prove he really wasn’t in pain than anything else, and plucked at his uneven hair. “Just wish your healing powers included cosmetic repairs.”

She snorted laughter. “It doesn’t look bad. Your hands did though. I’m glad I could fix them.”

“Me, too. Burns really hurt,” he admitted. “Thanks.”

“And I’m glad you were a big hero for those kids.”

“I’m not…”

“Don’t argue. Or I’ll take back the healing stuff.”

“Pretty sure that’s not how those powers work.” Then he frowned. “Right?”

“Probably. But still.”

He laughed. “Not a hero.”

“If you can’t admit to being one in general, will you accept being my hero then?” She put her head against his chest.

“I can live with that.”

He was still smiling when he dozed off a while later.

*****

Image by Simon Matzinger from Pixabay