New (Year) World Order

Authors’ Note: Today’s story is another ‘missing scene’ from Always Darkest. It takes place over holiday break. Ben has been acting as Chris’s research assistant for a while now. It’s mostly a front for the two of them working on the prophecy while they’re at school. But occasionally they have to do those jobs for real. The Georgia Guidestones are a real sculpture/monument/whatever about two hours from Atlanta. There are multiple conspiracy theories behind these creepy stones. But I like Ben’s explanation.

New (Year) World Order

Ben scrambled to pick up Chris’s notes, lest he lose the Professor on the way to his next speaking engagement. But by the time he got them all in the briefcase, he’d lost Chris in a sea of neutral tweed. “Is there any other kind?” he mumbled to himself around the pen between his teeth.

He walked purposefully up the aisle, turning up the volume on his powers a little to see if he could pick his specific professor out of this crowd of them. He didn’t slow down on his way to the nearest set of double doors to exit the lecture hall, mostly because he was pretty sure Professor Highly Distractible had already walked right out without him. 

It was probably owing to the devastating redhead who headed up the archaeology department for one of the host universities. Not that Chris had noticed the woman was gorgeous and definitely hitting on him. All he’d probably heard was her dangling access to their online archive in front of him. 

Ben made it into the broad hallway, looked around, and realized he had no idea which direction to even start off in. He scanned the crowd for red hair, since looking for one dark haired dude in a stereotypical jacket was an exercise in futility. 

He saw her a second later as she brushed past him, all but stomping on his feet in her sensible low heels, looking extremely disgruntled. He snickered under his breath. When Dr. Whateverhernamewas started talking to Chris before the presentation, Ben had thought to himself that he could never let Chris get in the same room with Aife based on his initial reaction to her. Then it became clear his interest lay only in the name of the university on her identifying lanyard.

Chris wasn’t exactly clueless when it came to women, but when he was focused on his academic interests, as he was today, Ben was pretty sure the woman in question could do a strip tease while dressed in the only surviving document from the Library at Alexandria, and all the man would pay any attention to was trying to read while she was unwrapping.

At least he had a general sense of where to look now. He headed that way at a brisk clip, hoping that maybe all of these people were headed to the same lecture, so it wouldn’t matter if he caught up. Unfortunately, they started peeling off the crowd for various doors. Damn it … Oh, well. He’s the one who left his research assistant in the dust, so if he doesn’t have his notes for the next round, that’s his own damned fault. 

Then Ben thought he caught sight of Chris rounding the corner up ahead. He called out, “Dr. Guerriero!” Not so much as a flicker. “Dr. G!” he called again, a bit louder. He thought maybe using the name his students all used for him would get him somewhere, but no such luck. He rounded the corner and in a fit of total exasperation all but shouted, “Chris! Hold up!”

Finally, the wayward academic came to a halt and turned around. “Ben! I’m so sorry. I was in a rush to get to the next room ahead of the crowd.”

Ben handed off the briefcase full of notes and papers. “Yeah, I gather you didn’t even slow down long enough to get that very attractive department head’s number.”

Chris grinned sheepishly. “I actually did. What are your plans for the evening?”

Ben tilted his head, a bit confused as to why that would matter. “Honestly? I was planning on hanging in the room….”

“We’re in Atlanta, on New Year’s Eve, no less, and you’re going to spend another night in our hotel?”

Ben shrugged. “I mean, yeah. Mal and I made plans to Skype later.”

“You’ve only known each other for a month. Is it really that serious?”

Ben pulled an elaborate frown. “We’ve known each other since the middle of November. And … yeah … no … I don’t know.”

“Your expression says you do know.”

Ben felt the temperature under his collar start to climb, and his face followed a second later. “Well, yeah, maybe I do. And whether I know anything else or not, I know I’ll be in our room when she calls later. And even though I’m way the Hell down here in Georgia, we’re still going to ring in the New Year together. I’d just travel the convenient demon way so I could see her, but I couldn’t exactly explain it.” Then he remembered what started the inquiry into his plans to begin with. “Why? What difference does it make?”

“Dr. Williams invited me out for drinks. She also invited her graduate assistant along so I thought perhaps….”

Ben snorted a laugh. “I don’t think she meant you should invite me, Professor Ruggedly Handsome.”

“What do you … Oh! Oh … Well, that does explain why she looked annoyed when I said I’d ask you.”

“So, call her and tell her you’d be happy to have drinks with the two of them. Just don’t bring them both back to our hotel. I plan on getting some sleep tonight!”

“I … I don’t … You really think…?”

“You’ll have to figure it out later, Professor. They’re about to introduce you.”

Chris turned to enter the lecture hall, then looked over his shoulder. “Aren’t you coming?”

“To hear you give the same lecture you’ve been giving all day again? Pass. Can you live without me to wrap up?”

“Certainly. Why?”

“It’s late enough in the afternoon that Mal’s probably done at the gallery. I thought  I’d head back to the room and give her a call and firm up our plans for later.”

Chris looked like he’d comment further, but a wave of applause swelled inside the lecture hall. He hurried away to give another rendition of his popular lecture series.

Ben got out his phone and summoned an Uber.

***

When Chris got back to their room, Ben was sprawled across his bed, TV tuned to an MMA pay-per-view fight. Several styrofoam containers were strewn all over the bed, and one rested on his stomach. “Hey,” he greeted absently.

Chris put down his briefcase and car keys. “You somehow don’t look like a young man anticipating a nice long skype session with anyone, least of all with someone important enough to send the Master of Expression stammering on a regular basis,” he observed in a lightly teasing tone.

“Mmm.” Ben took a bite of the hot wings that were the current version of eating his feelings. The cheeseburger and chocolate cake had proven inadequate.

“What’s the matter?”

Ben huffed a sigh, then wiped his hands on the napkin next to him. “Well … for starters, I’m starting to get the feeling that Mal’s bestie is not a fan of me.”

“How so?” Chris asked, sitting down on the edge of his bed.

“She threw a hissy when Mal told her she wasn’t coming to her New Year’s Eve party.”

“Mal doesn’t strike me as a young woman who lets her friends make her decisions for her.”

Ben smiled at that. “She definitely isn’t. But she felt bad about it. Even Teddy is going and he’s not a big partier. But it’s New Year’s Eve. I told her she should go. We don’t have to skype half the night. We can just talk for a few minutes at midnight. Then she’s not on the outs with her friends, but we still get to say Happy New Year to each other first.”

Chris looked at him for a long moment. “I’m somewhat surprised I didn’t find you here drowning your sorrows along with consuming the rest of the room service menu.”

“Yeah, well, I tried to, but I forgot my ID says I’m only twenty, so in addition to not having any beer, I also got a lecture from the lady who delivered the food.”

“For what?”

Ben managed a reasonably sincere grin. “For trying to underage drink on my dad’s hotel bill.”

“Would you like a fatherly lecture to cap off your afternoon?”

“Listen to you give another lecture? Haven’t I suffered enough the last two days?” 

“I suppose so,” Chris chuckled. “Do you want to go get a bite to eat out on the town? Distract yourself from your disappointment?”

Ben shrugged. “I’ve eaten my weight in most of the menu this afternoon, so I’m not really hungry. Besides, what happened to your fellow professor and her friend?”

Chris shook his head. “We met briefly, but you were right about her intentions.”

“So what are you doing here? I know you do the Catholic school teacher thing really well, and I know you take your faith seriously, man, but … In your heart of hearts, tell me you’re not still a Roman.”

“Ben, you know as well as I, that was a very long time ago, and–”

“And nothing. You still haven’t dropped your ‘Gifts of the Roman Empire’ assignment from your Freshman lesson plan, so don’t try to tell me–”

“Even if that were the case, and it’s not,” Chris said, looking so offended Ben almost laughed out loud. “Her ‘friend’ is perhaps twenty-three. She looks like one of my students.”

“Alright, dude. You do you.” He snorted another laugh. “In fact, I guess that’s what you chose for your evening plans anyway.”

This time Chris laughed. “Alright. Whenever you get … what is it you always say….”

“Salty?”

“Exactly. Whenever you get this salty, I know it’s time to do something to get you out of your own head.”

Ben sat up, putting aside his room service container. “I wouldn’t hate some distraction, but going out anywhere tonight is gonna suck. It’ll just be crowded and obnoxious.”

Chris opened the drawer of his nightstand and pulled out the plethora of tourist brochures the hotel provided. He started rifling through them. “What about Stone Mountain Park?”

Ben shook his head. “Nah. It’s only like 35 degrees this afternoon. I have no desire to freeze my ass off to look at a big rock.”

“I thought you, and I quote, ‘run hot’.”

Ben snickered. “Okay, you got me. It sounds super boring. Parks are for going running.”

“Or sitting on benches and brooding?”

He laughed a little. “Or that.”

“Okay … Georgia Aquarium?”

“They’re gonna be closing like any minute. Besides, I went yesterday when you were at that speaker cocktail thingy.”

“Was it any good?”

“I mean, yeah, if you like fish.”

“Do you?”

“Not especially,” Ben laughed. “I mean, unless they’re battered, fully cooked, and on a plate. With fries.”

“The Fox Theater apparently has a performance this evening….”

“It’s the ballet. I already checked.” Ben glanced at the TV. “Besides, the card for the fight is pretty good. And you’re old enough to get us some beer, aren’t you … Dad?”

“I suppose we could just watch the … Oh, this looks interesting.”

“What does?”

“The Georgia Guidestones … It’s a bit of a drive, but … they have special hours this evening.”

“I thought we already covered that it’s cold and rocks are boring.”

“This doesn’t look boring at all. It looks … quite mysterious. There’s apparently a list of commandments written in twelve different languages. And no one knows why it was built or who commissioned it.”

Ben got up and went into the bathroom to wash his hands. He grabbed his sweatshirt off the back of the door and then went and got the keys to the rental car off the table by the door. “Alright, dude. Let’s go see these fascinating rocks.”

***

Ben hadn’t been wrong about the general business of the city. The closer it got toward evening, the busier the streets were. Ben wasn’t an enthusiastic driver on his best day, and he hadn’t especially wanted to drive while they were here at all. But in his effort to find something to distract Ben, Chris had managed to totally distract himself. Ben figured he was better off doing the driving and letting Chris dive down the rabbit hole of the Guidestones on his tablet.

Ben had to laugh to himself at how caught up in the hype his normally staid roommate got as they made their way up Route 77, deep into rural northeastern Georgia. He’d given up on listening to music after the first forty minutes of the two hour drive, because Chris was determined to educate Ben on the history and significance of the monument, despite how shrouded in mystery all aspects of it were. Ben didn’t bother to mention that he was well aware of the stones and where they’d come from. It was honestly more fun to see Chris gone full tourist.

“Back in 1979 to 1980, the Elberton Granite Finishing Company performed the construction and inscription, apparently for someone named R.C. Christian. He said he represented ‘a small group of loyal Americans’.”

“Oh good,” Ben observed wryly. “Things always end well when people start using language like that. Did they want to ‘make America great, too?”

“Mmm,” Chris mumbled as he continued reading. A while later, he spoke again. “The languages are an odd mix … English, Spanish, Swahili, Hindi, Hebrew, Arabic, Traditional Chinese, and Russian. Do you speak all of those?”

“And then some,” Ben said, pulling into a gas station. “Want anything?”

“No, no, I’m fine,” Chris replied without looking up from his tablet.

He didn’t look up when Ben climbed back in with Dr. Pepper and Twinkies either.

“There’s apparently quite a number of astrological and astronomical features built into it as well, not unlike Stonehenge. It is aligned to the 18.6 year lunar declination cycle … it marks noon each day with a hole drilled for the sun, which shows the date of that day … it has places to view the solstices and equinoxes … it has a place to view the North Star….”

“It’s a regular star gazer’s dream then.”

After a few more minutes, Chris spoke again. “The inscriptions are … upsetting.” When Ben didn’t ask what they were, Chris went on anyway. “Maintain humanity under 500,000,000 in perpetual balance with nature. Guide reproduction wisely — improving fitness and diversity. Unite humanity with a living new language.

Rule passion — faith — tradition — and all things with tempered reason. Protect people and nations with fair laws and just courts. Let all nations rule internally resolving external disputes in a world court. Avoid petty laws and useless officials. Balance personal rights with social duties. Prize truth — beauty — love — seeking harmony with the infinite. Be not a cancer on the earth — Leave room for nature — Leave room for nature.”

“Well, Mal would be totally on board with all the reason stuff. And … Reduce, reuse, recycle and teach everyone Esperanto don’t seem too bad.” Ben said, knowing he was baiting Chris a little.

“Maintain humanity below five hundred million! Guide reproduction! Ben–”

“You didn’t let me finish.” Ben laughed. “The genocide and eugenics are a little problematic.”

“You’re being funny, but this is absolutely harrowing.”

“Yeah, well, there’s weird stuff all over the place.”

“But not all the weird stuff was built within the last fifty years by someone with a terrifying agenda.”

“True story,” Ben agreed. “And hey, you’re about to be able to judge them for yourself.” He pointed to the sign just ahead of them where another car was pulling in.

They parked and walked toward the strange monument made up of four tall flat pieces of granite and capped with another along the top. Ben had to admit, the size was impressive. But it wasn’t nearly as entertaining as the small crowd milling around it. Or Chris’s reaction to them.

One woman squinted at the pamphlet she’d picked up at the entrance to the grounds and said to the man who was with her, “Some elegant gray-haired man paid a ridiculous amount of money for this place to be built. And the builders had to agree never to reveal his identity to the world.”

A kid from another group who looked to be around Ben’s apparent age chimed in, “I heard that it was the Illuminati.”

Ben was going to stay quiet, but decided egging on the crowd would be more fun. “Now, see, I read that it was the Rosicrucians. That’s why the dude who commissioned the place went by R.C. Christian.”

“Oh wow!” the kid said like Ben had offered the most profound piece of information he’d ever heard. Then his face went blank for a second. “Wait. What’s a Rosicrucian?”

Ben was spared answering by the teenager with the first couple who’d spoke about the monument as they approached. “It wasn’t any of those. Ted Turner did it. Fuckin’ globalist,” she spat.

“I’m guessing you watch a lot of Alex Jones, huh?” Ben asked. His opinion of Infowars and its host were pretty obvious from his tone and he wasn’t even sorry. 

“That’s where the real news is at,” said the girl’s father. “You need to open up your eyes to the truth, boy.”

The woman took a slightly aggressive step their way. “You won’t think it’s funny when the New World Order decides you’re not on the list to be in that five million people, son.”

Ben rolled his eyes. “Five hundred million.” 

She puffed an annoyed sigh, heaved dramatically for their benefit and walked away. 

Ben spoke quietly aside to Chris, “Oh, for fuck’s sake, they honestly think CNN is trying to take over the world.”

Chris led him away to look at something. When they got out of earshot, Chris chastised him slightly. “You really think challenging people like that is a wise idea?”

“Yeah,” he nodded seriously. “I actually do. That kind of crap leaves people ripe for a deal. Or for going in a bad direction until there’s no turning around. The road to Hell isn’t just paved with good intentions, Chris.”

“Alright. I see your point. But maybe let’s just do what we came for instead of trying to save the local Fox affiliate’s viewership from eternal damnation.” His eyes twinkled. “Since it’s already a foregone conclusion.”

“I thought you were serious!” Ben cracked up. “Are you sure you shouldn’t be teaching in the Theater Department?”

Chris bowed with a flourish worthy of The Globe Theater. “Are you ready to let that family go wherever it is they’re headed?”

“Sure. They seem kind of beyond my help anyway.” He made a halo of his hands and held it over his head until Chris laughed at him

They walked around the monument a little more. Chris looked over the various inscriptions, listened to the conversations others were having, and peered through the astronomical openings on the monument. “You know,” he said, eye up to the North Star locator. “This is really remarkably engineered.”

“It would be remarkable if it hadn’t been built in the late 20th century. Instead it’s just big and faux-creepy.”

Chris stood and looked at him in the fading light. “You seem to be taking this awfully lightly. And you’re the only one here doing so, you may have noticed.”

“Because I know it’s bullshit, Chris.”

“You’ve been here before.”

“Yeah.”

“For Hell?”

Ben snickered. “For weed. And, you know, company.”

“I beg your pardon?”

“I was in Atlanta for a music festival a while back. I hitched a ride with a group of college kids. Wound up crashing with them for a couple days.”

“And?”

“And the girl was pretty, the weed was decent, and the guys were kind of a hoot. Couple of real conspiracy buffs. They wanted to come out here, so I said, ‘fuck it’, and tagged along.”

“You weren’t impressed the first time either, I take it.”

“Their baked-off-their-asses theorizing about an insidious global cabal were almost as funny as yours on the way here,” he smirked.

“You thought it was funny listening to me express concern over a plot to exterminate all but a fraction of the world’s population was funny?”

“Only a little,” Ben laughed. 

Chris took in Ben’s easy smile and relaxed posture. “So they aren’t from Hell?”

“They’re from some dipshit who thinks he’s gonna do the world a favor by … I’m not entirely sure.”

“Is he from Hell?” Chris asked, wincing in anticipation of an affirmative.

Ben laughed heartily. “No. But I guarantee that’s where he’s headed when the deal that got him the money to build this crap comes due.”

Chris blinked as though the answer startled him. “But what about whatever plan was behind it? You don’t think he–”

“Not a chance. Hell likes souls to keep filtering its way, regular like. A big global disaster without a heavy hand from them? They’d never let it play out.” 

He grinned and squared his shoulders. Then he paced a few steps back and forth in front of his audience, grin morphing into a smirk when Chris folded his arms in amused mock-irritation at the near perfect impression Ben was currently giving of the professor’s teaching style. 

“You see, Class, what most people on Earth fail to recognize is that very little of what they see everyday is as it seems. The wildly mysterious is often hopelessly mundane, such as this overpriced monument to one billionaire’s ego. While the apparently average college research assistant might actually be a nobleman from much further south than his enrollment paperwork would have led you to believe.”

“Are you sure you shouldn’t change your major to Theater?” Chris asked.

“Save your questions for the end, young man!”

Chris chuckled. “How long are you planning on keeping this up? Because if you don’t wrap it up pretty soon, we’re not going to make it back to the room for you to take Mal’s call.”

Ben gestured, his expansive hand movements a spot-on imitation of Chris’s lecture conclusions. “The lesson I want you to take away from this trip, Professor, is….”

 “Yes?” Chris asked with an amused raise of one eyebrow.

Ben smoked. “Sometimes a pile of rocks is just a pile of rocks.”

“Very funny. Anything else?”

“Yeah, money is seriously wasted on the rich.”

Come in and know me better, man

Authors’ Note: This story takes place the year Ben and Chris met. It’s a continuation of the scene in Always Darkest when Ben finally reveals himself to Chris, albeit unintentionally. It’s their first Christmas, so to speak. And it’s the first time they begin to think of each other as friends.

Come In, and Know Me Better

Chris contemplated him in silence. 

It went on long enough that Ben got uncomfortable. He stared down at his hands, fidgeting nervously. He was half certain the Gatekeeper was trying to figure out how to get rid of a demon who was on Earth in his own body. Although his expression wasn’t aggressive, merely thoughtful.

Once Ben was ready to climb out of his own skin, Chris finally spoke. “So, Ben.…” 

Ben held his breath, not sure what to expect. 

“Would you like to come spend Christmas with me, talk this whole prophecy thing over?” 

After a moment’s consideration, Ben decided the offer was genuine. His face relaxed into a boyish smile and he nodded. “Sure.” Then he frowned. “Um … You did mean I could crash on your couch for a few days, right?”

“Of course. If you’d like to. We have a lot to discuss.”

Ben grinned. “Perfect …. Hey, can I use your phone? Mine crapped out this morning while I was using the calculator in that damned Math exam and I’ve got to call out of work.”

Chris pushed his old fashioned rotary phone across his desk. “Certainly.” 

Ben hadn’t had much occasion to use rotary phones. It just hadn’t come up during his brief excursions to Earth for Reaping (and making phone calls was the last thing on his mind when he’d managed to grab a rare vacation away from Hell in the past). Fortunately, he found it fairly intuitive, if a bit unnerving when the dial snapped back on his fingers. Several rings had him wondering if he was going to dodge the bullet on having to talk to anyone, but as he was preparing for the inevitable voicemail, Aife’s descendent Ciara answered. “It’s The Pit. What can I do for you?”

“Hey, Kiki, it’s Ben. I’m not going to be in for a few days, or all this week, actually. Can you let Aife know?”

“She’s right here. Hang on….”

“Oh, that’s okay you don’t have to bother–”

“What do you mean you’re not coming in this week? You’re my ranking noble!”

“Hey, Aife,” Ben said, concealing his disappointment that she’d come to the phone. “Yeah, sorry about that. I’ve got a lead I need to run down.” He felt Chris’s eyes on him and he made himself meet them. He shrugged and held up a hand in a what’re-you-gonna-do gesture.

“Couldn’t it wait until after the Christmas party?” 

“Sorry, Aife. It’s a time sensitive thing.”

“But is it local? If you’re in Burlington, you know as well as I do that you’re obligated to–”

“I’m not going to be in Burlington, sorry.” He grinned at Chris. Chris’s place was in South Burlington, so technically he wasn’t even lying. Aife was an Agent, so technicalities were her bread and butter. He didn’t even feel bad. 

“Yeah, you sound sorry,” she said sarcastically. “You always find a way to get out of these events … And what about Yule?”

“I’m sorry we won’t be able to get together, but it’s not like this will be the first time … Your gift is on my bookshelf if you want to unwrap it on the holiday.”

“And how am I supposed to give you your gift if you’re not around?”

“You could just leave it at my place if you want.”

“You can be so dense sometimes, Ben.”

He finally caught her meaning. “Well, I mean, you could come over when I get back….”

“If I haven’t lost my job! What am I supposed to do with no noble in town? I already reported that I had it taken care of!”

He really didn’t want to get her in trouble. But he also had no intention of showing up for that party. “You could call around. I heard Stolas was looking for an excuse to get out of Hell for a bit. Or you could just do it yourself. Agents are allowed, even if you aren’t a noble.”

“I suppose I could do it, but that’s a Hell of a lot of work along with hosting the event. Are you sure you couldn’t….”

“I’m sure. If you really don’t want to, summon the Prince. You know he’s always had the hots for you anyway. You’ll avoid having to do double duty and probably get laid, too. What more could you want?”

“He’s not my type. But I’m not above using my feminine wiles to get what I want. So, I suppose I don’t have to work a spell to curse you with an extremely itchy rash someplace personal.”

“I’m relieved to hear it,” Ben snorted. “Listen, I really am sorry I won’t be around for Yule.”

“It’s fine. You’re working. I hope you’ll have a nice holiday. Eat, drink, be merry, if you can.”

“You, too.” Ben hung up the heavy receiver. “What?” he asked Chris in response to the expression he saw the other man’s face.

“Nothing.” Chris hesitated, then said, “It’s just strange to hear you talk about ‘work’, I suppose. I can only assume your boss is someone else from Hell.”

“Well, yes and no. I was talking to the local Agent. She runs Hell’s Office here. And my cooking and dishwashing gig is at her bar that’s the front for it. So, I guess technically she’s my boss. But I outrank her … It’s complicated.”

“And you’d rather not talk about it?”

Ben grinned. “You are way too good at reading me. I’m surprised it took you this long to figure out I’m not who I said I was.” Ben flushed slightly, caught for a moment in feeling all too human. “I mean, even without me losing my shit and admitting it accidentally.”

Chris chuckled. “I’m sorry that paper struck such a nerve for you. But I’m glad we can get to know each other openly now. It seems we’re rather in this prophecy up to our necks.”

“Yeah.” Ben stood and stretched. “I should run over to my place and grab some stuff if I’m gonna crash at your place all week.” He ducked down and looked out the window. “Ah, for fuck’s sake, it’s snowing again. Maybe I’ll get an Uber. Can I use your phone again?”

“If you can wait a little while, once I finish grading this last batch of papers, I could give you a ride.”

“You don’t mind?”

“Of course not. I admit I’m curious to see this Hell bar you work at.”

Ben shook his head. “I don’t want to think about how many regulations this conversation has already broken. Say nothing about letting you see the place,” he said with a nervous laugh. “But, I guess I’m well past being able to worry about it. You want some help grading papers?”

“You’re a freshman. I’m grading my seniors’ work at the moment, so I’m not sure you’d be able to–”

“Demon, remember? Whatever historical event these guys wrote about that you’re working on, I was probably there for it. Besides….” He cleared his throat. “One of my titles is Master of Expression. So your students better have brought their linguistic A game.”

Chris offered a very genuine grin and pushed a stack across the desk at him. “Well, then, let’s suffer together a bit, shall we?”

***

After most of a week crashing at the Gatekeeper’s tidy little apartment, Ben started to genuinely relax. They’d spent the first evening and most of the following morning hashing over what they knew about the Emerald Hill Prophecy. By the end of their second pot of coffee, any lingering awkwardness between them was gone. But Ben was worried it was coming back when Chris got very quiet for several minutes and gave him the same piercing look he’d use on students who were either taking too long to answer or who he expected to be wrong.

“What is it?” Ben asked carefully.

Chris stroked his chin thoughtfully, grimacing at the rasping sound it made after only having shaved a few hours before. “So, you’re really committed to helping me, to helping whoever this young woman is that has been put in the way of this thing?”

“I already told you I am,” Ben said, doing his best not to sound defensive.

“And what will happen to you if you get caught?”

“Nothing good.” Ben swallowed hard. Then he flashed his best cocky grin. “But, I’ll be honest, I’ve been breaking rules for a long damned time. So, I’m pretty good at avoiding the less pleasant consequences of being a demon.”

“That’s good,” Chris said. “You want any more coffee?”  

“Nah,” Ben said as he got to his feet. “I’ve gotta run out for a bit.” He threw on his sweatshirt. “Need anything?”

“I don’t believe so. Don’t you have a coat?”

Ben grinned. “Like I told you when we met, I run hot.”

He left before Chris could formulate a reply.

When he returned a while later he slid a book across the table. “I know Yule isn’t your holiday. But it is mine. And I also wanted to thank you for inviting me so we could figure all this stuff out, not to mention giving me a place to lay low so I don’t have to deal with work for a few days.”

Chris picked it up with a small smile. “A Christmas Carol? How did you know this is one of my favorite books?”

“I saw that beat-assed copy on your coffee table. It’s falling apart, so I gathered that you’ve read it a lot. All my favorite books look like that, so I figured this was a safe bet.”

“I’m always surprised when people in your generation are real readers.”

Ben laughed boisterously. “My generation? I’m older than you, dude!”

Chris snickered. “Dude? You can see how it’s hard for me to keep in mind that you’re not just a kid from my classes who couldn’t go home for the holidays, can’t you?”

“I guess,” Ben said as his laughter tapered off. “But whatever generation you want to assign me to, I’m a reader. Like I said, languages are kind of my main gig in Hell.”

Chris had clearly become distracted by the book in front of him. It wasn’t even real leather, but Ben had gotten the nicest copy the Barnes and Noble up the street had on offer. “Well, you clearly have a gift for spotting a lovely book.”

“I wish they’d had one that wasn’t fake leather. But this one made me think of the sorts of books you like to keep around your office.”

“It’s very nice. I … I lost my first edition a very long time ago. It’s one of those things I regret losing almost as much as the loss of the dear friend who gave it to me.”

Ben’s eyes went wide. “I’m gonna venture a guess that this friend was maybe named Charles?”

Chris nodded slowly. “He was, indeed.”

“Wow. The man himself.” Ben grinned at the way Chris was holding the book he’d brought him. “I never much cared for his other stuff. But since I know not everything in that book is imaginary, I’m pretty fond of that one myself.”

It was Chris’s turn to widen his eyes. “Which parts aren’t imaginary?”

Ben laughed. “I don’t think you’re ready for that, Professor!” Then he met his eyes with a sober expression. “Seriously though, you like it?”

“That’s important to you, isn’t it?”

“I mean, yeah. For a lot of reasons.”

Chris looked at him for long enough that he had a strong urge to fidget, but kept it under wraps until the man spoke again. “I don’t know much about Yule customs, but in an effort to honor your holiday, I’d like to pick us up something nice for dinner.”

“You don’t have to do that,” Ben said hurriedly.

“You didn’t have to go out in the cold and get me this very thoughtful gift simply for offering you a spot on my lumpy couch either.”

Ben flashed a sightly self-deprecating smile. “Okay. I’m down for a takeout Yule feast.”

“Good man. We had Chinese last night … How about Chicken Charlie’s?”

“I’ve never eaten there.” Ben didn’t add that he didn’t do much takeout on his own. He’d rather cook. But Chris had mentioned a complete inability to cook several times since last night when they got here, so he wasn’t surprised that was Chris’s default for meals, holiday or otherwise. “But I do like chicken.”

Chris grinned expansively. “They have ribs, too.”

“Now you’re talking, Professor. Do they do fries?”

“They certainly do. Their poutine is excellent, although I’d never tried it before I moved here, so I have no idea what the standard is.”

“I don’t even know what that is.”

“It’s fries with various toppings, including their excellent gravy.”

“There’s gravy? Now this officially sounds like a holiday.”

***

By the time Christmas rolled around a few days later, Ben felt entirely at home on Chris’s couch, and with his host. It was weird, but he felt like they’d known each other forever. 

He was a strange combination of fatherly concern and bad jokes alongside a brotherly teasing, challenging approach to almost all of their conversations. Ben realized why when Chris was out at church on Christmas Eve.

It started when Chris donned his coat to go to Midnight Mass. “I don’t suppose you have any interest in coming along,” Chris said, obviously kidding. Then he smiled kindly. “You’d be very welcome.”

Ben shrugged, but felt his face warm. He’d almost let himself forget he wasn’t just a college kid crashing at his professor’s house because he had nowhere else to go for a holiday. Talking about his demon nature and his inability to venture safely onto consecrated ground wasn’t something he wanted to get into. He was enjoying the illusion of being human again far too much. “I have to admit, I’m a bit curious what goes on there … But I’m breaking enough rules as it is.”

Chris raised an eyebrow. “I thought you were old hat at breaking rules.”

“Yeah, well, consorting with Christians on their own turf is a big one. But you enjoy yourself.” He forced a yawn. “All the reading we did today wore me out. I’m probably going to crash.”

He stretched out on the couch before Chris got out the door. 

Ben lay there, staring at the ceiling, not actually tired at all.

In a lot of ways, Chris reminded Ben of his brother Drustan. There was something about his obvious desire to bring out the best in Ben, while still forgiving him his worst … It reminded him acutely of what he’d lost. It didn’t matter that it happened over two thousand years ago. The absence of his family, the warm reminder of it in his unlikely new friend, made his eyes burn in a way he refused to acknowledge. 

He was still trying not to let himself be overcome by the feeling when he heard Chris’s car door a little after the old fashioned clock on the wall chimed one. Ben almost wanted to sit up and talk with Chris again, if only to feel the warmth he had before he’d realized why he’d befriended the man so easily. Instead, he threw an arm over his eyes, let his face go slack, and pretended to sleep until Chris tiptoed past on his way to his room for the night.

***

“Merry Christmas, Ben!” Chris said with a broad grin at the surprised expression on his houseguest’s face when he passed him a small brightly wrapped package across the breakfast table. 

“You … you didn’t have to get me a gift, Chris. I … I’ve never celebrated Christmas.”

“And you didn’t have to get me a gift, by the same logic, as I’ve never celebrated Yule.”

“But….” Ben didn’t know how or what to feel. “You’ve let me stay here all week … you’ve fed me … entertained me … You got me out of work, which I can’t even tell you how much I appreciate … A gift is … too much.”

“No gift freely given is too much, Ben. Please. Open it.”

Ben didn’t feel he could refuse. Especially since he was nearly overwhelmed by another unexpected memory of Drus and Cinne always being such generous gift givers, and that Drustan often got the same look of anticipation when they gave Ben something as Chris was wearing now. Even the black hair and blue eyes reminded him of his brother. “I … okay. Thank you.”

He opened the package carefully. “Oh, Chris, no … seriously … This is too much, freely given or not.”

“It’s just a watch, Ben,” Chris said with a wave of his hand.

Ben pushed the box toward him. “It’s a running watch! With GPS. These are not exactly cheap. And I know what professors make.”

Chris laughed. “But you don’t know what professors who’ve been alive for almost as long as their demon friends have stashed away in the bank.”

Ben cocked an eyebrow. “Oh yeah?”

“And you clearly don’t know how astute that professor has been with their small fortune.” 

“I still don’t know….”

“I’ll be terribly offended if you don’t accept it,” Chris said in an entirely teasing tone, but he did push the box back into Ben’s hands.

Ben extracted the very nice piece of tech from it’s box. “It’s amazing.” It was charged and ready to go, too. “There’s even directions for pairing it to my phone. I … Thank you.”

“Don’t thank me yet. I got it because you’re often skating in to class at the last minute,” he chuckled.

Ben flushed slightly, but laughed a little, too. “Your 7:30 required Latin seminar is a killer, dude.”

“Well, I need you to be on time. Because of what’s in the Christmas card, if you’ll accept that willingly.”

Ben frowned slightly, but opened the card that came with his gift. A faculty campus ID fell from between the folds of the hand-painted watercolor Nativity card. “Faculty?”

“All research assistants get one, so you can access the parts of campus usually off limits to students, like the library archive.”

“Research assistant?”

“If you’d like the job. I thought it would give us a chance to work together on the prophecy.”

“That makes a lot of sense, actually, but–”

“I also thought perhaps it would give you a reason to work less for your demon friend. You don’t seem happy about your arrangement at that bar.”

“I … You can tell, huh?”

“I can. Besides, Ben, you’re going against your orders from Hell. A little distance between you and a place that communicates with the … shall we say, home office … might be helpful. Don’t you think?”

Ben held his breath for close to a minute, then puffed it out, feeling something in him relax in an unfamiliar, but entirely welcome, way. He put the watch on. “Okay. I accept.” He grinned at the approving smile and nod Chris gave him, mostly because this time when he was reminded of his brother, it didn’t make him feel uncomfortably emotional. It made him feel … safe. “Thank you. I mean it.”

“You’re welcome. And thank you. I’ve needed a research assistant for a very long time, but I’d yet to meet an undergraduate who could meet my standards.”

Ben laughed. “Having been graded by you, that doesn’t surprise me at all.”

“So, how about we try that chocolate spice cake from Buttercups for breakfast?”

“Cake for breakfast? You’re on.”

***

Later that evening, full of an obscene quantity of pho from the place in Winooski Ben had introduced Chris to, mostly because he was tired of Chinese and they happened to be open on the holiday, not to mention a large amount of generously spiked eggnog, they sat in Chris’s living room, both reading in opposite wingback chairs. 

Ben had selected an Enochian text because he’d never bothered to learn the language and knew if he was going to help Chris with the research aspect of the prophecy, he’d better start getting a handle on it. Also, he planned to head back to his apartment over the bar tomorrow and needed a distraction from long thoughts about being that close to Hell’s local operation again. 

Chris had chosen to read the copy of A Christmas Carol Ben had given him earlier in the week. His reasoning had been that he never worked on Christmas. It was a pleasant holiday with a delightful array of traditions taken from many cultures layered over it, but ultimately, for Chris, it was a day to reflect on the gifts his faith had brought him, as opposed to doing any work, or seeking out much in the way of worldly pleasures, their excellent meal notwithstanding.

They’d been reading for quite a while when a sensation of being watched made Ben lift his eyes from the frustrating manuscript in front of him. He’d been right. Chris had placed his book on his lap and was looking at Ben thoughtfully. “What’s up?” Ben asked. 

“I was just wondering … You said this is one of the only Dickens’ books you like. I’m wondering what you like about it.”

He shrugged. “I don’t know … It’s … hopeful, I guess. If ole Chuck could feel hopeful enough given the shithole London was back when he wrote it … I can let myself have a sliver of that every once in a while, too.”

Chris smiled a little, but there was a faraway quality to it. “Yes … yes, I suppose that’s why I like it as well. In fact, it reminds me very much of a conversation I once had with … ole Chuck.” He laughed then, and his expression returned to one of being focused on the present. 

“What did you talk about?” Ben didn’t have to love everything about Dickens’s work to know the man had been brilliant, and fascinating. As a lover of words himself, Ben was interested to learn more about Chris’s time breathing the same rarified air as the man who was still widely considered one of the greatest novelists of all time.

“Hope, as you said. Redemption. As you can probably imagine, knowing of my curse as you do … It’s something that takes up a great deal of my thoughts, my prayers.”

“Yeah. Knowing redemption is possible must help you keep hope alive.” Ben cleared his throat past the lump that suddenly formed in it. “Who’s your favorite spirit?” he asked to change the subject.

Chris smiled knowingly. “All of them.”

“Even Yet to Come?” Ben asked with a skeptical raise of one golden eyebrow.

“I think especially him in some ways.” He stroked his chin. “Christmas Past reminds us of where we’ve been, the mistakes and triumphs both. Christmas Present shows us the warmth and light all around us, if only we have eyes to see it. And … Christmas Yet to Come, well, he’s outwardly very frightening and it’s a dark part of the story, but … He’s the one who shows Scrooge that he not only needs to change, but that he can.”

Ben looked at his hands for a long moment. “I hadn’t really thought about it like that.”

“Who’s your favorite?”

“Present,” Ben answered without hesitation.

“Why? If you wouldn’t mind telling me.”

Ben shrugged. He felt like he did that an awful lot around Chris. “That warmth and light you mentioned. I….” He paused because he heard a slight huskiness in his voice that he didn’t like. “I’m always standing just outside it, but … Knowing it exists at all … makes it easier to stand, I guess.” Ben looked away.

Chris leaned forward with a very serious expression on his face that Ben caught out of the corner of his eye. “You don’t have to stand outside it forever, Ben. And I know, because I used to be outside it, too.”

Ben puffed out a long breath. “Aren’t you still outside it? Because of your curse?”

Chris put a hand on his arm. “In a way, I suppose. But I met … someone very important … who told me that isn’t forever. He told me redemption is possible for anyone who seeks it. So, I have to believe it’s possible for you. That perhaps one day you’ll hear the words, ‘Come in and know me better, man,’ and you’ll step back into the light.”

Ben knew who Chris meant, but couldn’t bring himself to ask and allow the man to confirm it. “I wish I could believe that,” is what he said instead.

“In the meantime, I’ll believe for both of us.”

“I know you’re immortal and everything, but I’m not sure you can outlast what it would take to get me there,” Ben said, surprised there was no bitterness in his voice. 

In fact, there was the strangest flicker of hope in his chest that he didn’t know quite what to do with. But it was nice. And he was suddenly totally convinced that he was on the right path, even if it ended badly for him. Something good was going to come from his decision to stick around in Burlington and get to know the Gatekeeper. He’d once thought about simply convincing the guy to think of him as a friend so he could pursue his job. But over the last week, he’d come to genuinely think of him as a friend. He also knew, without a doubt, that Chris already thought of him that way, too. 

Ben turned to face Chris again. “I appreciate the thought anyway.” He felt his lips quirk into an involuntary, but very real smile. “Merry Christmas, Chris.”

As though sensing Ben’s need for a moment of levity, Chris smiled in return and said, “And God bless us, every one.”

Wherever You Find Love

Authors’ Note: Today’s story happens “off camera” in Before the Dawn, Book II of The Arbitratus Trilogy. I’d be lying if I told you I didn’t get a little weepy writing this one. But, I’d also be lying if I told you it wasn’t worth it. I set out to write a story that would lend itself well to engaging in our annual tradition of sharing a recipe we love. I knew it would get Ben and Teddy in the kitchen together, but I was unprepared for how emotional they (and subsequently I) got on their way there. Despite experiencing a sense of loss and grief together, they also experienced some genuine relief at sharing it. Holidays can be hard. But wherever you find love, it feels like Christmas. ~ J

Wherever You Find Love

Ben sighed contentedly. His stomach was full, the RV was quiet, and Mal was next to him. She didn’t seem to mind that he was half napping either. He had been up most of the night doing the spell for Mal’s surprise Christmas tree. He’d been able to ignore being tired through the morning. He’d focused on making sure the food didn’t suffer from the somewhat inadequate kitchen in the RV. 

Once he’d fed everyone lunch and the rest of them cleared out for some snowshoeing, he and Mal settled in on their couch for one of Mal’s favorite holiday traditions. Christmas movies. 

Mal turned up the volume and scooted over to rest her head on his shoulder. He had never seen this one. It had muppets in it and was pleasantly unchallenging. Mal loved it. She kept humming along with the songs. 

He reached for her hand. “You could sing along if you want. I’m not sleeping.”

“Pfft, no. You’re the vocalist in this relationship.”

“Even though we’re home alone?”

“It’s too cold for them to have gone far. I bet they’ll be back any minute. And Petra says I’m totally tone deaf.”

“I think your voice is kind of sexy. Husky. Like a lounge singer.”

“You’re sweet. But I feel like maybe Petra might be more honest about my abilities than you are.”

He peeled his eyes open and put a hand to his chest. “You wound me.” Teasing wasn’t going to be enough. Petra had obviously hurt her feelings and he wanted to fix it. He also meant what he said. “I had to lie to you about being a demon for a long time. I’m never going to be anything but honest with you ever again.” 

“Honesty is one thing. But you can’t tell me you wouldn’t try to spare my feelings. Because, as previously mentioned, you’re sweet. The sweetest even. Plus nobody is going to just piss off the person who assists with their orgasms.”

His neck and face immediately heated, but he managed not to sputter with embarrassment like he once might have at Mal’s frankness about sex. “I appreciate you, but I’m perfectly capable of … what is it you say … being in charge of my own orgasms … if I had to to keep from lying to you again.”

She reached up and put her hands on either side of his face. “My God you are adorable when you blush.”

He snickered. “I guess that’s good. Because I don’t seem to be able to stop. And hopefully it reinforced my point. I honestly like your voice.”

She climbed across his legs and put her arms around him. “Thank you. Maybe I’m feeling a little insecure because she said it when we were caroling our way around the campground.”

Ben frowned. He hoped that wasn’t why Mal called an end to their musical excursion last night. “Don’t listen to her. Petra is just grumpy because Teddy is having a hard time.”

“He seemed okay when we did presents this morning.”

Ben nodded slowly. “Yeah. He was trying really hard. I think he still feels bad for breaking down during Thanksgiving. He doesn’t want to ruin the holiday for anyone.”

“Yeah,” she sighed.

The last thing he wanted was for Mal’s mood to sour because he’d brought up Teddy’s struggles. “But you’re right. He did really well. He might even really be okay. He loved the Top Gear boxed set we all got him.” 

She smiled. “He really did! That was such a good idea. In addition to having a fantastic voice, and being literally the cutest human I have ever known, you are crazy good at knowing what people will like as far as gifts and stuff go. Was it always like that with you, or is it some kind of power thingy?”

Ben thought about not answering, but he’d just promised to be honest with her. It wouldn’t do to go back on that ninety seconds after the fact. He hugged her tightly. “It’s … uh … not a power thing. But it is … um … kind of a Hell thing.”

She sat back so she could see his face. “What do you mean?”

“I … In Hell … if you don’t … I don’t know … anticipate what everyone around you wants or needs … It tends to end….” He took a sudden shuddering breath and shivered as though the temperature had dropped twenty degrees. 

“Hey. I get what you’re saying. You don’t need to explain.” She put her hands on his face again and rested her forehead against his. “I’m sorry.”

“You don’t have anything to be sorry for, babe.”

“I just meant that I’m sorry you’ve been through so much.”

He didn’t want to have a whole big conversation about the many breathtaking ways his past had tied his psyche in knots. So he kissed her soundly, nibbling her lower lip in the way that she not only loved, but that was usually good for changing or closing a subject. “So … Distract me from my past misery.”   

She laughed and slid off his legs. “I thought we already covered the whole ‘they’ll be back any minute’ thing.”

Almost like they’d timed it, the door to the camper opened to let in their red-cheeked roommates, along with a gust of wind that carried some of the falling snow in with them. It was the perfect opportunity to dispel any seriousness that Mal might be hanging onto. “Is that one of your powers?”

She raised an eyebrow. “Maybe!” Then she pulled the blanket Aife had knitted them as a holiday present off the back of the couch and spread it over the two of them. “Close the door, guys! Jeez.”

Ben folded his legs up under the blanket. It was unbelievably soft and warm. “Yeah, seriously. It’s like Hoth out there.”

Mal quickly agreed. “Like I’m ready to go get a Tauntaun.” 

Teddy was the last through the door and closed it behind them. He grinned. “Hey, do you know the temperature of a tauntaun?”

Ben hadn’t heard the joke before, but his gift for words made it easy to guess. “Luke warm?”

Teddy hung up his coat. “You’re good,” he said with another easy smile. 

“He and Mal are just massive geeks. So he probably already knew that one,” Petra said, not quite testily, but not exactly pleasantly either.

Chris chimed in helpfully. “I doubt Ben voluntarily knows any joke as punny as that one. He’s dead-armed me for bad puns more than once.”

“I’ll do it again, too!” Ben laughed.

Teddy came over and mouthed, “She’s a mood today,” then joined them on the couch. “Whatchoo guys watching?” His face fell for a split second. “Oh, Muppets.”

Ben frowned. “You okay, Ted?”

“I … yeah. You bet.”

Teddy sat back to watch the show with them while the others moved around to start some hot cocoa and pick at left overs. Petra sat at the table and buried herself in the newspaper, clearly, as Teddy had indicated, ‘a mood’.

After a few minutes, Teddy sniffled. He’d complained of coming down with another cold a few days ago so at first the sound barely registered. But another minute passed and he reached for a tissue and wiped his whole face with it. Mal responded by pulling him into a hug before she could have had time to fully process that he was crying. “Oh, honey, what is it?”

He grabbed another tissue. “It’s … last year was the first time Kel was old enough to watch this one. Before that Mom thought the Marleys’ ghosts were too scary.” His breath hitched, but he went on with deliberate calm. “Once he saw it, it was his favorite.”

“Oh, Teddy, I’m so sorry. We can shut it off.”

He shook his head. “No … I … It’s nice. It makes him feel close, I guess. It’s just….”

“Hard,” Ben said. He cleared his throat. “I get it. I was gone so long when I went out shopping because I…” He had to stop for a minute, but then made himself continue. “I saw this display of mistletoe and I remembered … out of nowhere … How my brother’s wife used to keep me out of trouble by sending me off to find the stuff for Yule. And I usually wound up in even more trouble than if I’d just stayed home.” He smiled, but he had to work for it. “I could hear her voice in my ear, I swear.” Teddy passed him a tissue. “Thanks, man.”

As though Teddy sensed his discomfort over having not only been suddenly caught up in his emotions, but having shared them openly in front of everyone, Teddy came up with a smile of his own. “And here I thought you came home with the stuff so you two would have more reason to make out. As though you need any encouragement.”

Mal squeezed Ben’s hand. He took it as not just reassurance, but also encouragement to share, so maybe Teddy would do the same. Still, he tipped half a smile. “I mean, that crossed my mind.” Mal twined her fingers with his, but he didn’t look at her. If he did, he was going to get more emotional sharing his real reasons, and he seriously didn’t want to break down right now. “I also just … Once I’d thought of her, I wanted to bring it home, so … God damn it.” He stopped to swipe at his eyes again. Not looking at Mal hadn’t helped. “I wanted her, I wanted all of them, to be part of the holiday.”

Mal slid her arm behind him. “That’s the same reason I wanted to go caroling last night. Me and Dad used to do that whenever Christmas had to be in a campground. I wanted him here, too.”

Ben turned to face Teddy again. “Is there anything we could do that would help you? Like … I don’t know….”

“Could we cook something?” Teddy asked suddenly. “My family always did loads of cooking around the holidays. All of us together.”

Ben chewed his lip thoughtfully. “I remember you telling me about that last year.”

“Yeah,” Teddy nodded. “You gave me the recipe for the snickerdoodles.” He smiled then, and it was a little sad, but it was warm, too. “Kel said snickerdoodles so many times I thought it was going to drive me nuts.”

“Hey, it’s a good word.” He hopped up. “I know what we’ll do. Mostly because I know I have the ingredients and our oven won’t screw it up. Let’s make something Scottish.”

“No haggis!” Mal laughed.

“Don’t knock it till you’ve tried it,” he smirked. “But where do you think I’m hiding yards of sheep intestines, woman?”

“Ew. Is that what haggis is?”

He laughed. “Among other things. But, that wasn’t even on my radar until you brought it up.”

“No,” she reaffirmed with a serious shake of her head.

“Alright, but….”

“Ben Brody, I swear.”

“Okay, okay,” he laughed, holding up his hands. He felt pretty sly, too, because Teddy now looked less emotional and more amused by the two of them than anything. “I was talking about making shortbread.”

Aife finally entered the conversation. “If I pop up to the camp store, would you dip some in chocolate?”

“More American by the day,” Ben said with mock disapproval. “But yes, I definitely would, if they’re open.”

Aife threw her coat back on and pulled Petra up by the elbow. “C’mon, love. You’re coming with me.”

“What? Why?” she groused.

“Because we’re going to freeze you out of your snit. Or just freeze you. It’s entirely up to you.”

Finally, for the first time in several days, Petra smiled in a genuine way. “Okay. That’s probably fair. But I can make no promises.”

Chris donned his coat as well. “I’ll go with you and give these guys room to work.” 

Once they cleared out of the kitchenette, Teddy got up and went to their cupboards. “What do we need?” 

“Flour, butter, and sugar.”

“That’s it?”

“Yep. These are super easy. Way easier than the stuff Cinne and my mother used to make, I bet. Life with modern conveniences like flour and sugar has a lot to recommend it.” He glanced at Mal, who had burrowed further under the blanket. “You want to help?”

“Pass. I’m not at baking yet.”

“It’s just chemistry,” he coaxed.

“Says the guy who needed me to tutor him in it. I’m not buying it. Besides, Chris is right. There’s not enough room. I’ll stay here and watch Gonzo be Charles Dickens.”

He bent to kiss her, then joined Teddy at the counter. 

As they worked on the very simple recipe, one he didn’t even need to look up, Teddy seemed to relax into the ritual of mixing the ingredients. He chatted in a way that was almost cheerful, sharing little holiday memories that seemed to help him. Ben did the same in return, although he had to work to recall details of holidays past.

After a while, Mal called out, “Hush! This is my favorite song in the whole movie.”

“So sing it for us!” Ben demanded lightly.

She didn’t even hesitate. “Wherever you find love, it feels like Christmas!”

After a second or two, Teddy joined in.

Ben smiled, and started humming along. He didn’t need to know the words to agree with the sentiment completely.

***

A simple Scottish Shortbread

12 oz AP flour

4 oz Sugar

8 oz butter (room temperature)

Preheat your oven to 325 degrees Fahrenheit 

Grease a 8×8 square pan (with butter)

Mix the flour and sugar together in a bowl, then cut in the butter until the mixture resembles sand.

You can then knead the mixture with your hands (the warmth from your hands helps the dough come together). Once it feels more like dough (think playdough or pie crust), press it into the pan. You can score it into logs or squares and use a fork to press patterns in it (if you want to, but why wouldn’t you?). You can also sprinkle sugar on before you bake them. Bake about 20-30 minutes until they are a pale golden color. Don’t let them brown. Let them cool completely. And if you want to, dip them in melted chocolate. It’s delicious.

It’s Tradition

Authors’ Note: It’s only fair that we travel back into Mal’s past at Fic-mas, too. This story finds Mal and her father on the road, not too long before they eventually make their way to Vermont in the events of Always Darkest. It’s a holiday steeped in tradition for the Sinclair family, and Mal decides to add a new one to the mix. Well, new for them.

It’s Tradition!

Mal hummed along to the Christmas music her dad had put on repeat while he worked to set up their camper for their current stay. She’d offered to help, but he waved her off, saying she’d done all the heavy lifting to get them booked at the last minute. He seemed to be enjoying himself anyway. He was singing along at the top of his lungs as he went in and out their door. She wished she could sing like he could, and she usually sang along unselfconsciously even though she was pretty sure she was tone deaf. She was more immersed in her reading than the music though.

She’d sort of hoped they could maybe take a break from the RV and have a real Christmas this year, but the silver show in Scottsdale offered an incredible opportunity to spend a couple of weeks in one spot and move a large amount of her dad’s merchandise without working too hard for it.

They’d talked about spending the holiday at the campground in Oregon. There had been snow on the ground, a holiday play about to start its annual run at the local theater, and a big tree lighting planned at the RV park. 

Sure, it had gotten kind of crowded and she’d noticed a few people she thought were a little sketchy, but it had sounded like a really nice holiday. Maybe not as nice as renting a house for a couple of weeks, or visiting Grand-mère and Grand-père Sinclair, but pleasant. 

She didn’t say anything about it when he asked if she minded making the trek to Arizona though. She’d been surprised by her dad’s request for her to call and book them a spot at the exposition. But, she supposed it gave her something to do. She’d finished her homeschooling work for the semester over Thanksgiving. 

She didn’t think the desert Southwest was especially Christmassy, but the parts of town they’d passed through on the way to the RV park were decorated. And there was a neat little church she’d found online for them to go to Midnight Mass at later. She’d probably insist on helping if Dad wasn’t finished pretty soon. But, for now, she was engaged in the Christmas tradition she’d only learned about a few weeks ago.

Ari came back inside to pull on a sweatshirt. Mal remembered that for a place that could get crazy cook-an-egg-on-your-dashboard hot at times, once the sun started to dip, it got chilly fast. She glanced up from what she was doing. “Hey, Dad. You sure I can’t help?”

He grinned and shook his head. “I’m all set, honey. What’re you up to?”

She held up her iPad (the wildly extravagant gift he’d given her for her sixteenth birthday over the summer). “A little reading.”

“I thought you were all finished with school until after the New Year.”

She laughed. “I am! This is for fun.”

“I don’t think I’ve ever heard of a teenager in  all of human history who spends as much time with her nose in a book as my daughter,” he said with an affectionate headshake. “Let me guess … Medical textbook?”

“Nope! I’m engaged in a full-on holiday tradition.”

“You’re reading Christmas stories?”

“Sort of. I’m reading Stephen King. Lisey’s Story.”

He frowned. “Stephen King writes Christmas stories?”

“Well, this is a love story, about Lisey and her husband Scott. It’s really sweet.”

“You don’t usually read love stories anymore.”

“I like them sometimes,” she shrugged.

“Is it a Christmas romance? Because that doesn’t sound like any Stephen King you’ve ever described to me.”

“Well, no. But it works. Scott’s dead.”

“That’s Christmassy?” he asked incredulously.

“Well, it’s sort of a ghost story. That’s totally Christmassy.”

One of Ari’s bushy black eyebrows climbed. “Since when?”

“Since before Christmas was actually Christmas. Like since forever. People have been telling ghost stories for this time of year since ancient times. But it got really popular again for a while in Victorian England. It was sort of a middle finger to Crommwell’s policies and a spit in the eye of the Industrial Revolution. I love that.”

“I have an even better question now. Since when did my daughter become such a diligent history student?”

“Oh, history still bores the bejesuses out of me. Almost worse than Latin. But it was in the Literature curriculum I just finished up. As far as holiday traditions go, I thought it was pretty cool.”

“It still doesn’t sound very festive. Maybe you could find a ghost story about Christmas?”

“I’ve got the whole internet at my fingertips and you won’t let me help you, so … Sure. I’ll give it a shot.”

***

When Ari returned from a supply run, Mal was engrossed in the story she’d found.

“Find a Christmas story?” 

“Mmmm.”

“You don’t usually go monosyllabic even when you’re reading. It must be a good one.”

She looked up from her tablet. “Yeah, really good. Super spooky.”

Ari chuckled. “So you did find a Christmas ghost story.”

“Not exactly.”

“Who’s the author?”

“It’s another Stephen King one.”

“Does this one at least happen over the holidays?” 

She nodded enthusiastically. “It’s actually about a club that meets and tells scary stories and saves their very best ones for Christmas. The narrator in this one tells a Christmas story for Christmas. I’m just about finished and it’s really good.”

Ari sat next to her on their couch (that also pulled out to be Mal’s bed). “What’s the narrator’s story about.”

“Well, he’s a doctor and he tells a story about delivering a baby on Christmas night.”

“No wonder you like it. It’s about Christmas with someone in your chosen future profession.”

“Ugh. Except the delivering babies stuff. I have literally no interest in babies. Delivering them or otherwise.”

“You don’t think you’ll ever change your mind about that?” 

She wrinkled her nose. “Not likely.” She tapped on her tablet. “Anyway … there’s this terrible accident when the woman is going to the hospital and she gets decapitated.”

“Oh my goodness!”

“But she’s like this amazing, smart, single minded person who won’t let anyone or anything get in the way of her goals….”

“Now I’m really starting to understand why you like it.”

Mal snorted a laugh. “So anyhow, even without a head, she still gives birth to her baby. Right outside.”

Ari pushed himself off the sofa. “Try again. That’s not Christmassy at all.”

***

Mal looked up when her dad came back through the door. “I found a really good one this time.”

“Oh, yeah?”

“Yeah. It’s called The Christmas Spirits by somebody named Hendrix.”

“What’s this one about?”

“Um … it’s hard to explain … There’s Nazis–”

“Not Christmassy.”

Mal laughed. “Okay. That’s probably fair.”

***

“Tell me you found something other than Nazis.”

“I just started Poe’s The Pit and the Pendulum.”

“Okay, I know that one. Definitely not a Christmas story.”

“Well, it was first published in The Gift: A Christmas and New Year’s Present for 1843.”

“It’s about the Inquisition, Mal.”

“So, technically it’s about Christians then.” She laughed at the expression her father pulled at that. “Okay. Not a stellar period for the Church to bring up. I get it. I’ll try something a little less torturey.”

***

Mal and Ari went back and forth throughout the afternoon, with Mal trying to convince him that horror and paranormal stories had a strong place in holiday transition, and him trying to convince her to take a break from her favorite fiction genre and try something a little more uplifting. Both of them enjoyed the banter and it passed the time pleasantly.

When Ari came back inside from his most recent rejection of her reading material, it was fully dark. 

She put down her iPad. “I finally found one I think you’re going to really like.”

“I can’t wait to hear about it. But how about you come outside and give me a hand for a minute first.”

Mal hopped up and pulled on a sweatshirt, certain she’d need it now that the sun was fully down. “Of course!”

As soon as he opened the door for her, she knew he hadn’t needed help at all. “Dad! Oh, my gosh!”

Ari grinned as Mal slowly circled around their festively lit and decorated RV. “Merry Christmas, Mal.”

She threw her arms around her dad. “This is amazing! But … this is so much work! You didn’t have to….”

“I know you were looking forward to the holiday up in Oregon. And this might not be quite as nice as all that, but at least we’re going to be parked for a little while. I thought, Mal wanted a tree lighting, so maybe I can get close.”

“This is so much more than a tree!”

“I tried to get us a tree, too. But, nobody who was open had any left.”

“Well, it’s Christmas Eve. I think this is even better than a tree.” She would really have loved a tree, but she didn’t want to say so. He’d worked so hard to make this holiday special, even if they were on the road. At least it wasn’t like some years where they barely parked for the holiday. “I’ve never seen so many lights!”

“I’m glad you like it.” He paused. “We could take a walk around town and look at all the Christmas lights. Or if you think that’ll be too chilly, we could make some rideshare driver’s night and get someone to drive us around while we’re waiting for it to be late enough to head to church.”

Mal shook her head and hugged him again. “Would you get a fire going in the pit?”

“Sure, but….”

“I’ll be right back.”

Mal ducked inside, gathered a few things, including her silly elf hat that her aunt Bethany had sent her before they’d had to leave Oregon, and microwaved some hot beverages. When she got outside her dad already had a cheerful fire going.

“Perfect.” She passed him a travel mug full full of hot cocoa. “Have a seat.”

Ari took a sip and smiled. “And here you say you can’t cook.”

“Even I can’t possibly screw up Swiss Miss, Dad.”

When they were settled in their lawn chairs, Mal lit a candle in the brass holder they usually saved for their holiday dinners. 

“What’s all this then?”

“Mood lighting.”

“For what?”

“You put up lights for me, I’m going to read to you. A Christmas ghost story.”

“I know you love those stories, honey, but–”

“It’s tradition, Dad. And I know you’re going to love this one.”

Ari shook his head, chuckling fondly. “Alright, but if I have to sleep with every light in the RV on when we get home tonight, you’re not allowed to complain.”

“We’re lighting up most of southern Arizona with these amazing Christmas lights anyway. What’s a few more?” 

He laughed and took another drink of hot cocoa. “Alright. I’m game.”

Mal picked up her iPad and cleared her throat. “Marley was dead to begin with.” She lifted her eyes to check his reaction.

He grinned. “This is a tradition I can get behind.”

“Awesome. Now, shhh. And listen to the story.” 

He gestured for her to go on.

“Marley was dead to begin with. There is no doubt whatever about that. The register of his burial was signed by the clergyman, the clerk, the undertaker, and the chief mourner. Scrooge signed it: and Scrooge’s name was good upon ‘Change, for anything he chose to put his hand to. Old Marley was as dead as a door-nail.”

Christmas Presence

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Authors’ Note: “It’s Christmas Eve Day. Both an eve and a day. It’s a Christmas miracle.” (Couldn’t help myself. It’s a thing I do every Christmas Eve. Pop culture references are my weakness.) Here we are at Day 12 of the Twelve Days of Fic-mas 2019. This is a pre-series story from The Arbitratus Universe. Wee baby Mal and her loving parents getting ready for Mal’s first Christmas. And an off camera sort of cameo from one of our favorite side characters. You can read Ari and Maggie’s origin story in Crimson Endings

Christmas Presence

“Ari! Can you get the door?” Maggie called. “My hands are covered in cookie dough!”

“I’m on it!” Ari hollered back, from his spot on the family room floor. 

Mal’s eyes followed his every move and she tried once again to push up to her knees from her spot on the blanket. At not quite five months, Ari didn’t think there was much danger in her figuring out how to crawl in the space of time it took him to get to the door and back. But since she was already sitting independently and seemed very determined to get mobile, he wasn’t taking any chances. 

He lifted her up and placed her in the nearby pack-n-play. She righted herself into a fairly confident sitting position against the nursing pillow they’d stashed in one corner earlier. She picked up one of the brightly colored teething rings recently added to her repertoire of playthings and started gumming it enthusiastically. 

“Be right back, Baby Girl.”

She gave him a huge, drooly baby smile in return, already confident he’d be there if she needed him. Other parents in their play group said their babies howled the second they were out of sight. Not Mal. She just seemed to trust life would be good. He hoped her infant optimism would survive teething.

Ari could see a delivery truck in their driveway. He checked the peephole. Standing on their steps was a man in the ubiquitous brown uniform, clipboard in one hand, and rather large package under the opposite arm.

“Hi there,” Ari greeted as he opened the door.

“Afternoon, sir. I have a package for you. Just need a signature.” 

The man seemed impatient, but Ari imagined he had a lot to do during the holiday season, and probably got very little in the way of gratitude for it. Ari took the clipboard and signed. “There you go.”

“Thank you, sir.” He handed Ari the box. “You have a Happy Holiday.” 

“You, too. Thank you!”

Ari closed the door. He hefted the package, heavy for its size. He looked it over carefully as he headed into the kitchen with it. No return address. Weird. 

“Who was it?” Maggie asked, not turning away from what she was doing. 

He put the package down on the kitchen table. “Delivery guy. Were you expecting something from your family?” 

“Not that I know of. But you know Daddy.” Maggie went to the sink to wash her hands. “He’s so excited to have a new grandbaby to spoil. I keep telling him if he keeps it up, we’re going to need a bigger house.”

Ari grinned. “And what’s he say to that?”

She shook her head, chuckling affectionately. “That there’s plenty of room at the main house now that Bethany has gone off to Loyola.”  

“That sounds like Paul alright,’ Ari laughed. He fished a utility knife out of their junk drawer. “Well, let’s see what we’ve got.”

Maggie joined him at the table and helped him move the packing materials out of the way.

Inside was a festively wrapped present, festooned with ribbons, a card tucked in on one side. Maggie frowned. “This can’t be from Dad. Everything he wraps looks like a kid did it.

Ari picked the card off the package. Scrawled across the envelope in a flowing, archaic hand was simply, “Merry Christmas.” 

Ari sat down. He didn’t know why a holiday card should give him such a sinking feeling in his stomach, but it did. Perhaps because the handwriting looked all too familiar. And with the familiarity came some unpleasant memories. He desperately hoped he was wrong.

“Are you going to open it?” Maggie sat down across from him, her brow furrowing. Clearly his emotions were apparent to her.

“Um…Yeah.” Ari slit the envelope and drew out a traditional Nativity printed card. He opened it and the writing inside matched the envelope. As his eyes scanned the text, his jaw tightened.

“What’s it say?”  

Ari cleared his throat and swallowed. 

Dear Sinclair Family,

Congratulations on the birth of little Lady Christ. I’m a little late with my felicitations. I’m sure you’ll forgive me. Or not. It really makes no never mind to me. 

Anyway, I hope this here Christmas present makes up for my oversight. Well, not really an oversight. I tried my best, of course, just the moment I heard. But, it’s almost like you folks don’t want to be found. 

Despite the challenges, I think I found the perfect gift. It was no easy task either, mind you. I mean, what does one get for the heir apparent of our good buddy Yeshua Ben Yosef? Yes, sir; it definitely was a challenge. Well, don’t want to keep you all from opening this up and sharing it with the little Miss. You all have yourselves a Merry Christmas and all that.

Warmest regards,

Cain

P.S. Tell Lady Christ Senior I love the new hair. It really works for her.

Ari set aside the letter. He was breathing too fast and his face felt hot. He took a deep breath and let it out slowly through pursed lips.

“I take it he’s not a friend of yours.” Maggie’s tone was the sort of worried saved for middle of the night fevers. 

“He’s no one’s friend.” Ari eyed the package warily, looking like he was expecting it to start ticking.

Maggie picked up the card. “Funny name, Cain. That’s an unusual Bible name to go for.” 

“No, Maggie, it’s not like a name from the Bible. This is like actual Cain from the Bible.” 

Her eyes widened and her mouth dropped open in a perfect surprised ‘O’. “Wait. Cain is a real person?” 

Ari nodded slowly. “He is.” Mal started to fuss softly in the other room. It sounded like maybe she’d tipped over and was frustrated with her efforts to right herself. “And he has no love or even respect for anyone from the Line. Probably especially you and Mal.”

Mal fussed again, louder. That meant she was sleepy. Ari rose and started down the hall to the family room to pick her up. He suddenly wanted to hold her anyway. Maggie followed, still holding the card and glancing at it with something like horror peppered with disbelief.

“Do the Knights know about him?” she asked, now genuinely distressed.

Ari scooped Mal up out of her playpen and her tears stopped instantly. He held her protectively to his chest. 

“They do. The Church actually shelters him now from what I understand.” He sighed. “Afraid he’ll cause trouble if he’s unsupervised, I expect. Although seems to me like they need to keep a better eye on him.”

“I guess maybe they should!” Mal whimpered at her mother’s anxious tone. “Here give her to me. She’s ready for a nap.” Maggie stretched out her hands to take their daughter. “Who’s Mama’s hungry girl?” 

Ari retrieved the nursing pillow from the playpen and helped the pair settle in the rocking chair by the Christmas tree. “All set? Want some tea?” Ari asked, hoping to ease some of Maggie’s anxiety by doing something comforting from their usual routine.

She shook her head, chewing her lip. “Ari, how did he find us?”

He sighed. “Who knows? But it’s not good. I’m going to go call the Templars.” 

“Do you think we’ll need to move?” Maggie’s worried look deepened. 

“I don’t know. Let’s see what the Knights think. You know they’d love to move us anyway.”

“I know, that’s why I hate involving them. But I guess we have to.” Mal was starting to doze already, but wasn’t quite out enough to move. Ari offered a reassuring smile, and started back toward the kitchen to make the necessary phone calls. Maggie stopped him. “Should we open the box?” 

“Knowing Cain? Almost definitely not.” 

“Okay. Let me know what they say.”

“I will.” 

Ari went to the kitchen, finally allowing some of the anger and fear he’d been trying to keep a lid on show on his face now that it wouldn’t worry Maggie more or upset Mal.

He started to pick up the phone, but set it back down almost immediately.

He picked up the box instead and walked it out to the container at the curb, dumping it in, and shuddering a little at the noise it made when it hit the bottom of the barrel. 

By the time he got back inside, the cool air had helped settle his mind, and he dialed the number to make arrangements to keep his family safe.

His anger and frustration grew as he listened to the ringing. He knew she wouldn’t remember it, but Ari hated that simple family associations might ruin his little girl’s first Christmas. 

Things went from bad to worse once the call was picked up. 

“We’re aware of the delivery, Mr. Sinclair. A security team has already been dispatched to your location to evaluate the situation.”

“Thanks.”

He hung up, dreading relaying the conversation to Maggie. 

“Merry Christmas, Cain,” he growled as he headed back down the hall, trying to regain his composure. 

*****

The Fire of Hospitality

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Authors’ Note: If you’re here, you likely know Teddy and Petra from Always Darkest. This story takes place a few years earlier. It’s another in a long line of moments that bound them together as best friends. If you don’t know them yet, it’s a story about how a good friend can turn just about anything around.

The Fire of Hospitality

Petra sat in the back of the Range Rover, arms folded, unable to keep a sullen pout off her face. Her whole body felt like an overstretched rubber band and it had taken all morning to get to sullen. The crying on her bed was her private personal business and she didn’t want them to know that’s really how she’d started the day. What she wanted to do was yell. Angry was easier than what she really felt about this deep down. She huffed a short sigh.

She saw her father’s eyes flick to her in the rearview mirror, and narrow. “Honeybunny, don’t be that way. We’re almost at the Sullivans.”

She hated being called honeybunny, she always had. In all honesty, she also kind of hated her parents at the moment. And she had no intention of ‘keeping up appearances’, which was really what her father was worried about anyway. 

She plastered on her nastiest fake smile. “Be what way, Father?”

Her mother huffed, but didn’t turn to look at her. “You know quite well to what your father is referring. Drop the attitude.” Another irritated puff of breath. “I swear it’s like the minute she hit her teens, the bitchy switch got flipped.”

Petra’s eyes went wide. She was bitchy? That’s what her mother called her not just putting up with being ignored unless they wanted to show her off for some of their nose-in-the-air work friends? Bitchy!?! Because she didn’t want to be dumped off…

“Honestly, Petra, your mother has a point. We’ve spent the last year tolerating nasty for nastiness sake. Cheer up. It’s Christmas.”

Oh, that does it.

“Cheer up? I’m supposed to be happy about spending Christmas alone while you guys take off for the Caymans and Alex goes skiing in fucking Switzerland!”

“Petra, language!” her mother snapped.

“Oh, yeah, because my language is the problem. Not that you and Dad are dumping me off with the Sullivans while you guys are all off having fun without me!”

“Your father and I have a life outside of you and your brother, young lady.”

“Why couldn’t I at least go have Hanukkah with Ded and Baba?”

Her mother detested being reminded about her family’s immigrant roots and that her parents still clung so strongly their heritage. Naming the children after her grandparents had been her only nod to it at all, and she’d only done that because she’d been fairly certain it would result in extravagant gifts from the extended family, many of whom had done as well for themselves and her parents had. “You know full well they’re spending time with relatives.” 

“I still don’t see why I couldn’t go with them. I’d love to meet all the Kramarov relatives.”

“I’m not putting you on a plane for half a world away with…”

“Alex is on a plane for Gstaad!”

“It’s his birthday present!”

Petra felt like tears were close and that made her even angrier. “But it’s Christmas!”

“And we’ve already told you, we’ll celebrate together when we get back.”

“That’s not the point, Dad!” Her voice caught and she bit her lip so hard she tasted blood.

“We’ll continue this discussion when we get back,” her father said with finality as he pulled into a free parking space in front of the Sullivans’ building. “Besides, we’re hardly abandoning you to be alone. You’re getting to spend the holidays with your friend.”

Petra forced a smile back on her face and met his eyes in the mirror. “Whatever you say, Father dear.”

“Watch your tone,” her mother chided as she got out of the car.

Petra grudgingly opened her door and stepped out into the chilly December air. Teddy’s place was right on the waterfront and the wind was icy enough to take her breath away. 

Her father climbed out of the car and took her bags from the back. As the three of them made their way into the building her father remarked, “I’m really thinking we should move into the city. The apartments downtown are lovely.”

“I could see myself living here,” her mother agreed.

Petra rolled her eyes at their backs. Only her parents could think living in an apartment was an upgrade from a house with a yard.

“Or one of those townhouses up past the park,” her father said thoughtfully. “Then we’d still have all the advantages of a house, but we’d be closer to work.” Petra rolled her eyes again. “Not to mention we’d be closer to Saint Augustine’s. When Petra starts high school, she could walk.”

They continued the conversations all the way to the Sullivans’ door. Maybe highschool would be better, Petra thought. At least she’d probably have friends with cars instead of having to depend on Alex for rides, or worse, her parents. Because once Alex went off to college it would be just them. Ugh.

Her father knocked on the door. They waited for a minute and Petra thought maybe nobody was home. She wondered if her parents would just leave her here anyway. Just as the thought actually started to worry her, the door swung open and Mr. Sullivan was standing there in a flour-coated apron, which explained the wait. “Merry Christmas!” he greeted with a beaming smile.

Her parents answered in unison, “Merry Christmas!” 

So fake, Petra grumbled to herself. 

Hugs and handshakes were exchanged and Mr. Sullivan helped her father get her bags inside. Mr. Sullivan waved toward the kitchen. “Do you guys have some time? I have coffee on and we could help Petra get settled.”

“Unfortunately, we don’t,” her father said, trying to look regretful, but not exactly selling it as far as Petra could tell. “We have to be getting to the airport. Petra was a little difficult to get moving this morning, so we’re a bit behind.”

“That’s too bad. But we’ll make sure she feels at home.”

“Thank you so much for having her,” Petra’s mother gushed.

“Don’t mention it, Samantha. We’re happy to have her.”

“Where’s the missus?” Petra’s father asked. Mrs. Sullivan had been the one to make the offer after church last week and he wanted to make sure she knew they were properly grateful.

“Still in surgery, I expect. She had a full day already and some sort of emergency this morning. Once she’s done today though, she’s off until after the new year.”

“What about you? Taking any time off?”

“A few days. I have to go back on the 27th. I’m in the middle of a big project. I’d love to be home with these guys. Maybe if I ever have the courage to start my own firm, I’ll have a proper holiday break.” Petra thought he sounded disappointed to not be spending more time with his family. Wonder what that’s like. 

“I know how that is,” Petra’s father said. Petra rolled her eyes.

“Chad, honey,” Petra’s mother chimed in. “We really need to get going if we’re going to make our flight.”

Chad glanced at his watch. “Oh, wow, we do need to get on the road.”

They exchanged goodbyes and Petra made herself be polite, but she could hear the tears in her voice, even if her parents acted like they didn’t. The door closed, leaving her there with Mr. Sullivan looking down at her kindly.

“Um … Thank you for having me,” Petra mumbled, looking at her shoes.

“You’re always welcome here, honey. I hope you know that.” He patted her on the shoulder and she looked up at him, just barely. She managed a wan smile and nod. “Teddy’s in his room. Want me to go get him?”

She shook her head. “That’s okay, Mr. S. I know the way.” She took a deep breath meant to steady her nerves, but she felt herself smiling a little. “Oh, boy, it smells good in here!”

He grinned. “Thank you! I hope so. I’m baking pies for the shelter. What’s Christmas dinner without a good pie?”

“You’ve gotta have pie,” she agreed. 

Her parents reaction to the notice coming home asking for donations for the church’s shelter had been a lot less charitable. Holiday travel plans aside, she’d been upset at how they’d refused. They’d been less than kind. In fact, when Petra said she wanted to make cookies to give them, her mother had laughed. Not a lot. But enough that Petra realized something. Her parents didn’t view poverty as a problem with a system, or with society. They viewed it as some sort of character flaw, even a moral failing of the poor. She’d spent a lot of time angry with them over the last few years, a lot of time feeling ignored and unimportant. But she’d always continued to love them. When her mother laughed, she realized something. She didn’t like them very much. And she didn’t want to be anything like them. At all.

Mr. Sullivan gave her kind of a funny look, so she figured some of what she was feeling must be showing, but he didn’t say anything about it. Instead, he offered another kind smile, and said, “But don’t worry; I’m going to bake us one, too. For after dinner tonight. Can’t smell that all day and not have a taste!”

She grinned, finally making real eye contact with her host. “Well, if it tastes half as good as it smells, maybe you should make two!”

He laughed. “As always, flattery will get you everywhere around here. I was just thinking I might throw in an extra one to hold us over until the Christmas goodies get made.” He started to reach for her bags. “I’ll put these in your room, and you can go find, Teddy.”

She grabbed the bags before he could, hefting them with a real effort. “I can take my stuff, Mr. S. It’s on the way.”

“Alright. Then it’s back to the kitchen with me.”

Petra took her bags and headed toward the guest bedroom. She had to sort of use her feet and legs to kick along her suitcase. She wasn’t very big and it was pretty heavy. The room was right across from Teddy’s but it seemed like he was busy playing a video game. It wasn’t that she didn’t want to see him, she just needed a minute. She shoved her bags inside, closed the door, and flopped down across the bed.

Tears started and she ground her eyes into the back of her arm. There was no reason to start bawling like a little kid. Her parents had never been especially attentive. But this was a new low. They waited until after her grandparents were out of the country to announce their plans, too. Plans to take off and leave her with people they really only knew in passing from church, even if she did spend half her life here. Them taking some all inclusive resort island vacation, and sending Alex to Europe. Christmas was only three days away! She sighed and managed for it to not be a sob. It’s not like I don’t know my family is fucked up, but Christmas? Like they couldn’t have booked different dates to be away. 

Then she remembered how excited Teddy had been that he’d have company for the holidays. Most of their friends had big families. He didn’t really love being an only child. She thought she understood. She didn’t know what she’d do without Alex. When he’d said goodbye before getting in the cab for his trip, he’d cried. Not that Teddy’s parents weren’t amazing. But siblings were different.

She got up and blew her nose. She caught a look at herself in the mirror and decided to go splash water on her face. Once she looked less like she’d been sobbing on the Sullivans’ spare bed, she went and knocked on the door frame outside Teddy’s room.

“Hey!” Teddy greeted, putting down his game controller. “I didn’t know you were here!”

“In the flesh.”

“I should probably apologize in advance for Mom and Dad. They go nuts at Christmas. Like really off the deep end. Can you even believe the living room?”

She shrugged. She hadn’t really noticed. She’d been too busy trying not to bawl before she got some privacy. She found it hard to look at Teddy for a minute. “Least you know they aren’t gonna ditch you for some “us” time,” she grumbled.

Teddy got up off his beanbag. “I’m sorry, Petra. That sucks.”

She shrugged again. “Nah, I’m sorry, I’m in a mood.”

He grinned and punched her lightly on the arm. “You are a mood.” She managed a small smile. “You have every right to be upset. I’d freak if my folks left me at Christmas.” He pulled her into a hug and her smile became more fully realized. She and Teddy had known each other since they were little kids. Most of her happiest memories had him in them. Maybe this would be one, too.

“Come on,” he said, releasing her and digging around in his night stand for a beat up Avengers wallet. “I’m taking you to lunch.”

Suddenly, she wanted to cry again, but not in the same way. She just nodded, because if she opened her mouth she would cry. And if she cried, Teddy probably would, too. It had been that way between them, since kindergarten.

On their way toward the front door, Petra finally got what he meant. A huge tree took up half their living room. But that wasn’t all. There were lights everywhere, and an evergreen bunting, garlands, kissing balls, and wreaths. It looked like a movie and the air was filled with a fresh pine scent that somehow just made the smells coming from their homey kitchen even nicer.

Teddy stopped. “Hang on. I need to check with dad before we go. Can’t just leave the house without asking. Until I’m fourteen. That’s the rule.”

“Sure. Of course.” Petra waited in the foyer, taking note of all the decorations she’d missed when she first arrived. So many of them were handmade. Not like Martha Stewart handmade either. She saw things she knew Teddy had made in school over the years. She’d made them, too. But school ornaments didn’t get hung up at her house. They had this big fake tree, and all these sterile white and bloody red ornaments all bought from some high end catalogue with no thought whatsoever … Well, usually. This year they hadn’t decorated at all. Why bother? her mother said.

A single tear snuck out of one eye and Petra wiped it away with her sleeve. Teddy came back into the foyer just then and pretended not to notice. He pulled on his coat. “Dad says it’s cool if we go. He even gave me some extra money. So we can go literally anywhere for food. What’re you in the mood for?”

She shrugged. Her family went out to eat so often, she really didn’t care for restaurants all that much, or at least they all seemed pretty similar to her. “I’m not super hungry. So it’s on you.”

He grinned. “There’s this new place on Church Street called Queen City Buzz. It’s like a little coffee shop place. Mom loves their pastries. And she’s brought them home a couple times. They’re really good. So if you want to eat your feelings in a chocolate flavored way, they might be a good spot.”

“I like chocolate flavored feelings,” she said with a relatively sincere smile. “I wouldn’t hate a coffee anyway.”

Teddy’s grin grew. “I’ve actually still never had coffee. The parentals have never let me at home.”

“You gonna get in trouble if you do?”

“Nah. I mentioned QCB and Dad didn’t say no.”

She took his hand. “Cool. Let’s go. I love being a bad influence.”

By the time they reached the street, Petra started to really relax. The air was no less bitter, but somehow, with Teddy pulling her along through the crowds as they made their way to the pedestrian mall, it was pleasant and festive rather than cutting like it seemed before.

The outdoor marketplace was awash with lights and colors, bustling and crowded with holiday shoppers. It was spitting snow, but in a pretty way. Street performers and musicians of all sorts completed the scene, which seemed, to Petra at least, to be straight out of a quaint holiday movie. 

Teddy led the way through the throng of bundled up and busy people toward the new coffee shop. “They look really busy,” Petra remarked as they entered.

“It’ll be worth it,” Teddy assured her. “I’d walk barefoot over broken glass for their napoleans I swear.”

Inside, the place had a homey sort of feel. In a modern way, but not the cold modern her parents preferred. It was all clean lines, and inviting colors. Tasteful decorations denoting various holiday traditions dotted the tables and windows, and some pleasant nondescript music provided a calming undertone to the festive chaos of the crowd. 

They waited in the long line, chatting. Teddy wanted Petra to think about something other than her family ditching her, so he steered the conversation to what she thought about going to Saint Augustine’s next year after spending the last nine years in the same building.

Once they had their order in hand, they managed to find a small table, way at the back, in the corner. Teddy immediately took a sip of his beverage and his eyes rolled back in his head. Petra grinned. At her suggestion, he’d ordered a caramel latte. “See, I told you,” she laughed.

“I think I’m mad at my parents,” he said, laughing a little, too. “I had no idea what I’ve been missing! Lemme try yours!”

Petra smirked, but slid her cup across the table. It was a double espresso. Teddy took a big gulp, expecting something like his own drink. He cringed and had to fight to keep from spitting it out. “Ugh. Gross. How do you even drink that?”

She took her cup back. “I like it. Bitter is kind of my thing.”

Teddy took a big swig of his own sweet drink to wash away the taste. “Good thing I already love you, ya weirdo,” he teased.

She just laughed and took one of the dark chocolate biscotti from their shared plate, which held an assortment of sweet treats Teddy had picked based on what he’d gotten to try from his mom bringing things home.

They talked about school some more, talked about plans to go skating this week, drank their coffee, and both carefully avoided what was bothering Petra. After the third time he caught her staring out the window at a happy family out for some holiday fun, Teddy decided it was time to, as his dad liked to say sometimes, “get down to brass tacks.”

He met her eyes. “Look, I know this sucks. You know I’m always here to listen.”

She looked away. “There’s nothing to talk about.”

“Petra, come on. You’re just gonna … be a mood … if you don’t get it out of your system.”

She shrugged again. “Fine. I’m pissed. My parents have once again prioritized anything but me. It’s like my seventh, eighth, and tenth birthdays all had a baby and named it Christmas.” She sighed. “And I could cope with that. But this year it’s Alex, too. I mean, he felt bad once it finally came down to leaving. But it’s not like he felt bad enough to refuse his goddamn boarding pass, is it?”

“Ah, dude, I’m so sorry,” Teddy began.

Now that she’d started talking about it, she really did need to get it out of her system. “My whole family is off having this cool holiday adventure. And I’m here spending Christmas as a third wheel to an actual family holiday!” 

Teddy frowned. “You’re not a third wheel! We’re all seriously happy to have you with us!”

“If you say so,” she said sullenly, although she almost believed it was true.

“I do say so! I’m finally not gonna be the only kid opening presents at Christmas! Like we’ve been saying we’re sibs from separate cribs forever. Now we get to be that for Christmas. That’s like the best time to have your honorary sister around!”

She smiled for him. She supposed it was true. She did kind of have a brother around for Christmas after all. “I know you feel that way, but…”

“You should have seen Mom and Dad,” he interrupted. “They were so excited talking about it on the way home from church. And then they called to make sure it was really happening. You should have seen Mom’s face when she got off the phone with Chad.” Teddy said the name in a mocking tone, and Petra felt a little brighter. They hadn’t said yes because they were actually friends with her parents. They’d said yes because they cared about her

“Okay, I can totally see that,” Petra said. “But welcome or not … It’s Christmas. And as weird and dysfunctional as my parents are … Christmas is usually different. Like sometimes, even with the gross designer tree and fake holiday parties … Sometimes it’s almost like we’re a real family and not just two adults babysitting a couple of kids they aren’t getting paid enough to really give a crap about. Which is honestly how most of the rest of the year feels.”

“Oh, Petra.”

“Like most of the time, I feel like a prop my parents need around to … I don’t know … You know like the displays in store windows that always look nicer than the stuff you find inside?”

“Yeah.”

“I feel like that. The stuff you put in the window. But … at Christmas … Not always … but a lot of the time. It felt … different. Like we were a real family. Until now.”

Teddy reached across the table and took her hand. “That sucks. But you still have a family. Sibs from another crib, right?” She nodded, looking away again. “And Mom and Dad would totally adopt you. You practically live with us anyway.”

She looked at him again, not quite smiling, but almost. “I kinda do.”

“You’re an honorary Sullivan now. And we do the holidays right.”

Petra Sullivan and her brother Teddy. The idea of the two of them in family photos, looking literally nothing alike, made her smile for real. “Okay. Take me through this Sullivan family Christmas thing.”

“You’re gonna love it,” Teddy said earnestly. “There’s like an insane amount of food around all week. Which you could totally already see, right?” She nodded. “And on Christmas Eve we go caroling with a bunch of families from our building and some people from church.”

“I’ve never been caroling,” she said softly.

“When we’re done with that we go home for dinner. That’s usually pretty light because there’s so much cocoa and cookies and stuff with the caroling.” She smiled, remembering Teddy mentioning all the cocoa and cookies before. Teddy was a real cookie enthusiast. “We spend the evening at home, just playing board games and listening to Christmas music. Mom always sings along and she has literally the prettiest voice. She could have a record deal if the whole cardiac surgeon thing ever falls apart.”

Petra laughed and Teddy warmed to his story even more. “Then around eleven, we all get changed, you know real Sunday best stuff, and we go to Midnight Mass together.”

“We did that one year. I was pretty little but I remember it. It was really kind of cool.” Petra wasn’t especially into church most of the time, but she did like the ritual of it. Especially on the rare occasions she’d gotten to go for High Holy Days.

“It’s the best,” Teddy enthused. “I love the singing and the incense and everything. It’s so beautiful.” She nodded for him to go on. “Then when we get home, we get to open one present and we drink some eggnog, and we go to bed. Spoiler alert, the present is new pajamas.”

“Only one present?”

“The rest always get put under the tree after I go to bed. I haven’t believed in Santa Claus in a long time,” Teddy said, in what Petra found to be an odd combination of defensiveness and sadness. “But they still always do it like that. It’s more fun.”

“So presents Christmas morning. What else?”

“Oh, like they let me sleep in and what usually gets me up is dad cooking brunch. It’s always amazing. Don’t tell him, but I kind of like my mom’s waffles better than his.” She giggled. “But his pancakes are hands down the best pancakes in the world. And his cinnamon rolls are better than anything from a bakery.”

“After smelling that pie, I can only imagine.”

“So we eat, and open presents, and we spend the day watching Christmas movies and playing games. Sometimes we go down to the park and have a snowball fight if the weather is good, and … Hey, are you okay?”

Petra had started to cry quietly. What Teddy described seemed impossible. Like some Hallmark Channel made for TV movie imaginary holiday. “Um…”

“Oh, Petra, I’m so sorry. I didn’t mean to…”

“No.” She sniffed. “It’s fine. I’m fine.” She wiped her face on her napkin. “Okay, risking more tears,” she said with a slightly forced smile. “What’s for dinner?”

“Dad makes his prime rib and yorkshire pudding. Mom likes to make the sides so that kind of depends on what weird stuff they all talk about over somebody’s open chest cavity.” She laughed. “But the prime rib is an always. And it’s another barefoot broken glass situation.”

Petra laughed again. It didn’t sound imaginary anymore. It sounded magical. “And I’m gonna guess, after dinner, it’s more games?”

“You bet.” Another crowd of people headed out of the shop causing Teddy to notice the clock over the door. “Crap. It’s getting late. We better head home. I don’t want to lose my brand new wandering around privileges already. I’ve got a new coffee habit to feed.”

They took care of their trash and headed out into the cold embrace of an early dusk. Petra looked around thoughtfully. “Hey, do you think we have time to make a stop?”

“I told Dad we’d be back by five. It’s only a little after four. Where do you want to go? Christmas shopping?”

She shook her head. “I want to stop by the shelter.”

“What for?” Teddy asked.

“I’d rather not say. Not right now anyway. Still cool?”

“Of course. But let’s walk fast. It’s getting colder by the minute.”

They made it to the shelter in no time, since most of the traffic was concentrated by the shopping centers. “Wait here. I won’t be long.”

Petra left Teddy on the sidewalk. 

She went into the building and found the collection box.

She fished a wad of cash out of her pocket. It was guilt money from her parents, shoved into her hand that morning with the somewhat stinging suggestion that perhaps she should buy herself some new clothes for Christmas. 

Hush money was how she thought of it. Like a payment of dirty money in a bad movie that wouldn’t bring the recipient anything but pain.

She hesitated, then shoved most of it into the collection box to make up for her parents refusal to give anything. 

She saved a little out for herself for the end of the week. There was a tattoo parlor up the street that didn’t ask questions. She was going to get her nose pierced. 

Merry Christmas, Mom and Dad, she thought to herself. Then she amended it. Merry Christmas, Samantha and Chad.

She went out and rejoined Teddy, this time pulling him along. She was ready to head home for a real family holiday. 

*****

The Direction of His Dreams

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Authors’ Note: By now, most readers know how much we love our Ben from Always Darkest. Exploring his human life has become my (Jess’s) favorite part of Fic-mas. You can read more about his youth here and here. This Fic-mas meets Ben in his ancient homeland as Chris will one day describe him, “only barely a man, with plenty of boy left over.” Dreams are a funny thing. It was long ago, but sometimes, in that place between asleep and awake, Ben remembers this, and it gives him a sliver of hope. Happy Solstice, friends. 

The Direction of His Dreams

He twitched in his sleep as she leaned in the bedroom to check on him. He moaned softly. “Oh, Beathan, hin, not again, love,” she whispered. She thought perhaps memories of battle invaded his dreams, but she never asked. He hated when anyone heard his nightmares. 

The moan became a whimper. 

He sounded so lost. 

Instead of stepping out, she moved closer. His brow creased. The whimper solidified into a pained mumble.

“Not again,” he pleaded, almost too low to hear. “Don’t!” came out louder.

Flames all around, burning, but not consuming him. 

Pain. 

Blades. 

Torment. 

Teeth.

“Please!”

Cinnie sat down on the edge of his bed, and rested her hand gently on his bandaged shoulder. “Ben, hin, wake up.”

His eyes snapped open and his arm wrapped around his middle as a ragged breath pulled at his injuries. “Damn.”

That dream kept coming back. And it felt … real. Sleep was more exhausting than being awake lately. He wished Daira was still alive. She would know what it meant. 

His head dropped back onto his pillow. He closed his eyes and willed himself back toward calm. When he felt most of the way there, he pried his eyes open, and started to shift himself to sitting. He got about halfway there before her glare, along with a stern, “What’ve I said, Ben?” stopped him.

His heart was still beating too fast. At least moving was getting easier. But only by degrees.

Still the last day or so … half a day, anyway …  had been better. He remembered most of it clearly at least. Prior to that was a bit of a painful, feverish haze. By comparison, he felt great. 

He resettled himself with a smirk. 

“So, I’m Ben, to you, too, now, am I?” he asked, doing his best to sound like everything was fine. 

She smiled, her knowing, big sister’s smile.

“We don’t have Daira ‘round anymore to call ye yer funny names. And they do seem to make ye less like te argue wi’ me.” 

She smoothed his hair off his forehead, like he was still a boy, and not the warrior who’d led men into battle since he was fourteen. 

His father had stepped aside to make room for his youngest son’s strength and leadership in the field. And, though he’d admitted it to no one but Ben, he couldn’t physically do what needed to be done anymore. Ben had happily thrown himself into the role, leaving his father free to focus on the other aspects of leading their people. At the time, Ben couldn’t understand the toll years of fighting had taken on his father’s body. He thought he understood it better now.

Ben didn’t protest Cinnie’s soothing touch. Under normal circumstances he might have. But not today. Letting his sister-in-law treat him like he was still the child who spent most of his time nicking extra food out of her cookfire was far more appealing than contemplating the road back to battle-ready. 

“No fever now,” she smiled, more truly pleased and less indulgent. 

So, that’s what she was up to. 

“Told ye las’ night,” he said, thinking he sounded a bit petulant, and not caring much. He was tired of being fussed over. Tired of needing it even more so. “I’m alrigh’.”

Her eyebrows went up.

After the last skirmish, the men brought him here rather the cottage he’d claimed as his own when Daira passed. He’d stayed with her during her final illness last Spring, and after she was gone, he just couldn’t make himself leave. 

He was too badly injured to do what he usually did. Normally he’d patch himself up, go off into the woods for a night or two and speak to the spirits Daira had taught would help him heal, maybe speak to her spirit a bit, too. Then he’d go right back out to get in more trouble. Er … protect his people. 

He’d been in no condition for any of that this time.

They hadn’t wanted his mother to see the state he was in, either. Drustan wisely suggested they bring him to Cinnie. And she’d taken care of him with the same affectionate firmness as always, though it had been coupled with more real worry than he’d ever seen from her before.

But he was fine now. 

Well, maybe not fine, but well enough not to need a nursemaid from dawn to dusk, and the stretch in between as well.

He’d been at their house for at least a quarter moon. He was fed and rested and wanted to get himself ready to fight again as soon as possible. He could at least gather the men and talk it over. The foreigners didn’t do well with the element of surprise or the ambush tactics he preferred. There were still very few of them. Just scouting parties it seemed. Ben wanted to use that to his advantage before any more arrived. 

The problem was Cinnie. She wouldn’t let him go off and fight in his present state, and he didn’t think she’d let him bring the warriors together to talk tactics either. She appeared disinclined to let him move. 

She still saw him as her darling rascal, her little boy, and had a motherly protective streak even his actual mother couldn’t match. Part of him loved that about her. The rest of him was sick of this bed. 

Of course, all of him understood. She’d been beside herself when they’d dumped him on her kitchen table and she’d gotten a good look at his wounds. He vaguely remembered her tears as she’d stitched him up, her saying to Drus and Osh who’d held him still that she hoped against hope she was adequate to the task, and that she didn’t believe she could be. He couldn’t deny her initial reaction had been fair. He’d been … not in great shape. 

But he healed fast. He always had. 

Not that his frequent reminders of that had yielded any less hovering. 

She unwound the bandage high on his arm, where an infection had a strong hold for a few days. “Tha’ looks better tonight, too.” She wrapped it back up, satisfied.

He pushed himself up on his elbows, pulling the blanket up over his bare chest a little awkwardly. “Does tha’ mean ye can stop fussin’ an’ lemme get home then?”

“Yer stayin’ right there.” She pointed at the bed he currently occupied, with another, more disapproving, raise of her eyebrows. “At leas’ until after Yule.” He opened his mouth to protest, but she talked right over him with a wry grin. “I’ll not have ye yankin’ out all those stitches. Not after the fuss ye kicked up gettin’ put back together!” 

He started to spout off something indignant. But he only got as far as, “I dinnae kick up any kind a…”

“Besides,” she interrupted, smiling sweetly. Time for a distraction. “Ye can’t take off out of bed. Or at least I doubt ye’ll want to. Shay took your clothes.”

This time Ben sat up all the way, grimacing as it pulled on some of the many stitches Cinnie just reminded him about. “That little … Make ‘er bring ‘em back!” 

Cinnie just laughed. Worked like a charm. She wasn’t going to tell him the whole family agreed if he went off in his current state he’d get himself killed. And none of them could accept that. She also couldn’t tell him they had news for him. That was for the feast. 

“Shay!” he called like all he wanted was to see his favorite niece. He heard a giggle, and the patter of feet outside his room. “Shay-shay! C’mon in ‘ere, lass!”

When the affectionate nickname yielded no results, his brow creased into the expression Cinnie learned meant trouble before the boy had ever gone on his first hunt. “She’s not comin’ back, lad.”

His eyes flashed with a bit of real temper. He’d set his sights on his own bed and the stubborn streak that ran deep and wide all through him was not going to let go of that easily. 

“Teasag!” he yelled, hoping to summon his niece back from wherever she’d run off to with the serious use of her rarely spoken proper name.

Cinnie shook her head and smirked. “Yer actin’ like I didn’t send ‘er away with ‘em.”

Ben growled in frustration. 

She probably had, too. 

Cinnie knew he wouldn’t just run off wrapped in barely more than a blanket. She also knew he couldn’t really be angry with Teasag. These days she was more young woman than little girl. But Ben hadn’t noticed yet. 

He was still her self-appointed big brother. She really was his favorite, with the exception of maybe Angus and Enaid’s daughter Fee who he felt sort of responsible for since one of his strange dreams had pretty much saved her life at her birth. 

“Ye di’nt need te do that,” he grumbled.

“Because yer always such a sensible lad.” She patted him gently, smiling a little when he flushed at her amused observation. 

“I wouldna gone far,” he insisted. “I need to go see to Sioda, and te make sure the lads didna shut Caraid out. She’s too old te jump up te the window and paw her way in.”

“I told ye before. Osh is lookin’ after Sioda for ye.” 

Cinnie fluffed his pillows and arched an eyebrow, managing an affectionate glare until he settled back onto them. She was glad he was well enough now to be worried after his animals. But she wasn’t about to let him go care for them himself. 

“I’ve made sure he knows how to make up the poultice for her leg. He cares more for tha’ horse than he does for his missus, I think. Certainly more’n’e thinks a ‘is brother.” Ben snorted a brief laugh. “Yer lucky he didn’ let ye bleed ta death out there jus so he could have ‘er.”

“Tha’s a fair point.” He smiled fondly. “I know I been tellin’ ye for goin’ on three winters now, but thanks. Ye’ve always made Yule a special thing, but tha’ … She’s a fine animal. An’ braver than ten of the men.”

“Ye cannae lead our lads on foot agains’ our enemies now can ye, Bean?”

He blushed. She hadn’t called him that in a long time. He gave her an affectionate shove. “Lay off tha’.” He winced and adjusted the pillows. “I wouldna hate some of Daria’s special tea jus’ now. I know ye ran out yesterday. If ye got Shay to bring back my things, I  could go get it a’ the cottage an’ be back before my spot here cooled.”

Cinnie chuckled. “An’ he finally admits he’s not some warrior god of the wood!” She patted his hand. “I went an’ got more this mornin’, lad. I’ve some in the kettle on the fire.” She raised an eyebrow again. “So there’s no need for ye to limp halfway ‘cross the village. An’ if it’s yer cat yer worried about…”

She made a gentle clicking noise with her tongue, and the ancient black ball of fur, now marked with strands of silver-grey, waddled into the room. 

“Caraid!” he exclaimed in genuine pleasure. 

He patted the bed next to him and, though it took two tries, she managed to get up and wedge herself in between Cinnie and Ben. She curled up against his hip, closed her eyes, and started purring contentedly. He petted her head with a gentleness and affection Cinnie wondered at. How could someone with such a soft heart, such a tender soul, be the strongest, most skilled warrior in their clan? 

Momentarily distracted from both his physical misery and his desire to get out from under his family’s watchful eyes, Ben truly relaxed. He supposed there were worse ways to spend a couple of days leading up to the Yule feast than in a comfortable bed being looked after by the woman who was basically his second mother. Not many. But he could think of a few. He laughed quietly when her back was turned to rewrap his stitched up leg.

She was glad he’d given up on his most recent push to go off on his own. Even if he was sure he was ready, she couldn’t quite let go of keeping watch over him. She finished checking over his bandages and went to get him some tea. 

When she returned, he accepted a cup of the almost unbearably bitter brew Daira taught him to make when he was still little more than a toddler. It always took the bite out of the various hurts he was all too prone to even then. Daira said he had an abundance of brains and courage, just not much in the way of sense or caution. 

He tentatively took a drink, knowing it would bring relief, but knowing just as well he hated the flavor, and always had. Then he smiled. Cinnie had stirred in an appropriately excessive amount of honey to cover the objectionable taste.

“Thanks,” he said, hoping the sweetness held to the end.

As he sipped the tea and stroked Caraid, it became clear Cinnie had either stirred in something else, too, or he was still worse off than he’d thought. It always made him relaxed, but not to this degree. He could barely keep his eyes open by the bottom of it. 

“Bit strong,” he grumbled as she took the cup from him. 

She heard the accusation in his voice but didn’t bother dignifying it. She set the cup aside and covered him with an extra blanket. She chuckled, shaking her head. “It’s just proof your strength isn’t yet what it ought to be.”

“Humph,” he grumped. But he clearly didn’t mean it, since he hid a small smile as he rolled onto his good side, wrapped an arm around an unresisting Caraid, and drifted back into a restorative sleep.

Cinnie watched him for a bit, hoping her presence would keep away whatever kept troubling his dreams. Once his breathing was slow and even, she got up to get back to the business of running the household. 

She paused at the door again, glancing back, just to reassure herself he really did look better. Caraid cracked one eye open and the expression on her feline face said all was well. 

Cinnie decided to take a walk and let Bean’s mother know he’d turned a corner for the better. They’d already lost three of his brothers in the last year. That was hard enough on her, but Cinnie didn’t think she’d take losing her youngest well. She’d be relieved to hear he was improving. Cinnie slipped out of the house with a word to Shay to keep an eye on her uncle.

***

When Ben woke again, it was dark, and the house was quiet. Mostly quiet. He could hear Drustan’s snoring from the other side of the cottage. He’d always been a loud sleeper. Ben was glad it had been a good long while since they’d shared sleeping space. He didn’t know how Cinnie tolerated it. Of course, with six girls running around, the youngest of which was only just off the breast, she probably didn’t sleep soundly anyway. He wondered how often she’d been checking on him. 

He shifted slightly. For the first time since he’d woken up here after that fight, the movement didn’t set off a cascade of aches. Caraid picked up her head, her eyes glowing green in the moonlight. She stretched and hopped down off the bed, walking out the door with a single backward glance. 

She liked to hunt at night. He’d have bet his best knife she was going looking for mice. He thought maybe he should get up and let her outside so she could go to their house. She could get after the mice there, or squirrels, of which there always seemed to be an abundance near the edge of the wood. She still loved hunting the squirrels.

He loved their cottage. He missed Daira, of course. He would have traded the house for his small corner in his parents’ busy home to have her back in a heartbeat. But the place was perfect for his preferences. Cinnie often pointedly remarked to his parents that it was too big for a man alone. If he was going to go off into battle time and again for his people, he ought to have someone to come home to. Perhaps a few wee ones who bore the stamp of his features in the bargain. He’d blush and avoid everyone’s eyes when she said so. But they knew he thought so, too.    

He didn’t dream badly when he was home. He no longer had a fever from his injuries and this time the relief he’d gotten from the tea seemed to be holding. Surely, no one would object to him sleeping in his own bed a bit. He started to get himself up to do just that, swearing softly when he remembered he was in a fairly advanced state of undress. He couldn’t go home wearing just a cloth and bandages. 

His eyes adjusted to the low light and he squinted around in the darkness. If I were my imp of a niece, where would I have hidden my clothes? 

He wanted to be annoyed with Cinnie and Shay for trying to trap him in bed like that, but he had to admit, their experience told them he would probably try to act like nothing was wrong well before it was even close to true. Most of the time that wasn’t a big problem. He’d managed to not get hurt too badly in countless battles. This time though… The way Cinnie had been sitting next to his bed when he remembered waking for the first time… He might have given them enough of a fright to justify going a bit far. 

An idea came to him. He wrapped himself in the blanket and levered himself out of bed. “Ow.”

He crouched down carefully to look under the bed. He chuckled softly. Shay really had picked up his sense of humor. Folded neatly, right in the middle of the floor under where he’d been sleeping, were all of his clothes, washed and mended. Even the boots he had no intention of wearing anywhere other than into battle were there. 

He picked up the pile and stood, groaning softly as he did so. Maybe home was a bit further than he ought to go. But dressed sounded too good to resist. He sat back on the bed and slowly, carefully regained his dignity. Just those small movements set him sweating again, but once he had his clothes on, the appeal of his own bed was too strong to resist. 

He got almost as far at the front door. 

“Where’re you goin’ then?”

He jumped in surprise. “Fer feck’s sake, woman! Are ye tryin’ te scare me ta death?”

She laughed softly. “More like I’m tryin’ te keep ye from yer death, ye silly boy.”

He sagged against the wall for a second, then waved dismissively. “Ach, I’m fine. I just … I want te go home fer a bit. See Sioda, let Caraid in the house, like I said before. I’ll come back.”

Cinnie rose from her seat and lit some candles. She took him by the elbow and pulled him nearer the fire. “It’s a howlin’ storm out there, lad. Sit here by the fire or go back te bed.”

Ben sighed. Now that he was listening, he could hear the wind outside. He shivered. 

“Bit drafty. Drus’ should see te the roof,” he said casually, though how heavily he sat down on the stool next to the hearth probably gave away how he actually felt.

She laughed lightly. “Drustan? On the roof? That’ll be the day. That’s why I need you aroun’. Yer my little squirrel.”

He grinned and shook his head. There was nothing little about him. And there hadn’t been in a long time. But he had always been a climber. None of his brothers had much of a head for heights. His expression sobered. Alastair had. But he was gone. 

“I’ll see te it as soon as the storm clears.”

“Ye’ll not be doin’ any such thing, lad.” She moved to sit next to him. “It’s not the draft.” She rested her wrist against his forehead for a moment. “Yer warm again.”

He ducked his head away from her cool touch. “That’s a grand fire ye’ve built is all.”

“Mmm,” she observed wryly. “Ye have te decide, is it cold an’ drafty, er too hot from the hearth? Ye can’ have it both ways.”

He managed a small smile. “Why not? Things can be more than one thing at a time.” He laughed softly. “That made more sense before I said it out loud.”

“It makes perfect sense. Take you, as an example. Yer still my darling boy who’d do anything te spare me trouble, and the one man I know more stubborn than the old goat out back who likes to cause me nothing but.”

She spoke in a lighthearted teasing way, but he looked wounded nonetheless. “I dint mean te trouble ye.”

She switched seats to be close enough to put her arm gently around his shoulders. “Yer not really trouble, lad. An’ I’m not sayin’ things te make ye feel bad. I jus’ wan’ ye te take a moment te heal.”

He sighed. “I keep tellin’ ye,  I’m alrigh’.”

“I hear ye. An’ I’m sure ye believe it. But it sounds to me like those tall tales ye used to come home with about faeries an’ the like.”

He opened his mouth to respond, to perhaps defend his younger self in some way. He stopped. He wasn’t even half sure any of that really happened anyway. Besides, with Daira gone, there was no one he could really talk it over with. Just like there was no one he could tell his terrible dreams. No one he could tell they felt like a warning of things to come. He decided to say something honest about the present instead. 

“Cin … Yer right. I push too hard. I know it. But ye haven’ seen what we’re up against. An’ I…”

“Can’t take the fate a the whole lot of us on yer shoulders, lad.” 

His brow furrowed and his eyes searched her face. “Then who will? Da’ cannae do it anymore. An’ Angus probably won’ ever get rid a tha’ limp. An’ Osh is … Osh.”

She shook her head. “Drus’ is the oldest, an’ he can lead them when ye can’t.”

Ben shook his head. “Drus has you an’ the girls, an … I’ve just got me. It has to be me, Cin. Whether I’m busted up er not.”

She squeezed his shoulders again. He shifted a little, reminding both of them he was still hurt. “Ye get te take care of yerself, same as any of them. An’ ye have as much te live for, too.”

“Like I said, it’s just me,” he said with a slightly listless shrug. 

“Not fer much longer,” she said. Her hand went to her mouth with a little gasp.

He turned on the stool to face her fully, his eyebrows drawing together in a look somewhere between amused and suspicious. “Say again?”

She bit her lips together. “I shouldna said anythin’.”

Ben was not much for keeping secrets. And he hated when other people did. This was a good one, too, because Cinnie was positively squirming. He flashed the charming grin he was used to using to get his way. “How can ye torment a man in my condition like tha’?”

“Yer condition? I thought ye were fine.”

He laughed. “F’I admit I’m maybe jus’ shy a fine, will ye tell me?”

She shook her head. “I cannae tell ye, Bean. Yer mother’ll kill me.”

“Ach, she won’ know.” 

He chuckled softly. How often had he said those exact words? He had to admit, secrets weren’t all bad. If his mother had known half of what he’d gotten up to when he was a child, she’d have killed him

“But … I’ll understand if ye want te keep it te yerself. She’s a right terror when she’s angry.”

She considered him for a long quiet moment. Perhaps knowing what was on the horizon would make him a shade less reckless. She chewed her lower lip. “Ye cannae tell them I told ye.”

He grinned. “I’ll not give it away, Cin.”

She took his hand and squeezed it. “It’s … well, I think it’s what ye’ve wanted.” 

She stopped, chewing her lip again.

“Go on then!”

“Yer father’s been … and yer mother…”

“Cin, just spit it, would’ye?”

“They’ve found a bride fer ye, Bean.”

He blinked several times and swallowed hard. “I … Oh.”

He appeared stunned rather than happy. Cinnie got up to tend the fire to give him a minute. When she sat back down, his whole face had become a confused frown. “Are ye alrigh’, lad? I thought ye’d be pleased.”

He didn’t answer right away. Finally his bright eyes found hers. “I … I s’pose I am. I just thought … I knew Daira said it wouldna be up te me … I always thought that was jus’ talk. I thought I’d meet someone and we’d decide … I…” He trailed off.

She thought she understood. She took his hand again. “I never met Drus’ face te face before we married. An’ look at us. Never have two people loved each other more. The same goes fer yer parents.”

He nodded slowly. “I know tha’… But … Drus’ is oldest. He’ll be chieftain one day. The others chose…” He stopped, his frown deepening. 

“Ye don’ like all tha’ talk from when you were born followin’ ye aroun’ still. Is tha’ it?”

“Maybe,” he hedged.

Ben hated the idea such a fuss had been made about his birth, that predictions and plans had dictated the direction of his life in so many ways. He’d had several brushes with infatuation when he was younger and something had always put a stop to it. In retrospect, it had mostly been his parents and Daira. 

All that talk about Daira’s vision the first time she’d held him, and the vision of the woman he’d marry, had prevented a lot of things. In fact, now that he thought about it, his most serious case of nearly falling for someone had been interrupted by his father asking him to lead the men. He wanted to be angry about it, could feel his temper starting to heat. 

Still, he’d always wanted a family. Since before he could really remember. Who knew if those youthful blushing meetings would have ended like he might have hoped. He never had a plan for much of anything. He supposed it was good someone did. 

His expression softened. “Do ye know anything about her?”

“She’s Argyle’s niece.” Cinnie proceeded to tell him about the chieftains coming together to talk of an alliance against the foreigners, about Argyle’s own daughters all succumbing to a sickness that took many of their people including his clan’s previous leader early in the fall. About him coming to Donal to broker peace a few weeks ago. 

Ben shook his head. “So now I’m a peace treaty.” She looked like she’d say something, probably to rebuke him in some way for his slightly resentful tone. But she stopped when his face slipped into a shy sort of expression. “I meant do ye know about her? Herself, I mean.”

Even in the dimness, she could see his cheeks had colored and she didn’t think it was the fever this time. “Well, I understand she’s been apprenticed to their wise woman since she could walk.” When he didn’t say anything she went on, teasing just a bit again. “An’ she’s a healer. Seems like that ought te come in handy fer ye, Bean.”

He rolled his eyes at her. “I need somebody else fussin’ a’ me like I need a pack a hungry wolves at the door.”

“I think you need at leas’ ten more somebodies to fuss at ye!” she laughed. “But I also don’ think ye’ll mind. I hear she’s very kind.”

“Well, tha’s good, I suppose.”

Cinnie remembered nearly everything her lad had said about his ideal mate when he was growing up and smiled. “I don’ know if she likes to hunt or fight, but I do hear she’s very pretty. And tha’ she very much wants to start a family.”

He flushed crimson then, but he grinned broadly. He hesitated for a moment, before asking, “Is she … Does she want te do this though?”

“Tha’s important to ye.”

“Course it is. I won’ go through with it if her people are makin’ her do it.”

“From what I hear, Bean, it was her idea. She saw ye in a vision.”

“I’ve had enough a visions,” he said with a dismissive wave. He’d had a few himself. Cinnie knew about it; she’d been the first one he’d told about his dream before Fee was born. 

He was grateful she didn’t bring that up now, just patted him on the arm. “I know, lad.”

“I s’pose if it’s really her idea, it’s not up te me to worry about why.”

“They’ll make the announcement a’ the Feast. Her people’ll do the same at their own celebrations. She’ll be here after the first planting if everything goes as planned. Is tha’ enough to send ye back to bed to let yerself knit back together, lad?”

He swallowed hard against a dry mouth a couple of times and ran his hands through his hair, wincing when the movement pulled at his wounded shoulder. Cinnie concealed a smile at the nervous gesture. “I think,” his voice cracked and her smile bled through. He cleared his throat and rose slowly. “I think it is.”

She watched him go back to the small room she’d set aside as his years ago. He was moving better. But he was a long way from healed, she thought. He stopped in the doorway and cast a tentative smile back over his shoulder. “Do ye think she’ll be happy with me?” he asked softly.

“Oh, mo a bhobain, how could she not?”

His smile faltered for a moment. “Are ye sure it’s really her idea?”

“Te bed with ye!” she ordered with a smile of her own that brought his back.

He chuckled, shook his head, and did what he was told.

***

By the time the Feast came around several days later, Ben was managing to move with the slightly coltish grace everyone was familiar with. He’d wince or catch his breath if he moved certain ways, but Cinnie didn’t think anyone but her noticed. He ate the expected ridiculous amounts of food, toasted their successes, remembered their losses, and called for a prosperous year, welcoming back the sun with copious amounts of every available fermented beverage. 

Their people had taken heavy losses all around over the last few months and their leader being brought home bloody and unconscious had caused an uneasy silence to fall over the preparations for the holiday. 

Ben’s hale and hearty appearance seemed just what the clan needed. Although, the expressions on the faces of the young women soured somewhat when his father announced his betrothal to Argyle’s niece, Elara. 

Cinnie laughed softly to herself at the way he blushed when he noticed their expressions. He never let on that she’d told him. His knowledge was well hidden behind his shy embarrassment over being the center of attention at the Yule feast, his thanks to his father, his grateful acceptance of offers from his family to help him prepare his little home to grow.

He’d slipped out the door on the early side, admitting quietly to Cinnie he was worn out and sore. She offered to walk back with him or to get Shay to go and make him some tea. He shook his head. 

“I’m goin’ home tonight. I … I need te be alone for a bit. This was … I need some quiet is all.”

“I could send Shay over there with ye, too. She could get yer fire goin’ an’ stay in case ye need anythin’.”

“Cin, I’ll be fine. I love her more than my own life, but Shay is anythin’ but quiet.”

Cinnie laughed. “Alrigh’. But I’ll be over to check on ye in the morning.”

He just smiled and shook his head. “Course ye will.”

***

Ben had slipped out of the party to gain some time to think. But by the time he made it to his small cottage near the wood, the reasons he’d given Cinnie were more honest. He almost wished he’d let her send Shay along, at least to start the fire.

But, there was nothing for it now. It was too cold to just go to sleep without one, and he was much too tired to either go ask for help or admit defeat and go back to his bed at Cinnie and Drustan’s. 

He moved through the dark with the confidence of memory. He hadn’t moved a single thing here since Daira had … “Ow!”

He barked his shins on a stool that wasn’t where he’d left it, and cursed the rest of the way to the hearth. Cinnie must have moved it when she came over here to get ingredients for tea. He flushed when he had the fleeting thought someone was probably going to move stuff all the time soon and he definitely wouldn’t mind. But he smiled, too. 

He crouched by the hearth and started building a fire, hopefully one big enough to take him through the night since he had no desire to get up and tend it. 

Once he had the fire roaring pleasantly, he lit a few candles. He half smiled and moved one to the window to encourage the sun’s return, just as Daira always had. It was her favorite Yule tradition.

He looked around. He’d hate to leave this place. He hadn’t thought he ever would. But if he was to build a family, the small cottage wouldn’t hold up for long. He’d been resistant to the idea of the marriage at first, not that he’d really said so out loud. But the more he’d sat with it, the more his brothers and their wives had talked about their own unions, the warmer the idea made him feel. 

Perhaps he’d see her for the first time and feel the giddy elation he’d always imagined. Falling for someone when you just laid eyes on them was a terribly romantic notion for a warrior to have, he supposed. But it didn’t stop him from having it.

The room was warming nicely. He could, and probably should, head to bed and get the rest he’d promised Cinnie. He did have something other than more warfare to motivate him now. He stooped to add some more wood to the fire and groaned. 

He stood slowly. He was moving like an old man. He felt like he imagined one must, too. His father wasn’t really so very old, but Donal moved like he was older than the rocks. Such was the fate of a warrior who made it home past his usefulness in the field. He was still an excellent chieftain though. Measured, calm, diplomatic. Traits Ben envied when he was at his most impulsive, hot-tempered, and quick-tongued.

He should just do what he planned to, and get some sleep. That would help. It always did. 

But suddenly he didn’t want to. Suddenly coming to be in this house alone felt like a terrible idea. Those dreams … Even unformed memories of them made his stomach drop. He really didn’t want to wake up alone from that. 

He smiled a little when he reminded himself he wouldn’t have to for much longer. Soon he wouldn’t have to take up space at Cinnie and Drus’s when he needed someone. 

Still, he was in no hurry to fall asleep. Those dreams fought for his waking attention in the quiet of his cottage. He tried reminding himself he didn’t usually dream badly, or much at all, when he was here. It helped some, but his reluctance to go to bed in the house alone made his various pains all the more noticeable.

He fed the fire for a while, called out the door to Caraid with no success, and changed out his day clothes for his nightshirt. He wouldn’t admit to himself he was stalling.

Eventually, when he’d run out of other things to do, he decided there would be no sleep without some tea. And maybe a few drops of the dark liquid Daira had never shown him how to make, or even told him much about. That would almost definitely knock him out. Better than a barrel full of mead. Even if the nightmares tried to come for him here, he doubted they could find their way through the deep purple haze of that elixir. 

He didn’t know enough about it that he’d ever dare share it unless someone was absolutely dying anyway. But he knew he tolerated it. It was how Daira had set his badly broken arm when he was eight. He was contemplating the pots of herbs and the dark little bottle. 

“Ach, lad, ye don’ need any a tha’. Not here.”

The voice was almost as familiar as his own, but Ben jumped. He blinked a few times, but Daira still didn’t disappear. Once his initial shock wore off, he realized she was glowing faintly and as she settled into the chair next to his, he could see through her to the room beyond. 

He cleared his throat. He felt his face slip into a wry grin, accepting the visitation for what it was quite naturally. “But apparently the charms you made to keep spirits out aren’ worth a damn.”

She chuckled. “This is my house. Ye can’t charm a lady out of her own home, no matter how dead she is, my boy.”

“I hope ye don’ mind tha’ I’m here,” he offered respectfully. He thought perhaps anyone else might be afraid right now. But he’d seen stranger things than the ghost of his friend, and he was suddenly quite sure all those things had been real. “I did go to the wood to ask, but I’ve never been much good at readin’ signs.”

She smiled, a rather indulgent smile he remembered from his childhood. It meant she was pleased with him. “I’d be more upset if ye weren’ here, lad. I heard ye ask. You were always so polite.”

“Ye’ve not visited me before.”

“I have, just not while you were awake. Why do ye think those terrible visions don’ trouble ye here.”

“Here I’ve been wishin’ I could tell ye about ‘em, an’ ye’ve known all along.” He didn’t ask, but the question hovered between them.

“I wish I could tell ye they’re just dreams, lad, but …” She looked toward the door, tilting her head like she was listening. “Caraid wants to come in,” she observed. 

Ben started to push himself up out of his seat. “Ah,” he groaned softly. 

“Ye stay righ’ there, lad. I’ll get ‘er.”

He frowned. “Don’ take this the wrong way, Daira, but ye look more like ye’ll pass through the door than be able te open it.”

She laughed and went to the door anyway. “I tol’ ye. My house.”

Surprising him completely, she opened the door with no trouble. Caraid zipped around her like she could see her, too. “Can she…?”

“Course she can, ye silly boy. Cats can always see spirits. And your particular cat has one foot in another world anyway.”

He wanted to ask what she meant, but was distracted by a snow-covered Caraid leaping into his lap with surprising agility. Of course, he was on the low stool, close to the fire. If he’d been in his chair, he doubted she’d have made it to his legs. 

“Snowing again, is it?” he asked her, brushing her off.

Once she was free of snow, Caraid jumped down and curled up on the hearth. Daira sat back down next to him. He turned back toward her, his expression both hesitant and curious. “What about my dreams?”

She chuckled fondly. “An’ here I thought ye might jus’ let tha’ go.”

“Daira.” One of his eyebrows went up and a stubborn line formed across his forehead.

She smiled at him, but there was a sadness behind it, Ben noticed. “I cannae tell ye.”

His face creased, and he leaned forward, his whole manner morphing into a frown. But when he spoke, his tone was light, familiar, almost teasing. “Ye wouldna said anythin’ if ye weren’ gonna tell me.”

“Ye cannae charm ole Daira, lad. I know ye too well.”

He sighed. “Spose ye do.”

He looked so dejected, Daira reached out and put a hand on his shoulder. He looked up when he felt its comforting weight. Despite being able to see the room beyond right through her, her eyes had the old familiar warmth they always had. “Alrigh’ ye can charm me a little.” He smiled hesitantly. “There’s truth in those visions,” she said simply.

He swallowed hard. “But what…?” He trailed off. “The foreigners. War’s comin’. Real war.” He looked to her for confirmation of his interpretation.

She shook her head, but whether in denial of his guess or as a refusal to answer was unclear. “I cannae say. But I can show you what lies beyond those visions, lad.” 

He tilted his head. “How?”

She rose and moved to the hearth. Then, surprising him again, she added a log to the flames, sending them higher. “Come. Look.”

Ben obeyed, sitting down next to her on the warm stones. He peered into the fire. “I don’ see anythin’.”

“Look with the eyes that see me, Ben.”

He thought he knew what she meant. 

He forced himself to relax, his gaze to soften. This time, as he stared into the heart of the fire, the shifting embers, an image began to emerge. 

He could make out himself, smiling broadly. He looked different, not quite right, though he couldn’t have said why. His fire-self reached out his arms and was handed a bundle. He couldn’t tell for certain, but he thought the package might be a child. 

The bundle was given to him by someone with a dazzling smile, a beautiful bow shaped mouth. He couldn’t see the rest of her face, but the curve of her jaw, her slender, graceful neck, a profusion of curls flowing over her shoulders … she was beautiful, even made of fire. Her arms went around him and the bundle, and Ben felt like the warmth of it encircled him even in his place on the hearth. 

“Daira … is that…?” An unnatural roaring interrupted him, and he gasped as one of the horrible faces from his nightmares erupted, destroying the peaceful vision of his future. The flames burned so high and so hot that for a moment they seemed like they’d engulf the house

“Be gone, ye foul thing!” Daira commanded. “Ye’ll not trouble him here!” 

She stirred the fire and the beast disappeared. She smiled at Ben gently. “Tha’s on yer mind a great deal, is it?”

Ben tried to slow his breathing and answer her, but his voice had left him. He nodded.

“That wasn’t really here. It came from yer mind.”

Finally, he was able to swallow and open his mouth past the twisting fear that image had wrapped around his neck. “Are ye sure?”

“I am. Ye have a hard time lettin’ yerself accept that there’s anythin’ good beyond the battle in front of ye. Don’ ye, lad?”

He closed his eyes briefly. “Maybe.” He opened his eyes again and looked at her, his expression serious. “How sure are you tha’ there is?”

She smiled. “Just as sure as I was the first time you opened those golden eyes o’ yers a’ me, Ben.” She put her hand on his shoulder. He was once again startled by its weight. “An’ there’ll be times ahead tha’ll make ye forget such things are possible, love. But they aren’ jus’ possible. They’re certain. Alrigh’?”

He managed a small smile then. “If ye say so.”

“I do.”

He stared into the fire again, willing it to give him another glimpse of that momentary happy vision, but nothing appeared. The warmth and the lulling shifting of the flames made his eyes want to close.

“I’ll make ye some tea, lad.”

He just nodded, and gave in to the impulse to rest his eyes.

When he opened them some time later, he was curled on his side on the hearth. The fire had burned low, but was still warm. He stretched, and pushed himself up to sitting. “Tha’ was quite a dream,” he said aloud to the silent house.

He must’ve fallen asleep feeding the fire. He decided he should should restoke the fire and try calling Caraid again. 

He got up with a groan and bent to scratch at his leg. Whether Cinnie liked it or not he was going to sharpen a knife in the morning and pick out all those stitches. He was more worried about scratching himself to death than he was about his insides leaking out at this point.

As he laid wood onto the fire, Caraid twined herself between his feet. “Ahhh!” he shouted and dropped the log he was holding almost on his foot, and narrowly missed her. “How’d you get in here?” he asked, recovering from the momentary fright she’d given him.

She looked up at him placidly and meowed. He started toward the window to see if she’d actually jumped up and pawed the shutters open but she tried to hop up onto the stack of blankets on one of the chairs and couldn’t quite make it. He stopped and boosted her up onto her preferred spot. “Huh.”

He tended the fire for a few minutes. He wasn’t nearly as achy as he’d been a few days ago, or even as much as when he’d gotten home from the feast a few hours ago. But he hadn’t done himself any favors falling asleep on the hearth. He decided to follow his earlier impulse and make some tea.

He turned for the pot of herbs on the nearby shelf, but it wasn’t there. “Huh,” he said again. 

He searched around and found it on the edge of the hearth. He also found the pot full of a perfectly steeped pot of the medicinal brew. He was suddenly certain his late night guest hadn’t been a dream. “Well, now,” he murmured as he poured himself a cup. He raised it to his lips. “If it’s already sweetened too, I’ll eat my boots.”

It was so bitter he nearly spit it out. “Well, o’ course she dinnae sweeten it,” he chuckled fondly. Daira always seemed to think making him drink it straight might knock some sense into him.

He put what anyone else would have thought an offensive amount of honey into the cup and sat next to Caraid, stroking her fur as he sipped his tea. Finally he said, “Did we really have a visitor tonight, girl?”

Caraid purred contentedly in answer. He smiled and shook his head. He thought about his talk with Daira, which he had to admit he remembered too much of to have been a dream. The promise of light, of love, of hope was such a perfect Yule gift, he was almost ashamed he’d questioned the reality of it. 

“Thank you, old friend,” he whispered, hoping, and being very nearly certain, Daira was listening.

Eventually, he felt as though he could go back to sleep. He thought perhaps he’d get up early, and instead of calling the men together to talk about fighting, he might visit his mother and ask what she thought he ought to work on to make the cottage more welcoming.

He went to bed and burrowed under his blankets and skins, confident that his nightmares wouldn’t come for him here. Daira would keep them away. 

He closed his eyes and drifted off. Something told him his feet were finally on the path that would lead him to happiness. It might feel like forever before he got there, but he could hardly wait for the journey.

The vision of the woman’s bright smile, of the child in his arms, came back to him with vivid warmth. 

In his sleep, as the earliest rays of the returning sun brushed the eastern sky, Ben smiled. 

*****

 

Sugar and Spice

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Authors’ Note: Here’s another missing scene from Christmas in Always Darkest. 

Sugar and Spice

Chris let himself inside the apartment to a delightful aroma for the fifth day in a row. Also for the fifth day in a row, he found Ben in the midst of bowls, cups, pans, general stickiness, and culinary disarray, frowning at the result of his messy efforts.

Chris chuckled softly as he dropped his messenger bag full of papers to grade on their table. “What’s wrong with this one?”

“I don’t know, but it’s not right.” Ben shook his head and cut a slice of the still slightly warm cake, put it on a plate, and handed it to Chris. “You tell me.”

Chris took the plate over to the table and dug into Ben’s latest effort at recreating the chocolate spice cake he liked so much from the bakery around the corner. He chewed and swallowed, smile spreading as he did so. 

“Ben, I don’t know what you’re agonizing over. This is wonderful. And I honestly think your citrus frosting is better than theirs.”

Ben smiled at that. “Yeah, I’m happy with the frosting.” He shrugged, taking another bite of it himself and chewing it thoughtfully. “But the cake still isn’t where it needs to be. It’s not chocolatey enough. All I can taste is the spices.”

“Since you’re making it for the Sinclairs, maybe you should get Mal’s opinion.”

Ben shook his head. “It’s supposed to be a surprise.”

He finished his disappointing piece of cake, proving himself immune to Chris’s encouraging words about how good it was. 

It was good. 

But it wasn’t good enough. 

Mal had tasted the bakery cake and loved it. He wanted the one he made for her and her family to blow the bakery out of the water. He couldn’t have really said why it was so important to him, but it was. 

When he finished his slice, he sighed. “Will my music bother you if I crank it while I clean up all this garbage?”

“Not at all. I’m going to head into the living room and grade these papers. They’re my last batch to hand back before Saint Auggie’s goes on break.”

Ben pulled up the Celtic punk station on his music app, cranked it full blast, dropped his phone into a clean coffee mug as an impromptu speaker, and put the cake away. Then he started digging himself out of the mountain of dirty dishes with methodical intensity, while half singing along to Flogging Molly’s If I Ever Leave This World Alive. He was lost in his task, and in the music.

A little later, as he finished drying the last of the dishes, and was getting ready to wipe down the counter, Mal’s hand on his elbow startled him into almost dropping a pyrex measuring cup. 

“Hey!” he grinned, recovering quickly. “I thought you had to work at the gallery this afternoon.”

She smiled, picking up the damp cloth he’d dropped and wiping the counter down for him. “Dad’s on a maniacal cleaning spree at home because my uncle’s coming for the holiday, too, so he let me off the hook. Figured I’d surprise you and maybe we could walk up to the bookstore and do a little Christmas browsing.”

Ben started putting away the dishes. “Sure. Lemme just finish cleaning up my mess.”

Mal leaned against the counter. “Whatcha making?”

Ben didn’t look at her, just kept doing what he was doing. “Nothing really.”

“Liar,” she teased. “You’re up to something.”

He put away the last bowl and turned. “You’re spooky good at that, you know.”

“What?” she grinned. “Knowing when you’re up to something?” He nodded. “I’m not really that good. You just can’t look me in the eye when you’re not being honest and when you’re doing it because you’re being sweet, you blush. A lot.”

He pulled an indignant face. “I wasn’t even looking at you! How do you know if I blushed?”

She grinned mischievously. “It hits the back of your neck and your ears first.”

He laughed, and this time he knew it was obvious he was blushing because he could feel the heat of it. 

“Can’t keep anything from you can I?” 

And I’d really rather not. 

Like she could read his thoughts, she said, “Why would you want to?”

It was said with a smile, a light teasing tone, but it made his stomach drop a little. He had to tell her the truth of himself soon. He should really buckle down on his research about how to defend her from the Fallen so he could finally be really honest. He met her eyes and made himself smile. “I guess I wouldn’t. But it was supposed to be a surprise for Christmas.”

She took the few necessary steps to wrap him into a hug. “I do love surprises. Early surprises even more so.”

He hugged her back, then pulled the cake out of the fridge. “I was trying to make the spice cake we like. I keep screwing it up though.”

“It looks pretty great to me,” she said honestly.

“Yeah, looks aren’t the problem. You want to try it? Then you’ll see.”

“I never don’t want cake, Ben. It’s one of my primary character flaws.”

He laughed and cut her a slice. “You want some coffee, too?”

“I better not. I haven’t been sleeping well. Don’t want to make it worse by being dumb and overcaffeinating.”

She got a fork out of the drawer and scooped up a bite while they stood right there at the kitchen counter. Her eyes rolled back in a look of pure bliss. “Oh. My. God. Ben, this is soooo good.”

That she liked it made him smile, but still, he shook his head. “I think it’s not chocolatey. The spices come on too strong. The one from Buttercup’s is like a really good bar of dark chocolate, plus the spiciness. That’s part of what makes it good.”

She took another bite of the cake, thinking she could personally eat her weight in what he’d made. But if he wasn’t happy, she wanted to help. “What kind of recipe did you use?”

Ben dug out the cookbook he’d borrowed from the library from the drawer under the microwave. “It’s a red velvet cake. I just left out the food coloring. I figured it’d be good with the cream cheese frosting.”

“It is good.” She looked over the recipe, chewing her lip in what Ben already thought of as her ‘thinking’ expression. “But that’s probably why it’s not as full of chocolatey goodness as you want it to be.”

“Huh? There’s loads of cocoa powder in it.”

“Well, yeah, but natural cocoa powder is still pretty acidic. So it’s more like coffee. Sort of fruity and earthy, but not really deep down chocolatey. You want to use a recipe with Dutched cocoa.” She started flipping through the book. “Here’s one. This one ought to be perfect for you.”

He nearly laughed when he saw she’d landed on a recipe for devil’s food cake. Then he frowned. “How do you know? You can’t even boil water! Or have you been fibbing to me?”

“Oh, no, no fibbing here. I suck at cooking. But as you may have noticed since I’ve been helping you pass your class, I kick ass at chemistry.”

“You do at that.” She was eyeing the cake next to him, so he cut her another piece. “Why is this one going to be different?”

She got a giant forkful of more cake. If he didn’t want this one, she was going to take it home with her for sure. “Dutched cocoa is processed with alkali. It makes it darker and richer and more what you’re thinking of as chocolatey.”

He laughed a little. “And you know this because…?”

“The process was invented by a Dutch guy named Johannes van Houten in 1828. I read about him in a science text a long time ago in a unit on acids and bases. I thought it was cool.”

“It is cool,” Ben said almost skeptically. “If it works.”

“Oh, it’ll work.”

He grinned. “I’m used to being the history nerd in this relationship, you know.”

“It’s science history. And we both know that’s not exactly your thing.”

He laughed. “I guess not. But…”

“Look, what have you got to lose by trying it?”

“Nothing I guess. The worst it can be is terrible.”

“That’s the spirit!”

“Spirit of what? Murphy’s Law?”

“Independent scientific inquiry.”

“Well, if it’s for science, I’ll have to find time to try it.” 

“I’ve got nowhere to be. You’re always telling me I need to learn to cook. Let’s give it a shot.”

An excuse to spend the afternoon in close quarters, working side by side, sounded like Heaven to Ben. If it fixed his chocolate problem, more’s the better, he thought.

***

Several hours later, the two of them sat in a half doze on the couch, full of cake. And victory.

“You’re going to put Buttercup’s out of business, Ben.”

“I don’t need to put anyone out of business. But I’m not gonna lie, I feel better about having something impressive to bring over to Christmas at your place. Especially now that there’s going to be extra family there.” 

He laughed like it wasn’t a big deal, but she heard the slight nervousness in it.

“I keep telling you, they’re gonna love you.” He shifted slightly next to her, but didn’t contradict her. “But if bribery is needed to make it happen, that cake definitely seals the deal.”

“So long as it’s the holiday you want, Mal, I’m good with anything that happens.”

“It will be, Ben.”

She twined her fingers with his as she picked up the remote.  

***

As always, it wouldn’t be a Demons Run Lit Christmas without some holiday goodies. Here’s the recipe that Ben was hoping would keep a couple of angels from smiting him on the spot Christmas morning. Readers of Always Darkest know Mal was right, Ari and Davi liked Ben just fine. But we’re not going to pretend this cake didn’t have something to do with it. 

Chocolate Spice Cake

Ingredients

1 cup boiling water

⅔ cup Dutch-process cocoa, plus extra for dusting the pan

1 tbsp cinnamon

½ tsp nutmeg

¼ tsp ginger

⅛ tsp clove

1 ¼ cups packed dark brown sugar

1 cup all-purpose flour

¾ cup cake flour

1 teaspoon baking soda

1/2 teaspoon kosher salt

1 cup vegetable oil

½ cup sour cream

2 large whole eggs

2 large egg yolks

Directions

Prepare a regular sized bundt pan (you can use any pan you like, but we think this one looks the most festive). We like using shortening to thoroughly grease the pan, and then we dust it with cocoa powder instead of flour so it doesn’t leave weird white marks all over your cake.

Preheat your oven to 325 degrees.

Combine the boiling water and cocoa powder in a small bowl. 

Whisk until smooth.

Set aside.

Combine your dry ingredients in the bowl of your stand mixer (if you don’t have one, use a bowl that will be big enough for all your ingredients to come together in). Dry ingredients include spices, baking soda, and flour.

Whisk to combine.

In a separate bowl or pitcher (to make pouring easier), combine your wet ingredients. Wet ingredients include brown sugar, oil, eggs, egg yolks, and sour cream.

Whisk to combine.

Turn your mixer on low and slowly pour the wet ingredients into the dry ingredients. Once combined, slowly add the cocoa mixture until that’s fully incorporated, too. Scrape down your bowl as needed. 

Pour the cake batter into your prepared pan and bake until a toothpick inserted into the thick part of the cake comes out clean. 35 to 45 minutes.

Cool for about ten minutes in the pan, then turn it out onto a cooling rack or plate to cool completely.

Citrus Cream Cheese Frosting

Ingredients

8 oz unsalted butter, softened

8 oz cream cheese, softened

4 cups powdered sugar (give or take)

1 tsp vanilla extract

1 tbsp orange extract

Zest and juice of 1 orange

(If you want, you can add cinnamon to this as well, or use cinnamon and colored sugar to decorate)

Directions

Sift the powdered sugar. Set it aside.

Using your electric mixer with the whisk attachment, beat butter and cream cheese until thoroughly creamed together. Add the orange zest and blend it in. Turn your mixer to low, and add the powdered sugar a ½ cup at a time until your frosting is smooth and creamy. Blend in the vanilla and orange extract. Thin the frosting to your preferred consistency with the orange juice, adding a little at a time.

Frost your cooled cake with as much of this decadent mix as you like. 

If any angels show up, feed them some to make up for your misdeeds. 

*****

For Two Cents

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

For Two Cents

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Sure you are.”

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

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

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

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

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

He was silent for a minute, thinking about it.

“I’m sorry I snapped then.”

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

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

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

He laughed softly. “Paperwork?” 

It was a favorite topic between the two of them.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Don’t get all serious on me now.”

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

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

“But you did bring it up.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Am I this friend?”

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

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

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

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

“Exactly.”

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

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

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

“Huh?”

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

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

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

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

“And sexy,” she added.

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

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

He hesitated. “Happy Yule, Aife.”

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It was goddamn heartbreaking.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Of course,” she nodded. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And there was nothing she could do. 

Nothing. 

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

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

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

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

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

“Pardon?”

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

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

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

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

This sucks. 

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

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

“I won’t do that, I’m sorry.”

“Why not?” the Smiths asked in unison.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“May I see it?”

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

She slid the papers across her desk.

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

It was hard to watch.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Does that mean…?”

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

“I…”

Aife prompted him with a gesture and an exaggerated nod.

“I do! Yes, of course I do!”

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

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

“I … is that…?”

“Merry Christmas,” Aife grinned. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She hurried back out into the bar.

*****