No Space of Regret

Authors’ Note: 2020 has certainly been a year. I got a little behind on Ficmas due to a breathtaking head cold. But I’m back in business. Caleb Saint Claire first introduced himself to us a few years ago at Ficmas. He’s now a staple of The Arbitratus Universe. He has a bit of a cameo in Before the Dawn, and you’ll be seeing him in Book III, Fiat Lux, before too long. This story takes place a number of years ago. A certain blond demon has an uncredited cameo here as well. Enjoy.

“No space of regret can make amends for one life’s opportunity misused.”

― Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol

No Space of Regret 

Caleb skidded around the corner on icy pavement, almost wiping out. That would have been consistent with how his day had been going. He’d also lost his trainee a couple of blocks ago. 

Caleb would have to bring home the point that you don’t get to call yourself a Knight of the Order of the Temple of Solomon if you crap out after chasing a single homicidal demon eight measly blocks. Damned rookie was going to be hitting the hills every morning for the next month. 

That said, Caleb was starting to lose steam. Of course, he had the excuse of bleeding freely. He pressed his hand to the wound and increased his speed, not acknowledging what was driving him forward when he knew there was a recovery team on its way and he’d tagged the demon with a locator during their fight.

Speaking of, he was pretty sure this bastard’s claws were venomous, because he felt pretty woozy, too. Enough that he’d lost sight of their target. Damn it.

He ducked down an alley and reached for his radio to check on the status of their back-up. 

His next breath caught as he slammed with supernatural force against the cold brick wall. Two of the creature’s four arms pinned him while the others went through his pockets. 

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

He wasn’t disappointed. But it’s hot breath in his face made him cringe a second later. 

“Caleb Saint Claire.” 

It knew him, too. Great. 

“Taking out a member of the Order is an eternity long dream. To make them tremble at the name of Ormru. The fact that it’s you will be quite the feather in my cap.” 

Caleb flashed a tight smile as he wrested one of his hands free. “I imagine it would be.” 

“Doing it on Friday the 13th will be the coup of the century. Ought to add to the Order’s superstitions.” 

Ormru pinned him more securely and one of the claws grabbed his injured side. His cell buzzed in his pocket and the memory of the voicemail he’d woken up to helped him bite down on the urge to groan. 

Caleb leaned away from the stench of the creature’s breath and managed to free his hand again. A fraction of a second later, he sank the ceremonial dagger under the demon’s ribs. 

“That’s a myth.” Caleb walked away, cleaning his blade on his jacket, as the body flickered with the telltale stinking blue flame.

He reached the street as Novice Helms finally caught up. “Backup’s en route, sir.”

“Good.” Maybe he wouldn’t have to run the kid ragged after all. “I wondered where the Hell you’d gotten to.”

“I was right behind you, but that location spell I tried finally pinged back. I found where Ormru and his buddies have been crashing.” 

Caleb’s eyebrows went up, impressed. He buttoned his jacket before his young partner could catch sight of his injury. “Where?” 

Helms pointed at a crumbling apartment building up the street. “If I did the spell right, there are three more of them.”

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

The kid grinned. “Maybe, sir. But you’re bleeding.” 

Caleb grimaced. The kid was quick. “It’s not bad,” he said dismissively.

“You don’t look good, sir. Should we wait for the team?”

“How far out are they?”

“Twenty?” 

“Jake, c’mon. Don’t try to bullshit your way through this one. Did you ask?”

“No, sir.”

Caleb nodded his approval at the kid’s honesty, even if he’d had to force it. He got on his own radio and received the disappointing news that backed up traffic due to a possible jumper on the Aurora bridge made their ETA uncertain. 

Caleb tucked his radio away. “Alright, kid. We’re on our own.”

He took off down the street ahead of his trainee, mostly able to manage the effects of his wound through what a voice from his past, the voice from this morning’s message, called, “A stubborn refusal to bend, worthy of Lucifer himself.”

Unfortunately, the entrance wasn’t just locked; it was enchanted, too. But they didn’t figure that out until after Caleb rammed it with his shoulder and delivered several solid kicks. Helms was the one to notice the spell, which let Caleb know the venom was working fast.

“Sir?” Helms put himself between his superior and the door. “Look.”

The young man held up the small circle that looked like nothing more than a watch glass. The sickly green glow revealed a reasonably powerful enchantment sealing the building.

“Damn it,” Caleb mumbled. “Do you think you can take care of the counterspell?”

“Of course.” Helms wasn’t normally one to question opportunities or orders. However, “Are you alright, sir?” was out of his mouth before he could stop himself.

“I’ve had better days.” Caleb reached out to steady himself against the wall. “If you can get us through the door, I can–” His knees buckled before he could finish, and he slid down to the ground. 

“Sir!” Helms helped him turn around to rest his back against the wall. 

Caleb opened his mouth to reassure his trainee, but felt like his tongue had swelled to three times its normal size. His chest squeezed like a giant hand wrapped around his ribs, and his heart stuttered, as his vision narrowed down to a pinpoint. He’d only encountered demons in their Hellforms a few times in his career, and he’d never been so careless as to let one get the drop on him physically. 

If he had any regrets … Well, he had a number, but they weren’t about this mission … it was that he might not make it back due to his determination to take out their opponent on his own. He’d told himself it was Helms fault for not keeping up, but he knew he’d outpaced the kid on purpose. Driven by his need to prove himself to be the best, again and again. He was probably going to die here on the cold wet pavement because he’d let the sin of pride rule the day.

“Sir! Sir!”

His eyes fluttered shut to the sounds of his young partner trying to get a response out of him.

“Goddamnit … Caleb! CALEB!” 

Helms looked around frantically for a moment, then, lacking anything more useful to do, he pulled out his radio to get an updated ETA and let their backup know they had a man down. He put the radio back in his jacket as the door banged open.

A tall blond man strode out of the building swearing under his breath and wiping a faintly iridescent yellow ooze off his hands onto the stone facade of the building and, when that didn’t work, onto his jeans. 

The ring on Helms right hand grew warm and he glanced at the stone. Normally clear and smooth as glass, it turned a tumultuous black, like rolling smoke. But it also had strange streaks of gold swirling through it, like it belonged to a powerful human aura. But the indication of a minion of Hell was more important than any inconsistencies in the enchanted stone.

“Hold, demon!” Helms said in as commanding a voice as he could muster, which, he had to admit, fell well short of the tone his mentor always managed.

The blond looked his way. “Oh, for fuck’s sake. Are the Knights so desperate these days they’re recruiting from the local high school?” He noticed Saint Claire bleeding on the ground at Helms feet. “It’s even worse than I thought.” He pulled a flask out of his light jacket and held the container of luminescent electric blue liquid out to Helms. The young man recoiled and the blond rolled his eyes. “Just take it. And dump some down your partner’s throat before he drops dead on you. Poison from these particular assholes works fast.”

When Helms still made no move to accept the potion, the blond huffed a sigh and put it on the ground next to Saint Claire. He wiped his hands on his pants again with another mumbled curse, then walked off down the street at a casual pace, as though a Templar wasn’t pulling a weapon full of consecrated bullets and aiming it at his back.

“I said hold!” Helms shouted at his back.

The blond half turned and in the shadow of the building looming over them, Helms caught his eyes glowing the same deep golden color that swirled among the black in his ring. He also caught a flash of white teeth. “Could do,” the demon said. “But your bosses are gonna take it real personal if you waste your time catching me instead of saving the life of their favorite son.”

Helms hesitated. “You….”

“Cleaned up the demons in that building already. And lucky for you I didn’t wind up needing that potion to keep from getting kicked out of my body. Put your gun away and save your partner.” He started walking again.

“You killed them?”

“Yeah,” the blond called, not stopping or turning around this time. “Fuckers can’t go around up here in their demon form. That’s against the rules.”

“Hell’s rules?”

“And mine.” He turned again. “Now, quit yapping at me. He’s fading fast. I ought to know because I used to collect souls, once upon a time.”

Caleb’s lips had gone blue, his breath slowed to shallow, irregular gasps. Helms holstered his weapon. He knelt and rested his fingers against his partner’s wrist and couldn’t find his pulse. From behind him, he heard, “Dude! Hurry up.”

Thinking he had nothing to lose at this point, since his backup was still at least ten minutes out, he tilted Caleb’s head back and poured the contents of the flask into his mouth. He was rewarded by a long coughing gasp for breath and a groan as Caleb’s arm wrapped around his injured side.

“There you go!” the deep voice called with approval. “You’re welcome.”

Helms spun to get eyes on the demon again and maybe perform an illuminating spell so he could give an accurate description to their sketch artist, but the demon had already disappeared.

***

Caleb drifted in and out of consciousness. Familiar faces passed through the fog he dwelt in. He had some sense of getting in and out of bed with someone on his elbow. But other than the ebb and flow of disembodied acquaintances, he had nothing by which to mark time. 

When he came around fully, he immediately recognized the infirmary at the Templar compound he’d called home for more years than he hadn’t. The room itself could have been any hospital in all of Creation, but the view of the majestic peaks in the northern part of Washington was too distinctive for him to mistake it for anywhere else. Even if his brain did feel full of cotton batting.

He took a long slow breath in an attempt to dispel the cobwebs in his brain, then felt for the remote control to raise the head of the bed. After he fumbled around for a minute or two, it raised, apparently of its own accord. Caleb blinked several times and looked around. None other than Novice Jacob Helms was adjusting his bed for him.

“Helms,” came out as a breathy rasp instead of the fully formed question he intended. He cleared his throat, but before he could speak again, the young man pressed a cup of water, complete with a straw, into his hands. He took a long, cool drink, then tried again. “How long have I been out?”

Helms looked around like he’d rather do anything other than answer the question. “Someone has been blowing up your phone, sir.” He gestured toward Caleb’s personal items on the table beside his bed.

“How long, Jacob?”

He hesitated, then puffed out a resigned sigh. “You haven’t so much been ‘out’ as delirious, sir.”

Caleb simply raised an eyebrow at him.

“Most of a week, sir.”

Caleb closed his eyes and pressed his head back into the pillow for a second. He made himself open them and engage with his young partner. “I guess I was right about Ormru’s claws being venomous.”

“Yes, sir. You almost didn’t make it, sir.”

“Good thing we called for backup when we did.”

“Oh, no, sir. If we’d waited for backup, you wouldn’t be here.”

Caleb shifted in the bed, peering at Helms with intense focus that made the young man squirm slightly. “Explain.”

“Well, sir, we were trying to breach the door on the building where the other demons were staying and….”

Caleb sat silently while Helms reported the events that led up to his awakening. Then he pinned Helms with a stern gaze. “What made you decide giving your commanding officer an unidentified potion from glowing-eyed, self-identified demon was a good idea?”

Helms didn’t even hesitate. “Your breathing was labored. Your lips were blue. I couldn’t find your pulse. Our medic was nowhere near close enough to help. At that point, neither of us had anything to lose, sir.”

Caleb looked at him for a long moment. “Dismissed.”

“Sir, can I–”

“I said ‘dismissed,’ Helms.”

“Yes, sir.” Helms got to his feet, snapped a regulation salute, and left the room without further comment.

Caleb sat thinking about what Helms reported until he was interrupted by Sister Lieutenant Caffee, an altogether overly zealous member of their medical team, bustling through the door to make a nuisance of herself. 

When Helms returned the following day, Caleb was sitting in bed, clicking away on his laptop. Caleb saw him standing in the doorway out of the corner of his eye, but didn’t look up until Helms ventured a tentative, “May I come in, sir?”

“If you like,” he said, concealing a smile. He gestured toward the room’s one chair. “Have a seat. I’m just finishing up some paperwork.”

“I already filed the mission report, sir,” Helms said, almost letting it be a question. Caleb didn’t respond right away, so Helms hurried to add, “I know it was without your signature, sir, so if I need to recall it after you’ve reviewed it, I can–”

“I’ve already reviewed it. You did a fine job.”

“Thank you, sir. I tried to remember everything you’ve said about those writeups.”

Caleb finally allowed his expression to soften into almost a smile. “You took those lessons to head and heart, most assuredly, Helms,” he said formally. “But I didn’t mean the report so much as the mission. You can credit that demon for providing the antidote if you like, but you were the one who made the tough call to use it without being able to consult with your training officer.”

“I’m just glad you’re recovering, sir.”

“As am I.”

“When will they be letting you out, sir?”

“I like how you make it sound like parole.” Caleb sighed. “Alas, I’ll be taking a disappointing Thanksgiving dinner right here. But by the weekend, I should be free of Caffee’s tyranny.” 

Helms gave an almost startled laugh. “Well, I’m sorry about your Thanksgiving, sir. But I’m glad you’re nearly well.” He frowned when Caleb started typing again. “Can I help with the paperwork, sir?”

“I’m afraid not,” he said and waited for Helms’s crestfallen expression at not being able to assist him. He grinned. “Because you can’t write your own recommendation for taking Holy Orders and becoming a full-fledged knight.”

“Sir?”

“I just sent it to the printer in the main office. If you grab it for me to sign, we’ll be able to celebrate me getting out of here as brothers in the Order on Sunday.”

“Yes, sir!” Helms all but ran from the room.

Caleb’s phone chimed for perhaps the tenth time. He picked it up, looked at the text, and turned his phone off. He was feeling better, but not well enough to deal with that particular issue.

***

Caleb had to admit, Helms was coming along nicely. Sometimes new members of the Order let their performance slide the moment they received their first rank and a room of their own outside the trainee’s barracks. But not Helms.

He was no small amount of pleased that Jacob had chosen magic as his specialty and sought to apprentice with him as his next step. He knew the request might not be granted. Caleb was widely considered the exemplar for the Order’s training officers. And it was an important job. But an apprentice would mean less time doing routine missions or paperwork, and more time engaged in his own chosen field.

Almost as though his thoughts summoned his superior, a tap came on the frame of his open door. He looked up from his computer and started to stand.

The older man held up a hand. “No need to get up.” 

Caleb stood anyway and had to resist the urge to salute, but given that he was in his bathrobe and awaiting clearance, he didn’t want to draw too much attention to the fact that he’d actually been working. Instead he inclined his head in the slight bow that passed for a salute in less formal circumstances. “Good morning, sir.”

“One of these days, I’ll surprise you into breaking protocol for a moment and call me Tom,” he said with fond exasperation. “But delirious with demon venom, you still called me ‘sir’.”

Caleb grinned just a little at the man who’d more or less raised him. “I should hope so, sir.”

“I suppose I’ll be grateful you didn’t escalate to calling me Father Abbot Brigadier General Edwards,” he chuckled as he sat on the bench next to Caleb’s desk.

“Well, I was apparently quite ill, so a slip into the familiar is embarrassing, but no surprise,” Caleb said lightly.

The Abbot laughed. “Always by the book, aren’t you?”

“I suppose so.” Caleb’s smile faded. 

“What is it, son?”

Caleb tried to put words to it, but found his mouth simply hanging open like it might have when he was a teenager. Fortunately, he knew the gentle question wasn’t a demand. It was more of an invitation, as it always had been. He closed his laptop and turned to face the Abbot more fully.

Another minute, helped him gather his confused thoughts. “I guess I’m grateful Helms hasn’t been working with me for long enough to have that drummed into him, too. If he’d gone strictly by the book, I’d have died on that street.”

The Abbot nodded thoughtfully. “Our books are there to guide us, Caleb, not to be all that we are.”

“So you’ve always said.” He sighed. “I’m afraid it’s one of your lessons that I’m still trying to learn.”

“Well, you had a great deal of … instruction … in the other direction, I suppose.”

“That’s certainly true.” Caleb shook off the introspective turn his mind wanted to take without his permission. “Not that I don’t always enjoy our visits, but … To what do I owe the pleasure of your company this morning, sir?” 

“Another masterful subject change,” the older man chuckled. “I wanted to give you the good news myself.”

“Yes?”

“Helms has been granted apprenticeship with you by the Home Office.”

Caleb’s smile returned somewhat. “Fantastic. He’s really quite adept.”

“He certainly does have raw talent. You’re the best in the Order to help him refine that. And I know you’ll appreciate the respite from bringing along entirely green recruits and the paperwork that comes with it.”

“Yes, sir,” Caleb acknowledged like it was a shameful admission. “I’ll be happy to get back into the field in general after this.” He gestured at his bathrobe and the bottle of pills on the corner of his desk.

“I imagine you will. It should please you to know you’ll probably be cleared for limited duty later today.”

Caleb felt his slightly reluctant smile shift into one that was truly pleased. “Been bullying the infirmary staff on my behalf, sir?”

The Abbot laughed again. “More like they can’t wait to be quit of your dogged insistence that you’re fine!” He paused. “But … I do have an assignment I’d like you to take care of. And it will be a good one to begin Helms’s apprenticeship as one of our mages. It should be very low risk, but highly valuable.”

Caleb’s shoulders squared at the change in expression on the Abbot’s face. “Sir?”

“Ari Sinclair has been in touch. He’s concerned that someone has been tracking them again.”

“That’s not good.”

“No, it isn’t. But he’s certain it’s their RV and not them personally. So, he’s asked us to do a security review and upgrade.”

Caleb bit his lip as he contemplated the assignment. There was nothing more important he could do for the Order than ensure the safety of the wandering Scion and her father. “Is it wise for us to involve an apprentice with the Sinclairs?”

“I like that you finally question things. It only took two decades, but still, I’m pleased.” Caleb shook his head, blushing faintly, but he didn’t interrupt. “I normally wouldn’t dream of involving an apprentice with the Scion, but you won’t have any direct contact this time out.”

“What will we be doing, sir?”

“Mr. Sinclair will be dropping off their RV for ‘scheduled maintenance’ with one of our cloisters and taking young Malin on a holiday to her mother’s family in Canada. You will simply be going over the vehicle for physical and magical security issues and installing what you think would be best in both respects.”

“Is he finally going to concede to GPS tracking so we can keep tabs on their location relative to breaches in the veil, sir?”

The Abbot nodded. “He’s authorized whatever you deem necessary.” 

He appeared to hesitate, so Caleb prompted, “You seem uncertain, sir? May I ask why?”

“Nothing to do with the mission itself, Caleb. I’m just now realizing it may be a difficult trip for you personally, and I’m not sure I should ask it of you, especially while you’re still recovering, though there is no one I trust more with the task at hand.”

“Personally, sir?”

“He’s leaving the RV in Boston.”

Caleb glanced at his phone before he could stop himself, then cleared his throat. “It should pose no difficulty for me, sir.”

“You know he’ll hear of your whereabouts. He’s quite friendly with Abbot Major General Carmichael.”

Caleb’s chin lifted. “My duty is to the Order and the Scion. I will fulfill that duty, sir.”

“Of course you will, Caleb. I would never doubt you for a moment.” 

***

Caleb had been able to distract himself from troubling thoughts during their flight, due mostly to his amusement at Helms’s reaction to the jet. 

“But, sir,” he’d said, entirely wide-eyed. “We’ve taken a vow of poverty.”

Caleb nodded. “But, you may have noticed, the Order itself has not. Money buys invisibility. No one questions the comings and goings of those wealthy enough to arrive in a private jet. The airports we access this way even have security in place that can keep governments out of our affairs.”

The novelty wore off for Helms as he focused on reading the briefing materials. Instead of using the time to do his own reading, or even thinking, praying, or meditating as he might normally have done, Caleb closed his eyes and drifted off for the last leg of the journey. He told himself it was part of the recovery process, but, at least a small part of him understood, there was a certain amount of avoidance in sleep.

He was jostled awake by their touchdown. He’d no sooner taken his phone out of airplane mode than it chimed with a text. Helms head came up from rereading the briefing materials for what Caleb guessed was at least the twentieth time. “From the Abbot, sir?” Helms asked.

“No. From Lieutenant General Xavier Saint Claire, United States Marine Corps, Retired.” He cleared his throat. “My father.”

“I … oh.”

“What is it, Jake?”

“I just … I had heard….”

“Go on.”

“Well, I know you were raised in the Order, sir. The rumor is that you … Well, that you were an orphan, sir.”

Caleb glanced at his phone as another text came through. “I lost my mother when I was very young. My father was active duty. He sent me to the Order rather than take the compassionate discharge he was offered.”

“Oh, I’m sorry, sir. About your mother and … It must have been very difficult for you, sir.”

Caleb shrugged. “At first, yes. But once I left Boston behind, things were much better.”

“Ah, so you’re from Boston, sir?”

“Yes. And now that my father is retired, he lives here full-time again in the family home in Beacon Hill.” Caleb allowed himself a sigh. “He’s invited me to spend Christmas Eve with him if our mission has concluded.”

“That’s nice, sir,” Helms said carefully.

“You’ve never met my father,” he said ruefully. He was about to text back, but his phone rang. He sighed again and answered. “Good morning, sir. I was just about to call.”

***

Caleb waited on the stone steps, trying unsuccessfully to resist the urge to shift from one foot to another like a nervous kid. It bugged him. 

He was a grown man, a decorated Knight, and he’d been facing down demons and even the occasional Fallen angel since he was still a teenager. This shouldn’t be so unsettling.

He expected to hear the steady, almost stately thump of his father’s cane, but was caught entirely by surprise by the door cracking open. He had a second to be grateful the wound in his side that had been so slow to heal due to the nature of the demon’s venom finally didn’t twinge every time he moved before he was caught around the middle by two bony sticks that squeezed him with surprising strength.

“Mister Caleb!”

He looked down at a tangle of thin silver curls. “Mmm … Mrs. O’Hara?” he stammered with disbelief bordering on awe. She’d been about a hundred years old when he was still single digits himself.

She pulled away, smoothing her old-fashioned maid’s uniform before she wiped her eyes. “Well, of course it is, my silly boy!” She took another step back. “You come inside now so I can have a look at you.”

She took his hand and he let her lead him into the foyer of the stately home. He turned and closed the heavy door behind them before she could do it. She immediately took both his hands and looked up at him, positively beaming. “You grew into quite the giant!” she chuckled. Her ancient voice was like unoiled hinges, but in a way Caleb found pleasant, familiar, like the old wrought iron gate at the end of the walkway.

“Maybe you’ve just shrunk,” he said with a laugh, thinking she almost definitely had. He’d guess her bones were hollow by now based on how light she seemed when she’d hugged him outside. 

“I have, at that,” she said, laughing, too. “You don’t get to be my age without being humbled a bit by gravity.

“How old are you, Mrs. O’Hara?” he asked, plainly curious.

She cuffed him lightly on the arm. “Manners! Didn’t anyone ever teach you never to ask a lady her age?”

He might have thought he offended her, if not for the twinkle of her translucent green eyes. “My apologies. Is it just as rude to guess?” he asked with a big grin. “Because, if I had to offer an estimate….” He squinted dramatically. “I’d say you’re not a day over twenty-nine.”

She cackled, patting him affectionately, as though she’d seen him every day of his life, rather than twenty years ago. “At least you haven’t outgrown your charm. I’m sure your mother looks down from Heaven every day absolutely delighted.”

“I hope so,” he said, almost shyly. He opened his mouth to ask after her family, but it caught in his throat with the unwelcome bellow from the dining room at the end of the hall.

“What is all that noise, Nora? Or have you forgotten what day it is?”

Caleb held up his hand to stop her from scurrying in response. “I’ll go get you off the hook.”

“Oh, Mister Caleb, don’t you go getting yourself in trouble on my account.”

He tipped her a wink. “I’ll get into it on my own account then. For old time’s sake.”

She laughed again, but silently, behind her hands this time. She gestured for his coat, but Caleb shook his head. It was cold in here, barely warmer than outside, he thought. Although, he supposed the chill could have been coming from within since he grew colder the further he got down the dim hall. 

He glanced at the walls as he walked. As a kid, they’d been covered with family portraits. Now, there was just the same floral wallpaper he remembered, unbroken by any indication that the home was inhabited. 

When he stepped into the formal dining room, he knew the cold was all in his head because a roaring fire filled the hearth, just as it always had on Christmas Eve when he was a boy. It was a tradition his mother had loved.

It appeared that was the only tradition of hers still alive in the house. There were no evergreens dotted with red berries, no tree, no lights, no flowers. There was just a man with close-cropped steel-grey hair at the head of the table, posture so ramrod straight, if he didn’t know him, Caleb might have thought he was a statue. Where a plate of food should have been, given the hour, there was only a huge Vulgate Bible open in front of him.

Caleb’s mother hadn’t thought learning Latin was especially important for a kindergartner, but he’d known that book would be brought out whenever his father was home. He’d learned to read that Bible while most children his age had just been learning to read at all. He cleared his throat to announce his presence, but the older man didn’t look up. 

“General,” Caleb said loudly enough to overcome his father’s combat-induced hearing loss.

The elder Saint Claire finished the page he was on, slipped a strip of white silk close to the binding, and closed the book, finally raising his head. Even though the reflection from the fire on his reading glasses obscured the view, Caleb imagined he could see the ice blue eyes he’d been convinced could see every transgression when he was a boy. He’d inherited those eyes, and he’d spent time searching them as he shaved every morning, reassuring himself that his own held a warmth that his father lacked.

“Sir,” he said formally, realizing he was standing at parade rest inside his own childhood home. And feeling, whether rationally or not, that it was far too casual. “Thank you for having me here this evening.”

“It’s late. I wondered if you’d changed your mind.”

“No, sir. I was pleased to be given a pass.”  

“That’s unusual, is it?”

“I wouldn’t know, sir. It’s never come up.” He wanted to say he’d never been invited home, for a holiday or any other reason. That’s not fair, he admonished himself. His father hadn’t been home much until his mandatory retirement a couple of years ago. 

“Thank you for coming, Caleb.” Caleb thought he caught a flicker at one corner of his father’s mouth. “At ease.”

Caleb forced himself to relax. But he couldn’t make himself move from the doorway.

“Come in. Sit down.”

“Thank you, sir.”

Caleb reflexively chose the seat that had been his as a child, about halfway down the long mahogany table. He thought the table was even sadder now that he was sitting at it.

“Something missing?”

“No, sir.”

“You were expecting dinner, I suppose.”

“I had a bite with the brothers and sisters before I came here.”

“I assumed members of the Order fasted properly.” 

“It was a meatless meal, sir.”

“I said properly.”

“Total fasting was eliminated by the 1983 Code of Canon Law. But of course, you know that,” Caleb said stiffly.

“I’m aware. I was surprised though when Dougie told me the Order follows the newer model for things.”

“Dougie?”

“Carmichael. We grew up together. I’m sure I’ve mentioned that.”

“He’s discussed the practices of the Order with you?” Caleb asked sharply.

“Of course he has. I needed to make sure it was the right place for you when the local Catholic school failed to manage you and I knew you’d never make it in military school.”

Caleb’s jaw tightened. “You did? When I was eight?”

“No, you were eight when we tried the Catholic school. You were ten when I made the decision about the Order. Because Dougie thought you could be useful to the organizational mission.”

Caleb’s teeth hurt from how hard he was biting down. He forced himself to speak though. If Carmichael had violated security and disclosed the existence of the Line simply due to an old friendship, Caleb would have to make a difficult phone call. “So, the mission of the Order appealed to you, sir?”

“Well, yes, of course. Providing security to the Church’s most sacred possessions and its holiest people all in secrecy to ensure its not infiltrated by the enemies of God. I can imagine few missions nobler than that one.”

Caleb breathed an internal sigh of relief. Carmichael really shouldn’t have discussed the Order at all, but at least it was a harmless cover story. “It’s worthy work.”

“Do you enjoy it?”

Caleb’s eyes widened. “I suppose so, sir.”

“Perhaps enjoy is the wrong word. You find it meaningful?”

“Yes, sir,” Caleb said carefully. He’d always felt that conversations with his father were like navigating a minefield. The slightest misstep could always blow the whole thing up. Even when his mother was still alive. 

“Have you ever considered leaving?”

Caleb gave his father a hard look. The dancing flames were all he could see when he looked at his glasses and the set of his mouth revealed nothing. “What sort of question is that?”

“No need to get offended, boy. I’m just curious.”

“Why?”

“Well, now. That is a question, isn’t it. The one you always asked. Without ceasing. Regardless of what I said about it.”

“Curiosity is seen as a virtue in the Order.”

“I would think obedience would be the greater virtue.”

“Certainly.” Caleb ground his teeth again. “I suppose it will please you to know that I’m known for my adherence to protocol. For my obedience.”

This time Caleb was certain his father’s mouth curled up at the edges. “That does please me.”

“Though it may displease you to know that the Order frowns on blind obedience without consideration. At least my unit does. Questions are an important part of our lives.”

“Mmmm,” he said noncommittally.

“So, I’d like to return to my question. Why?”

“Why am I asking about your job?”

Caleb frowned. Now that he’d given himself permission to question the man at all, he found more questions bubbling up. “That. But also why the messages, the texts, the phone calls? Why the invitation to visit you?”

“I shouldn’t call my son? Shouldn’t ask to see him?”

Caleb pushed away from the table and nearly stood, but mastered the urge with a hard swallow. “With respect, sir, I’ve heard from you at most a few times a year and you’ve never asked if I would visit. Not once. Usually you only call to remind me of the anniversary of Mom’s death and you tell me you put flowers on her grave. And that’s it.”

“It’s something we should both remember.”

“Do you honestly think there’s a day that goes by that I don’t think of her?”

“No. No, you were always the apple of your mother’s eye. I didn’t mean those phone calls as a judgement.”

Caleb shook his head sadly. “I didn’t assume you did. She’s the thing that ties us together.”

“Why did it take you so long to get back to me about today?”

“I’m not at liberty to discuss that,” he said stiffly.

His father chuckled and nodded with an approving smile. “So, you were on a mission and not just avoiding me. And you were injured if I don’t miss my guess, based on how you’re moving.”

Caleb wasn’t about to violate security and confirm or deny any of what his father said. He let silence hang between them.

“Very good. Before I give you my why, I’d like to ask again, have you ever wanted to leave the Order? Perhaps to have a family?”

Caleb didn’t answer, just took a slow breath.

“You’re still as stubborn as the Devil himself. Alright. I’m asking because my brother’s boy found out he can’t have children. I have a friend who could, if I asked, find you a very nice position, either in the military or in intelligence work, if that’s more to your liking. You’d still be doing exciting, meaningful work. And you could fulfil another sacred duty. To your family.”

“No, sir,” Caleb said firmly. “I have no interest in leaving the Order.” He didn’t plan on his next words, but they escaped anyway. “They’re my family. And they have been since I was a child.”

“I suppose that’s fair.” The elder Saint Claire leaned back in his seat, contemplating Caleb for a long moment. “I don’t suppose this house and the family fortune could tempt you to reconsider? I’m planning on moving south anyway. You wouldn’t need to see me, wouldn’t even need to work if you chose not to.”

Caleb sighed. “No, sir. That doesn’t change anything for me.”

“You were always so caught up in those storybooks your mother read to you. All that happily ever after nonsense. You can’t tell me you’ve never thought of leaving for a chance at love.”

Caleb stood. “Love is at the very center of all that I am and all that I do. You introduced me to that life. And for that I’m grateful.”

“Very well.” His father rose as well and walked around the table, leaning on his cane. “Would you like to stay and attend Mass with me tonight?”

Caleb had assumed that was how he would spend the evening when he’d taken the taxi over here, but he shook his head. “I need to be getting back. I’m flying out this evening.”

His father extended a hand. “Have a safe trip. If you change your mind, call me.”

Caleb shook his hand. “Merry Christmas, sir.”

“Christmas isn’t a time to make merry, Caleb. It’s a time to remember the birth of our Savior and the start of His journey that redeemed us all.” 

“I can think of no better time to be merry than remembering all of that.”

“And what good does making merry do you?” his father demanded.

“I can’t say. But I know it has. I think perhaps I’d forgotten how much until tonight. So I’ll say it again, and I’ll mean it for both of us. Merry Christmas.”

***

Caleb dressed for dinner slowly, delaying going to the feast for as long as he could. Helms had provided a pleasant distraction on their flight by making phone calls to family and singing Christmas carols, and insisting on watching holiday movies the whole time. And Caleb felt lighter the moment he touched down on the West Coast, and lighter still when he’d gone to Confession. 

His Confessor had been understanding and encouraging, relieving his conviction that he’d committed a mortal sin in failing to honor his father. His education as a warrior priest told him his actions hadn’t risen to that level, and his own morals and ethics assured him that upholding his dedication and oath to the Order and to God were the right thing. 

But, for some reason, his heart still felt heavy.

Helms knocked but didn’t wait for an answer, just opened his door and leaned in on his way by, dressed in, what Caleb assumed was, the ugliest Christmas sweater on the planet, covered with blinking lights. “Are you coming, sir?”

Caleb laughed. “That depends. Are you going to turn down the Wattage on that thing?”

“Are you kidding? My mom sent this to me! I’d turn it up if I could.” 

Helms tossed something at him. Caleb snatched it out of the air. It was a red Santa hat. “What am I supposed to do with this?”

“You could wear it. On your head.”

“Why on Earth would I–”

“You said you wanted to be merry this Christmas! This is a party. Ditch the tie and be merry then for Heaven’s sake!”

“I’ll think about it. And I’ll be down in a minute.”

“I’ll save you a seat,” Helms grinned and joined the crowd headed to their dining hall.

Caleb stood looking at the silly hat for a minute, smiling faintly.

“Something still on your mind, son?” The Abbot stood in his open doorway with an expression of gentle concern.

Caleb shrugged. “Glad to be home.”

“And we’re always glad to have you home. I meant more that you don’t look like a man who is at peace and I’m not used to seeing you that way after Confession.”

“That’s a very irritating habit, sir.”

“Prying?” he grinned.

“Mind reading.” Caleb adjusted his tie in the mirror to give himself a minute. He thought it might be easier to say if he didn’t have to look at the Abbot. “I think perhaps I have more to confess.”

“Yes?”

“I had a second … Not more than that … Where I wanted to say yes to my father’s offer.” The Abbot stayed silent, but Caleb was warmed by the lack of judgement in it. “Not because I don’t believe in what I am, in what I do, completely, but because, a family of my own would be a chance to create the things I lacked after my mother died. A chance to … repudiate the sort of father I had.”

“I think that’s more than understandable, Caleb.”

“It was a selfish thought. And I regret having it.” He turned then and the Abbot was smiling at him.

“Don’t regret. Regrets make up with length and the breadth of the home you came to us from. Instead, live. And remember to make room for something other than study and regulations from time to time.”

Caleb felt his lips quirk up on one side. “Is that my penance?”

“No,” the Abbot chuckled. “Your penance is to remember that in addition to being your superior, I am also your friend.”

“I know that,” Caleb said solemnly.

“I wasn’t finished … It is also to call me Tom when we are not on duty.”

Caleb shook his head with a rueful grin. He couldn’t bring himself to get rid of his tie, but he did pull the Santa hat on and gesture at the door.

As they walked toward the dining hall, the Abbot fell into step with him and put a warm hand on Caleb’s shoulder. “Merry Christmas, son.”

“Merry Christmas, Tom.”

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.”

Butter Him Up

Authors’ Note: It just wouldn’t be Fic-mas without a visit from Krampus. This year we look back into his past, along side Ben’s, back when they were still on Hell’s payroll. This one came from a reader prompt about the jul tomte and it was a ton of fun to write. Enjoy!

Butter Him Up

Remind me how this asshat wound up in charge of handing out assignments, Ben grumbled entirely to himself. He might have said it out loud, and possibly even to Alloces face, but the time of year had Reaping working overtime. 

The office was crowded enough that he hadn’t been able to move in the line leading to Al’s desk without bumping into, or being stepped on, by a demon waiting in one of the other lines for the expected paperwork.

Most of the crowd here appeared in their demon form. Ben could never figure out why anyone would do that willingly. Especially given what some of them looked like. Hideous

Ben shivered when Botis jostled his arm. If he were honest, Botis wasn’t as overtly disgusting as some of the other members of the assemblage. But there was something about his oversized teeth and twisted horns that Ben found especially disquieting. A tussle by the Spells, Potions, and Transformations desk caused a shift in the crowd that distracted him from his disgust. 

“Hey!” he exclaimed, almost involuntarily when a demon from the periphery accidentally stomped on his foot to avoid a broken flask of some sort of supernatural poison, unless he missed his guess. And when it came to magic, Ben had become remarkably astute. He caught her elbow though and steadied her before she could fall over and knock him into the half lion, half hyena behind him.

The other demon turned. He recognized her. At least her top half looked human so the eye contact didn’t make him immediately uncomfortable. He chose to ignore the fact that her lower half seemed to be some sort of horse or donkey … something with hooves, anyway. Which explained how unhappy his foot was at the moment. “Look out there,” Ben said. “There’s a dybbuk around here somewhere. You definitely don’t want to bump into him.”

“Thanks,” she said pleasantly enough, considering. “Hey … I know you. You’re that guy who kicked half of Hell’s teeth in when you got here … Ronoven, right?”

He cleared his throat. Almost two thousand years and demons were still on about his arrival. “Since we were just about joined at the feet a second ago, you can call me Ben,” he said instead of acknowledging her allusion to his past.

“I’m Nef,” she said, scrutinizing his face. “It is you. I was there, you know. I do some organizing of spectator events here when I’m not working an assignment above. A lot of demons would pay good coin to see you fight again. You were impressive, to say the least.”

“Yeah, well, it was a long time ago. I’m not really especially interested in fighting these days.”

She gave him a speculative smile. “To look at you, I have no doubt you could still take down all comers. And even if not, you’re certainly not hard on the eyes. None of our fights risk Final Death. It could fill your purse quite handily.”

He shook his head. “Thanks, but I’m not interested. Like I said, all that was a long time ago. I’m content to work in Reaping. At the moment, I’m mostly busy studying spellwork under Prince Stolas.”

“Ah,” she nodded as if suddenly his reaction made more sense. “Ole Stoli is quite territorial. Wouldn’t want to cross swords with him, I suppose.”

“Indeed,” Ben said, relieved to be off the hook, although ‘busy’ was a wild exaggeration for him lately. 

She turned away, now more interested in the paperwork she was carrying than in a demon she stood no chance of recruiting into Hell’s underground fight club.

Ben took another step forward in the queue, relieved he was almost at his bureaucracy-dictated destination. Not that he especially wanted to get sent up on another soul collection. But he did want an excuse to go to Earth. It had been too long.

Finally, he stepped up to the desk and Alloces brick red face split into a devilish grin. “Ronoven! Fancy seeing you here.”

“Hey, Al.” 

“I thought you were off the duty roster at the moment. Working with Stolas aren’t you? An apprenticeship of sorts?”

“Yeah, well … He’s … ahem … busy at the moment.”

“Ah, another trist has pried his attention off what he’s supposed to be up to, I take it.”

Ben shrugged. “All I know is he rented a villa in Limbo and told me he’d see me … eventually.”

“But still,” Alloces frowned. “You aren’t required to be here. What did you do, lose a bet?”

“Not exactly.” Ben rolled his eyes. Then he cleared his throat. “I owed Forneus a favor….”

“Lose to him at Scrabble, did you?”

“Pffft, no!” Ben lied. Then he smirked to cover his annoyance. “You know, instead of collecting souls, maybe I should go on up and introduce that game to the humans. Then they’d find their way here all on their own.” He laughed, but by all the gods that ever were, he hated losing a game of words almost as much as he hated being a demon.

“Not a half bad idea, if Balphagor will let go of the patent. Perhaps in a few decades when it runs out, I’ll snap it up myself,” Alloces said with a chuckle.

“Why not?” Ben said with a pointed lack of interest in his supervisor’s business endeavors. “What was it Forneus wanted to avoid?” he asked to move things along and get out of the crowded office.

Alloces shifted some papers around. “Ah, here it is … Nothing complicated. A simple collection. Right on the verge at the moment. You’ll have to hurry.”

“Are we expecting a Shepherd?” he asked, mentally crossing his fingers that an angel would be involved so he could simply claim Heaven made a stronger case.

The other demon shrugged and passed Ben his assignment. “Maybe, maybe not.”

“Wilmer Gusstafsson.” Ben looked over the paperwork quickly. “What did the old fellow do? Commit atrocities during the Spanish-American War?”

“Not even close. Nothing especially remarkable about him as far as I know. Should be right up your street though. The old fellow’s ninety.”

“Why are we even dispatching anyone then?” he asked, trying to sound just curious as opposed to annoyed.

Alloces leaned a bit closer and gestured for Ben to do the same. “I’m not supposed to say anything, but since I’d like to continue being included in your weekly card games….”

“Of course, Al. You know you’re always welcome to come over and lose some of your ill-gotten gains to me,” he said with a grin.

“Very funny. Anyway … Our numbers are down. To the point that Lucifer noticed. The king is furious. Especially with Reaping.”

“Great,” Ben groaned with a deep roll of his eyes. He stood up straight again, really regretting betting on that game and pretty sure now that Forneus had cheated. Which explained a lot, actually. “What am I supposed to do if instead of some milquetoast like Hariel, I show up and there’s some fiery-eyed avenging type there to collect this guy? You know getting physical with the angelic and annoying isn’t really my style.”

“Do what you want up there, Ronoven. But I’d suggest coming home with a soul in chains.”

“I don’t know what you think I’ll–”

“The only thing I think is that if you’re not prepared to go toe to toe with one of the halos, maybe you should consider a vocational paradigm shift. I hear Interrogation is looking for some demons to practice on.”

“Very funny,” he said sarcastically. 

“I wasn’t trying to be. Now, get your ass to Wisconsin and bring us back that old man, would you?”

“Wisconsin? In December? Are you serious?” 

“Have fun, Ronoven. Dress for the weather.” Alloces made a shooing gesture and called, “Next!” effectively dismissing him.

Ben made his way to the next line, got quickly tired of waiting, and pulled rank to get to the front. He presented his paperwork to the bespectacled demon behind the desk and took the cover ID package and bundle of clothing with a grimace. “Is the weather that bad?”

“Wisconsin in December? You tell me.”

Ben just took his materials, got changed, and left the building, avoiding conversation with anyone else on his way out the door. He wouldn’t have minded a trip to the Northeast to collect someone. Aife was running a small Office in Buffalo. If he was going to be closer, he could have stretched the assignment to visit her for Yule. As it was, he probably wouldn’t see her this year. Again.

He approached the nearest Gate, and stepped across the threshold. He twitched his shoulders, hating the heavy wool and million buttons that characterized the fashion of the times. But, he had to admit, the clothing was more functional than that of his few forays into the more formal Northeastern U.S. and leaps and bounds more comfortable than anything he’d had to wear in Europe when he couldn’t avoid assignments there. He halfheartedly performed the Gate Activation and found himself standing in the middle of a dirt road in a medium sized village, if the few lights he could make out were any indication.

Unfortunately, he couldn’t make out much through the apparent blizzard he’d just teleported into. “Of course. Of course that’s what I walk into.”

Ben had never seen so much snow in all his life … or afterlife for that matter.

He looked around for a minute and headed toward the house a few doors down from where he stood. The faint glow his demon’s eyes picked up told him that was the place. He stretched out his other senses and detected an old soul on the second floor.

He was about to let himself into the dark house when he heard a familiar clanking of chains and a heavy, cloven-hooved step. Ben spun around with a grin and his assumption was confirmed by the red glow lighting up the silhouette of another denizen of Hell. “Krampus! How’ve you been?”

“Ronoven!” The approaching creature’s face split into a terrifying grin. “Can’t complain. But what are you doing Up Top? I thought you were taking a leave from Reaping to work on another magic apprenticeship with Stolas.”

Ben shrugged. “He blew me off for another of his torrid affairs.” He frowned, looking around. “What are you doing around here? Your night was a couple of weeks ago.”

“Well,” Krampus chuckled. “I’m not really here on official business. I’m doing a favor for a friend.”

“Yeah?”

“My buddy Ollie is one of the jul tomte and–”

“The what?”

Krampus looked thoughtful. Or at least Ben thought he did. With such a terrifying visage, it was hard to tell. “Maybe a bit like one of the Elfhame? But for Christmas in the Nordic countries.”

“Ah. So … Good or evil?”

“Your black and white thinking about these things really is charmingly naive, Ronoven.”

“Says the demon charged with whipping the ‘naughty’ and stuffing them in sacks.”

“So judgemental.” Krampus clucked his forked tongue. Then he laughed. “In any event, it’s tradition to leave out a bowl of porridge on Christmas Eve for the tomte to eat. The young lady in question, that is, the one Ollie asked me to pay a visit to, just to give her a scare mind you, hit the butter under the porridge last year. Then he couldn’t track her down this year. Apparently her family immigrated from Sweden recently, came to live with her grandfather. It was nothing for me to find out where she’d gotten to.”

“Your friend sicced you on some little girl for hiding butter?”

“It’s quite the offense to one of his kind. Asking me to correct her behavior is a much more pleasant response than the tomte have taken for such an action before. It can be quite gruesome.”

Ben shook his head, turning up his collar against the cold. “Well, then, I’m glad it’s you and not a bunch of vindictive elves slashing her whole family to bits or whatever they do.” He shivered. “I better be going. Apparently, old Wilmer Gustafsson is on death’s door.”

“Oh, you’re going to the Gustafsson’s, too?”

“Um….”

“Well, Sigrid will be having a bad time. A visit from me, losing her grandfather. That does not a merry Christmas make. What a shame. Makes me inclined to take it easy on her. I’ll just have to embellish a bit when I tell Ollie about it.”

“Let’s get on with it then,” Ben sighed. “At least inside won’t be a howling nightmare.”

***

Ben was surprised to find Wilmer’s spirit hovering over his body looking clear-eyed and apparently awaiting his arrival. 

“Well, hullo there, young fellow. You’re not nearly the terror I was expecting.”

“What were you expecting?” Ben asked, plainly curious about the old man’s response.

“Oh, you know, the dark shroud, scythe, an air of impending doom.” It was said with an amused twinkle Ben didn’t know quite what to do with. “I suppose sort of a Christmas Yet to Come type fellow. An appearance and demeanor more befitting Death, as it were.”

Ben couldn’t help but smile a bit at that. The man was a reader. And while Ben didn’t necessarily enjoy Dickens’ work, he had liked A Christmas Carol. A fellow lover of words deserved better than this. “Well, I’m not exactly Death. You may have noticed, you’re already dead and I didn’t have anything to do with it.”

“So, who are you then?”

Ben flushed. He couldn’t help it. He had to speak his least favorite sentence in any language. “I’m actually a demon.”

“Ahha, so I’m going to Hell then? That is disappointing.”

Ben didn’t sense any particular fear from this soul and found it both intriguing and a little depressing. He let himself access the powers that would let him see the man’s soul. It didn’t have the acuity of an angel’s insight, but it served his purpose.

Well, there is absolutely no way I am dragging Wilmer back to Hell. No fucking way.

“I … um … No, you’re definitely not doing to Hell, Mr. Gustaffson.”

“You’re very polite for a demon,” the man chuckled.

Ben resisted the urge to ask him how many demons he’d met and instead took a minute to try to figure out what to do about this soul he had no intention of collecting. He nodded to himself, only half aware that he was doing it. “Okay. So here’s the thing … No angel showed up to make a bid for your soul, but that doesn’t mean Heaven doesn’t want you. They’re just a lot lazier than Hell, in my experience. So … what you should do is …. maybe just hang around here and haunt the place for a little while. Eventually someone will show up to lead you toward the Light, or whatever they call it.”

“That might be nice. I hate to miss Christmas by leaving right now.”

Ben smiled. “I’m fond of this time of year myself, sir.”

“I could pretend to be surprised, but I’m not at all. You look like someone who would enjoy Christmas.”

Ben didn’t correct the man by telling him he was more of a Yule sort of guy. He just offered another smile. “I better be going. I’m sorry you’re going to be dead for it, but I hope you have a merry Christmas anyway, Mr. Gustafsson.”

“Thank you, young man. I don’t know if such a thing is possible for a demon, but I hope you do, too.”

“I’ll try, sir,” Ben said, and slipped out the door.

About halfway down the stairs, he bumped into an unexpected angel. “Hey, Sariel. This one’s all yours.”

“Really, Ronoven? You aren’t even going to stay for the formalities this time?”

“Sorry, Sar. You were running late, so I went ahead and had a look. Lovely old fellow. You guys’ll love him.” He jogged past her down the steps.

“Ronoven, get back here and do your job!”

“I gotta go! I’m on the clock. Merry Christmas!”

He turned down the hallway that led to the front door and snickered when he heard her exclaim, “Oh, for Heaven’s sake!”

He let himself out and was surprised to find Krampus waiting for him outside. “How’d it go with the kid … Sigrid, or whatever her name was?”

“Fine. She’ll remember to butter the porridge properly tomorrow night no matter what else is happening, I’m quite certain. But no real harm done either way.”

“That’s good,” Ben said noncommittally, drawing his coat closer around himself.

“How about you?”

“Oh, Heaven showed up. You know how it is.”

“I believe I do,” Krampus said with a knowing lilt.

Ben shifted uncomfortably, wondering exactly what it was that Krampus was picking up on. He’d kept up a pretty good front  with the glitterati of Hell. Or he was pretty sure he had anyway. “So … Um … The night’s nearly over. What’s next for you?”

“Hawaii.”

“What’s a Hawaii?”

“Hawaii is a where not a what. I think I’ve earned a little vacation.” Krampus laughed. “As someone whose jurisdiction is mostly America, you’ll find out about it in a few years; more’s the pity for the people who live there, I think.”

“What’s so great about this Hawaii?”

“The food. The weather. The music. The company. You’d love it.”

Ben chuckled ruefully. “Sounds nice. I wish I could afford to fuck off out of Hell for a minute.”

“Need a little getaway yourself?”

“I wouldn’t hate one after this.” He gestured at the pelting snow, piled in drifts almost as tall as he was.

“So, come with me.”

“I’m already gonna catch no end of shit for showing back up without a soul in tow. Unauthorized leave on top of that? I like my finger and toenails right where they are, thanks.”

“Suit yourself.” Krampus headed back up the street to catch up with Nicholas. “See you around, kid,” he called over his shoulder.

“Have a nice vacation,” Ben shouted over the howling storm.

Krampus turned around. “Hey, if you ever get tired of the prince blowing you off and you want to learn some real magic, drop by my estate. I think you’d find my tutelage quite helpful.”

Ben grinned. Learn magic from Krampus? Hell, yes. “Thanks! I’ll do that!”

Krampus waved and faded into a swirl of blowing snow.

Ben stood in the middle of the dirt track that he couldn’t make himself think of as a street, icy flecks collecting unpleasantly in his collar, wind biting his face. He couldn’t decide which was worse: going back to Hell empty handed, or standing here freezing his ass off.

A gust of wind hit him hard enough to make him drop back a step. Yeah, no. At least Hell is warm, he grumbled to himself. But I definitely need a vacation.

Before he could get any colder or wetter, he uttered the appropriate incantation to return to his place Below and disappeared with a hiss of steam.

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. 

*****

Every Time A Bell Rings

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Authors’ Note – All I can do to introduce this one is to quote Doctor Who. “There is, surprisingly, always hope.”

Every Time a Bell Rings

The angel sat on the first park bench he came to with a heavy sigh. 

“Want to talk about it?”

He looked up with a start. He’d been so wrapped up in his thoughts, he hadn’t noticed he wasn’t alone. “I … You…” he stammered.

“Didn’t mean to scare you,” said an old man with a friendly smile. 

The angel found himself smiling back, despite his dark mood. “No, it’s fine. You didn’t really. I’m sorry if I disturbed you though.”

“Not at all,” the man chuckled. “Don’t usually get company out here this time of year.” His breath sent up a frosty plume in the late December cold.

“I’ll bet.”

“I certainly don’t mind,” he said, smiling again. Then he held out his hand. “I’m Cyrus. My friends call me Cy.”

“Nice to meet you, Cy,” he said, and reached out and took the offered hand. “I’m Chamuel.”

“Pardon, there, young fella? I didn’t quite catch that.”

With the barest smile and a little head shake at his carelessness, he amended, “You can call me Clarence.”

“I had a brother named Clarence,” Cy replied. 

The old man had a firm grip, despite his age and slight appearance. Chamuel looked into his eyes, beyond the surface, with his angelic gaze. Cyrus had lived a good life, but he could see a deep and profound sadness there. He released Cy’s hand and relaxed against the park bench.

“You must be freezing without a coat,” Cy prodded with gentle concern.

“Oh, I’m fine,” he replied with a wave of his hand. “I … um … I run hot.” For all his time on Earth, his many visitations among the humans, Chamuel always seemed to forget the little details that helped his kind blend in. Like wearing a coat in winter.

“If you say so.” Cy’s voice and expression were somewhat skeptical, but not challenging. 

Despite being unaffected by the cold, Chamuel gripped his elbows. Then he sighed. 

“What’s got you so down, young Clarence? That is, if you don’t mind my asking.”

“Oh, it’s nothing. Really,” the angel said unconvincingly. 

Cy made a show of looking out over the park, rather than at his companion. He casually offered, “Sometimes talking helps.”

The angel sighed again. “It’s my job, I suppose.” He glanced over at Cy and into his kind eyes. He decided to actually admit what was bothering him. “And the time of year on top of it.”

Cy nodded. “I get that. Christmas can be hard.” Clarence didn’t seem inclined to go further, so he offered up a little something of himself to make it easier. “Before I retired, I worked helping people sort through those sorts of problems. I’m a psychiatrist … well, I was, once upon a time.”

“Busy this time of year, were you?” Chamuel asked, actually curious. The idea behind this time was to uplift the humans. But thus far, he hadn’t observed it serving its purpose especially well. Not in a very long time, anyway.

“Oh, I was always busy,” Cy said softly. “But it was often this time of year when I saw many of my patients struggle to most.”

Chamuel chewed his lip. “I suppose the season causes us to pause and reflect. Perhaps that’s it.” He looked down at his feet, distracted for a moment by how strange he found shoes to be. Well, that, and contemplating their strangeness was easier than meeting Cy’s gaze at the moment.

“Burdens often feel lighter when they’re shared,” Cy said.

The angel took a deep breath. “I don’t know that what I do matters,” he said bluntly. “I often think that if I didn’t exist, it wouldn’t make a difference.”

“I see,” Cy said soberly. “Tell me more about that.” When the young man didn’t go on, he prompted, “What is it you do, Clarence?”

A long breath was puffed out through overly inflated cheeks. “That’s … kind of complicated.”

“Complicated was my bread and butter for over thirty years, son. Try me.”

Cy wasn’t going to drop it. “I guess you could say I work in human services, too.”

“Kind of a broad field.”

“Tell me about it.”

That elicited a warm chuckle from Cy. “So in what capacity do you work?”

Chamuel paused. “I work with children.” The short admission had a bleak sound.

“Foster care?” Cy guessed.

“Not exactly.” He shook his head. “It’s hard to put into words.” He stopped, trying to decide if he should say more, or more accurately, what he should do. The easy answer, the one he knew his superiors would prefer to more dangerously honest interaction with a human, was to excuse himself, and go find a more private place to sulk.

“I don’t mean to pry, Clarence,” Cy said carefully. “But what you said concerns me.”

He frowned. “How so?”

“I’m worried you may be thinking of hurting yourself.”

“Oh, no, nothing like that!” He shook his head for emphasis. “Just feeling sorry for myself is all.”

“You don’t have to minimize what you’re feeling for me, Clarence. I want to help, if I can.”

Chamuel offered a wan smile and shook his head. “I’ve taken up enough of your time.”

He started to rise, but Cy put a hand on his arm. “Please. Stay. At least until I know you’re really okay.”

“I’m not going to hurt myself.” 

Cy raised a single eyebrow. He didn’t need to say that he didn’t believe the statement. It was pretty clear from his expression. Chamuel sat back down. He was inwardly a little grateful Cy had protested. He really did want to … what was it the human’s said? … Get this off his chest. That’s it. 

“Okay. You really want to know?”

Cy nodded. “I really do. If you feel talking will help you.”

“But it’s bad.”

“That’s alright, Clarence. Listening, no matter what it’s about, is probably my most valuable skill.”

Chamuel nodded. “Okay … There was this kid.” He stopped. Saying this out loud was more difficult than he’d anticipated. Cy didn’t say anything, just continued to look interested and concerned. “Sweet kid.” He cleared his throat. “About ten. And better than … better than he had any right to be, considering.”

Cy thought he knew where this was going, especially given the sadness Clarence could no longer keep out of his voice. “Abusive home?”

“And then some. Bullied at school, too. But … you’re right. Home was the problem. Dad was a real peach …” He trailed off again.

This time Cy thought he needed a little help to get going again. “Tell me more about that.”

“He was always using the kid as a punching bag when he was upset anyway, and couldn’t seem to buy clothes or food before he bought cigarettes or booze. No matter how badly the kid needed them.” He grew quiet again, staring off over the park.

“What happened, son?”

“Um … Dad got real drunk. Pissed off about the size of his Christmas bonus, I guess. Beat the boy so bad … He’s in a coma.” He felt close to weeping. He was ready to get up and leave. But now that he’d started telling it, he also wanted to finish. “He was mad he wasn’t going to be able to … whatever … so he took it out on his son. I saw it coming. But I couldn’t do anything to stop it.” His voice cracked. He couldn’t tell if he really was going to cry, or if he was just that upset and frustrated.

“And how do you feel about that?”

“I don’t know.”

“I think you do. And I think it will help you immensely to say it.”

This time, Chamuel got up and stalked away a few steps. He turned back to Cy and threw up his hands. “Fine! Pissed off! And maybe a little vengeful!” He flopped back down on the bench with a heavy sigh. “But also … like it should bother me more.”

“You seem pretty bothered, Clarence.”

He shook his head. “Not enough to act. I … I feel so jaded. The Hell of it is, this isn’t the first time … or even the worst I’ve seen. Just another in a long line of senseless violence, of atrocities, I’ve been forced to witness. And witness is all I’ve done. It’s so…” He sighed, leaning forward to put his head into his hands, resting his elbows on his knees. “I feel impotent.” 

Cy patted Clarence’s back. “I’m sure you’ve done more good than you realize.”

He didn’t look up, just shook his head, still resting it in his hands. “Not enough.” He sighed heavily. It was almost a sob, but he bit it back. “There is so much evil in the world. And I could stop it. If my hands weren’t tied by …” He almost stopped himself. The human phrase felt so mundane. But in a way, that’s what made it perfect. “If they weren’t tied by bureaucratic bullshit.”

“So, you tried to have the child removed from his home?”

“No.” Chamuel shook his head. “Even that would have broken the rules. And it’s … It’s so much worse.” He shouldn’t be doing this, shouldn’t be saying these things. But Chamuel felt if he didn’t, they would tear him apart. “I could have stopped the beating. I was there. I saw every punch, every kick, heard every terrible thing the man said to that little boy. But I wasn’t allowed to intervene. Couldn’t so much as lift a finger to dial the phone. That would be against His rules. All part of the Divine plan. No matter how my superiors dress it up, it’s bureaucratic bullshit, just like I said.”

Cy’s eyes had grown wide, his expression confused, but also deeply worried. “You’re saying you were there, Clarence?”

“I was. For that beating, and every other before it. And now I don’t know what’s going to happen to Daniel. But there didn’t seem to be much point sitting by  his bed holding his hand. At least the other times he could sense that there was someone who loved him nearby. But now…”

“I … I’m…” Cy cleared his throat. “I’m afraid I don’t understand.”

Chamuel shook his head. “You understand just fine. You think I’m crazy is all.” The angel gnawed on his lip. Fuck it. In for a penny, in for a pound. “Cy, I’m not crazy. Well, maybe a little after the last few days. But not in the way you think. I’m an Angel of the Lord, what you’d call a Guardian. But that’s a misnomer. I don’t guard I watch. But we can’t call it that anymore. The Guardians were disbanded after the nonsense they got up to with Noah’s kids.”

“Clarance … You … You think you’re an angel? Am I hearing you right?”

Chamuel smiled a little and shook his head. Can’t leave this nice old man hanging, right? He rose and assumed his angelic form, in all its glory.

For a moment, Cy’s face froze. Then a look of wonder spread over it. He stammered unintelligibly for a minute or two. Chamuel resumed his human form and sat next to Cy, patting him lightly on the shoulder. “By all that’s holy. I just … I never … I mean … I thought…”

Chamuel shrugged. “Yeah, I probably shouldn’t have done that. But, I feel like after all your listening, you learned the truth.”

Cy shook his head, and Chamuel got the impression that the old fellow didn’t know he was doing so. “I’ve always believed in God, I suppose. But angels … Angels always seemed…”

“Imaginary.” 

Cy couldn’t deny the evidence of his own eyes. The existence of God and angels was overwhelming, but he reminded himself he’d always been a man of faith. This should be good news. “I suppose so. The idea of someone watching over me all the time is a bit fairytail for someone like me, I guess.”

“If it makes you feel any better, we don’t spend all our time watching. We’re sent when we’re needed … But even then we’re not usually permitted to interact, or act at all. Divine plan bullshit. Like I said,” Chamuel said bitterly. Then he sighed. “I guess that’s not fair to Him. We can act sometimes.”

This time Cy was the one who patted his companion. “Can you give me an example? Please?”

Another sigh. “Have you ever needed to get out of the house and you reach for your keys and they’re just not where you left them at all?”

“More often than I’d like to think of, to be honest. This morning I was starting to worry that perhaps some things were going soft upstairs, if you know what I mean.”

That seemed to give his companion pause for a moment. Then he managed a half smile. “But when you went back to the same place five minutes later, were they there?”

“They often are. Although this morning I finally gave up and left the place unlocked. Not much there worth stealing, I suppose. Then I had the Devil’s own time with the elevator.”

Chamuel paused again, thoughtful. Finally, he went on. “More often than not, that’s one of us. Like maybe you needed to leave five minutes later to avoid something bad that was set up by a chain of events that weren’t meant to interact with your thread in the grand tapestry at all. Or perhaps you needed to meet someone to put you where God meant for you to be, or avoid someone that would keep you from it. We do that sort of thing all the time.”

“Seems a bit mundane,” Cy said, sounding a bit disappointed. “And also a little mean,” he added with a wry smile. “I really thought I’d lost my marbles earlier.”

“It’s one of the ways we can accomplish our mission to guide and protect, but without doing what I just did and breaking the Rules of Revelation. We can keep our charges safe or at least on the path. In small ways.” He sighed again, no longer distracted with his explanation. “Sometimes.”

Cy thought he understood. At least a little. “In the case of that child, Daniel … Nothing you were allowed to do …”

Chamuel nodded. “In his case, yeah, I couldn’t lift a finger. Still can’t. Even if I went and healed him … What good would it do? His father will just … It wouldn’t matter.” He couldn’t make himself say ‘his father will just beat him again,’ because he really couldn’t face the idea of it again. Mostly because he knew the boy would likely wake up in a day or two, and the odds were that even if he was removed from the home, it would be temporary. He shook his head. “It’s not even close to the worst I’ve seen.”

Cy’s hand rested on his shoulder and gave it a reassuring squeeze. “I’m so sorry, Clarence. I can’t even imagine how hard that must be. Having the power to change something, but being utterly powerless to intervene.”

Chamuel glanced at him. “I think you can. As a psychiatrist, I’m sure you heard things that made it hard to let people leave your office.”

“Well, that’s certainly true. But at least I could offer them options, or I could contact the authorities if they were being hurt or hurting themselves.”

Chamuel nodded. “It wears on me … And I swear to you, if I hear one more of my brethren say, ‘Trust His plan’ I’m going to … Well, I don’t know. But it won’t be good.”

Cy wanted to help, but this was a bit outside his professional experience, to say the least. “Is there any way … That is … Can’t you know what the Divine plan is? Maybe knowing the reasons would help you cope.”

“No.” His voice was bleak and tinged with anger. “We are not all knowing. Any more than you are. We are creations, just like you. And like humans, we are meant to trust in God.”

“You are doubting this trust.”

“That’s one way to put it.” He dug in the dingy snow with his shoe, not looking up.

“Trusting in something you can’t see certainly isn’t easy,” Cy said with genuine empathy. “But surely it hasn’t been all bad?”

“No … You’re right. I’ve had my moments. But … This kid … I was there for all of it. I watched him take all the bad shit life could throw at him. He always kept his head up. Always had some little act of kindness for others. Now he’ll get to spend Christmas on a ventilator and I …”

“Will he wake up?” Cy asked suddenly.

Chamuel nodded. “That’s why I’m still here. So I can go back and watch more.” His fists clenched and unclenched on the park bench. He’d never been closer to no longer caring about the consequences of disobedience. Even last night. “I could have stopped it,” he whispered. “I was so close.” He hung his head. “But I’m a coward.”

“What do you mean?”

“I don’t want to Fall.”

“What is … I don’t follow.”

“An angel that goes against His will will fall from Grace. The Fallen live in Hell, separated from God’s love. And that separation causes them to do all manner of evil things. I … I don’t want to live in Hell.” A tear fell this time and no amount of lip biting or stubbornness could keep more from joining it.

“You feel guilty for putting your own interests ahead of the child.”

“Yes,” he said in a barely audible whisper. Then he sat up straight, no longer caring if the whole damned world saw his tears, his anger, his despair. “Yes! And it’s eating me up.” He realized something. “I don’t know if I can do this work any more. Whether it’s what he wants of me or not.”

Cy was thoughtful. “Would you tell me the child’s full name?”

Chamuel wiped at his face with his sleeve. “Why?”

“I know it’s only the one child. But I have a friend who’s a judge, you see … Children aren’t always sent back if there are good reasons to keep them away, Clarence.”

Chamuel swallowed hard. He didn’t know if this constituted disobeying an order. How was this any different than moving a set of keys? “I don’t …”

“I don’t suppose you can quit your job?” Cy asked, sensing Chamuel’s hesitation.

“No. I could be reassigned. I’ve petitioned a number of times. But those sorts of transfers have to be approved by Him. And He hasn’t been hearing those sorts of cases in some time.” He thought for a minute. “And … it’s not just Daniel…” He took a breath. Then he squared his shoulders anyway and told his companion the boy’s name and what hospital he was in. A heavy weight that had settled on his heart seemed to lift then. Since no one appeared in front of him to cast him down and the only change he felt was a good one, he guessed perhaps it would be okay. 

Cy got out a small pad of paper from his pocket and made a note. “I’ll call as soon as I get home, holiday or no. Does knowing that help at all?”

Slowly, the angel nodded. “I can watch him be okay … I think I can keep on. For a bit anyway. Daniel is such a good kid.”

“Speaking of Daniel … I don’t suppose Clarence is your real name?”

Finally, the angel smiled. “No … But my angelic name is kind of a mouthful. They all are … And, it’s Christmas. I was sort of trying to be funny.”

Cy smiled back as the context for the name dawned on him. “Classic defense mechanism.”

“I’d tell you not to analyze me, but that’s really what you’ve been doing since I sat down. And since I can face another day now, I can hardly be upset with you. I needed a win. And you’ve given me one.”

“I’m glad to have been able to help.” He looked out across the mostly empty park. “I want you to know you’ve been a help to me, too.”

“How so? All I’ve done is sit here and complain.”

“Well … It’s been hard for me since Margaret died. Most of my friends have passed, too. We never had children. And the holidays … I’d begun to doubt my faith.”

“I’m so sorry for your loss, Cy.”

“I don’t see it as a loss so much. Not now that I’ve met you. More like a break. If I’ll see them all again one day …”

Chamuel hesitated, then figured he didn’t really have much to lose. If he hadn’t gotten fired over Daniel, no one could possibly be paying attention. “You will.”

“Well then, you’ve restored not just an old man’s faith. But his hope as well.”

Chamuel smiled, this one truly touching his eyes. “I’m glad. You’ve eased my burdens greatly. I wish I could do more.”

“I … I don’t suppose you’d …” He trailed off.

“What is it?”

“I usually spend Christmas with my brother. Or I had since Margaret … He passed over Thanksgiving and …”

Chamuel interrupted. “I’d be honored to spend Christmas with you.”

Cy cleared the lump in his throat. “I’d like that very much.” 

Chamuel clapped him on the shoulder. “Let’s get you home. The temperature is dropping like a stone.”

They rose and started down the path to the bus station. Chamuel stopped when he saw one of his brothers across the frozen park. He felt like the Earth might fall out from under him. But Anael just offered a small smile, nodded, and waved a small set of keys at him. Then the other angel disappeared.

Chamuel put a hand on Cy’s arm and started off again. They sat on another bench to wait for the bus. Concerned that Clarence might be getting into his own head again, Cyrus spoke, “Well, you’ve certainly cheered this old man today.” He smiled. “Does that mean you get your wings?”

Chamuel laughed and shook his head, then he grew thoughtful. “We angels are created with all our attributes. I once thought that meant we were as unchanging as the Almighty. But, just like you … humans, I mean … We can grow, better or worse, with every soul we meet, every decision we make.”

“And so…?”

“I believe I have grown better, Cy. Today at least.”

“May it always be so.” 

*****

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.

*****