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.”

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.”

There’s Always Tomorrow

80889754_2525274944380658_4230101019108835328_n

Authors’ Note: We hope Christmas finds you well, celebrating the holiday with happiness and peace, and the love of your friends and family. This story was born out of the knowledge that no matter how much we hope for it, that’s just not true for everyone. Mental health struggles are a part of our lives, our family, and our jobs. There’s Always Tomorrow is deeply personal for us.

This story is about a young woman named Mary, alone on Christmas, who just doesn’t see a way out of the crushing depression and anxiety that fill her life. 

If you know someone who you think is struggling, reach out. Just ask them what they need, check in, let them know someone cares. If you’re concerned they are going to hurt themselves, please don’t stay silent.

If you’re alone and in need of help please call the National Suicide Hotline at 1-800-273-8255. And you can chat online right now at https://suicidepreventionlifeline.org/chat/ You can also connect with a crisis counselor in under five minutes by texting HOME to 741741. A crisis doesn’t have to be someone ready to end their life. There’s help working through troubling emotions, help getting connected with assistance close to home, help knowing you aren’t alone.

You’re important. You matter. 

There’s Always Tomorrow – 

Trigger warning for suicidal ideation with a plan and intent.

The soft steady lights from the Christmas tree cast strange, sharp shadows in the otherwise dark room. The stillness encroached. Like the darkness, it seemed to grow, the longer she sat there, rocking back and forth, cradling her father’s service revolver.

The front of her shirt clung uncomfortably to her chest and neck, damp as it was from the tears streaming down her face. She sniffled, but could no longer clear her nose like that. Her shoulders stiffened. This time she’d just get it over with.

She raised the gun and pressed it into her temple, finger tensing on the trigger. 

“Alright. This is it,” she sobbed to the empty room.

Her hand started to shake and another bout of full force crying shook her whole body. She dropped the gun to her lap.

“Goddamnit, I can’t even kill myself right!”

She reached for the tissues on the lampstand next to her couch and blew her nose. She wanted to die, but not covered in snot. She sat looking at the gun for a while. Finally, she picked it up again. She thought perhaps she’d finally worked up the courage. 

“Okay. Third time’s the charm.” 

Her voice still shook, but her hand was steadier this time.

“It’s the only way out.”

“Is it though?” a deep voice asked from the shadows.

She jumped, dropping her gun to the floor.

Standing next to her Christmas tree was a tall young man, broad shouldered, and under different circumstances she’d have thought he was cute as Hell, as far as men went. As it was, she recovered quickly from her surprise and scrambled to pick the gun up from the floor, stood, and leveled it at the intruder. “Who are you and what do you want?”

He held up his hands, showing her open palms, and made no move to get closer. “I’m Ben, and right now what I want is to not get shot, if it’s all the same to you.”

“You know what I mean,” she snapped. “What are you doing here?”

He shrugged a little. “Well, I mean, yeah, I figured that’s what you meant, but …You’re not gonna believe me anyway.”

Her momentary fear, quickly turned to anger at the interruption. “Try me.”

Another shrug, “Hokay. I warned you though.”

“Now!” she snapped, checking to be sure the safety was really off.

“I’m here to collect your soul, or … I guess, to see about collecting it.”

She frowned. “My soul?”

“Yeah. I mean, somebody’s got to, what with you being ready to kick it out of your body and all.”

“Okay, so you’re nuts.”

“I told you you wouldn’t believe me, but I…”

“I’m calling the police,” she interrupted, keeping the gun pointed at him with one hand and reaching for her phone with the other. 

“Sure. You could do that. Or we could talk a little. You seem like you could use it.”

“Talk? You want to talk? You broke into my house to talk?”

“I didn’t break in. I materialized. It’s an important distinction. I mean picking locks is cool and all, and I can definitely do it. But magic from other realms to just appear with an honest to goodness body to have a heart to heart is so much cooler.”

She shook her head. “You really are crazy.”

She finally blindly found her phone, and started to dial, taking her eyes off the clearly insane blond guy in her living room.

“911. What’s your emergency?”

She looked around and was momentarily struck dumb. She was alone. Completely.

“I … um … There was someone in my apartment. An intruder.”

“Are they still there, ma’am?”

“I … no … I don’t think so. They must have left when I called.”

“Ma’am, are you safe?”

A lump formed in her throat. It was a common enough thing to say. It made perfect sense in this situation. But … for her … she knew she wasn’t safe. She was the opposite of safe. And lying did not come to her easily. She cleared her throat so she could speak. “I … Yes, I think so. I guess I’m not sure. I don’t know how the man got in.”

“I have uniforms in your area, ma’am. I’m dispatching them to your location.”

“Um … okay. Thanks.”

“I’ll stay on the line with you until they arrive.”

She waited for the police. After a minute or two of stunned silence, she had the presence of mind to put her gun under the couch cushion. She turned on all the lights, too. Soon she could see the blue strobes from the street below and a knock came at her door. “They’re here now. Thank you.”

“Very good, ma’am. Happy holidays.”

“Um, yeah, thanks, you too.”

She ended the call and let the two uniformed cops in. They took her statement and did a walk through of the apartment. 

“All clear, ma’am,” the younger of the two assured her.

“Don’t hesitate to call if he comes back,” said the older officer.

“Of course. Thank you. Merry Christmas,” she said stiffly as she showed them out.

She locked the door behind them. Then she followed in their footsteps, going through the whole place, checking and rechecking the locks on all her windows, the door to the fire escape out back, the one to her patio, too. No more interruptions.

She went back to the living room, determined to finish what she’d started earlier.

“Finally. I thought they’d never leave.”

She jumped again at the deep voice. In the same spot, this time with his hands jammed into his pockets, stood her intruder. She ran over to the couch, reaching under the cushions.

“Don’t bother. I’m not a big fan of guns. So I got rid of it for you. I don’t much like the idea of a hole in either of us.”

“Goddamnit!” She started searching for her phone. She’d left it right on the coffee table.

“Um … I’ve got your phone, too.” He took his hands out of his pockets and held them up in a placating gesture at the furious look she shot him. “I mean … I’ll give it back, but I’d really like a chance for us to talk.”

She was flushed and visibly shaking. “You’re not here, you’re not real. I’m having some sort of breakdown.”

He shook his head. “Only one out of three. I’m definitely here and I’m a hundred percent real. As real as you are, Mary.”

She sat down on the couch, dropped her head into her hands. “I’ve never seen you before tonight. If you’re real … How do you know my name?”

“You mean other than you saying it out loud to the 5-O?” he asked. She looked up and he tipped her a very charming, very sympathetic smile. “It’s my business to know, Mary. You’re my assignment tonight. I told you, I’m here to collect your soul.”

She sighed. If he was a hallucination, he was a damned convincing one. “Alright. Lemme guess. You’re an angel,” she said mockingly.

He smirked and shook his head. “As a matter of fact, I’m from a lot further south.”

“Huh?”

“I’m a demon.”

“Yup, it’s a breakdown.”

“That, I’m not going to argue with. But I’m not part of the breakdown.” He stepped toward her hesitantly. “Would it help if you touched me?”

She frowned. “If you’re a demon, how could I touch you? Aren’t you just, like a spirit or something?”

“Well, not everybody bothers with a body for the job. But I like mine.” He offered another charming smirk. “Can you blame me?”

One of her eyebrows went up. 

“Sorry. I have a really bad habit of being kind of a smart ass when I’m scared.”

“You’re scared? Of me?”

He swallowed hard. “No. But I’m honestly scared for you.” He paused. “So, like I said, would it help you believe if you touched me?”

Finally she nodded. He moved over to the couch and sat carefully down beside her. She reached out, hand still shaking, and laid it on his arm. Her eyes went wide and she stared into his face. “You really are real. But how? Why?”

He offered a kind smile. “Magic. And I probably shouldn’t have just shown up in your living room, but you seemed like you could use a friendly ear. I’ve been told I’m a good listener when I want to be.”

Her hand tightened on his arm and he saw real fear light her eyes. “Wait. If you are who you say you are, that means I’m going to Hell?”

He put his other hand over hers and shook his head, making sure she was still making eye contact so she’d know he was telling the truth. “Not necessarily. Sometimes it just happens. Other times we get dispatched to do the job. See, there’s almost always a question about what direction a soul will travel. Heaven sends an angel, and the other guys send someone like me … We do a thing, and evaluate the soul and settle the question. Sometimes, if it’s close, there’ll be a fight about it. It’s not usually close though.”

“So where’s this angel?”

Ben shrugged. “Heaven probably. You’re not due to call it for another hour or so. It takes time to work up the … whatever it takes to end it.”

She frowned again, but she still hadn’t let go of his arm. “I could go to Heaven?”

He made a gesture somewhere between a shrug and a nod. “Yeah, but at best it’s like 50/50.”

She peered more intensely into his eyes. “Since I’m a suicide, does that make my odds worse.”

Ben looked almost offended. “No! I mean, no. Suicide isn’t a factor either way. Nobody gets punished for being sick and overwhelmed, Mary.”

She thought about that for a minute. Then she looked almost angry. “And I’m gay, so … Hell, right?”

“What difference would that make?” He frowned this time. “Okay, I know what all the modern big religions say, but … come on. Like anyone is gonna get punished for being born and just living their life as who they are.” He sighed. “It’s more about the choices you make, the exercising of your free will. The ripples of that, so to speak.”

“Okay, well 50/50 aren’t bad odds … Ben, is it?”

“It is. And sure, if you’re hitting a casino, 50/50 isn’t a bad bet. Nobody is going to give you those odds in Vegas either though. And we’re talking about eternity here, Mary. The thing about gambling is, the House almost always wins.”

“This is a lot,” Mary said, shifting uncomfortably.

“It is. But I didn’t show up early to give you the rundown on the hereafter, to be honest.”

She finally took her hand away from his arm and looked away. “Well, why did you?” she asked, not sure she wanted to know.

This time, he reached out to her, putting a gentle hand on her shoulder. “Mary, why do you want to kill yourself?”

Her eyes, that once again held tears, flicked to his. When they started running down her cheeks again, she looked down at her feet. “Does it matter?”

“It does to me.”

She continued to stare at the floor. “I’m just so tired,” she whispered. Ben passed her a tissue with his free and and she attempted to wipe her face. Then she started twisting it up in her hands. “Um … my wife left me a couple of months ago. Said she couldn’t watch me keep digging myself into the hole I was going down … My dad died … Really aggressive, invasive cancer … I didn’t even recognize him by the end … And now … work … They’re laying off. And I know I’m on the block, with all my absences, and my performance hasn’t been great and …” He simply squeezed her shoulder gently. “This is where you tell me life is precious and there are people worse off than me, right?”

“Well, from my point of view, every life is precious. I had to get thrown out of mine or I’d have never let go.”

“You were alive?”

“I was. A long time ago. But Mary, I’m not going to feed you some crap about other people … Your pain is yours. And it’s real. Suffering is suffering. It’s not positional. Okay?”

“So what?” she began bitterly. “Am I supposed to just keep on living through it all while my life crumbles around me?”

He squeezed her shoulder again. “I’m not here to pretend this isn’t all crushing you under its weight. I’m not much for bland platitudes or tired cliches either.” She looked at him again. “Have you tried getting help?” She shook her head, just enough so he saw it. “There’re crisis numbers, therapy, counseling, peer support groups, medication … All kinds of ways you can…”

She shook her head firmly. “No,” she interrupted. “I never. I don’t think…”

“Look, Mary, you’re a strong person. So the fact that you’ve reached your limit makes it feel even worse. Because you have always been told that even having a limit is a weakness. But it’s not. Everyone has a limit, Mary.”

She started to cry again, her whole body shaking. He put an arm around her. “It’s okay to need help.”

“It’s just too much,” she sobbed softly.

“I know. And I’m sorry. But you really don’t have to do what you planned on doing tonight. You don’t have to carry this weight alone.”

“What do I even do?”

“Calling a suicide hotline would be a good first step.” He pulled Mary’s phone from his pocket. “I’ll dial it for you if you want.”

“No,” she said, reaching for her phone. “No, I’ll do it.”

She opened her browser and looked for the number to call. She wiped her tears with a fresh tissue he passed her, and she dialed. Ben sat there quietly, his arm still around her as she talked to the crisis counselor. When she hung up, she turned to look at Ben. “They think I should go to the hospital.”

He nodded. “And what do you think?”

“I think maybe I should.”

He smiled gently. “I’m glad to hear it. Is there anything I can do?”

At first she shook her head, then she stopped herself. “Will you sit with me, until the cab gets here?”

“Of course.”

*** 

Ben sat out on the patio for a while, enjoying the cold night air. He felt the shimmer behind him that told him his company had finally arrived. 

“Ronoven.”

He glanced at the angel. “Hey, Sariel. How’s it hangin’?”

“I thought you quit doing this.”

“Well, I was already up doing another thing. The local agent thought I might want this one.”

“Speaking of, where is she? The human, I mean.”

“At the hospital. I guess she changed her mind.” He smiled, and didn’t bother to hide it. He and Sariel went way back.

“And I’m sure you had nothing to do with it, did you Ben?”

“Who me?” He put a hand on his chest. “You wound me with your lack of faith in my ability to be a dick … I mean demon.” He grinned.

“I swear, every time I run into you, I’m shocked you still exist.”

He grinned again. “I’m like a bad penny, I guess, Sar.”

“You’re going to get in trouble again.”

“Nah. Besides, what’re you worried about? You’re on the other side anyway.”

Her wings ruffled. How was this creature a demon? He made no sense and he never had. “I suppose I’ll be going back then.”

He nodded. “You do that. Merry Christmas, Sar.”

“Oh, for the love of…” She winked out of existence.

Ben sat there for a while, alone with his thoughts. He stretched his senses to assure himself that Mary was safe.

He knew it wasn’t magic, knew she had a long road ahead of her. But Mary had fought and won another day, another day to get well, another day to live, and maybe to overcome her troubles enough to want to. Ben knew all too well, one day could change everything. Maybe in her case, it would be for the better.

After a while, he spoke softly.

“Merry Christmas.”  

*****

 

Christmas Presence

christmas-1786558_1920

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

79970719_478468469527388_145091455617073152_n

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. 

*****

Doubt Truth to Be a Liar

80760460_582871692524571_4107838268152741888_n

Authors Note: Here we have another look at a solstice from Ben’s past, this one as a demon. In traditional Norse mythology Loki is the blood-brother of Odin. In most modern literature, not just the MCU (although, who doesn’t love Marvel?) Loki is Odin’s adopted son. That’s so much more fun. Odin is also pretty much ancient Norse Santa. He had to make an appearance. 

Doubt Truth to Be a Liar

Barely fed and rested from the Wild Hunt, Allfather made his way to the great stable. He smiled despite his weariness, listening to the Yule songs carried on the winter winds from his people in the mortal realm all the way to his ears here in Asgard.

He hadn’t yet laid eyes on his steed, but he could hear Sleipnir pawing at the ground impatiently. He chuckled to himself, his warm breath frosting in the frigid air on this, the longest night of the year.

“Patience, Sleipnir! We’ll ride soon enough and you’ll feast on the gifts of the children!”

The horse neighed softly in reply. Allfather laughed to himself. There were few things his eight-legged companion liked more than riding out with him on this night, the eve of the Solstice, as they did each year, and had since time out of mind. He looked forward to distributing gifts to his faithful, especially the children.

Sleipnir preferred receiving rather than giving. The offerings of straw the children left in their boots to be replaced by the bounty that would signify a prosperous year to all were probably an explanation for his friend’s impatience.

It was a night the two of them looked forward to, perhaps in some ways more than the Wild Hunt itself.

He paused to look up at the sky, his anticipation marred by something that had concerned him for some time. For weeks a star burned in the sky, bright and cool and unfamiliar. A portent of some sort, of that he was certain, but of what he had been unable to even conjecture. He supposed it didn’t matter. The Heavens could fall around him and he would still fulfill his promises to those he watched.

He pushed through the last of the knee deep snow to open the stable door. “I’m coming, old friend,” he called out, gathering what he needed. He patted Sleipnir’s neck before he harnessed him up to his flying chariot that would carry gifts to every home that kept his name and ways close.

He threw the doors wide and led Sleipnir outside. He looked up at the strange star again. Sleipnir snorted and pawed at the snow. “Nothing for it, noble one. Tonight we ride.”

Sleipnir snorted his agreement and his master moved to climb aboard his chariot.

From behind him, he heard a throat clear nervously. “Um, Odin, isn’t it?”

Odin stopped what he was doing and turned to see his questioner, a tall young man, with an unruly mop of blond hair, strongly built, and wearing only a simple tunic and dark kilt against the icy Nordic air. Odin took his measure.

No, not a man. Well, not a man anymore, he amended.

“You show either great stupidity, or great bravery, to face me like this, Demon.”

He raised Gungnir. The runes on his magical spear glowed blue, red, and a burning black, as soon as he held it aloft.

The demon dropped back a step, holding up his hands. “I don’t want any trouble.” He appeared unafraid, but was cautious. “And I’ve been told I’m stupidly brave once or twice,” he added with a slight smirk. “So, let’s call it a little of both.”

Odin advanced on the demon a few steps. “Your tongue is glib.”

“I’ve been told that, too.” His hands opened just a little more, raised just a little higher so he could be sure Odin could see he was not making an aggressive move. “Look, I’m not here to fight.”

Odin brandished Gungnir again. “Boy, you don’t have a choice!”

The blond danced back out of his way. “I’m here to help! Give me a chance to explain!”

Odin stopped advancing. This man, this demon, truly wasn’t afraid of him. He wasn’t backing off out of fear, but rather because he was intent on talking. However, Odin could not excuse a demon boldly roaming the streets of Asgard, even walking up to his own stable. He took a belligerent stance.

“I am not interested in talk. Your actions beg for a fight.”

The demon’s hands came up again. “I’m unarmed.” Gungnir dipped fractionally, and he took a step toward Odin. “I really am here to help. If you let me speak, you’ll have cause to thank me and my glib tongue. I promise.”

“What good is the promise of a demon?” Oden laughed with exaggerated derision.

“Not much usually.” The blond shrugged. “But mine is.”

“Why is your promise a good one when others are not?” Odin asked with skepticism.

“You see all, or so I’m told. You at least see the hearts of those who walk and who have walked the Earth.”

“That is so.”

“Alright, then. You know my word is good.”

Odin’s eyes narrowed. “I also know that with demons, appearances can be deceiving, might even be capable of deceiving me.”

The demon ran a hand through his hair, a disarmingly human gesture. He met Odin’s cold blue eyes with warm amber ones. He felt Odin reading his very soul. “I swear on my family, I’m here in good faith.”

There was a sincerity in his words, a huskiness that came into his voice, that Odin found intriguing. “Alright.” The god lowered his spear. “First, I will have your name.”

A smile flashed, there and gone almost before Odin could mark the humanness of that, too. “You can call me Ben.”

“Ben is sort of an odd name for one of your kind.”

The smile was back. “Well, I’m an odd sort of demon.”

Odin finally gave a grudging nod. “Speak your piece then, demon. Ben. If your words displease me, you will be rewarded with the final death.”

“Oh, they’ll displease you alright.” Ben puffed out a breath, shaking his head. This wasn’t going as well as he’d hoped. “But it’s not me you’ll be displeased with. You know, unless you’re a kill the messenger kind of god.”

Ben hesitated to go on and Odin snapped, “Enough! I grow impatient and I have much to do this night. Speak.”

“Okay … It’s um … It’s about your horse.”

Odin gestured to Sleipnir. “What about my horse?”

“Um … That’s not him.”

“Of course it’s my horse!” The horse snorted his agreement and pawed at the ground again. He almost seemed to be nodding his head. “I know Sleipnir better than I know my wife, my children!”

“Um … about that…”

“Spit it out, boy!”

“Well, he looks like your horse, but…”

“Nonsense!”

Ben sighed. “Just … Look into his eyes, just like you looked into mine a few moments ago…”

Sleipnir clomped forward and pawed at the ground, nearly stomping on Ben’s boot clad foot. He tossed his mane, neighing his displeasure.

“Look,” Ben repeated. “You’ll see.”

Odin growled, “I’ll see you’re a deceitful beast straight from the Pit of the Damned. And then I’ll kill you.”

“Please,” Ben said calmly, or at least appearing calm. “Just look.”

Sleipnir puffed and stomped and tossed his head, glaring at the demon and attempting to step on his feet again. “Calm yourself, Sleipnir,” Odin coaxed.

When the horse continued to toss its head, Odin reached into his pocket and held something up near the horse’s nose. “I said, calm yourself. Come on now.”

Like he was powerless to do anything else, the horse sniffed at whatever was in Odin’s hand and took it in his mouth, chewing happily. Odin took advantage of Sleipnir’s distraction and grabbed hold of the horse’s bridle, stilling his head. The horse went completely motionless as Odin gazed into his large brown eyes.

“Bah!” Odin released the horse’s head in frustration. “I should have known. Change back at once!”

The air shimmered and Odin’s son stood where Sleipnir had been a moment before. “Father, I can explain,” he began with a charming smile.

“You’d better!”

Ben concealed a smile as Loki’s own faltered a bit. “Yeah, Loki, go ahead. Explain what happened.” Odin shot him a look and Ben bit his lips to keep from laughing. “Sorry.”

“Go on,” Odin said with tightly concealed fury. “Explain yourself.”

Loki’s hands opened and his smile fixed back into place. “Well, you see, I was only trying to … I know how important this day is to you … And…”

“Loki,” Odin warned.

“I, well, I rather misplaced your horse and…”

“Misplaced?” Odin asked, his irritation only barely held in check.

“Lost,” Ben interjected. “The word you’re looking for is lost, Loki.”

“We’ve heard quite enough from you, Ronoven,” Loki spat.

“As in, at cards,” Ben managed, before Odin cut him off with a wave.

“Do you know this demon?” Odin demanded.

Loki swallowed hard. “Uh … we’ve met.”

“Met?” Ben laughed. “You were just at my estate. For the weekly card game.”

Odin seemed to ignore him. “So you’re consorting with demons now. Weekly. I shouldn’t be surprised. Well, then…”

Ben cleared his throat. “Look, I’m glad I could help you guys start to sort this out, but I’ve got to be going.” He started to turn away.

“You stay right where you are, Demon!” Odin ordered. “Where is Sleipnir?”

Loki stammered, then regained his composure. “Well, you see, Father. That’s actually a rather funny story…”

“Oh for the love of…” Ben threw up his hands, interrupting Loki before he could implicate Ben in his family squabble any more than he already had. “Your horse is back in your stables, Odin. I led him there before I came to speak with you … He’s a biter, by the way.”

Ben’s exaggerated wince and rubbing of his forearm surprised Odin into a chuckle. “And how,” he glared significantly at Loki before looking back at Ben, “did he come to be in your possession? If you don’t mind my asking.”

“Some light cheating of me at cards. And getting caught at it. In my home.” Loki shot him a murderous look, but Ben continued. “It was a rather considerable bet. And there’s obviously a penalty involved.”

“For cheating?” Odin asked, ashamed that anyone who could be called Odin’s son would cheat, not to mention be sloppy enough to get caught at it in Hell of all places, but entirely unsurprised that Loki was guilty of it.

“Nah, people try to cheat all the time. It’s Hell.” Ben grinned. “Just, getting caught got him into a kind of double or nothing situation. Then, when he couldn’t pull it out with all eyes on him, he offered Sleipnir as payment.”

Odin shot Loki a withering glare. “A bet, was it?”

“Father, I only thought…”

Odin waved him into silence and returned his gaze to Ben. “And why are you here?”

Ben might have blushed, Odin couldn’t be sure. “I’d never take another man’s … er … god’s … You know what I mean. I’d never take someone else’s horse. I knew Sleipnir wasn’t Loki’s to lose.”

“You speak as a man who understands the bond between a horse and his master.”

“I do.” Ben swallowed. “Look, you obviously have some family issues to work out. I took the horse as payment to begin with so Loki could save face in front of the crew. I’ll lose some myself if I don’t get back before my absence is noticed.”

“Very well,” Odin said with a solemn nod, and extended his hand. Ben hesitated, but took it. “I thank you, Ben. Should you ever need to call on me or my house, I hope you will not hesitate.”

Ben nodded, it was almost a bow. “Thank you, Odin. I will if the need arises.” He tipped a wink at Loki. “Good luck.”

He walked away, puffing in the cold, to get to a place where he could open a portal and travel back to his estate, leaving the Allfather to deal with his mischievous son.

*****

Every Time A Bell Rings

79853238_463725694338565_5050834591808487424_n

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

baking-2589517_1920

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. 

*****