The Eighth Day of Fic-mas …

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Faerie Lights

Some of you know Ben Brody as the demon with a heart of gold in Always Darkest. Last Fic-mas we met the restless little boy as he once lived, deep in an ancient Scottish winter. This holiday season, we are visiting that little lad a few winters later, only to discover that wherever he goes, magic (and trouble) are likely to follow.

Caraid is pronounced Key-er-aid. Beathan is pronounced Bay’en; and Bean is a nickname for it. Teasag is pronounced Ch-eh-za. Hin is a Gaelic word for honey/sweetie. Osheen is pronounced just like it’s spelled, but Ben calls him Osh, and says it Ah-sh. Ashrays are small water spirits in Scottish mythology, and part of the faerie race. Hopefully the rest makes sense in context. While the Solstice isn’t until tomorrow, we want to wish you all, from us and from Ben, a Blessed Yule. 

 

“C’mon, Osh!”

“Beathan, no! Ma’ll skin me ’f I let you follow us!”

“Ach, she won’t know,” he protested.

“She knows everything! ‘Specially ‘bout you, Beanie.”

“Don’ call me that!” he said hotly.

Osh’s smile had the slightly mean-spirited affection only an older brother can have. “But that’s what she calls ye. Her wee Beanie bairn.”

Osheen found himself, quite suddenly and unexpectedly, flat on his back in the dusting of snow, being pummeled by his little brother, who despite his small size, packed one hell of a wallop.

“Ah! Ach, get off me!”

Osh had started the day by taking half the meat from his plate, had mussed his hair, stood between him and the hunt just because he had a sharp eye and a suspicious nature, and now he’d called him Beanie. So, Beathan didn’t even half listen. If anything, he took Osh’s protest as a sign he was winning the fight.

“Beathan, lay off Osheen this instant,” came an unsurprised voice from the nearest doorway.

Undeterred from beating some sense into his thickheaded, mean as a badger brother, Beathan kept up his assault, but growled, “He. Started. It,” between smacks.

Osh, to his credit, was not hitting back, rather, he was deflecting the blows as best he could and pretending to laugh, even though it was starting to hurt. Beathan was a good bit younger but had a wiry strength and tenacity that everyone was starting to mark. They wouldn’t be able to keep him out of the men’s business much longer no matter what their mother wanted.

He looked over pleadingly at Drustan’s wife, Cinnie, the only one who could get Beathan to calm down when he was in a temper, and said, “I caught him followin’ an’ he was tryin’ to get me to help him sneak off on the hunt.”

She came over and bent down, grabbing him under his arms, picking him up, and setting him on his feet.

“Le’me go, then!” He squirmed, finally managing to pull away.

He stepped back from Osh to make it very clear he had no intention of beating the snot out of him again. He also sidestepped out of his sister-in-law’s reach. He didn’t need Cinnie being all handsy on top of yelling at him. She knew he hated that.

He was still mad enough to spit, but he also knew once Cinnie stepped in, the fight was over, and it was time to make nice or he’d have some unpleasant chore on his shoulders. He’d finally passed off the damned goat on one of the cousins and he didn’t want her back. Determined to get himself out of this, he made his expression appropriately contrite.

“Sorry, Osh.”

Osheen picked himself up off the ground and dusted off the seat of his deerskin pants. He could get himself in trouble with Cinnie right now just as easily as Bean if he wasn’t kind. And he had sort of started it, first thing this morning, he supposed. “S’alright, Bean … Beathan. I was teasin’ ye. I shouldn’t’a. I know ye want te come with us.”

“I’ve taken down deer before,” he grumbled.

“Ye’ve helped,” Osh observed. “Boar are different.”

Cinnie squatted down in front of him. “Bean, I tried.” Somehow the nickname wasn’t as grating coming from Cinnie. Then again, it never would occur to her to call him Beanie anymore. He’d told her he didn’t like it once, and that was all it had taken. “But yer parents still think yer too young, at leas’ for huntin’ boar, mo a bhobain.”

Calling him her darling rascal was about the quickest way to get a smile out of Bean short of tickling him, and the endearment didn’t result in him not speaking to her for a day and a half. She wasn’t disappointed when he cracked his shy little smile, dimpling his round cheeks.

“I’ve near seven summers now,” he protested around the pleased grin.

She didn’t point out that having just passed his sixth was not nearly seven by anyone’s reckoning. “I know, love, but yer mother has the final say, doesn’ she?”

“Da’ said maybe I could …”

“An’ she said no when she found out what they were goin’ after, didn’ she? He’s a wise enough man not te argue with her or go agains’ her word. Are you wise enough te be Donal’s son?”

“Go on with ye then,” he grumbled at Osh.

“I really am sorry ye cannae come, Beathan.”

He shrugged his narrow shoulders and waved off his brother. He was so angry he wanted to cry. But that was no way to get taken on any kind of hunt any time soon and missing this one was bad enough. So he wisely kept his mouth shut. Osh took off running to catch up to the men.

Cinnie noticed the carefully concealed trembling of his chin and the way he was biting his lip. She smiled fondly. “I’m startin’ the sorrel soup, hin. Would ye like ta help with the cookin’?”

Usually the prospect of hanging around the fire and getting to glean extra food cheered the little fellow right up.

He dug a toe into the cold dirt and shrugged. “I guess.”

“Where are yer boots? An’ please don’ tell me ye’ve traded ‘em with Rabbie again.”

“No, he hasn’ had anythin’ worth tradin’ fer in ages. He’s in some trouble, I think.”

She smiled. “Well, then. Where are they?”

He shrugged. “I dunno. Home?” He waved vaguely up the track toward the center of the small village.

Cinnie shook her head. “Come along then. Let’s get ye in by the fire for a bit. Did ye eat this mornin’?”

They started inside her house. The hearth was surrounded by Beathan’s nieces, all busy with something. Even Teasag, who was just toddling around, had a spoon. He grinned broadly at her and plopped down on the floor, so she could come over and sit in his lap.

“I had some oats,” he finally answered. “Osh took most of my meat though.” Teasag rapped him on the head with the spoon, but instead of getting upset he took the spoon with one hand and rubbed the little lump that was already forming with the other. “Ow! No. No hittin’.”

His voice wasn’t even sharp. He was still so little himself, but he was more patient with the younger ones of the clan than most of their mothers, and most especially with Teasag, who was a bit of a terror.

Cinnie smiled again. Lost food was probably more behind his flash of temper than anything to do with the hunt. She deposited a few honey sweets on the floor next to him. His face immediately lit up. “Thanks!” he said, already cramming two into his cheek.

He played with the energetic toddler to keep her out of the way for a while. He also ate all the sweets and every scrap of meat Cinnie offered. When he kept stealing spoonsful of mulled mead out of the kettle, she decided he was bored enough to start getting himself in trouble. That was no way to send him home to his mother.

Without turning from her work, mostly because he was sharper at reading facial expressions and true intentions than the wise woman, she casually said, “I wonder if the lads will remember the mistletoe …”

She could hear his frown when he replied, “Drus’ tol’ me Angus’ll get it.”

She paused thoughtfully. “He’s hardly one to trust with somethin’ so important. He can barely be counted on to bring home garlic instead a dropwort.”

Beathan snorted laughter. “He’s too busy chasin’ after Sorcha to know good herb from bad.”

“Seems to me the lad who spends half his time with Daira, who knows plants and their lore better than anyone in the family, ought te be charged with the task. Ye did such a fine job las’ time ye went out for it.”

“Ach, ma was all in a snit that I got home after dark last time,” he shrugged.

“Well, ye’ve learned a bit since then, haven’ ye, Bean?”

“‘Spose I have,” he nodded sagely.

She glanced at him and flashed a smile. “Why’n’t ye go have a look ‘round and see if ye can find a nice bunch for the feast, lad? If we leave it te Angus we’re as like to have wolfsbane as mistletoe.”

Beathan found the idea so funny he fell back on the floor laughing. Teasag got a good handful of his blond hair and gave it a playful yank. “Ow!” He sat back up, prying her fingers out of his shaggy waves. Then he got to his feet. “I think I will. Don’ want ole Gus ruinin’ it for everyone.” He snickered to himself again. “Only eye he’s got is fer girls.”

“Ye don’ think you’d ever get distracted from yer work by love, Bean?”

“No! Well …” he trailed off thinking about it. “Maybe if she liked ta fight an’ hunt an’ … if she was really pretty.” He blushed and looked at his feet.

Cinnie laughed and ruffled his hair. He made at ducking away, but it was a half-hearted effort. He turned to go, pausing to wave at Cinnie and the girls.

As he went to slip out of their doorway, she called after him, “Go get yer boots before ye go off into the wood!”

Beathan sighed. He supposed she was right. He started up the path to his parents’ house and had every intention of getting his boots, but a black fluffy streak whizzed past him. “Caraid!” he shouted joyfully.

He hadn’t seen her in over a week. He’d been worried something had gotten to her. He sped off after her.

After a while, he found himself climbing up on the water barrel behind his uncle’s house. Caraid liked the roofs better than anywhere. Probably because the chimneys were warm, he thought. He levered himself up over the edge. “Caraid!” he called softly. “C’mon, now.”

He could see her peeking around the chimney. “C’mon then!” Nothing doing, said her face and posture. He sighed, then grunted with the effort of hauling himself up the rest of the way onto the roof.

He sat down cross legged, facing the chimney. “I’m goin’ te the woods. Ye should come. It’ll be fun,” he said like he was offering a treat. “Ye like the woods,” he said like she’d contradicted him somehow.

This time she did contradict him. He could just barely hear it, but a low growl rumbled deep in her throat.

“What’s wrong, girl? Ye can tell me.” Beathan moved to crawl toward her. She backed up against the chimney and hissed. “Daira says ye could talk if ye wanted te.” She growled again, then purred like she wanted to be petted. Beathan shook his head. “Well, if ye wanna be like that,” he huffed. “I’m goin’. Ye can stay here bein’ a numptie ‘f ye like. There’s nothin’ in the wood today that wasn’ there las’ week.”

Then he was thoughtful for a moment. Even if she wasn’t opening her mouth and using words, she seemed to be communicating pretty clearly. She didn’t want him to go to the woods.

Maybe she’d seen something. Maybe that’s where she’d been. Maybe he should stick to the edges or ask Rabbie to go with him, so he wasn’t alone. Something told him that was a wise idea. But … that wouldn’t be an adventure. That wouldn’t be fun.

He climbed off the edge of the roof, let himself dangle as far as his arms would let him, and dropped into the snow, narrowly missing the water bucket. He swore at the nearness of the dunking. He hated being cold. Being cold and wet was like some special torment nature had devised to try to teach him to look before he leapt. He was still resisting the lesson.

He debated the wisdom of going after his boots again but thought better of it. Who knew if Osheen had stopped long enough to tattle to their mother?

At least if he came back with mistletoe, he’d have that as a distraction. Angus was good for a lot of things, but as he and Cinnie agreed, plant lore, or even the basic growing of things, just wasn’t part of that. He was better at fixing things. An’ at gettin’ girls’ attention, Beathan snorted.

He ran across the meadow toward the wood, liking how the sun had warmed the grass and melted off the snow. It was hardly cold on his stubbornly bare feet.  He noticed about halfway between the edge of the village and the tree line, Caraid had started following him, and was catching up. He grinned. He knew she wouldn’t be able to stay away. She loved going into the woods with him. He guessed it was probably because she liked eating the squirrels, but that was okay. It still meant he had company.

He slowed to a jog from the flat out sprint he’d been keeping up. “Caraid!” he called to her merrily. “Ye came!”

He had about a second to be happy about it before she darted in between his feet and sent him sprawling. He hit with a force strong enough to knock the air out of him. He lay face down in the damp grass that was still vaguely crispy with frost, too, trying to get his breath back for long enough that it frightened him just a little. When he finally drew a breath deep enough to speak again, he swore at the cat. One of the good ones he’d heard his father use that always got him in trouble with his mother.

Caraid was only a foot from his face and just gazed into his eyes placidly. He would have sworn he heard a voice right next to his ear whisper, “I told you not to, silly boy.”

He got to his hands and knees, shaking off the unexpected spill, tossed a glare at Caraid, and climbed the rest of the way to his feet, cursing softly in his small-boy manner, while brushing himself off. “If ye don’ wan’ ta go, be gone with ye!”

He made the little hissing noise he used when she was trying to steal his food. Instead of taking off like she normally would have, she just fell into step beside him, almost hugging the side of his leg.

Beathan rolled his eyes and started picking his way along the tree line, his sharp vision trained to pick out the slightest indication of the white berries or clusters of leaves he was looking for. Caraid never strayed from his side, and after a while, he stopped minding that she kept tripping him up. He just adapted his stride, so she didn’t tangle him into meeting the ground unexpectedly quite so often.

The sun had climbed to its highest point in the sky when his demanding little stomach growled louder than Caraid when she was upset. He reached into the little cloth pack he always carried with him on his little adventure. “Stupid,” he chastised himself when he realized he’d left Cinnie’s without so much as a honey sweet.

He was hungry, without supplies, and he’d been hunting for mistletoe for hours. He huffed a frustrated breath. Being sent for mistletoe and coming home empty handed was no way to prove he was ready to join the men. Since the trees on the outskirts of the forest seemed determined to be stingy, he was going to have to venture in farther. The faster he got what he came for, the faster he could go home and get something warm to eat.

He started into the shadows of the trees and once again Caraid was at his ankles, hissing and spitting for all she was worth. He hissed back at her and shoved her away with as gentle a hand as seemed likely to give her the message that he’d had enough of her fussing. She backed off for a moment but before he’d taken another fifty steps, she was back, biting him hard on the back of his ankle.

“Ach, fer feck’s sake, ye mad cat! What’re ye doin’?” he shouted at her, shooing her away with a little more force this time. “What’s gotten into ye?” he grumbled, stopping just to make sure he wasn’t bleeding. He had plenty of light left in the day, but anyone with any sense knew the smell of blood could draw all sorts of unwelcome beasts out of the deeper, darker parts of the wood.

He wasn’t bleeding, so he supposed he might forgive her. She was a good cat, most of the time. He had another fleeting thought that there had to be a reason she seemed so dead set against this adventure, but he shooed it away like it was another ornery cat.

Before too long, he found a tree holding his prize, just out of his reach. Caraid was keeping her distance now, but she was still following him. “Don’ suppose ye want to be useful, instead of mad, an’ skin up there an’ get that fer me?” he asked.

He liked climbing trees, but he was tired, and hungry, and still a little grumpy with the cat.

She made a little purring sound, and he shook his head, grinning affectionately once again. “Well, there ye are,” he observed. “I knew my girl was in there somewhere under all tha’ crazy.”

She purred at him again.

Beathan quickly climbed up the lower branches of the hawthorn tree, got out the cunning little knife Cinnie had given him a couple of Yules ago, and cut a beautiful bundle of the precious plant. He tucked it into the sack where his food should have been, put away the knife, and climbed down.

As soon as he dropped down out of the tree, Caraid was winding between his feet again, now purring loudly and letting out little mews of satisfaction. He grinned down at her. “A’righ’, girl, let’s head home. If ye can keep out from under my feet, I’ll share my meat with ye.”

She meowed in apparent agreement.

They hadn’t walked far when Beathan stopped. “Do ye hear that?” he asked, tilting his head.

Caraid tilted her head too, and upon hearing the tiny sound of soft weeping that had stopped her boy, she hissed again and nearly tripped him.

Ignoring her completely, he started off in the direction of that sound. “Hallo! Hey there! Are you a’righ’?” he called out.

The small sound seemed to grow infinitely louder at his question. It was the sound of a small child crying real tears. Beathan was always the first to hop up when one of the littler ones was upset, so, of course, he sped up in the direction of the noise. Caraid kept up but didn’t trip him this time. He sensed she didn’t want to get chased off now.

In another fifty or so steps, they found themselves in a little clearing. It felt almost as warm as summer and was so bright, it seemed the snow flurries must have suddenly stopped, and the sun must have come out with a vengeance. The sound was still quite loud, but Beathan didn’t see anyone. Then, a sparkling little movement, that at first, he’d taken for sun dappling, caught his eye.

A child, a little girl, was sitting on the ground by a sapling. He shook his head like he needed to clear it. This little girl could not have been bigger than the palm of his hand. After a second, one of her tiny sobs was accompanied by the flutter of little wings that put him in the mind of a butterfly. She must be a faerie, he thought. Then he corrected himself. One of the fair folk. Daira had told him the fair ones didn’t take kindly to being called faeries even if you meant it nicely.

He knew all the stories of the wood, and none of them explained this little creature. She looked a bit like an ashray, at least as Daira had explained them, but there was no water anywhere about. Maybe he’d discovered something altogether new. He couldn’t wait to tell the wise woman. He’d have to stop at her cottage on his way home.

He stepped closer to the tiny girl. “Hey, now, it’s alrigh’.”

At his words, the tiny creature hopped to her feet, smiling brightly, just like there’d never been tears. She nodded at him. Looking more closely, he thought she looked a little older than Teasag, but not very much. Three or four growing seasons at most.

“Do ye need help?” he asked.

She nodded earnestly, and her little wings flapped, bringing her to eye level with him. She smiled at him and something about it made him drop back a step, but then she beckoned with one hand and started flying off toward the deeper, darker parts of the wood.

Never able to turn away from a child who needed help, little Beathan started after her, now totally ignoring Caraid’s hisses and attempts to tangle his feet. He’d figured out how to move around her over the last several hours.

The tiny faerie girl flitted from tree to tree, and Beathan kept up for all he was worth. “Hey, what do ye need? How can I help?” he kept asking, trying to get her to talk to him, and so focused on the possibility of an answer, he lost track of how far into the woods they were traveling.

Soon they found themselves in another clearing. The tree on the far side had a big knot in it that looked almost like a cave. The little faerie girl lighted on the edge and beckoned to him to follow. He looked around. Caraid was nowhere in sight. A grown-up could never get in there, he thought. But someone his size could easily follow her.

Beathan was often impulsive, and more often than not it was to his own detriment, but he was learning at Daira’s knee, and he did have a reasonably keen sense that he didn’t want to get hurt, or worse. “Nah, I can’ little fair one. I’m sorry. I’ve got te get home with the mistletoe.”

The tiny girl shook her head vehemently, beckoning again.

“I really hadn’ better,” he said. “You’re home now, right?”

She nodded, then she made the sort of face that told Beathan that’s where the trouble was. She waved for him to follow her more energetically this time.

“I said I cannae go with ye. Are ye daft?” Daira would skin him alive if he followed one of the fair folk into a tree. Even if it was just a baby faerie.

She fluttered over to him, dancing in front of his face, making little sobbing noises again. Well, that was a bit different. What if she really did need the help of one of the big folk? He’d heard stories like that, certainly. “Ye have te tell me what ye need first,” he said wisely.

She shook her head, tossing her little curls in a way that reminded him acutely of his smallest niece.

He reached out to her, thinking if he could get her to be still for a moment, she might have to speak to him. “Ow! Ow! Ow!” he barked, snapping his hand and hearing little droplets of blood spatter on the leaves. “Ye bit me!”

She smiled at him again and this time he dropped back several steps. Her teeth were sharp, like a wolf, and suddenly she looked older, like a woman even.

This fanged and flying beast grabbed the front of his tunic in her tiny fists and started dragging him toward the hole in the tree. He dug in, fighting with all his might, trying to gain purchase on the ground with his feet, or swat her away with his hands, but nothing he did even slowed their progress.

The gaping cave, for that is what it most certainly was, that led to one of the realms of the faeries, began to glow, a hot, red, burning color that made the little boy’s blood run cold. “No!” he shouted.

He was almost to the lip of the cave, that seemed to have grown to swallow him up, when Caraid leapt out of the cursed tree itself, planting all four paws in the middle of his chest, and knocking him over backwards.

His head struck a stone on the ground with a heavy thud. Just as his eyes were fluttering closed, he got the distinct impression that Caraid had pounced on the creature. The last sounds he heard as he drifted out of consciousness were the wet smacking noises of a cat having a good meal and a deep contented purring.

∞∞∞

When Beathan’s eyes opened again, he found himself in front of Daira’s hearth, lying on her softest animal skins and wrapped in warm blankets. His finger was throbbing, but neatly bandaged. His head felt rather like he’d run it straight into the stone wall of his house a few times and then perhaps been beaten with a wooden spoon the size of the old goat.

He groaned and rolled onto his side to sit up but couldn’t quite get there on his first try.

“Well, now, there he is,” came Daira’s soft, pleasantly husky voice.

He looked up and his ancient, wrinkled friend was smiling down at him, holding out a steaming cup. He made a second attempt at sitting up and found it easier this time. He reached out for the proffered cup, took a tentative sip, and spat its contents out in an irritated spray. “Ye tryin’ te poison me, are ye?”

“It’s headache powder. Ye need it with that lump ye’ve got. Drink it, an’ no whinin’, lad,” she said.

Her tone said it was better not to argue. He held his nose with one hand and tipped the contents of the cup into his mouth with the other, trying to get it down in one swallow. He pulled a terrible face. “Ach, what’s in it? Bear piss?”

“Mind yer mouth, young man.” She was smiling when she said it. “It’s a bit a magic. Have ye feelin’ right as rain in no time.”

He handed her the cup. “Magic ought te find a way te taste better,” he groused.

She just smiled and watched him for a while. He stared into the fire for a bit, looking like he might go back to sleep, but as the contents of the cup worked through him, he slowly looked more like himself. It had tasted like death to Beathan, but after the tea, his head quickly seemed to feel better, and his faerie-bitten finger stopped its relentless throbbing. Finally, he looked up at her again.

“How’d I get here?” he asked, remembering how deep in the woods he’d been.

“I don’ know, Ben,” she said softly. He grinned. She’d called him that since he’d come home two winters ago and told her the story of his strange encounter with the Cailleach Bheur. No one else believed him, but Daira always did. “I foun’ you asleep on my stoop with yer cat pacin’ circles around ye.”

He looked around a little wildly then. There she was. Caraid lay just off to his side, sleeping contentedly, and purring while she did it.

“Why don’ ye tell me what new adventure ye’ve had today,” she said, sitting down on the skins next to him, and handing him another cup which he glared at for a minute, but was pleasantly surprised to find this one was some minty sort of tea with lots of honey in it when he finally worked up the nerve to take a drink.

As he sipped the beverage that warmed him all the way to his toes and seemed to ease his small hurts even more and relayed to events of the day, Daira listened attentively. “An’ then the cursed thing bit me!” he exclaimed indignantly.

She laughed. “Well, what do ye expect faeries te do?”

He laughed, too. His head didn’t hurt anymore, and as he finished his story, he peeled the bandage off his finger and there didn’t seem to be any evidence some insidious monster from the trees had nipped him like a rat. “An’ then Caraid knocked me over an’ I hit my head. I don’ know, but I think she might have … might have eaten it.”

“Because she’s a good cat.” Caraid lifted her head and meowed. “An’ a pretty cat,” Daira affirmed, reaching out to pet the cat once again.

“She is that. She’s the best cat.”

“She is, indeed, little Ben. She saved her wee little man’s life today, I do believe. If one a the fair folk bites, they’ve a taste for flesh. That’d not have ended well for ye, lad.”

He shook his head solemnly. “I’m never doin’ anythin’ she tells me’s a bad idea again.”

“How’s yer head now, boy?”

He thought about it. “S’good.”

“Well, then, ye ought to be gettin’ home with that beautiful mistletoe I foun’ in yer pack, lad. It’s gettin’ late.”

His eyes widened. “It’s not dark is it?”

“Very near. But I’ll walk with ye and explain ye’ve had a fall.”

He shook his head. He’d catch all sorts of trouble if they thought he’d been doing something somewhere he shouldn’t have.

“Now, no one’s goin’ to be upset with ye, Ben. Ye’ve been helpin’ me mosta the day, haven’ ye? No one’s goin’ to get after ye for gettin’ hurt doin’ me a good turn, are they?”

He grinned. Daira understood. He couldn’t go home and tell them about the fair ones. They still teased him about his tale of his encounter with the Cailleach Bheur. “I s’pose not.”

She rose like a much younger woman and helped the little fellow to his feet. Caraid got up and stretched and followed them. “In fact, I suspect ye’ll get a hero’s share of the feast, little Ben. Wounded in the line a duty and comin’ home with such nice mistletoe an’ all.”

He grinned hugely. “C’mon, Caraid. I’ll share!”

They set out to walk the short distance to Ben’s home.

Caraid followed, purring loudly. And if someone had looked closely at her face, they might have, just for a moment, thought that it was strange for a cat to wear such a smug smile.

 

 

 

The Sixth Day of Fic-mas

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The Christmas That Wasn’t

Authors’ Note – Another title for this story could be Why Boston Is A Big Deal: The Sequel to the Second Day of Fic-mas 2018. Another tale of friendship, of the holiday, and of why revenge is a dish best served cold. To your boss. By making him wear a Santa suit while in his demon form.

 

Ben turned up the collar on his coat against the sharp, cutting breeze howling over the harbor and into the city. Lately it seemed like the only collections he could score were in places that already represented the cold side of Hell. He shivered as he walked briskly along the pier. He knew the cold wasn’t actually affecting him. He just hated it, even the idea of it. He wasn’t in any particular hurry. Although after he wrapped up this assignment, he wanted to check in on someone.

At the time he couldn’t have told anyone why he’d done it. He really had no idea what made him take the risk. It had cost him some to accomplish the task, too. But he’d plucked her soul from the Pit and taken her under his wing. She was a woman from a distant branch of his clan. She’d found her way to Hell in a very similar manner to him, a victim of Rome’s ambition. Sort of. Maybe that was why he’d done it, he supposed. Point was, he had. And that was that.

In any event, it turned out to be a good decision. She was smart, fierce when she had to be, and loyal. That last one went a long way in Hell. It was worth a lot to Ben anyway. It was like having a friend again. It seemed to him that’s what she really was. Ever the realist, Ben imagined it would be best not to count on her friendship. It had survived hundreds of years already, and he had scored her an appointment on Earth, for which she was here training. That probably bought him some time in the whole friendship department. These things couldn’t last forever though, not in Hell, but for now, it was nice. He’d been feeling especially lonely lately, too. That was half of why he’d asked for this collection job. It would be good to see her.

Ben caught himself just before he stepped off the edge of the pier. He’d have taken a tumble right into the water, too. “Damn it, Ben, pay attention,” he chided himself. He laughed softly at his seemingly incurable distractibility and retraced his steps, forcing himself to focus this time. He found the spot he’d been looking for and made his way up the gangway of a decent-sized merchant vessel.

Walking past the crew, silent and unnoticed, he headed into the belly of the ship. It smelled in here. Of what, he couldn’t really have said. But it wasn’t a pleasant smell. And it was practically dark. What an awful place to live out your last hours, he thought. Not that the dim hold bothered him any. He had some very pleasant plans for after his business concluded.

“Ronoven.” A figure appeared out of the shadows and stepped up next to him, dressed in a simple gold tunic, soft white wings, furled close to her back. She looked at him with disdain, clearly already annoyed with him, probably because he’d taken on flesh for a job that wasn’t going to need corporeal form to get done. That always bugged her.

“Hosanna,” he said simply, nodding politely at her.

“How’s Hell?” she asked starting to walk deeper into the ship.

He shrugged and fell into step beside her. “Hot, smells of sulphur, oh, and your brother is still an ass,” Ben said pleasantly. “How about Heaven?”

She smiled, and there was something distinctly mean about it, he thought. “Still Paradise,” came her snide reply.

Ben just nodded, his expression totally agreeable. “Good. Good. I had hoped for nothing more nor less.” He paused, cocking his head to one side like he was thinking. “Hey, you know what? Would you mind doing me a favor? I think you could really help me with something?”

She looked down her nose at him. “Why would an angel of the Lord do a favor for a demon?”

He wrung his hands a little, gesturing like she’d misunderstood, and it was somehow his fault. “I didn’t mean favor. You guys make me so nervous,” he said earnestly. “It’s more of a question really. Just something I’ve been wondering for a really long time.”

She sniffed. “Fine. Ask.”

“Um … so … Do they issue it, or do you have to get your own? And, like, what’s the procedure?”

She shook her head, looking altogether confused. “Pardon me? Am I supposed to know what you’re talking about?”

“I’m sorry.” Ben opened his hands in apology. “I thought my meaning would be pretty obvious.

Her brow furrowed, but she didn’t say anything.

“Those sticks you angels all have wedged so firmly up your asses. I was wondering if that was voluntary or if it’s a required part of the uniform.”

“Funny.” Hosanna’s face pulled into a dark scowl and her eyes had a slightly dangerous sheen to them all of a sudden.

Ben kept his expression neutral, rather than laughing out loud like he wanted to at having so easily gotten under her skin. “No, come on now, I’m being serious. Because if you’d provide some insight, I’d really appreciate it. You’d be answering a truly burning question.”

She growled, “Why am I stuck dealing with you? Every. Damned. Time.”

“No, really … I’m sincerely curious. I just want to know if your Dad is mad at you guys or if maybe you’re just an enthusiast.”

“Enough,” she said with deadly ice in her voice. Her eyes said the danger he’d sensed a moment before was no longer of a theoretical nature.

“I was thinking it was probably the latter, given its size and just how far up there it has to be.”

“Okay. We’re done,” she bit out.

He grinned. “So, my point again. That makes it … what … like a hundred and seven to nothing?”

Her chin tilted up haughtily. “I’m not playing. I’m certainly not keeping score.”

“Spoken like a true loser who knows they’re getting housed. And here I was about to suggest we call it based on the mercy rule or something.”

“Stop it. Just stop. Right now. Or I might just …”

“You might what?” he scoffed. “This is a sacred duty. You can’t touch me,” Ben grinned. He stopped walking a moment later. “And here we are.”

In a heavy cloth hammock in front of them lay a rail thin, sinewy, sunbaked relic. His breath came in ragged and labored gasps. A heart attack the day prior had laid the man low. Now, with mere minutes left, Ben and Hosanna weighed the man’s life. Ben ignored her self-important presence and just closed his eyes to do his job. The collected deeds, words, actions, and even thoughts washed over him, playing like a memory or a vivid dream behind his eyelids.

“This is close,” Ben frowned.

“It’s never this close,” Hosanna agreed, her irritation with her demon companion momentarily forgotten.

“Not close. Perfect balance,” said in a level, resonant voice that caused both Ben and Hosanna to startle and turn to face it. The plain man beside them went on like they should have been expecting him. “Our friend Kae here has led a life of balance.”

Ben opened his mouth to say something, then just closed it again, his whole face caught somewhere between a smile and a frown, though his expression was far from neutral.

The man spoke again, quite calmly given the fact that next to Ben an angel of the Lord was starting to allow her wings to unfurl. “This one belongs to neither of you. He’s mine. So, step aside, if you please.”

Ben’s face made up its mind to slip into a frown as he considered the man making these strange statements and request. Then he just looked at Hosanna and gave a shrug. He turned back toward the man. “Sure. Okay.” He took a step back.

Hosanna tossed a glare in his direction before giving her full attention to the perceived interloper. “I command you to speak your name, Defiled One!” she boomed, her presence and a new uncomfortable heavenly glow seeming to fill the space.

“Please.” The man’s mouth quirked up ever so slightly.

“I said …”

“I know what you said. They could hear you in the lowest level of Hell, I’m quite certain. Ask nicely.”

“What?!?”

Ben cleared his throat. “I … um … I think he wants you to say please.”

“Grrrr.” Hosanna stopped herself, took a deep breath, and smoothed the front of her tunic. “Please.”

“Please what?”

Her eyes flashed, and Ben flinched just a fraction. Hosanna was a match, more than a match, even for one of the Fallen. “Fine! Can I please have your name?”

The man didn’t flinch at all. Ben noticed his bearing but was pretty certain he was about to be collateral damage. He wasn’t normally one to be intimidated by even a furious angel, if he was on duty and the rules of engagement were in play, but in this situation, he had no idea what to expect.

“I’m the Keeper of the Balance. Asher. This soul is mine according to the oldest magic. I have a valid claim. The only valid claim as it turns out.”

Ben’s eyes were on Hosanna, now glowing like all of Heaven might be about to join her, so he only about half heard the man.

“Never heard of you,” Hosanna said dismissively. The glow intensified, and she drew a long, flaming sword from its scabbard hidden in the folds of her tunic.

Ben dropped back several steps. “Whoa, hey, Hosanna, no need to get all smitey in such close quarters, huh?”

Without looking at him, the man, Keeper or whatever his name was, said, “I agree with Ben.” Without so much as a whispered incantation or even a hand gesture, Hosanna found herself standing there robbed of both her glow and her sword. “I’ve been more than reasonable. And I grow tired of this exchange,” he said. “Good day, Angel.”

Ben felt the old man’s life cease and his soul slip away, beyond the reach of Heaven or Hell. The man faced Ben then and tipped him a nod and a wink. “See ya around, kid.”

With that, the man was gone. Ben shook himself, feeling altogether unsettled. “Well, that was surreal,” he observed, but realized almost before he’d finished speaking that he was alone.

That’s probably for the best, he thought. Hosanna was super pissed off. That was just a little bit scary. Annoyed was more Ben’s wheelhouse. In fact, he enjoyed causing annoyed with just about every angel he’d ever met. Even Lucifer. Which he knew was probably stupid, but that didn’t stop it from being fun. Especially when it was so cleverly done that the boss wasn’t even sure he was entitled to be irritated. But an angry angel who was still on God’s good side? That was often fatal. In the permanent way he was really dedicated to avoiding.

Ben shrugged and passed quickly back through the ship. Once he was back out on the pier with the wind biting through his coat, he decided he was going to get inside someplace warm, post haste. So … To the Office to file the incident report … Or to visit Aife, like he’d been thinking about all along?

Aife, of course, he thought, nodding to himself. Like he was going to prioritize paperwork over an evening with an old friend. He knew she was currently staying in a nice little townhouse on a busy street near the budding business district. He hadn’t seen her in … must be almost eighty Earth years now. He’d been trying to find a way to get her out of Hell for ages, and then about a hundred years ago, he’d won the right to appoint an Agent, someone to run Hell’s business and take care of demons like him when they were above. She’d been up here for decades, moving from Office to Office, learning the ropes, so to speak.

He’d missed her terribly, though he had managed to keep tabs on her. One of the benefits of being a noble, especially one the current king seemed to have something of a soft spot for, was his ability to get information, by means both fair and foul. When he’d made an inquiry right before coming up to see about Kae, he’d learned she should just be getting back into town. She’d been off in one of the nearby colonies, doing something either for or to someone. He couldn’t remember which. She wasn’t expecting him, and she hadn’t gotten back in yet, so he had a nice opportunity to surprise her.

The time of year made it an especially nice time to come up and see her. Yule was a tradition they kept to in their own ways, albeit secretly, and often together. In fact, one Yule, early in their association was probably why they’d become so close, despite what Hell did to try to keep demons from forming those types of associations. He did a bit of preparatory shopping on his way, his grin spreading in anticipation, and the warmth of his ideas sheltering him from the cold.

He found the house and tucked the package of items he’d acquired along the way under one arm to free his hands. The lock on the door and the protection charms were easily dealt with. He’d taught her the magic, after all. He did make a mental note to see to it she got more spell casting training. It was too easy to get in here, he thought, his own considerable skill aside. The door charm was a joke. Once he was inside, he kindled the fire and started his preparations.

Humming to himself, occasionally even singing softly under his breath, Ben got to work preparing a nice winter solstice feast. He opened a bottle of wine (that had been quite difficult to come by based on his usual experience) and poured the entire contents into a pot with some mulling spices, placing it on the back of the stove where it would warm but not bubble. Then he set about the baking he had planned while hunting for ingredients, also a more challenging endeavor than he would have thought. Though he supposed this wasn’t still called the New World for nothing.

Tonight would be a nice distraction from his strange collection gone awry and what would probably amount to a couple centuries worth of paperwork. He moved around the small kitchen, finding himself in an increasing bright mood. Warm holiday smells filled the small house. A nice dinner, catching up with one of his oldest, dearest friends would be just the thing.

The front door opened. “Alright, who’s in here? I’ll skin you alive and make book pages out of your carcass!” came an angry voice … No, more just annoyed. Yeah, annoyed, I’m good, Ben thought.

“Hey, Aife!” Ben called. “Is that any way to talk to your boss?” The smile was clear in Ben’s voice.

He heard the door close, followed by the tap of Aife’s shoes on the floorboards. “My Lord,” she curtsied mockingly as she entered. She took in the kitchen, the formally set table, the festive aromas drifting through every crack and crevice of her temporary home. “What the Hell are you doing?!?”

Ben’s face screwed up in confusion. “Um … I’m sorry for preparing a little Yuletide feast for a friend?”

She sighed. “Ben, love, it’s a lovely gesture, or it would be. Yule or, as the locals call it, Christmas, is illegal. Really illegal.”

“No … What? … No … Seriously?” She nodded solemnly. “What kind of fiend cancels Yule … or Christmas … or whatever you want to call it?”

“The Puritans. How do you not know this?” He really needed to get out more. “This is kind of important information considering you’re smack in the middle of Boston, which happens to be lousy with the joyless assholes,” she said with a fair amount of exasperation.

“I mean … I read … Okay, I skimmed … the briefing materials,” he hedged, knowing how lame it sounded even as it came out of his mouth.

“You need to study. You never study!” Aife shook her head.

“All I do is study! I spend half my eternity with my nose in some codex or scroll or …”

“I meant the stuff you’re supposed to study to be decent at your job,” she said, raising an eyebrow.

Ben huffed, jamming his hands into his pockets. “Yeah, but, that stuff is boring!” He shrugged. “I mean, it’s not like I don’t look at it at all … I just kinda lose interest.”

“Well, this ought to teach you that you need to read more carefully. Count your blessings that Boston isn’t my Office and I’m just here for training because I think I’d make you read their entire holy book and all their position papers before I let you leave as a disciplinary action!”

“Remind me never to need to use your Office,” he laughed, rolling his eyes.

Aife shook her head, and it was mostly with fondness. He could be such a boy sometimes. “Not to worry I suppose. The house charm ought to keep the mince sniffers at bay.”

Ben’s eyes widened. “The who that what, now?”

“Would it kill you to do at least the basic reading? You can read right? You haven’t been faking it all this time, have you?” she asked in exasperation.

“I love to read … Just not … you know … mission briefs. They’re dull and repetitive and usually not even useful,” he defended, sounding about as silly as he’d known he would, but not being able to come up with anything better.

“The mince sniffers are constables employed by the colony to walk around trying to find illicit holiday fun. Some of the morose bastards even volunteer for the job. That mince pie your cooking?” He swallowed hard, finally starting to look a little serious. She refrained from telling him it smelled wonderful, though it did. “That’s a dead giveaway. Fortunately, the house charm should keep what happens inside, well, on the inside. No sights, sounds, or smells should be noticed from the street. It’s a clever bit of work.”

“Sounds it, but about that door charm …”

“There’s no warding on the door … just the lock …” Her eyes narrowed. “What did you do, Ben?” she asked severely.

“I thought I detected some magic and I assumed …” Ben spread his hands, cheeks burning red to match the heat in his neck and his ears.

“Fine. I’ll go outside and fix it. And reinforce it.”

“Outside?”

“Yeah, it’s not a perfect solution, but it works. Pour me some wine and I’ll be right back. I’m sure you can make your carelessness up to me.”

He gave her an apologetic grin, then turned to fill a couple of warmed mugs with the brew. He set them on the table, pulled the pie out of the oven and set it on a trivet to cool, and lit the candles with a thought. He was sneaking a sip of the wine instead of waiting for her when he heard shouting. He listened for a moment. Oh, hell, that’s Aife.

“I said stay out of my house!”

“Miss, I can smell warm spices and mince!”

“Perhaps it’s from next door! House full of bachelors there, good sir. Their brewing barrel exploded the other day, mead all over the street. Where were you then?”

“Miss,” came the stern reply.

Ben missed the rest of what the man said as he slipped out the back door, figuring his presence would mean even more trouble, what with Aife’s cover being that of a spinster. He made his way around the back alley and back to the main thoroughfare. “Damn it! I shouldn’t have left the table set … or the food … or … son of a bitch … my hat.” Better double back and clear that stuff out before she gets in real trouble, he thought. Or, I could just wipe the guy’s memory and have done with it.

He cut down another alley that came out practically next door to Aife’s. Ben could see Aife arguing with a short, bald man, as a group of uniformed constables approached. “Damn it all to Hell and back anyway,” he growled under his breath. “This is not good.”

The constables and chief sniffer were forcing their way into her house, with Aife trailing behind still giving them an earful. And quite the crowd of neighbors and travelers was forming to watch things unfold. Shit. Hell was pretty restrictive about using magic up top here on a good day in ideal circumstances. If you were one on one with a human or even in a small group of civilians, you could get away with quite a bit. But if large groups or worse, government officials, were involved the higher ups got insanely tight assed about spell work. He’d have to proceed carefully.

Ben casually joined the crowd. “What’s going on here?” he asked one of the locals.

“Some lady’s making a Christmas feast or some such.”

“Oh,” Ben responded seriously. “That’s bad.”

“Well, it would be for me … but a lady like that, or a gentleman such as yourself?” He eyed Ben’s clothes and well-groomed appearance. “Probably not that big a problem.”

‘Really?” Ben asked, hoping his inflection was the right amount of curious about the consequences as well as disapproving of such a thing as a Christmas feast. Last thing he needed was to get made as the guy who’d cooked the damned thing. Aife was in training. He wasn’t. That wasn’t an ass chewing he particularly wanted to invite.

“Come along, sir. The fine is five shillings. That’s an awful lot to me, but I bet you got that in your pocket.”

Ben did, indeed, have five shillings and a good deal more. Coming to Earth without adequate funds was no fun at all. Instead of confirming his comfortable financial situation, he sniffed haughtily. “Still, it’s not proper.”

“True enough, sir. True enough.”

Ben walked away, feeling a little better about not having been able to erase any evidence or memories before the situation escalated. He’d find an inn to grab a bite to eat, then catch up with her later. He turned toward a place he’d noticed earlier, then stopped with his hand almost on the door. He decided he’d better head to the Office and report not only the events of earlier today, but also the Aife situation. She was this Office’s current trainee, and Hell had plenty of money. A fine of five shillings, one of any size, for that matter, was a non-issue. Even if they didn’t have the financial resources in place, odds were they owned the men who levied the fines anyway.

∞∞∞

“Look, I’ve already told you, here’s the money.” Aife tried, once again, to press the coins into the head constable’s hand.

She was going to kill Ben. Slowly.

“As I’ve explained, Miss, it’s not about the fact that you were celebrating Christmastide. But you were also entertaining a man, a man who was celebrating with you, and you won’t give us a name. It’s all most improper and quite against our laws and God’s.”

“I’ll pay his fine, too. He’s unfamiliar with our customs here is all. It’s nothing untoward, I assure you. He’s my brother.”

“I don’t believe you, Miss. If it’s your brother, why’s he run off? Where’d he go? What’s his name?”

“It’s really not important, I …”

“I should think it’s very important, Miss Cabot.” A tall stern man strode into the room.

“Reverend Knight.” The constable doffed his hat and bowed his head deferentially.

“Oh, Reverend, it’s so good of you to come. I’m sure you can help me clear this up,” Aife said with a forced smile.

Ben, I swear. Dead. D.E.A.D. Dead.

“Sister Prudence,” he said, somehow more informally and more menacingly all at once. “I do not recall any mention of a brother, living or otherwise.”

“But Reverend, it just hadn’t come up. I never thought he’d visit me here in the Colonies, you see.” It was a weak gambit, but she figured it was worth a shot.

“When we met, you told me you were an only child,” he said with a scowl.

“Did I? Well, I suppose it’s felt that way. He’s been so disapproving of my decision to come over from home, you see …”

I swear if they burn me, I will absolutely return the favor, Ben. And I absolutely don’t care if it gets me stripped of my powers and sent back to the Pit, Aife seethed.

“Oh, no, you were most explicit, dear Prudence.” She paled, and it was all the Revered needed. “Constable?”

“Yes, Revered?”

“Strip her, put her in the stocks, and paint a red ‘W’ on her forehead. Let all know we have a wanton woman among us. We’ll deal with questioning her further about her companion once she’d been softened by her penance.”

Aife kept quiet then, her eyes on the floor so they couldn’t see the fury there. She had no play to make here. She’d have to wait until she was alone or at least lightly guarded.

She put on all the appropriate protests and emotions as she was processed through a system that claimed to be of God but reminded her much more of her current employers. She was paraded through the streets in the freezing cold in nothing but her dressing gown, the cobblestones icy on her bare feet. No wonder Ben had ghosted. Still, she would pay him back for this someday. It was humiliating and infuriating … and … stupid!

The spectacle caught the attention of everyone along the route to the center of town. A few people jeered or threw things. Most just ignored her or gave a sad head shake, whether at any actions she might have taken that warranted this, or with the treatment itself, she couldn’t say. The wood of the stocks and the metal of the locks chilled her skin. At least I can’t freeze, she thought.

Despite the encroaching evening, the next few hours saw the expected small crowds of gawkers gather. She suspected their petty torments were to prove their own fake piousness to anyone who might be watching. A couple of them tossed eggs at her. None hit her in the face, thank goodness. A few spat in her general direction, but she was untouched by it since none of them had the balls to get too close, lest they be defiled by her wanton ways themselves. One brave kid, of about ten, got close enough to give her a glancing kick in the ass. Stupid humans, stupid rules. Hell had so many rules! It took all of her will not to break all of them and just extract herself from this embarrassing and unpleasant situation.

Around midnight, her one remaining guard ducked off to sleep. With a combination of her demonic strength and some hastily muttered incantations (that she was not about to credit Ben with having taught her at the moment), Aife freed herself. Then she took a moment to make herself unnoticeable with a nifty bit of obfuscation magic. It didn’t render her invisible, just completely unremarkable, unmemorable, to anyone who might notice her at this late hour.

She stalked furiously toward the Office. Ben would be waiting for her there, she was certain. Probably warm and snug with a mug of mulled mead, laughing his ass off with the Agent about this. “That’ll be a nice cozy place for him to die,” she muttered to herself.

She arrived at the office to find the door already being held open by the muscle whose name she had yet to commit to memory. He nodded pleasantly, quite able to see her since obfuscation magic doesn’t work on other demons. She forced herself to nod back. She liked the staff here kindly disposed, and since she was now going to need to apply for a transfer, she needed all the good will she could get.

She headed directly out back to the Agent’s working office. He was sitting there, quill in hand, working on a mountain of reports. No Ben in sight. The Agent looked up when he heard her huff of irritation. “Aife, you look like Hell.”

“Thanks,” she bit out. “Where is he?” she asked flatly.

“Ben? He got summoned back. He’s in a bit of hot water over the collection he was up on.”

“Good,” she growled. “I hope they skin him.” The Agent widened his eyes, but wisely stayed quiet. “I’m going to need a new cover and some help getting a transfer. I’m burned.”

He nodded. “Ben already filled out the paperwork for you. I was surprised you weren’t right behind him. He didn’t seem to think it was much of a big deal.”

“Not a … I really am going to kill him. Slowly. Over a hundred years, maybe. No. Maybe I won’t let him die. I’ll just torture him for a really long time.”

The Agent grinned. “Lucky Ben.” Her mouth dropped open to let him have it, too, but she found herself smiling instead. It wasn’t much of a smile, but it cooled her anger a bit. “I filed the transfer for you when Ben got pulled back.”

“Can I stay here until it comes through?”

“Of course. The room upstairs is empty. I’ll send Elspeth up with clothes for you. And water. You look like you could use a wash.”

She nodded. “Thank you. That would be great.” She turned to head upstairs, then stopped in the doorway, looking back at the Agent. “Royce, can I ask you a question?”

“By all means,” he replied. Answering her questions was part of his job as her training officer and frankly it would go better for him when she filed her own report of this if she was reasonably kindly disposed.

“Why must we tiptoe? Why can’t the mortals know? They can believe, but not know. What is that shit? I spent the day and most of the night in the stocks because I couldn’t stop it or put an end to it, because using my magic in front of them isn’t allowed. It’s … ridiculous!” She couldn’t come up with anything better to encapsulate her frustration.

“Oh, that.” He sighed a little. Never easy questions with this one. “Yeah, it’s kind of a mess. But as I understand it, it’s not just another one of their bullshit rules. It’s an agreement of some sort between God and Lucifer. They can’t have proof. The mortals, I mean.”

“Why the hell not?”

“I guess because it kind of balances things out, maintains free will for the mortals, the whole faith thing. Or some crap like that.”

She frowned, leaning on the door jamb. “Why would Heaven agree to something like that? If God is revealed, Hell shuts down due to lack of incoming souls.”

“I guess they can’t tell either because some outside force oversees enforcing the balance of power. No cheating on either side. God has the numbers, and the power, to do pretty much whatever he wants, but he can only act indirectly without breaking the contract. Hell, too, I guess.”

Her brow furrowed. “But Hell doesn’t act indirectly. Demons straight-up possess people. Or use the classic reward or force system. You give me x and you’ll get y. And Heaven …”

“Heaven can’t or won’t do that. You’re right. But they can use prophets and angelic influence. Free will is always maintained that way though. Even with possession, afterward the person can still choose how to act.

Aife thought she was catching on. “So they equal out.” She thought about it for another minute.

Royce added, “All the rules about how we operate on Earth aren’t arbitrary. They’re part of this deal.”

She sighed deeply. “That both makes sense and gives me more questions.”

“So the trials of the day didn’t change your outlook much,” he observed with a chuckle.

“Very funny. I’m going to go get cleaned up. Could you have Elspeth bring up some food, maybe something strong, and hopefully enchanted, to drink?”

“Sure, Aife, no problem.” He grinned a little wickedly. “A joyous Yule to you.”

“Yeah, right. Merry fucking Christmas, Royce.”

She stomped upstairs.

 

The Fifth Day of Fic-mas …

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Christmas Miracles

Authors’ note – What kind of Demons Run Fic-mas would it be without a recipe to warm you up in the cold? Hopefully this one will be good for your heart and your stomach.

 

“Okay, Kelly, you ready?” Teddy asked, grinning at the way his little brother was dancing from foot to foot in anticipation.

“Ready!” Kelly practically shouted, in full excited preschooler voice, climbing onto his tiptoes and throwing his arms in the air like he was on the downslope of the world’s best roller coaster.

On the counter was a row of various cups and bowls, holding the recipe ingredients in the order they would need them. Ben had told Teddy setting up like that was a chef thing called … it was some German word or something, and with Ben you could never really be sure because he spoke like five or six languages or something … it was very important, though.

He was glad his mom had chilled out about him hanging around with Ben. She thought it was weird that he had a friend who was in college, but Teddy had pointed out Ben was only a few years older, he was Mal’s boyfriend, and he was not just Dr. G’s research assistant, but his roommate, too. It made him feel better about making the phone call to try to get some ideas about something to cook with Kelly this afternoon. Ben had given him the easiest recipe he could think of. And that was good, because Teddy didn’t know much about cooking. These would hopefully turn into Teddy’s favorite Christmas cookie, though he’d never tried making them before. Ben was sure he could do it, he’d said. Kelly was bored, so he sure was going to try.

Kelly started to climb onto the chair Teddy had pushed up to the counter for him and couldn’t quite make it on his own. Teddy grabbed the straps of his blue and white striped overalls and hauled him the rest of the way up, letting him hang in the air over the chair for a minute in the way that always gave him the giggles.

“Snickerdoodle!” he laughed as soon as he had eyes on all the ingredients.

He’d been giggling and saying the word randomly ever since Teddy had suggested making cookies after lunch. He thought the word was hilarious. Even funnier than saying ‘fart’ in front of guests. It made getting him to focus on what they were trying to do come down on the near impossible side of challenging. Kelly had also been running around the kitchen banging everything with a wooden spoon while Teddy tried to set up.

Teddy shook his head, still smiling. The challenges of making cookies with a four and a half-year-old, no matter how hilarious the name of those cookies, paled in comparison to one who wanted to walk up to the Battery and play in the park. “Why are you so mean, Ted? I like the rain! There’ll be puddles!” had been on repeat all morning.

Honestly, Teddy mused, looking out the window again. It isn’t raining that hard. And it is pretty warm for the middle of December … He thought better of it. His mother would murder him. Not just if she caught them in the act, but if she even suspected he’d let Kelly out in the rain on a windy forty-degree day. And his mom was one of the smartest people he knew. No one would ever find the body.

“Kel, buddy, get back here,” Teddy called, as Kelly wandered off again. He caught up with his tiny charge in the living room, face pressed to the glass of the picture window that faced the lake. “Kelly, c’mon. Let’s go make the cookies.”

He didn’t say snickerdoodles. He wanted cooperation, not another giggle fit.

“Teddy, I wanna play outside!”

“I know, kiddo, but Mom says no. But maybe it’ll stop raining if we wait a little. Let’s go make cookies for Santa.”

Kelly turned around, his grey eyes uncertain and his freckled nose wrinkled with concern. “Skyler says Santa’s not real.” He frowned a little, and it morphed into a pout as he thought about Skyler picking on him for drawing a picture for Santa at school before nap time.

“Not real?” Teddy widened his eyes dramatically.

“Uh huh,” he nodded earnestly. “She said only stupid babies believe in Santa.” His lip quivered just a little.

Teddy had hoped Kelly would be a little older before some other kid ruined Santa for him. Teddy remembered all too well what that was like. He wasn’t going to let that happen to Kel. He wasn’t even five! “That’s a pretty mean thing for somebody to say. Especially since she doesn’t know what she’s talking about.”

He reached down to pick Kelly up and carry him back to the kitchen, something he didn’t normally do anymore, but he felt suddenly almost overly protective of his brother. As he settled Kel on his hip and started back to the kitchen, the little boy went on. “She isn’t nice. Not ever. But Beau says she’s right and …”

“I don’t care what Beau says,” he said firmly. “Santa’s real, pal. He’s so real that it’s too big for some people to know.”

Kelly’s eyes got big and round. Teddy knew everything. “He is? Really?”

Teddy nodded earnestly. “Of course he is. And unless little Miss Skyler and Mister Beau can prove otherwise, Santa and I are very good friends.”

Kelly’s gaze took on a worshipful shine as his big brother plopped him down in the chair next to the counter. “You are?”

“You bet we are. And wait until I tell the Big Guy about those meanies at school.” This wasn’t the first time Kelly had trouble with those two. “But, Kelly, you can’t tell anyone,” he said, not wanting him to go back to school and invite more bullying.

“Not even Mom and Dad?”

“Oh, you can tell them. They’re Mom and Dad. You can tell them anything.”

Teddy pulled the first couple of ingredients they needed closer, so Kelly could reach. HIs little brother looked up at him, not necessarily all that interested in cookies anymore, even if they were fun to say. “But how?”

“How what, bud?” Teddy handed Kelly one of the eggs, showing him with his own how to crack it and drop it into the bowl.

“How do you know Santa? Kids can’t see him, right?”

Teddy patiently picked shell fragments out of the egg dish. “Well, yeah, usually we can’t. But one Christmas … before you were born,” he began, starting to stir the butter to soften it up. “Actually, the year you were born … I asked Santa for a friend.” Kelly’s eyes were fixed on Teddy’s face, the snickerdoodles mostly forgotten. “See, I knew some kids like Skyler and Beau …”

“I’m sorry, Teddy,” Kelly said with big eyes and a very sincere voice.

“Now you put the sugar in on top of the butter, Kel,” Teddy prompted. As his brother complied, Teddy continued to spin his story. “Those kids didn’t really matter though, buddy. Because Santa came to me himself, to make sure I was ready.”

“For what?”

“For you, silly.”

“For me?” he asked, confused.

“Well, yeah. I asked Santa for friend. One who was funny, and smart, and who kicked butt at Candy Land. You know, just the very best friend a guy could ever have.”

“So Santa gave you Petra,” he said, nodding knowingly. Petra always beat him at Candy Land.

“No! I knew Petra for a long time before this. And she’s a good friend. But I needed a very best friend. So he gave me you.”

Kelly tilted his head to the side like he just couldn’t figure out how he could be Teddy’s very best friend. Teddy was the coolest, so his best friend had to be the coolest, too. And if Kelly knew anything from Skyler and Beau, it was that he wasn’t even a little bit cool. Teddy could practically read his brother’s thoughts. “Huh?”

“Santa said, from what I described in my letter, what I really was asking for was a little brother. The coolest little brother in the whole world so we could be best friends forever. And he was right. Ooof,” Teddy grunted as Kelly flung himself around his brother’s middle, hugging so tightly it almost hurt. “Oh, boy,” Teddy added, even as he hugged back, because the flailing little limbs had knocked the canister off the counter.

The plastic bin hit the floor with a loud pop, sending the flour into the air in a blinding cloud. After a few seconds it started to settle, covering every surface, including the two brothers. “Whoops,” Kelly said quietly.

From down the hall, Teddy heard the jingling of keys, followed by the clicks of the door opening, then closing. There was the familiar sound of a heavy purse being set on the stand next to the coat rack. “Hey, boys! I’m home! My shift got over early!”

Teddy assessed the scene. Flour still drifted lazily through the air. Everything was white and dusty. “Of course. Of course it did.” He sighed. “Timing is everything,” he said to himself.

His mother stopped in the doorway, her mouth pulling into a surprised ‘O’, then starting to twitch at the corners almost immediately. Her boys were two pale apparitions standing guiltily as the dust settled, their matching grey-green eyes round and slightly scared at what her reaction might be to the destruction in front of her. Their expressions relaxed into relieved grins as their mother started laughing. “Alright, I’m going to go shower and change. You guys be sure to clean up when you’re done.” Her eyes surveyed the carnage that was her kitchen. “And, yeah … Let’s do take out. Talk about what you want. I’m up for Chinese or Chicken Charlie’s, but you decide.” She smiled and left the kids to their mess.

Kelly breathed a sigh of relief. “I thought we were gonna be in big trouble.”

Teddy nodded. “Me, too. But I guess Christmas is a time for miracles,” he grinned. “Now, let’s finish these cookies, pal.”

“Snickerdoodle!”

∞∞∞

 

Snickerdoodles are a Flaherty family favorite, and not just because they’re fun to say. They are as much fun to make and eat as sugar cookies, but a heck of a lot easier. The classic warm cinnamon and sugar flavors on a rich, almost creamy, butter cookie, make them perfect for the winter holidays.

 

Ben’s Snickerdoodle Recipe

Ingredients

2 3/4 cups All Purpose Flour (for a less chewy cookie, you can use Cake Flour)

2 teaspoons Cream of Tartar

1 teaspoon Baking Soda (if you don’t have Cream of Tartar, you can use 2 teaspoons Baking Powder instead of the Baking Soda and Cream of Tartar, but it does change the taste just a little)

3/4 teaspoon Salt

1 3/4 cups Sugar (2 tablespoons of the Sugar should be set aside)

1 cup Unsalted Butter (Some recipes will tell you to use shortening. Throw them out. You don’t need that kind of negativity in your life.)                                                                 2 Eggs

2 tablespoons Heavy Cream

2 teaspoons Vanilla Extract (the good stuff)

1 tablespoon Ground Cinnamon (Mix with the Sugar you set aside on a plate)

Instructions

  1. Preheat your oven to 400°F.
  2. If you didn’t do it already, mix 2 tablespoons of the Sugar with all the Cinnamon on a plate or in a pie tin (I like a pie tin, so I don’t make a huge mess).
  3. Mix the Flour, Cream of Tartar, Baking Soda and Salt in one bowl.  
  4. In another bowl, cream the Butter and Sugar together until it’s light and fluffy (you can do this by hand or with an electric mixer – just make sure the Butter is room temperature or your arm will get tired and you will get frustrated).
  5. Once the Sugar and Butter are well mixed, add the Eggs, Heavy Cream, and Vanilla. Mix until well-blended
  6. Gradually stir in the dry mixture until it’s completely incorporated.
  7. Shape dough into small balls. We always use a small scoop or disher for this.
  8. Roll the balls in the Cinnamon Sugar mixture until they are completely coated.
  9. Place the balls about two inches apart on ungreased cookie sheets.
  10. Bake until lightly brown around the edges, or for a crisper cookie, until the tops are all slightly brown.
  11. Cool in the pan for a couple of minutes to allow the cookies to set.
  12. You can cool them completely on wire racks or eat them warm – Nobody here is going to judge you. And as we all know, holiday treats have no calories.