New (Year) World Order

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

New (Year) World Order

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Your expression says you do know.”

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

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

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

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

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

“I … I don’t … You really think…?”

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

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

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

“Certainly. Why?”

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

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

Ben got out his phone and summoned an Uber.

***

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

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

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

“What’s the matter?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“For what?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Salty?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Or sitting on benches and brooding?”

He laughed a little. “Or that.”

“Okay … Georgia Aquarium?”

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

“Was it any good?”

“I mean, yeah, if you like fish.”

“Do you?”

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

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

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

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

“What does?”

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ben rolled his eyes. “Five hundred million.” 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You’ve been here before.”

“Yeah.”

“For Hell?”

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

“I beg your pardon?”

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

“And?”

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

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

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

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

“Only a little,” Ben laughed. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Very funny. Anything else?”

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

Failure at 40,000 Feet

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

Have fun and let us know what you think!

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

Merry Fic-mas!

Failure at 40,000 Feet

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Ow! Kid, c’mon, cut that out.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Oh, for f…” 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Another seat maybe?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I’m bored. And it’s fun.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He could …

He could be a vigilante.

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

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

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

He smiled.

He was going to need bigger sacks. 

*****

 

School

Author’s note – I’ve been playing around with some little one word prompts over on our Instagram. For those of you that don’t goof off over on IG, I figured I’d share the little flash fan fictions for our Arbitratus Trilogy characters here. Here’s a little imagined scene from our Work In Progress (which is basically done – it’s all over but the final editing) Before the Dawn, aka Book II.

This isn’t necessarily canon, of course. But it could be.

If you do enjoy ‘gramming a little, you can follow us at Demons Run Lit.

SCHOOL

Mal had been quiet all morning.

When Ben suggested a walk, it was more because he thought she might talk if they were away from the others. It was cold this morning. Again. But the view was breathtaking.

They’d been sitting on the rough hewn bench for a while in silence and Ben was ready to give up. But he was pretty sure she was crying and trying to hide it.

One more try, he thought.

He pulled her in closer. “Mal … what is it?”

She sniffed, staring off down the road. “It’s nothing.”

He slid both arms around her. “It doesn’t sound like nothing.” He didn’t point out the tear trailing down her cheek, visible when she tilted her head against him, but he reached up and brushed it away with his thumb.

She looked up at him. “I’m starting to wish you weren’t so goddamned observant.”

“Now you know how I feel, literally half the time.” He let her have the small crooked grin he knew she liked to see. “C’mon, tell me. you never let me get away with keeping what’s bothering me to myself.”

“It’s stupid.”

He shook his head. “Not even possible. Have you met you?”

She gave him a watery smile. “Today would have been the start of semester break. I’d have been halfway through Freshman year today. One step close to being Dr. Sinclair.”

Oh.

“Oh.” He chewed his lip. “Wanna go hang out at the college library in town?”

“What for?”

He shrugged. “I dunno. We could just … pretend to be normal for awhile. Forget we’re not just at school.”

She smiled more genuinely. “That’s silly.”

“I could buy you a new gross medical textbook…” he offered.

“We don’t have any money, Ben.” She leaned into his side.

“Hey, I’m a demon. I’m not above picking someone’s pocket.”

She shook her head with an affectionate exasperation. He always tried. “Okay. Let’s. Not pick pockets, but you know, hang out in the library. At least it’ll be warm.”

“And we’ll be together reading about something other than the prophecy.”

“Together is good.”

“Always.”

Child of the Air

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Author’s Note – Today’s flash fiction challenge was to write about an extinct flower that somehow blooms for the first time in a hundred years. Of course I couldn’t help putting an apocalyptic spin on a little floral fiasco. ~ J

 

It seemed like such a good idea, you know?

Just grow this seed into something people could connect with …

The rest of our work is so distant and impersonal to most of the world. Go dig around where the permafrost is thawed, tell everyone about what climate change is revealing, what it’s doing to us and our world.

Noble, important work, right?

Yeah, well, most people don’t give a shit. And I want them to. I want people to care.

As a botanist, my enthusiasm for finding the plant was no surprise, but the whole team was intrigued by my discovery. Here was the seed to a species that no one alive has ever seen bloom. Aerides glacies orchidaceae, a flower so long extinct that we don’t even have any photographs.  Not just the seed either. But spores from the fungus it would need to penetrate its route systems to nourish its growth.

I just thought, if I could grow it, take my work out of the lab … Maybe people would care about it, care about the other things we’re finding, too.

I guess it worked.

Everyone knows about my ice orchid; a flower no one had seen or smelled in a hundred years.

Unfortunately, it’s killing them.

And I don’t know how to stop it.

 

Pool Shark

 

There’s something in the water.

The thought came with such easy certainty, Roz almost laughed.

When she was small she wouldn’t even go in the pool because Sean had told her the pool sharks would eat her. Home from college on summer break, he’d given her shit about it at the breakfast table this morning. She’d chucked a syrup covered Eggo at his head and gone up to her room in a huff. She’d brooded about how to shut him up about it for hours.

The sounds of Rob’s noisy old pickup pulling in next door. She hadn’t seen him since the start of summer break. He’d been off doing some junior counselor soccer camp thing. Before exams started he’d never even noticed her as anything other than the awkward neighbor kid before … But they’d been partnered up in the Chem final and it apparently occurred to him that she was a lot less awkward, and maybe a lot more graced with cleavage, than she had been.

It was hot and Rob and his brother would almost definitely go swimming. Roz’s pool was easily visible from the Danforth’s deck.

She decided she’d kill two birds with one stone and go for a swim. Casually hitting the pool alone ought to shut Sean up. And … it couldn’t hurt neighborly relations any for Rob to see her in the ruffled fuchsia bikini she could finally fill out.

She got changed, grabbed one of the big fluffy towels from the linen closet, and headed out onto their deck. Sean has raised his eyebrows at her announcement that she was going to catch some sun and go for a swim, but he didn’t say anything. Maybe he didn’t believe his baby sister’s stated intentions. He was probably just waiting to give her more crap when she didn’t go through with it.

She glanced around. No sign of Rob yet. But she could hear talking and laughing through the screens next door. She cranked up her radio so the boys next door couldn’t miss that she was outside and stood on the edge of the deck looking into the cool blue water.

It was perfectly tranquil and had the inviting Caribbean color that had always sort of fascinated her.

Throwing caution to the wind, and trying not to over-think how edgy the idea of swimming alone made her, she took a running start and splashed noisily into the water.

At first how chilly it felt compared to the warm air set her gasping and sputtering. But she quickly adjusted to the temperature and after swimming a few laps, she started to actually enjoy herself. She was having such a nice time, in fact, she got one of the pool floats off the deck. She tossed it into the water then followed it with another loud and splashy jump in.

She stood on her tiptoes in the shallow end, trying to glean any sign that Rob might be on his way outside. The quiet yard from across the fence yielded no encouraging information, so she stretched out on the float and closed her eyes. The baking sun had her sweating in minutes. She wasn’t ready to get all the way back in yet, so she let her legs hang off the float and trailed her hands through the water.

That’s better.

She had almost dozed off in the sun when the thought jolted her back to wakefulness.

There’s something in the water.

A warning from somewhere outside herself, sending a shiver over her whole body, raising goosebumps on her arms and legs.

Don’t start being ridiculous Rosalind Kelly, she chided herself. No way was she going to let a reemerging case of toddler brain send her running inside so Sean could pick on her and she could miss seeing, and being seen by Rob.

She talked herself down and pretty successfully. She started to relax again.

The tug on her ankle was so sharp, so sudden, for a second she didn’t even process it. Before she envelope opened her eyes she was ready with Sean’s most embarrassing childhood nickname and a plan to dead arm him maybe on both sides.

But he wasn’t there.

The back yard and pool was empty except for her and her blaring radio.

Another tug.

This one hurt.

She was about to call for help, but she was pulled under too quickly.

She screamed, but no one heard her over the radio. And it was over quickly in the time that existed above the surface of the water.

 

Underneath, the end went on forever.

 

 

When Rob Evans headed outside a while later it was wearing his nicest swim trunks. He wasn’t above trying to impress the neighbor either. He strode out onto the deck, cocky smile firmly in place. He looked over toward the Kelly’s pool.

 

This time everyone in the neighborhood heard the screams.

Peace Is A Lie

I really didn’t want to wake up.

Well, that actually sounds kind of ominous. I didn’t want to wake up until I’d slept off the hangover I knew was coming my way.

But wake up I did.

Only to find my head trapped in some, hot, steamy hell of a head covering. I could feel its stiff edges resting against my collar bones and it’s weight bearing down on my head.

“What the actual … ?” I asked aloud, not expecting an answer, but also not expecting the hollow special-effect sound of my voice echoing around the damn thing.

I peeled my eyes all the way open and could sort of see out of two foggy orbs of darkened plastic.

Then I remembered.

Never let your younger brother challenge you to a holiday drinking game. His liver is in better shape than yours and his capacity for clearing a hangover is almost definitely higher. Plus, he’s been a little shit since he was three.

He proved me right as he bounded into the basement game room blaring the Star Wars theme from his phone.

I pulled the strange headgear off to glare at him and discovered it was a pretty authentic Stormtrooper mask. He beamed at my disgruntled expression. “How you feelin’, bruh?”

I rolled my eyes, even though it hurt. “Like maybe I wish I could Force choke your chipper ass into silence.”

He grinned and killed the music on his phone. “Alcohol is why they call today Revenge of the Fifth, dude.”

“Right.”

Fucker.

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Shaken By A Strong Wind

The dream had been plaguing me for days. I’d go to bed determined that this night would be different, that I’d break the cycle. But I couldn’t.

 

I should have paid more attention to what the dream was trying to tell me.

 

I’m in bed, and at first, I think I’m just waking up in the random way people do where we sigh and roll over and drift right back off. Then I realize that it’s cold.

 

My bedroom is never cold.

 

The heat must be broken. I reach over and shake my husband’s arm. “Joshua,” I whisper, not wanting to wake the girls sleeping next door. “The fire’s gone out again.”

Josh mumbles something unintelligible and throws an arm up over his face.

 

He’s been working so much. I decide I’ll just take care of it. I always get splinters when I fill the stove, but there are worse things.

 

I get up and slide on my robe. I tiptoe past the girls’ room and out into the living room to take care of the fire.

 

It’s too bright out there, but not because there are any lights on. The moon must be full, I think absently.

 

I nearly jump when I start to walk past the bay window and Rachel’s bell clear, but startlingly inflectionless, voice says, “Mamma, the stars went out.”

 

It takes a split second before I can breathe again. Then I answer. “Sweetie, you scared me half to death! What are you doing out of bed?”

 

Carolyn speaks then, sounding, as always, exactly like her twin. “The stars went out, and now they’re falling. We want to watch them burn it all up.”

 

Gooseflesh zings up and down my arms, my spine. I look out the window, past their identical white blonde heads stained lavender by the strange light pouring in the picture window.

And they’re right.

 

The stars are indeed falling from a sky that looks nothing like it could possibly belong to Earth.

 

The girls turn toward me then, and their light blue eyes are gone. All that’s left are puckering holes filled with the light from that alien sky.

 

It woke me up screaming every day for a week. Once I could breathe again, once I could stop sobbing in terror, I’d go make my coffee, regardless of the hour and be up for the day.

 

Why didn’t I seek comfort from Josh, or go check on my girls?

 

Because they don’t exist. And they never have.

 

I’ve never married, and I don’t intend to. I’ve certainly never had children. I can’t. And even if I could, I don’t think I’d want them.

 

Especially now.

 

Now that I know.

 

When the dream came to me again this morning, instead of getting up and making coffee, I lay in bed for a long time.

 

Thinking.

 

I finally got up a couple of hours later and dressed for a long hike. I even packed my backpack for one.

 

I walked straight through my silent living room, not looking left or right. I especially avoided looking at my bay window. It was no longer stacked with pillows as a reading nook. As the dream persisted, I started filling that shelf up with everything I could that would prevent anyone, including eyeless dream offspring, from sitting on it.

 

I walked out my front door, not bothering to lock it behind me. I knew with eerie certainty that locks stopped mattering sometime between the dark and the dawn.

 

I looked up and saw what I’d been both dreading and expecting.

 

The sky has gone purple.

 

The same purple as the eyes my twins didn’t have. My twins that don’t exist.

 

The stars aren’t falling yet. But I know they will.

 

I feel it.

 

Deep in my chest.

 

But I feel something else, too.

 

We might be able to stop it.

 

 

 

I’m sure as Hell going to try.

 

The Third Day of Fic-mas …

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Ghosts of Yuletide Past

Aife made her way silently down the stone path leading to her family home. She couldn’t stop smiling. It felt like she’d been away forever. The chance to see them all again was such a precious gift. She could hardly credit the peace and contentment that had settled into her chest the moment she’d started recognizing the landmarks that said she was on the road home. She’d never dared hope to feel this way again.

Her breath caught in her throat when the squat little grey field stone dwelling came into view as she crested the final hill. A lazy tendril of smoke curled up from the chimney. She imagined she could smell the mulling spices in the kettle on the hearth. She could almost hear the crackle of the warming stones at its edge that would sizzle when they were dropped into full mugs to warm hands when everyone came inside.

She paused to watch her grandchildren for a moment. They were playing in the light snow that had collected in front of the house, darting in and out of the nearby woods, engaged in some sort of game. She wasn’t sure exactly what it was they were playing. It involved a lot of running, flinging bits of snow at each other. They screamed like it might be the end of the world, then laughed themselves into tumbling, breathless, onto the ground. She laughed, too, but, of course, they paid her no mind. The smallest of them seemed to meet her eyes for a moment, but then she squealed and ran back into the trees after one of the boys.

Aife hugged her elbows with a fond sigh. Being lost in play, why do we lose that as we age, I wonder.  She knew at least one soul who seemed to have kept that irreverent sense of finding fun wherever he went, but then again, she supposed he was quite young, too, in his own way. Humming softly to herself, a tune she couldn’t quite place, Aife went inside, leaving the children to their games.

She took a deep breath of the heavy warm air inside the cozy little home. A pot of what was likely cider bubbled merrily, hissing and spitting as steam condensed and droplets hit the logs below. It sounded like home. It smelled as good as she’d imagined, too, maybe even better, with the added savory aroma of a nicely roasting rabbit over the flames.

Her eldest daughter, Rowan, chided one of the younger siblings, about how she was turning the spit. “Ye want te keep it even, don’t ye, now?” When the turning didn’t improve, she huffed a little in frustration, and stopped what she was doing to demonstrate the proper way to turn the spit. “Like this, Morag, before you burn the back an’ leave the belly raw!”

Aife laughed quietly, feeling no small amount of pride at how Rowan was handling overseeing the Yule feast preparations for the first time, like the captain of a well-run ship. All those years at Aife’s elbow. She’d clearly attended to every lesson. She’d be a right terror in battle if she was ever called to it, Aife thought. But like her mother, and her mother before her, she commanded her household troops with warmth and a light amusement dancing in her green eyes. Aife’s admiration for Rowan’s skill didn’t stop her from wanting to help.

Instead, Aife took a seat next to the holiday fire, stretching her hands out to warm them in the comforting blaze. The Yule log burned merrily, the coals dancing in their familiar ashy red glow that never ceased it’s mesmerizing movement. She felt the flames warming her face pleasantly as soon as she sat down. A moment later she was almost startled as a shawl brushed her arm and a thin hand patted her shoulder.

She glanced at her new companion. “Hello,” she greeted softly.

“Ah, Aife, mo leanbh, I hoped you’d be able to come. It’s good to see you, child.”

“It’s good to see you too, Mama. I hope you’ve been well.”

“Passably well, child. How’s it with you?”

Aife swallowed. “It hasn’t been easy …” She swallowed again. She was not going to talk about that now, not here. “But just look at our family … growing, thriving. Strong and happy.” She sniffed a bit, but she was smiling again.

“They are that,” her mother agreed. An’ yer Liam did such a fine job with the Yule log. ‘Tis the finest fire I’ve seen in many a year. It’s so lovely to come here and be warmed by it, enjoying my family. I’ll bless this fire that it brought you here for a chat, too, lovie.”

Aife gazed into the fire. It was a good one, and the log looked to burn for days. She’d never been much of an enthusiast. She’d always been more of a practical cook-fire sort of woman (and flaming arrows certainly had their place) but today she appreciated the Yule fire, more than she could ever have known. She felt the same sort of pride she had seeing how Rowan was handling her role as matriarch when she looked at the fire her boy had kindled. She’d probably never admit it out loud to anyone, but Liam and Rowan had always been her favorites among her large and well-loved family.

A crackling pop from the log brought Aife back to the present. “Where’s Da?”

“Ach, you know how he is. Has to pop in on everyone’s fire today. I expect he’s at Diarmuid’s hearth just now. You know how he always was about his baby brother.”

“Mmm. Do you think he’ll be by soon?”

“Ye have other plans, do ye?” her mother asked gently.

“I …” Aife began, but was interrupted by the loud crash of shattering pottery. Rowan let loose with a string of words that Aife was quite certain she had not learned from her mother (since she’d never had to follow her into battle). “Rowan! Such language!” she snapped, not really thinking.

Rowan continued to mumble random curses and wishes for the feast to be on someone else’s shoulders as she drafted another one of the younger girls to pick up the shards little Donal had scattered, running through the house, in through the front and out the back.

“I bet you’d like to jump in and sort that all out for yer girl,” Aife’s mother smiled knowingly. “It’s hard, love. Believe me I understand. Letting go is the most difficult part of sitting at the fire each year, but … She’s rising to the occasion. She is. And she’ll continue to do so. She’s her mother’s child through and through.”

“I know … I just wish …”

A large warm hand settled on her other shoulder. “Hey, Aife. I let myself in.” She glanced up and bit her lip. “I’m sorry, but we’ve got to be getting back.”

“And who might this handsome and strapping lad be,” her mother asked, raising one of her grey brows.

“Not now, Mama,” Aife mumbled. She protested, “You said … The feast hasn’t started, Ben … And my da’ …”

He squeezed her shoulder. “I know and I’m sorry. But we’ve got to leave. Like five minutes ago. Gareth can only keep up appearances for us for so long and … We need to go.”

She sighed. “Alright. At least let me say goodbye.”

He hesitated, but then he nodded. “Of course. But be as quick as you can.” He nodded at the old woman by the fire. “A blessed Yule to you, ma’am.” She smiled at him. He touched Aife’s arm. “I’ll be outside.” He left the house to give her the moment free from the demands his presence implied.

Aife squeezed her mother’s hand. Then she moved around the house to each of her children in turn, uttering promises to return whenever she could, patting the heads of the grandchildren who were starting to crowd into the house to warm up and try to sneak bites of food. She stood in the doorway for a moment, giving a last smile and a fond wave, taking one last look at the frantic, but homey, pace of her family.

She stepped outside into the cold that no longer touched her, wiping absently at a tear and suppressing the others that were trying to fall, not that it mattered. She turned to Ben, torn between gratitude that he’d given her this opportunity and fury that he was now snatching it away before she’d seen everyone. “Why?” she asked, her unshed tears constricting her voice. “Why give me this and then cut it so short?”

“I said I’m sorry,” he began. He put an arm around her shoulders and started leading her away. “I thought it would help, seeing them, I mean. Knowing they’re well and your family is … still here and still growing. Carrying on for you.” His voice sounded momentarily tight, too, but though he’d released her shoulders and was now just walking next to her, she detected no change in his face or posture.

“I appreciate it, Ben. I do … I don’t mean to seem ungrateful, it’s just … I would have liked more time.”

“Wouldn’t we all?” he said so quietly she almost didn’t hear it. “And I wish I could have given it to you. I meant to … But we’ve been summoned. As annoying and incompetent as the King of Hell is, he’s still the king.” He held out his hands like he’d try to explain more. This was all still new for her, still a fresh wound. Unable to think of anything adequate, he shrugged.

“Why Yule though? Of all the times, Ben …” She trailed off, near tears again. “I didn’t get to see all of them,” she finished after a minute.

Another shrug. “I knew we couldn’t be away for long, even at the best of times, and I just thought more of them would be here for you. Especially the kids. I know that’s important to you.”

He sounded so bleak. He’d tried to do something so truly wonderful for her, she wanted him to know that even in her disappointment, she was still grateful. “Seeing my mother was such a lovely surprise. I didn’t expect it. It’s been so long.”

“The Yule fire is a funny place,” Ben mused.

“It … I felt so strange, Ben. Every sensation, every smell. I felt I could have picked up a cup and tasted the cider. We’re not really totally even on this plain of existence. I shouldn’t have been able …”

“Did you not think our own traditions and stories had at least a kernel of truth, Aife?” he asked, smiling a little. “It’s half of why our people light the Yule log every year; so our ancestors can come and warm themselves by that fire, if they like.”

“Always seemed made up to me,” she said managing a small chuckle.

“I always believed, or at least, I wanted to. I had a bit of a mind for the magical side of things though. I have Daira to thank for that. She was the wise woman in my village. Took quite a shine to me,” he smiled. “And then, you know, demon, so … I’ve definitely embraced my more whimsical side.”

As he hoped, she chuckled again and her smile stayed in place. “It was wonderful to see them. It does help. It does.” She stopped walking and turned toward him. “Have you ever visited your family?”

Pain sparked briefly in his eyes, but he just gave the barest shake of his head. “Nah, never managed it.”

Aife realized too late why that might be. Oh, the poor boy. All of them. No wonder he struck her as such a lonely soul. “Thank you, Ben. For everything.”

He nodded, his jaw tightening for a moment, before flashing one of his dazzling distracting smiles at her. “Happy Yule, Aife,” he said simply.

Quite unable to stop herself, she pulled him into a hug. “Happy Yule, Ben.”

 

 

The Second Day of Fic-mas …

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Eat, Drink, and Be Miserable

 

Author’s Note: For readers of Always Darkest, in case you were wondering why Ben couldn’t spent Christmas Eve with Mal, this ought to clear things up. For those of you new to our universe, this is what happens when Hell throws a holiday office party.

“Ben! You made it!” the graceful hostess called with enthusiasm and more than a little surprise. She hadn’t seen him come in, and her two assistants had been taking bets on whether or not he’d show up. She eyed him up and down. “You’re looking … very … um …”

“Save it, Aife. I’m in no mood for games or pleasantries.” She thought he might be frowning or glaring at her, but at present it was difficult to tell. “Besides, we’re fighting.”

“Fighting? Over this? Come on, it’s not that bad.” She reached down, clapping him on his uncharacteristically meaty shoulder. “And it’s traditional!”

The eye roll was more obvious than his previous expression. “Yeah, that’s me. Mr. Tradition.”

He started shouldering his way through the crowd, toward the decorative seat on the raised platform at the center of the room. The sooner he sat down and got this started, the sooner he could change and get the hell out of here. He was glad going home no longer meant just the hundred feet or so to his old apartment above the bar. Soon this would be over and he could catch a cab across town to his new digs.

And shower.

For about a week.

Undeterred by his sour mood, Aife followed, trying to pull him out of whatever was behind his current funk. She knew he wouldn’t be happy about this, but she hadn’t expected his near total silence since she’d reminded him of the obligation.

To be fair he’d kind of bared his soul to her, at least as much as Ben ever did with anyone, and when all was said and done she’d said, essentially, ‘Thanks for trusting me with all this, but, by the way, I need you to do a thing you’re really going to hate in a few days’.

But it wasn’t like Ben to pull the silent treatment bit, even if he was furious. Something major had to be happening. Still, he had an obligation here tonight, no matter what else was going on with him. In fact, based on the little he’d revealed of what he’d been up to over the last year, and especially the last few months, keeping up appearances, keeping his cover intact, was especially important. She decided to subtly remind him of that in a way that would be safe if someone happened to get close enough to eavesdrop.

“You, of all demons, know how important it is, for those of us saddled with peripheral, less important Offices, to stick to the regulations,” she admonished. When he rolled his eyes at her a second time, she started quoting the rule book. “At the time of year when all earthly eyes are on the heavens, it is critical that Hell do its part to stay a presence literally and figuratively to advance our mission. The senior ranking noble or Agent will act as ceremonial host on the eve of …”

“I’m familiar with the regs,” he interrupted. “Why the hell do you think I’ve avoided being anywhere near an Office on Christmas since … always?” he groused. “How are demons even supposed to celebrate Christmas?” came out as more of a growl.

She grinned, hoping an attempt at humor would relax him a little. “Ironically, I think.”

He sighed. “Ironically?” He tugged at his coat awkwardly, unaccustomed to clothes not fitting exactly the way they were meant to.

Aife looked him over, letting her gaze linger like she was about to flirt. Then she cocked an amused eyebrow. “Yeah, definitely ironically.”

“Oh, screw you, Aife,” he snapped, then started laughing in spite of himself, though his amusement was short lived.

He was glad The Pit wasn’t one of those bars with mirrors everywhere. He didn’t need to be reminded what a ridiculous figure he cut in this crowd of demons and humans decked out in their finest, or at least their most festive. Since custom demanded that he appear in his demonic form, say nothing about the ubiquitous Santa suit, he wasn’t interested in the visual. This was a form he avoided at all costs; he hadn’t been forced into it in centuries. And the suit was about as awful as he expected. But it was kind of funny. Probably. From the outside.

He fidgeted in discomfort again and the pat Aife gave him this time was less amused and more genuinely consoling. She led him to the bar and gestured for Ciara to pour them a couple of their usual drinks. She knew the short, round, hairy appearance (forget the goat legs and cloven hooves that came with the package) didn’t exactly match up with how Ben saw himself. She really should have expected this reaction.

When he’d first come to her over a year ago, looking for a place to stay, they’d been sitting in his apartment flipping through channels one night and had come across the Disney version of Hercules. She’d made the offhand comment that he reminded her of a character in the film. He’d grinned and said he’d always thought he was decent enough in the looks department, but he’d never have given himself Greek god status. Aife had smiled wickedly and told him she meant Hercules’s friend, Philoctetes. Because of, you know, the whole goat-y thing. “He’s the spit of your demon form, lovey.” He’d glared for a while, then stomped off to bed, leaving her to let herself out.

She knew how miserable he had to be tonight with that bumpy, lumpy, short, asymmetrical body crammed into a cheap Santa suit. It wasn’t quite as bad as a rental, but very nearly. She’d never seen anyone fit into it properly and that was definitely true tonight. Ben pulled at some part of it self-consciously every time he moved. It was somehow both too big and too small all at once.

The arms had to be rolled up with fabric bunching awkwardly at the wrists. His demonically-shortened stature also meant, even rolled up, the pants trailed under his hooves so he kept treading on the cuffs and half tripping.

Despite its length, the breadth of the suit wasn’t proportional. Or adequate. The buttons strained across the considerable girth at his midsection in an over-taxed effort to contain him. She nearly laughed at the thought of them putting out someone’s eye if they let go. She’d never let him live it down.

Ben stretched the stiff fabric on the waist of his pants yet again, wishing he could breathe properly. He was trying to find real humor in this, but was just too damned uncomfortable. His sour tone belied the amused smirk he was trying on. “Honestly Aife, I look like Tim Burton got tapped for a reboot of The Grinch and decided to cast Danny Devito in the lead role.”

Given her memory of just a moment ago it took a herculean effort not to burst out laughing. Oh, that nearly did it. She snorted a little giggle, but clamped down on it. “You only look about half as ridiculous as you think you do. Besides, I thought I’d be the one wearing the costume this year. No one else has been around and you’re usually so good at avoiding this stuff.”

“If you’d reminded me sooner, I would have again,” he said, shooting her a dark look.

“Maybe I mentioned it back when you were still showing up for work here. Not my fault you’ve been off …” She stopped when his brow creased. She had promised not to mention school, or his other job, or the fact that he had apparently made friends with some humans. Not where anyone else might overhear it anyway. She’d have to get the rest of the story out of him at some point, but tonight was not the time for it. “And maybe this finally makes us square for Boston,” she said archly.

“Boston? Are you serious? This is about Boston?” he asked incredulously, gesturing at his horror-inducing appearance. “C’mon, Aife, that was literally centuries ago! And it was not my fault!”

“It was a little your fault,” she said with a smirk.

“How can you ..? I didn’t do …” he sputtered.

“You set the mince sniffers on me. You have to own that part at least.”

He sighed. “Okay, maybe … so that part could have been my fault, but …” His whole face became a frown. At least she thought it did; it was tough to tell with all those bulldog worthy wrinkles. “But we’re even?”

She tipped him a wink. “I said maybe.”

Ben rolled his eyes. He picked up the generous shot of her best scotch off the bar, downed it, then closed his eyes for a couple of seconds, setting the glass down with a thud. “Fine. Hand me the beard, would you?”

Mirth danced in her green eyes as she passed the finishing touch for the Santa suit to him. He fixed it over his ears, using her reactions, rather than the mirror over the bar, to decide if he had it arranged correctly. He could deal with this, so long as he didn’t have to look at it. Her nod told him it was on straight, but … what was that ..? Ugh.

“Aife … um … why does this smell like … I don’t know … bad?” he asked when he couldn’t come up with anything to compare the aroma to.

Aife’s eyes went round and innocent. “I can’t imagine,” she said sweetly. “It’s natural fiber. Wool, I think.”

“Okay, sure, but from what part of the sheep?”

She laughed. It was such a normal Ben thing to say. She took a step closer and sniffed. “Oh, oh honey, I’m … About that …”

“Aife,” he warned, an almost imperious note creeping into his voice. “What is it? What am I ..? Just … what?”

“You may have heard about … last year Stolas was the lucky noble in town.”

“And?”

“Well … he had quite a bit to drink, and got spectacularly ill …”

“How does a demon get sick from drinking unenchanted Earth booze?” he demanded.

“How should I know?” she returned indignantly. “Maybe giant demonic raven’s have fussy stomachs! Besides … I did wash it …” she assured him.

“In what? Musk ox urine and broken dreams?”

“Oh, it’s not that bad, Ben. Just a little musty.” She patted him again. “You’re just crabby.”

Ben decided to let it go. He was crabby. Downright pissy even. And it wasn’t Aife’s fault he couldn’t just leave town. He would have last week when she’d reminded him about this little shindig, but he’d promised Mal he’d be there for Christmas, promised he’d meet her dad and uncle. Shit. What was he thinking? Meeting a couple of angels after all this … He almost wished he could get sick-drunk tonight. “Yeah,” he sighed.

Ben finally hazarded a look in the mirror and finished adjusting his beard. He pulled the tasseled hat back on as far as it would go over his abnormally round head, and walked wordlessly past Aife to take his place on the raised dais so the formal part of the evening’s festivities could commence.

∞∞∞

The party was, as Ben expected, a vulgar and garrish affair, featuring a who’s who of Burlington’s damned, and their guests. The crowd was mostly made up of connected, and more importantly, contracted, souls, not to mention a handful of local-ish demons, mostly in human form, or wearing a human body. At least the Fallen hadn’t shown up. That was a small consolation, but as the smelly Santa suit started to itch in addition to being aromatic, Ben decided he’d count his blessings where he could find them.

“Ah, Lord Ronoven, I don’t believe I’ve had the pleasure before.”

He glanced up from where he’d been staring at the ice in the bottom of the glass Aife had kept full all evening. He found himself faced with a woman of early middle age, wearing too much make-up and a smart red dress. “Good evening, Margaret,” he greeted mildly.

“You know my name?” the woman asked with a startled laugh.

He dipped his chin in a nod that was as close to dignified as his demon guise allowed. “It’s my business to know. I trust your son is doing well under the new arrangement.”

“Oh yes, quite well, my Lord,” she gushed. The form of address and her tone made him twitch. He forced the cringe inward and continued to meet her eye as though he were really interested in her answer. “He’s just been made the youngest partner in the history of his firm … and more importantly, his name has been coming up a lot in certain political circles, just as promised.”

Another semi-regal nod. “Very good. I like to know the contracts made in my territory are being adequately kept up. How are you finding the party, Margaret?”

“Nice,” she hedged. “But confusing. I keep wondering how demons celebrate this sort of a holiday.”

“Ironically,” Ben returned with a smirk. She gave the appropriate polite laugh, but still looked out of sorts. “Although I suppose that’s not what you meant.”

“Well, no, actually … Why does Hell have a Christmas party?”

“This isn’t really a Christmas party, Margaret.”

She laughed again. “Could have fooled me.”

Warming to the opportunity, Ben sat forward a bit. “And apparently we did,” he observed. “You see, Margaret, the invitations may have said Christmas, but those who are more informed know it is that in name only.” He paused letting that sink in for a moment. “Here we honor the old holiday of Yule, after a fashion. The traditions we hold harken to a time before the Church co-opted it for their own purposes. We celebrate Earth’s longest night,” he said, laying on an ominous tone and forcing his expression to stay serious even as he wanted to crack up at the fear behind her eyes. “Of course, since we’re from Hell, we like to put our own spin on things.”

“W-what sort of spin?” she stammered.

“Oh, about what you’d expect. There’s the fire in the hearth there with logs stolen from groves some people still hold sacred. The fertility celebrations that will come later. I’m sure you’d enjoy those.” He winked mischievously, glad for the first time that that he looked as grotesque as he felt tonight. “And there’s the traditional pig roast that ought to get going sometime soon …”

“Oh, I do enjoy a good pig roast,” Margaret said, trying to get back into the spirit of the evening.

Ben raised his shaggy eyebrows. “Ever had long pig?”

He nearly broke out laughing as Margaret blanched paper white. She knew what that was. But she regained her composure and assumed a game faced expression. “I … um … no, but I suppose I might try …”

Good grief. She probably would too. Fortunately, this was Aife’s Office and the worst thing on the menu tonight was probably the weird Vienna sausages the local state congresswoman favored. “Yes, indeed,” Ben grinned. “Things should get very interesting around here come midnight.”

She cleared her throat and squared her shoulders, pretending he hadn’t absolutely given her the shivers. “Well, I do need to get going shortly anyway, so I suppose I’ll miss out. You were my last stop this evening. I just had to see for myself.”

“Pardon?” he asked with feigned polite interest.

“My friend Nancy said you’d know my name and about my arrangement, just like you knew me personally. And you did! What do you do, study up before these things?”

“I read minds,” he lied smoothly. “And not that it’s any of my business, but when good ole Nance dropped by a little bit ago, it became pressingly clear that the reason your young Dale has been visiting so frequently these last few months is she’s been playing Mrs. Robinson to his Benjamin Braddock. Enthusiastically.”

Margaret turned very red, and without another word, but with a very loud huff, she stormed off, probably to look for her “friend” Nancy. Judging by the crashing from one of the back rooms that followed a few minutes later, Ben guessed she’d found her.

“That wasn’t very nice,” Aife chidded, appearing at his elbow.

“I didn’t like her. Didn’t care much for Nancy either.” Ben put down his glass on the small side table Aife had provided for drinks and whatever little gifts the humans brought as tribute. He’d passed the latter on to other demons quickly, rather than having to touch or look at the items much. He fished a small button-shaped receiver out of his ear. “Was that everyone?”

She squinted around the room. “Just about. You might want to leave that in for a bit though.”

She raised her eyebrows at him as he dropped the earpiece into the glass and handed it to her.

“No need. It’s just about midnight. My ass is sore from kissing and there’s no obligation to stay for anything else once the hour chimes. I’m done.” He did manage a smile. “Nice work with the radio. Made me seem informed, like spooky informed. That’s always good for making an appropriately hellish impression. And making some of them squirm was more fun than I expected to have tonight.” He got up and unhooked the beard, dropping it into the chair, along with the hat, and tried unsuccessfully to yank the coat down. “I’m out of here.”

“You can’t go. You have to come out to the private party room. We’re just about to break out the baby oil and start the …”

“Nope.” He shook his head emphatically. “I don’t have to anything. Especially that.”

“You’ve been living like a monk for months now. What’s going on with you, Ben?” she asked critically. She knew he was working on that prophecy, knew he’d made human friends, but he’d been so out of character lately. “You used to live for the more Bacchanal aspects of these little get togethers.”

He shrugged. Something told her, without even being able to see it, that he was blushing. “Yeah, well, not tonight.”

He didn’t hang around for her to say anything else, just made his way to her small office out back where he’d changed when he arrived. With his back to the door, he performed the spell to call back his human form. He wished there was a shower here, but also just wanted to get the Hell out of Dodge as fast as possible. He shucked off the Santa suit and picked up his boxers off the neatly folded pile of clothes he’d left on Aife’s desk.

He was focused on getting home as quickly as he could manage. So he didn’t hear the door open and softly close behind him. “You just have to tease me before you leave, don’t you?” Aife asked lightly, raising her eyebrow when he startled and half turned.

His ears were almost as red as the Santa suit as he finished pulling on his underwear and hastily grabbed his jeans. “Aife, please.”

She leaned against the desk, smirking. “Okay, but one of these days, you’re going to have to really tell me about her.”

“Who?” he asked absently, donning the grey thermal henley he’d practically been living in every time it was clean lately. Damn, he couldn’t seem to get used to the cold.

“The woman who’s making you want to miss an orgy. You love a good …”

“Good night,” he interrupted. He plastered on his fakest, most obsequious smile. “It’s been a terrible evening and fuck you for having me.”

“Ben, why don’t you stay for a bit and …”

“Aife … just … Okay?” She grinned at how flustered he seemed, but didn’t say anything else. He zipped his heavy hoodie, and pulled the hood up for good measure. She couldn’t see his face, but he sounded a little friendlier when he turned to the door and added, “Maybe I will tell you about her. When I’m speaking to you again.”

“Suit yourself,” she chuckled. Then she called out to him as he let himself out into the back alley. “We’re definitely even!”

“Even?” he called back, trying to remember what she was pissed off at him about. Tonight had been too stressful to keep much in his head for long.

“Yeah, for Boston. Asshole.”

Aife’s laughter followed him into the cold winter’s night.

“That was not my fault,” he mumbled under his breath.

 

 

 

 

 

Merry Fic-mas Eve!

ficmas

It’s that time of year again. Our favorite holiday tradition is here.

Can you call something you’ve only done once before a tradition?

Sure. Why not?

We had so much fun challenging ourselves with last year’s Twelve Days of Fic-mas, we decided to make it a thing. Which as our favorite Time Lord will tell you is like a plan, but with more greyness.

So, the Twelve Days of Fic-mas is back! Twelve original stories (we are literally writing as you read this) that celebrate the festive spirit of the holidays, hearth and home, and occasionally the darker side of the season. This year you’ll see familiar faces if you’re a fan of the Always Darkest Universe, some friends returning from last Fic-mas, and maybe a few surprises. We hope you’ll join us on this year’s fictional adventure.

If you’d like to check out last year’s Twelve Days, the rough drafts are still up here on the blog, or you can pick up a copy of our polished up collection (lovingly beta read by some of the universe’s biggest super heroes and best friends) over on Amazon at http://mybook.to/12daysoffic-mas.

New readers, welcome! Old friends, welcome back! And Merry Fic-mas!