No Space of Regret

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

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

― Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol

No Space of Regret 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Caleb Saint Claire.” 

It knew him, too. Great. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“How far out are they?”

“Twenty?” 

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

“No, sir.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Sir! Sir!”

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

“Goddamnit … Caleb! CALEB!” 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Helms hesitated. “You….”

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

“You killed them?”

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

“Hell’s rules?”

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

“How long, Jacob?”

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

Caleb simply raised an eyebrow at him.

“Most of a week, sir.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Sir, can I–”

“I said ‘dismissed,’ Helms.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“As am I.”

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

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

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

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

“Sir?”

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I suppose so.” Caleb’s smile faded. 

“What is it, son?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“That’s not good.”

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

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

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

“What will we be doing, sir?”

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

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

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

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

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

“Personally, sir?”

“He’s leaving the RV in Boston.”

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I … oh.”

“What is it, Jake?”

“I just … I had heard….”

“Go on.”

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

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

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

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

“Ah, so you’re from Boston, sir?”

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

“Mister Caleb!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“That’s unusual, is it?”

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

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

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

“Come in. Sit down.”

“Thank you, sir.”

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

“Something missing?”

“No, sir.”

“You were expecting dinner, I suppose.”

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

“I assumed members of the Order fasted properly.” 

“It was a meatless meal, sir.”

“I said properly.”

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

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

“Dougie?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Do you enjoy it?”

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

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

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

“Have you ever considered leaving?”

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

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

“Why?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Mmmm,” he said noncommittally.

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

“Why am I asking about your job?”

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

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

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

“It’s something we should both remember.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You could wear it. On your head.”

“Why on Earth would I–”

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

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

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

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

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

Caleb shrugged. “Glad to be home.”

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

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

“Prying?” he grinned.

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

“Yes?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I know that,” Caleb said solemnly.

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

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

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

“Merry Christmas, Tom.”

Butter Him Up

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

Butter Him Up

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Hey, Al.” 

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Lose to him at Scrabble, did you?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I don’t know what you think I’ll–”

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

“Very funny,” he said sarcastically. 

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

“Wisconsin? In December? Are you serious?” 

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

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

“Wisconsin in December? You tell me.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yeah?”

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

“The what?”

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

“Ah. So … Good or evil?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Um….”

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

“So, who are you then?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“How about you?”

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

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

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

“Hawaii.”

“What’s a Hawaii?”

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

“What’s so great about this Hawaii?”

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

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

“Need a little getaway yourself?”

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

“So, come with me.”

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

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

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

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

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

Krampus waved and faded into a swirl of blowing snow.

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

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

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

Wherever You Find Love

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

Wherever You Find Love

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

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

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

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

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

“Even though we’re home alone?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yeah,” she sighed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I’ll do it again, too!” Ben laughed.

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

Ben frowned. “You okay, Ted?”

“I … yeah. You bet.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No haggis!” Mal laughed.

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

“Ew. Is that what haggis is?”

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

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

“Alright, but….”

“Ben Brody, I swear.”

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

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

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

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

“What? Why?” she groused.

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

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

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

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

“Flour, butter, and sugar.”

“That’s it?”

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

“Pass. I’m not at baking yet.”

“It’s just chemistry,” he coaxed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

After a second or two, Teddy joined in.

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

***

A simple Scottish Shortbread

12 oz AP flour

4 oz Sugar

8 oz butter (room temperature)

Preheat your oven to 325 degrees Fahrenheit 

Grease a 8×8 square pan (with butter)

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

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

It’s Tradition

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

It’s Tradition!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She laughed. “I am! This is for fun.”

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

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

“You’re reading Christmas stories?”

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

He frowned. “Stephen King writes Christmas stories?”

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

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

“I like them sometimes,” she shrugged.

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

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

“That’s Christmassy?” he asked incredulously.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

“Find a Christmas story?” 

“Mmmm.”

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

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

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

“Not exactly.”

“Who’s the author?”

“It’s another Stephen King one.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Oh my goodness!”

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

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

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

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

***

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

“Oh, yeah?”

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

“What’s this one about?”

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

“Not Christmassy.”

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

***

“Tell me you found something other than Nazis.”

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

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

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

“It’s about the Inquisition, Mal.”

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“This is so much more than a tree!”

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

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

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

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

“Sure, but….”

“I’ll be right back.”

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

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

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

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

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

“What’s all this then?”

“Mood lighting.”

“For what?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He gestured for her to go on.

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

Where There Are Sheep

Authors’ note: It wouldn’t be Fic-mas without a story from Ben’s human past. As a boy in ancient Scotland, Ben often found himself in trouble. Fortunately, he also always found his way out. The title of this story comes from a quote by Roman playwright Titus Maccius Plautus. However, the idea that sparked the story happened because I (Jess) was listening to Alt Nation on Sirius XM and Missio’s song Wolves came on. I’m a huge fan of Missio, and Wolves might be my favorite song of theirs. It gave me this picture of a dark wolf with glowing amber eyes that remind little Ben of his own. It was a short trip from there to Google where I learned some pretty interesting Scottish folklore that inspired what you are about to read. If I were you, I’d listen to Missio while I read this, but as we say in the Flaherty household, you do you!

Where There Are Sheep

“Where’re ye off ta, Beanie?”

He rolled his eyes at the nickname but didn’t say anything about it. He had eight summers behind him now. His father promised that after Yule he could start hunting with the men. He might even be able to go fight with them, if he could carry his father’s shield by the time he was needed. The childish nicknames would stop then, he was sure. 

“Nowhere,” he said, unconvincingly as he inched toward the door.

His mother’s eyebrows disappeared into her hair. “An’ I suppose tha’s na half our feast stuffed in yer pockets?”

He let his eyes go wide and innocent. “I dunno wha’ yer….” 

Of course that was the moment an apple fell out and rolled across the floor to her feet.

“Bean.” 

He tried to think of a convincing falsehood but nothing came to mind. “It’s for the fair folk,” he confessed.

“Beathan, ye cannae go wastin’ food.”

His face flushed with a flash of temper. “I’m not wastin’ it! If ye don’ share they–”

“Aren’ goin’ to have our harvest feast,” his mother interrupted.

“It’s the second one a the season!” he protested hotly. “Ye dinnae wanta share the firs’ harvest either! Daira says–”

“If Daira wants ta feed them, ye can go help her do it,” his mother said, clearly annoyed. “Get on wi’ ya, lad. I’m busy.”

He huffed a sigh and awkwardly emptied his pockets on the table. He held up a single apple. “What if I–”

“Put it back,” his mother snapped. “Go feed the goat!”

He groaned. “Ach, I cannae do it wi’ only one hand.” He waved his splinted, bandaged arm at her.

His mother gave him a very pointed look. “Ye shoulda thought a tha’ before ye climbed tha’ tree.”

“I was after eggs for ye!” 

Her stern expression slipped into a fond smile. “Tha’ ye were.” Then she frowned again. “Did Daira say ye dinnae need the sling?”

He shifted from one foot to the other. “Uhhuh.” 

“Yer blushin’, lad. Ye know tha’s a dead giveaway, don’ ye?”

“I….”

“Go get it,” she ordered. “Then go feed the goat.”

He stomped over to the hearth, snatched up the twist of fabric Daira had fashioned to keep his broken arm out of his way, and wrestled himself back into it, swearing softly when his arm reminded him it still hurt if he moved certain ways. 

Once he had it situated, more or less, he side-eyed his mother. It seemed she was busy with stirring the big pot over the fire, so he sidled up to the table again, and slowly put the apple back in his pocket.

“Beathan,” his mother warned without turning around.

He scowled at her back, and slunk out the door. Without the apple.

Daira had made a real point of teaching him about the fair ones after his strange encounter a couple of winters ago. She’d said if you didn’t want them bothering folk, you had to leave gifts, especially food.

“You mean make friends?”

“Ach, no!” she replied with a serious expression. “You buy some peace is all. But no safety. Never think yer safe with the fair folk. Na fer a moment, Ben.” 

He grinned. He loved how she always called him Ben. It was how he thought of himself after his strange encounter with the woman he and Daira were certain was the Cailleach Bheur. She usually called him that now. Unless he was in trouble.

“Are they all dangerous?” he asked, eyes wide. 

Daira shrugged. “No … but ye musn’ take chances, Ben. Some … and ye know from the egg on yer head … some’ll take yer life without blinkin’. An’ if they’re hungry….” 

He nodded solemnly. He’d nearly been a meal for one of them. Fortunately, Caraid made a meal of the faerie before that could happen.

He’d been leaving little dishes of food outside since then. At least he had until his mother caught him at it recently. So far, this had been a lean year for crops and the weather hadn’t been favorable for foraging either. Even though the leaves hadn’t fully colored yet, there was a chill in the air. The men didn’t seem especially bothered because hunting had still been alright, but his mother worried about getting the clan through the winter. He’d caught the back of her spoon more than once for trying to sneak off with food over the summer. 

He’d learned his lesson for the most part. And Cinnie let him have scraps often enough. But he thought feast days might be different. Something told him that if he put out nothing but scraps on a feast day, the fair folk might take it personally. Besides, as far as he was concerned, if there was a feast, everyone should get some. So he’d left a good portion of his own meal out when his mother refused him any extra.

He heaved a sigh. He was in no hurry to go wrestle with the goat’s food one-handed. Instead, he wandered around looking for Caraid. He hadn’t seen her today. She always turned up, but he worried when she wasn’t on his bed in the morning, keeping watch. 

He looked longingly up at their roof. That’s probably where she was. But he couldn’t climb with one hand. Or can I? 

He glanced around to be sure no one was looking, then he slipped free of the sling again, stuffing it into his pocket. He got a running start and hopped up on their covered rain barrel with his usual weightlessness. He squinted up at the thatch bundles. Then he flexed his hands, wincing at the sharp twinge it caused in his splinted arm. He figured this wasn’t one of his best ideas. But, then again, it probably wasn’t one of his worst ones either. 

He prepared to make the jump to catch the edge of the roof, which really wasn’t all that high, no matter what his mother said, but a sharp, “Bean! Get down from there!” startled him into nearly falling.

“Ach, Cinnie, I’m na hurtin’ anythin’!” he complained, but jumped down anyway.

 His brother Drustan’s wife smiled at him with a combination of affection and exasperation. “Exceptin’ yerself, most likely, Bean.”

He dug a bare toe in the cool dirt. “I was jus’ lookin’ fer Caraid.”

“Don’ go climbin’ up there lookin’ fer yer mad cat with that arm. Ye’ll wind up more hurt and fevered again,” she admonished. He didn’t bother to conceal the deep roll of his eyes, but it was cut short when she added, “I saw yer girl out back by Nanny on my way over.”

He huffed another irritated breath. “Course she’s by the damned goat.”

“Who yer supposed to be feedin’ from the sour look ye’ve got.”

He shrugged. “Ma said ta, but….”

“But yer feud wi’ Nanny is the stuff o’ legends.” Cinnie smiled again. “Here, Bean. I’ll an’ help. Then ye can come inside to help. The feast is only a day away. The more hands the better, lad.”

He fidgeted.  

“Did she chase ye off again?”

He nodded, blushing. “She dinnae wan’ me te take anythin’ fer the fair folk.”

“Ach, well. She’s been worried we won’ have enough. C’mon. Le’s go find yer Caraid.”

She took his good hand and led him around back. She didn’t so much help him feed the old goat as she talked to him while she did it herself. By the time they finished, Caraid appeared, just as Cinnie predicted she would, and contented herself with trying to trip her human by affectionately rubbing against his legs as he paced around telling Cinnie about his latest adventures, lamenting his mother’s stinginess with the food, and complaining about the sling Cinnie made him put back on.

When they finished tending the goat, who, predictably, tried to knock Ben down every time he got anywhere near her, Cinnie coaxed him back to the front of the house with the promise to help with his mother, too.

“She’s not gonna let me ha’ anythin’ though,” he protested.

“Ye le’me worry about tha’, Bean,” she replied as she headed inside.

After a while he peeked around the edge of the open door. Cinnie was talking to his mother as they dumped some things in the big pot. Cinnie caught him looking and tipped him a wink right before she pointed out something on the far shelf. Once his mother was engaged in conversation with her beneath it, Cinnie waved at him.

He grinned and dipped back inside to quickly stuff his pockets. 

Then he and Caraid headed for the wood. 

***

By the time the Winter’s Sleep was drawing to its end, things had improved a bit, to Ben’s way of thinking. And he didn’t necessarily credit the meals he left out for the faeries who might live nearby. But he didn’t discount it either.

The weather had turned fair after the lean meal that marked the clan’s second harvest celebration, and in addition to a fine end to the harvest season, the local game practically walked right in the front doors of the hunters, fish nearly lept into their boats, and foul might as well have dropped out of the sky right onto the dinner tables of his people. It had also been a warmer winter than any of them could remember.

His arm was still in a splint, but it was no longer bandaged up. He’d left the sling behind as well. And while he thought that between Daira, his mother, and Cinnie, he’d never been so fussed at in his whole life as he had since he’d broken it, he could finally use it without much pain. He’d climbed up on their roof that very morning, to talk to Caraid. Not that he’d admitted to it when asked where he’d been. 

“Oh, ye know … aroun’.”

“Alrigh’, Bean,” his mother said to his vague answer. “I need one of ye lads te go to Moibeal’s. Balgair got more birds than they can use. She offered some already plucked for the soup for the feast.”

He grinned. “I’ll go!” he replied quickly.

“Are ye sure ye can carry things, Bean?” she asked. “It’s bound ta be heavy.”

“Ach, I’m fine! I keep tellin’ ye.”

She gave him a piercing look. “Maybe ye should find Osheen….”

He pretended like he hadn’t heard her. “Be back soon!” he called and dashed out the door. 

After the way she’d been about his broken arm, he didn’t even want to think about what she’d be like once he went off on a real hunt, and he most especially shuddered to think what she’d be like once his father started taking him along to fight. She was going to have to get used to the idea that he was going to get hurt sometimes. Besides, he wasn’t about to let Osh take on the job of going to Balgair’s. 

Aila might be home.

His face felt suddenly hot, though he couldn’t have said why. 

When he approached their doorway, he saw Balgair’s youngest daughter, who was a bit older than him, brushing dirt out their door with a straw broom. Her dark hair fell in tight ringlets over her shoulders and her bright blue eyes sparkled when she glanced up. “Beathan!”

His neck and ears heated.

“Aila,” he said with all the dignity he could muster. He drew himself up to his full height, too. He’d been smallish for his age only last year, but since the spring he’d, as his mother liked to say, shot up like a sprout, and now he’s was as tall as Osh, and he was rapidly catching up to Angus. 

Aila beamed a sunny smile at him and his face split into a grin of his own. “How’ve ye been?” he asked, suppressing the urge to fidget with the edge of his tunic.

“Good.” For some reason entirely mysterious to Beathan, she giggled. “Tired of cleanin’ up for the feast.”

“Mmm,” he said with a sage nod, because he couldn’t come up with anything else. 

“What’re ye doin’ here today? I haven’ seen ye in ages.”

He mentally cursed the boots his mother had made him wear because he really wanted to dig a toe in the dirt. “I … um … Mam sent me ta see abou’ some birds, I guess.”

“She’s gone off to Enaid’s. She’ll be back in a bit though.”

“Oh. I … I’ll come back then.”

She smiled shyly at him. “Do ye still need to go get the mistletoe for yer hearth like ye always do?” 

“They wouldn’ let me.” He shook his head. “Alastair thought he saw one o’ the big cats in the wood an’ she still thinks I cannae use both hands.”

She pointed to his splint. “Does it hurt much?” 

“Ach, no.” He waved dismissively with his splinted arm to make his point. “All of ‘em put up a stink or I’d a gone anyway.”

She smiled again and stepped closer. “Yer so brave.”

He didn’t think his face had ever been so warm. But he grinned anyway. “I try ta be.”

“I wish we had some mistletoe.”

He squared his shoulders. “I could go get some.”

“Won’ yer mam get after ye?”

He waved his hand again. “Ach, she won’ know.”

Aila giggled again. “Only if yer sure….”

Ben was already headed in the direction of the forest. “I’ll be back before yer màthair! With the mistletoe!”

***

The best place to enter the wood happened to be near Daira’s cottage and he’d nearly gotten caught by the wisewoman before he could disappear into the underbrush. But one of the things Ben had learned in the last few months, as he’d done his best not to be slowed down by his injured arm (or his mother and the rest who kept after him about it), was stealth. 

She’d heard something though, because she peered at the forest’s edge for a few moments. Daira took a step in his direction, but stopped abruptly. “Caraid!” she exclaimed. “Come to chase some squirrels, have ye?” She stooped to pet the cat. “Ye stay outta the wood. I heard the howl of the cù-sìth las’ night.”

Caraid simply meowed and got up on her hind legs, offering her head for more petting.

Ben grinned. He could always count on Caraid to know when he needed her. He was also pretty sure, tales of a faerie death dog or not, Caraid approved of this excursion, because if she didn’t, he knew full well that, instead of helping, she’d be chasing after him and tripping him up. He crawled along on the ground until he was far enough away that his blond hair wouldn’t be seen through the branches. 

Once he was sure he’d avoided detection, he got to his feet and used his good hand to brush himself off. It was strange that it was warm enough that there was no snow clinging to the ground, even here in the shade of the wood, but it was nice, too. 

He squinted up through the treetops to get an idea of how much time he had to get what he came for and get back to Aila with her mistletoe. His face pulled immediately into a frown. It had taken him longer to sneak over here and get into the woods than he’d thought.

There was nothing for it now. He’d promised mistletoe and he aimed to deliver it. He peered around at the trees, frown deepening. He loved that it wasn’t as cold as it usually was this time of year, but the trees hadn’t even shed all their leaves. It was going to make finding the sacred plant even harder than usual. 

He combed through his most recent memories of excursions to find various plants for Daira and recalled seeing some mistletoe in the grove near his favorite fishing pond. Pleased he had a place to start, he got his bearings and headed confidently into the deeper part of the forest.

As Ben meandered through the familiar trees, he found himself glancing over his shoulder more than usual. It was almost like he wasn’t alone. But he didn’t see so much as a finch or squirrel.

He slowly noticed that his feet crunched over the leaves too loudly. The trickle of the stream that emptied into his pond reached his ears as well, even though he was still a good bit away. 

He tried to tell himself it was the time of year. Winter was always quieter. But.… 

Something felt … off.

He stopped abruptly. He caught the barest sound of velveted paws off to his left and his head whipped in that direction in time to see a sliver of movement … something like sun dappling that disappeared behind a deadfall. 

Ben held his breath, listening.

When his chest strained with the need, a sharp chilling bark split the air. He gasped and took off in the opposite direction of the sound. 

He leapt over downed trees, dodged huge rocks, brushed off the whipping he took from sapling branches, and went sprawling in an icy patch the shade allowed to hide in wait for him.

Using both hands to gain purchase, Ben scrambled to his feet, momentarily grateful that his arm was mostly healed and had the strength to aid his escape from the beast whose bark had frozen his blood.

He pelted through the forest, his thundering heart the only sound until another thunderous bark shattered the silence of the forest. Daira’s voice came to him suddenly: I heard the howl of the cù-sìth las’ night.

The hammering in his chest stopped for a split second as his heart squeezed with real fear. Every tale Daira had ever told him of the dangers the faerie realm posed played through his head. He should have run toward the village. You had two warnings from those creatures to get to safety. If it barked again it would take him. 

He glanced around the copse of birch trees he found himself in, frantically searching for any sign of the dark wolf with glowing eyes Daira had warned him about.

A branch snapped behind him. He pulled his hunting knife from where he kept it strapped by his hip and spun to face it, just in time to be caught in the back of the legs by a log he’d failed to see in his mad dash away from that harbinger of certain death. 

This time when he went sprawling, it knocked the breath from his lungs and the knife from his hand. It also set a cascade of stars in front of his eyes. 

A shadow fell over him.

He blinked rapidly, trying to clear his field of vision. If death had come for him, he planned to meet it glaring.

Instead of the wolf of legend, a wildcat perched on the log above him. When he met its eyes, it opened its mouth in a blood-curdling hiss. 

Ben forced himself to stay still, though what he wanted to do was run away as fast as his long legs would carry him. He took a slow careful breath and eased his hand away from his body to try to recover his knife.

The wildcat tensed like it would pounce, but didn’t. It opened its mouth again.

He expected another menacing hiss, but what came out of the creature was a scream, so high, so loud, and so unlike anything he had ever heard, he thought it must not be a regular woodland cat. It had to be another creature from the fair realms, even more deadly than the cù-sìth. He took a slow breath. Angus had told him about the scream of a wildcat. This wasn’t some monster from beyond the veil. If he stayed calm, he could make his family a gift of it’s pelt. He might catch trouble from his mother for having gone into the wood, but if he came home with this creature’s fur, she could hardly pretend he was still too hurt to do so much as carry some birds. And maybe she’d stop trying to talk his father out of letting him go with the men. He didn’t think his father took her fussing too seriously anyway, but a victory here would surely put an end to it. Besides, he had no interest in having being a meal for anything in this wood, from the faerie realm or otherwise.

His fingers brushed the handle of his knife and he had a momentary surge of hope that he could defend himself. The hope was short lived though. The cat wiggled its hindquarters, just like Caraid when she was about to pounce on some hapless squirrel, and screamed again.

So quick, he didn’t even see it move, the creature was on top of him, huge paws on either side of his slender shoulders, before he could get his fingers to close on his knife. Its breath was hot and fetid, like the smell of the end of the world. But no part of him was going to be its meal without a fight. 

He got his hands around its neck, the only thing he could think to do. But he’d hurt his arm again in his fall, so he didn’t think he could choke it. It confirmed his fears by pushing closer to his face. It screamed again, jaws snapping so close its teeth caught his hair. 

He pushed against it with all his might, but was sickly certain he wasn’t going to keep it from taking him for long. His bad arm started to give out and he screamed back in its face because it was all he had left. 

Hot saliva dripped on his face and another snap pulled his hair so hard his head jerked, and he cried out. Blood pounded in his ears, fueled by struggle and stark terror, but another rumbling bark pierced it. He knew he was as good as dead then, even if the cat didn’t finish him. 

Suddenly, a dark green blur barreled into the cat, knocking it off him with a heavy thump.

Ben didn’t pause for the space of a heartbeat to be relieved. He scooped up his knife and skinned up the nearest tree as fast and as high as he could. 

When he could go no further without bending the top of the slender silver tree over, he wedged himself against the trunk and tucked his knife back into its leather sheath so he could hold his throbbing arm against his chest. He squeezed his eyes shut until the worst of it passed. Then he looked down at the ground far below.

The blur that saved him from death-by-wildcat was most certainly a wolf, but bigger than any wolf Ben had ever seen or heard of, at least as big as the pony Drustan had picked up from traders last summer. The wolf was also the same color as the evergreen boughs that adorned their mantle and sills at home. It could only be the cù-sìth

But it had barked three times.

Ben’s stomach dropped at the momentary flash of horror that he must be dead, that the wet smacking sounds he could hear below weren’t from the beast eating a wildcat, but must be from it devouring his flesh, while his spirit simply hovered above the forest floor. 

Then his arm throbbed in time with the steady, if too quick, beat within his chest. He thought he might have rebroken it a little. He patted his good hand all over to assure himself he was still, in fact, solid. He patted the tree trunk for good measure. Once he’d assured himself that he hadn’t dropped dead from the faerie wolf’s bark, he angled himself forward to get a better look at it.

The gruesome stain on the forest floor, combined with the sounds of the wolf feasting on the remains of the wildcat, caused Ben’s stomach to do a slow roll. He leaned back against the tree trunk and closed his eyes. It seemed like forever before the slurping, crunching meal came to a close.

“Hullo, up there!” called a pleasant, gravelly voice.

Ben pried his eyes open and looked down. 

At the base of the tree, stood a man. Well, that was the best word Ben could come up with to describe the fellow with wild dark hair, and an even wilder beard, dressed from head to toe in leaves and moss. He couldn’t have been any taller than Ben, but he stood resting a small hand on the back of the horse-sized wolf now resting on its haunches beside him. 

“You’re the ghillie dhu,” Ben blurted.

The small man grinned up at him. “You can call me Barclay, laddie.”

“Hullo, Barclay,” he called down politely. “I’m Beathan.”

“Are ye, now?” The man seemed amused, though he wasn’t laughing. “I thought yer name was Ben. Or is that some other reckless young man I’ve heard about from other dwellers o’ the wood?”

Ben liked that Barclay called him a young man and not a child. He also wondered who might have told anyone his name, or how Barclay recognized him. Of course, he supposed he was the only person in the whole clan with blond hair. Other than Cinnie. And she was from Away. “No, tha’s me.”

“It’s gettin’ on toward dark, lad. Why’n’t ye come down so ye can get yerself home?”

Ben hesitated. “Um … because….”

“Don’t ye worry abou’ Maddy. She hasn’t got any mind to hurt ye.”

“Daira says … Daira’s our wisewoman and….”

“I know Daira, Ben. And she’s most wise. But ye needn’t worry about ole Maddy.”

“So, she doesn’t bark death for people?” he asked, starting to climb down. If the gillie dhu said he was safe, he was. He protected children in the wood, or so Daira had told him. And while he liked being called a man, he knew he wasn’t one. Not yet. If he’d had his first whisker, he’d have been off with the men today instead of sent on a kitchen errand by his mother.

Barclay chuckled. “She does. But na fer you, Ben. Your road ends far from here.”

Ben frowned, but didn’t ask what Barclay meant. He was too busy trying to get back down without losing his one-handed grip on the branches. He dropped back onto the ground right in front of Barclay and his giant pet, who now looked at Ben with glowing amber eyes that reminded him of his own.

He wanted to ask Barclay why her eyes glowed like that, but he was distracted by her surging forward and covering him with sloppy dog kisses that almost knocked him over. “Quit it!” he laughed, throwing up his hands. “Maddy stop! That tickles!”

“Let him breathe, Mads,” Barclay laughed.

The wolf obediently sat down next to her master, but looked very much like she’d like to slobber all over Ben some more. 

“Thank you,” Ben said, relieved the wolf was as obedient as she was enormous. He looked up at the darkening sky. “I should get home, I think.”

Barclay nodded his agreement. “We’ll walk you out, young Ben. That lynx isn’t the only one nearby.”

“Lynx?” he asked, falling into step between Barclay and Maddy.

“Tha’s its name. Ye won’ hear it spoken aroun’ these parts, but I know the names of all the creatures in the wood.”

As they walked along, Barclay talked of the many names of creatures, showed Ben all manner of herbs and mushrooms that were good for medicine or to eat, and smiled slyly whenever Maddy would lap Ben’s splinted arm.

When they arrived at the edge of the wood near Daira’s cottage, Barclay took a small cloth-wrapped bundle from a pouch amongst the moss and leaves that made up his tunic. “This is fer Daira. Tell her Barclay says hullo, will ye?”

Ben accepted the bundle. “I will.” He turned to go, but Barclay stopped him.

“Hold on, young Ben. I’ve gifts fer ye as well.” Barclay took a beautiful cutting of mistletoe from the same pouch and handed it to Ben. “This is fer you. You’ll also be happy te know tha’ Maddy healed up yer arm.”

Ben accepted the mistletoe with his good hand and flexed the other a few times, grinning when he realized it didn’t hurt one bit. He knew dogs licked wounds to heal them. But apparently a giant magic dog could take it to another level. “But why…?”

Barclay smiled. “Any lad who’d share his own feast wi’ my people, an’ daily risk his màthair’s wrath, is a friend to me an’ all the good fair ones who live in this wood.”

“Thank you, Barclay.” Ben started to reach his hand out, then pulled it back.

“Go on, lad. Maddy won’ mind.”

Ben grinned and scratched the cù-sìth behind her ears, though he had to stretch to do so. 

By the time he stopped, Barclay had disappeared back into the trees. Maddy gave Ben one more sloppy kiss up one side of his face, then turned and galloped back into the wood herself.

Ben secured the mistletoe in the pouch he kept tied to his belt for collecting herbs, pleased he could keep his promise to Aila, even if it was a bit later than he’d planned. Then he caught sight of Caraid and Daira standing in her well-lit doorway. He took off across the last stretch of grass, calling to both of them, excited to share his latest adventure, and to begin preparations for the holiday in earnest.

He was going to leave a proper feast outside for Barclay and his friends tomorrow.

No matter what anyone said about it.

When Hell Freezes Over

Welcome to another Twelve Days of Fic-mas. If this is your first time with us, you’re in for a paranormal holiday treat. The next twelve days will bring you tales of holidays past and present, featuring characters from The Arbitratus Universe, including those you may know from Always Darkest and Before the Dawn, as well as those from Fic-mas past. We hope you enjoy this year’s stories and that we can usher 2020 out in style.

The crowded streets made Ben wish he didn’t need to be in this part of Hell. 

But it was the winter solstice. He had to see Aife today. And they agreed to meet at her house this year. 

She could have come to his place, but his neighbor, Abatu, (a miserable demon, bent on seeing Ben picked up by Hell’s not-so-secret police as revenge for Ben’s lack of tolerance for regular invasions of his grounds by the other demon’s strange pets) had marked their Yule observance last year. It caused some trouble with the higher-ups, but Ben managed to keep Aife out of the inquiry. 

He wouldn’t let his distaste for the neighborhood she had been assigned keep him from upholding their centuries old tradition. If not for his influence, it would have been in one of the even lower levels. Besides, he had good news for a change. 

She’d be thrilled to hear that he’d won an appointment to an Office. Agents were rarely called back to Hell. Not that the job didn’t come with its share of problems. Working for Hell was working for Hell. But it was a damned sight better than his current job. 

His only other option to get out of his Reaping gig was to accept the offer to join Interrogation and Initiation. Stolas, who’d taken an interest in his career since his sorcery apprenticeship, was convinced Ben’s rhetorical gifts would be invaluable to the department. He’d been pressuring Ben to take the position for a while now. But even if Ben was okay with all the torturing and misery inflicted there (he wasn’t), Ba’al was in charge of them now. 

Even if it meant he got granted leave to go to Earth every damned weekend, he wasn’t going to put himself under that god’s command if he could help it. Besides, if Ben worked under him, it would only be a matter of time before the god put two and two together and realized every time one of his rare books went missing, the theft coincided with Ben’s days off.

Of course, he’d nearly gotten caught this last time. He would have if not for some fast thinking and the infestation of screets outside Ba’al’s library window. He hated those squealing little blighters so much he’d have felt bad about coaxing them inside anyone else’s house. But Ba’al wasn’t someone who got any of Ben’s sympathy on his best day. 

Ben snorted a laugh as he recalled Ba’al’s rageful howl upon discovering the noisy little pests hopping their coal-hot froggy bodies all over his favorite rug and burning sooty, oily holes through it. 

Ben let himself into Aife’s modest home and set the flagon of better wine he’d procured for the occasion, along with a sack full of dinner ingredients, on the table next to the door. “Hey, Aife! Sorry I’m late! One of Cerberus’s heads got tetchy and it was a nightmare to get across the bridge today!”

No answer but his voice disappearing into her silent house.

Huh.

“Aife?” he called again, starting to be worried.

“She’s out just now, Lord Ronoven,” came a timid voice from right by his elbow.

The slight, pale girl he’d saved from the Pit not all that long ago who acted as Aife’s serving girl, had appeared as if by magic. He hated that she’d needed a rescue. She was practically a child. 

“Hey, Anabell.” Ben offered a friendly smile. “I’ve told you, unless we’re out around other demons, it’s just Ben, okay?”

“That wouldn’t be proper, sir.”

“I don’t know if Aife’s told you all that much about me, but I’m not too worried about what’s proper. And I’m definitely not into all that ‘my lord’ and ‘sir’ nonsense.”

Her lips flickered in what might have been a smile, but it was gone before he could be sure. “I’ll try to remember that … B–” Her hand flew to her mouth. “I’m sorry, sir. I just can’t.”

He chuckled, more to let her off the hook than anything. He hated that her life had conditioned her to expect bad things to happen if she didn’t behave a particular way, and hated even more that when it ended she’d found herself in Hell and had all her worst fears confirmed. “That’s alright. Maybe someday.” He looked around the dim house. “So, Aife went out? She must’ve forgotten what day it is on Earth.”

Anabell shook her head. “Oh, no, sir. She was most upset. Mostly because of the day, I believe.”

“I know it’s hard for her sometimes.” Ben frowned thoughtfully. “That’s one of the reasons we always get together.” He looked around again, searching for an answer to his friend’s unexpected absence. “I wonder what happened.”

Anabell shifted from one foot to the other, her eyes downcast as they so often were, no matter what Aife or Ben said. They might see her role as servant as a cover that kept another tender soul out of the Pit, but she obviously saw it as a continuation of her life Above. She hummed a small sound of distress, but didn’t speak openly.

Ben ducked his head to meet her eyes. “Anabell, do you know where Aife went?”

She danced a few steps back on her toes, but finally looked at him. “To walk in the cold, sir.”

Ben swore under his breath as his whole body tensed. “She went to Niflhel? After that last card game, Loki would love to see her go astray down there!” he exclaimed, more to himself than to Anabell. “Doesn’t she know demons are lost in the mist all the time?”

The girl stepped back further at the taut edge in his voice, but didn’t look away from his face as she usually did. “Oh, no, sir! My lady would never be so foolish. She was upset, not daft, sir!”

Ben smiled slightly. The eye contact and correcting him represented real progress toward this kid seeing herself as more than someone else’s property. He forced his voice to carry its usual reassuring tone so he could tease out where Aife had gotten to. “Well, that’s a relief. It would be a huge help if you could tell me where to find her. Do you know for certain where I might look?”

“Oh, yes, sir!” Anabell grinned. 

How pleased she looked at the prospect of helping someone she saw as a ‘master’ tugged at his heart, and made him vaguely furious all at the same time. Still, this wasn’t the moment to work on that. Instead, he said gently, “Wonderful. I knew you’d be able to sort me out. Where did she get to, if she isn’t trying to grey my hair by taking off for the Northmen’s perdition?”

“Cocytus, sir,” she replied, clearly expecting him to be pleased.

He kept himself from swearing again, but it took a considerable amount of will, combined with a desire not to frighten the girl. He needed answers before he took off to find Aife in one of his least favorite places in all the Netherrealms. Not that he’d been there before. He hated the very idea of it. “Why in the name of all that’s unholy would she go there?”

“My lady said it was the one place her own wailing would go unnoticed, sir.”

Ben chewed his lip. Aife wasn’t especially prone to big emotional displays. If she’d said that much to Anabell, something truly terrible must have happened. He’d know better where to look if he had some specifics. “Do you know why she was so upset?”

Anabell shook her head, but brightened after a moment. “Wait here!”

She’d forgotten to call him ‘sir’. That was real progress. His satisfaction at marking their influence on her evaporated when she ran back up the hall with a familiar green scroll. A rejection slip. 

Aife applied for a job? Without telling me? What is going on with that woman?

“I don’t know what it says. I never had my letters. But she came home with this, mumbling about the holiday, all manner of sad.”

“May I?” Ben reached out a hand.

She bowed slightly when she handed it over, so Ben might have had to amend his estimation of her progress, but this time when he swore it was none too quiet and she didn’t back away. Instead, she asked with open curiosity and concern, “What is it?”

“Apparently the lady of the house applied for a position in Reaping, and didn’t get it. Why the Hell…?”

“I can help with that!” the girl beamed. “She spoke about it over dinner the other night!”

“I’m glad to hear you’re joining her for dinner now instead of insisting on waiting on her,” Ben said. He almost wished he hadn’t when she bit her lip, but she slipped him a genuine grin that said she was glad about it, too. “What possessed her to apply with Reaping? She knows it’s a nightmare. Or she should. I’ve told her often enough.”

Anabell bobbed her head in agreement, as her concern for her mistress reasserted itself. “She said as much, sir. But she also said she wanted a way to spend some time Up Top. She hasn’t been able to see about her family since … well, since you took her.”

Of course. It’s been hundreds of years since I could do anything about that. Aife is still so attached to her kin … I should have seen this coming.

Ben handed Anabell back the scroll. “Thank you. That explains a lot.”

“Cocytus is no place for my lady to be wandering around.”

“Don’t worry. I’ll fetch her home for you.”

“You’re going there, too?” she asked with a shrill climb at the end. 

Ben could read her fear about something happening to both of them. If neither of them came back, she’d surely find herself back in the Pit by day’s end. He offered a reassuring smile that he mostly had to fake. “Don’t worry. I’ve come back from tougher places than Cocytus without so much as a scratch. We’ll all be sharing mulled wine together before the Earth finishes turning its day Above.”

“Are you certain?”

“I am.” And he was. But Anabell looked as uncertain as it was possible for a girl to be. “Look, why don’t you work on dinner? That way, there’ll be something to warm us when we get back.”

Anabell picked up the sack full of food. “Of course! I’ll start right away!” She dipped into a curtsey before he could tell her not to and ran up the hall toward the kitchen.

Ben let himself out. He was halfway down the walk when Anabell burst out of the door. “Sir! You’re not dressed for the cold! Do you want to borrow a cloak?”

Ben turned. “I’ll stop home for one of my own. I have another stop to make before I go get Aife for you.”

Her eyes widened a bit in obvious surprise that he wasn’t rushing to her lady’s side. “Where?”

Ben took a deep breath, steeling himself for what might not be a pleasant side-trip. “The Royal Palace.”

He registered her shock at his response, but turned to leave. He had almost reached the street when she called, “Sir?” 

He didn’t think he had any more reassurances left in him, so he pretended he hadn’t heard her and kept walking. He stopped when Anabell’s voice rose in an actual indecorous shout, “Ben!”

He spun, unable to help a grin. “Yeah?”

“Be careful!” she exclaimed, parroting the thing she’d probably already heard Aife say to him at least a hundred times.

He smirked and offered his usual response. “Never.”

***

“You’re sure this is what you want?” the King asked in his rumbling baritone.

“If it pleases Your Majesty,” Ben said with a deferential bow.

“It doesn’t especially please me,” the King said levelly. “But fortunately for you, it doesn’t displease me either. It’s yours, and therefore you may see it taken care of in any manner you wish.”

“Thank you, Your Majesty.” He bowed again.

“I suppose you’d like this announced at the next gathering of nobles? Increase your social capital, as it were?”

Ben cleared his throat. “Um … Actually, I’d rather this stayed between us, Sire.”

The King stared at him until Ben thought he’d catch fire from the heat of it. After an interminable period, during which it took every ounce of poise Ben ever cultivated not to fidget like some damned kid, the King simply waved his dismissal. “As you wish, Lord Ronoven.”

Ben bowed deeply and backed out of the Dread Soverign’s office. He collected his things from the spacious foyer and headed up the street to see about a horse. The Ninth Circle was further than he wanted to go on foot. 

Besides, he wanted to collect Aife and get her home before the last hour of Yule passed. He supposed it didn’t matter, since they were on Hell’s calendar anyway. But it was important to him. Especially now. 

***

The ride was long to begin with, but as he had to make it listening to the wailing spirits flowing down the River Archeron, it might as well have been eternity. Just another reminder of the abject cruelty found around every corner in Hell. 

Ragged, shrouded figures, moaning and weeping, wandered among the rocks, some stretching out their hands to him as he rode past. He knew he’d be faced with Hell’s discarded and forgotten along the banks of the Infernal Rivers that emptied into the lake, but he hadn’t been prepared for the sight of them. It chilled him more surely than the frozen air.

Even though he knew how easy it would be to become lost, almost as easy as it would have been if he’d had to go hunting for Aife in Niflhel, he passed out what food, drink, and coin he’d brought to the souls brave enough to approach him. 

Perhaps he’d regret it, at least according to the small voice in his head, but he had plenty of experience ignoring it. And no amount of whispers from long-departed family members could convince him he’d regret it more than not doing it. Part of him expected to see Aife’s face upturned with the others, just to screw with him. 

But no such luck. 

He rode up to the cliff’s edge where the Fall of Tears emptied into the frozen lake itself. The closer he got to the end of the road, the colder he felt. But it had nothing to do with the temperature. If Aife had wandered away from the road, he had almost no chance of finding her. 

What if she hadn’t just left home to have a good cry? What if she’d given up hope and gone into the water? 

He’d never see her again. 

He glanced at the river. Colorless, half-formed souls flowed over sharp rocks and around bobbing chunks of jagged ice. Their collective lament rose to a crescendo in his ears, until it was all he could hear.

Sick certainty gripped him. Aife was gone. 

A lump tightened his throat and he couldn’t swallow past it. Stinging, watering eyes quickly followed. 

Damn it. 

He hated to cry. He’d rather bleed. His breath hitched against his finer impulses and his eyes overflowed, entirely against his will.

His rented horse seemed to sense his sudden loss of composure and wrenched its head to the side, almost yanking the reins from his hands. He pulled the mount to a halt and climbed off to give himself a minute. But instead of mastering his errant emotions, he got closer to breaking down. He tried all the usual measures to box up his feelings, but nothing helped.

He found himself drawn to the water’s edge. Despite everything he’d read, or been told, about this region of Hell, despite all the warnings, he let his feet carry him there.

This close to the water, he could make out distinct faces, though they all bore a resemblance to each other in their suffering. As he watched them flow past, a deep melancholy settled in his chest. He blinked when a face caused a flicker of recognition. 

He leaned closer to the water.

He imagined he recognized not just one face, but many. Though he’d checked every register he could access and never found any of his family’s names recorded there, he became convinced he saw his brothers, his parents, even Cinnie. Her face finally pulled the sob from him he’d been trying so hard to keep back.

Once the dam of his emotions broke, he could no longer restrain himself. He reached out until his fingers brushed the icy water. Perhaps he couldn’t save them all, but Cinnie floated in the shallows, stretching an ephemeral hand toward him. 

He’d almost broken the surface when the face he’d been so certain belonged to his sister-in-law morphed into a monster’s horrifying rictus of malicious intent. He stumbled back, but frozen hands broke the surface of the water and caught his cloak, pulling him forward on the slick ground.

“No!” he shouted, digging in and backpedaling for all he was worth. “Let go!”

His riding boots got drenched and the cold lanced through his whole body. The sadness he’d felt while still on horseback paled in comparison to what overwhelmed him now. A dreadful sorrow engulfed him, and with it, an all-encompassing torpor. Fighting the hands seemed too hard. 

What’s the point, anyway?” the souls moaned from the water.

“No!” he said again, but he could hear it had lost some of its conviction. 

A stiff, chilled hand closed on his ankle.

He suddenly remembered something he’d read about the Infernal Rivers and the Great Lake of Wailing itself. According to legend, sadness seeped into travelers until they threw themselves in the water to join those from whence the urge came. He wasn’t feeling this hopelessness because it was his, it was the magic of this special Hellscape invading his very mind. It wanted to claim him, as surely as the fires in the levels above.

In a wild effort to free himself from immediate danger, he flung himself backward. He fell, tangled in his heavy cloak. Cold hands caught his wrists. He bellowed an incoherent protest, struggling for all he was worth.

“Ben! Ben! It’s me!”

After his vision of his family in the river, he didn’t dare believe his ears, but he gasped, “Aife?”

“No, it’s one of the blasted kelpies this wretched place is full of rescuing you from itself,” came the half amused, half irritated reply.

The response was too purely her to be an illusion. 

He stopped struggling and extricated himself from his damp outerwear. When he got clear of his hood and met her eyes he thought he might cry with relief. Instead, he climbed to his feet and dusted himself off. He forced his expression into a deep frown and glared at her, more in an effort to regain his dignity than because he was upset with her. “Rescue me? I rode all the way down to the Ninth Circle to rescue you! After what Anabell said, I thought you’d taken a dive over not getting a job you shouldn’t have wanted to begin with!”

“Oh, Ben, honey, no.” She reached out to brush away the tears he’d already forgotten about. “I’d never do that.”

He ducked his head and used his sleeve to dry his face. “Then what the Hell are you doing down here? Other than trying to scare the afterlife out of me?”

Aife shrugged. “I was upset about getting turned down by Reaping, as you clearly discovered for yourself. And I just wanted a bit of contrast for my own emotions. You know, to put things in perspective.”

“Ah, for fuck’s sake, Aife!” 

She smiled at him. “Your Scottish is showing, lovey.”

The laugh that brought out of him startled them both. Smiling in the face of the magic of this place was one thing. Laughing was unheard of. He glanced around, just to be sure the sound hadn’t called any nearby creatures out of the shadows. Once he was certain it was still only the two of them, he smirked. “Usually. Especially when I’m around you.”

“Why are you? Around me, I mean.”

Ben snapped his fingers and the horse trotted obediently over to them. Ben held its bridle so Aife could climb up first. “Don’t you know what day it is?”

“Day?” she asked with a grunt of effort at climbing onto the tall horse’s back. “Since when do days matter here?”

Ben easily swung into the saddle behind her and guided the horse to turn around and nudged it to trot back the way they came. Now that he had found Aife, the wailing from the river receded into the background. “Well, they hardly ever do. But it’s Yule.”

“Oh!” She glanced apologetically over her shoulder at him. “I’m so sorry, Ben. I forgot.”

“Fortunately for us, I remembered. I left Anabell working on our dinner to give her something to do other than worry about her lady and the guy she still seems to think is royalty despite my many protests to the contrary.”

Apparently as oblivious of the souls in the river and the bone-chilling cold as he was now, Aife snorted a brief laugh. “How many times did she curtsey today?”

He encouraged the horse to pick up its pace. He wanted to get them home more quickly, lest the turning of the Earth deny them the actual holiday. “Only the once,” he grinned. “So we’ve made some inroads.”

***

Anabell had outdone herself with their meal. She had also not protested their invitation to join them and even remembered to call their guest Ben instead of Lord Ronoven, possibly owing to the bone-crushing hug she’d wrapped him in when he walked in the front door with Aife. She’d even slipped off to her chambers early without asking permission.

In front of the comforting illusion of a homey fire, both full of a rather large quantity of exceptional mulled wine, Aife produced a thick book, tied with a ribbon. “I forgot what day it was, but not that the solstice was coming up.”

Ben couldn’t tell her she’d gotten him a spell book he’d already liberated from a certain Hell-god’s library. If she found out he’d taken up that particular hobby, he’d never hear the end of it. So, instead, he grinned and pulled her into a hug. “Thank you! This is a rare one! How did you get your hands on it?”

She poured them each another glass of wine and gave him one of her signature cat-like smiles. “I’ve been known to strike a deal worth writing home about from time to time.”

“So, you’re not going to tell me,” he chuckled. 

“I am not,” she replied archly. “Well, then?”

He furrowed his brow in pretended misunderstanding. “Well what?”

She widened her eyes, obviously sure he was having a go at her, but not sure why. “You know very well what. We have a tradition to uphold, my Lord.”

He patted his pockets, then got up and looked under the cushions. “Where did the damned thing get to?” He stood and clapped his forehead with an open palm and looked appropriately stricken. “Ah, damn it. It must’ve fallen out of my pocket when we were at the Falls!”

“Oh, Ben! It’s okay. I was only teasing. You know the gifts have never been an expectation between us! And I’m so grateful you came after me today. It would have taken me forever to get home on foot. I would have hated to miss our feast!”

Ben’s calculated facade collapsed and he laughed. “Gotcha!”

She tilted her head in the expected question. 

“Your gift isn’t one that fits in any pockets. Nor is it one I could wrap.”

“Alright, oh Master of Expression, you’re just winding me up now. I can tell.”

He sat next to her again and took her hand. “Anabell told me about why you applied to Reaping.”

“It’s silly. I’m sorry. I should have said something to you instead of–”

“It’s not silly. You love your family in a way I could never hope to be loved.” She opened her mouth like she’d try to say something to counter his words, but he didn’t let her even begin. “And love like that deserves a chance to see the light of day. A chance to walk the Earth. So your gift, if you want it, if you’ll accept it, is that chance.”

She shook her head like she needed to clear it. “What are you saying, Ben?”

He swallowed hard. He wanted nothing more than to leave Hell behind, to walk on Earth again. To feel the sun on his face without also feeling like every second was borrowed time. But wanting something for selfish reasons was petty and small in the face of Aife’s love for her descendents, for people she had never met, and had no shared memories to bind them together. She loved them because they were hers. Ben thought, perhaps, if he’d had a wife, if he’d had children of his own, he might share the same fierce light that kindled in his friend’s eyes when she spoke of her line. But he didn’t. So, he would do what the love he did have told him he should.

“I won the right to appoint someone as an Agent for Hell, Inc.”

“Www…What?” she stammered.

“I won an Office position.”

Her head tilted again, this time in confusion. “My Yule gift is you saying goodbye?”

“Of course not. Well, sort of.” He cleared his throat to dispel the hoarseness in his voice. “I’m saying goodbye to you. Because I’m sponsoring you to the position.”

Her mouth worked a few times without producing any sound, but after a minute she managed, “But Ben, you want to go back to Earth more than anything. It’s the only reason you took the job in Reaping to begin with.”

“I can’t go,” he lied smoothly. “The privilege is to sponsor someone, not go myself. Ain’t that a bitch?” he asked lightly.

She sat perfectly still for another long, silent minute.

“Say something, would you?”

But she didn’t. She simply tackled him in a hug that knocked over the settee they were sitting on. Lying on the floor, he hugged her back, covering the wave of emotion that accompanied having done the right thing with a fond chuckle he was positive she wouldn’t guess was forced for her benefit. 

“So, you accept?”

“Of course I do! I … I’ve never … I didn’t think … You’re a wonderful man, Ben. Just wonderful.”

“Ah, I’m alright,” he said, blushing furiously. After a minute, he disentangled himself from her enthusiastic embrace and righted their seat. “You’ll have to leave for training on Earth before long.”

She let him help her up from the floor. “I can hardly wait … But … what about Anabell?”

He’d already thought about that. “She can come to my estate when you go. Between Gareth and I, we’ll find her something to do that keeps her out of trouble and as safe as I can make her.”

Aife bit her lip. “What if something….” She trailed off. 

He patted her shoulder. “You don’t think I’ve worked out how to have things keep running if something happens to me? I’ve been at this for centuries, Aife.”

“I didn’t mean … You better not let anything happen to you!”

He laughed more genuinely this time. “I’ll certainly do my best. Otherwise, how will I have an excuse to come Up Top and hassle you at work the way you have been with me here all these years?”

She punched him lightly on the arm. “Are you ever going to be serious? Even for a minute?”

“Maybe. But just for this next minute.” 

He refilled their glasses and handed hers back. He raised his own. “A blessed Yule.”

She touched the lip of her glass against his. “And many more.”

They drank in silence for a while. Eventually, Aife turned toward him again. “You have to promise me something, Ben.”

He raised an eyebrow. “Do I?”

“You do. When I’m not here all the time to get after you … You have to promise me you’ll be careful.”

He grinned broadly and tipped her a wink.

“Never.”

The Fire of Hospitality

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

The Fire of Hospitality

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Oh, that does it.

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

“Petra, language!” her mother snapped.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Alex is on a plane for Gstaad!”

“It’s his birthday present!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Her parents answered in unison, “Merry Christmas!” 

So fake, Petra grumbled to herself. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What about you? Taking any time off?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You’ve gotta have pie,” she agreed. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“In the flesh.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You gonna get in trouble if you do?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Oh, Petra.”

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

“Yeah.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Only one present?”

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

“So presents Christmas morning. What else?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What for?” Teddy asked.

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

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

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

Petra left Teddy on the sidewalk. 

She went into the building and found the collection box.

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

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

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

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

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

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

*****

Every Time A Bell Rings

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

Every Time a Bell Rings

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

“Want to talk about it?”

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

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

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

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

“I’ll bet.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Kind of a broad field.”

“Tell me about it.”

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

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

“Foster care?” Cy guessed.

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

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

He frowned. “How so?”

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

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

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

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

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

“I’m not going to hurt myself.” 

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

“Okay. You really want to know?”

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

“But it’s bad.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What happened, son?”

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

“And how do you feel about that?”

“I don’t know.”

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

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

“You seem pretty bothered, Clarence.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Imaginary.” 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You are doubting this trust.”

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

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

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

“Will he wake up?” Cy asked suddenly.

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

“What do you mean?”

“I don’t want to Fall.”

“What is … I don’t follow.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I’m so sorry for your loss, Cy.”

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

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

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

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

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

“What is it?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“And so…?”

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

“May it always be so.” 

*****