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.” 

*****

For Two Cents

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Authors’ Note: If you’ve been with us for any amount of time, you already know Aife. If you don’t she’s another demon in The Arbitratus Universe who is better than her supernatural nature. This story takes place during the holidays at the same time as the events of Always Darkest. You can read more about Aife there. You can also read more about the Christmas party happening in the backdrop of this story in The Twelve Days of Fic-mas Vol. II

For Two Cents

Aife pinched the bridge of her nose, blinking several times. “Ben was right. I’m finally going blind on paperwork.” 

Almost two years into running this office and she was still wading through her predecessors backlog. No wonder he got himself the final death over how he ran this place. She grumbled a curse at him under her breath. Not like anything she said, or wished, or even spellcast could reach him now anyway. 

She knew contract review was an important part of the job of an Agent. In fact, being better at it than many of her peers was what scored her this assignment and got her out of the backwater she’d been managing in the Aussie countryside. She was especially gifted at identifying individuals whose continued presence on Earth might benefit Hell. And her ability to craft offers for extensions or modifications made the humans under her supervision loyal and useful, not just to her job, but occasionally to her personally.

Once she was through all these old, unreviewed contacts of … what was his name again? She supposed it didn’t matter. The contracts she had overseen were already well organized and wouldn’t require review of anything other than the tabs on their file folder for date and category. She had to admit, for a guy who flew by the seat of his pants as much as Ben did, his advice when he’d gotten her the assignment above had all been excellent.

She picked up another contract from a pile that was finally dwindling and squinted at it. “I need a break.” She laughed. “Especially because I’m now talking to myself.”

She smirked just a little as she picked up her cellphone and hit his contact with her thumb. She was not surprised that Ben’s answer was a terse, “What?”

“Just calling to wish you a happy Yule, love.”

“Sure you are.”

“Well, if you’re going to be that way, work it is.” She heard him sigh. “You’re definitely going to be in town for the party, then?”

Another sigh, this one exaggerated, probably for her benefit. Then again, maybe not, he was really unhappy about her reminder earlier this week as it was. “I already told you, if I could leave town, I would. But I have other obligations.” He was silent for a second, but didn’t want to give her a chance to add anything to her previous list of specifications for his duties as the ranking noble in the area. “And I’ll meet the one I owe you. But I’m leaving right at midnight. Just so you know.”

“You’re no fun at all these days, Ben.”

“You know I’ve never thought the Hell bullshit was fun, so don’t start again. We’re supposed to be friends.”

“I’m sorry, love.” She actually sounded it. “I really was just calling to remember the day.”

He was silent for a minute, thinking about it.

“I’m sorry I snapped then.”

“I know how you feel about this. Don’t worry, I’ve brought in an exceptional Lagavulin that should soften the edges of the night for you.”

“Damn nice of you,” he said somewhat sarcastically.

“I was also calling to complain,” she admitted.

He laughed softly. “Paperwork?” 

It was a favorite topic between the two of them.

“You know it. I’m still reviewing contracts from Gorson’s reign of incomprehensible laziness.” Gorson, that was his name.

Ben laughed more audibly. “He was always kind of a fuck up. Sorry you inherited his pile of crap.”

“It’s kind of a nightmare. I’m almost to the end of it though.”

“I’m sure your own contracts are much more organized.”

“Don’t worry, Boss. I’ve followed all your advice. How do you think I’ve managed to stay alive up here all this time.”

His silence was more solemn this time. “That’s why I gave it to you. I wanted this job to be a gift, not a curse.”

“Don’t get all serious on me now.”

“It’s serious business. And you called me to bring it up,” he reminded her.

“I did not. I called to remind you of the holiday.”

“But you did bring it up.”

“That I did. Mostly because I’m stalling on more reading.”

“So set it aside, Aife. They’ve waited this long. What’s another night?”

She laughed. “I suppose you’re right.”

“It’s Yule. Go have a drink. Find some attractive company. Celebrate.”

“What about you? Fancy a drink?” Her meaning was both clear, and clearly teasing. But he’d been so serious lately, she wondered if he’d take it that way.

His silence said he didn’t get that she was joking. She could practically hear him blushing. Their relationship hadn’t looked like that in a long time now, but something about the fact that it had bothered him now. She suspected it had to do with the human friends he’d made. She’d have to get to the bottom of it soon. Maybe tonight. 

Ben cleared his throat. “I’m busy tonight.”

“It’s Yule! What are you too busy with that keeps you from meeting your oldest friend for your favorite holiday?”

“I’m actually meeting someone about an important Yule gift for a friend.”

“Am I this friend?”

“Not bloody likely. Making me show up for the goddamned office party.”

“You have a date. That’s what you’re up to, you just don’t want to admit it.”

He laughed, but there was a tight, embarrassed sort of sound to it. “I don’t. I’m meeting a bookseller. I think I might have located something really important to someone. I’m not shelling out until I hold it.”

“So you can do a spell to make sure it’s the right one?”

“Exactly.”

“I wouldn’t want to keep you then, lovey.”

There was another moment of silence. “I’ll be at the party, Aife. I wouldn’t cause you trouble by copping out.”

“Wouldn’t be the first holiday you left me high and dry,” she laughed.

“Huh?”

“Nothing, Ben. If you really can’t face it, I’ll don the suit myself. No one would blame you if you slipped out of town at the last minute.”

“I can’t. I have plans. Or I’d have been gone a week ago.”

“I honestly don’t mind my demon form at all. I don’t know why you’re so fussy about yours.”

“You don’t get to say a word about my demon form! You don’t mind yours because a giant green-eyed Kellas cat is … Adorable.”

“And sexy,” she added.

“No!” he huffed. “Okay, in your case, maybe a little,” he admitted. “Just because the King had the hots for you!”

She laughed. “I suppose I might have taken advantage of that.” She paused. “Goodnight. Good luck with your book.”

He hesitated. “Happy Yule, Aife.”

“And to you, love.” She ended the call, set aside her papers, and followed his advice.

***

When she finally took back up her duties with the contracts, it was Christmas Eve, and the Pit was abustle with preparations. She had only been back at it for an hour or so, cursing incessantly under her breath at the incompetent ass Gorson, whether he still existed or not. She probably shouldn’t have allowed herself to get so distracted on Yule, but Ben had made a good point about celebrating. And tonight would offer an amusing opportunity to settle an old score with him as well. Might as well finish up the last of this paperwork when she’d have something to look forward to at the end of it.

She was almost down to the last of the pile when a polite knock came at the office door. Her neck was getting stiff. It was a welcome distraction. “Come in!”

Ciara poked her head into the office. “Sorry to bother you.”

“It’s no trouble.” Aife smiled fondly. Her descendent looked so much like her daughter Rowan, it made her heart ache sometimes. She was still so grateful she’d stepped into the office when she had and picked up Ciara’s contact. She’d keep that child out of Hell forever if she could manage it. 

“The caterer is finally here. Artax needs some help with that Gate activation. And I just finished with the crew doing the decorating. Just wondering if you could come take a look and maybe fix Artie’s lousy circle casting before we’re overrun with Hell hounds.”

“Of course.” Aife rose, setting aside the contract she’d been about to give her attention to go see to the party arrangements. 

Once things were underway and she had her designated victim…er…noble… in his appointed place on the central dais, she got back to her paperwork. Ciara would come and get her if anything needed her attention. Like Ben trying to flake out early, she laughed to herself. And she’d go back out before midnight.

“Alright,” she mumbled, picking up the contact she’d set aside earlier. “Who do we have here?” She shook her head as she read the initial details. “Your name is John Smith. That wasn’t bad enough, you had to sell your soul, too?” She shook her head. “Let’s see what you got yourself into, Mr. John Smith. If that is your real name,” she said with a smile, no longer really caring that she’d picked up Ben’s habit of talking to himself while doing paperwork. “Good grief, your wife’s name is Jane? How are you even a thing?”

She continued to read through the usual hellish legalese that set up all the contracts she’d ever seen. “So, Mr. Smith, why did you sell your soul?” she mused. “Looking to gain an inch or two?”

She’d almost started to smirk when she came to the real reason for it. “Bone cancer? Oh, Mr. Smith.” And it hadn’t even been his own life. His youngest child had been diagnosed with a rare form of it. Inoperable. Metastatic. “Oh, honey.”

He hadn’t sold his soul for spare cash, or fame, or even a bigger dick. He’d sold it for his kid. Rose. She’d been expecting … Well, the usual selfish shit. But not a kid with cancer. As she read the detailed contract, the story got more heartbreaking. 

He’d been married twenty years. He and his wife had children late, had already mortgaged themselves to the gills to afford fertility treatments. And they’d tried everything to save Rose before he’d come to the office, right before she’d taken over, in fact. Two years. He’d sold his soul because everything else had failed. Three mortgages. Trips to Mexico and then Europe for experimental treatments. His whole 401K on local bullshit snakeoil charlatans, claiming they’d balance the cancer right out of her chakras with crystals they’d bought at the mall. 

His little girl was well now, thanks to Hell. Just in time for him to have to leave her. 

It was goddamn heartbreaking.

And there was nothing here to give her even the flimsiest reason to extend his terms either. He was a middle school science teacher for fuck’s sake. Quotas could have been the only reason to sign him to begin with. He had nothing to offer but another check box in the “Damned” column in the tally of souls coming and going from Earth. 

It made her mad enough, sad enough, to want to cry. 

But this was her job. So she kept reading. Oh, oh, no. Come on!

His contract was up tomorrow. Due on Christmas. What kind of asshole would arrange … She realized all at once that she hoped Gorson’s end hadn’t been quick. Here was poor John Smith, ridiculous name and all, with one night left on Earth, when all he had wanted was his little girl to have another Christmas. 

She pushed back from her desk suddenly. She needed to walk away from this for a while. 

She left the contract on the blotter again, and headed back out into the bar. She checked in with Ciara, made sure Ben was fed and watered, no matter how surly he was being, and rubbed elbows with the appropriate glitterati of the attending damned. Still, Smith remained on her mind. 

She had some latitude with regard to contracts, but not that much. Smith had nothing obvious to offer up in exchange for an extension. And she couldn’t just cancel the contract. Some Agents had enough rank to pull that off, but even then, there had to be a good reason. She had neither the rank, nor the justifications necessary to let him off the hook. 

When she couldn’t find anything else productive to do, she forced herself back toward her office. She’d reread the Smith contract. Maybe there was a little something, some wiggle room to not have him claimed on Christmas day. 

She was only half paying attention as she headed back toward her office after stopping off once again to make sure her guest of honor had enough scotch to keep him where he was supposed to be. The fate of John Smith’s soul still weighed heavily on her. But one of her staff stopped her. “So what do you think?” The demon gestured around at the crowded room.

“Everything looks great, Ed. You and Ciara have earned a bonus, no doubt.”

“Artie is still having some trouble with the Gate. Do you have time to…?”

“Of course,” she nodded. 

Aife put John Smith from her mind, reasoning there was probably nothing she could do anyway.

She took care of the minor difficulty reopening the portal out back, touched up her lipstick, then dove back in to her duties as the hostess. She proved time and again that troubleshooting problems (from the mundane issues with the radio she had one of her assistants manning to keep Ben informed about the guests, to the repeated magical ones with an interdimensional gate that just wouldn’t stay locked on) with skill and finesse were why she was one Hell of an Agent. She had drinks with important guests. Danced with a few visiting dignitaries from Below, and actually managed to enjoy herself a little as the night wore on.

She felt a little sorry for Ben, and brought him another drink, then headed back to the bar to procure one of her own. She was waiting for Ciara to fill her order when someone cleared their throat at her elbow. “Uhem, Aife, isn’t it?” 

She turned to find a plain middle aged man with thinning hair and the slight paunch of someone whose work was probably sedentary, accompanied by a woman who was a bit older, but still striking. Both were pale and nervous. “That’s me,” Aife answered pleasantly.

“I … um … my name is John Smith. And this is my wife, Jane.”

Aife’s heart sank. She hadn’t expected the Smiths to be here tonight. Contracted souls were always invited, but it was only ever the ones who were still fresh off the blood drying on the paper, still enamored with what they’d gained, who ever showed up. Or sometimes important people who knew they were in the market to renegotiate showed up just to remind the Office how valuable they were.

People with one day left on Earth typically wouldn’t be caught in the same area code. Those people were usually somewhere trying to find a way to hide from Hell, as if such a thing were possible. 

She forced a polite smile. “Nice to meet you, Mr. and Mrs. Smith.”

The man cleared his throat again. “Can we talk? Perhaps somewhere more private?”

It was the last thing on Earth Aife wanted to do, but she took pity on them. At least if they said their piece, there might be a sense of closure for the Mrs. “Let’s go back to my office.”

She led them through the crowd and let them in to her small, but well appointed office. She gestured toward the chairs in front of her desk and she sat down behind it, trying not to look at the contract still sitting on her blotter, mocking her. She’d just been congratulating herself on what an excellent problem solver she was, not a half hour ago. But here was a much bigger problem than a glitchy spell. 

And there was nothing she could do. 

Nothing. 

Might as well get this over with. “What can I do for you, Mr. Smith?”

“Please,” he began. “Call me Jack.” She merely nodded so he went on. “I’d like to talk to you about my contract.”

She nodded again, her face creasing slightly. She decided to be blunt. It seemed kinder than getting their hopes up. And if she was honest with herself, she really didn’t want to prolong this meeting. No wonder Ben was such a solitary demon. Dealing with the consequences of Hell’s actions on Earth was the type of unpleasant that never seemed to wear off. “I expected as much, but, Mr … Jack, I reviewed it today. The situation is quite straightforward. And I’m afraid I can’t be of much help.”

“I didn’t do this lightly,” he said, sounding defensive

She nodded. “I understand that. It’s your daughter’s life. It’s not like you gave it up for two cents like some border town yokel.”

“Pardon?”

“Classical reference. What I’m saying is, I get it. But there’s really nothing I can do.”

Jane’s chin quivered and her eyes were already filling. “Couldn’t you … I don’t know … tweak it a little … Change the terms…” Her voice broke, but she went on anyway. “Or cancel it?”

“I honestly can’t,” Aife answered plainly, spreading her hands. “Hell needs reasons for alterations to contracts, and you just don’t have any. Not that the higher-ups are going to find compelling anyway.”

John Smith was as near tears as his wife, but was valiantly trying to hold himself together. “I don’t suppose you could arrange just a short extension? Two weeks, just to get my family through the holidays?” Aife started to shake her head and reply, but he cut her off with a desperate, “Please, I just don’t want my children to associate Christmas with me dying.”

This sucks. 

“Mr … Jack, I told you, I already looked it over, just a few hours ago. There isn’t a damn thing I can do.” She swallowed. “Look, I’m sorry. I really am. But in order for me to do anything at all, Hell would need something more from you. And you just don’t have anything to offer.”

Jane sat up straighter, the signs of weeping gone from her suddenly firm voice. “What about me? I could sign a contract to give Jack more time.”

“I won’t do that, I’m sorry.”

“Why not?” the Smiths asked in unison.

“Because, as satisfying as it would be for you to walk out of here and spend another Christmas with your little ones, I could get you five years at best. And then where would your children be?”

“As if you care about our family!” Jane spat.

“I had a family once,” Aife said evenly. “So, I actually do. I won’t let you leave your children parentless just so you can kick this can down the road five years.”

Jack grew thoughtful. Something about Aife’s little literary reference had tripped a memory and he was trying to find the thread of it. “Alright. That makes sense.” He chewed his lip. “What would I need to do to get more time?”

Aife sighed. “You’d need to provide Hell with something of value. The more valuable the object or service or information, the longer the terms. But Jack, you teach science to kids. You don’t have means. You’re not political. And I have to assume you don’t have a vault full of cursed artifacts under that three bedroom ranch in Williston.” Both Smiths deflated a bit. “You have nothing Hell wants or needs. And the terms of your contract are ironclad.”

“I see,” the man sighed. “Is that my contract?” He gestured to the paper on her desk.

“It is. As I said, I’ve been reviewing it.”

“May I see it?”

She’d expected that. No doubt he wanted to pour over it from some loophole or fresh argument. She could hardly deny it to him. “Of course.” 

She slid the papers across her desk.

He picked them up and started leafing through them, eyes scanning the document desperately. 

It was hard to watch.

Finally, he set the papers back down on her desk with a heavy sigh.

“I’m sorry, Jack. I truly am. Believe me when I say it gives me no joy to send you away without a better resolution than advice to spend as much time with your little ones as you can before tomorrow. But my hands are tied.”

Husband and wife both started to cry, collapsing into each other’s arms. Uncomfortable, Aife looked away. She could hardly rush them out of here now. She picked up the contract to file it away, but instead began to reread it. It was better than watching the devastated couple in front of her.

“Wait a minute,” she said, quietly a first.

Then louder, “Wait just a damned minute. I’ve got something!”

“What is it?” Jack asked, wiping his eyes.

“Page Four, Paragraph Seven … You were supposed to initial it. But you didn’t.”

Jack just shook his head, blinking several times. He couldn’t even comprehend her words in his distressed state. Jane, however, blew her nose, sniffled, but managed, “What does that mean?”

Aife felt herself almost smiling. “Well, what it means is this contract isn’t enforceable. And if the Agent who stamped it was still in existence this would make sure he didn’t stay that way for long.”

Jack seemed to be mastering himself. “Say again?”

“It’s a small thing, but, as they say, the devil is in the details.”

“Does that mean…?”

“That depends. John Smith, do you contest the validity of the contract?”

“I…”

Aife prompted him with a gesture and an exaggerated nod.

“I do! Yes, of course I do!”

“Well, then, as the Agent in Command over this Office and its associated regions and obligations, I do hereby render this contract null and void due to a clerical error at the time of initial filing.”

Aife stood, reached for something on her shelf, and stamped the contract with a garish red-inked VOID across each of the pages.

“I … is that…?”

“Merry Christmas,” Aife grinned. 

“Thank you!” Jack got to his feet and reached for Aife’s hand which he then shook with understandable enthusiasm. “Merry Christmas!”

Jane stood as well, but her expression was more reserved. “What would have happened if you hadn’t noticed that?”

“He would have been collected,” she said simply. “But I did notice. You go have a happy holiday with those kids of yours now.”

“Thank you!” Jane exclaimed, finally realising it was truly resolved. She reached out to shake Aife’s hand as well, but stopped halfway there. “Wait. What about Rose?”

“You weren’t in breach of the contract. The error was on our end. Thank your lucky stars for disorganized demons. Since it was our fault, Rose will be just fine.”

“Oh, my God, that’s wonderful!” Jack exclaimed. 

Aife found herself suddenly being hugged by two joyfully weeping people.

“Thank you, Aife,” Jane whispered. “You’re a good person.”

Aife managed to disentangle herself from them. “Well, first of all, don’t let that get around. I’ve got a bad reputation to maintain.” She paused for the inevitable polite, slightly nervous laughter. “And second of all, you can thank my predecessors egregious lack of attention to detail. He was pretty slapdash about a lot of things.”

They were beaming now, drying their happy, relieved tears. “Now, if you two will excuse me, I best be getting back to the party. We’ll be wrapping up the formal part of the evening shortly and then the real fun will begin.”

“We’ll join you!” Jane said in a cheery voice.

Aife gestured at the grandfather clock in the corner. “You certainly are welcome to, but as I said, time’s getting on and, well, you two don’t seem like the orgy types.”

Jack blanched and Jane took a step back. He finally said, “There’s going to be an orgy?”

Aife grinned wickedly. “It would hardly be a Christmas party without one.” She laughed lightly. “You’re dealing with Hell, remember?” 

Both Smiths stammered in attempts at an adequate, if not quite worldly response.

Aife gestured toward a narrow door. “Here, let me show you out the back.”

After she’d let the two of them into the alley behind the bar, she passed back through her office on her way to oversee the conclusion to the night’s festivities. She picked up the contract and tipped it into her Outbox. 

“I’m not sure if this counts as a Christmas miracle, but I’ll take it,” she observed to the empty office.

She heard a crash from on of the back rooms and several voices getting very loud. 

“Now, if I can get through the rest of the night and stay on speaking terms with Ben, that really will be a miracle.”

She hurried back out into the bar.

*****

Failure at 40,000 Feet

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

Have fun and let us know what you think!

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

Merry Fic-mas!

Failure at 40,000 Feet

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Ow! Kid, c’mon, cut that out.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Oh, for f…” 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Another seat maybe?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I’m bored. And it’s fun.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He could …

He could be a vigilante.

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

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

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

He smiled.

He was going to need bigger sacks. 

*****