Peace Is A Lie

I really didn’t want to wake up.

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

But wake up I did.

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

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

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

Then I remembered.

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

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

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

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

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

“Right.”

Fucker.

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Thirteen? And You Thought There Were Only Twelve Days of Fic-mas!

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The Hearth of the Matter

Authors’ Note – If you’ve been with us on this blog for long, you know we can’t resist a Christmas surprise. Here’s a little scene that happened “off camera” in Chapter 28 of Always Darkest. From our family to yours, Happy Holidays, Merry Christmas, and may your 2018 end on a high note!

 

Chris paused in his reading to unbutton his shirt sleeves and roll them up. He sipped his coffee carefully. Ben had fixed it for him and when he’d raised his eyebrows at the bite of it, Ben grinned broadly. “It’s an American coffee.”

“Huh?”

“Like Irish coffee … but with bourbon.”

“What’d I do that earned you tending bar at five in the afternoon?”

Ben passed him the copy of A Christmas Carol he’d gotten as as a thank you gift recently, insisting that holidays were for fun, not for studying. Then he shrugged, chugging his own festive coffee with the enthusiasm of the damned. “Just because my night’s gonna suck doesn’t mean yours has to.”

Chris thought about questioning him more about what he had to go do later but decided against it. Ben seemed the sort of anxious that would just get him to clam up if he felt pushed in any way. Chris wasn’t sure he wanted hot alcohol and caffeine, but he also wanted Ben to try to relax, maybe just focus on the present instead of the future that had him tied in knots, so he just sipped at it slowly. Ben said he wasn’t worried his work tonight would be dangerous, just that he was sure it would be unpleasant.

Ben had been cooking since early this morning. Too early. Now the kitchen and dining area were approximately a hundred degrees. When Chris complained a while ago, Ben said he was exaggerating, but Chris was normally quite tolerant of the heat and he was sweating just sitting here reading.

Ben glanced up and noticed Chris’s quiet discomfort again as he pulled a steaming cake from the oven and set it on a trivet on their small counter. “It’s not that hot,” he laughed.

“Says the guy who’s primary residence used to be in Hell.”

Instead of his expression darkening like it normally might have at the mention of his status as a demon, Ben just grinned. “And now I live in the icy north side of it!”

Chris contemplated Ben from his spot at the table. “You certainly seem to have cheered up a bit.”

Ben slid a couple of cookie sheets into the oven. “Mal messaged me a picture of herself in her Christmas Eve church get up. She’s … She’s just so beautiful, Chris. Nothing much else seems to matter when I think of her.”

“She’s a lovely young woman,” he said agreeably in response to Ben’s slightly starry-eyed expression.

“I wish I could blow off work and see her tonight. I feel like I haven’t seen her in forever.”

“Didn’t you two go out for coffee yesterday?”

He shook his head. “That was a couple days ago. And Ted and Petes were there, too. So it hardly counts.”

“Petes?” Chris asked.

“Mal’s friend Petra. You know her from Saint Auggie’s right?” Ben knew Petra was a decent student, but not the nose to the grindstone sort that Chris really enjoyed working with.

He nodded. “Her brother Alex was a tremendous Latin student. Petra … not so much.”

Ben grinned and rubbed his hands together in an exaggerated plotting sort of gesture. “Cool. Something else to give her shit about.”

“She’d actually be quite brilliant, but she’s terrible at turning in her homework. Not unlike some other people I know this last term.”

Ben laughed and brushed absently his face, leaving a streak of flour all over one cheek. “I turned it all in, even when Mal’s magic knocked me on my ass. I just needed a couple of extensions. Thanks for those, by the way, Professor.”

“You’re welcome,” he said magnanimously. Then he joked lightly, “I don’t plan to be so forgiving next term. Especially not to my research assistant. So if you could go ahead and not fall for anyone else who’s going to give you magic mononucleosis that’d be ideal.”

Ben laughed. “That’s a promise I can keep!”

Chris raised an eyebrow. “You have been honest with me, right? You really are okay now?”

“Yes, Dad,” Ben said sarcastically with an amused roll of his eyes. “Trust me, if proximity were still going to kick the crap out of me I’d’ve been in bed all last weekend after we went to the movies.”

“Are you sure you aren’t really a teenager, Ben? Making out at the movies …”

“We didn’t! I’m …” He turned back to his mixing bowl. “I do not kiss and tell.”

“So there was kissing?”

Ben flushed. “Damnit, Chris! Quit picking on me! Like you’ve never had a girlfriend!”

Chris was about to respond that it wasn’t the having a girlfriend, or even whether or not they’d kissed. What was interesting to Chris was that despite having lived on Earth for nearly two decades when he was human, and in Hell for more than two millennia, he still seemed very much like a boy in so many ways. Especially since he’d met Mal. It was like some sort of spiritual reset. Chris would have bet all the considerable funds he’d accumulated over the years that the Ben he was living with right now was pretty similar to the human boy he’d been before he found himself in Hell. He might have said so, too, but the doorbell rang just as he decided how to phrase it.

Ben looked at the time on their microwave. “I swear if Aife sent the car this early, I’m gonna burn down that bar.”

“I’ll get it,” Chris offered, and went to answer the door.

Assuming it was some friend or colleague of Chris’s, Ben focused on his work. He needed to get the cookies out and cooling, make the glaze for the spice cake, and write out reheating instructions for the meal he’d made earlier that would serve as Christmas dinner for his roommate while Ben was gone to Mal’s. He couldn’t stand the thought of his best friend spending Christmas, not only alone, but eating Chinese take-out from the place up the street they were already both on a first name basis with.

He was wiping more flour from his hands on the front of the apron he’d found in Chris’s utility drawer, when he felt a gentle tap on his shoulder. Thinking it was Chris, trying once again to get him to ease up on his maniacal cooking, he half turned, “I told you, man,” and before he could get any further, her was wrapped up in long graceful arms, with soft lips covering his. When he recovered from the shock of ‘suddenly Mal’ and they came up for air, he grinned, “Wow! That was a nice surprise. I thought you were Chris.”

She backed up a step, dusting some flour off her lovely green velvet dress and tipped him an amused half-smirk. “You guys are a lot closer than I thought then.”

He laughed and shook his head. “I mean, I like the guy, but we’re not that close.”

She laughed lightly, mostly at the way his neck and ears had turned red upon being surprised with a kiss, or maybe it was because that kiss had a witness, who was sitting back at the table, nose buried in his book, studiously pretending he didn’t see any such thing. The flush spread to his cheeks when she observed, “My God, you are absolutely adorable right now.”

He couldn’t figure out why she’d think so. He was wearing an apron, and it was so covered in flour from his messy culinary efforts, he thought he could easily have been mistaken for one of the shades in Chris’s holiday reading. He was sort of sweaty, because no matter what he said to Chris, it was hotter than the seventh circle of Hell in here. And his hands were all sticky from just scooping the cookies. He flashed a smile, big enough that both dimples showed. “I was going to say something similar, but adorable just doesn’t cut it. You’re stunning.”

She curtsied. “You like the dress? It was my Goodwill find of the century.”

“Oh, yeah, I mean, the dress is great, but I meant more in general. And sort of always.”

“Even in my gross sweatshirt?” Her eyes twinkled.

“Your sweatshirt isn’t gross … it’s … well loved,” he said, almost like he was defending it to her. “Not that I’m complaining, but what are you doing here, other than catching me trashing the apartment? I thought you had to go to church and stuff.”

“Well, I mean, yeah, I still do. We’re on our way actually. I just wanted to stop and make sure you were still coming over tomorrow, and, you know, remind you that I always get up early on Christmas, so you can come over as soon as you want to.” She looked like she was somehow worried about his answer, like she just didn’t know if she should expect the holiday they’d planned.

Ben swallowed hard at the look in her eyes, even though her lips were smiling. All she wanted for Christmas was to spend it with him. That was so clear, so sharp, it cut him a little. “I … of course I’ll be there, Mal. I told you I would be. I promised, even. I would never break a promise to you.”

His voice was so sincere, his expression so sweetly concerned with reassuring her, she leapt into his arms again and kissed him soundly. It went on for several minutes. When she pulled away, he wasn’t blushing any more, but he looked rather stunned. “I can’t wait to share Christmas with you, Ben.”

He cleared his throat. “I … um … me, too.”

“I love it when you get all monosyllabic. Then I know I’ve really made an impression.” She winked playfully, breaking the almost serious mood from a moment before.

“Then I must be inarticulate at least a hundred and seventy-two percent of the time.” He chuckled and ran a flour-covered hand through his already tousled hair.

“You do know you can’t have more than a hundred percent of a known quantity, right?” She paused. “Well, sometimes you can have more than a hundred percent, but only when you’re comparing a new larger quantity to an existing small quantity, like if you get a raise. Actually, you can even have negative percentages.”

Ben raised both his eyebrows. “Christmas Eve is not the time for one of our math tutoring sessions. I won’t have time to do the homework before I see you again, Teach.”

She laughed and leaned in to kiss him on the cheek again. “Okay, I’ll let you off the hook this time, Brody. But just wait until break is over. Nose to the grindstone. We’ll have to see each other every day or something. Can’t have you getting another C in Math.”

“I may be a lost cause doing much better than that, but I think it’s worth putting in the time.”

She glanced at the clock on the microwave. “I should probably get going. My dad and uncle are waiting for me out there.”

“Um … okay.”

She took both his hands and they just stood like that for a minute, looking at each other fondly.

“I’ll miss you,” he said suddenly.

“You could come to church with us,” she hedged, hoping he’d decide to come spend the evening with them.

He shrugged, blushing faintly. “I’m not a really a ‘church’ kind of guy.”

Undeterred, Mal tried again. “We could pick you up after and go caroling or something.”

Ben hesitated. An evening of singing, wandering the snow covered streets … It sounded like the sort of holiday memory he’d love to make with her. Just forgetting about everything and going with Mal would be … Heaven.

“It’ll be fun,” she said in a joking, but still cajoling voice.

Ben grinned and looked like he was about to accept. Then Chris spoke and Ben’s face fell like someone had dashed cold water over him on an already freezing day. “Don’t you have to work at the pub this evening?”

“Shit,” he mumbled. He’d totally pushed the obligation out of his head at the sight of her, just like he had a little bit ago when she’d sent him that picture. Damn it all. “He’s right. I do have to work.”

Mal did an admirable job of hiding her disappointment. She wrapped an unselfconscious arm around his waist. “That’s okay. I’ll get to see you all day tomorrow.”

Ben cleared his throat a little nervously. “Um … yeah. Definitely. I told you I’m your Christmas present, right?”

“Having everyone I care about under one roof for Christmas would be about the best present ever.”

Her smile was so sweet and sincere, Ben almost forgot about how unpleasant he anticipated his evening was going to be. “I may have gotten you something else, too.”

“You didn’t have to get anything, Ben!” She sounded like she meant it, but her eyes were scanning the apartment anyway. “It that it?” she asked, pointing at the little gift bag sitting on top of the bookshelf by the door.

“Maybe,” he hedged with a grin.

She dashed across the apartment to pick up the bag by it’s sparkling ribbons and Ben was irrationally convinced she was going to break an ankle in her delicate, stilt-like silver heels. But she jogged back to him carrying it like she was in her running shoes. That was something he’d never understand about women. How in the hell did they function, not just in shoes, but in shoes that looked more like torture devices?

“No peeking!” he said instead of commenting on the skill of wearing shoes like an actual adult.

“If what’s inside is nearly as pretty as the packaging, I may faint,” she said, looking it over, her curiosity already killing her. It was terrible to give someone who considered themselves a scientist, or at least one in the making, a puzzle as tantalizing as an unknown package to investigate.

“It would have to be awfully pretty to get even close to adequate as a gift for you, Mal,” he said quietly. Then he flushed crimson. “That is maybe … no, definitely, the cheesiest thing I’ve ever said.”

She hugged him suddenly, forgetting Chris was even in the room. “First of all, that’s very sweet. And second of all, I sort of like it when you’re cheesy.”

Not blushing any less, but grinning much more, Ben pulled her in tighter, realizing the feel of her against his chest was the most peaceful thing he’d experienced … maybe ever. “Well, if you’re going to let me be cheesy …”

She laughed. “Don’t get carried away.” She released him and stepped away. “My dad and uncle are waiting. I should go. I just wanted to see you and make sure you were still coming over tomorrow.”

“I’ll walk you to the door,” he said, reluctant to end his unexpected time with her, especially as the hour he’d have to go over to Aife’s bar drew nearer. As they walked toward the door, Ben called over his shoulder, “Hey, Chris, when the timer goes off, would you pull the cookies out of the oven?”

“Absolutely,” Chris replied, smiling fondly at the two of them. He didn’t know quite what to make of this budding romance, but he did know that these two currently looked very happy. And Ben looked truly peaceful for a moment, his day-long nerves about whatever he had going on this evening that had him running around the kitchen like a whirling dervish all day momentarily forgotten.

Arm and arm with Ben on the way to the door, Mal asked, “Cookies? What kind of cookies?”

“The ones I gave Ted the recipe to. You liked them, remember? Snickerdoodles,” he answered and she was overcome with a case of the giggles. “What’s so funny?” he asked with mock indignation

“That’s the most ridiculous name for a cookie I think I’ve ever heard. I always forget they even exist so every time it’s like a lovely surprise. I love it!”

He smiled as he turned her toward him at the door. “What I love is how excited you get over little things like the name of the cookie.”

“Then you are going to love watching holiday movies with me tomorrow. Because my dad says I’m a nut. I had him and Uncle Davi in hysterics all afternoon doing dvd commentary.”

Ben had almost forgotten about her uncle. In all probability he was going to be spending tomorrow with not just one but a couple of angels. Instead of dwelling on it, he focused on Mal. “I’m sure I will.”

She stepped closer. “I love how much you like to cook.” She thought maybe he blushed a little more but he also seemed pleased.

“Cooking is … home. To me, I mean.”

“Home? How so?”

“I don’t know … Just … When I was growing up, I was always around the cook fire.”

“There was a fire in your kitchen?”

He paled just a little, but he was covered in flour, so Mal didn’t notice. “I mean … um … We had a wood cookstove. My mom was kind of a traditionalist.”

“That’s adorable.” He looked like it was such a fond memory that she refrained from asking why they weren’t still close.

“My sister-in-law, too. And man, could she cook. I was always at her and my brother’s house, under foot, trying to eat them out of house and home.” He looked away from her face for a second. When he looked back, his smile was firmly back in place. “That’s the most at home I ever felt, at the family hearth, so to speak. I think that’s why I like to cook so much. And the winter holidays is when it means the most to me, I guess.”

She reached up and brushed a little flour off his cheek. “So home is where the hearth is?”

He grinned this time. “Well, in Spain they call the fireplace el corazón del hogar.”

She blinked at him. “I’m not exactly failing Latin, and my French is excellent but I’ve never taken any Spanish at all.”

“It means home’s heart.”

“That’s beautiful,” she said.

“I’ve always thought it was interesting that the center of the home is the hearth, and our hearts are kind of the center of us.”

“Are you about to give me an etymology lesson? Because I don’t want to do any homework tonight either.”

“Perish the thought. They aren’t etymologically related anyway. So you’re safe. It’s just a happy coincidence.”

“If I thought it meant I could stay longer, I’d take a language lesson even if you had to fudge the whole thing.”

“You better go though. I feel like being late for church is probably frowned upon, tonight especially.”

She shrugged. “I only really go because it’s important to my dad.”

“Still. I know you wouldn’t want to disappoint him. And I know I don’t want to be the reason why you do,” he laughed a little nervously.

“He’s going to love you, Ben,” she said seriously. “Don’t you dare chicken out on me tomorrow just because you’re worried about meeting Dad. He’s nice. I promise.”

“I’ll be there. Bright and early,” he said solemnly.

She kissed him again, then wrapped the ribbons of her gift bag around her wrist and opened the door. “See you in the morning!” she called brightly.

“No peeking!” he called after her.

When he walked back toward the kitchen, Chris raised his eyes over the top of his book, and Ben could see that he was suppressing a laugh. “What?” he asked wryly.

“Nothing,” he snickered.

“Chris,” Ben said in his best mock-stern professorial voice, cultivated over the last year of being Chris’s assistant.

“It’s just … that’s a lovely shade on you.”

Ben frowned. “Huh? Shade?”

“That pink lipstick all over your face. It’s definitely your color.”

Ben reached up and touched his mouth. Yeah, that was Mal’s favorite lipgloss alright. It tasted like raspberries, sort of. He felt the rest of his face. His hand came away covered with flour and a little bit of sticky pink gloss. He grinned and shook his head. They must’ve painted quite a picture standing there smeared with cookie leavings and lipgloss. No wonder Chris was laughing at him.

“I’m one of those guys who can get away with wearing any color,” he said with a shrug. A car honked from out at the curb. Ben went to the front window and looked out. He started taking off the apron and dusting the flour out of his hair and off his face. “You got the cookies and stuff?” he asked Chris, sliding on the pair of shoes he grudgingly kept my the door.

Chris nodded. “Is that your ride to … work?” he finished, not sure what else to call whatever it was Ben was obligated to do this evening.

“Yeah. I’ll be back as soon after midnight as I can be,” he said, putting his wallet and his phone in his back pocket.

“You don’t look as stressed out about it as you did earlier,” Chris observed, rising to get the cookies out of the oven as the timer went off.

Ben shrugged. “I’ve had a pretty good evening, all things considered. And I’m going to see her tomorrow.” He smiled softly. “When Mal’s going to be there on the other side of it?”

“Yes?”

“I can get through anything.”

He slipped out the door, pulling on the hoodie that passed for a coat when it was really cold.

Chris looked at the door for several minutes, hoping fervently that was true.

 

The Twelfth Day of Fic-mas

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Joyeux Noël

Authors’ Note – Two holidays in a row we’ve shown you the pasts of some of our most important characters. You’ve even met Ben in his youth twice. But we’ve never shown you all who Mal used to be, where she came from. So, our final story this Fic-mas is a look into the past at the child who would one day become the young woman upon whom the fate of the world rests in Always Darkest. We hope you’ve enjoyed this Fic-mas. See you again next Fic-mas! (And maybe tomorrow. You never know.) Merry Christmas!

 

Ari glanced in the rearview mirror. A fond smile spread over his face. He knew the incessant questions must’ve stopped for a better reason than something interesting in the entomology book almost bigger than she was little Mal had spread across her lap during the most recent leg of their trip north. She’d fallen asleep, her face pressed against the window.

Eyes back on the road again, Ari eased the car over onto the shoulder slowly and pulled to the quietest, most gentle stop he could. “Mal,” he said softly. Then, a little louder, “Mal, honey?”

“Mmmm … are we there, Papa?” came a sleepy voice, followed by the sort of jaw-cracking yawn common to the very young, and totally unself-conscious. Mal was both. She was also someone who didn’t want to miss the border crossing, which he’d promised to wake her for. But he thought she might like this even more. Maybe even more than her bug book.

“Not yet, baby, but almost. I wanted you to see.” He directed Mal’s attention to the passenger side of their car.

Her breath drew in sharply. Out in the middle of a clearing, stood the largest animal Mal had ever seen in all her seven and almost a half years (the almost a half was very important to her). It was a moose! She’d always wanted to see a moose in person! “Papa! Papa! It’s a moose! It’s a boy mosse! A bull moose, I mean!” she squealed, unbuckling herself from her booster seat, and climbing up on her knees, pressing her face as close to the glass as she could, as if it would help her see it better. “Look at it’s antlers! … Did you know that the scientific name for moose is Alces alces, and an adult male can grow about seven feet high at the shoulder? He looks seven feet tall at least! And they like to …”

Ari let Mal rattle off the many scientific facts she had at the ready, in her already nimble and ever-expanding mind, about the noble moose … make that the noble Alces alces. Mal really liked it when he remembered little things, she told him, although she magnanimously said it was alright if he didn’t remember everything. He wasn’t a scientist. She was. That she was already so certain of where she wanted life to take her made him smile. With most kids he’d have thought it was simple whimsy, but with Mal … Mal wasn’t most kids. In any way at all.

She kept up a steady stream of chatter, nose pressed to the window and palms marking it, too. Ari’s smile grew as he listened. She got that zeal for learning, her passion for knowledge, from her mother, Ari mused. Ari wished she could have really known her mother. But, he supposed, she didn’t seem to know she was missing anything. He did his best to love her enough for both of them.

As the moose meandered back toward the tree line, he reminded Mal to get back into her seat. “Do you need help with the belt, honey?”

“You’re silly, Papa,” she said. “I’ve got it.”

Ari made sure she really did, then he pulled away just as the large animal was disappearing into the forest. The absence of the moose did nothing to temper her enthusiasm. She was still excitedly talking about not just the fascinating moose itself, but how it played a role in the food supply and ecosystem (her new word, of which she was enormously proud) and was especially important in Canada. Ari grinned. “Do you think that moose was going back to be with the other meese?”

“Daaa-aaad,” Mal groaned. She sometimes called him Daddy when she was hurt or sick, or very sleepy, but this was not one of those times. She called him Dad often when she thought it was time for her to be the grown-up. It was affectionate, but there was a no-nonsense tone to it that made him wonder a little how long he’d be able to think of her as a little girl. “There’s no such thing as meese. It’s not a real word,” she protested.

“Uh oh, then I guess someone should tell all the meese.”

His grin in the rearview mirror let her know he was only joking. She shook her head, but grinned back. “How much further?”

“To the border? Oh, probably about an hour. That’ll take a while though,” he answered, hoping his directions had been good, but feeling pretty confident that none of the Knights would have purposely gotten them lost. When her face fell just a little, he added, “Once we’re through there, an hour or two to Tante Jeanette’s at most.”

“Okay!” she said brightly. She was very excited to spend the holiday with her mother’s family, even more so because some of the far-flung relatives she’d already gotten to meet in their travels were coming home to Grand-père Sinclair’s for the holidays. “Um … do you want to listen to the radio? There might be Christmas music.”

Ari chuckled. That was a not so subtle hint that she wanted all the Christmas music, and to sing along at the top of her lungs, not caring one whit how it sounded. “It just so happens I brought the CD you like from the camper.”

“Yay!” she said enthusiastically, clapping her hands. Ari opened the case with one hand and slid it into the CD player. Mal was bellowing Holly Jolly Christmas immediately. Ari couldn’t think of a nicer way to pass the time. Once the music was on and Mal was occupied, the miles slipped by quickly.

The border crossing went smoothly. Mal got the giggles over the border guard’s accent, which the man seemed to find almost as amusing as she did. When she flawlessly pronounced Agence des services frontaliers du Canada from the patch on his jacket and said she was working hard to learn French, he asked Ari’s permission to give her a small Christmas present. “Joyeux Noël, little lady,” he called, waving to them as they pulled away.

“That’s Merry Christmas, right, Papa?”

“It is,” Ari answered. He had no doubt Mal would have half the French language mastered by the time the holidays were over. He laughed to himself as she rolled down her window and yelled back, waving, “Joyeux Noël, Mr. Border Policeman! Next I’m going to meet a Mountie!”

Ari could see the man laughing as they merged with traffic. “Mounties are really called the RCMP, you know,” she said to her father, flipping through her little guidebook again, the bugs long since forgotten. “That’s Royal Canadian Mounted Police. They have horses. Have I told you about that?”

Ari turned the music down a little, so she could tell him all she was learning about Canada, but found himself turning it back up after only a few minutes as she trailed off. She’d lost interest in conversation already in favor of her Christmas present from the border guard. She now had a miniature Canadian flag and she was happily spinning it between her palms, letting the fabric just brush the tip of her nose.

Mal could be almost ridiculously mature sometimes. Ari was hard pressed to determine if that was just part of her very special nature, or if it had been foisted upon her by their nomadic existence. Moments like these, where she was just a very little girl, all ringlets and giggles and childlike fascination, were both precious and acutely poignant for him.

After a while, he heard the flag stop spinning and Mal began puffing breath on the window to fog it up and draw on it. Her voice piped up from behind him again. “I didn’t think it could snow this much,” she said, distracted by the massive piles of grimy snow along Route 201. “Saint Georges,” Mal read off a road sign. “Ten Km. Papa, what’s a Km?”

“It’s a kilometer, honey. It’s a way of measuring distance, sort of like a mile, in the metric system. They use that for measuring in Canada. Actually most other countries use the metric system. All scientists use it, too,” he added, sure she’d be interested to know.

“Oh, okay.”

She thought about that for a minute or two, then began peppering Ari with questions about the metric system and why other countries used it, and wondering why if scientists used it, America had to be so dumb. Ari answered each one of her questions patiently, as best he could. When he didn’t know, he told her so, and she made a note in her little pocket notebook, so she could look it up on the computer when they got home.

Mal was always talkative, always inquisitive, but Ari started to wonder if she was a little nervous about meeting the whole family all at once. She hadn’t seen her Grand-père Sinclair since she was very small; she and Ari had gone to his wedding when he’d remarried. But she’d never been to the Sinclair’s ancestral home just outside Quebec City. It was more of a compound than a house, and several her aunts and uncles still lived in cabins on it. Most of the time Ari and Mal were all the family either of them had. Davi visited when he could, but no matter how often he did, it was never quite enough for Mal, who adored him.

Ari was looking forward to the visit. He knew the Sinclairs made a very big deal out of the holidays and had their own special ways of celebrating in addition to the traditional French-Canadian festivities. He couldn’t wait to share that with Mal. He always did his best to make every Christmas memorable for her, but there was only so special a hotel or a holiday in their camper could be. Up here, with the large French family, Mal would have a Christmas she was sure never to forget.

He knew she was looking forward to stopping for the night, too. She loved her Tante Jeanette and Oncle Michele. She adored her cousins, too. She’d seen them recently enough to be very excited. They’d all met at Disneyland for Mal’s birthday a few months ago. By the time they pulled into the driveway, Mal was tired and fidgety. It was late, and it had been a very long day in the car. He’d caught glimpses of her rubbing both eyes with her fists and fighting sleep for the last half hour.  

Mal was usually fiercely independent about getting in and out of her booster seat, but instead of leaping out of it like she usually did, the sleepy child just gaped at all the lights sparkling along the path that led up to the bright, inviting farmhouse. Ari opened her door and helped her out of her booster seat, zipping up her coat before letting her out into the frosty night.

Tante Jeanette, Oncle Michele!” she yelled, and ran up the path to meet them. She immediately leapt into Michele’s outstretched arms, giggling as his whiskers tickled her face.

“Ari,” he greeted around Mal’s arms which were wrapped tightly around his neck. “I’m glad you made it, but where is our Mal? I only see this tall young woman you’ve brought with you and not my favorite little scientist.”

Oncle, don’t be silly! It’s me! It’s Mal!” she said, laughing at him.

“Are you quite certain, cher? Our Mal is a little girl.”

“I’ve grown, Oncle. That happens as we get older …” She paused. “Well, we stop eventually, otherwise you’d be very tall.”

Everyone laughed. Mal wasn’t sure what she’d said that was funny, but she laughed, too. Michele ruffled her hair. “You must be right, Mal.”

Jeanette stretched out her hands to take Mal into her arms. Neither she nor her husband seemed to mind that she was too big to be carried like a toddler, and Mal was too tired to even protest being carried toward the house as her aunt asked her every little detail of her life on the road since they’d seen her in August.

Michele stayed to help Ari with their overnight bags. “We’re both so glad to have you, Ari. But where’s your camper? We weren’t sure it was you coming up the drive. I was surprised.”

Their aging RV was really the only home Mal had ever known and was as comfortable to them as a worn slipper, so it was somewhat surprising to Ari, too. “It needed some work,” he explained. “I left it at the dealership in Boston when we got back East. Besides, it needed some routine maintenance, too. Seemed like a good time to get a rental, since we already had places that I know Mal will feel at home to stay for a few weeks.”

A few of the older cousins had made their way down to offer their help, but Ari just smiled and waved them off, saying they wouldn’t make them bring everything in just for an overnight stay. When they all got inside, Ari discovered Mal had run off upstairs to catch up with the younger kids. It was awfully late for her, but Ari let her be.

Tomorrow was Christmas Eve, and they’d be making the last leg of their journey. Mal would need her rest, but since it would be another late night, he was hoping to get her to sleep in anyway. Maggie’s family had many traditions when it came to Christmas, all of which were going to be a whole new experience for Mal.

∞∞∞

The ride the following morning, other than being extremely cold and blindingly bright, was even nicer than the rest of their trip. Mal’s cousin Maddie, who was only a year older than Mal and who seemed to idolize her just a little, joined them in their car instead of riding north with her parents.

The sounds of the girls laughing and talking, or occasionally bursting into song in a strange and amusing combination of French and English, made Ari smile until his face hurt. Seeing Mal so happy gave him a joy so pure and full it was like being in the presence of the Divine. He laughed softly to himself when he thought that such a feeling couldn’t have been more appropriate.

Mal grew quiet as they approached her grandparents’ house down the long winding driveway. Her cousin took the cue from her and grew silent as well. The house was large, but not ostentatious. It looked like an oversized farmhouse, which it, in fact, was. The well-maintained but rather ancient piece of real estate had seen all the joys and sorrows of the Family Sinclair since they’d come over from France generations ago.

According to family tradition, it had belonged to Maggie’s mother Rose who had expressly said her dying wish was that her husband Paul could make his home there until the end of his days. When Maggie had gone off to grad school, Paul had moved back north with the smallest of her brothers and sisters and the extended family had helped him make a home for them. Mal didn’t know it, and Ari would never mention it while her grandfather lived, but one day, it would pass to her, if she wanted it.

He turned the car around the last bend and for a moment he couldn’t breathe. Maggie’s memorial was the last time he’d been to the house. He’d been grateful when the Templars handled coming up with an official story he could share with her family, her friends, but it didn’t ease the pain of her loss for him. He could only imagine how her brothers and sisters, how her father, must have felt. Ari at least had some assurance that he would see her again one day. They had their faith. But that wasn’t the same as knowing. It seemed terribly unfair.

“Papa, are you alright?” Mal asked from the backseat, sensing, just like she always seemed to, when there had been any sort of shift in his mood. “Of course, I am, honey. I’m just a little caught up in how beautiful it is.”

She turned to Maddie and nodded sagely. “He’s an artist. He gets all funny over beautiful things all the time.”

Ari smiled. That was the reminder he needed, that smiling face, and her easy acceptance of what he said made it true. The gleaming icicles on the eaves, the bright red and silver decorations that seemed to dot every single evergreen tree or bush, and on the evergreen garlands with white lights wrapping all the railings, all told him the tale of good times, a wonderful vacation to come, and future fond memories. This was going to be good for Mal, and for him too, he realized.

Ari got out of the car and smiled broadly when he saw Paul waiting on the steps. As ever, the man’s back rod straight. Even age was not stealing his military bearing. It would have looked quite severe if not for his easy grin, and the worn-out orange knit cap slightly askew over salt and pepper hair that seemed perpetually in need of a trim no matter how short and neat the man tried to keep it. He barely had the car door open for Mal when she squealed and pelted up the steps into her grandfather’s waiting arms.

He lifted her up over his head, like she weighed nothing at all, and she laughed and stretched out her arms like she was flying. Setting her down, he said, “Your grand-mère is in the kitchen making cookies with Tante Lissette and more children than I could rightly count. I’m sure they’d …” He laughed as Mal and Maddie were already halfway into the house on a tear for the kitchen. The prospect of Grand-mère and cookies and more cousins were too appealing for niceties like finishing a greeting. “She certainly takes after her mother at least insofar as an enthusiasm for cookies is concerned.”

Ari had finally caught up and he extended his hand only to find himself pulled into a one-armed hug and kissed on the cheek. He returned the greeting. “Paul, thank you so much for having us.”

“It’s been too long, Ari. Our Mal looks a little more like Maggie with every passing year. Thank you for the pictures from her birthday. I wish we could have been there,” her grandfather said with warm fondness, and what Ari could only have described as a happy sort of sorrow.

The older man wouldn’t hear of Ari bringing in all their things on his own and helped do all the lugging with the strength and agility of a much younger man. After they’d stowed the luggage away in their respective guest rooms, Ari followed his father-in-law outside to build up the wood for the bonfire that would take place after Midnight Mass. Both men found that catching up was something that could not properly be accomplished through phone calls or the occasional letter when he and Mal were someplace long enough for mail to be an option.

Mal wasn’t thrilled about getting dressed up for church because it was so cold. “Too cold for dresses,” she’d informed her father. But she softened her position a bit when Grand-mère brought out an elegant little red velvet cloak with white fur trim and a white fur muffler to match. It smelled like mothballs, probably because it had belonged to her mother when she was small. Grand-mère told her that her other grand-mère, Rose, had packed it away years ago hoping they’d one day have another little girl come along to wear it. Mal grinned hugely. She didn’t mind that it was a little stinky. It was beautiful and looked like it was made for an adventure in Narnia, from her current favorite bedtime books. It was also warm.

When the whole large group returned home after Mass, Mal pelted inside for her warmest clothes. She slowed down long enough to join everyone for the small gifts it was traditional to exchange. She got sort of sleepy while getting dressed but managed to wake herself up when she looked out the window and saw shadows moving around the stack of wood she’d noticed earlier. When she got back outside the bonfire looked like it might reach the stars and she laughed with delight every time one of the logs shifted and sent more sparks up to the heavens. Never had she even heard of a family party that went all night, but this one did, with warm drinks passed around, so much food she thought she’d never be able to eat again, and songs, some of which she knew and some she simply dedicated herself to learning.

Around sunrise, Ari realized Mal was leaning against his arm fast asleep. She wasn’t the only little one to succumb before the dawn. Parents carried children inside and put them to bed, peeled out of coats and boots, but still mostly dressed and disheveled and smelling of their Christmas fire. Then the adults wandered off their own rooms to catch some sleep until the kids woke up.

The smell of lunch cooking roused even the sleepiest members of the family, including Mal who realized that even if you thought you’d never ever be able to eat again, you could definitely sleep that feeling off. Games, sledding, and more music and laughter dominated the rest of Christmas Day. There was a week until the big family celebration and it was filled with dinners at various houses, skating parties, and Mal’s introduction to the game of ice hockey.

She’d never skated much before, but she took to it, as with most things, rather quickly, and was out on the ice looking to join in the minute her cousins started picking teams. The older boys didn’t want her to play. When she’d put her hands on her hips and demanded to know why, her cousin Jean-Claude had sneered and said, “You’re tiny. And worse, you’re a girl.” She’d protested that not only was being a girl awesome, she wasn’t all that tiny. She was even tall for her age! He’d come back with, “Yeah, well, you don’t look tough enough.”

At thirteen, Jean-Claude was both the oldest and the largest of the local cousins, and thus the de facto dictator of their little group. When he informed her that it was time for the babies to get off the ice, so the big kids could play, and he gave her a shove in the direction he wanted her to go, he found himself on the ice, his breath gone in a pained whoosh.

 When he was foolish enough to lay hands on her, Mal had deftly flipped Jean-Claude onto his back, then somehow whipped him over by his arm, so his face was almost pressed into the ice. She still held his arm up behind his back. “Take it back,” she demanded.

“Ow,” he whined angrily. “Let go of my arm!”

Mal applied pressure to his wrist.

“Ow! Cut it out! That hurts!”

“How can it?” she asked. “I’m just a weak little ole girl baby. Why don’t you just get up?”

He tried to wrench his arm away again and Mal just adjusted her grip. “Ow, ow, ow! Fine, you can play! Jeez!”

“Thanks!” she chirped sweetly. “I want to be goalie.”

“You can be whatever you want, just let me go!”

Mal released him and Jean-Claude got to his feet, red in the face, but with an expression of new-found respect for his young American cousin. “How’d you do that?”

Mal shrugged. “Krav Maga. My papa showed me.”

Jean-Claude shook his head, but as he skated out for face-off, he was grinning a little, too. She was pretty cool, for a little kid, anyway.

Later that night, as they all sat around the fireplace drinking cocoa and playing cards, Jean-Claude was asked by his Grand-père to tell them about what all the children had spent the day doing. He didn’t mention how she’d happened to find her way onto his team, but Jean-Claude did tell the grown-ups about their game of pick-up hockey out on the pond.

“You should have seen her, Oncle,” he told Ari. “I’ve never seen hands so fast!”

Mal managed to only look a little smug.

∞∞∞

The week passed in something of a blur. Mal had never played so much or slept so little. But she loved every minute of it. Her French was coming along at a startling rate, too. Ari didn’t think he’d ever seen her so happy. Before either of them knew it, New Year’s Day arrived and the whole family gathered once again to exchange the lion’s share of the gifts they’d all bought for one another and share one last meal as a big family before calling a close to this year’s holiday season.

They day was busy and exciting, and Mal was happy to be in the middle of all of it. When Ari tucked her into bed that night, Mal could hardly keep her eyes open. “Night, Papa,” she murmured.

He sat down on the edge of her bed. “Did you enjoy the holiday, honey?”

“Oh, yes, Papa. Very much.” Her eyes fluttered a little. She wanted to stay awake for a story, but she knew she just couldn’t do it.

Ari paused, not sure if he should say what he was thinking. Then again, he reasoned, she’d probably know it anyway, so he might as well. “We could stay, you know.”

Mal sat up, no longer even drowsy. “What? Why, Papa?”

Ari blinked, surprised at her reaction. “Um … you wouldn’t have to live in a camper. You could go to school with other kids your age. You could see your family all the time …”

“I … I don’t …” she trailed off, frowning.

Though the very idea unnerved him, the Templars had assured him if he wanted that life for Mal, they would help make it a secure one. He preferred staying on the move, only dealing with the Order when he couldn’t get by on his own for whatever reason cropped up from time to time. “You just seem to be fitting in so well here. Your French is so good I thought you were your cousin Marie this morning in the kitchen until I turned around. Do you want to stay?”

She shook her head. “No thanks.” She paused like she was really thinking something over. “Not unless you want to, Daddy. Don’t you like the camper anymore?”

She sounded so young, so uncertain. But he couldn’t tell if she’d called him Daddy because she was feeling especially vulnerable, or if she suddenly didn’t want to fit in quite so perfectly with the cousins who all called their fathers Papa, or some variation thereof.

He chewed his lip. “What I want is for you to be happy, Mal.”

“I am happy, Silly.” She frowned at him almost like she was confused. “I have the best dad ever, and I get to travel all the time and see and do all this cool stuff. And we can come back and visit, can’t we?”

“Well, of course we can, Mal,” he smiled, glad the dim light hid the tear that had slipped free from the corner of his eye and was now trailing down his cheek. “Are you sure, baby? Because you don’t have to … We could always try it and if you decide you don’t want …”

“Daddy, no. I told you, I like our life. I like our camper.”

“Okay, Mal, I think I understand, but this … this could be home. You must get tired of being on the road all the time, don’t you?”

“You’re being silly again. Home is wherever we are. And I’m never ever going to get tired of traveling. Not ever. I want to do it forever.”

“Okay, Mal. Sweet dreams. Sleep well, honey.”

She lay back down and snuggled under the covers. Now that he seemed to understand what she meant, she was overcome with sleepiness again. “I will. You have sweet dream, too. And thank you for giving me one of my favorite Christmases.”

He smiled softly. “Only one of?”

“Oh, it was really good, Papa.” She seemed to have forgotten her new preference for the American version of what to call him in her drowsy state. “But my favorite was the time in Ohio.”

Ari blinked, and his head tilted to one side. “You mean last year when we got stuck in that snowstorm?”

“Mmmhmmm,” she agreed fuzzily. “Was nice that we could help those people.”

Ari had invited a family in to stay with them. Their car had wound up in a ditch near where he’d had to park the camper for the night when a blizzard hit hours earlier than expected. He wasn’t even sure she was still awake, but he asked quietly, “Why is that your favorite Christmas?”

Her eyes didn’t open, but she answered him anyway. “‘Cause we helped them and got to show kindness and … Giving people who need it a place to stay when they can’t get somewhere else is the most Christmassy thing I’ve ever heard of.”

“But we hadn’t even picked up your presents,” Ari said.

“Presents aren’t what’s important for Christmas.”

“You’re right, Mal. You’re absolutely right.”

“I love you,” she whispered.

“I love you, too, honey. Joyeux Noël, Mal.”

“Mmmm. Merry …” she snorted a little snore, and rolled onto her side, hand tucked under her cheek, already drifting off almost completely.

Ari sat there for a few minutes, watching her breathing slow until he was sure she was really asleep, so he wouldn’t disturb her when he got up. He stopped again in the doorway and looked at his sleeping child again.

“Oh, Maggie,” he whispered. “You’d be so proud.”

 

The Eleventh Day of Fic-mas …

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For Auld Lang Syne

“Looks like I win by default.” The tall figure dressed in a simple, yet elegant, black tunic with subtle dark red piping, smiled. The sunrise flooding the glade with color seemed to reflect and dance in his eyes. To say he was handsome, or even pretty would be a gross understatement. He was quite possibly the loveliest being in all God’s creation. And he knew it.

“That’s not how this works. In fact, as I’ve said far too many times to count, Morning Star, I don’t need you or your brother here in order to do my job. I’d quite prefer to be left alone with my task.”

“Come now, Ashor,” he said, sounding entirely reasonable. “It’s only proper for you to allow us to witness the weighing, and to make our respective cases should any question arise.”

“Proper? That implies there’s something improper in my ignoring you, which no law or even custom would give you. Polite, perhaps. I’ll give you polite. Necessary? Not even a little. You both know it, too. I honestly think you do it just to annoy me.”

“We don’t try to annoy anyone. There are things that Michael and I are destined to …”

“Oh, look,” Ashor interrupted. “Speak of the …” He grinned and raised his eyebrows with amusement. “Devil’s brother.”

“Charming,” Lucifer observed with a raise of a single eyebrow. Amusement was not behind the expression.

Ashor smoothly ignored him. “Michael,” he called out. “Lovely to see you, as ever. I trust your Father is well,” Ashor said with a distinct twinkle.

Michael exchanged a look with his brother. “Um … well … Yes, of course, He’s well. Why would He be otherwise?” His feathers ruffled, indicating that offense was taken whether it was intended or not.

Ashor ignored the gesture. “Good, good. I was somewhat concerned. Heaven … and of course by that I mean God,” he said with a nod and a wink. “Seems to have taken an unusually keen interest in my work just lately.”

Michael cleared his throat. “We … that is … He felt it best, seeing as how Lucifer never misses one.”

“Suit yourself,” Ashor shrugged.

He turned his back on them and began the steep ascent up a mountain path. He didn’t have to, could have very easily just blinked into existence at the top, but he always enjoyed the walk. The snow crunched under foot, breaking the silence of the crisp early morning. Or rather it would have been breaking the silence if the two angels following him weren’t already bickering like children.

“Gentlemen, if you would be so kind.”

“What?” Lucifer inquired.

“Shhhh,” Ashor said, putting a finger to his lips.

“Oh, I’m so sorry,” Michael said quickly. “Is it time? Do you need silence for this?”

“No. You’re just very annoying.” Lucifer snickered. “Both of you.”

Ashor turned away as silence fell.

Smiling to himself, he continued on his way up the increasingly steep path, full of switchbacks and small rockslides, piles of snow and spots of bare ground where the tree branches overhead were too thick to allow much to collect beneath them.

The early pre-dawn light was faintly pink on the sparkling sparkling white that dominated most of the view. Ashor enjoyed observing how the plant life changed as he climbed higher and higher.

They were nearing the top where where most of what was left were ferns and evergreens. He paused for a moment in a field of cairns. Anyone who didn’t know the place would have thought he was among many graves, but quite the opposite.

This was a place the living came, either by the trail he had or as they passed through on a longer trek, to build the small rock monuments to mark an important event, celebrate a new beginning, even just say they’d been through, and yes, sometimes to mark a loss. But it was, above all, a place of life. And it was a crossroads, too. The sign right before it declared it as such.

Behind him, the brothers whispered, and he gave no indication that he heard every word as he stacked up a small pile of stones himself. Michael asked, “Is this the place?”

Lucifer replied, “No, it’s further up. He just does this. Every damned year.”

Ashor seated the final small stone, shaped like a little pyramid by the elements alone, on top of his pile, rose, and continued on his way. The path became less distinct, more difficult to follow, but he was enjoying the chill in the air, the way the crystals in the now and ice were starting to spark in the growing light, he was even getting to enjoy relative peace and quiet as the brothers hissed back and forth at each other out of even supernatural earshot. But Ashor was more than supernatural, or so he supposed he seemed to them. It was nice anyway. Michael was actually a welcome addition to this morning’s excursion. He kept Lucifer distracted, which saved Ashor from having to talk to him.

He was glad to be spared the effort. He loved this part of the day. There were huge glacial rocks up here, little scrubby mosses, even some lichens. And the trees suddenly gave way to a stunning view. Ashor stepped toward a rocky ledge. In front of him, the stars in the western sky were slowly fading, and the valley spilled on for miles to the north and south. If he’d turned around, he would have seen the sky to the east growing rosy with new dawn.

From behind him, off to the side, he heard Michael whisper, “I thought we’d be in the cave, where the veil is thin.”

“I thought so too when I first started coming, but no, every year, it’s up here at the dawn of the day. Such a strange out of the way place for it. I’d choose Stonehenge or the Great Pyramid or something grand. But that’s Ashor. Odd as you please, since time out of mind.”

Ashor cleared his throat dramatically. “Gentlemen, now I will have quiet, if you please.”

They became stone still and silent immediately.

Ashor stood, his eyes closed, as the morning sun cast the first rays of the new year in his chosen place over the valley below. Ashor opened himself, the entirety of his being, to the world, letting the collected thoughts and deeds of humanity wash over him. He took it in like water, like breath. After not more than a minute or two at most, he smiled, nodded, opened his eyes and turned to walk back down the mountain. “Lovely. Balance holds.”

“Wait, that’s it?” Michael asked his brother incredulously.

“I know. Kind of disappointing if you ask me,” Lucifer agreed.

They gave each other a very serious look and started after Ashor, catching up in a moment. “So, Ashor …” they began in unison.

“Don’t start again. The Balance is upheld, so there’s nothing for you to say. No case for you to make.”

“But, surely …”

“I know you both believe the child of prophecy has been born. And I know you’re both already scrambling after any scrap of information like it’s the Keys to The Kingdom.”

“We … I …” Michael began to protest.

“Has she?” Lucifer asked pointedly. “Been born, I mean, Keeper.”

Ashor raised a single eyebrow. “If I knew, I wouldn’t tell you.” Both their faces fell. “What I will tell you is … And this one’s on me, no charge at all … You’ll have your answer soon enough, boys. Happy New Year.”

He snapped his fingers and a sound like thunder knocked both angels onto their backs in the snow, but didn’t so much as rustle a tree branch or disturb the cardinal parked on the nearest one over their heads. Both brothers concluded, rightly, that it had been undignified magic just for them. They helped each other to their feet.

“What’s with him?” Michael asked.

“Who knows? The guy’s got issues.”

“I suppose. But, if he knows we’re aware of the prophecy, knows we’re looking, he probably sees that as us trying to stack the deck for our own sides.”

“We are,” Lucifer said. “That’s exactly what we’re doing.” He frowned, thinking.

“Are we still in agreement?”

“Come again?” Lucifer mumbled absently, clearly lost in his own head.

“Our agreement regarding the Scion and the implications of the situation.”

“Oh, that. Of course, brother. I will follow our agreement absolutely to the letter,” Lucifer replied with a sly grin as he popped back to Hell.

Michael stood there for a moment. “I’m going to have to take another look,” he murmured to himself. “I hate it when he smiles like that.” It could mean anything from he’d thought of something funny to he was about to start a war, he thought sourly as he walked back toward the ledge, thinking to enjoy the view of the sunrise over the pretty little valley.

He frowned at the dirty haze of woodsmoke hovering low over everything. The grating sounds of traffic had begun to rise to grate on his ears as well. He shook his head. “Happy New Year, mortals,” he spat. “Another year stretches before you to destroy this gift you’ve been given. Most favored, indeed,” he huffed dismissively.

Michael turned and walked back down the mountain, though he didn’t have to any more than Ashor or Lucifer did. Though he’d never admit it, long walks on Earth were a balm to his troubled spirit. It was such a beautiful place, so full of promise. It was a gift none who made their home here seemed to appreciate. Well, perhaps some did, but … free will and whatever. Michael’s musings were interrupted.

Raphael was trying to contact him. He was needed in Heaven immediately.

Enoch was at it again.

The Tenth Day of Fic-mas …

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Too Much of a Good Thing

Authors’ Note – Those of you who were with us last Fic-mas have already met Caleb. If you’re meeting him for the first time, you can find out more about him in The Twelve Days of Fic-mas 2017. The Fic-mas stories are just the beginning.

 

“So … um … do you think we’ll see any action?”

Caleb winced at the enthusiasm for conflict and action in the Novice’s voice. “Only if we are very unlucky,” he replied with practiced patience.

Trainees were God’s punishment for the accomplished, he thought with rueful amusement. He remembered the same excitement, the same need to be constantly moving, the same blazing fire. Caleb’s was now more of a warm bed of coals than the blaze of newly dedicated youth. His had been nearly extinguished by a very close call on one of his first solo missions, what was it? Two years ago to the day, he realized. Not so long ago, he supposed. But a lot had happened since then.

“Come on!” his young partner went on boisterously. “I know you’re good at the action part of this job! Didn’t you take down a whole bar full of demons all by yourself when you were still a Novice?”

Caleb forced his face into a stern expression. This boy was only a few years younger than he was, but despite the fact that he’d reached the age of majority a few years ago, completed college, and committed himself to the Order, boy was what he still was. “I’ve told you once, do not speak of that, and most certainly do not embellish what you learned. That report is redacted for a reason. Am I clear?”

The boy squared his shoulders and firmed his jaw. “Crystal, sir. I’m sorry, sir.”

“Thank you,” Caleb said, definitely meaning it. He didn’t want to rehash that story again with another new recruit, especially since so much of it was classified.

“It’s just … surveillance is soooo boring!” the young man complained.

Caleb sighed inwardly. “Patience is a virtue you’d do well to cultivate now. It’s mastery may well keep you alive in the field when things are less boring than surveillance, son.”

“Yes, sir,” he replied automatically, with no real conviction behind his words.

Caleb refrained from giving his trainee another dressing down. That would make thirteen on the day so far and he had a Templar’s aversion to approaching that particular number, even if the stories behind it were more myth than fact. Caleb was afraid that no matter what he did to bring him along, Thomas Charlemagne “Call Me Charlie” Castille was not going to cut it in the field. Two months practically on his hip like an infant and still no progress, and very little maturity.

He’d known well enough when he’d been offered the role of training officer the Order wasn’t above placing children of the highborn into the rotation for “proper consideration”. It wasn’t about money, certainly. The Order of the Temple of Solomon was more than solvent; always had been. Access and information were what the upper echelons traded in. Since warrior-priests like Caleb depended on the information and other resources this could provide, he made an effort not to complain, outside his own journal anyway.

Charlie came from an old, well-connected, French-descended family. Well, that, and his mother had been a Sinclair. That didn’t hurt. Caleb grimaced. That made them distant cousins. That was something he’d rather not lay claim to at the moment though. And since his branch of the family had gone by Saint Claire for generations, Charlie hadn’t made the connection.

“So what is it we’re looking for? Like … specifically? Other than the lady in the photo?” Charlie asked. Again.

Caleb raised an eyebrow. According to the Father-General, it was Caleb’s most openly disapproving and challenging expression. “Did I know this morning?”

“No. I mean, no, sir.”

“Yesterday?”

A quiet sigh. “No, sir.”

“How about the day before when we went over the briefing materials and assignment?”

“No, sir … I’m sorry, sir. It’s just … this is so boring.”

“You mentioned that once or twice,” the superior officer replied wryly. Beyond that, he bit his tongue. His current field rotation ended in seven days. Seven interminable days. He looked at the calendar stretching endlessly away to the 31st like it was a desert he had to cross without water. That was, unless this case broke and they could go into the local field office. Stacks of mission reports in triplicate ought to keep Charlie out of his hair until he could go on leave for a few weeks. Maybe talking with the boy would help both of them pass the time. “So what’s next?”

Charlie’s eyes lit up. “For me? I’ll be apprenticing with Brother Goodson. Finally getting into my specialized training then.”

“A good man, Stanley. He’s probably our best in Research and Computer Science. That’s really your area of interest?”

“Oh, yes, sir!” He grinned. “I respect the hell out of you field guys, I really do. But, let’s face it … This is so not my thing. Like at all.”

“You’re not terrible at it,” Caleb said generously. The kid wasn’t terrible. That didn’t mean he was good, but the last thing Caleb needed was this recruit getting distracted by worrying about his performance evaluations. Feeling honor-bound to not bullshit the young man either, he added, “But I appreciate your self-awareness.”

Charlie laughed and started to say something else, but cut himself off, “Oh, hey, that’s her, isn’t it?” He pointed at a woman’s back as she moved away from them.

Caleb gave him a very approving nod, as he assessed the woman in question. He’d picked out their primary, from her coat and her gait. That was better than terrible. “Good eye. Let’s roll.”

They quickly exited their car. The cold air nearly took Caleb’s breath away, as they made their way to the entrance of the large shopping mall. It probably wouldn’t have bothered him, but he was on this assignment because he was recovering from a wound from an enchanted dagger and the subsequent case of pneumonia. He was fine now, but the Templar’s didn’t mess around with injured Knights. He’d barely been outside the infirmary in weeks until this surveillance gig had cropped up. Father-Captain Drake thought it was a good way for him to get back in the field, and an excellent training opportunity that didn’t involve going over paperwork next to a bed in the infirmary, for Brother Castille.

“Son of a bitch. It had to be shopping season,” Charlie groused. “This place is crawling with casuals. You still have her?”

“Next to the kid with the spiked hair. She took her coat off. She’s changed her hair. It’s blue.” Caleb had an excellent eye, and it was well trained. But she’d also done them the favor of dressing distinctly. He could still see the dusky orange leather trench folded over her arm. That’s all that had saved him from losing her in the holiday crowds.

Charlie snickered. “Who the Hell still wears pillbox hats? Like I think my gramma has one, but jeez.”

“It’s an interesting choice,” Caleb agreed. So was the rest of the her high-end designer label, somewhat avante garde wardrobe. But then again, that’s why she was on the Order’s radar. A relatively poor woman had, apropos of nothing, suddenly moved into a penthouse, gotten a classic Mustang, and bought out every department store in a hundred mile radius, all in the last couple of months. Since their initial investigation hadn’t turned up any natural means for that to occur, the assumption was she’d made a deal. And with that kind of juice, the deal often came with sacrificing others, often those from vulnerable populations. That was something the Order just couldn’t tolerate.

The woman stopped to look in one of the display windows and Charlie let out a low whistle. “Damn. That’s the sort of woman that makes me glad I haven’t taken my vows yet.

Caleb sighed and pulled Charlie aside, into the shelter of some vending machines. “Stop. Just stop that right here and now.” Charlie’s eyes widened. “First of all, vows or no, she is a person, not an object for your desire or otherwise, and doesn’t deserve your ugly lack of respect.”

“I … um …” Charlie began to attempt an apology.

Caleb bulldozed right past whatever lame excuse Charlie might have been about to offer. “Second of all, you will get your head out of your pants and into the game, and I mean now, or I will personally see to it that no matter what your family name or who your mother is, you will never take the sacred vows of the warrior-priest. Do I make myself clear?”

“Damn, dude, I was just …”

“Do. You. Under. Stand.” It was not a question. It was an order stated like one.

Charlie swallowed. “Yes, sir.”

“Good.” Caleb moved back out into the crowd.

Charlie followed a second later. Maybe he should have just gone to Stanford like his mother wanted. “Great. You had to chew me out for just being a guy and now we’ve lost her,” he accused.

“No, I had to reprimand you for being very much less than a man, and she’s right over there in the jewelry store,” Caleb replied smoothly, subtly letting Charlie know that he’d never actually had eyes off their subject.

“Oh. Oh, good.”

“Are we clear on how we are to conduct ourselves from this moment forward, Novice Castille?”

“Yes.”

“Yes?”

“Yes, Father-Corporal Saint Claire. Sir.”

“Good. Let’s go shop for some bling.”

Charlie winced at Caleb’s forced use of slang. Colloquial speech was clearly not his forte. Of course, from what Charlie had managed to dig up when he got his orders, his current boss had basically grown up in one of the Order’s monasteries. He’d taken their Holy Orders when he was still a teenager, too. “Sure, why not, fam?” Charlie agreed with an eye roll.

Their subject, one Patricia Shea, was standing at the well-lit glass counter, looking at, what appeared to Caleb (who admittedly had no interest in jewelry other than the watch the the Father-General had given him when he’d taken his vows) to be a very expensive diamond and sapphire necklace.

Pausing to put on a pair of glasses, Caleb made a show of browsing the store’s wares. Surprising his training officer completely, Charlie had nonchalantly made his way over close to Shea. Caleb gave him a nod, letting him know he approved. He slowly made his way around the cases in the same direction, so as not to leave his trainee on his own. This was meant to be an observe and report operations, but this close to a subject it could turn into active engagement in the blink of an eye.

“Oh, Ms. Shea, it’s so good to see you again,” gushed the chubby little balding man who was hurrying from the back room with a black velvet box in his hands.

“Hello, Francis,” Patricia beamed. “Is that it?” she asked in greedy anticipation, pointing to the box.

His face split into an obsequious smile. “As always, your timing couldn’t be better. I was just about to call you to deliver the good news.” He placed the box in question on the counter in front of her an opened it.

“Dude,” Charlie murmured at the positively garish piece of jewelry resting inside. It was diamonds, too, but was dripping with other multi-colored precious and semi-precious stones, all in a polished platinum setting.

Caleb flinched as the subject looked up at Charlie, his mumbling having clearly been loud enough to intrude on her business. “Do you mind?” she asked with haughty lift of her sharp chin.

“Please, Ms. Shea doesn’t like to be bothered,” the manager said sharply, nodding at one of the other employees who immediately approached Charlie.

“Can I help you, sir?” the man asked as he approached.

“I … um …” Charlie stammered.

“We’re looking for wedding bands,” Caleb said confidently, joining Charlie in a few short strides.

“Dude, that’s not even legal here yet,” Charlie whispered.

“These people don’t care. It’s legal some places, so just go with it,” Caleb hissed back through his teeth.

“He means commitment ceremony bands,” Charlie amended as the sale clerk joined them. “This guy of mine just can’t wait for the whole country to get with the program. We’re thinking of moving to Hawaii.”

The clerk just cleared his throat. “Of course. Hardly fair that you have to think that way, is it, sir?”

Charlie and Caleb exchanged a look. “You know what,” Charlie said. “You’re right, hun. Something bold, I think,” he told the clerk.

Having regained his composure, the clerk gestured to their ring collection. “This way, gentleman. I think I have the perfect set.”

They followed him obediently and Caleb was impressed at the way Charlie struck up a real conversation with the clerk, engaging him about relationships and political debates, and brilliantly distracting him from the fact that Caleb was still watching their subject with interest as she went over to the cash register to pay.

From her extravagant teal handbag she drew a wallet. Plain. Black leather. Bi-fold.

Gotcha, Caleb thought. It looked plain to anyone else in the place, including Charlie. But with his enchanted glasses Caleb could see the faint red glow surrounding the wallet. Caleb subtly signaled Charlie. His young partner nodded and began to move closer. Caleb mentally cursed the younger man’s lack of real field training or experience. They couldn’t let Patricia Shea out of their sight now. This had gone from a surveillance op to almost certainly active engagement with the simple act of her paying for that godawful necklace. That was one of the seven artifacts on the Order’s Most Wanted List. Sonovabitch.

Both men moved toward the cash register, no longer worried about the sales clerk and his rings. Patricia Shea handed Francis her credit card and was staring at her about-to-be-acquired necklace. Charlie leaned against the counter next to her. “Someone’s very lucky this Christmas,” he said pleasantly.

“Yeah. Me. Now fuck off.”

“Sorry, lady,” he said, retreating slightly.

“Here we are, gentlemen,” the sales clerk said, coming over to them with their requested sizes.

Not helping, Caleb thought. But they could keep their cover and still not let her get very far ahead of them. Then he could just lift the wallet from her bag, and let a retrieval team sweep her up and deal with interrogation later, once the artifact was safely within a Templar vault, away from anyone it might harm.

As he was deciding exactly how he wanted to go about signaling Retrieval, a shrill almost-shriek came from the counter. “Run it again, Francis!”

“Of course, Ms. Shea,” he said. There was a silent, lengthy pause. “I’m so sorry, madam. It’s telling me to call the number on the back. Perhaps someone has stolen your number and they are trying to sort it out.”

“No one’s … Fine. Hurry up,” she snapped. Despite her imperious tone, she was clearly flustered.

Caleb couldn’t help noticing the smug smile on their clerk’s face. “What’s the joke?” he asked, removing his glasses, placing them in their unbreakable case, and sliding it into his jacket.

“Nothing, sir,” the clerk replied. “I’m just a big fan of karma.”

Before he could ask the clerk anything further, Patricia shouted, “Excuse me! I don’t think so!”

“I’m sorry, ma’am, but the company told me to cut it up.” Snip. The card fell onto the counter in two equal pieces.

Patricia leaned over the counter and slapped the manager hard across the face, picked up the pieces of her credit card, and stormed out.

The clerk asked his boss, “Want me to call the police, sir?”

“That’s alright, Evan, they’re already on their way. The card company called them.” Regaining his composure, despite one very red handprint on his face, Francis turned to the other gawking customers and forced a chuckle. “Some people just can’t handle Christmas, folks.”

In the momentary chaos, Caleb and Charlie slipped out. They caught up to Patricia as she stopped to use the nearest payphone. They didn’t want to get too close, but they didn’t need to. Patricia was screaming into the phone. “I don’t care what he said, Aife. We had a deal … Bullshit! I kept my end … I did … Well, fuck him! I’m coming over … No, you listen, you fucking bitch-whore of a demon … Tell your boss Romanman or however the fuck you say it, that I want to talk to him. In person!”

“Who’s Romanman?” Charlie asked quietly.

Caleb chuckled. “I’m guessing she means Ronoven. He’s one of Hell’s nobles. Like to muck about on Earth a bit. Commands legions and whatever, but lately his chief occupation seems to be pissing off the Order by sending up fun little cursed artifacts to the unsuspecting …” He paused. “Unsuspecting, but oddly deserving.”

“Wait, this nutterbutter is going to tangle with a demon lord … like on purpose?”

“She thinks she is,” he said, listening to more of her nonsensical diatribe to whatever unfortunate demon was being targeted by it. “But whatever deal she thinks they had, it’s a bust. We need to tail her home though, get our hands on that wallet and let Retrieval know … Shit.”

The cops had just entered the mall. Caleb edged Charlie back around the nearest corner. Caleb didn’t take his eyes off the scene though. Patricia clearly didn’t see them approaching either, just kept screeching into the phone. “Look, Aife, I can make life very hard for you!”

She never got to finish her threat, as one of the cops laid both hands on her shoulders.

“What the fuck? You pig! You get your hands off me!”

She dropped the phone in the ensuing struggle and it swung back and forth on its metal reinforced cable. Even with size and training on their side, and eventually pepper spray, it took the cops several minutes to wrap up Patricia Shea and start herding her, handcuffed, out of the shopping center.

Caleb strode over to the dangling phone and picked it up. An appealing female voice was repeating, “Patty! Patty, what’s going on?”

Caleb smiled. “Aife, I presume.” His statement was met with silence. “Tell your boss Caleb Saint Claire sends his regards.”

“Oh, shit.”

“Indeed,” he replied, and placed the phone back on its receiver. He turned to find Charlie back on his elbow. “Come on, kid. Watch and learn. By that I mean keep your trap shut, okay?”

“Yessir,” Charlie nodded, somewhat in awe of the whole situation.

Caleb took out his mobile phone and began tapping in numbers. He had some favors to call in.

∞∞∞

“You’re sure he said Caleb?”

“I already said yes, Ben.” Aife sighed.

He took a drink. “Saint Claire?”

“Christ, Ben, yes, for the fourth time. And he sounded dead serious.”

“What the hell happened anyway, Aife?”

“Our little angel broke the contract, just like we expected. She got arrested for what I can only assume is counterfeiting, credit card fraud, maybe theft, too.”

“Couldn’t have happened to a nicer person,” Ben observed. “I know we pass these out to real assholes all the time, but usually I almost feel sorry for them. This chick was just rotten from the getgo.”

“Apparently her crash and burn was something you should’ve come up for. She’s in custody. And the five-oh have the wallet.”

“Of course they do,” he sighed. “Nevermind. I can handle the cops, but where the hell did Caleb come from?”

“Your guess is as good as mine. But she got spendy real fast. Faster than they usually do. No sense of decorum at all. Plus she had a big mouth. Combine her maybe blabbing to a few people with loose lips with the order watching for hinkey financial transactions and voila, we have a Templar infestation.”

He nodded thoughtfully. “Yeah. Makes sense. What good is endless wealth if you can’t make your so-called friends jealous? Usually the Feds come knocking. Which works pretty well for us. Too much unreported income, and wham! The fibbies or IRS snaps ‘em up. They crack and tell them about the wallet, but by then the charm is broken and nothing in it works anymore. They have their perp and, for us, the evidence is a no harm no foul situation. Fucking Templars.”

“It’s one hell of a curse, boss.”

“Yeah. It’s one of my better ones.”

“You figure maybe the Order heard about it and sent Caleb around to check it out?”

“Something like that,” he sighed.

“The Order doesn’t like your toys, Ben.”

He glared at her. “Well, they should. I only target the truly wicked.”

She laughed. “Oh, yes, Count Ronoven, you are truly doing the Lord’s work.”

He grinned. “Fuck you, Aife.”

“If you play your cards right.”

He rolled his eyes. “Haha. Alright, I’m gonna go retrieve the wallet. Tell all our assets to lay low until I give the all-clear. Outside of me, nobody in your jurisdiction has the juice to face down Caleb. Especially if he’s got an axe to grind.”

“I don’t think I’ll get any arguments. Remember what he did a few Christmases ago up in Massachusetts?”

“Yeah. I always kinda liked Mandi, too.” He grinned at Aife. “So hey, after you pass along orders to the troops, so to speak, you might want to maybe take a little vacation. You know, visit the old homestead for a minute.”

“I just got back from … Oh, you mean Hell.”

“Yeah. You could meet me in my apartments. I’ll have stories.”

“What? Why?”

Ben’s face split into the boyish grin that made it very hard to believe he could do anything hellish other than maybe occasionally cut class. “Because I’m gonna fuck with him. Just a little. So I’ll probably need to get the hell out of town right after.”

“Alright. Ben’s apartments it is. I’ll keep your bed warm.”

He laughed. “You do that. Catch you later.”

Ben left Aife to her task, humming to himself and feeling his face almost ache with the grin still on it. It was nice to be up top again, even if it meant dealing with the Order. Nicer still because of the time of year. Even if it was just ridiculously cold. I do have time for a beer first, Ben mused. He headed down the street to a nearby bar, bragging that they were brewing their own beer. It was a relatively new trend, but one he hoped would catch on. He was thoroughly enjoying the sights and sounds of another Yule … Christmas, he corrected himself … on Earth. Even the work in front of him was like a gift.

∞∞∞

“Alright, Ms. Shea. One more time. Where did you get the money and the cards?”

“I already told you …”

“Yeah, we know. Some hot demoness tricked you,” the detective laughed.

“I want my lawyer,” she finally sniffed.

“First thing you’ve said that makes any sense, lady.” He rose and tapped on the glass. “Alright, back to holding.”

One of the uniforms came in to move their suspect a moment later. Detective Dubois rolled his eyes at his partner. “I’m glad Treasury is taking her off our hands, Allen. I half think she thinks all the shit she was saying is true.”

“Glad I’m not the only one it was creeping out,” Detective Allen agreed.

“Soon as they get here, our docket’s cleared and we can take off. Hope they hurry their asses up.”

The detectives headed back toward their shared office, but the desk officer stopped them. “Hey guys, the Treasury folks are here. On their way up now.”

“Now how’s that for a Christmas miracle, Harry?” Dubois asked, grinning.

Harry was about to say that he didn’t know about that but whatever Shea was up to her eyeballs in must be pretty big to get a couple federal agents here on the night before perhaps the biggest holiday of the year. He was prevented from responding by two young men in very standard issue off the rack suits, even cheaper than the ones the detectives could afford, striding in, flashing their credentials, and putting them away, just as quickly. Harry nodded at his partner and motioned that he was going to get while the gettin’ was good. Dubois nodded and focused on the men that were about to improve his Christmas Eve exponentially.

They were practically kids, probably right out of training, Dubois thought. No wonder they pulled such a shit detail. He stepped toward them, extending a hand. “Gentleman, I’m Detective Dubois. My captain called you.”

“Thank you, Detective,” said the taller of the two, shaking the offered hand. “I’m Special Agent Spangler, this is Special Agent Sands. We’re here to handle the transfer of your counterfeit case.”

“That’s great. We appreciate you coming out here tonight of all nights, Agents.”

“Speaking of which. What with the holiday and all, I don’t have the official transfer orders. Will a hand receipt be okay, or should we wait for the field office to process them and come back after the holiday?”

“Oh, no, don’t trouble yourselves,” Dubois hurriedly replied. He wanted to get home and get some sleep so he could take his kids to the parade in the morning after presents. “Our desk officer will escort you boys down to holding. I’m about to head out for the evening.”

The younger of the agents smiled. “You have yourself a Merry Christmas, sir.”

“And a Happy New Year,” added his partner to the detective’s already retreating form.

∞∞∞

About an hour later, Caleb and Charlie were loading Patricia Shea into the back of their rental car. She sat in the back quietly, due more to the charm on her handcuffs ensuring it, than any inclination on her part. Caleb looked around as his ring grew heavy and warm as a crowd passed by on the sidewalk. Seeing nothing out of the ordinary he climbed in on the driver’s side.

“What now?” Charlie whispered.

“Stop that,” Caleb said. “She can’t hear us through the charm on the car, and even if she did, the cuffs make it so she won’t remember it anyway.”

Both eyebrows went up. “Wait. You made handcuffs that make a person both quiet and induce amnesia?”

“Yeah? Why?” He was focused on driving, so he missed the glare the novice was sending him.

“Tell me that’s the only pair.”

Caleb glanced at him to see that he did, in fact, look as pissed off as he sounded. “What … Why?” He paused biting his lip. He had maybe told Chatty Charlie that he was going to show him how to properly cuff a suspect without hurting them a few nights ago, and gotten his first decent night’s sleep of this assignment. “Oh.” He flushed. He was usually a lot more careful when he gave in to his weaker side and used magic for his own gain. “Sorry.”

“Caleb! That’s not okay! I wasn’t bothering …”

“Charlie, just … Let’s have some quiet time, okay?”

“Okay, but I’m not the asshole here, and …”

“Quiet time, Charlie. I have another pair in my jacket and I am willing to use them right the hell now.” He needed a break. Not like his recent confinement in the infirmary. A real break. Like a vacation. Maybe on a beach somewhere. For now he’d take getting to the nearby safehouse that was prepared to accommodate “guests”.

“What’s going to happen to her?” Charlie asked.

Caleb opened his mouth to answer, but swore instead, flipping on the windshield wipers. “I don’t remember seeing snow in the forecast,” Caleb muttered.

“There wasn’t,” Charlie said, stiffening, eyes searching the darkness around them, looking suddenly nervous.

Caleb appreciated the kid’s instincts. He knew Ronoven was close; he had to be. They had one of his artifacts, and custody of a person who had contact with demons, who coincidentally reported directly to Ronoven. His ring still felt heavy, still felt warm, but nothing had really changed since he’d been standing by the curb. He decided to try to break Charlie’s tension a little.

“So … um … Not much will probably happen to our Ms. Shea. We’ll question her, give her a strong amnesiatic, and return her to her home, cleared of all charges as far as the locals are concerned, because we definitely don’t want the cops doing any more digging around that wallet.”

Charlie cocked his head. “That’s it?”

“Well, I mean, I guess we could get out the thumbscrews if that would make you feel better, Castille, but she’s already made a deal with Hell. I somehow don’t think there’s anything we could do that’s going to be worse than the knowledge of eternal damnation, do you?”

Charlie shuddered. “I guess not.” He was quiet for a while. “This storm is getting really bad.”

“Yeah, it is,” Caleb agreed. They drove for a little while longer.

“What are you doing?” Charlie asked.

“Pulling over for the night,” Caleb answered, maneuvering the car into a fairly crowded motel parking lot and deciding he’d made a good decision when the vehicle fishtailed wildly. Despite the crowd, the sign still advertised vacancies. He left Charlie with the prisoner and went to make arrangements. When he got back, he and Charlie got the still-wax-figure-docile Patricia out of the car and Caleb gestured toward the exterior stairs. “We’re in 267. Second floor, on the end.”

Second floor wasn’t ideal, but they hadn’t been followed. And somewhere along their increasingly stressful drive, Caleb’s ring had cooled and lightened up. He felt like maybe they could actually relax a little tonight. A little.

He felt a little badly about how far away they had to park when he set Charlie to take care of their bags. Of course, he had to deal with Patricia. Leading her toward the stairs with his coat draped over her shoulders, more to conceal the cuffs than to keep her warm, he was grateful for the snow. Charlie made a return trip for the rest of their stuff while Caleb helped Patricia settle in. When Charlie got back, Caleb handed him a cup of black coffee from the room’s grimy coffee machine, and said, “We should be fine. I checked the weather, and the snow should pass by around midnight. Freak storm, I guess. Some kind of fronts meeting each other thing.”

“I love a white Christmas,” Charlie said wistfully.

“Sure. Who doesn’t? But, maybe wait to love it until we get to the safehouse. Now ward the door. You’ve got first watch.” He stretched out on the bed Patricia wasn’t occupying, closed his eyes, and Charlie was pretty sure Caleb was asleep before his coffee had cooled enough to sip.

The night passed uneventfully. Patricia was a peaceful sleeper, and Caleb and Charlie divided the watches in such a way that neither of them were too exhausted the next morning. By about eight a.m. the local news was reporting that the road crews had things more or less clear. Caleb made his way down to the car ro clean it off and warm it up before they brought down their prisoner and got on the road. He froze when it came into view.

Their car was absolutely spotless. Dry even. Not a speck of snow anywhere on it. No snow piled up around it like someone had swept it off either. The parking spot was even cleared in a perfect, dry rectangle around it. A large red bow was affixed to the trunk, with a note tucked into the ribbon, looking for all the world like an oversized gift tag.

Caleb made himself walk over, more curious than cautious, once the shock had passed. He plucked the note out from under the bow and began to read, his lips moving slightly.

My Dearest Caleb,

I’m so sorry to leave just this simple missive when we were so close to a face to face communication. I imagine the conversation would be sparkling. But, we are men of action, and thus, unusually busy. I did briefly consider throwing caution to the wind so we could have the heart to heart we’d both probably enjoy. I haven’t met a sorcerer worth half a damn in centuries and I think you might even be worth three-quarters of one if you put your mind to it. The prospect of that had me thinking that I should have a little fun and break your puppy’s (that’s you Charlie) wards. Although, I think you should be more diligent in your teaching, old boy. Because wards is a very generous assessment. They were more like a polite, but strongly worded suggestion.

I thought that might be fun, you know, make a grand entrance. We could have a few drinks, then I could kill everyone in the room for making me come out in the freaking snow, I could get what I came for and leave. But then I was like nah, that sounds time consuming, messy, and I’m betting Tinkles the Wonder Dog (you again, Chuck, sorry to say) will come through. And boy, did he ever.

Left a big marked evidence packet right on the back seat, in full view. I can’t tell you how thrilled I was at his unrelenting thoughtfulness on my behalf. So thank you both so much for thinking of me this holiday season. And for making it such a thoughtful gift. I couldn’t be happier.

I will be sure to drop the Father-General a very specific thank you note.

Since I didn’t have time to get you anything, I cleaned off your car.

Merry Christmas,

Ronoven

“Yeah. Merry Christmas.” Caleb called on every ounce of his training to keep his temper in check and not put a dent in their rental car with his fists. “I’m gonna pay you back, Ronoven. You can count on it.”

Charlie hollered across the parking lot, “Caleb, what’s taking so long?”

“Be right there,” he called back.

Then under his breath he snorted with laughter.

“Tinkles.”

 

The Ninth Day of Fic-mas …

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No Room at the Inn

Authors’ Note – Those of you familiar with Always Darkest have already met one of the important characters in the following story. He also appears in our short novella Fare Thee Well. And we have a feeling you haven’t seen the last of him. 

 

CLANG. CLANG. CLANG. The bell echoed through the courtyard.

“Was a time people respected a closed gate,” grumbled the innkeeper, as he made himself presentable.

The bell clanged several more times, sounding like whoever was ringing it was starting to get testy. “Well, at least they know how I feel,” he grumbled under his breath.

“Alright! I’m coming!” he called, letting his voice be its most cantankerous.

The Census had been good for his purse, but not his patience, which was, on its best day, usually worn thin by hard work and lack of sleep.

He stomped across the courtyard, beginning with the intention of letting them have a piece of his mind for ignoring the late hour, but memories of lean times tempered his irritation somewhat. He still had several rooms left empty when he’d closed up shop for the night. The prospect of more coin brightened his mood considerably by the time he got to the gate.

Opening the small eye-level door in the gate, the innkeeper peered through. Standing outside, looking right back at him from the back of a well-bred and stunningly outfitted horse was an imposing man. It wasn’t his size that made him imposing, even on horseback. His eyes twinkled with what first looked like amusement, but after a second’s contemplation looked almost … dangerous.

This man was a Roman … No, not necessarily, the innkeeper thought. He didn’t look like the other Romans he’d met. His eyes were a striking blue and his hair was a sandy yellow. But he was certainly dressed like a Roman. A successful one, too. The innkeeper was immediately adding a hefty “tax” to the rate. Served the goyim right, marching into their lands and acting like they owned the place. And their money was as good as any of his own people, the innkeeper reasoned.

He opened the gate to negotiate. “Good evening,” he greeted. “I am David, the keeper of this humble inn. How may I assist you this late evening?” Might as well let the Roman know he’d come later than he normally did business. Then the price tag wouldn’t come as such a shock.

The man flashed a charming smile as he dismounted his impressive steed. “Good evening, sir. I represent Titus Flavius and his party. They are on their way here and I’ve ridden ahead to procure rooms for them.”

“Titus Flavius? Was it not your party who bought up all of Chaim’s rooms this morning?”

“Coulda been.  Titus Flavius doesn’t travel light. I’ve been riding all over town buying up rooms all day. So, do you have any rooms or what, there, David?”

“How many rooms does your party require?”

“How many have you got?”

“I … well, I have three rooms available.”

“I’ll take ‘em,” the man replied without even pausing to think. “Any extra rooms you maybe haven’t mentioned, that you’re maybe saving for somebody important? Because I assure you, Titus Flavius is the most important person who’s going to be asking.”

“There’s room in my laborers’ housing for any servants if that’s …”

“I’ll take those, too.”

“How much space would you like to reserve?”

“Well, son, all of it that you’ve got. The Census has made rooms scarce ‘round here. You may have noticed.”

David forced a smile. “Yes, sir. Of course, sir. Will the party be requiring refreshment?”

It wasn’t a usual offer, but he’d heard the name Titus Flavius, and understood him to be a generous man to those who pleased him. Roman or not, David planned on doing just that and reaping the reward.

“If you would be so kind,” the Roman said with a wolfish grin. “This group tends to eat a great deal.” he paused. “If you ensure there’s plenty for them, I am sure you will be well compensated, good sir.”

David was struggling not to rub his hands together with anticipation at fattening his purse. Their inn often struggled to keep his family fed, given its location, and the idea of collecting enough to keep them afloat for longer than a week or two was extremely attractive.

“Shall we discuss our rate?” he asked, as though it was a matter of little consequence, not realizing his newly blooming avarice was shining in his eyes. “So as to avoid confusion later when I am busy meeting the needs of your party.”

Another grin from the fair-haired Roman. “I’m sure you’ll come up with a fair price.”

“Wonderful.” He listed an exorbitant rate for the rooms, and an astronomical one for the food. The Roman didn’t even blink, just nodded agreeably. “We can settle up on the morrow if that’s convenient to you, sir.”

“Oh, I’ll pay now. I don’t want someone coming along and making you a better offer and finding my Lord Titus without a place to lay his head.” He paused. “I’d like to reserve room in your main stable for six horses as well, if you’d be so kind.”

David calculated the total in his head and gave it to the Roman. Reaching into a heavy looking satchel, the Roman handed him two denarii and three sesterces, as if they were nothing. David was suddenly even more inclined to keep the party happy. “Um … what time can I expect the party? I’d hate to leave your lord waiting at the gate.”

“Oh, by midnight or so I’d say. He’s in a hurry and we’ve been pressing past the point of reason. Our mounts could use a day of rest.” He patted his own horse and remounted it.

“Perhaps he’ll stop over for a few days,” David said greedily. “Our accommodations are most comfortable, sir.”

“Perhaps so,” the Roman agreed. “I’ll return before long. I thank you,” he said as he started to trot away like he was in a bit of a hurry.”

“No, sir, thank you!” he called at the rider’s back. “If you could stay a moment to talk specifics about your party, I could make the most comfortable arrangements possible!” The Roman just waved. “I didn’t even get your name!” David tried in a last-ditch effort to glean any information that might ingratiate him to the wealthy group.

The man glanced over his shoulder with a strange knowing smile. “I’m not able, sorry.” He urged the horse along with his knees, making the familiar clicking sound of a slightly impatient rider, and rode off, leaving a confused innkeeper in his wake.

∞∞∞

When the bell rang later that evening, David hurried outside, nearly tripping over his own feet to get there as quickly as possible.

He’d already woken his wife, his children, and his mother to prepare the rooms for their important guests. Their kitchen smelled of baking bread and roasting meat. The other guests had begun to stir, and all were happy to pay for an unexpected meal, so David had his family working to feed them all. The coin had already more than made up for the loss of the fat goat that had stopped giving milk some time ago.

He swung the gate wide in a grand welcoming gesture, expecting a party of smart but tired Romans. What he was faced with instead was a dusty exhausted looking man holding the rope of a donkey, upon which was a woman, large with child, clutching her belly and grimacing with discomfort.

The man was wringing his hands in worry. “I’m sorry to trouble you this late, good sir. But … my wife … her time has come ‘round, you see, and … we desperately need shelter for the night.” When the innkeeper frowned elaborately at the road-dirtied, weary pair, the man took out a money pouch. “I can pay … Whatever you ask.”

David sniffed disdainfully. He was quite busy enough without some nobody who’d planned their trip poorly wasting it. That money pouch looked heavy enough, but it was tiny compared with that of the nameless Roman who’d visited him a few hours ago. “No room,” he said curtly. “Try the next town over.” He moved to swing the gate closed.

The woman stifled a small whimper of discomfort and her husband put himself in the way of the gate. “There are no other rooms. Not anywhere. Some Roman has bought up every vacant room between here and Jerusalem, I think.”

“Sorry to hear that,” the innkeeper said, not meaning it, and not sounding like he did.

“Please,” the man pleaded. “We’ll take anything. Servants quarters would be fine. I’ll pay the full room rate. She just needs somewhere to … to …” She whimpered again, and the man’s eyes bored into David’s. “Please,” he said, and it was no longer a plea. It had an edge that told the innkeeper he was desperate enough to not be rational. The man had the deeply muscled arms of a laborer, but the sharp intelligent eyes of a scholar. A dangerous combination if pushed past his limits.

“There’s no room in the servant’s quarters either. You can stay in the small barn out back. The straw is clean and there’s plenty of it.”

“Fine,” the man agreed, casting a concerned glance at his wife whose eyes were closed and whose breath was coming in little panting gasps. “How much?”

“Two shekels.”

The woman’s eyes snapped open. “Two shekels to stay in a barn? Are you mad? Joseph, we can’t …”

“Mary, love, it’s alright. We need to get you inside somewhere.”

As if to prove him right, her whole body seemed to tighten in pain, she wrapped both arms around her middle, her eyes squeezed shut again, and she nodded emphatically. The man handed the innkeeper the coins hurriedly and moved himself out of the way of the gate to the main inn. “Thank you,” he said, grateful just to get his wife off the street.

Having already lost interest in the pair already, David moved to close the gate. “I think there’s a horse blanket out there for bedding.” He closed the gate and headed inside to prepare for his important guest.

Joseph started leading the donkey up a well-worn track on the property toward the smallest, furthest barn. Mary puffed out a long breath as her discomfort passed for the moment. “I suppose a barn is the best we can do.”

Joseph kept his current thoughts on that subject to himself. When they got to the barn, Joseph arranged some straw into what might make for a soft place for his wife to rest, and spread his traveling cloak over it. There was a horse blanket, but it looked like it could get up and walk away on his own. He helped Mary lower herself onto the makeshift bed. She smiled up at him, as if some secret knowledge had once again found its way into her heart.

“We must trust that He has a plan,” she said with subdued confidence, then gasped with a sharp pain.

“We’ve trusted so much already, my love, I feel that’s a muscle I’ve nearly worn out.”

Even through the pain, she smiled more brightly. “It’s almost time. You’ll see.”

Kneeling down next to her, as a deep serenity came over her expression, he supposed he would.

∞∞∞

Outside, an angel settled in to watch, silent and invisible. She found herself almost questioning the command not to smite every one of the horrible greedy men who turned away two of their own people in desperate need for something as base and common as simple money. She was intent on making sure no other indignities befell her charges.

From the main building, a figure bustled across the courtyard, arms piled high with a cumbersome bundle. It was a woman, framed in the glow of the now well-lit inn, mumbling and cursing under her breath. Armisael turned her attention to this woman as it became clear she was heading to the little barn.

The angel let her pass. The bundle held clean blankets and linens, food, a wineskin and a bladder of water warmed on their hearth, cloths for the birth and to swaddle an infant, some salt to rub down the child and prevent infection. Anything the couple might need. She was livid with her husband and murmured to any power listening that he ought to be struck with some very personal boils. Armisael smiled. She thought she could arrange that. At least one of the bastards could suffer for letting her charges come to such a state at such a critical time. Although, she did understand the need to conform to prophecy for the purposes of this endeavor. No one had told her she had to like it.

“Kinda says a lot about your Boss, doesn’t it? That this is how He leaves His kid … or is it Himself … to come into this world. I’m kind of fuzzy on this whole three-way thing.”

Armisael jumped in surprise and hated herself for it. It was shameful for her, an Angel of the Lord, to be startled by a human, especially since she should be invisible. But this human had spent thousands of years working magic, causing trouble, so it wasn’t any wonder the rules didn’t apply to him. She smoothed her robes as she regained her composure, very much on her dignity.

The smirking man, dressed like a Roman but not Roman in the slightest, just laughed. “You’re a might jumpy for an angel,” he observed.

Armisael cursed herself when she observed the simple magic that had let him approach without detection. They should have known he’d pull something like this and prepared for it. “Cain,” she greeted tersely. “To what do I owe this annoyance?”

“Oh, I ain’t here for you, sweetheart.” He grinned at how her jaw clenched. “I’m just here for the show. To witness the casus belli.”

“Pardon me? This is no such thing.” Her eyes flashed with indignance and a spark of anger.

“Sure it is, sweetheart. This is why y’all had your little family squabble, ain’t it?”

“It’s not that simple, Human.”

Cain’s eyebrows went up, not in agreement, but in something that might have been amusement, or an understanding he wasn’t willing to share. “With Him, it never is. But all I was sayin’ was you’d think He’d provide for His Son or Self … or whatever the Hell. Like I said, the whole three-way thing has me confused … Since it’s just Him and all.”

“Trinity,” she bit out.

“Yeah, I know Trinity, what about her?”

“No, you arrogant ass. The Trinity. The three-parted nature of the Lord Most High. It’s called The Trinity. The Holy Trinity, in point of fact. One God in Three Divine Personages. You could show some respect and refer to it properly.”

“Now you’re just being pedantic. I like calling it The Holy Three-way.”

“Cain! My patience with your revolting nonsense is at its end. Just because my work is not usually of a bellicose nature does not mean I am unarmed. Leave. NOW!”

“Or what?” The smirk was teasing, baiting. She hated it.

“Excuse me?”

“You heard me. You could hear me if I just thought it. You can’t touch me. Daddy said so. When He had one of you toadies curse me. So, I say, leave or what?”

Her feathers ruffled, then smoothed. “Fine. Stay if you want.”

“Oh, I plan to.”

They were silent for a few minutes, watching the bustling activity now happening inside the little building in front of them. Finally, Armisael glanced at him. “How is it you’re so well dressed? I thought people were to run you out wherever you go.”

He shrugged. “Well, yeah, they used to. But I found a workaround.”

“Really? A workaround for an angelic curse sanctioned by God?”

“Well, now, it’s a funny thing, but one on one, small groups … I manage to get by just nicely.”

Her utterly smooth face creased. “How?” she demanded.

“Now that’s my little secret, sweetheart. And I ain’t tellin’.”

“Whatever,” she said with a dismissive roll of her eyes. She couldn’t believe this little twerp had bought up every room her charges might have found comfort, just to gratify some strange egotistical urge. Most likely just to prove he could do it. To let Heaven know, once again, that he didn’t give a damn what they thought or what their plans were. “Must be nice to live without a conscience.”

He put a theatrical hand to his heart. “You wound me, Armisael. I am right now, as we stand here, in the throes of deepest regret.”

“I somehow doubt that.”

He looked at her earnestly, eyes wide enough to make her believe he could suddenly be near tears. “No really, I am.”

He waited a beat, then his expression morphed into his familiar smirk. “Right now, I regret that I didn’t rent out that damned manger, too.” Her eyes went wide with fury, but he just waved, and turned away. “You have yourself a good night there, fancy bird.”

Cain whistled to himself as he walked away.

 

The Eighth Day of Fic-mas …

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Faerie Lights

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

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

 

“C’mon, Osh!”

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

“Ach, she won’t know,” he protested.

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

“Don’ call me that!” he said hotly.

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

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

“Ah! Ach, get off me!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Sorry, Osh.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Da’ said maybe I could …”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“‘Spose I have,” he nodded sagely.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She purred at him again.

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

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

She meowed in apparent agreement.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Do ye need help?” he asked.

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

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

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

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

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

The tiny girl shook her head vehemently, beckoning again.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

∞∞∞

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“She is that. She’s the best cat.”

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

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

“How’s yer head now, boy?”

He thought about it. “S’good.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

The Seventh Day of Fic-mas …

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Christmas Past

Authors’ Note – Part of this story takes place during the Christmas season in Always Darkest. You don’t need to have read the book to enjoy the story, so just in case you are new to the universe, Chris is the former gatekeeper of Pontius Pilate, cursed with immortality, and trying to make the most of his second chance. The rest of the story speaks of events leading to a Christmas past. On a side note, the wonderful work of fiction that inspired this idea happens to have been published 175 years ago today. It was an entirely coincidental confluence of events, but that seems to be a theme in our little universe. Thanks, Charlie.

 

Chris sat forward in his office chair, taking a sip of tea, running a hand over the worn leather cover of the aged book in front of him. Ben had brought it by a while ago, wrapped in simple brown paper and tied with a string.

Chris wasn’t allowed to consider it a Christmas present, he’d said. It was simply a thank you for inviting him to move in, for giving him an out from staying so close to Hell’s business. And it was, perhaps, a small nod to the holiday of Yule, the winter celebration that still meant quite a great deal to him.

“Wherever did you find this?” Chris had asked in awe, finger tracing the inscription reverently.

Ben had grinned. “It is yours, isn’t it?”

“It is, but I … I certainly never thought I’d see it again.”

“I’m surprised it ever got out of your sight.”

“I had to leave in rather a hurry,” he said absently. “A summons from the Church.”

“Oh. Those assholes,” Ben laughed. “Makes more sense now. Do you like it?”

“I …” He’d needed to stop and clear his throat. “Of course I like it. But I hardly know how to begin to thank you.”

Ben rolled his eyes. “I told you, it’s to thank you. If you really need to offer me some form of recompense for doing such a little thing, do me a favor and eat the food that came along with the book. You were so damned grouchy from starving yourself when you got home from grading papers last night, I thought you might actually take a bite out of me,” he teased.

Chris promised he would. He’d even unwrapped the sandwich with the best of intentions, but the call of one of his best loved possessions, returned to him by a thoughtful friend, was too great. He decided he wasn’t even going to ask how Ben had come by it. It was almost certainly through his demon friend who ran the bar, and he didn’t want anything to do with … him … her … it … whatever. It was almost certainly wise to keep his distance from that part of Ben’s life. He didn’t like thinking about it or its implications anyway.

Instead, he pulled the book toward him, reading the inscription again, smiling faintly as the memories of how it came into being washed over him in the quiet office, transporting him to a night he still thought of with warmth from time to time.

∞∞∞

The gaslamp cast dancing shadows over and behind the men. Their almost grave silence would have worried the servants passing through, to say nothing about the lady of the house, were they not tempered by some satisfied smiles or occasional pained, but modest, curses.

“Well, gentleman, that’s the rubber. Shall we play again,” said their affable host, as the cards were tossed onto the table. He had the look of a man well-satisfied, and trying to hide how smug he was feeling, and doing rather a poor job.

“Ho-no, Charlie. I think I’ve had enough. My purse is a bit lighter than I’m comfortable with for only one evening’s play.”

Charlie laughed, but the second man agreed, “I feel the same. I shudder to think what Eleanor would say if she knew how much of my Christmas bonus I just parted with.”

The third man, clearly feeling almost badly about the fleecing he’d just assisted his friend Charlie in inflicting on his neighbors, offered, “We could switch partners, if you like.”

“Now, now, Cristiano, let’s not be so hasty,” Charlie protested with a laugh. “Perhaps if you lads are lucky, Chris will let us all draw lots to be enriched by him next game.”

Chris shook his head. “It really was a bit of luck, but you’re very kind.”

Reggie chuckled, but rose and started pulling on his coat. “Really, gentleman, it was a pleasure. And I do thank you for the master class in whist.” He paused, giving them both the sort of friendly smile that said despite how much of his coin was staying here on the table, he’d passed a highly enjoyable and stimulating evening. “Come along, Harry, we’ll walk together. I’ve saved us a couple of cigars from my jaunt over to Whitechapel last week to be a balm to our spirits tonight.”

Despite the offer of tobacco, Harry’s face remained pulled into a sour, angry pout.

“What’s wrong, Harry?” Charlie asked. “You’re not cross about the game, are you?”

“Well, now that you mention it, yes, I rather am.” He eyed Chris with a narrowed, suspicious gaze. “Your friend.”

“We’ve been playing together all night, sir. I do have a name. Cristiano, or Chris, as you please,” the dark-haired man corrected almost softly, taking the man’s measure and feeling himself beginning to tense.

“Fine,” Harry snapped, speaking to Charlie, but not taking his eyes of the man’s guest. “Chris or Cristiano, or whatever he calls himself, plays awfully well for someone who claims to be new to the game, Harry said darkly.

Charlie’s face creased, and his eyes narrowed. “What exactly are you implying?”

“Charles,” Chris said softly, “Please, let me.” He was nothing if not calm and in control of his voice and face. Charlie nodded. His own temper was on the verge of flaring. Better to let his friend handle this if he felt it could be smoothed over. “You, sir, seem to be implying that we cheated you. Am I correct? Or is this simply a messy misunderstanding about to get out of hand by poorly chosen words.”

The gravity of his tone brought Harry up short. Calling a gentleman a cheat had serious implications. While not technically legal, duels still settled matters of personal honor with the regularity of a well-constructed clock. Harry held up his hands. “No, no, no. I apologize if I’ve given some offense.”

Italians had a reputation, whether earned or not, of being quick to anger, dangerous in a fight, and likely to bring their entire family down on you, especially over a question of honor. And he didn’t know Charlie’s friend very well at all.

Chris could practically read all of that in the man’s face and his hasty retraction. “Well, then, perhaps you’d be so kind as to clarify your intentions for me and our host.”

“It’s just … You … You took to the game faster than I’ve ever seen. I rather thought perhaps Charlie undersold your experience to get me back for a bit of misdirection at the billiards table a few weeks ago.”

Chris chuckled like he hadn’t just narrowly avoided having to call Harry out to pistols at dawn to safe face. While he would certainly survive, he couldn’t say if Harry would, and he knew the man had nearly as many children as Charlie. “I see. Is it such a terribly complicated game?” All three of the other men widened their eyes at him. “At home I’ve played something quite similar. Tressette. Are you familiar with it?”

Harry, realizing he’d tread upon a very fine line, saw the opportunity to back off his accusation further and took it. “Ah, I attempted it once, my friend. It is similar, I believe, but if anything, more difficult.”

Chris laughed lightly. “I suppose it is. It is quite challenging, but I learned it young, and have enjoyed as a means of financing my penchant for travel for many years.”

“Well, no wonder we were so soundly rousted this evening, sir. You’ve certainly explained your skill. My apologies to you both,” Harry said with ample sincerity, offering the two men a small bow.

“Please, think nothing of it. I may have overreacted,” Chris smiled, relieved he’d avoided a fight, while still allowing them to play into their own assumptions about Charlie’s Italian friend.

Chris was glad things had been settled amicably. He hoped to spend some time here doing work with the poor, and perhaps learning a bit more about America. He was thinking of traveling there at some point. He and Charlie had met while traveling and Chris knew he’d traveled to America recently, so it was a natural connection to make. His warm smile invited a bit more small talk, after which Reggie and, a very contrite, Harry took their leave.

Charlie and Chris returned to the parlor after seeing them out. “Sherry?” Charlie asked.

“Yes, thank you.”

As he placed their glasses on the table and sat down facing his guest, Charlie observed, “You handled Harry quite well. He’s a bit of a hot head, mouth running off before his head catches up, but he usually means well.”

Chris took a sip of the exceptionally fine fortified wine. “That was my impression as well. I certainly didn’t want to lose face. In any event, I sensed he just needed a way out, so I provided one. I’m glad I read him correctly. I’m alright if faced with someone looking for a bit of fisticuffs, but I’m not fond of firearms. Pistols at dawn was not the conclusion I was looking for either.”

“Quite,” Charlie said, chuckling. “Now, not to press the matter, but would tonight be a good time …”

Chris smiled. “I always enjoy our discussions, Charlie.”

“Join me by the fire?”

Chris nodded, and they moved to sit in the comfortable chairs positioned on either side of the fire.

“This is the part of the evening I was most anticipating. I believe it’s your turn.”

“No, no,” Chris said pleasantly. “If I’m not mistaken, I provided the question when last we met. Although, I confess, it’s been awhile since we’ve had the opportunity to meet like this.”

Charlie chuckled again. “Quite so. And I do have one, if you’re sure …”

“Go on, please.”

“Alright then, tonight’s question …Is man, by his nature truly redeemable, that is to say, can a leopard change its spots?”

This time Chris laughed. “That’s really the question?” Charlie looked like he might be ready to defend his question, but Chris just went on, no longer laughing, really giving the idea his attention. “The possibility of redemption is the cornerstone of my faith. Of yours, too,” Chris reminded his host. “Despite semantics, our religions are not so very different, are they?”

“Well, I suppose all that’s true. But do you really believe in it? Redemption, I mean.”

“Of course I do. I’ve seen people change, wholly and completely.”

“Do they though? Or is it the trappings of change, while in their hearts they remain the same.”

“Ah. I see what you’re really asking now.” Chris paused, thinking. Charlie thought he looked older when he wore that expression, too old. “Speaking from experience, I have to believe people can really change.”

Charlie frowned at him, but it was a thoughtful sort of frown, not one of irritation. “Unfortunately, my experience has been rather different. But do go on.”

“I meant me,” he said, seeing the surprise in his host’s eyes. He smiled as he went on, but it was a strange smile, Charlie thought. It had gladness and sadness in equal measure. “I am not the man I was, you see.”

“Do you feel you can tell me your own story?”

“I’ve told it many times before,” he said with a nod. “Confessed it, you might say. In my younger days, I cared nothing for the wisdom of my elders, trusting rather what I could read of philosophers and great thinkers, politicians even. And I found my way into military service contrary to my family’s wishes, too. I was quick of temper, self-serving, even violent. I was very much taken with being a soldier at war. I turned my back on my parents, my whole family, my friends, and even … even love … all in the name of my own ambition. All out of a restless need to fill the emptiness inside me that none of them could, I suppose. And I was angry … so angry, that the world did not conform to my view of it.” He looked down at his hands for a moment.

“I must say,” Charlie offered, getting up and refilling their glasses. “I cannot reconcile this tale with the man I met in my travels through Scotland, old boy. In the two years I’ve known you, in all our correspondence, I’ve never seen any hint of the man you describe. And you’re still so young.”

“Despite my youth, trust that it was a long road to my Damascus,” Chris said simply.

“Well, perhaps you are an exception that proves the rule,” Charlie said with a furrowed brow.

Chris sipped his drink, raising an eyebrow at his friend. “How so?”

“Just look at the times. Society, not just here, but everywhere, is course and rude, callous, in its treatment of our most vulnerable. Surely you’ve seen that in your missionary work?” Chris tilted his head but didn’t given any indication of an answer. “Rather than change, the men with the wealth and the wherewithal to do something about it, at best provide simple, insufficient sops to appear good, while their actions only deepen the misery. And at worst, they deepen it willfully, and in the open.”

Chris frowned. “I think you need to reframe your question then. You are talking of society, not of the individual.”

“Aren’t I though? Isn’t society a collection of individuals? Does not society reflect our collective hearts?”

Chris nodded thoughtfully, stroking his chin which bore what would have been considered an impolite amount of stubble, though he would have sworn in front of the throne of the Almighty that he shaved that very morning. “What you are saying, if I’m hearing you correctly, is the current ills of society, the ones we patch over with alms houses and so-called Christian charity, and the persistent lack of real change for the poor and the sick and so on, is directly related to the intractability of human nature. Man’s inhumanity to man, so to speak.”

Charlie nodded, leaning toward his guest. “Yes. That’s it. That’s it, exactly. So, I must ask, given my position, and given the state of our society, is real change possible?”

“Still, I say yes, but I’ll admit it isn’t easy.”

“I’d say nigh on impossible, your story notwithstanding.”

“Fair enough, I suppose. People resist change, resist giving of themselves, out of fear, I think, and sometimes,” he paused. In my case, most certainly, he thought to himself. “It takes an act of apparently divine intervention. But still, it’s not hopeless. It is possible. I’m not the only example I’ve observed of the process, I can assure you.”

Now intrigued, as opposed to feeling a simple academic interest, Charlie asked, “And what does that process look like?”

Chris gazed into the fire for a few minutes, thinking of his past, his journey, and that of others whose lives he had passed through. “I see the process, the journey, having three parts.”

“An auspicious number for a man of faith.”

“I suppose so. But it really does tend to look the same, regardless of faith. One must first reflect, without wallowing in it, mind you, on how they came to be where they are, on how their experiences shaped them.” Charlie was nodding. Any man of learning or of faith could acknowledge the power of self-reflection. “Say we take one of the powerful people you mentioned, who could change things, but who refuse.”

“Yes?”

“These men, are greedy and hard, hoarding their wealth and their affection from the world and taking no joy but that which comes from increasing what they already have.”

“I know many such men.”

“They might become so taken with wealth that it becomes the central theme of their lives, at the cost of all else.”

“So like the young man you tell me you were, they sacrifice all else for some selfish end that they cannot even see doesn’t serve them or anyone else.”

“Just so,” Chris agreed. “Reflection might have the power to illuminate why that is for one of them, just as it did for me. Perhaps one grew up poor, just as you’ve told me you did, Charlie. But in his case, growing up wanting, or perhaps with hard parents or none even, perhaps even growing up sent away to work or school with no familial affection, well, perhaps that would make that man fear those feelings of want. For one who has wanted desperately, I can see wealth or some skewed concept of success, supplanting real warmth or affection through a simple mistake of the emotions.”

“I suppose …”

“And perhaps someone sent away to school, like many of the men of power we are talking about, reinforced their mis-taught views on class and society. They wind up measuring the value of their life and its impact by the size of their pile of gold. Until they see that, until they understand its flaw, real change is not possible.”

“To what end? Just to see … I don’t understand.”

Chris shrugged. “The past informs the present. Examining our pasts allows us to see why we behave as we do in the here and now.”

“What good will that do any one of them, any one of us?”

“Well, it’s just the first step, as I said. The next is to truly understand how our actions impact the world around us. It requires the waking of the empathy all men, as children of God, are heir to, perhaps it has slumbered since infancy in the mind’s deepest vaults, but it is there. In all of us. We can see what we do, how we matter, in the world, and to the people around us. For some that’s enough. Some men can change with only that put into perspective.”

“And the ones who cannot?”

“For them, the road is the most difficult, but the change it results in is perhaps the most profound. They must understand where these things, if they remain unchanged, will take them. In the case of the unfeeling elite we were discussing, it’s likely a life devoid of love or even friendship, a lonely death, and only Perdition to show for it.”

“Was that the long road you traveled, my young friend?”

Chris nodded. “After a fashion. And I had some rather profound assistance. A wise man, and such a kind one, he … well, to carry the metaphor from earlier, he removed the scales from my eyes. He showed me a different path. One I am finally content to tread.”

Charlie sat, deep in thought, for some time. “So real change is possible …”

“With work,” Chris agreed. “As a conscious choice. In addition to the possibility of redemption, free will is foundational to our beliefs.”

Charles was quiet again, then he looked at his friend with a twinkle in his eye. “You’ve given me much to think about, Cristiano, much to think about indeed.”

“Then another of our conversations can be called a success,” Chris said with a grin.

“Most assuredly.”

“Charles, darling, it’s getting late,” came a soft voice. Both men turned to see the man’s lovely wife framed in the doorway.

“So it is,” Chris agreed, with a polite nod to them both. He moved to the table to don his coat. “I’ll bid you both good evening then.”

“Next week, perhaps?” Charlie said hopefully. “You’ve given me an idea I’d love to discuss when you’ve the time.”

“I’m afraid I’ll be traveling home by then. I’m not sure when I’ll return to England.”

“Kate and I have discussed another grand adventure. Perhaps I shall visit you in Rome next time. I suppose, for now, we’ll have to be content with our correspondence.”

“I’ll look forward to it,” Chris said with a smile.

“Keep an eye on your post. I may have something for you before too long.”

∞∞∞

A soft tap on his office door, drew Chris from his memories. He’d been so caught up in them, he was almost surprised to see the electric light with the green glass shade on his desk rather than a candle or gaslamp. “Come in!” he called out.

“Hey, I’m sorry to bother you, Dr. G …”

“Mal, please, what have I said?”

She smiled. “That during office hours and outside of class we should call you Chris.”

“Would be during class,too, if I had any say,” he chuckled. “What can I do for you, Mal? Shouldn’t you be laying rubber in the student parking lot getting out of here for break?”

She laughed. “I buy my own tires, Dr … Chris. I’m going to be working on my senior project over vaca … Wow, this looks old,” she said, reaching out to touch the book in front him, then thinking better of it and pulling her hand back.

“It is,” he said, pushing it toward her. “Have a look, just be gentle.”

“Of course,” she said reverently, picking it up. “Oh, oh wow. I love this one.”

“You like Dickens?” Chris asked. Mal wasn’t much of a novel reader, at least not the classics, he’d noticed. She was more for science texts, or if she was reading just for fun science fiction, or fantasy, or much to Ben’s consternation, horror novels.

“I … I like this one. The beginning is so good. ‘Marley was dead to begin with’. It pulls me right in.”

“I like that, too, although I confess, I’m partial to the theme.”

“This is a first edition, holy shit!” Mal exclaimed, totally forgetting herself. “I … sorry … I just … this is so cool. I don’t think I’ve ever seen, say nothing about held, a first edition of … anything!”

Chris smiled. “No apologies necessary. It was a gift from Ben, actually. And quite unexpected. I may have said something similar when he gave it to me.”

“He’s a thoughtful guy. I hope he likes the coin we talked about. Has it turned up yet?”

“Oh, yes, I did find it … It’s at home … I’ll drop it off to you at the gallery tomorrow if you like”

“That’d be … oh my God, this is … It’s made out to a Chris! ‘To Chris, thank you for the conversation. Your friend, Charlie’. That’s unbelievable! What are the odds of Ben finding a first edition Dickens that you love made out to another Chris?”

“I don’t know, Mal, you’re the math whiz,” he said with a grin.

“Okay, whenever Ben asks me what the odds are, I usually tell him easily calculable.” She laughed. “Seriously though. That’s crazy.”

“Yeah,” Chris chuckled. “Small world.”

 

 

 

 

The Sixth Day of Fic-mas

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The Christmas That Wasn’t

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She sniffed. “Fine. Ask.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Okay. We’re done,” she bit out.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“This is close,” Ben frowned.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I said …”

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

“What?!?”

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

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

“Please what?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Sounds it, but about that door charm …”

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

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

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

“Outside?”

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

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

“I said stay out of my house!”

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

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

“Miss,” came the stern reply.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“True enough, sir. True enough.”

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

∞∞∞

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

She was going to kill Ben. Slowly.

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

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

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

“It’s really not important, I …”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes, Revered?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Can I stay here until it comes through?”

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

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

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

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

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

“Why the hell not?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She stomped upstairs.

 

The Fifth Day of Fic-mas …

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Christmas Miracles

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Teddy, I wanna play outside!”

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

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

“Not real?” Teddy widened his eyes dramatically.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Not even Mom and Dad?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“For what?”

“For you, silly.”

“For me?” he asked, confused.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Snickerdoodle!”

∞∞∞

 

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

 

Ben’s Snickerdoodle Recipe

Ingredients

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

2 teaspoons Cream of Tartar

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

3/4 teaspoon Salt

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

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

2 tablespoons Heavy Cream

2 teaspoons Vanilla Extract (the good stuff)

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

Instructions

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