Sugar and Spice

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Authors’ Note: Here’s another missing scene from Christmas in Always Darkest. 

Sugar and Spice

Chris let himself inside the apartment to a delightful aroma for the fifth day in a row. Also for the fifth day in a row, he found Ben in the midst of bowls, cups, pans, general stickiness, and culinary disarray, frowning at the result of his messy efforts.

Chris chuckled softly as he dropped his messenger bag full of papers to grade on their table. “What’s wrong with this one?”

“I don’t know, but it’s not right.” Ben shook his head and cut a slice of the still slightly warm cake, put it on a plate, and handed it to Chris. “You tell me.”

Chris took the plate over to the table and dug into Ben’s latest effort at recreating the chocolate spice cake he liked so much from the bakery around the corner. He chewed and swallowed, smile spreading as he did so. 

“Ben, I don’t know what you’re agonizing over. This is wonderful. And I honestly think your citrus frosting is better than theirs.”

Ben smiled at that. “Yeah, I’m happy with the frosting.” He shrugged, taking another bite of it himself and chewing it thoughtfully. “But the cake still isn’t where it needs to be. It’s not chocolatey enough. All I can taste is the spices.”

“Since you’re making it for the Sinclairs, maybe you should get Mal’s opinion.”

Ben shook his head. “It’s supposed to be a surprise.”

He finished his disappointing piece of cake, proving himself immune to Chris’s encouraging words about how good it was. 

It was good. 

But it wasn’t good enough. 

Mal had tasted the bakery cake and loved it. He wanted the one he made for her and her family to blow the bakery out of the water. He couldn’t have really said why it was so important to him, but it was. 

When he finished his slice, he sighed. “Will my music bother you if I crank it while I clean up all this garbage?”

“Not at all. I’m going to head into the living room and grade these papers. They’re my last batch to hand back before Saint Auggie’s goes on break.”

Ben pulled up the Celtic punk station on his music app, cranked it full blast, dropped his phone into a clean coffee mug as an impromptu speaker, and put the cake away. Then he started digging himself out of the mountain of dirty dishes with methodical intensity, while half singing along to Flogging Molly’s If I Ever Leave This World Alive. He was lost in his task, and in the music.

A little later, as he finished drying the last of the dishes, and was getting ready to wipe down the counter, Mal’s hand on his elbow startled him into almost dropping a pyrex measuring cup. 

“Hey!” he grinned, recovering quickly. “I thought you had to work at the gallery this afternoon.”

She smiled, picking up the damp cloth he’d dropped and wiping the counter down for him. “Dad’s on a maniacal cleaning spree at home because my uncle’s coming for the holiday, too, so he let me off the hook. Figured I’d surprise you and maybe we could walk up to the bookstore and do a little Christmas browsing.”

Ben started putting away the dishes. “Sure. Lemme just finish cleaning up my mess.”

Mal leaned against the counter. “Whatcha making?”

Ben didn’t look at her, just kept doing what he was doing. “Nothing really.”

“Liar,” she teased. “You’re up to something.”

He put away the last bowl and turned. “You’re spooky good at that, you know.”

“What?” she grinned. “Knowing when you’re up to something?” He nodded. “I’m not really that good. You just can’t look me in the eye when you’re not being honest and when you’re doing it because you’re being sweet, you blush. A lot.”

He pulled an indignant face. “I wasn’t even looking at you! How do you know if I blushed?”

She grinned mischievously. “It hits the back of your neck and your ears first.”

He laughed, and this time he knew it was obvious he was blushing because he could feel the heat of it. 

“Can’t keep anything from you can I?” 

And I’d really rather not. 

Like she could read his thoughts, she said, “Why would you want to?”

It was said with a smile, a light teasing tone, but it made his stomach drop a little. He had to tell her the truth of himself soon. He should really buckle down on his research about how to defend her from the Fallen so he could finally be really honest. He met her eyes and made himself smile. “I guess I wouldn’t. But it was supposed to be a surprise for Christmas.”

She took the few necessary steps to wrap him into a hug. “I do love surprises. Early surprises even more so.”

He hugged her back, then pulled the cake out of the fridge. “I was trying to make the spice cake we like. I keep screwing it up though.”

“It looks pretty great to me,” she said honestly.

“Yeah, looks aren’t the problem. You want to try it? Then you’ll see.”

“I never don’t want cake, Ben. It’s one of my primary character flaws.”

He laughed and cut her a slice. “You want some coffee, too?”

“I better not. I haven’t been sleeping well. Don’t want to make it worse by being dumb and overcaffeinating.”

She got a fork out of the drawer and scooped up a bite while they stood right there at the kitchen counter. Her eyes rolled back in a look of pure bliss. “Oh. My. God. Ben, this is soooo good.”

That she liked it made him smile, but still, he shook his head. “I think it’s not chocolatey. The spices come on too strong. The one from Buttercup’s is like a really good bar of dark chocolate, plus the spiciness. That’s part of what makes it good.”

She took another bite of the cake, thinking she could personally eat her weight in what he’d made. But if he wasn’t happy, she wanted to help. “What kind of recipe did you use?”

Ben dug out the cookbook he’d borrowed from the library from the drawer under the microwave. “It’s a red velvet cake. I just left out the food coloring. I figured it’d be good with the cream cheese frosting.”

“It is good.” She looked over the recipe, chewing her lip in what Ben already thought of as her ‘thinking’ expression. “But that’s probably why it’s not as full of chocolatey goodness as you want it to be.”

“Huh? There’s loads of cocoa powder in it.”

“Well, yeah, but natural cocoa powder is still pretty acidic. So it’s more like coffee. Sort of fruity and earthy, but not really deep down chocolatey. You want to use a recipe with Dutched cocoa.” She started flipping through the book. “Here’s one. This one ought to be perfect for you.”

He nearly laughed when he saw she’d landed on a recipe for devil’s food cake. Then he frowned. “How do you know? You can’t even boil water! Or have you been fibbing to me?”

“Oh, no, no fibbing here. I suck at cooking. But as you may have noticed since I’ve been helping you pass your class, I kick ass at chemistry.”

“You do at that.” She was eyeing the cake next to him, so he cut her another piece. “Why is this one going to be different?”

She got a giant forkful of more cake. If he didn’t want this one, she was going to take it home with her for sure. “Dutched cocoa is processed with alkali. It makes it darker and richer and more what you’re thinking of as chocolatey.”

He laughed a little. “And you know this because…?”

“The process was invented by a Dutch guy named Johannes van Houten in 1828. I read about him in a science text a long time ago in a unit on acids and bases. I thought it was cool.”

“It is cool,” Ben said almost skeptically. “If it works.”

“Oh, it’ll work.”

He grinned. “I’m used to being the history nerd in this relationship, you know.”

“It’s science history. And we both know that’s not exactly your thing.”

He laughed. “I guess not. But…”

“Look, what have you got to lose by trying it?”

“Nothing I guess. The worst it can be is terrible.”

“That’s the spirit!”

“Spirit of what? Murphy’s Law?”

“Independent scientific inquiry.”

“Well, if it’s for science, I’ll have to find time to try it.” 

“I’ve got nowhere to be. You’re always telling me I need to learn to cook. Let’s give it a shot.”

An excuse to spend the afternoon in close quarters, working side by side, sounded like Heaven to Ben. If it fixed his chocolate problem, more’s the better, he thought.

***

Several hours later, the two of them sat in a half doze on the couch, full of cake. And victory.

“You’re going to put Buttercup’s out of business, Ben.”

“I don’t need to put anyone out of business. But I’m not gonna lie, I feel better about having something impressive to bring over to Christmas at your place. Especially now that there’s going to be extra family there.” 

He laughed like it wasn’t a big deal, but she heard the slight nervousness in it.

“I keep telling you, they’re gonna love you.” He shifted slightly next to her, but didn’t contradict her. “But if bribery is needed to make it happen, that cake definitely seals the deal.”

“So long as it’s the holiday you want, Mal, I’m good with anything that happens.”

“It will be, Ben.”

She twined her fingers with his as she picked up the remote.  

***

As always, it wouldn’t be a Demons Run Lit Christmas without some holiday goodies. Here’s the recipe that Ben was hoping would keep a couple of angels from smiting him on the spot Christmas morning. Readers of Always Darkest know Mal was right, Ari and Davi liked Ben just fine. But we’re not going to pretend this cake didn’t have something to do with it. 

Chocolate Spice Cake

Ingredients

1 cup boiling water

⅔ cup Dutch-process cocoa, plus extra for dusting the pan

1 tbsp cinnamon

½ tsp nutmeg

¼ tsp ginger

⅛ tsp clove

1 ¼ cups packed dark brown sugar

1 cup all-purpose flour

¾ cup cake flour

1 teaspoon baking soda

1/2 teaspoon kosher salt

1 cup vegetable oil

½ cup sour cream

2 large whole eggs

2 large egg yolks

Directions

Prepare a regular sized bundt pan (you can use any pan you like, but we think this one looks the most festive). We like using shortening to thoroughly grease the pan, and then we dust it with cocoa powder instead of flour so it doesn’t leave weird white marks all over your cake.

Preheat your oven to 325 degrees.

Combine the boiling water and cocoa powder in a small bowl. 

Whisk until smooth.

Set aside.

Combine your dry ingredients in the bowl of your stand mixer (if you don’t have one, use a bowl that will be big enough for all your ingredients to come together in). Dry ingredients include spices, baking soda, and flour.

Whisk to combine.

In a separate bowl or pitcher (to make pouring easier), combine your wet ingredients. Wet ingredients include brown sugar, oil, eggs, egg yolks, and sour cream.

Whisk to combine.

Turn your mixer on low and slowly pour the wet ingredients into the dry ingredients. Once combined, slowly add the cocoa mixture until that’s fully incorporated, too. Scrape down your bowl as needed. 

Pour the cake batter into your prepared pan and bake until a toothpick inserted into the thick part of the cake comes out clean. 35 to 45 minutes.

Cool for about ten minutes in the pan, then turn it out onto a cooling rack or plate to cool completely.

Citrus Cream Cheese Frosting

Ingredients

8 oz unsalted butter, softened

8 oz cream cheese, softened

4 cups powdered sugar (give or take)

1 tsp vanilla extract

1 tbsp orange extract

Zest and juice of 1 orange

(If you want, you can add cinnamon to this as well, or use cinnamon and colored sugar to decorate)

Directions

Sift the powdered sugar. Set it aside.

Using your electric mixer with the whisk attachment, beat butter and cream cheese until thoroughly creamed together. Add the orange zest and blend it in. Turn your mixer to low, and add the powdered sugar a ½ cup at a time until your frosting is smooth and creamy. Blend in the vanilla and orange extract. Thin the frosting to your preferred consistency with the orange juice, adding a little at a time.

Frost your cooled cake with as much of this decadent mix as you like. 

If any angels show up, feed them some to make up for your misdeeds. 

*****

Home

Author’s Note – Here’s another little ficlet inspired by a one word prompt challenge on our Instagram. This could fit into Book II. The word was home. I don’t think it’s much of a spoiler if you’ve read Always Darkest, that our heroes are far from theirs.

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“Oh man, this is awesome,” Ben sighed happily around a huge bite of flatbread pizza covered with an unconscionable amount of pulled pork, olives, and pineapple. “Tastes like home.”

Chris nodded, chasing his bite of calzone with a satisfying overproofed west coast style IPA. “It does, doesn’t it?”

Aife, Ted, and Petra all agreed.

Chris added. “If the local brew were just a hair better, I could almost convince myself we were back on Saint Paul Street.”

Ben grinned around his beer.

“How’s yours, Mal?” Teddy asked, not missing the approving looks everyone was giving him for stuffing his face here. He actually felt halfway decent today and he knew it showed in his appetite. It didn’t hurt that this place really did feel like home. And that, for a change, that felt pretty good.

“Mmmm?”

Mal looked around the table like maybe she hadn’t actually heard the question and was trying to figure it out from the looks on their faces.

Okay, just the food. That’s all.

She took another bite of pizza.

Say something.

“It’s good.”

She’d been fine when the decided to stop here, but Mal had grown a little distant as they’d sat waiting for their order. She drove all day, Ben reasoned, maybe she’s just tiredOr maybe she needs a chance to blow off some steam. “After we finish dinner, you wanna watch me be shitty at pinball? Then you can totally grab yet another high score on the Mal Sinclair All-American Pinball Wizard Tour.”

She smiled. “Sure. Can’t pass up handing your ass to you with a pinball machine right in front of us.”

Ben flashed a smile of his own. Mal dug back into her pizza. Reasonably certain all was well, Ben and Chris resumed their conversation about which campground would be more appropriate for the weekend. It was going to be crowded no matter where they went. If not for the mellowing influence of good beer, the conversation might have turned into an argument.

It had been twenty minutes or so when they finally reached a tenuous agreement and came up for air. Ben glanced to his side, then around the table. “Where’s Mal?”

Petra shrugged. “Bathroom, I think.”

Aife frowned. “She has been gone for a while though.”

Ben hesitated, then stood. “I’m gonna go grab us another pitcher.”

Petra rolled her eyes. “After you check on Mal.”

Ben’s grin was appropriately sheepish. “Yeah. After that.” 

He walked away from the table, not even pretending to go order more drinks.

Ben finally found her outside on a park bench. Her face was in her hands. “Mal?”

She didn’t look up. “I’m fine,” she said through her fingers.

He sat down. “Don’t sell yourself short. You’re damned fine, gorgeous even,” he said, voice purposely light. 

She sniffed. “Thanks.”

He put a hand on her back. “Can I help?”

She shook her head, still not looking up. “I’m sorry. I just couldn’t stay at the table. It reminded me so much of home and…” Her voice broke.

“You wish you were there.” He wrapped her in his arms and she leaned into his chest. She hadn’t been about to ask for comfort, but she wasn’t about to turn it down either. 

“I wish all of us were.” She turned into his offered arms. “Safe.”

He rested his cheek on her head and pulled her close.

“Me, too.”

*****

Image by Karsten Paulick from Pixabay

Silence

Author’s Note – Here’s another little fanfic of mine from a one word IG prompt. This scene doesn’t appear in Always Darkest, but it could.

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It was quiet other than the patter of rain and snow on the porch roof. Mal warmed her hands around her coffee cup, smiling faintly at the one tree in their yard still stubbornly holding on to its autumn leaves in the face of impending winter. 

The swing creaked and a blanket dropped over her shoulders.

She didn’t even have to look. “Morning, Dad.”

She glanced his way.

He was smiling, but it was a speculative questioning sort of smile. “You’re up early.”

She shrugged. “I guess. Bad dreams.”

“Again, huh?” He squeezed her hand.

She sighed. “Yeah. It’s been a rough week.”

“I’m sorry, honey. I wish I could help.”

She shrugged again. “At least break is starting soon. Then it doesn’t matter so much how I sleep.”

Ari put an arm around her. “Are you looking forward to a little vacation?”

“Yeah, I am. Teddy’s not gonna be around, but I’ve got plans with Petra, and Ben …” she trailed off.

“So his name’s Ben, huh?”

She blushed. “Yeah. Um … Ben Brody.” She didn’t know why she hadn’t said anything before now. It’s not like she hadn’t dated before. But Ben was different.

He smiled fondly. “The color in your cheeks is more than the cold. Maybe this is a more than friends boy?”

She turned toward him, her face splitting into a real smile, sleepy brain cobwebs be damned. “I think he really is.”

She told Ari about Ben then. She’d gone from feeling weirdly protective of her budding relationship to wanting her dad to know everything.

Ari chuckled. “He sounds like a great guy. And he must be if you’re this fascinated by him.”

“He is. I … I really like him.”

“Would you like to invite him?”

“Huh?”

“For Christmas? You said he can’t go home to his own family.”

She grew thoughtful. “It wouldn’t be weird?”

“Depends on how shy he is, I suppose. But I don’t think I’m all that intimidating,” he grinned.

“What about Uncle Davi?”

“I’m sure he’ll like your Ben just fine.”

Her Ben. She really liked the sound of that.

“I’ll ask him,” she said finally.

“Good.” Ari squeezed her shoulders and they sat looking out at the lake as the mix changed over to more serious snow.

It was a comfortable, homey silence.

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.