The Direction of His Dreams

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Authors’ Note: By now, most readers know how much we love our Ben from Always Darkest. Exploring his human life has become my (Jess’s) favorite part of Fic-mas. You can read more about his youth here and here. This Fic-mas meets Ben in his ancient homeland as Chris will one day describe him, “only barely a man, with plenty of boy left over.” Dreams are a funny thing. It was long ago, but sometimes, in that place between asleep and awake, Ben remembers this, and it gives him a sliver of hope. Happy Solstice, friends. 

The Direction of His Dreams

He twitched in his sleep as she leaned in the bedroom to check on him. He moaned softly. “Oh, Beathan, hin, not again, love,” she whispered. She thought perhaps memories of battle invaded his dreams, but she never asked. He hated when anyone heard his nightmares. 

The moan became a whimper. 

He sounded so lost. 

Instead of stepping out, she moved closer. His brow creased. The whimper solidified into a pained mumble.

“Not again,” he pleaded, almost too low to hear. “Don’t!” came out louder.

Flames all around, burning, but not consuming him. 

Pain. 

Blades. 

Torment. 

Teeth.

“Please!”

Cinnie sat down on the edge of his bed, and rested her hand gently on his bandaged shoulder. “Ben, hin, wake up.”

His eyes snapped open and his arm wrapped around his middle as a ragged breath pulled at his injuries. “Damn.”

That dream kept coming back. And it felt … real. Sleep was more exhausting than being awake lately. He wished Daira was still alive. She would know what it meant. 

His head dropped back onto his pillow. He closed his eyes and willed himself back toward calm. When he felt most of the way there, he pried his eyes open, and started to shift himself to sitting. He got about halfway there before her glare, along with a stern, “What’ve I said, Ben?” stopped him.

His heart was still beating too fast. At least moving was getting easier. But only by degrees.

Still the last day or so … half a day, anyway …  had been better. He remembered most of it clearly at least. Prior to that was a bit of a painful, feverish haze. By comparison, he felt great. 

He resettled himself with a smirk. 

“So, I’m Ben, to you, too, now, am I?” he asked, doing his best to sound like everything was fine. 

She smiled, her knowing, big sister’s smile.

“We don’t have Daira ‘round anymore to call ye yer funny names. And they do seem to make ye less like te argue wi’ me.” 

She smoothed his hair off his forehead, like he was still a boy, and not the warrior who’d led men into battle since he was fourteen. 

His father had stepped aside to make room for his youngest son’s strength and leadership in the field. And, though he’d admitted it to no one but Ben, he couldn’t physically do what needed to be done anymore. Ben had happily thrown himself into the role, leaving his father free to focus on the other aspects of leading their people. At the time, Ben couldn’t understand the toll years of fighting had taken on his father’s body. He thought he understood it better now.

Ben didn’t protest Cinnie’s soothing touch. Under normal circumstances he might have. But not today. Letting his sister-in-law treat him like he was still the child who spent most of his time nicking extra food out of her cookfire was far more appealing than contemplating the road back to battle-ready. 

“No fever now,” she smiled, more truly pleased and less indulgent. 

So, that’s what she was up to. 

“Told ye las’ night,” he said, thinking he sounded a bit petulant, and not caring much. He was tired of being fussed over. Tired of needing it even more so. “I’m alrigh’.”

Her eyebrows went up.

After the last skirmish, the men brought him here rather the cottage he’d claimed as his own when Daira passed. He’d stayed with her during her final illness last Spring, and after she was gone, he just couldn’t make himself leave. 

He was too badly injured to do what he usually did. Normally he’d patch himself up, go off into the woods for a night or two and speak to the spirits Daira had taught would help him heal, maybe speak to her spirit a bit, too. Then he’d go right back out to get in more trouble. Er … protect his people. 

He’d been in no condition for any of that this time.

They hadn’t wanted his mother to see the state he was in, either. Drustan wisely suggested they bring him to Cinnie. And she’d taken care of him with the same affectionate firmness as always, though it had been coupled with more real worry than he’d ever seen from her before.

But he was fine now. 

Well, maybe not fine, but well enough not to need a nursemaid from dawn to dusk, and the stretch in between as well.

He’d been at their house for at least a quarter moon. He was fed and rested and wanted to get himself ready to fight again as soon as possible. He could at least gather the men and talk it over. The foreigners didn’t do well with the element of surprise or the ambush tactics he preferred. There were still very few of them. Just scouting parties it seemed. Ben wanted to use that to his advantage before any more arrived. 

The problem was Cinnie. She wouldn’t let him go off and fight in his present state, and he didn’t think she’d let him bring the warriors together to talk tactics either. She appeared disinclined to let him move. 

She still saw him as her darling rascal, her little boy, and had a motherly protective streak even his actual mother couldn’t match. Part of him loved that about her. The rest of him was sick of this bed. 

Of course, all of him understood. She’d been beside herself when they’d dumped him on her kitchen table and she’d gotten a good look at his wounds. He vaguely remembered her tears as she’d stitched him up, her saying to Drus and Osh who’d held him still that she hoped against hope she was adequate to the task, and that she didn’t believe she could be. He couldn’t deny her initial reaction had been fair. He’d been … not in great shape. 

But he healed fast. He always had. 

Not that his frequent reminders of that had yielded any less hovering. 

She unwound the bandage high on his arm, where an infection had a strong hold for a few days. “Tha’ looks better tonight, too.” She wrapped it back up, satisfied.

He pushed himself up on his elbows, pulling the blanket up over his bare chest a little awkwardly. “Does tha’ mean ye can stop fussin’ an’ lemme get home then?”

“Yer stayin’ right there.” She pointed at the bed he currently occupied, with another, more disapproving, raise of her eyebrows. “At leas’ until after Yule.” He opened his mouth to protest, but she talked right over him with a wry grin. “I’ll not have ye yankin’ out all those stitches. Not after the fuss ye kicked up gettin’ put back together!” 

He started to spout off something indignant. But he only got as far as, “I dinnae kick up any kind a…”

“Besides,” she interrupted, smiling sweetly. Time for a distraction. “Ye can’t take off out of bed. Or at least I doubt ye’ll want to. Shay took your clothes.”

This time Ben sat up all the way, grimacing as it pulled on some of the many stitches Cinnie just reminded him about. “That little … Make ‘er bring ‘em back!” 

Cinnie just laughed. Worked like a charm. She wasn’t going to tell him the whole family agreed if he went off in his current state he’d get himself killed. And none of them could accept that. She also couldn’t tell him they had news for him. That was for the feast. 

“Shay!” he called like all he wanted was to see his favorite niece. He heard a giggle, and the patter of feet outside his room. “Shay-shay! C’mon in ‘ere, lass!”

When the affectionate nickname yielded no results, his brow creased into the expression Cinnie learned meant trouble before the boy had ever gone on his first hunt. “She’s not comin’ back, lad.”

His eyes flashed with a bit of real temper. He’d set his sights on his own bed and the stubborn streak that ran deep and wide all through him was not going to let go of that easily. 

“Teasag!” he yelled, hoping to summon his niece back from wherever she’d run off to with the serious use of her rarely spoken proper name.

Cinnie shook her head and smirked. “Yer actin’ like I didn’t send ‘er away with ‘em.”

Ben growled in frustration. 

She probably had, too. 

Cinnie knew he wouldn’t just run off wrapped in barely more than a blanket. She also knew he couldn’t really be angry with Teasag. These days she was more young woman than little girl. But Ben hadn’t noticed yet. 

He was still her self-appointed big brother. She really was his favorite, with the exception of maybe Angus and Enaid’s daughter Fee who he felt sort of responsible for since one of his strange dreams had pretty much saved her life at her birth. 

“Ye di’nt need te do that,” he grumbled.

“Because yer always such a sensible lad.” She patted him gently, smiling a little when he flushed at her amused observation. 

“I wouldna gone far,” he insisted. “I need to go see to Sioda, and te make sure the lads didna shut Caraid out. She’s too old te jump up te the window and paw her way in.”

“I told ye before. Osh is lookin’ after Sioda for ye.” 

Cinnie fluffed his pillows and arched an eyebrow, managing an affectionate glare until he settled back onto them. She was glad he was well enough now to be worried after his animals. But she wasn’t about to let him go care for them himself. 

“I’ve made sure he knows how to make up the poultice for her leg. He cares more for tha’ horse than he does for his missus, I think. Certainly more’n’e thinks a ‘is brother.” Ben snorted a brief laugh. “Yer lucky he didn’ let ye bleed ta death out there jus so he could have ‘er.”

“Tha’s a fair point.” He smiled fondly. “I know I been tellin’ ye for goin’ on three winters now, but thanks. Ye’ve always made Yule a special thing, but tha’ … She’s a fine animal. An’ braver than ten of the men.”

“Ye cannae lead our lads on foot agains’ our enemies now can ye, Bean?”

He blushed. She hadn’t called him that in a long time. He gave her an affectionate shove. “Lay off tha’.” He winced and adjusted the pillows. “I wouldna hate some of Daria’s special tea jus’ now. I know ye ran out yesterday. If ye got Shay to bring back my things, I  could go get it a’ the cottage an’ be back before my spot here cooled.”

Cinnie chuckled. “An’ he finally admits he’s not some warrior god of the wood!” She patted his hand. “I went an’ got more this mornin’, lad. I’ve some in the kettle on the fire.” She raised an eyebrow again. “So there’s no need for ye to limp halfway ‘cross the village. An’ if it’s yer cat yer worried about…”

She made a gentle clicking noise with her tongue, and the ancient black ball of fur, now marked with strands of silver-grey, waddled into the room. 

“Caraid!” he exclaimed in genuine pleasure. 

He patted the bed next to him and, though it took two tries, she managed to get up and wedge herself in between Cinnie and Ben. She curled up against his hip, closed her eyes, and started purring contentedly. He petted her head with a gentleness and affection Cinnie wondered at. How could someone with such a soft heart, such a tender soul, be the strongest, most skilled warrior in their clan? 

Momentarily distracted from both his physical misery and his desire to get out from under his family’s watchful eyes, Ben truly relaxed. He supposed there were worse ways to spend a couple of days leading up to the Yule feast than in a comfortable bed being looked after by the woman who was basically his second mother. Not many. But he could think of a few. He laughed quietly when her back was turned to rewrap his stitched up leg.

She was glad he’d given up on his most recent push to go off on his own. Even if he was sure he was ready, she couldn’t quite let go of keeping watch over him. She finished checking over his bandages and went to get him some tea. 

When she returned, he accepted a cup of the almost unbearably bitter brew Daira taught him to make when he was still little more than a toddler. It always took the bite out of the various hurts he was all too prone to even then. Daira said he had an abundance of brains and courage, just not much in the way of sense or caution. 

He tentatively took a drink, knowing it would bring relief, but knowing just as well he hated the flavor, and always had. Then he smiled. Cinnie had stirred in an appropriately excessive amount of honey to cover the objectionable taste.

“Thanks,” he said, hoping the sweetness held to the end.

As he sipped the tea and stroked Caraid, it became clear Cinnie had either stirred in something else, too, or he was still worse off than he’d thought. It always made him relaxed, but not to this degree. He could barely keep his eyes open by the bottom of it. 

“Bit strong,” he grumbled as she took the cup from him. 

She heard the accusation in his voice but didn’t bother dignifying it. She set the cup aside and covered him with an extra blanket. She chuckled, shaking her head. “It’s just proof your strength isn’t yet what it ought to be.”

“Humph,” he grumped. But he clearly didn’t mean it, since he hid a small smile as he rolled onto his good side, wrapped an arm around an unresisting Caraid, and drifted back into a restorative sleep.

Cinnie watched him for a bit, hoping her presence would keep away whatever kept troubling his dreams. Once his breathing was slow and even, she got up to get back to the business of running the household. 

She paused at the door again, glancing back, just to reassure herself he really did look better. Caraid cracked one eye open and the expression on her feline face said all was well. 

Cinnie decided to take a walk and let Bean’s mother know he’d turned a corner for the better. They’d already lost three of his brothers in the last year. That was hard enough on her, but Cinnie didn’t think she’d take losing her youngest well. She’d be relieved to hear he was improving. Cinnie slipped out of the house with a word to Shay to keep an eye on her uncle.

***

When Ben woke again, it was dark, and the house was quiet. Mostly quiet. He could hear Drustan’s snoring from the other side of the cottage. He’d always been a loud sleeper. Ben was glad it had been a good long while since they’d shared sleeping space. He didn’t know how Cinnie tolerated it. Of course, with six girls running around, the youngest of which was only just off the breast, she probably didn’t sleep soundly anyway. He wondered how often she’d been checking on him. 

He shifted slightly. For the first time since he’d woken up here after that fight, the movement didn’t set off a cascade of aches. Caraid picked up her head, her eyes glowing green in the moonlight. She stretched and hopped down off the bed, walking out the door with a single backward glance. 

She liked to hunt at night. He’d have bet his best knife she was going looking for mice. He thought maybe he should get up and let her outside so she could go to their house. She could get after the mice there, or squirrels, of which there always seemed to be an abundance near the edge of the wood. She still loved hunting the squirrels.

He loved their cottage. He missed Daira, of course. He would have traded the house for his small corner in his parents’ busy home to have her back in a heartbeat. But the place was perfect for his preferences. Cinnie often pointedly remarked to his parents that it was too big for a man alone. If he was going to go off into battle time and again for his people, he ought to have someone to come home to. Perhaps a few wee ones who bore the stamp of his features in the bargain. He’d blush and avoid everyone’s eyes when she said so. But they knew he thought so, too.    

He didn’t dream badly when he was home. He no longer had a fever from his injuries and this time the relief he’d gotten from the tea seemed to be holding. Surely, no one would object to him sleeping in his own bed a bit. He started to get himself up to do just that, swearing softly when he remembered he was in a fairly advanced state of undress. He couldn’t go home wearing just a cloth and bandages. 

His eyes adjusted to the low light and he squinted around in the darkness. If I were my imp of a niece, where would I have hidden my clothes? 

He wanted to be annoyed with Cinnie and Shay for trying to trap him in bed like that, but he had to admit, their experience told them he would probably try to act like nothing was wrong well before it was even close to true. Most of the time that wasn’t a big problem. He’d managed to not get hurt too badly in countless battles. This time though… The way Cinnie had been sitting next to his bed when he remembered waking for the first time… He might have given them enough of a fright to justify going a bit far. 

An idea came to him. He wrapped himself in the blanket and levered himself out of bed. “Ow.”

He crouched down carefully to look under the bed. He chuckled softly. Shay really had picked up his sense of humor. Folded neatly, right in the middle of the floor under where he’d been sleeping, were all of his clothes, washed and mended. Even the boots he had no intention of wearing anywhere other than into battle were there. 

He picked up the pile and stood, groaning softly as he did so. Maybe home was a bit further than he ought to go. But dressed sounded too good to resist. He sat back on the bed and slowly, carefully regained his dignity. Just those small movements set him sweating again, but once he had his clothes on, the appeal of his own bed was too strong to resist. 

He got almost as far at the front door. 

“Where’re you goin’ then?”

He jumped in surprise. “Fer feck’s sake, woman! Are ye tryin’ te scare me ta death?”

She laughed softly. “More like I’m tryin’ te keep ye from yer death, ye silly boy.”

He sagged against the wall for a second, then waved dismissively. “Ach, I’m fine. I just … I want te go home fer a bit. See Sioda, let Caraid in the house, like I said before. I’ll come back.”

Cinnie rose from her seat and lit some candles. She took him by the elbow and pulled him nearer the fire. “It’s a howlin’ storm out there, lad. Sit here by the fire or go back te bed.”

Ben sighed. Now that he was listening, he could hear the wind outside. He shivered. 

“Bit drafty. Drus’ should see te the roof,” he said casually, though how heavily he sat down on the stool next to the hearth probably gave away how he actually felt.

She laughed lightly. “Drustan? On the roof? That’ll be the day. That’s why I need you aroun’. Yer my little squirrel.”

He grinned and shook his head. There was nothing little about him. And there hadn’t been in a long time. But he had always been a climber. None of his brothers had much of a head for heights. His expression sobered. Alastair had. But he was gone. 

“I’ll see te it as soon as the storm clears.”

“Ye’ll not be doin’ any such thing, lad.” She moved to sit next to him. “It’s not the draft.” She rested her wrist against his forehead for a moment. “Yer warm again.”

He ducked his head away from her cool touch. “That’s a grand fire ye’ve built is all.”

“Mmm,” she observed wryly. “Ye have te decide, is it cold an’ drafty, er too hot from the hearth? Ye can’ have it both ways.”

He managed a small smile. “Why not? Things can be more than one thing at a time.” He laughed softly. “That made more sense before I said it out loud.”

“It makes perfect sense. Take you, as an example. Yer still my darling boy who’d do anything te spare me trouble, and the one man I know more stubborn than the old goat out back who likes to cause me nothing but.”

She spoke in a lighthearted teasing way, but he looked wounded nonetheless. “I dint mean te trouble ye.”

She switched seats to be close enough to put her arm gently around his shoulders. “Yer not really trouble, lad. An’ I’m not sayin’ things te make ye feel bad. I jus’ wan’ ye te take a moment te heal.”

He sighed. “I keep tellin’ ye,  I’m alrigh’.”

“I hear ye. An’ I’m sure ye believe it. But it sounds to me like those tall tales ye used to come home with about faeries an’ the like.”

He opened his mouth to respond, to perhaps defend his younger self in some way. He stopped. He wasn’t even half sure any of that really happened anyway. Besides, with Daira gone, there was no one he could really talk it over with. Just like there was no one he could tell his terrible dreams. No one he could tell they felt like a warning of things to come. He decided to say something honest about the present instead. 

“Cin … Yer right. I push too hard. I know it. But ye haven’ seen what we’re up against. An’ I…”

“Can’t take the fate a the whole lot of us on yer shoulders, lad.” 

His brow furrowed and his eyes searched her face. “Then who will? Da’ cannae do it anymore. An’ Angus probably won’ ever get rid a tha’ limp. An’ Osh is … Osh.”

She shook her head. “Drus’ is the oldest, an’ he can lead them when ye can’t.”

Ben shook his head. “Drus has you an’ the girls, an … I’ve just got me. It has to be me, Cin. Whether I’m busted up er not.”

She squeezed his shoulders again. He shifted a little, reminding both of them he was still hurt. “Ye get te take care of yerself, same as any of them. An’ ye have as much te live for, too.”

“Like I said, it’s just me,” he said with a slightly listless shrug. 

“Not fer much longer,” she said. Her hand went to her mouth with a little gasp.

He turned on the stool to face her fully, his eyebrows drawing together in a look somewhere between amused and suspicious. “Say again?”

She bit her lips together. “I shouldna said anythin’.”

Ben was not much for keeping secrets. And he hated when other people did. This was a good one, too, because Cinnie was positively squirming. He flashed the charming grin he was used to using to get his way. “How can ye torment a man in my condition like tha’?”

“Yer condition? I thought ye were fine.”

He laughed. “F’I admit I’m maybe jus’ shy a fine, will ye tell me?”

She shook her head. “I cannae tell ye, Bean. Yer mother’ll kill me.”

“Ach, she won’ know.” 

He chuckled softly. How often had he said those exact words? He had to admit, secrets weren’t all bad. If his mother had known half of what he’d gotten up to when he was a child, she’d have killed him

“But … I’ll understand if ye want te keep it te yerself. She’s a right terror when she’s angry.”

She considered him for a long quiet moment. Perhaps knowing what was on the horizon would make him a shade less reckless. She chewed her lower lip. “Ye cannae tell them I told ye.”

He grinned. “I’ll not give it away, Cin.”

She took his hand and squeezed it. “It’s … well, I think it’s what ye’ve wanted.” 

She stopped, chewing her lip again.

“Go on then!”

“Yer father’s been … and yer mother…”

“Cin, just spit it, would’ye?”

“They’ve found a bride fer ye, Bean.”

He blinked several times and swallowed hard. “I … Oh.”

He appeared stunned rather than happy. Cinnie got up to tend the fire to give him a minute. When she sat back down, his whole face had become a confused frown. “Are ye alrigh’, lad? I thought ye’d be pleased.”

He didn’t answer right away. Finally his bright eyes found hers. “I … I s’pose I am. I just thought … I knew Daira said it wouldna be up te me … I always thought that was jus’ talk. I thought I’d meet someone and we’d decide … I…” He trailed off.

She thought she understood. She took his hand again. “I never met Drus’ face te face before we married. An’ look at us. Never have two people loved each other more. The same goes fer yer parents.”

He nodded slowly. “I know tha’… But … Drus’ is oldest. He’ll be chieftain one day. The others chose…” He stopped, his frown deepening. 

“Ye don’ like all tha’ talk from when you were born followin’ ye aroun’ still. Is tha’ it?”

“Maybe,” he hedged.

Ben hated the idea such a fuss had been made about his birth, that predictions and plans had dictated the direction of his life in so many ways. He’d had several brushes with infatuation when he was younger and something had always put a stop to it. In retrospect, it had mostly been his parents and Daira. 

All that talk about Daira’s vision the first time she’d held him, and the vision of the woman he’d marry, had prevented a lot of things. In fact, now that he thought about it, his most serious case of nearly falling for someone had been interrupted by his father asking him to lead the men. He wanted to be angry about it, could feel his temper starting to heat. 

Still, he’d always wanted a family. Since before he could really remember. Who knew if those youthful blushing meetings would have ended like he might have hoped. He never had a plan for much of anything. He supposed it was good someone did. 

His expression softened. “Do ye know anything about her?”

“She’s Argyle’s niece.” Cinnie proceeded to tell him about the chieftains coming together to talk of an alliance against the foreigners, about Argyle’s own daughters all succumbing to a sickness that took many of their people including his clan’s previous leader early in the fall. About him coming to Donal to broker peace a few weeks ago. 

Ben shook his head. “So now I’m a peace treaty.” She looked like she’d say something, probably to rebuke him in some way for his slightly resentful tone. But she stopped when his face slipped into a shy sort of expression. “I meant do ye know about her? Herself, I mean.”

Even in the dimness, she could see his cheeks had colored and she didn’t think it was the fever this time. “Well, I understand she’s been apprenticed to their wise woman since she could walk.” When he didn’t say anything she went on, teasing just a bit again. “An’ she’s a healer. Seems like that ought te come in handy fer ye, Bean.”

He rolled his eyes at her. “I need somebody else fussin’ a’ me like I need a pack a hungry wolves at the door.”

“I think you need at leas’ ten more somebodies to fuss at ye!” she laughed. “But I also don’ think ye’ll mind. I hear she’s very kind.”

“Well, tha’s good, I suppose.”

Cinnie remembered nearly everything her lad had said about his ideal mate when he was growing up and smiled. “I don’ know if she likes to hunt or fight, but I do hear she’s very pretty. And tha’ she very much wants to start a family.”

He flushed crimson then, but he grinned broadly. He hesitated for a moment, before asking, “Is she … Does she want te do this though?”

“Tha’s important to ye.”

“Course it is. I won’ go through with it if her people are makin’ her do it.”

“From what I hear, Bean, it was her idea. She saw ye in a vision.”

“I’ve had enough a visions,” he said with a dismissive wave. He’d had a few himself. Cinnie knew about it; she’d been the first one he’d told about his dream before Fee was born. 

He was grateful she didn’t bring that up now, just patted him on the arm. “I know, lad.”

“I s’pose if it’s really her idea, it’s not up te me to worry about why.”

“They’ll make the announcement a’ the Feast. Her people’ll do the same at their own celebrations. She’ll be here after the first planting if everything goes as planned. Is tha’ enough to send ye back to bed to let yerself knit back together, lad?”

He swallowed hard against a dry mouth a couple of times and ran his hands through his hair, wincing when the movement pulled at his wounded shoulder. Cinnie concealed a smile at the nervous gesture. “I think,” his voice cracked and her smile bled through. He cleared his throat and rose slowly. “I think it is.”

She watched him go back to the small room she’d set aside as his years ago. He was moving better. But he was a long way from healed, she thought. He stopped in the doorway and cast a tentative smile back over his shoulder. “Do ye think she’ll be happy with me?” he asked softly.

“Oh, mo a bhobain, how could she not?”

His smile faltered for a moment. “Are ye sure it’s really her idea?”

“Te bed with ye!” she ordered with a smile of her own that brought his back.

He chuckled, shook his head, and did what he was told.

***

By the time the Feast came around several days later, Ben was managing to move with the slightly coltish grace everyone was familiar with. He’d wince or catch his breath if he moved certain ways, but Cinnie didn’t think anyone but her noticed. He ate the expected ridiculous amounts of food, toasted their successes, remembered their losses, and called for a prosperous year, welcoming back the sun with copious amounts of every available fermented beverage. 

Their people had taken heavy losses all around over the last few months and their leader being brought home bloody and unconscious had caused an uneasy silence to fall over the preparations for the holiday. 

Ben’s hale and hearty appearance seemed just what the clan needed. Although, the expressions on the faces of the young women soured somewhat when his father announced his betrothal to Argyle’s niece, Elara. 

Cinnie laughed softly to herself at the way he blushed when he noticed their expressions. He never let on that she’d told him. His knowledge was well hidden behind his shy embarrassment over being the center of attention at the Yule feast, his thanks to his father, his grateful acceptance of offers from his family to help him prepare his little home to grow.

He’d slipped out the door on the early side, admitting quietly to Cinnie he was worn out and sore. She offered to walk back with him or to get Shay to go and make him some tea. He shook his head. 

“I’m goin’ home tonight. I … I need te be alone for a bit. This was … I need some quiet is all.”

“I could send Shay over there with ye, too. She could get yer fire goin’ an’ stay in case ye need anythin’.”

“Cin, I’ll be fine. I love her more than my own life, but Shay is anythin’ but quiet.”

Cinnie laughed. “Alrigh’. But I’ll be over to check on ye in the morning.”

He just smiled and shook his head. “Course ye will.”

***

Ben had slipped out of the party to gain some time to think. But by the time he made it to his small cottage near the wood, the reasons he’d given Cinnie were more honest. He almost wished he’d let her send Shay along, at least to start the fire.

But, there was nothing for it now. It was too cold to just go to sleep without one, and he was much too tired to either go ask for help or admit defeat and go back to his bed at Cinnie and Drustan’s. 

He moved through the dark with the confidence of memory. He hadn’t moved a single thing here since Daira had … “Ow!”

He barked his shins on a stool that wasn’t where he’d left it, and cursed the rest of the way to the hearth. Cinnie must have moved it when she came over here to get ingredients for tea. He flushed when he had the fleeting thought someone was probably going to move stuff all the time soon and he definitely wouldn’t mind. But he smiled, too. 

He crouched by the hearth and started building a fire, hopefully one big enough to take him through the night since he had no desire to get up and tend it. 

Once he had the fire roaring pleasantly, he lit a few candles. He half smiled and moved one to the window to encourage the sun’s return, just as Daira always had. It was her favorite Yule tradition.

He looked around. He’d hate to leave this place. He hadn’t thought he ever would. But if he was to build a family, the small cottage wouldn’t hold up for long. He’d been resistant to the idea of the marriage at first, not that he’d really said so out loud. But the more he’d sat with it, the more his brothers and their wives had talked about their own unions, the warmer the idea made him feel. 

Perhaps he’d see her for the first time and feel the giddy elation he’d always imagined. Falling for someone when you just laid eyes on them was a terribly romantic notion for a warrior to have, he supposed. But it didn’t stop him from having it.

The room was warming nicely. He could, and probably should, head to bed and get the rest he’d promised Cinnie. He did have something other than more warfare to motivate him now. He stooped to add some more wood to the fire and groaned. 

He stood slowly. He was moving like an old man. He felt like he imagined one must, too. His father wasn’t really so very old, but Donal moved like he was older than the rocks. Such was the fate of a warrior who made it home past his usefulness in the field. He was still an excellent chieftain though. Measured, calm, diplomatic. Traits Ben envied when he was at his most impulsive, hot-tempered, and quick-tongued.

He should just do what he planned to, and get some sleep. That would help. It always did. 

But suddenly he didn’t want to. Suddenly coming to be in this house alone felt like a terrible idea. Those dreams … Even unformed memories of them made his stomach drop. He really didn’t want to wake up alone from that. 

He smiled a little when he reminded himself he wouldn’t have to for much longer. Soon he wouldn’t have to take up space at Cinnie and Drus’s when he needed someone. 

Still, he was in no hurry to fall asleep. Those dreams fought for his waking attention in the quiet of his cottage. He tried reminding himself he didn’t usually dream badly, or much at all, when he was here. It helped some, but his reluctance to go to bed in the house alone made his various pains all the more noticeable.

He fed the fire for a while, called out the door to Caraid with no success, and changed out his day clothes for his nightshirt. He wouldn’t admit to himself he was stalling.

Eventually, when he’d run out of other things to do, he decided there would be no sleep without some tea. And maybe a few drops of the dark liquid Daira had never shown him how to make, or even told him much about. That would almost definitely knock him out. Better than a barrel full of mead. Even if the nightmares tried to come for him here, he doubted they could find their way through the deep purple haze of that elixir. 

He didn’t know enough about it that he’d ever dare share it unless someone was absolutely dying anyway. But he knew he tolerated it. It was how Daira had set his badly broken arm when he was eight. He was contemplating the pots of herbs and the dark little bottle. 

“Ach, lad, ye don’ need any a tha’. Not here.”

The voice was almost as familiar as his own, but Ben jumped. He blinked a few times, but Daira still didn’t disappear. Once his initial shock wore off, he realized she was glowing faintly and as she settled into the chair next to his, he could see through her to the room beyond. 

He cleared his throat. He felt his face slip into a wry grin, accepting the visitation for what it was quite naturally. “But apparently the charms you made to keep spirits out aren’ worth a damn.”

She chuckled. “This is my house. Ye can’t charm a lady out of her own home, no matter how dead she is, my boy.”

“I hope ye don’ mind tha’ I’m here,” he offered respectfully. He thought perhaps anyone else might be afraid right now. But he’d seen stranger things than the ghost of his friend, and he was suddenly quite sure all those things had been real. “I did go to the wood to ask, but I’ve never been much good at readin’ signs.”

She smiled, a rather indulgent smile he remembered from his childhood. It meant she was pleased with him. “I’d be more upset if ye weren’ here, lad. I heard ye ask. You were always so polite.”

“Ye’ve not visited me before.”

“I have, just not while you were awake. Why do ye think those terrible visions don’ trouble ye here.”

“Here I’ve been wishin’ I could tell ye about ‘em, an’ ye’ve known all along.” He didn’t ask, but the question hovered between them.

“I wish I could tell ye they’re just dreams, lad, but …” She looked toward the door, tilting her head like she was listening. “Caraid wants to come in,” she observed. 

Ben started to push himself up out of his seat. “Ah,” he groaned softly. 

“Ye stay righ’ there, lad. I’ll get ‘er.”

He frowned. “Don’ take this the wrong way, Daira, but ye look more like ye’ll pass through the door than be able te open it.”

She laughed and went to the door anyway. “I tol’ ye. My house.”

Surprising him completely, she opened the door with no trouble. Caraid zipped around her like she could see her, too. “Can she…?”

“Course she can, ye silly boy. Cats can always see spirits. And your particular cat has one foot in another world anyway.”

He wanted to ask what she meant, but was distracted by a snow-covered Caraid leaping into his lap with surprising agility. Of course, he was on the low stool, close to the fire. If he’d been in his chair, he doubted she’d have made it to his legs. 

“Snowing again, is it?” he asked her, brushing her off.

Once she was free of snow, Caraid jumped down and curled up on the hearth. Daira sat back down next to him. He turned back toward her, his expression both hesitant and curious. “What about my dreams?”

She chuckled fondly. “An’ here I thought ye might jus’ let tha’ go.”

“Daira.” One of his eyebrows went up and a stubborn line formed across his forehead.

She smiled at him, but there was a sadness behind it, Ben noticed. “I cannae tell ye.”

His face creased, and he leaned forward, his whole manner morphing into a frown. But when he spoke, his tone was light, familiar, almost teasing. “Ye wouldna said anythin’ if ye weren’ gonna tell me.”

“Ye cannae charm ole Daira, lad. I know ye too well.”

He sighed. “Spose ye do.”

He looked so dejected, Daira reached out and put a hand on his shoulder. He looked up when he felt its comforting weight. Despite being able to see the room beyond right through her, her eyes had the old familiar warmth they always had. “Alrigh’ ye can charm me a little.” He smiled hesitantly. “There’s truth in those visions,” she said simply.

He swallowed hard. “But what…?” He trailed off. “The foreigners. War’s comin’. Real war.” He looked to her for confirmation of his interpretation.

She shook her head, but whether in denial of his guess or as a refusal to answer was unclear. “I cannae say. But I can show you what lies beyond those visions, lad.” 

He tilted his head. “How?”

She rose and moved to the hearth. Then, surprising him again, she added a log to the flames, sending them higher. “Come. Look.”

Ben obeyed, sitting down next to her on the warm stones. He peered into the fire. “I don’ see anythin’.”

“Look with the eyes that see me, Ben.”

He thought he knew what she meant. 

He forced himself to relax, his gaze to soften. This time, as he stared into the heart of the fire, the shifting embers, an image began to emerge. 

He could make out himself, smiling broadly. He looked different, not quite right, though he couldn’t have said why. His fire-self reached out his arms and was handed a bundle. He couldn’t tell for certain, but he thought the package might be a child. 

The bundle was given to him by someone with a dazzling smile, a beautiful bow shaped mouth. He couldn’t see the rest of her face, but the curve of her jaw, her slender, graceful neck, a profusion of curls flowing over her shoulders … she was beautiful, even made of fire. Her arms went around him and the bundle, and Ben felt like the warmth of it encircled him even in his place on the hearth. 

“Daira … is that…?” An unnatural roaring interrupted him, and he gasped as one of the horrible faces from his nightmares erupted, destroying the peaceful vision of his future. The flames burned so high and so hot that for a moment they seemed like they’d engulf the house

“Be gone, ye foul thing!” Daira commanded. “Ye’ll not trouble him here!” 

She stirred the fire and the beast disappeared. She smiled at Ben gently. “Tha’s on yer mind a great deal, is it?”

Ben tried to slow his breathing and answer her, but his voice had left him. He nodded.

“That wasn’t really here. It came from yer mind.”

Finally, he was able to swallow and open his mouth past the twisting fear that image had wrapped around his neck. “Are ye sure?”

“I am. Ye have a hard time lettin’ yerself accept that there’s anythin’ good beyond the battle in front of ye. Don’ ye, lad?”

He closed his eyes briefly. “Maybe.” He opened his eyes again and looked at her, his expression serious. “How sure are you tha’ there is?”

She smiled. “Just as sure as I was the first time you opened those golden eyes o’ yers a’ me, Ben.” She put her hand on his shoulder. He was once again startled by its weight. “An’ there’ll be times ahead tha’ll make ye forget such things are possible, love. But they aren’ jus’ possible. They’re certain. Alrigh’?”

He managed a small smile then. “If ye say so.”

“I do.”

He stared into the fire again, willing it to give him another glimpse of that momentary happy vision, but nothing appeared. The warmth and the lulling shifting of the flames made his eyes want to close.

“I’ll make ye some tea, lad.”

He just nodded, and gave in to the impulse to rest his eyes.

When he opened them some time later, he was curled on his side on the hearth. The fire had burned low, but was still warm. He stretched, and pushed himself up to sitting. “Tha’ was quite a dream,” he said aloud to the silent house.

He must’ve fallen asleep feeding the fire. He decided he should should restoke the fire and try calling Caraid again. 

He got up with a groan and bent to scratch at his leg. Whether Cinnie liked it or not he was going to sharpen a knife in the morning and pick out all those stitches. He was more worried about scratching himself to death than he was about his insides leaking out at this point.

As he laid wood onto the fire, Caraid twined herself between his feet. “Ahhh!” he shouted and dropped the log he was holding almost on his foot, and narrowly missed her. “How’d you get in here?” he asked, recovering from the momentary fright she’d given him.

She looked up at him placidly and meowed. He started toward the window to see if she’d actually jumped up and pawed the shutters open but she tried to hop up onto the stack of blankets on one of the chairs and couldn’t quite make it. He stopped and boosted her up onto her preferred spot. “Huh.”

He tended the fire for a few minutes. He wasn’t nearly as achy as he’d been a few days ago, or even as much as when he’d gotten home from the feast a few hours ago. But he hadn’t done himself any favors falling asleep on the hearth. He decided to follow his earlier impulse and make some tea.

He turned for the pot of herbs on the nearby shelf, but it wasn’t there. “Huh,” he said again. 

He searched around and found it on the edge of the hearth. He also found the pot full of a perfectly steeped pot of the medicinal brew. He was suddenly certain his late night guest hadn’t been a dream. “Well, now,” he murmured as he poured himself a cup. He raised it to his lips. “If it’s already sweetened too, I’ll eat my boots.”

It was so bitter he nearly spit it out. “Well, o’ course she dinnae sweeten it,” he chuckled fondly. Daira always seemed to think making him drink it straight might knock some sense into him.

He put what anyone else would have thought an offensive amount of honey into the cup and sat next to Caraid, stroking her fur as he sipped his tea. Finally he said, “Did we really have a visitor tonight, girl?”

Caraid purred contentedly in answer. He smiled and shook his head. He thought about his talk with Daira, which he had to admit he remembered too much of to have been a dream. The promise of light, of love, of hope was such a perfect Yule gift, he was almost ashamed he’d questioned the reality of it. 

“Thank you, old friend,” he whispered, hoping, and being very nearly certain, Daira was listening.

Eventually, he felt as though he could go back to sleep. He thought perhaps he’d get up early, and instead of calling the men together to talk about fighting, he might visit his mother and ask what she thought he ought to work on to make the cottage more welcoming.

He went to bed and burrowed under his blankets and skins, confident that his nightmares wouldn’t come for him here. Daira would keep them away. 

He closed his eyes and drifted off. Something told him his feet were finally on the path that would lead him to happiness. It might feel like forever before he got there, but he could hardly wait for the journey.

The vision of the woman’s bright smile, of the child in his arms, came back to him with vivid warmth. 

In his sleep, as the earliest rays of the returning sun brushed the eastern sky, Ben smiled. 

*****

 

Please

Author’s Note – Here’s another little scene that doesn’t physically appear in The Arbitratus Trilogy, but it could. It fits into Always Darkest, or Before the Dawn. Mal spends a lot of time worrying about Ben, about their future. This is just a moment of real vulnerability that she tries to keep to herself. 

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Mal came back to bed quietly. She didn’t want to wake him, but she didn’t think she could go back to sleep. At least they both preferred sleeping with the light on lately. So, that wouldn’t disturb him.

She chewed her lip for a few minutes, staring off into space. Nope, definitely not sleepy anymore. And no wonder, after the dream she’d had. 

She wouldn’t let herself focus on or recall any of the details too vividly. 

All she knew was that they’d been in danger and Ben put himself in the way of devils and angels in a place of almost total darkness and that some great Being who she thought must have been God showed up and instead of helping, instead of saving Ben, He’d turned away indifferently. 

Ben had looked at her with eyes like hot coals. He was burning from the inside. 

He couldn’t even cry out. 

He wasn’t being consumed by fire, he was becoming it. 

She fell to her knees and he just started disappearing, flaking away like paper in a hot stove. 

She screamed.

She’d woken up so sweaty and shaky, she’d needed to change her clothes and go get a cup of tea. The idea of losing him to Hell, or any other power, plagued her more and more these days. Now, she felt tremors still coursing up and down her arms. 

Maybe a distraction would help. 

Now was as good a time as any to use her journal, she supposed. She reached for it, balanced on the edge of her nightstand.Pen in hand, she stared at a blank page for a long time. 

A tear struck the empty space and made a bright purple blotch on the pale lavender paper. 

She blinked and it was joined by more. She set it aside and hugged her knees, burying her face and trying to keep her sobs quiet. 

“Please,” she whispered. 

She hadn’t prayed in a long time. And it didn’t get any more articulate than that. But she thought. Hoped. Believed. That if anyone was listening, He’d know what her desperate plea meant.

“Just please.”

*****

Image by Ulrike Mai from Pixabay

Something Wicked

Skull

Author’s note – I’m participating in a little May Flash Fiction Challenge in a writing group I admin, so I thought it would be fun to share the fruits of that here, since otherwise I’m busy wrapping up Book II, Before the Dawn.

Today’s challenge, “Your character gets a threatening letter,” offered me the opportunity to write a little fan fiction for our own characters. How can I resist that? ~ J

 

Ben started down the steps of the RV and froze.

Mal nearly ran into his back. After a split second of thinking he did it on purpose to get another embrace, she saw his tension. His whole body looked like an over-tuned guitar string someone had plucked just to get it to snap.

She followed her original impulse and wrapped her arms around him from behind. Maybe he wasn’t playing around to steal another hug before their run, but he clearly needed the contact right now.

“Ben?” she prompted.

At the sound of her voice, something in him unlocked and he was able to breathe again.

“Sorry.” He sounded like someone had their hands around his neck. He cleared his throat and tried again. “Sorry.”

He paused, biting his lip. This was probably going to be an argument, but he felt like a live wire, like danger was suddenly all around them. He caressed her arms, wrapped tightly around his middle, and gently pried them away, squeezing her hands as he released them so she wouldn’t read the gesture as having to do with her.

He scanned the sparsely populated campground. No one appeared to be awake. The sun was barely up.

Nothing seemed out of the ordinary. Nothing except the parchment envelope placed neatly at the foot of their steps.

Ronoven, Count and Marquis of Hell
Open immediately

“Mal, I need you to head back inside and close the door. Get Chris up, too. I’ll be right behind you. I promise.”

Her arms went stubbornly around him again. She couldn’t see around his broad shoulders, but she knew the subtleties of his voice and body language well enough to know he sensed a threat and was about to do that thing where he tried to face it all on his own.

She was going to break that particular bad habit if it was the last thing she did.

“Ben, what’s wrong?” He drew in another breath and held it. “You know I’m not going anywhere so spit it out.”

Roughly an hour seemed to pass before he exhaled slowly. “Do you have your knife on you?”

“Of course.”

“Not your pocket knife. Your … I meant the weapon one.”

“I know what you meant. I always carry it now.”

“Okay.” Another long breath. “There’s an envelope on the ground with …”

“Ben.” Her voice lost some of its soft understanding. He clearly needed help. And he was going to get it whether he liked it or not.

“With my demon name,” he admitted.

Oh, how he hated that, hated that he had to say those words out loud, hated anything that reminded him he wasn’t just Ben Brody. Even more, he hated having to remind Mal of that fact.

“And my titles. Someone from Hell might be watching right now. Even if it’s not Hell, it’s still somebody dangerous enough that it doesn’t matter.”

Mal released him and drew the knife from the clever sheath Teddy had made her for the small of her back.

“Let’s see what it says. I’ll keep my eyes on everything.”

He sighed. “Okay.”

He drew his own dagger and carefully edged down the last few steps, eyes darting around, trying to look everywhere at once. He bent down to retrieve the envelope. As soon as his fingers closed around it, it grew almost unbearably hot in his hand.

He put it back down. It was treated with something not awesome for him. Something blessed, if he had to guess. Before Davi’s magic it might have lit his hand on fire, or at least blistered it. But now, it just stung. Still, it wasn’t a good idea to hang onto it. Just in case.

“You okay?” Mal stood next to him, but wasn’t looking his way. She was scanning the area, just like he, Chris, and Aife had taught her. In spite of the situation, he felt his lips quirk up at the corners. How did I ever get lucky enough to know her?

He found it easier to answer this time. She didn’t care about his, as she put it, demon bullshit. “It … um … I think it’s got something consecrated soaked into it.”

“Are you alright?” She moved like she’d take his hand to look it over.

“I’m fine,” he said hastily, holding it up before she could slip into her ‘team medic’ role. “But …” Why does asking her to do this feel like jumping off a damned cliff? He knew it was the right thing to do. For both of them. But his protective streak still had a hard time being reigned in. “Could you pick it up and see what it says? I’ll stand guard.”

She flashed him a little smile. He was trying so hard not to shut her out or close himself off to protect her. It warmed her all over when he did things like this. In her mind, it meant he really saw her as an equal. She didn’t like it when he treated her like she was better than him, exalted in some way. She bent and picked up the envelope, feeling it’s texture between her fingers, then sniffing it.

“Seems like it was maybe soaked in consecrated salt and holy water. It smells a little oceany. Feels gritty, too.”

Ben couldn’t help the lopsided grin that pulled at his lips. “Alright Miss CSI, but what’s it say?”

She slit the envelope with her knife, then put the blade back in its sheath. She unfolded the letter inside, careful not to rip the stiff, crinkly paper. It wasn’t parchment like the envelope, but it was something other than plain paper. It felt strange in her hand. The ink was rusty colored. And the letter stunk.

“Blood,” Ben said in a disgusted almost whisper.

Mal’s nose did an involuntary wrinkle that he usually found adorable, mostly because not much grossed her out. Right now all it did was make him swallow hard, his momentary smile fading into a frown with the fluid ease of muscles that remember it too well.

She quietly read the short message aloud.

“I know what you are. I know who you are. I need demon blood. This letter represents the dregs of my last acquisition. How convenient that you’re here in a body that belongs to you.” She paused for a breath and realized Ben was holding his again. “Surrender yourself in the clearing by the stream immediately, and I won’t curse the rest of your party to oblivion. If you don’t, they’ll die a bloody death, in terror, and it will be on your hands.”

He still hadn’t breathed. He tried; tried to speak, too. But his brain and body were having none of it.

Mal’s eyebrows drew together in concern. “Ben?”

Still nothing.

He was actually contemplating going to that clearing and giving himself up.

Nope, not happening, Brody. She made a snap decision.

Turning toward him, she reached into his front pocket as provocatively as she could and retrieved his lighter. Not that he really needed it with his ability to light things on fire psychically, but he liked to fidget with it.

Finally, he gasped. “Hey! Getting fresh while we’re being stalked by some dark witch or worse, because lots of magic-abusing pricks like demon blood, too, is probably a really bad idea.”

She forced a natural looking smirk onto her face even though she was, truth be told, shaking a little. “Since when does me getting fresh ever end badly for you?”

She sparked the lighter to life and held it to the corner of the note and envelope. It caught slowly, burning with a smoky orange-yellow flame that told her she’d been right about it being treated with salt. She walked the burning paper over to the campsite’s fire pit.

Ben followed, right on her elbow, dagger still in hand, eyes taking in the whole area. “What are you doing?”

“Making sure this can’t be used to track us.”

Ben smiled. “Good idea. I hadn’t gotten that far in my thinking, I guess.”

Because you were thinking of giving yourself up, she thought, but didn’t say. At that moment the flame reached the letters and they popped and sparked, burning red and deep blue alternatively. Ben’s brow creased and he mumbled in what sounded like realization. “Huh.”

“Someone you know?” she asked, half teasing.

“Actually, I think so,” Ben nodded slowly. “Most likely Zuhal. A friend. Such as they are in Hell.” His eyes watered with the stink of sulphur and the images it conjured in his mind. He almost sighed with relief that telling Mal something more of Hell seemed marginally easier this morning. “He’s probably fine though. He’s always trading his blood to lovelorn witches for …” He cleared his throat, suddenly blushing furiously all the way up to his ears. “Favors,” he finished awkwardly.

Mal dropped the letter into the pit before it could singe her fingers. She slid an arm around him for a brief hug. “Let’s go wake up the others so we can get out of here.”

Ben glanced around again, then sheathed his knife. “I like the idea of getting right the Hell out of here, but what are we going to do about this threatened curse?”

She opened the door to the RV, but turned to give him an encouraging nod. “Protection spell, obviously. I’ve been practicing. Besides, we’ve got our own badass witch, and Chris, and you.”

They got inside and turned on the lights, eliciting groans from their sleeping travel companions. “The vibe I got off that letter was it was written by somebody pretty powerful,” Ben said, chewing his lip.

She cocked an eyebrow. “Some dumb evil witch doesn’t scare me.”

Ben pulled her into his arms, feeling himself relax already, even though he was certain there was real danger here. “You’re not scared of anything,” he said, voice full of admiration as he buried his face in her tangled curls for a moment and kissed the top of her head.

Except losing you, she thought.

What she said was, “Damn right. Let’s get them up and get out of here.”

He squeezed her again. “Whatever you say, Mal.”

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.