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The Sixth Day of Fic-mas

aromatic-beverage-christmas-1666061

The Christmas That Wasn’t

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She sniffed. “Fine. Ask.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Okay. We’re done,” she bit out.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“This is close,” Ben frowned.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I said …”

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

“What?!?”

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

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

“Please what?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ben shrugged and passed quickly back through the ship. Once he was back out on the pier with the wind biting through his coat, he decided he was going to get inside someplace warm, post haste. So … To the Office to file the incident report … Or to visit Aife, like he’d been thinking about all along?

Aife, of course, he thought, nodding to himself. Like he was going to prioritize paperwork over an evening with an old friend. He knew she was currently staying in a nice little townhouse on a busy street near the budding business district. He hadn’t seen her in … must be almost eighty Earth years now. He’d been trying to find a way to get her out of Hell for ages, and then about a hundred years ago, he’d won the right to appoint an Agent, someone to run Hell’s business and take care of demons like him when they were above. She’d been up here for decades, moving from Office to Office, learning the ropes, so to speak.

He’d missed her terribly, though he had managed to keep tabs on her. One of the benefits of being a noble, especially one the current king seemed to have something of a soft spot for, was his ability to get information, by means both fair and foul. When he’d made an inquiry right before coming up to see about Kae, he’d learned she should just be getting back into town. She’d been off in one of the nearby colonies, doing something either for or to someone. He couldn’t remember which. She wasn’t expecting him, and she hadn’t gotten back in yet, so he had a nice opportunity to surprise her.

The time of year made it an especially nice time to come up and see her. Yule was a tradition they kept to in their own ways, albeit secretly, and often together. In fact, one Yule, early in their association was probably why they’d become so close, despite what Hell did to try to keep demons from forming those types of associations. He did a bit of preparatory shopping on his way, his grin spreading in anticipation, and the warmth of his ideas sheltering him from the cold.

He found the house and tucked the package of items he’d acquired along the way under one arm to free his hands. The lock on the door and the protection charms were easily dealt with. He’d taught her the magic, after all. He did make a mental note to see to it she got more spell casting training. It was too easy to get in here, he thought, his own considerable skill aside. The door charm was a joke. Once he was inside, he kindled the fire and started his preparations.

Humming to himself, occasionally even singing softly under his breath, Ben got to work preparing a nice winter solstice feast. He opened a bottle of wine (that had been quite difficult to come by based on his usual experience) and poured the entire contents into a pot with some mulling spices, placing it on the back of the stove where it would warm but not bubble. Then he set about the baking he had planned while hunting for ingredients, also a more challenging endeavor than he would have thought. Though he supposed this wasn’t still called the New World for nothing.

Tonight would be a nice distraction from his strange collection gone awry and what would probably amount to a couple centuries worth of paperwork. He moved around the small kitchen, finding himself in an increasing bright mood. Warm holiday smells filled the small house. A nice dinner, catching up with one of his oldest, dearest friends would be just the thing.

The front door opened. “Alright, who’s in here? I’ll skin you alive and make book pages out of your carcass!” came an angry voice … No, more just annoyed. Yeah, annoyed, I’m good, Ben thought.

“Hey, Aife!” Ben called. “Is that any way to talk to your boss?” The smile was clear in Ben’s voice.

He heard the door close, followed by the tap of Aife’s shoes on the floorboards. “My Lord,” she curtsied mockingly as she entered. She took in the kitchen, the formally set table, the festive aromas drifting through every crack and crevice of her temporary home. “What the Hell are you doing?!?”

Ben’s face screwed up in confusion. “Um … I’m sorry for preparing a little Yuletide feast for a friend?”

She sighed. “Ben, love, it’s a lovely gesture, or it would be. Yule or, as the locals call it, Christmas, is illegal. Really illegal.”

“No … What? … No … Seriously?” She nodded solemnly. “What kind of fiend cancels Yule … or Christmas … or whatever you want to call it?”

“The Puritans. How do you not know this?” He really needed to get out more. “This is kind of important information considering you’re smack in the middle of Boston, which happens to be lousy with the joyless assholes,” she said with a fair amount of exasperation.

“I mean … I read … Okay, I skimmed … the briefing materials,” he hedged, knowing how lame it sounded even as it came out of his mouth.

“You need to study. You never study!” Aife shook her head.

“All I do is study! I spend half my eternity with my nose in some codex or scroll or …”

“I meant the stuff you’re supposed to study to be decent at your job,” she said, raising an eyebrow.

Ben huffed, jamming his hands into his pockets. “Yeah, but, that stuff is boring!” He shrugged. “I mean, it’s not like I don’t look at it at all … I just kinda lose interest.”

“Well, this ought to teach you that you need to read more carefully. Count your blessings that Boston isn’t my Office and I’m just here for training because I think I’d make you read their entire holy book and all their position papers before I let you leave as a disciplinary action!”

“Remind me never to need to use your Office,” he laughed, rolling his eyes.

Aife shook her head, and it was mostly with fondness. He could be such a boy sometimes. “Not to worry I suppose. The house charm ought to keep the mince sniffers at bay.”

Ben’s eyes widened. “The who that what, now?”

“Would it kill you to do at least the basic reading? You can read right? You haven’t been faking it all this time, have you?” she asked in exasperation.

“I love to read … Just not … you know … mission briefs. They’re dull and repetitive and usually not even useful,” he defended, sounding about as silly as he’d known he would, but not being able to come up with anything better.

“The mince sniffers are constables employed by the colony to walk around trying to find illicit holiday fun. Some of the morose bastards even volunteer for the job. That mince pie your cooking?” He swallowed hard, finally starting to look a little serious. She refrained from telling him it smelled wonderful, though it did. “That’s a dead giveaway. Fortunately, the house charm should keep what happens inside, well, on the inside. No sights, sounds, or smells should be noticed from the street. It’s a clever bit of work.”

“Sounds it, but about that door charm …”

“There’s no warding on the door … just the lock …” Her eyes narrowed. “What did you do, Ben?” she asked severely.

“I thought I detected some magic and I assumed …” Ben spread his hands, cheeks burning red to match the heat in his neck and his ears.

“Fine. I’ll go outside and fix it. And reinforce it.”

“Outside?”

“Yeah, it’s not a perfect solution, but it works. Pour me some wine and I’ll be right back. I’m sure you can make your carelessness up to me.”

He gave her an apologetic grin, then turned to fill a couple of warmed mugs with the brew. He set them on the table, pulled the pie out of the oven and set it on a trivet to cool, and lit the candles with a thought. He was sneaking a sip of the wine instead of waiting for her when he heard shouting. He listened for a moment. Oh, hell, that’s Aife.

“I said stay out of my house!”

“Miss, I can smell warm spices and mince!”

“Perhaps it’s from next door! House full of bachelors there, good sir. Their brewing barrel exploded the other day, mead all over the street. Where were you then?”

“Miss,” came the stern reply.

Ben missed the rest of what the man said as he slipped out the back door, figuring his presence would mean even more trouble, what with Aife’s cover being that of a spinster. He made his way around the back alley and back to the main thoroughfare. “Damn it! I shouldn’t have left the table set … or the food … or … son of a bitch … my hat.” Better double back and clear that stuff out before she gets in real trouble, he thought. Or, I could just wipe the guy’s memory and have done with it.

He cut down another alley that came out practically next door to Aife’s. Ben could see Aife arguing with a short, bald man, as a group of uniformed constables approached. “Damn it all to Hell and back anyway,” he growled under his breath. “This is not good.”

The constables and chief sniffer were forcing their way into her house, with Aife trailing behind still giving them an earful. And quite the crowd of neighbors and travelers was forming to watch things unfold. Shit. Hell was pretty restrictive about using magic up top here on a good day in ideal circumstances. If you were one on one with a human or even in a small group of civilians, you could get away with quite a bit. But if large groups or worse, government officials, were involved the higher ups got insanely tight assed about spell work. He’d have to proceed carefully.

Ben casually joined the crowd. “What’s going on here?” he asked one of the locals.

“Some lady’s making a Christmas feast or some such.”

“Oh,” Ben responded seriously. “That’s bad.”

“Well, it would be for me … but a lady like that, or a gentleman such as yourself?” He eyed Ben’s clothes and well-groomed appearance. “Probably not that big a problem.”

‘Really?” Ben asked, hoping his inflection was the right amount of curious about the consequences as well as disapproving of such a thing as a Christmas feast. Last thing he needed was to get made as the guy who’d cooked the damned thing. Aife was in training. He wasn’t. That wasn’t an ass chewing he particularly wanted to invite.

“Come along, sir. The fine is five shillings. That’s an awful lot to me, but I bet you got that in your pocket.”

Ben did, indeed, have five shillings and a good deal more. Coming to Earth without adequate funds was no fun at all. Instead of confirming his comfortable financial situation, he sniffed haughtily. “Still, it’s not proper.”

“True enough, sir. True enough.”

Ben walked away, feeling a little better about not having been able to erase any evidence or memories before the situation escalated. He’d find an inn to grab a bite to eat, then catch up with her later. He turned toward a place he’d noticed earlier, then stopped with his hand almost on the door. He decided he’d better head to the Office and report not only the events of earlier today, but also the Aife situation. She was this Office’s current trainee, and Hell had plenty of money. A fine of five shillings, one of any size, for that matter, was a non-issue. Even if they didn’t have the financial resources in place, odds were they owned the men who levied the fines anyway.

∞∞∞

“Look, I’ve already told you, here’s the money.” Aife tried, once again, to press the coins into the head constable’s hand.

She was going to kill Ben. Slowly.

“As I’ve explained, Miss, it’s not about the fact that you were celebrating Christmastide. But you were also entertaining a man, a man who was celebrating with you, and you won’t give us a name. It’s all most improper and quite against our laws and God’s.”

“I’ll pay his fine, too. He’s unfamiliar with our customs here is all. It’s nothing untoward, I assure you. He’s my brother.”

“I don’t believe you, Miss. If it’s your brother, why’s he run off? Where’d he go? What’s his name?”

“It’s really not important, I …”

“I should think it’s very important, Miss Cabot.” A tall stern man strode into the room.

“Reverend Knight.” The constable doffed his hat and bowed his head deferentially.

“Oh, Reverend, it’s so good of you to come. I’m sure you can help me clear this up,” Aife said with a forced smile.

Ben, I swear. Dead. D.E.A.D. Dead.

“Sister Prudence,” he said, somehow more informally and more menacingly all at once. “I do not recall any mention of a brother, living or otherwise.”

“But Reverend, it just hadn’t come up. I never thought he’d visit me here in the Colonies, you see.” It was a weak gambit, but she figured it was worth a shot.

“When we met, you told me you were an only child,” he said with a scowl.

“Did I? Well, I suppose it’s felt that way. He’s been so disapproving of my decision to come over from home, you see …”

I swear if they burn me, I will absolutely return the favor, Ben. And I absolutely don’t care if it gets me stripped of my powers and sent back to the Pit, Aife seethed.

“Oh, no, you were most explicit, dear Prudence.” She paled, and it was all the Revered needed. “Constable?”

“Yes, Revered?”

“Strip her, put her in the stocks, and paint a red ‘W’ on her forehead. Let all know we have a wanton woman among us. We’ll deal with questioning her further about her companion once she’d been softened by her penance.”

Aife kept quiet then, her eyes on the floor so they couldn’t see the fury there. She had no play to make here. She’d have to wait until she was alone or at least lightly guarded.

She put on all the appropriate protests and emotions as she was processed through a system that claimed to be of God but reminded her much more of her current employers. She was paraded through the streets in the freezing cold in nothing but her dressing gown, the cobblestones icy on her bare feet. No wonder Ben had ghosted. Still, she would pay him back for this someday. It was humiliating and infuriating … and … stupid!

The spectacle caught the attention of everyone along the route to the center of town. A few people jeered or threw things. Most just ignored her or gave a sad head shake, whether at any actions she might have taken that warranted this, or with the treatment itself, she couldn’t say. The wood of the stocks and the metal of the locks chilled her skin. At least I can’t freeze, she thought.

Despite the encroaching evening, the next few hours saw the expected small crowds of gawkers gather. She suspected their petty torments were to prove their own fake piousness to anyone who might be watching. A couple of them tossed eggs at her. None hit her in the face, thank goodness. A few spat in her general direction, but she was untouched by it since none of them had the balls to get too close, lest they be defiled by her wanton ways themselves. One brave kid, of about ten, got close enough to give her a glancing kick in the ass. Stupid humans, stupid rules. Hell had so many rules! It took all of her will not to break all of them and just extract herself from this embarrassing and unpleasant situation.

Around midnight, her one remaining guard ducked off to sleep. With a combination of her demonic strength and some hastily muttered incantations (that she was not about to credit Ben with having taught her at the moment), Aife freed herself. Then she took a moment to make herself unnoticeable with a nifty bit of obfuscation magic. It didn’t render her invisible, just completely unremarkable, unmemorable, to anyone who might notice her at this late hour.

She stalked furiously toward the Office. Ben would be waiting for her there, she was certain. Probably warm and snug with a mug of mulled mead, laughing his ass off with the Agent about this. “That’ll be a nice cozy place for him to die,” she muttered to herself.

She arrived at the office to find the door already being held open by the muscle whose name she had yet to commit to memory. He nodded pleasantly, quite able to see her since obfuscation magic doesn’t work on other demons. She forced herself to nod back. She liked the staff here kindly disposed, and since she was now going to need to apply for a transfer, she needed all the good will she could get.

She headed directly out back to the Agent’s working office. He was sitting there, quill in hand, working on a mountain of reports. No Ben in sight. The Agent looked up when he heard her huff of irritation. “Aife, you look like Hell.”

“Thanks,” she bit out. “Where is he?” she asked flatly.

“Ben? He got summoned back. He’s in a bit of hot water over the collection he was up on.”

“Good,” she growled. “I hope they skin him.” The Agent widened his eyes, but wisely stayed quiet. “I’m going to need a new cover and some help getting a transfer. I’m burned.”

He nodded. “Ben already filled out the paperwork for you. I was surprised you weren’t right behind him. He didn’t seem to think it was much of a big deal.”

“Not a … I really am going to kill him. Slowly. Over a hundred years, maybe. No. Maybe I won’t let him die. I’ll just torture him for a really long time.”

The Agent grinned. “Lucky Ben.” Her mouth dropped open to let him have it, too, but she found herself smiling instead. It wasn’t much of a smile, but it cooled her anger a bit. “I filed the transfer for you when Ben got pulled back.”

“Can I stay here until it comes through?”

“Of course. The room upstairs is empty. I’ll send Elspeth up with clothes for you. And water. You look like you could use a wash.”

She nodded. “Thank you. That would be great.” She turned to head upstairs, then stopped in the doorway, looking back at the Agent. “Royce, can I ask you a question?”

“By all means,” he replied. Answering her questions was part of his job as her training officer and frankly it would go better for him when she filed her own report of this if she was reasonably kindly disposed.

“Why must we tiptoe? Why can’t the mortals know? They can believe, but not know. What is that shit? I spent the day and most of the night in the stocks because I couldn’t stop it or put an end to it, because using my magic in front of them isn’t allowed. It’s … ridiculous!” She couldn’t come up with anything better to encapsulate her frustration.

“Oh, that.” He sighed a little. Never easy questions with this one. “Yeah, it’s kind of a mess. But as I understand it, it’s not just another one of their bullshit rules. It’s an agreement of some sort between God and Lucifer. They can’t have proof. The mortals, I mean.”

“Why the hell not?”

“I guess because it kind of balances things out, maintains free will for the mortals, the whole faith thing. Or some crap like that.”

She frowned, leaning on the door jamb. “Why would Heaven agree to something like that? If God is revealed, Hell shuts down due to lack of incoming souls.”

“I guess they can’t tell either because some outside force oversees enforcing the balance of power. No cheating on either side. God has the numbers, and the power, to do pretty much whatever he wants, but he can only act indirectly without breaking the contract. Hell, too, I guess.”

Her brow furrowed. “But Hell doesn’t act indirectly. Demons straight-up possess people. Or use the classic reward or force system. You give me x and you’ll get y. And Heaven …”

“Heaven can’t or won’t do that. You’re right. But they can use prophets and angelic influence. Free will is always maintained that way though. Even with possession, afterward the person can still choose how to act.

Aife thought she was catching on. “So they equal out.” She thought about it for another minute.

Royce added, “All the rules about how we operate on Earth aren’t arbitrary. They’re part of this deal.”

She sighed deeply. “That both makes sense and gives me more questions.”

“So the trials of the day didn’t change your outlook much,” he observed with a chuckle.

“Very funny. I’m going to go get cleaned up. Could you have Elspeth bring up some food, maybe something strong, and hopefully enchanted, to drink?”

“Sure, Aife, no problem.” He grinned a little wickedly. “A joyous Yule to you.”

“Yeah, right. Merry fucking Christmas, Royce.”

She stomped upstairs.

 

Categories
Arbitratus Short Fiction Fic-mas Short Fiction Uncategorized Writing Challenges

The Fifth Day of Fic-mas …

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Christmas Miracles

Authors’ note – What kind of Demons Run Fic-mas would it be without a recipe to warm you up in the cold? Hopefully this one will be good for your heart and your stomach.

 

“Okay, Kelly, you ready?” Teddy asked, grinning at the way his little brother was dancing from foot to foot in anticipation.

“Ready!” Kelly practically shouted, in full excited preschooler voice, climbing onto his tiptoes and throwing his arms in the air like he was on the downslope of the world’s best roller coaster.

On the counter was a row of various cups and bowls, holding the recipe ingredients in the order they would need them. Ben had told Teddy setting up like that was a chef thing called … it was some German word or something, and with Ben you could never really be sure because he spoke like five or six languages or something … it was very important, though.

He was glad his mom had chilled out about him hanging around with Ben. She thought it was weird that he had a friend who was in college, but Teddy had pointed out Ben was only a few years older, he was Mal’s boyfriend, and he was not just Dr. G’s research assistant, but his roommate, too. It made him feel better about making the phone call to try to get some ideas about something to cook with Kelly this afternoon. Ben had given him the easiest recipe he could think of. And that was good, because Teddy didn’t know much about cooking. These would hopefully turn into Teddy’s favorite Christmas cookie, though he’d never tried making them before. Ben was sure he could do it, he’d said. Kelly was bored, so he sure was going to try.

Kelly started to climb onto the chair Teddy had pushed up to the counter for him and couldn’t quite make it on his own. Teddy grabbed the straps of his blue and white striped overalls and hauled him the rest of the way up, letting him hang in the air over the chair for a minute in the way that always gave him the giggles.

“Snickerdoodle!” he laughed as soon as he had eyes on all the ingredients.

He’d been giggling and saying the word randomly ever since Teddy had suggested making cookies after lunch. He thought the word was hilarious. Even funnier than saying ‘fart’ in front of guests. It made getting him to focus on what they were trying to do come down on the near impossible side of challenging. Kelly had also been running around the kitchen banging everything with a wooden spoon while Teddy tried to set up.

Teddy shook his head, still smiling. The challenges of making cookies with a four and a half-year-old, no matter how hilarious the name of those cookies, paled in comparison to one who wanted to walk up to the Battery and play in the park. “Why are you so mean, Ted? I like the rain! There’ll be puddles!” had been on repeat all morning.

Honestly, Teddy mused, looking out the window again. It isn’t raining that hard. And it is pretty warm for the middle of December … He thought better of it. His mother would murder him. Not just if she caught them in the act, but if she even suspected he’d let Kelly out in the rain on a windy forty-degree day. And his mom was one of the smartest people he knew. No one would ever find the body.

“Kel, buddy, get back here,” Teddy called, as Kelly wandered off again. He caught up with his tiny charge in the living room, face pressed to the glass of the picture window that faced the lake. “Kelly, c’mon. Let’s go make the cookies.”

He didn’t say snickerdoodles. He wanted cooperation, not another giggle fit.

“Teddy, I wanna play outside!”

“I know, kiddo, but Mom says no. But maybe it’ll stop raining if we wait a little. Let’s go make cookies for Santa.”

Kelly turned around, his grey eyes uncertain and his freckled nose wrinkled with concern. “Skyler says Santa’s not real.” He frowned a little, and it morphed into a pout as he thought about Skyler picking on him for drawing a picture for Santa at school before nap time.

“Not real?” Teddy widened his eyes dramatically.

“Uh huh,” he nodded earnestly. “She said only stupid babies believe in Santa.” His lip quivered just a little.

Teddy had hoped Kelly would be a little older before some other kid ruined Santa for him. Teddy remembered all too well what that was like. He wasn’t going to let that happen to Kel. He wasn’t even five! “That’s a pretty mean thing for somebody to say. Especially since she doesn’t know what she’s talking about.”

He reached down to pick Kelly up and carry him back to the kitchen, something he didn’t normally do anymore, but he felt suddenly almost overly protective of his brother. As he settled Kel on his hip and started back to the kitchen, the little boy went on. “She isn’t nice. Not ever. But Beau says she’s right and …”

“I don’t care what Beau says,” he said firmly. “Santa’s real, pal. He’s so real that it’s too big for some people to know.”

Kelly’s eyes got big and round. Teddy knew everything. “He is? Really?”

Teddy nodded earnestly. “Of course he is. And unless little Miss Skyler and Mister Beau can prove otherwise, Santa and I are very good friends.”

Kelly’s gaze took on a worshipful shine as his big brother plopped him down in the chair next to the counter. “You are?”

“You bet we are. And wait until I tell the Big Guy about those meanies at school.” This wasn’t the first time Kelly had trouble with those two. “But, Kelly, you can’t tell anyone,” he said, not wanting him to go back to school and invite more bullying.

“Not even Mom and Dad?”

“Oh, you can tell them. They’re Mom and Dad. You can tell them anything.”

Teddy pulled the first couple of ingredients they needed closer, so Kelly could reach. HIs little brother looked up at him, not necessarily all that interested in cookies anymore, even if they were fun to say. “But how?”

“How what, bud?” Teddy handed Kelly one of the eggs, showing him with his own how to crack it and drop it into the bowl.

“How do you know Santa? Kids can’t see him, right?”

Teddy patiently picked shell fragments out of the egg dish. “Well, yeah, usually we can’t. But one Christmas … before you were born,” he began, starting to stir the butter to soften it up. “Actually, the year you were born … I asked Santa for a friend.” Kelly’s eyes were fixed on Teddy’s face, the snickerdoodles mostly forgotten. “See, I knew some kids like Skyler and Beau …”

“I’m sorry, Teddy,” Kelly said with big eyes and a very sincere voice.

“Now you put the sugar in on top of the butter, Kel,” Teddy prompted. As his brother complied, Teddy continued to spin his story. “Those kids didn’t really matter though, buddy. Because Santa came to me himself, to make sure I was ready.”

“For what?”

“For you, silly.”

“For me?” he asked, confused.

“Well, yeah. I asked Santa for friend. One who was funny, and smart, and who kicked butt at Candy Land. You know, just the very best friend a guy could ever have.”

“So Santa gave you Petra,” he said, nodding knowingly. Petra always beat him at Candy Land.

“No! I knew Petra for a long time before this. And she’s a good friend. But I needed a very best friend. So he gave me you.”

Kelly tilted his head to the side like he just couldn’t figure out how he could be Teddy’s very best friend. Teddy was the coolest, so his best friend had to be the coolest, too. And if Kelly knew anything from Skyler and Beau, it was that he wasn’t even a little bit cool. Teddy could practically read his brother’s thoughts. “Huh?”

“Santa said, from what I described in my letter, what I really was asking for was a little brother. The coolest little brother in the whole world so we could be best friends forever. And he was right. Ooof,” Teddy grunted as Kelly flung himself around his brother’s middle, hugging so tightly it almost hurt. “Oh, boy,” Teddy added, even as he hugged back, because the flailing little limbs had knocked the canister off the counter.

The plastic bin hit the floor with a loud pop, sending the flour into the air in a blinding cloud. After a few seconds it started to settle, covering every surface, including the two brothers. “Whoops,” Kelly said quietly.

From down the hall, Teddy heard the jingling of keys, followed by the clicks of the door opening, then closing. There was the familiar sound of a heavy purse being set on the stand next to the coat rack. “Hey, boys! I’m home! My shift got over early!”

Teddy assessed the scene. Flour still drifted lazily through the air. Everything was white and dusty. “Of course. Of course it did.” He sighed. “Timing is everything,” he said to himself.

His mother stopped in the doorway, her mouth pulling into a surprised ‘O’, then starting to twitch at the corners almost immediately. Her boys were two pale apparitions standing guiltily as the dust settled, their matching grey-green eyes round and slightly scared at what her reaction might be to the destruction in front of her. Their expressions relaxed into relieved grins as their mother started laughing. “Alright, I’m going to go shower and change. You guys be sure to clean up when you’re done.” Her eyes surveyed the carnage that was her kitchen. “And, yeah … Let’s do take out. Talk about what you want. I’m up for Chinese or Chicken Charlie’s, but you decide.” She smiled and left the kids to their mess.

Kelly breathed a sigh of relief. “I thought we were gonna be in big trouble.”

Teddy nodded. “Me, too. But I guess Christmas is a time for miracles,” he grinned. “Now, let’s finish these cookies, pal.”

“Snickerdoodle!”

∞∞∞

 

Snickerdoodles are a Flaherty family favorite, and not just because they’re fun to say. They are as much fun to make and eat as sugar cookies, but a heck of a lot easier. The classic warm cinnamon and sugar flavors on a rich, almost creamy, butter cookie, make them perfect for the winter holidays.

 

Ben’s Snickerdoodle Recipe

Ingredients

2 3/4 cups All Purpose Flour (for a less chewy cookie, you can use Cake Flour)

2 teaspoons Cream of Tartar

1 teaspoon Baking Soda (if you don’t have Cream of Tartar, you can use 2 teaspoons Baking Powder instead of the Baking Soda and Cream of Tartar, but it does change the taste just a little)

3/4 teaspoon Salt

1 3/4 cups Sugar (2 tablespoons of the Sugar should be set aside)

1 cup Unsalted Butter (Some recipes will tell you to use shortening. Throw them out. You don’t need that kind of negativity in your life.)                                                                 2 Eggs

2 tablespoons Heavy Cream

2 teaspoons Vanilla Extract (the good stuff)

1 tablespoon Ground Cinnamon (Mix with the Sugar you set aside on a plate)

Instructions

  1. Preheat your oven to 400°F.
  2. If you didn’t do it already, mix 2 tablespoons of the Sugar with all the Cinnamon on a plate or in a pie tin (I like a pie tin, so I don’t make a huge mess).
  3. Mix the Flour, Cream of Tartar, Baking Soda and Salt in one bowl.  
  4. In another bowl, cream the Butter and Sugar together until it’s light and fluffy (you can do this by hand or with an electric mixer – just make sure the Butter is room temperature or your arm will get tired and you will get frustrated).
  5. Once the Sugar and Butter are well mixed, add the Eggs, Heavy Cream, and Vanilla. Mix until well-blended
  6. Gradually stir in the dry mixture until it’s completely incorporated.
  7. Shape dough into small balls. We always use a small scoop or disher for this.
  8. Roll the balls in the Cinnamon Sugar mixture until they are completely coated.
  9. Place the balls about two inches apart on ungreased cookie sheets.
  10. Bake until lightly brown around the edges, or for a crisper cookie, until the tops are all slightly brown.
  11. Cool in the pan for a couple of minutes to allow the cookies to set.
  12. You can cool them completely on wire racks or eat them warm – Nobody here is going to judge you. And as we all know, holiday treats have no calories.
Categories
Arbitratus Short Fiction Fic-mas Short Fiction Uncategorized Writing Challenges

The Fourth Day of Fic-mas …

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Ain’t No Party Like … Skipping the Party

Authors’ Note – If you’re already a reader of Always Darkest, or even last year’s Fic-mas stories, you’ve met Petra. She’s never had a story all her own though, and we decided it was time. She’s pretty important in the sequel. If you haven’t yet been introduced to her, this is simply a tale of an unhappy teen at Christmas who has an opportunity to be better than where she comes from. 

 

“Petra! What have you done?”

Petra looked up from her phone with an expression that said she’d as likely been disturbed by a buzzing mosquito as her irate mother.

When Petra didn’t immediately respond, her mother went on with furious determination. “Our guests will be here any minute, and you … you … You’re ruining it already!”

Petra blinked slowly, then forced a bright smile. “Whatever do you mean, Mother?”

“Your appearance! Go to your room right now and change! And …” Her mother snatched a white-tasseled red felt hat off one of the servants scurrying by and thrust it at her daughter. “Put this on!”

“Pass,” Petra said blandly, taking her feet down off the coffee table, rising, and brushing past her mother, exchanging a wink with Mary, their current housekeeper and Petra’s former nanny. Her mother huffed several times, clearly at a loss for words, which had been Petra’s goal all along.

The last thing she wanted was to be at some stuffy professional “networking” holiday party. Petra certainly had no intention of being the demanded Norman Rockwell family portrait poster girl either. When she was younger, they’d sort of forced it on her, but not anymore. Not this year.

She’d shaved her head for the occasion. Well, sort of shaved. The sides anyway. She’d bleached the stubble and dyed it a festive bright red. The top was dyed forest green and waxed up into liberty spikes. Mal had helped her attach jingling silver bells to the ends this afternoon and they tinkled pleasantly every time she moved. She’d purposely dressed in all black, donning her most distressed ripped black skinny jeans over equally ripped and worn out fishnet stockings. Her shoes sort of matched her hair though. They were oversized elf shoes in bright green and red stripes with bells like the ones in her hair, but bigger. Louder.

Her shirt was the piece de resistance, she thought. She’d had it custom painted in the place over at the University Mall. It was black, too, but it also featured a jacked and angry Rudolph standing over the bloody lifeless corpse of another reindeer. The caption said, ‘They Used to Laugh and Call Him Names. Used to.’ Petra was very satisfied with the picture she’d created.

Her mother trailed after her, a litany of all the ways she was failing as a daughter bouncing off her harmlessly. This was what her mother was like around her work friends. Petra preferred the usual benevolent neglect she typically experienced, especially since Alex left for college, but she wasn’t surprised that tonight her mother was being a ninety mile an hour bitch.

As if to prove the lecture wasn’t troubling her, Petra paused by the sixteen-foot-tall gargantuan blue spruce that dominated their main hallway, its star reaching the top of the grand staircase. “Oooo, shiny,” Petra said, plucking off one of the small bright silver balls. She took out her septum ring, slipped it into her jeans pocket, and replaced it with the ornament. She was not altogether thrilled with how it felt or the smell, but was pretty happy with the disgust that wrinkled her mother’s face.

“Young lady,” her mother snapped.

Hot damn, she hated being called young lady. Sister Margaret who taught her English class never seemed to call the girls anything else. Mal had solidified their budding friendship by explaining that ‘lady’ was a term of oppression perpetuated by the patriarchy during the first week of class. Petra had thought for sure that was worth about a year’s worth of detentions, but the sister had just given her a clenched-jaw smile and said that was an interesting point. Petra had nearly pissed herself trying not to laugh. Even the memory of it was enough to put a smirk on her face which just seem to irk her mother even more.

“I said, ‘young lady’!”

“What?”

“I’ve been speaking to you!”

“And I’ve been ignoring you. Your point?”

Her mother sighed dramatically, looking extremely put upon. “I don’t deserve this. After everything I’ve done for you!”

“Everything you’ve … Look, I told you I had plans, but no, because Alex is off at school, you need me around to sell the big lie.”

“Lie?”

“That this family isn’t falling apart. Cuz that’d be bad for business. We can pretend you guys aren’t always about one extra martini away from a messy divorce, that Mary didn’t have more to do with my potty training than you, that any of us can stand being in the room together anymore! Jesus Fucking Christ I miss Alex. At least he gives a shit. Without him around this whole facade of us being one big happy family is complete bullshit!”

Her mother looked like she’d been slapped. Then she looked like maybe she wanted to do some slapping. “Don’t you dare …”

“Oh, I dare, alright. You haven’t bothered to say ten words to me since Thanksgiving that weren’t you bitching about my grades … which are actually pretty stellar, by the way. Then, suddenly yesterday you tried kissing my ass and when that didn’t work you demand I show up as underaged eye candy at your sham of a Christmas party! No thank you!”

“What’s all the fuss about in here?” Petra’s father asked, as he came in from the connecting hallway. “I could hear you in the kitchen.”

Petra’s mother gave him an exasperated ‘are you kidding me?’ look, then puffed out a theatrical sigh. “You deal with her. I’m going to check on the help.” She stomped off noisily on sharp heels.

“By which she means go grope the bartender who’s maybe got five years on me,” Petra said darkly, rolling her eyes in disgust.

“Petra, that’s enough,” her father said gently. “Now, what’s this all about?”

She took a deep breath. Her father was the calm one. Not better, but more relaxed. He hadn’t even batted an eye at her appearance. “I don’t want to be here. You guys will introduce me to everyone as part of your show, then you’ll ignore me while Creepy Jim from mom’s office who’s older than you flirts with me and tries to cop a feel. I’m here as a piece of furniture … No, it’s worse. I’m a decoration that gets thrown out when you’re through with it!”

He seemed to think about that for a minute. “Okay. Any chance you’re going to just go change like your mother asked you and not make a scene here tonight?”

Petra noted that her father didn’t disagree with anything she’d said. He didn’t even look sorry about it. She really did miss Alex. She hoped he’d change his mind about coming home for a weekend at some point soon. It was maddening with his dorm being only a few blocks away, but once he’d gotten out of the house, he’d mostly stayed gone.

“Not a snowball’s chance in Hell. Sorry not sorry.”

Petra’s father reached into his suit coat and pulled out his money clip, peeling off several large bills and holding them out to her. “Here you go. Have fun, and I’ll see you tomorrow at the charity breakfast.” He held the bills away for a second. “Just do something about your hair before then.”

“I will,” she said with a practiced sweet smile. He let her have the cash. “Thanks, Daddy!” she said cheerfully, leaning in to give him a peck on the cheek. “I’ll figure out how not to shock Gran and Papa, I promise,” she laughed.

“Good. Now get out of here before your mother comes back. She’ll need at least three drinks in her before she’s tolerable to be around again and three more will put her back in ‘avoid at all costs’ territory.”

“Good call,” she agreed, heading out immediately. She stopped in the foyer long enough to pull on her long coat and grab the bag she always left in the hall closet for when she needed to bail at the last minute, whether for a party or to avoid her bickering parents.

Her mother came back into the hallway just as she was about to close the door. The shrill whine of her responding as predicted followed Petra out onto the stoop. Thankfully, closing the door muffled the ensuing argument that would turn off like a faucet the minute the first guest rang the bell. Petra started up the street with hardly a care. She was too grateful to not be stuck in that house with them fake not-fighting, or being cornered by Creepy Jim, to give even a sliver of a damn. She hoped Teddy was home. They could hang out, or maybe go kick around Church Street a little.

She pulled out her phone and tapped his name at the top of her Recents. “Hey, Teddy … Yeah, totally got out of it. I owe you and Mal big time for helping with the hair. Em too for the shoes. I thought Mom was gonna have a stroke … You still gonna be around tonight? … Dude, yeah, that sounds like way more fun. Elsie’s parties are even better than mine. Wonder if we can talk Mal into it? … Of course she is. What about Emily? … Cool. I’m gonna walk up around the block and just … I don’t know … Shake off the stink of fake way-too-early Christmas … It’s so not funny … Okay, cool. See you in a few.”

Petra headed up the side street that, while it would take her well out of her way in getting to Teddy’s, would also provide the fifteen or so extra minutes she wanted to get in a good mood. Elsie throwing a last-minute party was a pleasant surprise. When she’d told her mother she had plans it was more I-have-plans-to-not-be-currency-in-your-office than any real agenda to go do something. Now, she had a pocket full of cash and a bounce in her step.

A Friday night party with friends, even if they couldn’t pry Mal off her couch, where she was supposedly helping Ben with some required math crap, would be preferable to smiling until her face hurt and rejecting the advances of some old creep who just because he was related to the president of the company felt like he had some … some claim on her, and had since she was maybe fourteen. And her parents didn’t seem to be bothered by it. What the hell? Who was okay with their kid being reduced to an object? Worse, who reduced that kid to an object themselves? One to be trotted out to preserve the illusion of family?

Petra stopped at the corner and took out the money to count it. Jesus, he really did want to get rid of her tonight. That was quite a pile. Being a fly in their ointment pays a hell of a lot better than being a party decoration, she thought to herself. She shivered a little, telling herself it was entirely the cold. It had been an unusually chilly fall. The lead up to winter hadn’t been especially promising either. She glanced around. Snow littered the edges of the sideway in grimy little piles and everything looked kind of grey in the fading light.

The sky was clear of any promise of fresh snow to cover up the dirty run-down appearance the icy crumbling mess gave the city. Of course, this little neighborhood, so close to her own more exclusive one, was dirty and ramshackle on a good day. Maybe there was more snow in the forecast; she hadn’t looked. Or warm weather to melt it all would be okay, too. In fact, she thought as her ears began to tingle with the cold, warm weather would be better. She shuffled along, slowed by the elf shoes for another few minutes, but as the tingling turned to burning, she took them off and stuffed them into her shoulder bag in favor of the doc martens they’d been pulled on over.

Taking the roundabout route to blow off some steam before she got to the Sullivans had seemed like a great idea. But now not only her ears, but her fingers, were red and starting to hurt. Time to pick up the pace, she thought. As she turned a corner to head back down to the waterfront, she found herself on a street she didn’t immediately recognize. It was a long row of neglected houses and flickering street lights trying to sputter to life in the gathering dusk. She didn’t usually venture too far onto any of these side streets. She realized she’d sort of been conditioned to avoid them. Her parents seemed to have some sort of weird dread of people less well-off than they were. But Mary lived over here somewhere, so how bad could it be?

She decided to duck into the little mom and pop store with the faded sign on the closest corner in hopes that they’d have some coffee or hot chocolate to warm her up until she made her way to Teddy’s building. The bell on the door jingled as she went inside, but the proprietor didn’t look up. He was too focused on the two kids in front of him.

The little boy was maybe four. He looked about Kelly Sullivan’s age. The girl was probably nine or ten. It was hard to tell. They were both small, too thin, and bundled up in winter clothes that were too big, and while she had the round cheeks of a kid not quite approaching adolescence, Petra thought she had some of the oldest eyes she’d ever seen.

The dumpy, balding man behind the counter still hadn’t acknowledged that he had a new customer. He was too busy glaring down at the little kids in front of him. “Look, kid, you just don’t have enough money. I ain’t a charity.”

The little girl sighed quietly. “Yes, Mr. Carrey I know. I’m sorry, Mr. Carrey.” She turned and tugged the little boy’s hand and they shuffled out of the store. As they slipped past Petra, making themselves as small as possible, she saw silent tears sliding down the little girl’s face into her scarf. At least they were dressed warm.

The door closed behind the kids and Petra’s gaze settled on the scruffy disgruntled Mr. Carrey. She cleared her throat. He finally acknowledged her presence with an irritated sniff. “What is this, freaks and losers on parade?”

She let her eyes travel slowly over the parts of him that were visible above the level of the counter. Her expression said she’d taken his measure and found him wanting. “It definitely is,” she replied. She turned and walked out, ignoring the shower of profanity and complaints about ‘kids these days’ just like she’d ignored her mother’s piercing clucking of disapproval.

Out on the curb, under the streetlight that was going to become necessary before very long, the little girl sat with her arm around her brother who was sobbing inconsolably, but not loudly or particularly noticeably. She was comforting him like it was something she’s needed to do before. “I know, Billy. I know. Mama will be home soon. She might have some more money.”

Petra stood for a minute, watching them. She called out, “Hey, kid! Come here a minute.”

The little girl looked fearfully her way. “Um … no … um … I’m not s’posed to talk to strangers.”

Petra walked over to them. “I’m Petra. I might look pretty strange, but I’m really pretty much just a kid like you.”

“Oh … um … I’m Theresa,” she said softly.

Petra reached into her pocket. She held out the money her father had paid her off with to the little girl. “Take this.”

The little girl got up and eyed the wad of cash. She reached out her hand, then stopped. “I … I can’t.”

“Sure you can. I don’t need it. I have my bank card. It’s Christmas money.”

“I really can’t,” the little girl said, shaking her head.

Petra chewed her lip. Then she grinned and opened her shoulder bag, showing the little girl the shoes inside. “Of course you can. Look, I’m not supposed to tell, but I’m an elf. Like from the North Pole. You know who sends elves from the North Pole don’t you?”

The little girl gave her a worldly smirk that was definitely too old for whatever her chronological age was. “Santa’s not real, lady.”

“You sure?” Petra took the shoes out of her bag and pulled them back on, careful to keep the cash pinned between two of her fingers the whole time. “Would anybody who doesn’t work for Santa walk around town looking like I do right now?”

A small giggle escaped Theresa’s lips. “I guess maybe not.”

“See, so you can take Santa money.” She held it out again, then hesitated. “But this Christmas present has one condition.”

“What’s that?”

“You can’t spend it in this store here. That guy is on the Naughty List.”

Theresa smiled and for the first time looked her age as she reached out and took the money. “Thank you, lady. A lot.”

“It’s Petra, and don’t mention it.”

She started to walk away. Theresa called out, “Petra! Hey, Petra the Elf! This is too much!” Theresa had never even seen a hundred-dollar bill before, but she knew what they were, and she was currently holding five of them.

“No, it isn’t. It’s just right. Merry Christmas!”

The little girl was crying quietly again, but she was grinning from ear to ear around her tears. “Okay! Okay, thanks! Merry Christmas, Elf Lady!”

As she walked away, Petra heard Billy’s tiny sniffly voice ask, “Sissy, we eat now?”

“You bet, Billy. We can eat. Right now.”

Petra headed back toward the waterfront, happily whistling We Wish You a Merry Christmas.

She was very glad her ears had gotten cold.

 

 

 

Categories
Arbitratus Short Fiction Fic-mas Short Fiction Uncategorized Writing Challenges

The Third Day of Fic-mas …

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Ghosts of Yuletide Past

Aife made her way silently down the stone path leading to her family home. She couldn’t stop smiling. It felt like she’d been away forever. The chance to see them all again was such a precious gift. She could hardly credit the peace and contentment that had settled into her chest the moment she’d started recognizing the landmarks that said she was on the road home. She’d never dared hope to feel this way again.

Her breath caught in her throat when the squat little grey field stone dwelling came into view as she crested the final hill. A lazy tendril of smoke curled up from the chimney. She imagined she could smell the mulling spices in the kettle on the hearth. She could almost hear the crackle of the warming stones at its edge that would sizzle when they were dropped into full mugs to warm hands when everyone came inside.

She paused to watch her grandchildren for a moment. They were playing in the light snow that had collected in front of the house, darting in and out of the nearby woods, engaged in some sort of game. She wasn’t sure exactly what it was they were playing. It involved a lot of running, flinging bits of snow at each other. They screamed like it might be the end of the world, then laughed themselves into tumbling, breathless, onto the ground. She laughed, too, but, of course, they paid her no mind. The smallest of them seemed to meet her eyes for a moment, but then she squealed and ran back into the trees after one of the boys.

Aife hugged her elbows with a fond sigh. Being lost in play, why do we lose that as we age, I wonder.  She knew at least one soul who seemed to have kept that irreverent sense of finding fun wherever he went, but then again, she supposed he was quite young, too, in his own way. Humming softly to herself, a tune she couldn’t quite place, Aife went inside, leaving the children to their games.

She took a deep breath of the heavy warm air inside the cozy little home. A pot of what was likely cider bubbled merrily, hissing and spitting as steam condensed and droplets hit the logs below. It sounded like home. It smelled as good as she’d imagined, too, maybe even better, with the added savory aroma of a nicely roasting rabbit over the flames.

Her eldest daughter, Rowan, chided one of the younger siblings, about how she was turning the spit. “Ye want te keep it even, don’t ye, now?” When the turning didn’t improve, she huffed a little in frustration, and stopped what she was doing to demonstrate the proper way to turn the spit. “Like this, Morag, before you burn the back an’ leave the belly raw!”

Aife laughed quietly, feeling no small amount of pride at how Rowan was handling overseeing the Yule feast preparations for the first time, like the captain of a well-run ship. All those years at Aife’s elbow. She’d clearly attended to every lesson. She’d be a right terror in battle if she was ever called to it, Aife thought. But like her mother, and her mother before her, she commanded her household troops with warmth and a light amusement dancing in her green eyes. Aife’s admiration for Rowan’s skill didn’t stop her from wanting to help.

Instead, Aife took a seat next to the holiday fire, stretching her hands out to warm them in the comforting blaze. The Yule log burned merrily, the coals dancing in their familiar ashy red glow that never ceased it’s mesmerizing movement. She felt the flames warming her face pleasantly as soon as she sat down. A moment later she was almost startled as a shawl brushed her arm and a thin hand patted her shoulder.

She glanced at her new companion. “Hello,” she greeted softly.

“Ah, Aife, mo leanbh, I hoped you’d be able to come. It’s good to see you, child.”

“It’s good to see you too, Mama. I hope you’ve been well.”

“Passably well, child. How’s it with you?”

Aife swallowed. “It hasn’t been easy …” She swallowed again. She was not going to talk about that now, not here. “But just look at our family … growing, thriving. Strong and happy.” She sniffed a bit, but she was smiling again.

“They are that,” her mother agreed. An’ yer Liam did such a fine job with the Yule log. ‘Tis the finest fire I’ve seen in many a year. It’s so lovely to come here and be warmed by it, enjoying my family. I’ll bless this fire that it brought you here for a chat, too, lovie.”

Aife gazed into the fire. It was a good one, and the log looked to burn for days. She’d never been much of an enthusiast. She’d always been more of a practical cook-fire sort of woman (and flaming arrows certainly had their place) but today she appreciated the Yule fire, more than she could ever have known. She felt the same sort of pride she had seeing how Rowan was handling her role as matriarch when she looked at the fire her boy had kindled. She’d probably never admit it out loud to anyone, but Liam and Rowan had always been her favorites among her large and well-loved family.

A crackling pop from the log brought Aife back to the present. “Where’s Da?”

“Ach, you know how he is. Has to pop in on everyone’s fire today. I expect he’s at Diarmuid’s hearth just now. You know how he always was about his baby brother.”

“Mmm. Do you think he’ll be by soon?”

“Ye have other plans, do ye?” her mother asked gently.

“I …” Aife began, but was interrupted by the loud crash of shattering pottery. Rowan let loose with a string of words that Aife was quite certain she had not learned from her mother (since she’d never had to follow her into battle). “Rowan! Such language!” she snapped, not really thinking.

Rowan continued to mumble random curses and wishes for the feast to be on someone else’s shoulders as she drafted another one of the younger girls to pick up the shards little Donal had scattered, running through the house, in through the front and out the back.

“I bet you’d like to jump in and sort that all out for yer girl,” Aife’s mother smiled knowingly. “It’s hard, love. Believe me I understand. Letting go is the most difficult part of sitting at the fire each year, but … She’s rising to the occasion. She is. And she’ll continue to do so. She’s her mother’s child through and through.”

“I know … I just wish …”

A large warm hand settled on her other shoulder. “Hey, Aife. I let myself in.” She glanced up and bit her lip. “I’m sorry, but we’ve got to be getting back.”

“And who might this handsome and strapping lad be,” her mother asked, raising one of her grey brows.

“Not now, Mama,” Aife mumbled. She protested, “You said … The feast hasn’t started, Ben … And my da’ …”

He squeezed her shoulder. “I know and I’m sorry. But we’ve got to leave. Like five minutes ago. Gareth can only keep up appearances for us for so long and … We need to go.”

She sighed. “Alright. At least let me say goodbye.”

He hesitated, but then he nodded. “Of course. But be as quick as you can.” He nodded at the old woman by the fire. “A blessed Yule to you, ma’am.” She smiled at him. He touched Aife’s arm. “I’ll be outside.” He left the house to give her the moment free from the demands his presence implied.

Aife squeezed her mother’s hand. Then she moved around the house to each of her children in turn, uttering promises to return whenever she could, patting the heads of the grandchildren who were starting to crowd into the house to warm up and try to sneak bites of food. She stood in the doorway for a moment, giving a last smile and a fond wave, taking one last look at the frantic, but homey, pace of her family.

She stepped outside into the cold that no longer touched her, wiping absently at a tear and suppressing the others that were trying to fall, not that it mattered. She turned to Ben, torn between gratitude that he’d given her this opportunity and fury that he was now snatching it away before she’d seen everyone. “Why?” she asked, her unshed tears constricting her voice. “Why give me this and then cut it so short?”

“I said I’m sorry,” he began. He put an arm around her shoulders and started leading her away. “I thought it would help, seeing them, I mean. Knowing they’re well and your family is … still here and still growing. Carrying on for you.” His voice sounded momentarily tight, too, but though he’d released her shoulders and was now just walking next to her, she detected no change in his face or posture.

“I appreciate it, Ben. I do … I don’t mean to seem ungrateful, it’s just … I would have liked more time.”

“Wouldn’t we all?” he said so quietly she almost didn’t hear it. “And I wish I could have given it to you. I meant to … But we’ve been summoned. As annoying and incompetent as the King of Hell is, he’s still the king.” He held out his hands like he’d try to explain more. This was all still new for her, still a fresh wound. Unable to think of anything adequate, he shrugged.

“Why Yule though? Of all the times, Ben …” She trailed off, near tears again. “I didn’t get to see all of them,” she finished after a minute.

Another shrug. “I knew we couldn’t be away for long, even at the best of times, and I just thought more of them would be here for you. Especially the kids. I know that’s important to you.”

He sounded so bleak. He’d tried to do something so truly wonderful for her, she wanted him to know that even in her disappointment, she was still grateful. “Seeing my mother was such a lovely surprise. I didn’t expect it. It’s been so long.”

“The Yule fire is a funny place,” Ben mused.

“It … I felt so strange, Ben. Every sensation, every smell. I felt I could have picked up a cup and tasted the cider. We’re not really totally even on this plain of existence. I shouldn’t have been able …”

“Did you not think our own traditions and stories had at least a kernel of truth, Aife?” he asked, smiling a little. “It’s half of why our people light the Yule log every year; so our ancestors can come and warm themselves by that fire, if they like.”

“Always seemed made up to me,” she said managing a small chuckle.

“I always believed, or at least, I wanted to. I had a bit of a mind for the magical side of things though. I have Daira to thank for that. She was the wise woman in my village. Took quite a shine to me,” he smiled. “And then, you know, demon, so … I’ve definitely embraced my more whimsical side.”

As he hoped, she chuckled again and her smile stayed in place. “It was wonderful to see them. It does help. It does.” She stopped walking and turned toward him. “Have you ever visited your family?”

Pain sparked briefly in his eyes, but he just gave the barest shake of his head. “Nah, never managed it.”

Aife realized too late why that might be. Oh, the poor boy. All of them. No wonder he struck her as such a lonely soul. “Thank you, Ben. For everything.”

He nodded, his jaw tightening for a moment, before flashing one of his dazzling distracting smiles at her. “Happy Yule, Aife,” he said simply.

Quite unable to stop herself, she pulled him into a hug. “Happy Yule, Ben.”

 

 

Categories
Arbitratus Short Fiction Fic-mas Short Fiction Uncategorized Writing Challenges

The Second Day of Fic-mas …

bottle-celebration-crowd-948199

Eat, Drink, and Be Miserable

 

Author’s Note: For readers of Always Darkest, in case you were wondering why Ben couldn’t spent Christmas Eve with Mal, this ought to clear things up. For those of you new to our universe, this is what happens when Hell throws a holiday office party.

“Ben! You made it!” the graceful hostess called with enthusiasm and more than a little surprise. She hadn’t seen him come in, and her two assistants had been taking bets on whether or not he’d show up. She eyed him up and down. “You’re looking … very … um …”

“Save it, Aife. I’m in no mood for games or pleasantries.” She thought he might be frowning or glaring at her, but at present it was difficult to tell. “Besides, we’re fighting.”

“Fighting? Over this? Come on, it’s not that bad.” She reached down, clapping him on his uncharacteristically meaty shoulder. “And it’s traditional!”

The eye roll was more obvious than his previous expression. “Yeah, that’s me. Mr. Tradition.”

He started shouldering his way through the crowd, toward the decorative seat on the raised platform at the center of the room. The sooner he sat down and got this started, the sooner he could change and get the hell out of here. He was glad going home no longer meant just the hundred feet or so to his old apartment above the bar. Soon this would be over and he could catch a cab across town to his new digs.

And shower.

For about a week.

Undeterred by his sour mood, Aife followed, trying to pull him out of whatever was behind his current funk. She knew he wouldn’t be happy about this, but she hadn’t expected his near total silence since she’d reminded him of the obligation.

To be fair he’d kind of bared his soul to her, at least as much as Ben ever did with anyone, and when all was said and done she’d said, essentially, ‘Thanks for trusting me with all this, but, by the way, I need you to do a thing you’re really going to hate in a few days’.

But it wasn’t like Ben to pull the silent treatment bit, even if he was furious. Something major had to be happening. Still, he had an obligation here tonight, no matter what else was going on with him. In fact, based on the little he’d revealed of what he’d been up to over the last year, and especially the last few months, keeping up appearances, keeping his cover intact, was especially important. She decided to subtly remind him of that in a way that would be safe if someone happened to get close enough to eavesdrop.

“You, of all demons, know how important it is, for those of us saddled with peripheral, less important Offices, to stick to the regulations,” she admonished. When he rolled his eyes at her a second time, she started quoting the rule book. “At the time of year when all earthly eyes are on the heavens, it is critical that Hell do its part to stay a presence literally and figuratively to advance our mission. The senior ranking noble or Agent will act as ceremonial host on the eve of …”

“I’m familiar with the regs,” he interrupted. “Why the hell do you think I’ve avoided being anywhere near an Office on Christmas since … always?” he groused. “How are demons even supposed to celebrate Christmas?” came out as more of a growl.

She grinned, hoping an attempt at humor would relax him a little. “Ironically, I think.”

He sighed. “Ironically?” He tugged at his coat awkwardly, unaccustomed to clothes not fitting exactly the way they were meant to.

Aife looked him over, letting her gaze linger like she was about to flirt. Then she cocked an amused eyebrow. “Yeah, definitely ironically.”

“Oh, screw you, Aife,” he snapped, then started laughing in spite of himself, though his amusement was short lived.

He was glad The Pit wasn’t one of those bars with mirrors everywhere. He didn’t need to be reminded what a ridiculous figure he cut in this crowd of demons and humans decked out in their finest, or at least their most festive. Since custom demanded that he appear in his demonic form, say nothing about the ubiquitous Santa suit, he wasn’t interested in the visual. This was a form he avoided at all costs; he hadn’t been forced into it in centuries. And the suit was about as awful as he expected. But it was kind of funny. Probably. From the outside.

He fidgeted in discomfort again and the pat Aife gave him this time was less amused and more genuinely consoling. She led him to the bar and gestured for Ciara to pour them a couple of their usual drinks. She knew the short, round, hairy appearance (forget the goat legs and cloven hooves that came with the package) didn’t exactly match up with how Ben saw himself. She really should have expected this reaction.

When he’d first come to her over a year ago, looking for a place to stay, they’d been sitting in his apartment flipping through channels one night and had come across the Disney version of Hercules. She’d made the offhand comment that he reminded her of a character in the film. He’d grinned and said he’d always thought he was decent enough in the looks department, but he’d never have given himself Greek god status. Aife had smiled wickedly and told him she meant Hercules’s friend, Philoctetes. Because of, you know, the whole goat-y thing. “He’s the spit of your demon form, lovey.” He’d glared for a while, then stomped off to bed, leaving her to let herself out.

She knew how miserable he had to be tonight with that bumpy, lumpy, short, asymmetrical body crammed into a cheap Santa suit. It wasn’t quite as bad as a rental, but very nearly. She’d never seen anyone fit into it properly and that was definitely true tonight. Ben pulled at some part of it self-consciously every time he moved. It was somehow both too big and too small all at once.

The arms had to be rolled up with fabric bunching awkwardly at the wrists. His demonically-shortened stature also meant, even rolled up, the pants trailed under his hooves so he kept treading on the cuffs and half tripping.

Despite its length, the breadth of the suit wasn’t proportional. Or adequate. The buttons strained across the considerable girth at his midsection in an over-taxed effort to contain him. She nearly laughed at the thought of them putting out someone’s eye if they let go. She’d never let him live it down.

Ben stretched the stiff fabric on the waist of his pants yet again, wishing he could breathe properly. He was trying to find real humor in this, but was just too damned uncomfortable. His sour tone belied the amused smirk he was trying on. “Honestly Aife, I look like Tim Burton got tapped for a reboot of The Grinch and decided to cast Danny Devito in the lead role.”

Given her memory of just a moment ago it took a herculean effort not to burst out laughing. Oh, that nearly did it. She snorted a little giggle, but clamped down on it. “You only look about half as ridiculous as you think you do. Besides, I thought I’d be the one wearing the costume this year. No one else has been around and you’re usually so good at avoiding this stuff.”

“If you’d reminded me sooner, I would have again,” he said, shooting her a dark look.

“Maybe I mentioned it back when you were still showing up for work here. Not my fault you’ve been off …” She stopped when his brow creased. She had promised not to mention school, or his other job, or the fact that he had apparently made friends with some humans. Not where anyone else might overhear it anyway. She’d have to get the rest of the story out of him at some point, but tonight was not the time for it. “And maybe this finally makes us square for Boston,” she said archly.

“Boston? Are you serious? This is about Boston?” he asked incredulously, gesturing at his horror-inducing appearance. “C’mon, Aife, that was literally centuries ago! And it was not my fault!”

“It was a little your fault,” she said with a smirk.

“How can you ..? I didn’t do …” he sputtered.

“You set the mince sniffers on me. You have to own that part at least.”

He sighed. “Okay, maybe … so that part could have been my fault, but …” His whole face became a frown. At least she thought it did; it was tough to tell with all those bulldog worthy wrinkles. “But we’re even?”

She tipped him a wink. “I said maybe.”

Ben rolled his eyes. He picked up the generous shot of her best scotch off the bar, downed it, then closed his eyes for a couple of seconds, setting the glass down with a thud. “Fine. Hand me the beard, would you?”

Mirth danced in her green eyes as she passed the finishing touch for the Santa suit to him. He fixed it over his ears, using her reactions, rather than the mirror over the bar, to decide if he had it arranged correctly. He could deal with this, so long as he didn’t have to look at it. Her nod told him it was on straight, but … what was that ..? Ugh.

“Aife … um … why does this smell like … I don’t know … bad?” he asked when he couldn’t come up with anything to compare the aroma to.

Aife’s eyes went round and innocent. “I can’t imagine,” she said sweetly. “It’s natural fiber. Wool, I think.”

“Okay, sure, but from what part of the sheep?”

She laughed. It was such a normal Ben thing to say. She took a step closer and sniffed. “Oh, oh honey, I’m … About that …”

“Aife,” he warned, an almost imperious note creeping into his voice. “What is it? What am I ..? Just … what?”

“You may have heard about … last year Stolas was the lucky noble in town.”

“And?”

“Well … he had quite a bit to drink, and got spectacularly ill …”

“How does a demon get sick from drinking unenchanted Earth booze?” he demanded.

“How should I know?” she returned indignantly. “Maybe giant demonic raven’s have fussy stomachs! Besides … I did wash it …” she assured him.

“In what? Musk ox urine and broken dreams?”

“Oh, it’s not that bad, Ben. Just a little musty.” She patted him again. “You’re just crabby.”

Ben decided to let it go. He was crabby. Downright pissy even. And it wasn’t Aife’s fault he couldn’t just leave town. He would have last week when she’d reminded him about this little shindig, but he’d promised Mal he’d be there for Christmas, promised he’d meet her dad and uncle. Shit. What was he thinking? Meeting a couple of angels after all this … He almost wished he could get sick-drunk tonight. “Yeah,” he sighed.

Ben finally hazarded a look in the mirror and finished adjusting his beard. He pulled the tasseled hat back on as far as it would go over his abnormally round head, and walked wordlessly past Aife to take his place on the raised dais so the formal part of the evening’s festivities could commence.

∞∞∞

The party was, as Ben expected, a vulgar and garrish affair, featuring a who’s who of Burlington’s damned, and their guests. The crowd was mostly made up of connected, and more importantly, contracted, souls, not to mention a handful of local-ish demons, mostly in human form, or wearing a human body. At least the Fallen hadn’t shown up. That was a small consolation, but as the smelly Santa suit started to itch in addition to being aromatic, Ben decided he’d count his blessings where he could find them.

“Ah, Lord Ronoven, I don’t believe I’ve had the pleasure before.”

He glanced up from where he’d been staring at the ice in the bottom of the glass Aife had kept full all evening. He found himself faced with a woman of early middle age, wearing too much make-up and a smart red dress. “Good evening, Margaret,” he greeted mildly.

“You know my name?” the woman asked with a startled laugh.

He dipped his chin in a nod that was as close to dignified as his demon guise allowed. “It’s my business to know. I trust your son is doing well under the new arrangement.”

“Oh yes, quite well, my Lord,” she gushed. The form of address and her tone made him twitch. He forced the cringe inward and continued to meet her eye as though he were really interested in her answer. “He’s just been made the youngest partner in the history of his firm … and more importantly, his name has been coming up a lot in certain political circles, just as promised.”

Another semi-regal nod. “Very good. I like to know the contracts made in my territory are being adequately kept up. How are you finding the party, Margaret?”

“Nice,” she hedged. “But confusing. I keep wondering how demons celebrate this sort of a holiday.”

“Ironically,” Ben returned with a smirk. She gave the appropriate polite laugh, but still looked out of sorts. “Although I suppose that’s not what you meant.”

“Well, no, actually … Why does Hell have a Christmas party?”

“This isn’t really a Christmas party, Margaret.”

She laughed again. “Could have fooled me.”

Warming to the opportunity, Ben sat forward a bit. “And apparently we did,” he observed. “You see, Margaret, the invitations may have said Christmas, but those who are more informed know it is that in name only.” He paused letting that sink in for a moment. “Here we honor the old holiday of Yule, after a fashion. The traditions we hold harken to a time before the Church co-opted it for their own purposes. We celebrate Earth’s longest night,” he said, laying on an ominous tone and forcing his expression to stay serious even as he wanted to crack up at the fear behind her eyes. “Of course, since we’re from Hell, we like to put our own spin on things.”

“W-what sort of spin?” she stammered.

“Oh, about what you’d expect. There’s the fire in the hearth there with logs stolen from groves some people still hold sacred. The fertility celebrations that will come later. I’m sure you’d enjoy those.” He winked mischievously, glad for the first time that that he looked as grotesque as he felt tonight. “And there’s the traditional pig roast that ought to get going sometime soon …”

“Oh, I do enjoy a good pig roast,” Margaret said, trying to get back into the spirit of the evening.

Ben raised his shaggy eyebrows. “Ever had long pig?”

He nearly broke out laughing as Margaret blanched paper white. She knew what that was. But she regained her composure and assumed a game faced expression. “I … um … no, but I suppose I might try …”

Good grief. She probably would too. Fortunately, this was Aife’s Office and the worst thing on the menu tonight was probably the weird Vienna sausages the local state congresswoman favored. “Yes, indeed,” Ben grinned. “Things should get very interesting around here come midnight.”

She cleared her throat and squared her shoulders, pretending he hadn’t absolutely given her the shivers. “Well, I do need to get going shortly anyway, so I suppose I’ll miss out. You were my last stop this evening. I just had to see for myself.”

“Pardon?” he asked with feigned polite interest.

“My friend Nancy said you’d know my name and about my arrangement, just like you knew me personally. And you did! What do you do, study up before these things?”

“I read minds,” he lied smoothly. “And not that it’s any of my business, but when good ole Nance dropped by a little bit ago, it became pressingly clear that the reason your young Dale has been visiting so frequently these last few months is she’s been playing Mrs. Robinson to his Benjamin Braddock. Enthusiastically.”

Margaret turned very red, and without another word, but with a very loud huff, she stormed off, probably to look for her “friend” Nancy. Judging by the crashing from one of the back rooms that followed a few minutes later, Ben guessed she’d found her.

“That wasn’t very nice,” Aife chidded, appearing at his elbow.

“I didn’t like her. Didn’t care much for Nancy either.” Ben put down his glass on the small side table Aife had provided for drinks and whatever little gifts the humans brought as tribute. He’d passed the latter on to other demons quickly, rather than having to touch or look at the items much. He fished a small button-shaped receiver out of his ear. “Was that everyone?”

She squinted around the room. “Just about. You might want to leave that in for a bit though.”

She raised her eyebrows at him as he dropped the earpiece into the glass and handed it to her.

“No need. It’s just about midnight. My ass is sore from kissing and there’s no obligation to stay for anything else once the hour chimes. I’m done.” He did manage a smile. “Nice work with the radio. Made me seem informed, like spooky informed. That’s always good for making an appropriately hellish impression. And making some of them squirm was more fun than I expected to have tonight.” He got up and unhooked the beard, dropping it into the chair, along with the hat, and tried unsuccessfully to yank the coat down. “I’m out of here.”

“You can’t go. You have to come out to the private party room. We’re just about to break out the baby oil and start the …”

“Nope.” He shook his head emphatically. “I don’t have to anything. Especially that.”

“You’ve been living like a monk for months now. What’s going on with you, Ben?” she asked critically. She knew he was working on that prophecy, knew he’d made human friends, but he’d been so out of character lately. “You used to live for the more Bacchanal aspects of these little get togethers.”

He shrugged. Something told her, without even being able to see it, that he was blushing. “Yeah, well, not tonight.”

He didn’t hang around for her to say anything else, just made his way to her small office out back where he’d changed when he arrived. With his back to the door, he performed the spell to call back his human form. He wished there was a shower here, but also just wanted to get the Hell out of Dodge as fast as possible. He shucked off the Santa suit and picked up his boxers off the neatly folded pile of clothes he’d left on Aife’s desk.

He was focused on getting home as quickly as he could manage. So he didn’t hear the door open and softly close behind him. “You just have to tease me before you leave, don’t you?” Aife asked lightly, raising her eyebrow when he startled and half turned.

His ears were almost as red as the Santa suit as he finished pulling on his underwear and hastily grabbed his jeans. “Aife, please.”

She leaned against the desk, smirking. “Okay, but one of these days, you’re going to have to really tell me about her.”

“Who?” he asked absently, donning the grey thermal henley he’d practically been living in every time it was clean lately. Damn, he couldn’t seem to get used to the cold.

“The woman who’s making you want to miss an orgy. You love a good …”

“Good night,” he interrupted. He plastered on his fakest, most obsequious smile. “It’s been a terrible evening and fuck you for having me.”

“Ben, why don’t you stay for a bit and …”

“Aife … just … Okay?” She grinned at how flustered he seemed, but didn’t say anything else. He zipped his heavy hoodie, and pulled the hood up for good measure. She couldn’t see his face, but he sounded a little friendlier when he turned to the door and added, “Maybe I will tell you about her. When I’m speaking to you again.”

“Suit yourself,” she chuckled. Then she called out to him as he let himself out into the back alley. “We’re definitely even!”

“Even?” he called back, trying to remember what she was pissed off at him about. Tonight had been too stressful to keep much in his head for long.

“Yeah, for Boston. Asshole.”

Aife’s laughter followed him into the cold winter’s night.

“That was not my fault,” he mumbled under his breath.

 

 

 

 

 

Categories
Arbitratus Short Fiction Fic-mas Short Fiction Uncategorized Writing Challenges

Merry Fic-mas Eve!

ficmas

It’s that time of year again. Our favorite holiday tradition is here.

Can you call something you’ve only done once before a tradition?

Sure. Why not?

We had so much fun challenging ourselves with last year’s Twelve Days of Fic-mas, we decided to make it a thing. Which as our favorite Time Lord will tell you is like a plan, but with more greyness.

So, the Twelve Days of Fic-mas is back! Twelve original stories (we are literally writing as you read this) that celebrate the festive spirit of the holidays, hearth and home, and occasionally the darker side of the season. This year you’ll see familiar faces if you’re a fan of the Always Darkest Universe, some friends returning from last Fic-mas, and maybe a few surprises. We hope you’ll join us on this year’s fictional adventure.

If you’d like to check out last year’s Twelve Days, the rough drafts are still up here on the blog, or you can pick up a copy of our polished up collection (lovingly beta read by some of the universe’s biggest super heroes and best friends) over on Amazon at http://mybook.to/12daysoffic-mas.

New readers, welcome! Old friends, welcome back! And Merry Fic-mas!

Categories
Arbitratus Short Fiction Fan Fic For Fun Short Fiction Uncategorized

Bad Dreams

Author’s Note – I couldn’t sleep the other night and I wound up writing fanfic for my own characters. In case anyone’s been missing them, I decided to share it. ~ J

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Ben sighed quietly and rolled over onto his side with deliberate care. His breathing was finally returning to normal, his preternaturally sharp vision adjusting to the darkness.

He smiled slightly when his eyes came to rest on her sleeping face. The curve of her cheek bathed in the spare moonlight almost glowed like an aura. Her brow creased and she made a soft sound of protest.

It seemed her dreams were as distressing as his. Well, that was probably unlikely given what he’d been dreaming about, but a nightmare was a nightmare.

He didn’t want to wake her. She was exhausted, needed to rest. So he tried smoothing her hair gently off her face and whispering a faint shushing sound.

She settled after a short while. Ben tried closing his eyes again but after a frustrated quarter hour or so he gave up, resigned himself to the fact that he’d had all the sleep he was going to get. Hell, his heartbeat still hammered along quickly enough to be a little uncomfortable.

He hadn’t dreamt of the fight that won him his place in Hell’s nobility in a long time. Decades probably. And if he never did again it would be too soon.

Mal made a soft gasping sound and Ben’s eyes snapped open.

She was looking at him. It was still dark enough that she shouldn’t be able to see him, but he could tell that she could. He wondered briefly if that was something she could always do, or if it was a sign of her growing power.

“Hey,” he whispered softly, careful to keep his voice low so as not to wake the others, still sleeping in the close quarters of the hotel room. “You okay?”

She didn’t answer, just shook her head and moved closer to him. He pulled her in and she tucked her head against his chest. He immediately felt the dampness of hot tears against his worn T-shirt.

Mal hardly ever cried, even when everything was falling apart. She was the determined optimist, the group cheerleader. She was always the light in the darkness.

So when she did break down, he knew it was bad. He did everything he knew to comfort her; stroked her hair, rubbed her back, held her. Still, she clutched at him, her hands balled into fists in the fabric at his back.

It went on for a long time.

Finally, her silent sobbing trailed off. Unlike Ben, who never willing talked about what went on in his head, Mal had an almost desperate need to talk about it, to make the terror her imagination saw fit to throw at her less real.

“I’ve never had such a terrible dream before,” she breathed raggedly.

Knowing she always needed to talk after a bad night, even though it always hurt him to hear about her pain, Ben asked, “What happened?”

He also knew sometimes her dreams were prophetic, so it paid to listen even when it was hard to hear. Still, he was struck silent at her words.

“I … I think I was you. I was in a ring of fire, but it was cold, so cold I was turning blue. And I was covered in blood. A lot of it was mine. But there were bodies everywhere. At least a hundred.”

She felt him tense and assumed the cause was his usual distaste for anything that caused her even remote discomfort.

“Then I heard them. They sounded like dogs … but when I saw them come out of the dark, through the flames …” Another sob found its way past the hold she’d placed on her tears.

Ben held her tighter and she heard him whisper, almost too quiet to hear, “How are you having my dreams?”

“What?” she asked, surprised into being a little louder than her intended whisper.

Across the room, Chris snorted and rolled over and Aife mumbled something. Mal lowered her voice and tried again, “What do you mean have your dreams?”

He cursed silently. That had just slipped out. He considered deflecting, but chided himself. If he couldn’t be honest with Mal, who the hell could he be honest with?

“I was dreaming of the day I won my title. A little bit ago.” He faltered at how shaky the admission made him sound. “Mostly I dreamt about the end, the dogs … I …”

He stopped. He couldn’t go on. Because if he did, he’d give in to tears just like she had and he had no interest in doing that. He hated to cry. He felt strongly that he’d rather bleed.

He found himself being hugged so fiercely that if he’d been fully human it would probably have hurt.

“Hey, hey, shhhh,” he soothed instinctively. “It’s okay. You read my mind sometimes anyway. I’m so sorry my dream got into your sleep.”

“No!” she whispered almost angrily. “Don’t be sorry that I know. You never talk, you never tell. I know it was hell, but I … Ben, I’m never letting you go back there. Never.”

Instead of tears, there was a cold sort of determination in her voice.

He suppressed a sigh. Scion or not, he didn’t think there was much she could do to stop the inevitable. “I know, Mal,” was what he said instead of what he was thinking. “I love you,” felt like the most appropriate thing to say. It was true and he had no comfort beyond his feelings to offer her.

“I love you.” She paused and finally pulled back from his chest to look at him. He could almost have sworn her eyes were glowing faintly like his often did when he was emotional. “And that’s going to be enough.”

He knew what she meant. Still, he didn’t want to talk about what the future held. Instead he kissed her, long and well.

“It’s always enough.”

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Book News Uncategorized

Book Talk Radio Interview

Check out our latest interview with Claire Perkins of Book Talk Radio!

 

cropped-co-author-picBook Talk Radio Interview – Jess & Keith Flaherty on Their Book Always Darkest

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Short Fiction Uncategorized Writing Challenges

The Mirror ~ J

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I’m at my desk, obsessively proofreading, like any other morning. I notice I’ve accidentally used ‘their’ instead of ‘they’re’. Hell and damn. I guess that’s what you get for writing half asleep. I reach for my mouse to eradicate this grammatical travesty, instead coffee sloshes on my hand.

“Huh.”

It’s a surprised sort of sound.

I’d lost track of my surroundings. I glance down, admonishing myself to be more careful, and my stomach drops. Everything on my desk is reversed.

Not just out of place. A mirror image of what I’d sat down to.

I’m breathing faster, feeling panicky nervous sweat between my shoulder blades. I want to act, but I’m momentarily frozen.

What do you even do in this situation?

Then I start to calm down. Obviously I call 911 because clearly I’m having a stroke. Or maybe the day job finally caused that nervous breakdown I’m always joking about, haha. I get up slowly. The cat perched on the back of my chair is white with pink eyes.

My breathing picks up again.

Not hyperventilating, but damned close.

Then I see her.

In the mirror hanging on the wall opposite my writing desk, there is another me, sitting in my chair with everything looking the way it should. She glances over her shoulder, and meets my eyes. For a moment blue meets blue, then hers flash dangerous red. Through the glass I can make out the sounds of my family coming downstairs.

She smiles.

I see her teeth.

Categories
Arbitratus Short Fiction Short Fiction Uncategorized

Something’s Gotta Give (A Demonic Short Story) Available Now!

Copy of Something's Gotta Give Cover

 

$0.99 on Kindle or for Free on Kindle Unlimited.

An assignment in Hollywood? That sounds like Paradise …

Ronoven should have known better.
In Hell, nothing was ever as easy as it sounded.

Take a trip above, they said. Use your human name. Go around as Ben again if you want.

Collect a movie star’s soul.

It’ll be easy, they said.

And he bought it.
Hook. Line. And sinker.

Then he met her. An innocent; caught up in her own pain, in the whirlwind fame of Hollywood’s heyday.

He couldn’t save her life, but if he was willing to play the odds, he might just be able to save her soul.

Ben had always been a gambling man.

Something’s Gotta Give – Available now.

http://mybook.to/somethingsgottagive