The Direction of His Dreams

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

The Direction of His Dreams

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

The moan became a whimper. 

He sounded so lost. 

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

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

Flames all around, burning, but not consuming him. 

Pain. 

Blades. 

Torment. 

Teeth.

“Please!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

He resettled himself with a smirk. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So, that’s what she was up to. 

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

Her eyebrows went up.

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

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

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

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

But he was fine now. 

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

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

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

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

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

But he healed fast. He always had. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ben growled in frustration. 

She probably had, too. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Caraid!” he exclaimed in genuine pleasure. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He got almost as far at the front door. 

“Where’re you goin’ then?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yer condition? I thought ye were fine.”

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

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

“Ach, she won’ know.” 

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

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

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

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

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

She stopped, chewing her lip again.

“Go on then!”

“Yer father’s been … and yer mother…”

“Cin, just spit it, would’ye?”

“They’ve found a bride fer ye, Bean.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Maybe,” he hedged.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Well, tha’s good, I suppose.”

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

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

“Tha’s important to ye.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Ye’ve not visited me before.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He sighed. “Spose ye do.”

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

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

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

He tilted his head. “How?”

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

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

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

He thought he knew what she meant. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I do.”

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

“I’ll make ye some tea, lad.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*****

 

Sugar and Spice

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

Sugar and Spice

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It was good. 

But it wasn’t good enough. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mal leaned against the counter. “Whatcha making?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And I’d really rather not. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Oh, it’ll work.”

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

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

He laughed. “I guess not. But…”

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

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

“That’s the spirit!”

“Spirit of what? Murphy’s Law?”

“Independent scientific inquiry.”

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

“It will be, Ben.”

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

***

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

Chocolate Spice Cake

Ingredients

1 cup boiling water

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

1 tbsp cinnamon

½ tsp nutmeg

¼ tsp ginger

⅛ tsp clove

1 ¼ cups packed dark brown sugar

1 cup all-purpose flour

¾ cup cake flour

1 teaspoon baking soda

1/2 teaspoon kosher salt

1 cup vegetable oil

½ cup sour cream

2 large whole eggs

2 large egg yolks

Directions

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

Preheat your oven to 325 degrees.

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

Whisk until smooth.

Set aside.

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

Whisk to combine.

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

Whisk to combine.

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

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

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

Citrus Cream Cheese Frosting

Ingredients

8 oz unsalted butter, softened

8 oz cream cheese, softened

4 cups powdered sugar (give or take)

1 tsp vanilla extract

1 tbsp orange extract

Zest and juice of 1 orange

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

Directions

Sift the powdered sugar. Set it aside.

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

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

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

*****

Home

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

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

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

Aife, Ted, and Petra all agreed.

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

Ben grinned around his beer.

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

“Mmmm?”

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

Okay, just the food. That’s all.

She took another bite of pizza.

Say something.

“It’s good.”

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

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

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

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

Petra shrugged. “Bathroom, I think.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She sniffed. “Thanks.”

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

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

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

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

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

“Me, too.”

*****

Image by Karsten Paulick from Pixabay

Musical Moment

Author’s Note – Just another little moment that could appear in Book II. Because I was feeling shippy. ~ J

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She shifted carefully, trying to make her head light since it was resting in the middle of his belly. 

He reached out and smoothed her hair. “Do you need to move?”

“No, I like you being a pillow.” She turned on her side to face him and he squirmed almost imperceptibly. “Am I tickling?” she asked, purposely talking close to his skin.

He adjusted himself under her again and smirked. “Only when you’re trying.”

“Hey, turn that up.”

Ben grinned. “You like Social Distortion?”

“Is that who this is? I … I like the words.”

They listened quietly for a few moments.

How many times have you asked yourself?

Is this the hand of fate now that I’ve been dealt?

You’re so disillusioned this can’t be real

And you can’t stand now the way you feel

I don’t care about what they say

I won’t live or die that way

Tired of figuring out things on my own

Angel’s wings won’t you carry me home?

She sighed. “I feel like this guy must know you.”

Ben smiled down at her. She was achingly lovely with her curly hair spilled over his bare stomach. It was so nice to be alone for a few hours. “I guess maybe he does. After a fashion. That dude. His name’s Mike Ness. We’ve both been through some shit. I like him. I visited him sometimes, back when I could just be a spirit.”

“Does he know that?”

Ben blushed. “Of course not. I don’t … Not unless somebody summons me. His music though … You’re right. I feel like he knows me.”

I triumphed in the face of adversity

And I became the man I never thought I’d be

And now my biggest challenge, a thing called love

I guess I’m not as tough as I thought I was

I don’t care about what they say

I wanna marry you someday

When I wake up, it’s a brand new day

Angel’s wings gonna carry us away

“Even that stuff?” she smiled. He was blushing furiously.

He swallowed hard. That was a direct question and it wasn’t one he could deflect. It cut him too deeply. “Especially that stuff.”

“You’d marry me if you could?” 

“In a heartbeat,” His face was so hot it hurt. “I really would.”

She clasped his hand, the ring he’d made for her birthday, his promise for their page in that long boring book they’d first claimed on prom night, highly visible.

“Me, too.”

*****

All lyrics belong to the unbelievably talented band Social Distortion and if you don’t already listen to them, go do it, now. Ben says so.

Image by JayMantri from Pixabay

Dirty

Author’s Note – Here’s another little Arbitratus Trilogy Fanfic that comes from an Instagram one word challenge. This one could fit just about anywhere mid-Book II, Before the Dawn (coming soon, I promise). The word was ‘Dirty’. I had fun with this one. ~ J

Dirty

“Hold still,” she grumped, taking his arm and turning it over for the third time.

“Mal, I’m fine.” Ben tried to pull his arm away from her again, but her hold on his wrist was too firm. “It’s just a scrape.”

She rolled her eyes. “This is not a scrape.”

He shrugged, not exactly interested in looking at it all that closely anyway. He tried a charming grin. “Well … That’s what I get for showing off by climbing ledges to impress a girl I already know is going to sleep with me.”

He tugged at his arm again.

She adjusted her grip and went back to work. “Quit being a baby and let me clean this up.”

“Mal, come on. Just do your healing power magic thingy. I rinsed it off already in the…”

“Filthy stream next to the road? Yeah, I know. I was there.” She sounded just a little pissed off.

“Ow!” He jumped a little. “Take it easy!” he groused, trying once again, unsuccessfully, to reclaim his injured arm. 

“I’m sorry.” She stopped trying to pick gravel out of the gash. “But Ben, this is really dirty. I need to clean it up before I can try healing it.”

“I don’t see why.”

“It’d be pretty gross if I magiced you into an arm full of pebbles and leaves because I was careless and closed it all up in there.”

He wrinkled his nose. “I guess that would be kind of gross. But it’s not like it can get infected or anything … I mean I did all those spells to protect …”

“You had an Archangel tell you you could basically pass for human these days. Who knows what Uncle Davi’s spell did to all those protections.”

Ben stopped squirming. “Christ. I never thought about that.” He started chewing his lip.

She looked up at him again with concern. “Am I really hurting you?”

“No … Um … I mean, a little, but it’s okay. I was just …”

“What’s the matter, Ben?”

“Suddenly feeling a little worried about my not-deal-with-human-stuff magic maybe not being foolproof, I guess.”

Tan as he was, she almost thought he looked a little pale. “Well, I mean, obviously you still have powers and everything. I wasn’t about to drag you into town for a tetanus shot or anything.”

He rolled his eyes. “Not what I was thinking about. But good. Because gross.”

Oh. She smirked. “I’m still on the Pill, if that makes you feel any better.”

He laughed, flushing just a little. “It does, actually.”

He let her just finish what she was doing and when she closed her eyes to use her healing powers, he closed his too. Watching her do that made him feel weirdly self conscious. After a minute or two, she released his arm.

“There. All better.”

He opened his eyes and grinned at her. “Thanks.”

“The rest of you is still all grubby from wiping out.”

“Yeah. I’m pretty filthy.”

“Shower?”

“When do I ever say no to that?”

*****

School

Author’s note – I’ve been playing around with some little one word prompts over on our Instagram. For those of you that don’t goof off over on IG, I figured I’d share the little flash fan fictions for our Arbitratus Trilogy characters here. Here’s a little imagined scene from our Work In Progress (which is basically done – it’s all over but the final editing) Before the Dawn, aka Book II.

This isn’t necessarily canon, of course. But it could be.

If you do enjoy ‘gramming a little, you can follow us at Demons Run Lit.

SCHOOL

Mal had been quiet all morning.

When Ben suggested a walk, it was more because he thought she might talk if they were away from the others. It was cold this morning. Again. But the view was breathtaking.

They’d been sitting on the rough hewn bench for a while in silence and Ben was ready to give up. But he was pretty sure she was crying and trying to hide it.

One more try, he thought.

He pulled her in closer. “Mal … what is it?”

She sniffed, staring off down the road. “It’s nothing.”

He slid both arms around her. “It doesn’t sound like nothing.” He didn’t point out the tear trailing down her cheek, visible when she tilted her head against him, but he reached up and brushed it away with his thumb.

She looked up at him. “I’m starting to wish you weren’t so goddamned observant.”

“Now you know how I feel, literally half the time.” He let her have the small crooked grin he knew she liked to see. “C’mon, tell me. you never let me get away with keeping what’s bothering me to myself.”

“It’s stupid.”

He shook his head. “Not even possible. Have you met you?”

She gave him a watery smile. “Today would have been the start of semester break. I’d have been halfway through Freshman year today. One step close to being Dr. Sinclair.”

Oh.

“Oh.” He chewed his lip. “Wanna go hang out at the college library in town?”

“What for?”

He shrugged. “I dunno. We could just … pretend to be normal for awhile. Forget we’re not just at school.”

She smiled more genuinely. “That’s silly.”

“I could buy you a new gross medical textbook…” he offered.

“We don’t have any money, Ben.” She leaned into his side.

“Hey, I’m a demon. I’m not above picking someone’s pocket.”

She shook her head with an affectionate exasperation. He always tried. “Okay. Let’s. Not pick pockets, but you know, hang out in the library. At least it’ll be warm.”

“And we’ll be together reading about something other than the prophecy.”

“Together is good.”

“Always.”

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

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The Hearth of the Matter

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

 

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

“Huh?”

“Like Irish coffee … but with bourbon.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Petes?” Chris asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“So there was kissing?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Um … okay.”

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

“I’ll miss you,” he said suddenly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Maybe,” he hedged with a grin.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Cooking is … home. To me, I mean.”

“Home? How so?”

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

“There was a fire in your kitchen?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“It means home’s heart.”

“That’s beautiful,” she said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No peeking!” he called after her.

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

“Nothing,” he snickered.

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

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

Ben frowned. “Huh? Shade?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes?”

“I can get through anything.”

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

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

 

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.”

Nightmare

Another writing challenge prompt inspired me. This one happens in the universe of Always Darkest, sometime in the late spring.

Think of a word (any word you want) and search it on google images. Write something inspired by the 7th image. The word I chose was ‘nightmare’. This was the seventh image.

nightmare

He woke in the total dark of his bedroom and puffed out a sigh. He was probably up for the day now, if how heavily his heart was hammering away was any indication. The last wisps of the half-remembered nightmare still vying for his attention kept him from realizing how cold it was for a moment or two. Then, as he came more fully awake he shivered.

His blankets were probably all on the floor again. Thrashing himself into a state of no blankets had become all too common in the last few months. This had been one hell of a bad dream, too. At least the little flashes still dancing behind his closed eyes told him it must have been. He’d have to find his blankets and knew once he turned on the light, sleep was all over. He sighed again.

He rolled onto his back, pried his eyes open, and froze in instant horror.

His room was pitch black, not even the sparest light from the nightlight Chris always left on in the bathroom was cutting the velvety blackness around him. It was, however, being pierced by two laser points of reddish yellow light. They were unmistakably (to someone who had spent two thousand years in Hell anyway) the glowing eyes of an Ahemait.

The Ahemait were like the hunting dogs of Hell, seeking out and devouring those with hearts deemed unworthy. Ben was never sure who got to make that particular call, but to him it always seemed the Ahemait went after souls who were just trying to be decent in spite of being condemned to Hell. He’d worried they’d send one after him at some point for a while now.

He’d told himself a hundred times that the fear was ridiculous, that as far as Hell knew he was still their loyal soldier, sworn to execute his assigned duties to grow Hell’s numbers, and more recently to chase down the subject of the prophecy. But … But, but, but … He knew Bhaal suspected him. And it wasn’t below the god to go behind Lucifer’s back to rid himself of an annoyance.

He had a split second where he was glad that tonight was not one of the nights Mal had decided to stay. At least she was safe, in her bed, miles away.

When his eyes locked with the creature’s, it started to glow faintly. That’s when he could see it’s teeth for the first time. His hammering heart seemed to seize in his chest and he couldn’t catch his breath. He wondered if the dagger sitting on his nightstand would have any effect on this beast, wondered if it was possible to fight his way out. But at that moment he didn’t really believe he could move.

The beast took a lumbering step closer to the foot of his bed and blistering hot saliva dripped onto Ben’s exposed foot. The sizzle and immediate stinging pain was enough to break his paralysis and he reached out blindly in the dark, his hand closing over the cold handle almost instantly.

Unfortunately, even his demonically enhanced reflexes were tempered by his human form and the beast was on him before he could turn the knife toward it. He realized as its teeth tore into his flesh that it wasn’t here to extinguish him. It would keep him alive in the agony of being consumed for as long as it entertained it. After a while his own screams faded into the pain and even sound was just part of the tapestry of agony that could go on forever.

Ben bolted upright in bed, gasping. He realized he was in the larger bed they’d been sharing at Mal’s house. Then the rest of the evening came back to him and drove back the dream a little, let him start to catch his breath. Mal shifted next to him.

“Hey, are you okay?”

She was wide awake. He swallowed, feeling badly. She was already used to his nightmares disrupting her sleep and they hadn’t even been sharing a bed for all that long. “Mmmhmm,” he said, not trusting his voice to convince her it was true.

She sat up and turned on her light. “Nice try.”

He managed a slightly sheepish grin. “Okay … How about, I will be in a minute?”

She moved closer to him and put and arm around him, resting her head on his shoulder. “Mostly honest, I guess. I like Honest Ben.” She paused for a second. “What was this one about?”

He shivered. “I don’t want to talk about it.”

She nodded. “Okay. Do you want to go downstairs, and I’ll start the coffee, or do you want to try to go back to sleep?”

Ben glanced across the room at his phone on the charging station on Mal’s dresser. It was only about 3 a.m. “We can go back to sleep.” he said. “I’m fine,” he added sounding less certain than he would have liked.

She pulled away a little so she could look at his face and gave him a small smile.

“I doubt it,” she said. Then she echoed his words back to him. “But you will be in a minute.”

She got up and got the extra quilt off the chest at the foot of her bed and spread it over Ben, then climbed back in and waited until he lay back down, finally smiling a little as he looked up at her. She snuggled as close as it was physically possible to be and wrapped an arm around him, resting her head against the shoulder of the arm he slid underneath her.

“You don’t have to leave the light on.”

“I know … But sometimes it’s better when I do.”

He kissed the top of her head.

She knew.

She always knew when to leave the light on. He said so and she squeezed him tight. He was never going to have to deal with the dark alone again. Not if she had anything to say about it. She was going to say so, but she realized from the softening of his breath that he had already started to doze off.

“I love you,” she whispered.

She didn’t see it, because her face was pressed against his chest, but even in his sleep, even after the terror of that dream, those words made him smile.

~ End ~

 

For more of Mal and Ben, click here.