Come in and know me better, man

Authors’ Note: This story takes place the year Ben and Chris met. It’s a continuation of the scene in Always Darkest when Ben finally reveals himself to Chris, albeit unintentionally. It’s their first Christmas, so to speak. And it’s the first time they begin to think of each other as friends.

Come In, and Know Me Better

Chris contemplated him in silence. 

It went on long enough that Ben got uncomfortable. He stared down at his hands, fidgeting nervously. He was half certain the Gatekeeper was trying to figure out how to get rid of a demon who was on Earth in his own body. Although his expression wasn’t aggressive, merely thoughtful.

Once Ben was ready to climb out of his own skin, Chris finally spoke. “So, Ben.…” 

Ben held his breath, not sure what to expect. 

“Would you like to come spend Christmas with me, talk this whole prophecy thing over?” 

After a moment’s consideration, Ben decided the offer was genuine. His face relaxed into a boyish smile and he nodded. “Sure.” Then he frowned. “Um … You did mean I could crash on your couch for a few days, right?”

“Of course. If you’d like to. We have a lot to discuss.”

Ben grinned. “Perfect …. Hey, can I use your phone? Mine crapped out this morning while I was using the calculator in that damned Math exam and I’ve got to call out of work.”

Chris pushed his old fashioned rotary phone across his desk. “Certainly.” 

Ben hadn’t had much occasion to use rotary phones. It just hadn’t come up during his brief excursions to Earth for Reaping (and making phone calls was the last thing on his mind when he’d managed to grab a rare vacation away from Hell in the past). Fortunately, he found it fairly intuitive, if a bit unnerving when the dial snapped back on his fingers. Several rings had him wondering if he was going to dodge the bullet on having to talk to anyone, but as he was preparing for the inevitable voicemail, Aife’s descendent Ciara answered. “It’s The Pit. What can I do for you?”

“Hey, Kiki, it’s Ben. I’m not going to be in for a few days, or all this week, actually. Can you let Aife know?”

“She’s right here. Hang on….”

“Oh, that’s okay you don’t have to bother–”

“What do you mean you’re not coming in this week? You’re my ranking noble!”

“Hey, Aife,” Ben said, concealing his disappointment that she’d come to the phone. “Yeah, sorry about that. I’ve got a lead I need to run down.” He felt Chris’s eyes on him and he made himself meet them. He shrugged and held up a hand in a what’re-you-gonna-do gesture.

“Couldn’t it wait until after the Christmas party?” 

“Sorry, Aife. It’s a time sensitive thing.”

“But is it local? If you’re in Burlington, you know as well as I do that you’re obligated to–”

“I’m not going to be in Burlington, sorry.” He grinned at Chris. Chris’s place was in South Burlington, so technically he wasn’t even lying. Aife was an Agent, so technicalities were her bread and butter. He didn’t even feel bad. 

“Yeah, you sound sorry,” she said sarcastically. “You always find a way to get out of these events … And what about Yule?”

“I’m sorry we won’t be able to get together, but it’s not like this will be the first time … Your gift is on my bookshelf if you want to unwrap it on the holiday.”

“And how am I supposed to give you your gift if you’re not around?”

“You could just leave it at my place if you want.”

“You can be so dense sometimes, Ben.”

He finally caught her meaning. “Well, I mean, you could come over when I get back….”

“If I haven’t lost my job! What am I supposed to do with no noble in town? I already reported that I had it taken care of!”

He really didn’t want to get her in trouble. But he also had no intention of showing up for that party. “You could call around. I heard Stolas was looking for an excuse to get out of Hell for a bit. Or you could just do it yourself. Agents are allowed, even if you aren’t a noble.”

“I suppose I could do it, but that’s a Hell of a lot of work along with hosting the event. Are you sure you couldn’t….”

“I’m sure. If you really don’t want to, summon the Prince. You know he’s always had the hots for you anyway. You’ll avoid having to do double duty and probably get laid, too. What more could you want?”

“He’s not my type. But I’m not above using my feminine wiles to get what I want. So, I suppose I don’t have to work a spell to curse you with an extremely itchy rash someplace personal.”

“I’m relieved to hear it,” Ben snorted. “Listen, I really am sorry I won’t be around for Yule.”

“It’s fine. You’re working. I hope you’ll have a nice holiday. Eat, drink, be merry, if you can.”

“You, too.” Ben hung up the heavy receiver. “What?” he asked Chris in response to the expression he saw the other man’s face.

“Nothing.” Chris hesitated, then said, “It’s just strange to hear you talk about ‘work’, I suppose. I can only assume your boss is someone else from Hell.”

“Well, yes and no. I was talking to the local Agent. She runs Hell’s Office here. And my cooking and dishwashing gig is at her bar that’s the front for it. So, I guess technically she’s my boss. But I outrank her … It’s complicated.”

“And you’d rather not talk about it?”

Ben grinned. “You are way too good at reading me. I’m surprised it took you this long to figure out I’m not who I said I was.” Ben flushed slightly, caught for a moment in feeling all too human. “I mean, even without me losing my shit and admitting it accidentally.”

Chris chuckled. “I’m sorry that paper struck such a nerve for you. But I’m glad we can get to know each other openly now. It seems we’re rather in this prophecy up to our necks.”

“Yeah.” Ben stood and stretched. “I should run over to my place and grab some stuff if I’m gonna crash at your place all week.” He ducked down and looked out the window. “Ah, for fuck’s sake, it’s snowing again. Maybe I’ll get an Uber. Can I use your phone again?”

“If you can wait a little while, once I finish grading this last batch of papers, I could give you a ride.”

“You don’t mind?”

“Of course not. I admit I’m curious to see this Hell bar you work at.”

Ben shook his head. “I don’t want to think about how many regulations this conversation has already broken. Say nothing about letting you see the place,” he said with a nervous laugh. “But, I guess I’m well past being able to worry about it. You want some help grading papers?”

“You’re a freshman. I’m grading my seniors’ work at the moment, so I’m not sure you’d be able to–”

“Demon, remember? Whatever historical event these guys wrote about that you’re working on, I was probably there for it. Besides….” He cleared his throat. “One of my titles is Master of Expression. So your students better have brought their linguistic A game.”

Chris offered a very genuine grin and pushed a stack across the desk at him. “Well, then, let’s suffer together a bit, shall we?”

***

After most of a week crashing at the Gatekeeper’s tidy little apartment, Ben started to genuinely relax. They’d spent the first evening and most of the following morning hashing over what they knew about the Emerald Hill Prophecy. By the end of their second pot of coffee, any lingering awkwardness between them was gone. But Ben was worried it was coming back when Chris got very quiet for several minutes and gave him the same piercing look he’d use on students who were either taking too long to answer or who he expected to be wrong.

“What is it?” Ben asked carefully.

Chris stroked his chin thoughtfully, grimacing at the rasping sound it made after only having shaved a few hours before. “So, you’re really committed to helping me, to helping whoever this young woman is that has been put in the way of this thing?”

“I already told you I am,” Ben said, doing his best not to sound defensive.

“And what will happen to you if you get caught?”

“Nothing good.” Ben swallowed hard. Then he flashed his best cocky grin. “But, I’ll be honest, I’ve been breaking rules for a long damned time. So, I’m pretty good at avoiding the less pleasant consequences of being a demon.”

“That’s good,” Chris said. “You want any more coffee?”  

“Nah,” Ben said as he got to his feet. “I’ve gotta run out for a bit.” He threw on his sweatshirt. “Need anything?”

“I don’t believe so. Don’t you have a coat?”

Ben grinned. “Like I told you when we met, I run hot.”

He left before Chris could formulate a reply.

When he returned a while later he slid a book across the table. “I know Yule isn’t your holiday. But it is mine. And I also wanted to thank you for inviting me so we could figure all this stuff out, not to mention giving me a place to lay low so I don’t have to deal with work for a few days.”

Chris picked it up with a small smile. “A Christmas Carol? How did you know this is one of my favorite books?”

“I saw that beat-assed copy on your coffee table. It’s falling apart, so I gathered that you’ve read it a lot. All my favorite books look like that, so I figured this was a safe bet.”

“I’m always surprised when people in your generation are real readers.”

Ben laughed boisterously. “My generation? I’m older than you, dude!”

Chris snickered. “Dude? You can see how it’s hard for me to keep in mind that you’re not just a kid from my classes who couldn’t go home for the holidays, can’t you?”

“I guess,” Ben said as his laughter tapered off. “But whatever generation you want to assign me to, I’m a reader. Like I said, languages are kind of my main gig in Hell.”

Chris had clearly become distracted by the book in front of him. It wasn’t even real leather, but Ben had gotten the nicest copy the Barnes and Noble up the street had on offer. “Well, you clearly have a gift for spotting a lovely book.”

“I wish they’d had one that wasn’t fake leather. But this one made me think of the sorts of books you like to keep around your office.”

“It’s very nice. I … I lost my first edition a very long time ago. It’s one of those things I regret losing almost as much as the loss of the dear friend who gave it to me.”

Ben’s eyes went wide. “I’m gonna venture a guess that this friend was maybe named Charles?”

Chris nodded slowly. “He was, indeed.”

“Wow. The man himself.” Ben grinned at the way Chris was holding the book he’d brought him. “I never much cared for his other stuff. But since I know not everything in that book is imaginary, I’m pretty fond of that one myself.”

It was Chris’s turn to widen his eyes. “Which parts aren’t imaginary?”

Ben laughed. “I don’t think you’re ready for that, Professor!” Then he met his eyes with a sober expression. “Seriously though, you like it?”

“That’s important to you, isn’t it?”

“I mean, yeah. For a lot of reasons.”

Chris looked at him for long enough that he had a strong urge to fidget, but kept it under wraps until the man spoke again. “I don’t know much about Yule customs, but in an effort to honor your holiday, I’d like to pick us up something nice for dinner.”

“You don’t have to do that,” Ben said hurriedly.

“You didn’t have to go out in the cold and get me this very thoughtful gift simply for offering you a spot on my lumpy couch either.”

Ben flashed a sightly self-deprecating smile. “Okay. I’m down for a takeout Yule feast.”

“Good man. We had Chinese last night … How about Chicken Charlie’s?”

“I’ve never eaten there.” Ben didn’t add that he didn’t do much takeout on his own. He’d rather cook. But Chris had mentioned a complete inability to cook several times since last night when they got here, so he wasn’t surprised that was Chris’s default for meals, holiday or otherwise. “But I do like chicken.”

Chris grinned expansively. “They have ribs, too.”

“Now you’re talking, Professor. Do they do fries?”

“They certainly do. Their poutine is excellent, although I’d never tried it before I moved here, so I have no idea what the standard is.”

“I don’t even know what that is.”

“It’s fries with various toppings, including their excellent gravy.”

“There’s gravy? Now this officially sounds like a holiday.”

***

By the time Christmas rolled around a few days later, Ben felt entirely at home on Chris’s couch, and with his host. It was weird, but he felt like they’d known each other forever. 

He was a strange combination of fatherly concern and bad jokes alongside a brotherly teasing, challenging approach to almost all of their conversations. Ben realized why when Chris was out at church on Christmas Eve.

It started when Chris donned his coat to go to Midnight Mass. “I don’t suppose you have any interest in coming along,” Chris said, obviously kidding. Then he smiled kindly. “You’d be very welcome.”

Ben shrugged, but felt his face warm. He’d almost let himself forget he wasn’t just a college kid crashing at his professor’s house because he had nowhere else to go for a holiday. Talking about his demon nature and his inability to venture safely onto consecrated ground wasn’t something he wanted to get into. He was enjoying the illusion of being human again far too much. “I have to admit, I’m a bit curious what goes on there … But I’m breaking enough rules as it is.”

Chris raised an eyebrow. “I thought you were old hat at breaking rules.”

“Yeah, well, consorting with Christians on their own turf is a big one. But you enjoy yourself.” He forced a yawn. “All the reading we did today wore me out. I’m probably going to crash.”

He stretched out on the couch before Chris got out the door. 

Ben lay there, staring at the ceiling, not actually tired at all.

In a lot of ways, Chris reminded Ben of his brother Drustan. There was something about his obvious desire to bring out the best in Ben, while still forgiving him his worst … It reminded him acutely of what he’d lost. It didn’t matter that it happened over two thousand years ago. The absence of his family, the warm reminder of it in his unlikely new friend, made his eyes burn in a way he refused to acknowledge. 

He was still trying not to let himself be overcome by the feeling when he heard Chris’s car door a little after the old fashioned clock on the wall chimed one. Ben almost wanted to sit up and talk with Chris again, if only to feel the warmth he had before he’d realized why he’d befriended the man so easily. Instead, he threw an arm over his eyes, let his face go slack, and pretended to sleep until Chris tiptoed past on his way to his room for the night.

***

“Merry Christmas, Ben!” Chris said with a broad grin at the surprised expression on his houseguest’s face when he passed him a small brightly wrapped package across the breakfast table. 

“You … you didn’t have to get me a gift, Chris. I … I’ve never celebrated Christmas.”

“And you didn’t have to get me a gift, by the same logic, as I’ve never celebrated Yule.”

“But….” Ben didn’t know how or what to feel. “You’ve let me stay here all week … you’ve fed me … entertained me … You got me out of work, which I can’t even tell you how much I appreciate … A gift is … too much.”

“No gift freely given is too much, Ben. Please. Open it.”

Ben didn’t feel he could refuse. Especially since he was nearly overwhelmed by another unexpected memory of Drus and Cinne always being such generous gift givers, and that Drustan often got the same look of anticipation when they gave Ben something as Chris was wearing now. Even the black hair and blue eyes reminded him of his brother. “I … okay. Thank you.”

He opened the package carefully. “Oh, Chris, no … seriously … This is too much, freely given or not.”

“It’s just a watch, Ben,” Chris said with a wave of his hand.

Ben pushed the box toward him. “It’s a running watch! With GPS. These are not exactly cheap. And I know what professors make.”

Chris laughed. “But you don’t know what professors who’ve been alive for almost as long as their demon friends have stashed away in the bank.”

Ben cocked an eyebrow. “Oh yeah?”

“And you clearly don’t know how astute that professor has been with their small fortune.” 

“I still don’t know….”

“I’ll be terribly offended if you don’t accept it,” Chris said in an entirely teasing tone, but he did push the box back into Ben’s hands.

Ben extracted the very nice piece of tech from it’s box. “It’s amazing.” It was charged and ready to go, too. “There’s even directions for pairing it to my phone. I … Thank you.”

“Don’t thank me yet. I got it because you’re often skating in to class at the last minute,” he chuckled.

Ben flushed slightly, but laughed a little, too. “Your 7:30 required Latin seminar is a killer, dude.”

“Well, I need you to be on time. Because of what’s in the Christmas card, if you’ll accept that willingly.”

Ben frowned slightly, but opened the card that came with his gift. A faculty campus ID fell from between the folds of the hand-painted watercolor Nativity card. “Faculty?”

“All research assistants get one, so you can access the parts of campus usually off limits to students, like the library archive.”

“Research assistant?”

“If you’d like the job. I thought it would give us a chance to work together on the prophecy.”

“That makes a lot of sense, actually, but–”

“I also thought perhaps it would give you a reason to work less for your demon friend. You don’t seem happy about your arrangement at that bar.”

“I … You can tell, huh?”

“I can. Besides, Ben, you’re going against your orders from Hell. A little distance between you and a place that communicates with the … shall we say, home office … might be helpful. Don’t you think?”

Ben held his breath for close to a minute, then puffed it out, feeling something in him relax in an unfamiliar, but entirely welcome, way. He put the watch on. “Okay. I accept.” He grinned at the approving smile and nod Chris gave him, mostly because this time when he was reminded of his brother, it didn’t make him feel uncomfortably emotional. It made him feel … safe. “Thank you. I mean it.”

“You’re welcome. And thank you. I’ve needed a research assistant for a very long time, but I’d yet to meet an undergraduate who could meet my standards.”

Ben laughed. “Having been graded by you, that doesn’t surprise me at all.”

“So, how about we try that chocolate spice cake from Buttercups for breakfast?”

“Cake for breakfast? You’re on.”

***

Later that evening, full of an obscene quantity of pho from the place in Winooski Ben had introduced Chris to, mostly because he was tired of Chinese and they happened to be open on the holiday, not to mention a large amount of generously spiked eggnog, they sat in Chris’s living room, both reading in opposite wingback chairs. 

Ben had selected an Enochian text because he’d never bothered to learn the language and knew if he was going to help Chris with the research aspect of the prophecy, he’d better start getting a handle on it. Also, he planned to head back to his apartment over the bar tomorrow and needed a distraction from long thoughts about being that close to Hell’s local operation again. 

Chris had chosen to read the copy of A Christmas Carol Ben had given him earlier in the week. His reasoning had been that he never worked on Christmas. It was a pleasant holiday with a delightful array of traditions taken from many cultures layered over it, but ultimately, for Chris, it was a day to reflect on the gifts his faith had brought him, as opposed to doing any work, or seeking out much in the way of worldly pleasures, their excellent meal notwithstanding.

They’d been reading for quite a while when a sensation of being watched made Ben lift his eyes from the frustrating manuscript in front of him. He’d been right. Chris had placed his book on his lap and was looking at Ben thoughtfully. “What’s up?” Ben asked. 

“I was just wondering … You said this is one of the only Dickens’ books you like. I’m wondering what you like about it.”

He shrugged. “I don’t know … It’s … hopeful, I guess. If ole Chuck could feel hopeful enough given the shithole London was back when he wrote it … I can let myself have a sliver of that every once in a while, too.”

Chris smiled a little, but there was a faraway quality to it. “Yes … yes, I suppose that’s why I like it as well. In fact, it reminds me very much of a conversation I once had with … ole Chuck.” He laughed then, and his expression returned to one of being focused on the present. 

“What did you talk about?” Ben didn’t have to love everything about Dickens’s work to know the man had been brilliant, and fascinating. As a lover of words himself, Ben was interested to learn more about Chris’s time breathing the same rarified air as the man who was still widely considered one of the greatest novelists of all time.

“Hope, as you said. Redemption. As you can probably imagine, knowing of my curse as you do … It’s something that takes up a great deal of my thoughts, my prayers.”

“Yeah. Knowing redemption is possible must help you keep hope alive.” Ben cleared his throat past the lump that suddenly formed in it. “Who’s your favorite spirit?” he asked to change the subject.

Chris smiled knowingly. “All of them.”

“Even Yet to Come?” Ben asked with a skeptical raise of one golden eyebrow.

“I think especially him in some ways.” He stroked his chin. “Christmas Past reminds us of where we’ve been, the mistakes and triumphs both. Christmas Present shows us the warmth and light all around us, if only we have eyes to see it. And … Christmas Yet to Come, well, he’s outwardly very frightening and it’s a dark part of the story, but … He’s the one who shows Scrooge that he not only needs to change, but that he can.”

Ben looked at his hands for a long moment. “I hadn’t really thought about it like that.”

“Who’s your favorite?”

“Present,” Ben answered without hesitation.

“Why? If you wouldn’t mind telling me.”

Ben shrugged. He felt like he did that an awful lot around Chris. “That warmth and light you mentioned. I….” He paused because he heard a slight huskiness in his voice that he didn’t like. “I’m always standing just outside it, but … Knowing it exists at all … makes it easier to stand, I guess.” Ben looked away.

Chris leaned forward with a very serious expression on his face that Ben caught out of the corner of his eye. “You don’t have to stand outside it forever, Ben. And I know, because I used to be outside it, too.”

Ben puffed out a long breath. “Aren’t you still outside it? Because of your curse?”

Chris put a hand on his arm. “In a way, I suppose. But I met … someone very important … who told me that isn’t forever. He told me redemption is possible for anyone who seeks it. So, I have to believe it’s possible for you. That perhaps one day you’ll hear the words, ‘Come in and know me better, man,’ and you’ll step back into the light.”

Ben knew who Chris meant, but couldn’t bring himself to ask and allow the man to confirm it. “I wish I could believe that,” is what he said instead.

“In the meantime, I’ll believe for both of us.”

“I know you’re immortal and everything, but I’m not sure you can outlast what it would take to get me there,” Ben said, surprised there was no bitterness in his voice. 

In fact, there was the strangest flicker of hope in his chest that he didn’t know quite what to do with. But it was nice. And he was suddenly totally convinced that he was on the right path, even if it ended badly for him. Something good was going to come from his decision to stick around in Burlington and get to know the Gatekeeper. He’d once thought about simply convincing the guy to think of him as a friend so he could pursue his job. But over the last week, he’d come to genuinely think of him as a friend. He also knew, without a doubt, that Chris already thought of him that way, too. 

Ben turned to face Chris again. “I appreciate the thought anyway.” He felt his lips quirk into an involuntary, but very real smile. “Merry Christmas, Chris.”

As though sensing Ben’s need for a moment of levity, Chris smiled in return and said, “And God bless us, every one.”

It’s Tradition

Authors’ Note: It’s only fair that we travel back into Mal’s past at Fic-mas, too. This story finds Mal and her father on the road, not too long before they eventually make their way to Vermont in the events of Always Darkest. It’s a holiday steeped in tradition for the Sinclair family, and Mal decides to add a new one to the mix. Well, new for them.

It’s Tradition!

Mal hummed along to the Christmas music her dad had put on repeat while he worked to set up their camper for their current stay. She’d offered to help, but he waved her off, saying she’d done all the heavy lifting to get them booked at the last minute. He seemed to be enjoying himself anyway. He was singing along at the top of his lungs as he went in and out their door. She wished she could sing like he could, and she usually sang along unselfconsciously even though she was pretty sure she was tone deaf. She was more immersed in her reading than the music though.

She’d sort of hoped they could maybe take a break from the RV and have a real Christmas this year, but the silver show in Scottsdale offered an incredible opportunity to spend a couple of weeks in one spot and move a large amount of her dad’s merchandise without working too hard for it.

They’d talked about spending the holiday at the campground in Oregon. There had been snow on the ground, a holiday play about to start its annual run at the local theater, and a big tree lighting planned at the RV park. 

Sure, it had gotten kind of crowded and she’d noticed a few people she thought were a little sketchy, but it had sounded like a really nice holiday. Maybe not as nice as renting a house for a couple of weeks, or visiting Grand-mère and Grand-père Sinclair, but pleasant. 

She didn’t say anything about it when he asked if she minded making the trek to Arizona though. She’d been surprised by her dad’s request for her to call and book them a spot at the exposition. But, she supposed it gave her something to do. She’d finished her homeschooling work for the semester over Thanksgiving. 

She didn’t think the desert Southwest was especially Christmassy, but the parts of town they’d passed through on the way to the RV park were decorated. And there was a neat little church she’d found online for them to go to Midnight Mass at later. She’d probably insist on helping if Dad wasn’t finished pretty soon. But, for now, she was engaged in the Christmas tradition she’d only learned about a few weeks ago.

Ari came back inside to pull on a sweatshirt. Mal remembered that for a place that could get crazy cook-an-egg-on-your-dashboard hot at times, once the sun started to dip, it got chilly fast. She glanced up from what she was doing. “Hey, Dad. You sure I can’t help?”

He grinned and shook his head. “I’m all set, honey. What’re you up to?”

She held up her iPad (the wildly extravagant gift he’d given her for her sixteenth birthday over the summer). “A little reading.”

“I thought you were all finished with school until after the New Year.”

She laughed. “I am! This is for fun.”

“I don’t think I’ve ever heard of a teenager in  all of human history who spends as much time with her nose in a book as my daughter,” he said with an affectionate headshake. “Let me guess … Medical textbook?”

“Nope! I’m engaged in a full-on holiday tradition.”

“You’re reading Christmas stories?”

“Sort of. I’m reading Stephen King. Lisey’s Story.”

He frowned. “Stephen King writes Christmas stories?”

“Well, this is a love story, about Lisey and her husband Scott. It’s really sweet.”

“You don’t usually read love stories anymore.”

“I like them sometimes,” she shrugged.

“Is it a Christmas romance? Because that doesn’t sound like any Stephen King you’ve ever described to me.”

“Well, no. But it works. Scott’s dead.”

“That’s Christmassy?” he asked incredulously.

“Well, it’s sort of a ghost story. That’s totally Christmassy.”

One of Ari’s bushy black eyebrows climbed. “Since when?”

“Since before Christmas was actually Christmas. Like since forever. People have been telling ghost stories for this time of year since ancient times. But it got really popular again for a while in Victorian England. It was sort of a middle finger to Crommwell’s policies and a spit in the eye of the Industrial Revolution. I love that.”

“I have an even better question now. Since when did my daughter become such a diligent history student?”

“Oh, history still bores the bejesuses out of me. Almost worse than Latin. But it was in the Literature curriculum I just finished up. As far as holiday traditions go, I thought it was pretty cool.”

“It still doesn’t sound very festive. Maybe you could find a ghost story about Christmas?”

“I’ve got the whole internet at my fingertips and you won’t let me help you, so … Sure. I’ll give it a shot.”

***

When Ari returned from a supply run, Mal was engrossed in the story she’d found.

“Find a Christmas story?” 

“Mmmm.”

“You don’t usually go monosyllabic even when you’re reading. It must be a good one.”

She looked up from her tablet. “Yeah, really good. Super spooky.”

Ari chuckled. “So you did find a Christmas ghost story.”

“Not exactly.”

“Who’s the author?”

“It’s another Stephen King one.”

“Does this one at least happen over the holidays?” 

She nodded enthusiastically. “It’s actually about a club that meets and tells scary stories and saves their very best ones for Christmas. The narrator in this one tells a Christmas story for Christmas. I’m just about finished and it’s really good.”

Ari sat next to her on their couch (that also pulled out to be Mal’s bed). “What’s the narrator’s story about.”

“Well, he’s a doctor and he tells a story about delivering a baby on Christmas night.”

“No wonder you like it. It’s about Christmas with someone in your chosen future profession.”

“Ugh. Except the delivering babies stuff. I have literally no interest in babies. Delivering them or otherwise.”

“You don’t think you’ll ever change your mind about that?” 

She wrinkled her nose. “Not likely.” She tapped on her tablet. “Anyway … there’s this terrible accident when the woman is going to the hospital and she gets decapitated.”

“Oh my goodness!”

“But she’s like this amazing, smart, single minded person who won’t let anyone or anything get in the way of her goals….”

“Now I’m really starting to understand why you like it.”

Mal snorted a laugh. “So anyhow, even without a head, she still gives birth to her baby. Right outside.”

Ari pushed himself off the sofa. “Try again. That’s not Christmassy at all.”

***

Mal looked up when her dad came back through the door. “I found a really good one this time.”

“Oh, yeah?”

“Yeah. It’s called The Christmas Spirits by somebody named Hendrix.”

“What’s this one about?”

“Um … it’s hard to explain … There’s Nazis–”

“Not Christmassy.”

Mal laughed. “Okay. That’s probably fair.”

***

“Tell me you found something other than Nazis.”

“I just started Poe’s The Pit and the Pendulum.”

“Okay, I know that one. Definitely not a Christmas story.”

“Well, it was first published in The Gift: A Christmas and New Year’s Present for 1843.”

“It’s about the Inquisition, Mal.”

“So, technically it’s about Christians then.” She laughed at the expression her father pulled at that. “Okay. Not a stellar period for the Church to bring up. I get it. I’ll try something a little less torturey.”

***

Mal and Ari went back and forth throughout the afternoon, with Mal trying to convince him that horror and paranormal stories had a strong place in holiday transition, and him trying to convince her to take a break from her favorite fiction genre and try something a little more uplifting. Both of them enjoyed the banter and it passed the time pleasantly.

When Ari came back inside from his most recent rejection of her reading material, it was fully dark. 

She put down her iPad. “I finally found one I think you’re going to really like.”

“I can’t wait to hear about it. But how about you come outside and give me a hand for a minute first.”

Mal hopped up and pulled on a sweatshirt, certain she’d need it now that the sun was fully down. “Of course!”

As soon as he opened the door for her, she knew he hadn’t needed help at all. “Dad! Oh, my gosh!”

Ari grinned as Mal slowly circled around their festively lit and decorated RV. “Merry Christmas, Mal.”

She threw her arms around her dad. “This is amazing! But … this is so much work! You didn’t have to….”

“I know you were looking forward to the holiday up in Oregon. And this might not be quite as nice as all that, but at least we’re going to be parked for a little while. I thought, Mal wanted a tree lighting, so maybe I can get close.”

“This is so much more than a tree!”

“I tried to get us a tree, too. But, nobody who was open had any left.”

“Well, it’s Christmas Eve. I think this is even better than a tree.” She would really have loved a tree, but she didn’t want to say so. He’d worked so hard to make this holiday special, even if they were on the road. At least it wasn’t like some years where they barely parked for the holiday. “I’ve never seen so many lights!”

“I’m glad you like it.” He paused. “We could take a walk around town and look at all the Christmas lights. Or if you think that’ll be too chilly, we could make some rideshare driver’s night and get someone to drive us around while we’re waiting for it to be late enough to head to church.”

Mal shook her head and hugged him again. “Would you get a fire going in the pit?”

“Sure, but….”

“I’ll be right back.”

Mal ducked inside, gathered a few things, including her silly elf hat that her aunt Bethany had sent her before they’d had to leave Oregon, and microwaved some hot beverages. When she got outside her dad already had a cheerful fire going.

“Perfect.” She passed him a travel mug full full of hot cocoa. “Have a seat.”

Ari took a sip and smiled. “And here you say you can’t cook.”

“Even I can’t possibly screw up Swiss Miss, Dad.”

When they were settled in their lawn chairs, Mal lit a candle in the brass holder they usually saved for their holiday dinners. 

“What’s all this then?”

“Mood lighting.”

“For what?”

“You put up lights for me, I’m going to read to you. A Christmas ghost story.”

“I know you love those stories, honey, but–”

“It’s tradition, Dad. And I know you’re going to love this one.”

Ari shook his head, chuckling fondly. “Alright, but if I have to sleep with every light in the RV on when we get home tonight, you’re not allowed to complain.”

“We’re lighting up most of southern Arizona with these amazing Christmas lights anyway. What’s a few more?” 

He laughed and took another drink of hot cocoa. “Alright. I’m game.”

Mal picked up her iPad and cleared her throat. “Marley was dead to begin with.” She lifted her eyes to check his reaction.

He grinned. “This is a tradition I can get behind.”

“Awesome. Now, shhh. And listen to the story.” 

He gestured for her to go on.

“Marley was dead to begin with. There is no doubt whatever about that. The register of his burial was signed by the clergyman, the clerk, the undertaker, and the chief mourner. Scrooge signed it: and Scrooge’s name was good upon ‘Change, for anything he chose to put his hand to. Old Marley was as dead as a door-nail.”

A Work of Art Dies Not

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Authors’ Note: The Chris who you’ll see in this is the same Chris from the pages of Always Darkest. Once known as Cartaphilus, cursed with immortality for striking Jesus, Chris has roamed the earth for a long time. You can read about how he came to be on that path in Volume I of The Twelve Days of Fic-mas. The story that follows has been in our personal canon for Chris for a long time. What follows is less a Christmas story, and more a story that takes place at Christmas. Still, we think it has a place at Fic-mas. And we hope you enjoy. 

A Work of Art Dies Not

Chris woke up feeling refreshed despite the various indulgences last night offered. The wine flowed freely, and the food, the food was superb. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d eaten so decadently. Though not a scrap of meat could be found on the table, or in the house, Chris thought he’d never had a lovelier meal. Nor could he place the last time he’d drank his fill of such exceptionally fine wine absent concern or constraint. Neither could he remember the last time he’d been in a place where the fulfillment of any desire had been so freely available. 

He had to stretch his memory back to Saturnalia celebrations during his youth in Rome, hundreds upon hundreds upon hundreds of years ago, to find a comparison for the holiday he’d been a guest at last night. Well, for the last several days. His host didn’t believe in limiting celebrations to one day if there was good food, and wine, and company.  

Chris rolled over and the aftereffects of the drink made themselves known. He’d need a hearty breakfast and probably a long steam in the baths before he really felt like himself. Nearly every muscle was sore, too. After dinner, the celebration turned more … athletic. The bath sounded better and better. 

He was lucky to be in a home with such luxurious accommodations. Few places he’d been bothered with bathing at all, say nothing about a room for heat, and one for cold, and another for a vigorous massage before. His mind strayed again to his boyhood. If he hadn’t been so reminded of the Roman he once was, perhaps he would not have dived so fully into the festivities. But dive he had. With reckless abandon.

As sleep was swept more surely from his mind, Chris began to feel the twinges of guilt. The time of year wasn’t about feasting, or anything else he’d spent the night doing. It was about celebrating the birth of the Savior. 

His guilt quickly faded in a heady haze of memories of last night. Regardless of what the current establishment was imposing on the faithful, Chris was there for the beginnings of the faith and knew it to be one of rejoicing rather than mourning, of embracing the gifts the world had to offer rather than thinking only of Paradise to come. 

It was strange, but meetings in catacombs with other believers from all walks of life from nobles to prostitutes, full of singing and breaking bread together, was somehow more in keeping with what Chris saw as what the Lord intended than the rather joyless obligatory gatherings he’d witnessed more recently. 

Of course, Chris had to admit, since his last run in with the Church a couple decades ago, over a book of all things, he hadn’t set foot in a church. His heart ached for the fellowship, but he didn’t feel he could trust the wealthy nepotistic organization that claimed to be acting for Christ these days. The last few weeks here harkened back to the early days of song, and celebration, and love. 

Rising slowly so as not to disturb his host, Chris made his way to the baths to take care of his morning ablutions and perhaps heat some of the stiffness from his bones.  

As soon as he stepped out of the bedroom he was startled by a servant. “Good morning, sir. Do you require any assistance this morning?” 

Chris stopped, his face flushed. He stammered a quick no thank you and made his way down the hall. Damnit. He’d forgotten about the servants. A momentary fear gripped his heart. The servants here seemed very loyal. He certainly hoped they were discrete. He assumed they must be. 

His host had assured him that many “good friends” had come and gone from this place, but no word of it was ever heard outside these walls. There’s been a bit of unpleasantness with the law over a model back during the apprenticeship days, but none since. That experience had made his host much more circumspect about private dealings. 

Still, as Chris made his way to the baths, he worried. No one could find out about how he had spent his time here in Florence, especially not last night. It would be scandalous. Potentially fatal, even. Well, not so much fatal for him, but still no good could come of it. Frankly, he wasn’t sure he could trust the Church here in Italy to be of any help. And the Templars had to be very careful these days.

Chris felt his anger grow, railing against the small minded nature of the times. Of course when something of great power and influence like the Church falls into the hands of small minded people out to employ their families and line their pockets, no good could come of that either. He should be able to keep company with whomever he so chose, and not have to worry about the opinions of others. 

Europe at the moment was too much like being back in his father’s house for comfort. Chris continued to fume through his bath, but found his mood lifting as the hot water soothed his muscles. He knew where he stood with his faith, and with the Lord, and no amount of legalism or interference from the powerful would change that.

On his way back to the bedroom, he stopped to admire the various paintings and sketches that adorned the walls. He breathed deep. He rather loved the smells of the paintings, and especially of the oils to both cover the canvas and clean up the brushes. He was appreciating those when another deep breath drew him along the hall. A haunting aroma filled the hallway. He decided his host could wait. He needed to find the source of that smell. 

Chris followed his nose to the kitchen, where a small staff was hard at work. 

“Good morning sir, can we help you?” 

“Yes, what is it I’m smelling?” 

“Well, we have bread in the oven.”

“No, not that something … I’ve never smelled anything like it.”

The young man smiled. “We are making coffee.” 

“Coffee?” Chris had heard of it, when he’d been doing missionary work in Istanbul, but never had the opportunity to try it. He hadn’t thought it would have made its way here. “I didn’t know one could get it here.”

“The master of the house has many friends, sir. One of them is a merchant. He travels to the East often. He’s very quiet about this discovery just now. Things from that land are seen as suspect by the Church you see.”

“I have felt the suspicion of the Church myself. Simply for reading. So I understand.” The open questioning of conventional wisdom relaxed Chris even more than his long bath had managed. 

“You won’t find it anywhere else in these parts, sir.”

“Well, regardless of what anyone thinks of its origins, it smells divine.”

“Yes, sir, it certainly does. Would you like a cup?” 

“Yes please.” Chris was never one to pass up a new experience. 

“How would you like it, sir?” 

“Um, well how does one normally have it?” 

“I usually prepare it with honey, sir.” 

“If you had anything to do with the meal last night, I feel I could trust you with my very life, and will most certainly trust you with me first coffee.” 

A bright smile flashed. “Very good, sir.” 

That was something else about these place. The servants behaved like family. They were attentive, good at their work, but there was no obsequiousness, and certainly no fear. 

Chris found the beverage to be to his liking, both sweet and bitter at the same time. Chris stood near the hearth and enjoyed the warmth, slowly sipping the hot liquid. 

“Oh, there you are, Christoforo,” came the pleasantly husky voice of his host from behind him. He liked the sound of the name he’d chosen as his traveling identify this time. He found of all the names he’d wandered by, it was the one he liked best to return to. He especially liked it as it was spoken here.

“Good morning, Leo. I trust you slept well,” Chris said, turning. 

“I should think so. I am not as young as I once was, certainly not as young as you are, my good friend. You are a man of singular skill and energy.” 

Chris blushed and shot a look towards the kitchen servants. 

Leonardo laughed, a deep rich laugh. “Don’t think twice about them, Chris.”

“I…”

The older man patted him affectionately on the shoulder. “I’ve told you, these are my people. They are nothing if not discrete.” 

He was unaccustomed to such openness and the fearful fluttering in his chest from earlier returned. “I hope your trust is not misplaced.” 

“Come now, Christoforo you are not the first man, or woman for that matter, to share my bed. And you won’t be the last.” 

“I will trust in your good judgement then.” 

“And well you should.” Leonardo chuckled. A servant handed Leonardo a steaming cup. “Thank you, Giuseppe.” 

Chris took another sip of the wonderous beverage and Leonardo smiled. “I’m afraid that will be hard to come by unless you go wandering as guard for missionaries for the Church again.”

Chris shook his head. “It is unlikely that I will find myself in the Church’s employ any time soon. So I will be sure to savor it while I’m here.”

A lovely servant girl came to take Chris’s empty cup and he found it impossible not to smile at her. 

“Think you’re likely to have trouble finding work with them, a man of your varied tastes, do you?” Leonardo’s eyebrows raised in amusement. 

He cleared his throat. “Not for that reason, no. As you are, my friend, I am a man of discretion. I find I’m capable of carrying many secrets.”

“I sense that is true. They do show on your face from time to time.”

“I imagine they do. Sometimes secrets do become heavy.”

Leonardo frowned at the thoughtful expression on his young friend’s face. “Now, Christoforo, before you become too serious, there is something I’d like to show you.”

“Really?” Chris beamed. 

He was envisioning a sneak peak at some new invention. He and Leonardo had known each other for several years, and in all that time he’d never gotten a look behind the curtain. Perhaps now that they were “good friends” as Leo liked to put it, he would finally be taken to the brilliant man’s workshop. 

“One of the traveling machines we’ve talked about? I confess I keep hoping you’ll take those more seriously. A man tires of going everywhere by horse.”

“I’m afraid not,” Leonardo chuckled. “But nevertheless, this, I think you will like.” 

Chris followed Leonardo down a long hallway that ended with a heavy door. Leonardo produced a key and opened the door. 

“This is my workshop. I must ask you not to talk about what you see.” 

“You have my word.” 

The room was filled with all kinds of apparatus and easels. Windows set high in the wall cast a dim light from the wan December sun. The fireplace sat cold, leaving the room with a sharp chill. 

“Can I trouble you light some candles while I kindle a fire?” 

“Of course.” 

Chris set to work moving from sconce to sconce, while Leonardo built a fire. When the room was brighter and starting to warm, Leonardo motioned Chris to a medium sized easel covered by a cloth in the corner. 

“Now Christoforo, you remember the sketches you helped me with?” 

“Yes. For a medical text if memory serves.” 

“Those are the ones.” He grinned, and despite his greying hair, the mischievous smile and twinkling eyes made the man look young. “I confess, you are such a handsome fellow, I used them as a subject for a painting.” 

“You painted my portrait?” Chris asked, flattered by the idea, but strangely apprehensive, too. Portraits had a way of following a man, especially one painted by an artist as illustrious as Leonardo. In a hundred years or so, a resemblance to a painting might prove annoying.  

“Well, yes and no.” Leonardo recalled Christoforo’s apprehension at posing for the sketches at all. It’s what had given him the idea for his little experiment to begin with. “I remembered that you didn’t want a picture of yourself, so much. So I only used the sketches for inspiration. You gave me an idea to challenge myself.”

“Was making me presentable a terrible challenge?” Chris asked with a chuckle, wondering what Leo could have done to those sketches that represented a challenge.

“You know full well that there is nothing challenging about your appearance,” he laughed. “But enough talking.” 

Leonardo removed the cover from the easel revealing a complex portrait on wood underneath. 

“Um…”

“You look confused.” Leonardo chuckled. 

“Well, it’s just, That’s a woman. I know you have broad tastes, Leo, but I should probably tell you that no matter how you imagine her, my sister passed away years ago. And we looked nothing alike.” 

“Not your sister, not even any other woman. I wondered how you would look if you were a woman, Christoforo. I wondered what your reaction to it would be, too, I must confess.” 

Chris took a moment, taking in the picture. “Well, I am flattered. Though I don’t think I make a very pretty woman.” 

“It’s not anyone’s job to be pretty, man or woman. We are who we are. That is part of why I paint. One need not be pretty to be beautiful. You see?”

Chris nodded, still staring at the picture. “It’s really quite good.” 

“I’m glad you like it. I may play with it a bit more. Now that you mention a sister, I wonder if I could make your features more distinctly feminine. I’m in no rush to call it done.” 

“Well, my sister had brown eyes and hair to match,” Chris said encouraging an alternative interpretation of those basic sketches now that they’d made their way onto canvas. Chris decided he’d feel more comfortable with this picture looking a little less like him, as a woman or not. 

“I’m not going to change everything, Christoforo. I rather like your expression. It speaks of those secrets we’ve discussed.”

“Alright, but Leonardo…?” 

“Yes?” 

“Of all the expressions I … that is she … That is me … What’s with the smirk?”

*****

For Two Cents

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Authors’ Note: If you’ve been with us for any amount of time, you already know Aife. If you don’t she’s another demon in The Arbitratus Universe who is better than her supernatural nature. This story takes place during the holidays at the same time as the events of Always Darkest. You can read more about Aife there. You can also read more about the Christmas party happening in the backdrop of this story in The Twelve Days of Fic-mas Vol. II

For Two Cents

Aife pinched the bridge of her nose, blinking several times. “Ben was right. I’m finally going blind on paperwork.” 

Almost two years into running this office and she was still wading through her predecessors backlog. No wonder he got himself the final death over how he ran this place. She grumbled a curse at him under her breath. Not like anything she said, or wished, or even spellcast could reach him now anyway. 

She knew contract review was an important part of the job of an Agent. In fact, being better at it than many of her peers was what scored her this assignment and got her out of the backwater she’d been managing in the Aussie countryside. She was especially gifted at identifying individuals whose continued presence on Earth might benefit Hell. And her ability to craft offers for extensions or modifications made the humans under her supervision loyal and useful, not just to her job, but occasionally to her personally.

Once she was through all these old, unreviewed contacts of … what was his name again? She supposed it didn’t matter. The contracts she had overseen were already well organized and wouldn’t require review of anything other than the tabs on their file folder for date and category. She had to admit, for a guy who flew by the seat of his pants as much as Ben did, his advice when he’d gotten her the assignment above had all been excellent.

She picked up another contract from a pile that was finally dwindling and squinted at it. “I need a break.” She laughed. “Especially because I’m now talking to myself.”

She smirked just a little as she picked up her cellphone and hit his contact with her thumb. She was not surprised that Ben’s answer was a terse, “What?”

“Just calling to wish you a happy Yule, love.”

“Sure you are.”

“Well, if you’re going to be that way, work it is.” She heard him sigh. “You’re definitely going to be in town for the party, then?”

Another sigh, this one exaggerated, probably for her benefit. Then again, maybe not, he was really unhappy about her reminder earlier this week as it was. “I already told you, if I could leave town, I would. But I have other obligations.” He was silent for a second, but didn’t want to give her a chance to add anything to her previous list of specifications for his duties as the ranking noble in the area. “And I’ll meet the one I owe you. But I’m leaving right at midnight. Just so you know.”

“You’re no fun at all these days, Ben.”

“You know I’ve never thought the Hell bullshit was fun, so don’t start again. We’re supposed to be friends.”

“I’m sorry, love.” She actually sounded it. “I really was just calling to remember the day.”

He was silent for a minute, thinking about it.

“I’m sorry I snapped then.”

“I know how you feel about this. Don’t worry, I’ve brought in an exceptional Lagavulin that should soften the edges of the night for you.”

“Damn nice of you,” he said somewhat sarcastically.

“I was also calling to complain,” she admitted.

He laughed softly. “Paperwork?” 

It was a favorite topic between the two of them.

“You know it. I’m still reviewing contracts from Gorson’s reign of incomprehensible laziness.” Gorson, that was his name.

Ben laughed more audibly. “He was always kind of a fuck up. Sorry you inherited his pile of crap.”

“It’s kind of a nightmare. I’m almost to the end of it though.”

“I’m sure your own contracts are much more organized.”

“Don’t worry, Boss. I’ve followed all your advice. How do you think I’ve managed to stay alive up here all this time.”

His silence was more solemn this time. “That’s why I gave it to you. I wanted this job to be a gift, not a curse.”

“Don’t get all serious on me now.”

“It’s serious business. And you called me to bring it up,” he reminded her.

“I did not. I called to remind you of the holiday.”

“But you did bring it up.”

“That I did. Mostly because I’m stalling on more reading.”

“So set it aside, Aife. They’ve waited this long. What’s another night?”

She laughed. “I suppose you’re right.”

“It’s Yule. Go have a drink. Find some attractive company. Celebrate.”

“What about you? Fancy a drink?” Her meaning was both clear, and clearly teasing. But he’d been so serious lately, she wondered if he’d take it that way.

His silence said he didn’t get that she was joking. She could practically hear him blushing. Their relationship hadn’t looked like that in a long time now, but something about the fact that it had bothered him now. She suspected it had to do with the human friends he’d made. She’d have to get to the bottom of it soon. Maybe tonight. 

Ben cleared his throat. “I’m busy tonight.”

“It’s Yule! What are you too busy with that keeps you from meeting your oldest friend for your favorite holiday?”

“I’m actually meeting someone about an important Yule gift for a friend.”

“Am I this friend?”

“Not bloody likely. Making me show up for the goddamned office party.”

“You have a date. That’s what you’re up to, you just don’t want to admit it.”

He laughed, but there was a tight, embarrassed sort of sound to it. “I don’t. I’m meeting a bookseller. I think I might have located something really important to someone. I’m not shelling out until I hold it.”

“So you can do a spell to make sure it’s the right one?”

“Exactly.”

“I wouldn’t want to keep you then, lovey.”

There was another moment of silence. “I’ll be at the party, Aife. I wouldn’t cause you trouble by copping out.”

“Wouldn’t be the first holiday you left me high and dry,” she laughed.

“Huh?”

“Nothing, Ben. If you really can’t face it, I’ll don the suit myself. No one would blame you if you slipped out of town at the last minute.”

“I can’t. I have plans. Or I’d have been gone a week ago.”

“I honestly don’t mind my demon form at all. I don’t know why you’re so fussy about yours.”

“You don’t get to say a word about my demon form! You don’t mind yours because a giant green-eyed Kellas cat is … Adorable.”

“And sexy,” she added.

“No!” he huffed. “Okay, in your case, maybe a little,” he admitted. “Just because the King had the hots for you!”

She laughed. “I suppose I might have taken advantage of that.” She paused. “Goodnight. Good luck with your book.”

He hesitated. “Happy Yule, Aife.”

“And to you, love.” She ended the call, set aside her papers, and followed his advice.

***

When she finally took back up her duties with the contracts, it was Christmas Eve, and the Pit was abustle with preparations. She had only been back at it for an hour or so, cursing incessantly under her breath at the incompetent ass Gorson, whether he still existed or not. She probably shouldn’t have allowed herself to get so distracted on Yule, but Ben had made a good point about celebrating. And tonight would offer an amusing opportunity to settle an old score with him as well. Might as well finish up the last of this paperwork when she’d have something to look forward to at the end of it.

She was almost down to the last of the pile when a polite knock came at the office door. Her neck was getting stiff. It was a welcome distraction. “Come in!”

Ciara poked her head into the office. “Sorry to bother you.”

“It’s no trouble.” Aife smiled fondly. Her descendent looked so much like her daughter Rowan, it made her heart ache sometimes. She was still so grateful she’d stepped into the office when she had and picked up Ciara’s contact. She’d keep that child out of Hell forever if she could manage it. 

“The caterer is finally here. Artax needs some help with that Gate activation. And I just finished with the crew doing the decorating. Just wondering if you could come take a look and maybe fix Artie’s lousy circle casting before we’re overrun with Hell hounds.”

“Of course.” Aife rose, setting aside the contract she’d been about to give her attention to go see to the party arrangements. 

Once things were underway and she had her designated victim…er…noble… in his appointed place on the central dais, she got back to her paperwork. Ciara would come and get her if anything needed her attention. Like Ben trying to flake out early, she laughed to herself. And she’d go back out before midnight.

“Alright,” she mumbled, picking up the contact she’d set aside earlier. “Who do we have here?” She shook her head as she read the initial details. “Your name is John Smith. That wasn’t bad enough, you had to sell your soul, too?” She shook her head. “Let’s see what you got yourself into, Mr. John Smith. If that is your real name,” she said with a smile, no longer really caring that she’d picked up Ben’s habit of talking to himself while doing paperwork. “Good grief, your wife’s name is Jane? How are you even a thing?”

She continued to read through the usual hellish legalese that set up all the contracts she’d ever seen. “So, Mr. Smith, why did you sell your soul?” she mused. “Looking to gain an inch or two?”

She’d almost started to smirk when she came to the real reason for it. “Bone cancer? Oh, Mr. Smith.” And it hadn’t even been his own life. His youngest child had been diagnosed with a rare form of it. Inoperable. Metastatic. “Oh, honey.”

He hadn’t sold his soul for spare cash, or fame, or even a bigger dick. He’d sold it for his kid. Rose. She’d been expecting … Well, the usual selfish shit. But not a kid with cancer. As she read the detailed contract, the story got more heartbreaking. 

He’d been married twenty years. He and his wife had children late, had already mortgaged themselves to the gills to afford fertility treatments. And they’d tried everything to save Rose before he’d come to the office, right before she’d taken over, in fact. Two years. He’d sold his soul because everything else had failed. Three mortgages. Trips to Mexico and then Europe for experimental treatments. His whole 401K on local bullshit snakeoil charlatans, claiming they’d balance the cancer right out of her chakras with crystals they’d bought at the mall. 

His little girl was well now, thanks to Hell. Just in time for him to have to leave her. 

It was goddamn heartbreaking.

And there was nothing here to give her even the flimsiest reason to extend his terms either. He was a middle school science teacher for fuck’s sake. Quotas could have been the only reason to sign him to begin with. He had nothing to offer but another check box in the “Damned” column in the tally of souls coming and going from Earth. 

It made her mad enough, sad enough, to want to cry. 

But this was her job. So she kept reading. Oh, oh, no. Come on!

His contract was up tomorrow. Due on Christmas. What kind of asshole would arrange … She realized all at once that she hoped Gorson’s end hadn’t been quick. Here was poor John Smith, ridiculous name and all, with one night left on Earth, when all he had wanted was his little girl to have another Christmas. 

She pushed back from her desk suddenly. She needed to walk away from this for a while. 

She left the contract on the blotter again, and headed back out into the bar. She checked in with Ciara, made sure Ben was fed and watered, no matter how surly he was being, and rubbed elbows with the appropriate glitterati of the attending damned. Still, Smith remained on her mind. 

She had some latitude with regard to contracts, but not that much. Smith had nothing obvious to offer up in exchange for an extension. And she couldn’t just cancel the contract. Some Agents had enough rank to pull that off, but even then, there had to be a good reason. She had neither the rank, nor the justifications necessary to let him off the hook. 

When she couldn’t find anything else productive to do, she forced herself back toward her office. She’d reread the Smith contract. Maybe there was a little something, some wiggle room to not have him claimed on Christmas day. 

She was only half paying attention as she headed back toward her office after stopping off once again to make sure her guest of honor had enough scotch to keep him where he was supposed to be. The fate of John Smith’s soul still weighed heavily on her. But one of her staff stopped her. “So what do you think?” The demon gestured around at the crowded room.

“Everything looks great, Ed. You and Ciara have earned a bonus, no doubt.”

“Artie is still having some trouble with the Gate. Do you have time to…?”

“Of course,” she nodded. 

Aife put John Smith from her mind, reasoning there was probably nothing she could do anyway.

She took care of the minor difficulty reopening the portal out back, touched up her lipstick, then dove back in to her duties as the hostess. She proved time and again that troubleshooting problems (from the mundane issues with the radio she had one of her assistants manning to keep Ben informed about the guests, to the repeated magical ones with an interdimensional gate that just wouldn’t stay locked on) with skill and finesse were why she was one Hell of an Agent. She had drinks with important guests. Danced with a few visiting dignitaries from Below, and actually managed to enjoy herself a little as the night wore on.

She felt a little sorry for Ben, and brought him another drink, then headed back to the bar to procure one of her own. She was waiting for Ciara to fill her order when someone cleared their throat at her elbow. “Uhem, Aife, isn’t it?” 

She turned to find a plain middle aged man with thinning hair and the slight paunch of someone whose work was probably sedentary, accompanied by a woman who was a bit older, but still striking. Both were pale and nervous. “That’s me,” Aife answered pleasantly.

“I … um … my name is John Smith. And this is my wife, Jane.”

Aife’s heart sank. She hadn’t expected the Smiths to be here tonight. Contracted souls were always invited, but it was only ever the ones who were still fresh off the blood drying on the paper, still enamored with what they’d gained, who ever showed up. Or sometimes important people who knew they were in the market to renegotiate showed up just to remind the Office how valuable they were.

People with one day left on Earth typically wouldn’t be caught in the same area code. Those people were usually somewhere trying to find a way to hide from Hell, as if such a thing were possible. 

She forced a polite smile. “Nice to meet you, Mr. and Mrs. Smith.”

The man cleared his throat again. “Can we talk? Perhaps somewhere more private?”

It was the last thing on Earth Aife wanted to do, but she took pity on them. At least if they said their piece, there might be a sense of closure for the Mrs. “Let’s go back to my office.”

She led them through the crowd and let them in to her small, but well appointed office. She gestured toward the chairs in front of her desk and she sat down behind it, trying not to look at the contract still sitting on her blotter, mocking her. She’d just been congratulating herself on what an excellent problem solver she was, not a half hour ago. But here was a much bigger problem than a glitchy spell. 

And there was nothing she could do. 

Nothing. 

Might as well get this over with. “What can I do for you, Mr. Smith?”

“Please,” he began. “Call me Jack.” She merely nodded so he went on. “I’d like to talk to you about my contract.”

She nodded again, her face creasing slightly. She decided to be blunt. It seemed kinder than getting their hopes up. And if she was honest with herself, she really didn’t want to prolong this meeting. No wonder Ben was such a solitary demon. Dealing with the consequences of Hell’s actions on Earth was the type of unpleasant that never seemed to wear off. “I expected as much, but, Mr … Jack, I reviewed it today. The situation is quite straightforward. And I’m afraid I can’t be of much help.”

“I didn’t do this lightly,” he said, sounding defensive

She nodded. “I understand that. It’s your daughter’s life. It’s not like you gave it up for two cents like some border town yokel.”

“Pardon?”

“Classical reference. What I’m saying is, I get it. But there’s really nothing I can do.”

Jane’s chin quivered and her eyes were already filling. “Couldn’t you … I don’t know … tweak it a little … Change the terms…” Her voice broke, but she went on anyway. “Or cancel it?”

“I honestly can’t,” Aife answered plainly, spreading her hands. “Hell needs reasons for alterations to contracts, and you just don’t have any. Not that the higher-ups are going to find compelling anyway.”

John Smith was as near tears as his wife, but was valiantly trying to hold himself together. “I don’t suppose you could arrange just a short extension? Two weeks, just to get my family through the holidays?” Aife started to shake her head and reply, but he cut her off with a desperate, “Please, I just don’t want my children to associate Christmas with me dying.”

This sucks. 

“Mr … Jack, I told you, I already looked it over, just a few hours ago. There isn’t a damn thing I can do.” She swallowed. “Look, I’m sorry. I really am. But in order for me to do anything at all, Hell would need something more from you. And you just don’t have anything to offer.”

Jane sat up straighter, the signs of weeping gone from her suddenly firm voice. “What about me? I could sign a contract to give Jack more time.”

“I won’t do that, I’m sorry.”

“Why not?” the Smiths asked in unison.

“Because, as satisfying as it would be for you to walk out of here and spend another Christmas with your little ones, I could get you five years at best. And then where would your children be?”

“As if you care about our family!” Jane spat.

“I had a family once,” Aife said evenly. “So, I actually do. I won’t let you leave your children parentless just so you can kick this can down the road five years.”

Jack grew thoughtful. Something about Aife’s little literary reference had tripped a memory and he was trying to find the thread of it. “Alright. That makes sense.” He chewed his lip. “What would I need to do to get more time?”

Aife sighed. “You’d need to provide Hell with something of value. The more valuable the object or service or information, the longer the terms. But Jack, you teach science to kids. You don’t have means. You’re not political. And I have to assume you don’t have a vault full of cursed artifacts under that three bedroom ranch in Williston.” Both Smiths deflated a bit. “You have nothing Hell wants or needs. And the terms of your contract are ironclad.”

“I see,” the man sighed. “Is that my contract?” He gestured to the paper on her desk.

“It is. As I said, I’ve been reviewing it.”

“May I see it?”

She’d expected that. No doubt he wanted to pour over it from some loophole or fresh argument. She could hardly deny it to him. “Of course.” 

She slid the papers across her desk.

He picked them up and started leafing through them, eyes scanning the document desperately. 

It was hard to watch.

Finally, he set the papers back down on her desk with a heavy sigh.

“I’m sorry, Jack. I truly am. Believe me when I say it gives me no joy to send you away without a better resolution than advice to spend as much time with your little ones as you can before tomorrow. But my hands are tied.”

Husband and wife both started to cry, collapsing into each other’s arms. Uncomfortable, Aife looked away. She could hardly rush them out of here now. She picked up the contract to file it away, but instead began to reread it. It was better than watching the devastated couple in front of her.

“Wait a minute,” she said, quietly a first.

Then louder, “Wait just a damned minute. I’ve got something!”

“What is it?” Jack asked, wiping his eyes.

“Page Four, Paragraph Seven … You were supposed to initial it. But you didn’t.”

Jack just shook his head, blinking several times. He couldn’t even comprehend her words in his distressed state. Jane, however, blew her nose, sniffled, but managed, “What does that mean?”

Aife felt herself almost smiling. “Well, what it means is this contract isn’t enforceable. And if the Agent who stamped it was still in existence this would make sure he didn’t stay that way for long.”

Jack seemed to be mastering himself. “Say again?”

“It’s a small thing, but, as they say, the devil is in the details.”

“Does that mean…?”

“That depends. John Smith, do you contest the validity of the contract?”

“I…”

Aife prompted him with a gesture and an exaggerated nod.

“I do! Yes, of course I do!”

“Well, then, as the Agent in Command over this Office and its associated regions and obligations, I do hereby render this contract null and void due to a clerical error at the time of initial filing.”

Aife stood, reached for something on her shelf, and stamped the contract with a garish red-inked VOID across each of the pages.

“I … is that…?”

“Merry Christmas,” Aife grinned. 

“Thank you!” Jack got to his feet and reached for Aife’s hand which he then shook with understandable enthusiasm. “Merry Christmas!”

Jane stood as well, but her expression was more reserved. “What would have happened if you hadn’t noticed that?”

“He would have been collected,” she said simply. “But I did notice. You go have a happy holiday with those kids of yours now.”

“Thank you!” Jane exclaimed, finally realising it was truly resolved. She reached out to shake Aife’s hand as well, but stopped halfway there. “Wait. What about Rose?”

“You weren’t in breach of the contract. The error was on our end. Thank your lucky stars for disorganized demons. Since it was our fault, Rose will be just fine.”

“Oh, my God, that’s wonderful!” Jack exclaimed. 

Aife found herself suddenly being hugged by two joyfully weeping people.

“Thank you, Aife,” Jane whispered. “You’re a good person.”

Aife managed to disentangle herself from them. “Well, first of all, don’t let that get around. I’ve got a bad reputation to maintain.” She paused for the inevitable polite, slightly nervous laughter. “And second of all, you can thank my predecessors egregious lack of attention to detail. He was pretty slapdash about a lot of things.”

They were beaming now, drying their happy, relieved tears. “Now, if you two will excuse me, I best be getting back to the party. We’ll be wrapping up the formal part of the evening shortly and then the real fun will begin.”

“We’ll join you!” Jane said in a cheery voice.

Aife gestured at the grandfather clock in the corner. “You certainly are welcome to, but as I said, time’s getting on and, well, you two don’t seem like the orgy types.”

Jack blanched and Jane took a step back. He finally said, “There’s going to be an orgy?”

Aife grinned wickedly. “It would hardly be a Christmas party without one.” She laughed lightly. “You’re dealing with Hell, remember?” 

Both Smiths stammered in attempts at an adequate, if not quite worldly response.

Aife gestured toward a narrow door. “Here, let me show you out the back.”

After she’d let the two of them into the alley behind the bar, she passed back through her office on her way to oversee the conclusion to the night’s festivities. She picked up the contract and tipped it into her Outbox. 

“I’m not sure if this counts as a Christmas miracle, but I’ll take it,” she observed to the empty office.

She heard a crash from on of the back rooms and several voices getting very loud. 

“Now, if I can get through the rest of the night and stay on speaking terms with Ben, that really will be a miracle.”

She hurried back out into the bar.

*****