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.”

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.

*****

Please

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

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

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

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

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

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

He couldn’t even cry out. 

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

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

She screamed.

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

Maybe a distraction would help. 

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

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

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

“Please,” she whispered. 

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

“Just please.”

*****

Image by Ulrike Mai from Pixabay

Child of the Air

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Author’s Note – Today’s flash fiction challenge was to write about an extinct flower that somehow blooms for the first time in a hundred years. Of course I couldn’t help putting an apocalyptic spin on a little floral fiasco. ~ J

 

It seemed like such a good idea, you know?

Just grow this seed into something people could connect with …

The rest of our work is so distant and impersonal to most of the world. Go dig around where the permafrost is thawed, tell everyone about what climate change is revealing, what it’s doing to us and our world.

Noble, important work, right?

Yeah, well, most people don’t give a shit. And I want them to. I want people to care.

As a botanist, my enthusiasm for finding the plant was no surprise, but the whole team was intrigued by my discovery. Here was the seed to a species that no one alive has ever seen bloom. Aerides glacies orchidaceae, a flower so long extinct that we don’t even have any photographs.  Not just the seed either. But spores from the fungus it would need to penetrate its route systems to nourish its growth.

I just thought, if I could grow it, take my work out of the lab … Maybe people would care about it, care about the other things we’re finding, too.

I guess it worked.

Everyone knows about my ice orchid; a flower no one had seen or smelled in a hundred years.

Unfortunately, it’s killing them.

And I don’t know how to stop it.

 

Pool Shark

 

There’s something in the water.

The thought came with such easy certainty, Roz almost laughed.

When she was small she wouldn’t even go in the pool because Sean had told her the pool sharks would eat her. Home from college on summer break, he’d given her shit about it at the breakfast table this morning. She’d chucked a syrup covered Eggo at his head and gone up to her room in a huff. She’d brooded about how to shut him up about it for hours.

The sounds of Rob’s noisy old pickup pulling in next door. She hadn’t seen him since the start of summer break. He’d been off doing some junior counselor soccer camp thing. Before exams started he’d never even noticed her as anything other than the awkward neighbor kid before … But they’d been partnered up in the Chem final and it apparently occurred to him that she was a lot less awkward, and maybe a lot more graced with cleavage, than she had been.

It was hot and Rob and his brother would almost definitely go swimming. Roz’s pool was easily visible from the Danforth’s deck.

She decided she’d kill two birds with one stone and go for a swim. Casually hitting the pool alone ought to shut Sean up. And … it couldn’t hurt neighborly relations any for Rob to see her in the ruffled fuchsia bikini she could finally fill out.

She got changed, grabbed one of the big fluffy towels from the linen closet, and headed out onto their deck. Sean has raised his eyebrows at her announcement that she was going to catch some sun and go for a swim, but he didn’t say anything. Maybe he didn’t believe his baby sister’s stated intentions. He was probably just waiting to give her more crap when she didn’t go through with it.

She glanced around. No sign of Rob yet. But she could hear talking and laughing through the screens next door. She cranked up her radio so the boys next door couldn’t miss that she was outside and stood on the edge of the deck looking into the cool blue water.

It was perfectly tranquil and had the inviting Caribbean color that had always sort of fascinated her.

Throwing caution to the wind, and trying not to over-think how edgy the idea of swimming alone made her, she took a running start and splashed noisily into the water.

At first how chilly it felt compared to the warm air set her gasping and sputtering. But she quickly adjusted to the temperature and after swimming a few laps, she started to actually enjoy herself. She was having such a nice time, in fact, she got one of the pool floats off the deck. She tossed it into the water then followed it with another loud and splashy jump in.

She stood on her tiptoes in the shallow end, trying to glean any sign that Rob might be on his way outside. The quiet yard from across the fence yielded no encouraging information, so she stretched out on the float and closed her eyes. The baking sun had her sweating in minutes. She wasn’t ready to get all the way back in yet, so she let her legs hang off the float and trailed her hands through the water.

That’s better.

She had almost dozed off in the sun when the thought jolted her back to wakefulness.

There’s something in the water.

A warning from somewhere outside herself, sending a shiver over her whole body, raising goosebumps on her arms and legs.

Don’t start being ridiculous Rosalind Kelly, she chided herself. No way was she going to let a reemerging case of toddler brain send her running inside so Sean could pick on her and she could miss seeing, and being seen by Rob.

She talked herself down and pretty successfully. She started to relax again.

The tug on her ankle was so sharp, so sudden, for a second she didn’t even process it. Before she envelope opened her eyes she was ready with Sean’s most embarrassing childhood nickname and a plan to dead arm him maybe on both sides.

But he wasn’t there.

The back yard and pool was empty except for her and her blaring radio.

Another tug.

This one hurt.

She was about to call for help, but she was pulled under too quickly.

She screamed, but no one heard her over the radio. And it was over quickly in the time that existed above the surface of the water.

 

Underneath, the end went on forever.

 

 

When Rob Evans headed outside a while later it was wearing his nicest swim trunks. He wasn’t above trying to impress the neighbor either. He strode out onto the deck, cocky smile firmly in place. He looked over toward the Kelly’s pool.

 

This time everyone in the neighborhood heard the screams.

Peace Is A Lie

I really didn’t want to wake up.

Well, that actually sounds kind of ominous. I didn’t want to wake up until I’d slept off the hangover I knew was coming my way.

But wake up I did.

Only to find my head trapped in some, hot, steamy hell of a head covering. I could feel its stiff edges resting against my collar bones and it’s weight bearing down on my head.

“What the actual … ?” I asked aloud, not expecting an answer, but also not expecting the hollow special-effect sound of my voice echoing around the damn thing.

I peeled my eyes all the way open and could sort of see out of two foggy orbs of darkened plastic.

Then I remembered.

Never let your younger brother challenge you to a holiday drinking game. His liver is in better shape than yours and his capacity for clearing a hangover is almost definitely higher. Plus, he’s been a little shit since he was three.

He proved me right as he bounded into the basement game room blaring the Star Wars theme from his phone.

I pulled the strange headgear off to glare at him and discovered it was a pretty authentic Stormtrooper mask. He beamed at my disgruntled expression. “How you feelin’, bruh?”

I rolled my eyes, even though it hurt. “Like maybe I wish I could Force choke your chipper ass into silence.”

He grinned and killed the music on his phone. “Alcohol is why they call today Revenge of the Fifth, dude.”

“Right.”

Fucker.

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Shaken By A Strong Wind

The dream had been plaguing me for days. I’d go to bed determined that this night would be different, that I’d break the cycle. But I couldn’t.

 

I should have paid more attention to what the dream was trying to tell me.

 

I’m in bed, and at first, I think I’m just waking up in the random way people do where we sigh and roll over and drift right back off. Then I realize that it’s cold.

 

My bedroom is never cold.

 

The heat must be broken. I reach over and shake my husband’s arm. “Joshua,” I whisper, not wanting to wake the girls sleeping next door. “The fire’s gone out again.”

Josh mumbles something unintelligible and throws an arm up over his face.

 

He’s been working so much. I decide I’ll just take care of it. I always get splinters when I fill the stove, but there are worse things.

 

I get up and slide on my robe. I tiptoe past the girls’ room and out into the living room to take care of the fire.

 

It’s too bright out there, but not because there are any lights on. The moon must be full, I think absently.

 

I nearly jump when I start to walk past the bay window and Rachel’s bell clear, but startlingly inflectionless, voice says, “Mamma, the stars went out.”

 

It takes a split second before I can breathe again. Then I answer. “Sweetie, you scared me half to death! What are you doing out of bed?”

 

Carolyn speaks then, sounding, as always, exactly like her twin. “The stars went out, and now they’re falling. We want to watch them burn it all up.”

 

Gooseflesh zings up and down my arms, my spine. I look out the window, past their identical white blonde heads stained lavender by the strange light pouring in the picture window.

And they’re right.

 

The stars are indeed falling from a sky that looks nothing like it could possibly belong to Earth.

 

The girls turn toward me then, and their light blue eyes are gone. All that’s left are puckering holes filled with the light from that alien sky.

 

It woke me up screaming every day for a week. Once I could breathe again, once I could stop sobbing in terror, I’d go make my coffee, regardless of the hour and be up for the day.

 

Why didn’t I seek comfort from Josh, or go check on my girls?

 

Because they don’t exist. And they never have.

 

I’ve never married, and I don’t intend to. I’ve certainly never had children. I can’t. And even if I could, I don’t think I’d want them.

 

Especially now.

 

Now that I know.

 

When the dream came to me again this morning, instead of getting up and making coffee, I lay in bed for a long time.

 

Thinking.

 

I finally got up a couple of hours later and dressed for a long hike. I even packed my backpack for one.

 

I walked straight through my silent living room, not looking left or right. I especially avoided looking at my bay window. It was no longer stacked with pillows as a reading nook. As the dream persisted, I started filling that shelf up with everything I could that would prevent anyone, including eyeless dream offspring, from sitting on it.

 

I walked out my front door, not bothering to lock it behind me. I knew with eerie certainty that locks stopped mattering sometime between the dark and the dawn.

 

I looked up and saw what I’d been both dreading and expecting.

 

The sky has gone purple.

 

The same purple as the eyes my twins didn’t have. My twins that don’t exist.

 

The stars aren’t falling yet. But I know they will.

 

I feel it.

 

Deep in my chest.

 

But I feel something else, too.

 

We might be able to stop it.

 

 

 

I’m sure as Hell going to try.

 

The Third Day of Fic-mas …

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Ghosts of Yuletide Past

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Mmm. Do you think he’ll be by soon?”

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

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

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

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

“I know … I just wish …”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

The Second Day of Fic-mas …

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Eat, Drink, and Be Miserable

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

And shower.

For about a week.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“And?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

∞∞∞

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She laughed again. “Could have fooled me.”

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

“W-what sort of spin?” she stammered.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Pardon?” he asked with feigned polite interest.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yeah, for Boston. Asshole.”

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

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