The First Day of Fic-mas …

 


A Case of the Mondays

The light respectful tapping at his door sounded of potentially broken monotony. With a deep relieved breath, Ronoven called out, “Enter!”

Gareth, his most trusted servant, bowed as he entered the office, careful not to knock over any of the man-sized stacks of forms, advertising the office’s location in Hell, currently surrounding the disgruntled blond behind the desk. “Pardon me, my Lord. I hate to disturb your fun,” he offered with wry amusement that elicited a rueful head shake. “But you have an unexpected visitor.”

It was only years of schooling his features in front of other nobles that kept Gareth from chuckling at the relief on his master’s face. A second later Ronoven’s own training kicked in and he traded the openly amiable expression for looking politely interested. He couldn’t help grinning just a little at the prospect of an excuse to set aside the mountain of reports, charts, directives, and incidents currently cluttering up his office though. “Excellent. Show them in!”  

Gareth silently excused himself for a moment and Ronoven rearranged some papers, so he could see over his desk. Prophecy and King Castor’s wishes be damned, he was ready for any excuse to be somewhere else. And not just because this was one Hell of a lot of paperwork. He was so fed up with life Below, he’d almost consider trying the whole soul collection thing again.

Any break was welcome right now, even if the visitor was Lucifer. Hell, even if it was Bhaal. Well, maybe that was pushing things too far, but right now, he’d have to experience the visit inorder to determine if the paperwork was an attractive alternative to a visit with Hell’s Inquisitor General.

The work was tedious, pointless, andmaddeningly repetitious. He supposed that was the point of a lot of it. Hell was still, well … It was Hell. Even for the nobility, and especially for fairly low-ranking nobility like him. He barely had a spot at the Council table. That was based more on his personal charisma than it was on rank or accomplishments, if he was being honest with himself.  

Gareth returned a moment later. “May I present Krampus.” He bowed slightly and stepped aside as their guest entered.

Not the demonic hulking beast he was expecting, a slight bookish man, with short dark hair greying at the temples,entered on light feet clad in shiny leather shoes that matched his beige tweed suit. Ronoven blinked in surprise. Covering his bewilderment with practiced ease, almost before his visitor noticed it, he rose and walked around his desk.

“Krampus … you’re looking … well,” he managed, still extending a warm greeting despite being a little wrongfooted. “Thank you, Gareth,” he nodded, dismissing his servant with a friendly wave.

“Lord Ronoven,” Krampus bowed.

Uh oh, that felt awfully formal. Krampus was one of the few demons he considered a … friend wasn’t exactly the right word. But he liked Krampus, traded resources and shirked responsibility with him from time to time, and in Hell that was good enough. In fact, in Hell, that was about as good as it ever got.

His discomfort must have shown. As the door clicked shut behind Gareth, Krampus gave a low chuckle. “Just keeping up appearances, old boy,” he said with a wink.

A perceptible drop of tension preceded Ronoven’s reply. “I’m surprised to see you. On Earth, it’s … yeah, almost the Feast of Saint Nicholas. Shouldn’t you be … you know … reporting for duty, or whatever?”

Krampus shrugged and dumped a pile of papers out of one of the guest chairs, sending them scattering to the four winds. “Sorry about that,” he said belatedly, making a half-assed attempt to gather up the nearest of the mess and plopping it onto the smallest paper tower on the desk.

Seeing that his guest was reluctant to come to a point, Ronoven contemplated Krampus. “What’s with the new look?” seemed like a good place to start, since the only form for Krampus anyone in these parts had ever seen was his demonic one.

“Well, actually, that’s why I’m here.” Krampus finally sat down in the spacious leather chair he’d just denuded of its paper stacks, his smile obscured by a cloud of worry. No, that wasn’t simple worry. It was more grim certainty.

He liked Krampus, but only trusted him as far as you could trust any demon, which was to say, not far at all. He abandoned his casual posture and stood straight in front of his visitor. “I see. So, this is a professional conversation?” he asked, already imagining the addition of another mountain of paperwork on top of his already considerable pile that would come with any kind of formal arrangement with Krampus, especially at this time of year. He didn’t heave a sigh, but only just.

Krampus waved an unconcerned hand. “No, please, this is just between the two of us.”

Attempting to recapture his more relaxed demeanor, he leaned against his desk again, swearing quietly when at least a thousand forms fell off the back of his desk and into his chair and onto the floor around it. “Alright then. What can this humble demon do for the one and only Krampus?”

The smile flashed again, shy and almost embarrassed. “Well, first of all, you can call me Eugene.”

He felt his eyebrows climb entirely against his considerable will. “Hooookaaaay … What can I do for you, Eugene?”

The smile grew more confident. “Well, Ben … I can call you Ben, right?”

He felt himself nodding, but he was glad the light in here was poor because he’d probably just paled three shades. No one in Hell called him Ben. A few knew he preferred it to the name Hell gave him, but no one openly acknowledged it or, Satan forbid, used it out loud. “Sure, why not, Eugene?” found its way out of his mouth. To his own hopeful ears, it sounded appropriately cocky.

“I need a favor, Ben. And you’re the only one I can trust to accomplish it.”

“Trust?” Ben’s eyes widened. “Trust is kind of a strong word in this place.”

“But I do, all the same.”

After a long thoughtful pause, Ben narrowed his eyes and softly demanded, “Why?”

Eugene shrugged his narrow shoulders. “Well, you’re not actually evil, and around here, I think that’s reason enough.”

“Excuse me?” Ben sputtered, sounding offended, and almost feeling it. He put on a damned good show and he thought that Krampus, of all the beings in Hell, would have swallowed it hook, line, and sinker.

Krampus’s lips quirked into a small smile at Ben’s evident shock. “Don’t worry, Ben. You’ve been doing a fine job with the whole … demon thing. A better job than I have, actually.” Ben’s tension visibly decreased. “My power, my curse as I’ve come to think of it, is to see into the soul.”

“Anyone sent to Earth is given that power, Kr … Eugene,” Ben hedged, somewhat confused.

“To be sure. And some of you use it contrary to Hell’s intended purpose, too.” Ben’s head ducked for a split second, his neck warming and color spreading up to his ears. Krampus continued like he didn’t notice. “But none of you see like I do. So profound is this vision, even the gods do not go there for fear of what details they might glean in some tiny human soul. Heights so dizzying Heaven would be jealous. Depravity the depth of which would give even Bhaal the bends. And in your case, I see you. The being behind your careful mask.”

Ben nodded, his judicious practiced nod from centuries of council meetings, performance reviews, and general bureaucratic bullshit. “I believe I understand,” he said, his brow furrowing outside his notice. He didn’t particularly want to discuss what it was about him Krampus might see and have noted.

Krampus sensed his reticence and bulldozed past it. “In you, Ben, down in your soul, carefully kept, and all too often hidden through sheer necessity, is a true and beautiful humanity almost entirely absent here in Hell.” Ben shifted from foot to foot in his discomfort,observed his own fidgeting, and stubbornly crossed his arms over his chest to help himself keep still. “Sitting here, accessing none of my usual powers that go with the more accustomed guise, I sense your unease, the conflict within you.”

Ben forced a more casual posture, once again leaning on the desk like he hadn’t a care in the world. “C’mon, Eugene,you can’t be serious,” he scoffed.

“Ben, this will be quicker and easier for both of us if we skip over the pretense that you’re satisfied with your life as a demon and that any of it makes sense. But if you want to waste time pretending you’re a gung-ho member of Team Evil, and have someone mark our meeting, by all means.” He opened his hands in a broad, ‘Your move’ gesture.

Ben sighed, but managed not to fidget. “Okay, you trust me because I’m good. Fine. I’ll humor you.” It took every speck of his control to keep his face neutral as he spoke.  

Eugene laughed. “I never said you were good. Just not evil.”

Ben smirked. “Good. And point taken.”

A slender eyebrow climbed fractionally. “Or perhaps I should say that at the very least you play the game quite well. Your goodness has, through sheer talent and persistence on your part, gone unnoticed by all but a few.”

Ben wanted to ask who that few might include, but he already had a fair idea. Instead of acknowledging the thought making his skin crawl like he’d woken up covered with ticks, he asked, his voice very cool, “How long have you known?”

“Since I first met you. I told you; I see the truth of a soul. That’s my job. I’ve seen the real you, therefore I trust you. Let’s accept that and move on, shall we?”

Ben couldn’t let it go. “In all this time … you never thought to say anything?”

“I’ve never needed anything from you before.”

Ben’s eyes darkened, his whole face becoming a frown. “More than any supposed goodness you’ve seen, you trust my sense of self-preservation.”

“Something like that.”

The momentary silence was broken by a terse sort of sigh. Ben didn’t like being blackmailed. But, he reasoned, it’s not exactly like he was in a position to protest. The fact that he’d managed to get reassigned from Reaping after the Hollywood debacle a few decades ago spoke more to his ability to play the game than to any real luck or clout. Bhaal was still itching for a reason to target him, if only to take him down a peg. Ben couldn’t afford to give him any ammunition.

“What’s the favor?”

“Well, Ben, I’ve decided that it’s time for a change.”

“A change? Couldn’t we all use that?” Ben forced a smile, a creeping unease settling into the pit of his stomach.

“I’m sure we could. You’ve successfully changed jobs once, if I remember right.” The statement had a bit of an edge, a little reminder of a very public failure in a long line of less than stellar soul collecting. When Ben didn’t rise to the bait by getting defensive or anything else, Eugene continued. “In any event, whether there is precedent or not, I’m going to retire, Ben.”

Ben was nearly startled into a laugh. “Retire? Did I miss something at Orientation? Because from everything I’ve heard, the retirement plan in this place pretty much sucks. Like no condo in Miami. Just death; the final death. When they finally decide to let you have it. Which from what I hear isn’t exactly likely to be until a long while after you start begging for it.” Krampus shrugged. “You can’t retire, Eugene. And no amount of you holding an accusation of humanity over my head is going to change the fact that I’m not remotely high level enough to make so much as a vacation happen for you or anyone else.”

“Orientation,” he chuckled. “You are funny, Ben.” Ben shifted uncomfortably but met Eugene’s eyes. No one spoke lightly of what he was proposing, but he seemed so committed, so self-assured,Ben’s curiosity was almost stronger than his sense that he was up to his eyeballs in a bad situation. “But as amusing as you can be, the situation just isn’t. I’m done with all this, Ben. My work doesn’t matter. Kids are just … jaded. They see so much horror, are expected to live with so much unaddressed pain, that even the worst of them cannot be corrected by a single visitation. Too much has been broken for too long for me to make a difference anymore. Not only has the job become depressing, what this place adds to it, well, it’s just too much.”

Ben’s forehead creased even more deeply. “Wait … what are you even talking about? You torment children for a living. Like you used to be pretty dedicated to it. The torment, I mean.” Honestly, it was one of the things that had made Krampus difficult for Ben to like at first, but the guy had unexpectedly grown on him.

“I was only ever meant to torment those who deserved it, Ben. There was a time when I saw it change hearts, turn lives around. I was meant to correct those who strayed from the path of goodness and act as a deterrent to those who considered it. I’m no longer able to do that job. The world gets worse, and so, too, do the children, because they have nothing to lose in that place. Not anymore.” His shoulders slumped in obvious sadness and frustration.

Ben’s eyes glittered with real wonder.“You don’t want children to need correction and if they do … you really want it to work … You want kids to be good.”

“Of course I do. Despite my usual appearance, I’m not a monster.”

Ben finally found his cocky grin again. “No, but you are a demon.”

Eugene returned the smirk. “No, actually I’m not.”

“Well, what in Hell are you then? Because you’re not Fallen and you’re not one of the old gods. I’d be able to see it,” Ben protested.

“Quite right. But still, not a demon.”

Ben refused to take a step back, but something in him sort of wanted to. He didn’t like encountering beings for whom he had no explanation. He’d learned long ago, even in his human life, if something didn’t belong on a particular plane of existence, things were bound to get complicated. Fast. “What are you then?”

“That’s not really important at the moment.”

“Disagree,” Ben answered flatly, starting to be more annoyed at the double talk than he was worried about any suspicion Krampus might throw his way.

“Alright, Ben, what I am is in control of my exit strategy and long-term survival. As I’ve mentioned, you are integral to that plan. If it all goes smoothly, I may have occasion to explain myself more fully at a later date.”

The hard stare coming from those dark eyes caused Ben to just swallow and nod slowly. “Fine. But why now? I assume you could have left before this. And … if you’re not an old god, not Fallen, not one of us … Why are you in Hell at all?”

“You’re not wrong. I could have left before. As to why? Like the reasons I’m in Hell, it’s complicated and not relevant.”

Ben shook his head, briefly wishing he had pockets to jam his hands into. The urge to fidget was strong and this was not the time or place to give that side of himself free reign.  Instead, he opened his hands. “You’re not giving me much, man.”

“I suppose not.” A slow, almost menacing smile spread over his narrow face. “But it’s not exactly like you’re in a position to demand information, is it?”

“Yeah, well, story of my life,” he grumbled, running a hand through his hair. “But why? I’ve got to know. And don’t give me that tired crap about the state of the world and the kids and whatever.”

Ben couldn’t argue that the circumstances of even the most privileged nobles in Hell were depressing, but that couldn’t be the all of it. There would be real consequences to this play of Eugene’s, and Ben needed to wrap his head around why someone with such a cushy situation would willingly take such a risk.

Eugene supposed someone like Ben could not be persuaded to act, even out of a finely tuned self-preservative instinct,if there was too much he didn’t know. Ben was known far and wide as a voracious consumer of information. It made him useful, and dangerous.

“Ben, I think you’ll understand … When I thought I was doing good, making a difference, protecting souls from what we suffer here in Hell … I could tolerate a great deal. But now, the world, the children, what that looks like … No one is afraid anymore. No one is deterred.They live in a place so close to Hell sometimes, I’m more than half certain they no longer see any difference between mortal life and what might wait Below. Or to put it in a way Hell’s own Master of Expression might find more palatable, Earth has become ‘a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing’.”

Ben shook his head but couldn’t help the small smile that lifted one corner of his mouth. Picturing Eugene as he’d seen him in the past quoting Shakespeare was something he was going to keep with him for a while. “And?”

“And I just can’t talk myself into another Krampusnacht.”

“Alright, I get it. You hate your job and find Hell pointless. Welcome to the club.”

He paused, waiting for Eugene to offer something further. When he didn’t, Ben sighed. This was not a situation he wanted to touch with a ten-meter cattle prod. He finally had a pretty decent assignment. He wasn’t wildly interested in screwing that up for something difficult and dangerous.

“Since you’ve already told me you can walk any time you want, I’ve gotta ask, what do you need me for?”

“I need you to turn in my letter of resignation.”

Ben went momentarily cold. “The who with the what now?”

“I crafted an appropriate missive to inform Lucifer of my impending departure. I need you to deliver it. Because obviously I can’t do it.”

Ben started to pace in front of his desk, picking up a random form to fold, spindle, and mutilate. “You don’t need to do it at all. You already said you can just leave.” The form took the shape of a paper airplane and Ben tossed it across the office in confused frustration.

Eugene smirked. “Well, yeah, sure. Could do. But why would I pass up the opportunity to twist the Devil’s tit?”

Ben shoved some papers off the corner of his desk, heedless of the cloud of them as they scattered, just so he could sit. Ben was liking his guest less and less by the second, and already picturing what being caught in Krampus’s exit could mean for him. “So I take it the letter is … colorful?”

“That’s one possible adjective. I prefer to look at it as an apropos and timely scathing indictment of the company mission statement and, of course, of the upper management.”

Oh. Oh, good. Delivering that sounded like a good way to find out what beheading felt like. “Have I offended you in some way?”

“Not at all, Ben,” Eugene replied, looking almost sympathetic. “It’s just, nobody is going to take on this errand willingly. You happen to be in the unfortunate position of being the easiest noble with access to compromise.”

Ben swallowed hard, but his voice held none of his trepidation, only thinly checked anger. “Yeah. Thanks for that.”

Eugene laughed. “It’s not personal, Ben!”

“It will be when the Big Guy rips my spine out.”

“Don’t be so dramatic.”

Ben’s nimble mind searched with a bit of desperation for an out. “Couldn’t you send a messenger instead?”

“I am sending a messenger,” he replied. “Just one that I’m certain can deliver the message into Lucifer’s own hand.”

“When?” Ben asked with a sigh.

Eugene pulled a heavy envelope from his jacket pocket. It was addressed and dated in ostentatious silver ink, the same shade as the enchanted stick he’d used to whip children for centuries. Ben made himself take it. “Krampusnacht? Seriously?”

“It’s the only night of the year my absence will really mean anything to him. And I want him to feel it.”

“He’s going to skin me.” There wasn’t any anger left. Ben sounded more of tired acceptance.

“I have every confidence in your singularly persuasive ability to stay alive.”

“Great. Thanks.”

“Look, Ben … You’ll be fine. And … tell you what … I’ll owe you a favor.”

“I’m sure that’s a treasure beyond compare,” he grumbled.

“A big favor.”

“How big?”

“Bigger than you could possibly imagine.”

“You seriously underestimate my capacity for whimsy, Eugene,” Ben replied with some of his signature dry wit.

Eugene smiled at that and got to his feet. “Well, then. That’s settled. You’ll be my messenger and someday you’ll be glad you did it. Time for me to get going.”

“When are you leaving Hell?”

A quick flick of one eye that Ben had just enough time to process as an almost roguish wink accompanied the answer. “Right about now.”

Before he could even blink, Ben found himself alone, holding an envelope that grew heavier with every thought about his unwelcome task.

He contemplated it for a long moment.Then he put it in one of his desk drawers. He looked around at the office full of scattered documents and stacks of paperwork he was almost certain he’d never live to complete.

He passed through the main living area with a purposeful stride. “Gareth!” His servant came over immediately as he pulled on his cloak. “If anyone comes calling, I’ll be at the tavern on the other side of the River of Lost Souls.”

“Doing what, my Lord?” Gareth asked, looking at his protector with real concern.

“Seeing if it’s possible to get black out drunk if the liquor is enchanted. Don’t wait up.”

∞∞∞

Ben clutched that cursed envelope and approached the dais, noting an almost smirking black clad angel … yeah, definitely smirking … who announced, “Morning Star, Lord Ronoven reporting with your permission.”

The anger lining the chief fallen angel’s face like heavy ink, not to mention the silent presence of the bigman’s second in command, made it difficult to keep up his cool facade, but Ben thought he sounded passably confident when he bowed and opened with the expected reverent reserve, “Thank you for seeing me, Lord Lucifer.”

He didn’t even nod an acknowledgment, just bit out, “I understand you have information.”

Ben dipped his head in an approximation of another deferential bow. “I do, sir.” Ben handed the envelope to the footman who brought it directly to Lucifer. “When I heard the news that Krampus was missing, I took it upon myself to search his tower.”

Lucifer turned the envelope lazily over in his hand. “Did you now?”

He nodded. “Krampus and I had occasion to practice magic together from time to time. I’m familiar with the layout, and I was concerned given the date, Lord Lucifer.”

Lucifer broke the seal on the envelope. “Where did you find this?” he asked softly.

“In his library, Lord. He did most of his work there.” Ben kept talking, his face impassive, as his words went unheard. He didn’t seem able to stop. Hellfire and flame, he needed a break from this place. At least he still sounded on top of things. “It was on his desk. Right on the blotter. The seal was cold.”

Lucifer’s eyes scanned the contents of the letter, growing a deeper more glowing red as his lips moved and he mumbled, “Unhinged … discount prince … Daddy issues … Quitting … Lovely.” He scanned it from top to bottom again. “Huh.”

He snapped his fingers, the paper between them. It was gone in a flashing puff of smoke. He raised his eyes to let them bear down on Ben, dissecting him. Ben returned the eye contact, respectful, ready to answer questions, perhaps slightly bored in appearance. His posture was straight, relaxed. He blinked.

In the space of that involuntary movement, Lucifer was in front of him, his nose almost touching Ben’s, deep purple-red eyes doing his angel’s best to see into the depths of Ben’s soul. Ben just held the gaze as was expected of him. He remained visibly calm. In his own head he’d been almost expecting to panic, but he found lying openly to these beings easier every time he’d done it. He thought perhaps this was the day he crossed the threshold into a place where it was as automatic as breathing here.

He was unexpectedly comfortable with Lucifer rifling through his thoughts today. The memory of searching Krampus’s tower he’d constructed was about as perfect as he could have made it without tapping in another spellcaster to plant it in his mind.

Satisfied, Lucifer stepped back. “Leave me, Ronoven. Say nothing to anyone of the letter. It never happened.”

“Yes, my lord.” Ben bowed and made his retreat.

Lucifer watched him go and was joined by his second in command. “Who was it that informed us of Krampus’s absence again?”

“One of our Agents, my lord.” Bhaal appeared smug.

“Whose?”

“Pardon?”

Lucifer’s expression hardened further. “Who sponsored the Agent?”

A broad smile divided Bhaal’s face.“Why, by some random happenstance, my lord, I do believe it was our own Lord Ronoven. What an interesting coincidence,” he observed, widening his eyes for dramatic effect.

Lucifer considered the information carefully. “I detest coincidences,” he said as he mounted the stairs to his throne.

“Shall I summon him back, Lord?”

“I … no. After looking into his thoughts, I believe he said everything he has to say on the subject.”

Almost smirking, Bhaal offered, “I could bring him in for interrogation. That might inspire him to be more forthcoming.”

Lucifer shook his head. “Nonsense. That would draw unwelcome attention to the Krampus situation.”

“What are we planning to do about that, Lord?”

“Oh,” Lucifer gave a casual wave. “Send Lilith, she likes eating the little monsters.”

“I thought improving their behavior was the aim of this observance, Lucifer.”

“Same difference.”

Bhaal chuckled. “I suppose. Are you certain you don’t want to ‘speak’ with the Lord Ronoven further?”

“Let it lie this time. I saw nothing concerning in his head. Besides … There’s a reason King Castor has assigned him to those new apartments with the largest library in the realm. The demons are up to something.”

“The demons are always up to something.” He contemplated Lucifer’s expression. “Are you worried they dug up that scrap of parchment from your brother’s last visit?”

Lucifer gave a dismissive wave of his fingers. “No idea. But rumor suggests Ronoven has been assigned a promising research position with access to some of their most treasured documents. He seems motivated to have us kindly disposed. It could prove interesting.”

“As you say, my lord.”

∞∞∞

Down the corridor, Ben was almost giddy with relief. Head still attached, spine and skin intact, all his insides still inside, and he’d been walking away for long enough that if they were going to send the hounds after him or summon him back, they already would have. Things could have gone a lot worse.

He exited Lucifer’s stronghold and headed down one of Hell’s busiest streets. He hadn’t taken a hundred steps when Oriax, one of King Castor’s secret police, gaped at him. “Ronoven! You’re still alive!”

Well, now, that is interesting. Either Castor had heard something was up and had him followed,or Oriax was one of the demons Lucifer deigned to keep on his quasi-secret payroll. The compensation for going full cloak and dagger for either side was always good, or so Ben had heard, but if you got caught, you certainly wouldn’t be walking out of a private audience grinning from ear to ear like he was now.Ben kind of preferred nobody knowing what side he was on. Mostly because he was on his own side.

Almost selling that he was just headed toward the high-end tavern mostly frequented by the Fallen, Oriax called out, “I heard you got called to an audience with the boss’s boss. But here you still are! It’s been forever since we had one of our talks. Buy you a drink?”

Ben didn’t break stride. “I wish I could. I’ve got to get back to work. Problem with having more than one supervisor. King Castor has given me a deadline for the Council coming up.”

Oriax just nodded. “Maybe another time.”

Ben waved pleasantly. He kept his easy pace for a little while, seemingly oblivious to the fact that Oriax was still dogging his steps. He was headed home anyway, but just for fun, he melted into one of the market crowds, did a quick bit of obfuscation magic, and left Oriax wondering just where his mark had disappeared to. The idea of him having to report, to either the king or to Lucifer, that he’d lost Ben and gotten no information about what had taken place in the throne room was almost too funny.

Ronoven made it about halfway home before he started laughing. And not just about still being alive, or even giving Oriax the slip to amuse himself. It was quiet laughter. No one he passed marked it, but it was a genuine, happy sound.

Krampus pulled it off. He flaked off right out of Hell. Ben didn’t have high hopes that he could ever figure out how to pull off the same thing, but it did make his idea that maybe it was time to get himself a longer vacation than the old soul collection gig ever afforded feel more doable.

Besides he’d been forever without a break from this place.

He sat back down in his office buried in reports and conjectures about the prophecy the king was in such a lather about with something that felt almost like anticipation. There had to be something here that would give him a good reason to take a break. Before too long he found something. Everyone here could call him a bookworm all they wanted. He’d just tumbled to the words that were going to be his ticket out of here for months, maybe even years if he played his cards right.

It was time to get himself some time on Earth.

Yeah, a vacation; just a little trip where he couldn’t possibly get himself into trouble.

Merry Fic-mas Eve!

ficmas

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

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

Sure. Why not?

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

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

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

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

Bad Dreams

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It went on for a long time.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“It’s always enough.”

The Mirror ~ J

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

“Huh.”

It’s a surprised sort of sound.

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

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

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

What do you even do in this situation?

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

My breathing picks up again.

Not hyperventilating, but damned close.

Then I see her.

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

She smiles.

I see her teeth.

Strange Invaders – Winner of the Facebook Writers Assembled 2018 Spring Story Contest

WA Spring

Dave stuck his head behind the curtain and grinned at his partner.

The kid was looking pretty green, and clearly regretting his short trip down the alleyway responding to a stranger’s hoarse call for help.

“You doin’ okay, Morales?”

Eli looked up from contemplating the bandage on his forearm. “Great,” he said drily. “’Cuz being a chew toy for crazy bums is totally why we do this.”

“Thin blue line,” Dave chuckled, sitting on the hard plastic chair by the wall. “They almost done with you, or what?”

Eli shook his head. “Jesus, I hope so. Nurse Johnson has already put more holes in me than our friendly neighborhood nutjob.”

“Yeah, but she’s damn cute.”

“Alright, there, Officer Johnson … You know it’s a stereotype for cops to marry nurses, right?”

Dave gave a real laugh. He always felt like he was under Anna’s feet when he had to bring someone in here, but tonight would also serve as a rough introduction to their latest foster child. God knew she’d adopt Eli, regardless of what the usual house procedure was for a new partner anyway. He was just too much of a puppy not to make it into the normal dinner rotation on a faster route than her usual.

They were both still chuckling a little when a nice-looking nurse’s assistant bustled in and collected some items off the roll table next to Eli. He chatted with them for a few minutes. Then he stood next to the injured cop looking at the tablet he’d brought in with him and asked Eli to confirm the date of his last tetanus shot. Eli did and the young man said sympathetically that someone would be right back. Eli’s eyes followed him until he disappeared back out into the chaos.

Dave laughed quietly, “You know it’s a stereotype for cops to flirt with nurses?”

Eli grinned. “Learning from the best, Old Man.” Then he frowned. “Might be nice to get something outta tonight other than a scar.”

More ribbing before he got into a sour mood seemed in order. “I’m sure you will. Your rowdy indigent probably had rabies.”

Instead of finding it funny, Eli’s head sunk against the stiff pillow. “Jesus. Probably.”

“I’m kidding. Probably high on bath salts. That’s not contagious. You just gotta be born stupid.”

This time Eli snickered, as he peered around a gap in the curtain. “I just want to get home and sleep tonight off. It’s noisy as hell in here.”

He rubbed his forehead absently and squinted.

“You hit your head when you went down?”

“I don’t think so; probably just a stress headache. Because my partner’s a dick and keeps saying shit like rabies.”

“Sorry, man. I’ll shut up,” Dave laughed and got up. “Gimme a minute, I’ll see if I can get them movin’ on discharging you.” He was going to see if he could speed things up. Being married to the charge nurse was supposed to be worth something. Eli was right, it was noisy.

Dave stepped out into the hallway of the Emergency Department and it was chaos; shouting, fighting, things flying through the air. He started to radio for assistance, but heard a crash from the cubicle behind him. He turned to check on his partner, but the eyes staring up at him belonged to the same hunger that had gotten him bitten.

Eli was lost to the invasion’s first wave.

~ End ~

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

Copy of Something's Gotta Give Cover

 

$0.99 on Kindle or for Free on Kindle Unlimited.

An assignment in Hollywood? That sounds like Paradise …

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

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

Collect a movie star’s soul.

It’ll be easy, they said.

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

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

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

Ben had always been a gambling man.

Something’s Gotta Give – Available now.

http://mybook.to/somethingsgottagive

Detour

Another fun little writing prompt that got thrown out there in a group I’m part of and unsurprisingly I immediately thought of our own Ben Brody. – ~ J

A character of your choice walks in a city familiar to them. It is the dead of night. They witness a brutal mugging, featuring a nasty beating of the young couple they robbed. Your character manages to chase the criminal down into an alleyway. There are no witnesses and whatever tools your character uses for battle they have with them. How do they deal with the actions of the criminal? Play out the scene as you know they would.

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Ben’s heart slowed back down to normal as his preternaturally strong eyes took in the criminal huddled against the dumpster in the almost perfect darkness of the alleyway.
“Son of a bitch,” he grumbled more to himself than the sweaty, pale, maybe-teenager shaking and clutching the rather ostentatious purse he’d gotten off the woman up the street.

“This was a bad idea, kid,” he said sounding weary.

At first the kid said nothing, just panted and tried to straighten, but he caught his breath a little with the movement. Apparently one or both of the victims had gotten their licks in, Ben thought.

Finally the kid bit out, “Only kind I seem to have …” he trailed off for a minute. Then he lifted his head to meet Ben’s eyes when he heard him crunch over some broken glass stepping forward. “This belongs to a friend of mine though.”

“Looked like it belonged to the lady you wrestled it away from, buddy.”

Ben took another step.

“Technically I guess,” the boy, who Ben was now sure couldn’t have been more than fifteen said with a bitter laugh. “It’s my friend’s sister and her dirtbag boyfriend. He did some things … Bad things … And Steph had to leave home.”

There was pain in that voice, in that story.

“Did the sister know?” Ben asked, trying to get the lay of the land.

The boy shrugged. “Doesn’t matter. She knows he’s a piece of shit, but he has money, so she stays with him, let’s Steph’s parents think the worst. And we … she’s gotta eat, man.”

“Sister’s on the way the the hospital,” Ben said, his voice was a little stern but mostly just informative, wondering what the kid would do with the information.

“I’m sorry, alright. But only so sorry if you know what I mean. I can’t give this back. You saw what I did to them. I got no problem doing the same to you.”

Ben let the kid see his smirk. “I’m more than you bargained for, trust me. You can’t just go around hurting people for revenge, or worse for money. Nothing good will come of it. I know what I’m talking about.”

Another defeated shrug preceded the kid pulling the bag closer to himself. “I didn’t mean to have to hurt anyone, just get Steph some of her parents’ money for food.”

Ben noticed the boy’s ragged breathing then, but just said, “Doesn’t matter what you meant, kid. The road to Hell is paved with good intentions.”

He gave a short bitter laugh.

He let his amber eyes glow just a little, just enough to let the kid see he knew from whereof he spoke.

The boy jumped back in fear and gasped, toppling over as he bumped into the dumpster.
The kid immediately started struggling to his feet, but stumbled. Ben’s first impulse was to take the bag back since the kid was in no shape to fight, regardless of his story, and just call that good enough.

Then he saw the way the kid was clutching his side, saw blood trickle between his fingers.

“Hey,” he said, stepping forward. “What the hell happened to you?”

“He cut me, the bastard cut me before I could even ask for money. That’s how the fight started. I wasn’t gonna just steal it.”

“He had a knife?” Ben asked, feeling a tingle of real anger.

“He always has a knife. That’s how he hurt Steph.”

Ben pulled back on his power, allowing himself to look entirely human again. “C’mon, kid. Lemme help you. You need a hospital.”

“The cops …”

“Didn’t ID you. Let’s get your friend that money and get you patched up.”

Ben slipped an arm under the boy’s shoulders.

“You were chasing me. Why are you helping me … whatever you are … and ..?”

“Just call me Ben. What I am is a demon, and why I’m helping is because I know what it’s like to be driven down the wrong road, kid.”

~ End ~

More about Ben Brody can be found here.

Nightmare

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

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

nightmare

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Hey, are you okay?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He kissed the top of her head.

She knew.

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

“I love you,” she whispered.

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

~ End ~

 

For more of Mal and Ben, click here.

Search and Rescue

Author’s note: Prompt in a writing challenge I’m doing – “Imagine that you are unable to leave the room that you’re in for the next 7 days. Chronicle each of the seven days using only 50 words each.”

That sounded boring, so I went fictional. ~ J

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Day One

Don’t know what happened. Maybe an earthquake or a bomb. I remember a loud noise and then jolting, slipping. If anyone else is still alive here I can’t hear them. It was late; people were starting to head home so maybe they all made it. My head hurts and I…

Day Two

This is the second day since whatever happened. I think. I might have passed out when I tried to write things down last time, pretty sure. I remembered people screaming at first. I found the vending machine. The glass was broken. The water fountain is only dripping. I’m so thirsty.

Day Three

Remembered the LED on keychain. Found water cooler. Not full, but better than drips. Head still hurts. Found baby wipes in Marci’s desk. Happy to wipe off blood. Remembered the daycare is down a floor. Sick. Can’t get into bathroom. Emptied a file cabinet for… Think maybe I hear scratching.

Day Four

There’re digging sounds over my head. Building must have collapsed. That was the slipping I felt. At least someone’s trying to find me. I’m so glad I found water. There’s not a lot of real food in the machine, but it’ll probably keep me alive. I hear the scratching again.

Day Five

The digging sounds are closer. If I hold my breath I can almost hear rescue workers shouting to each other between my heartbeats. The water is getting low, so I’m glad they’re getting closer … Something happened. I think it’s the same day. Part of this room collapsed. Vending machine was there.

Day Six

I still have water. Put trashcan under water fountain to collect drips. Working so far. I’ll be okay if I run out of the other. So hungry. They sound closer. I hope. Help coming soon. LED looks dimmer. Don’t want to waste it looking for food unless I get desperate.

Day Seven

Digging has stopped. LED died last night. Found something squishy in a desk. I ate it anyway. Didn’t throw up. Water cooler empty, but trashcan full. Scratching sounds started again. Louder. If I listen I can hear the others.

They’re looking for me.

But I don’t think they are alive.

Wrong Number

Another writing prompt. This one is actually from a couple of years ago, but I liked it a lot and couldn’t imagine revisiting it with something new. If you come up with something, I’d love to see it in the comments. ~ J

“Write a conversation about a man who calls a wrong number and ends up talking to an angry woman. End the conversation with the line ‘Well, I suppose so’.”

bar-club-nightlife-274179

Ed reached into the back pocket of his jeans for his cell. It slipped from his grasp and fell onto the floor. There was a distinct and depressing crunching sound. Someday, he thought ruefully, he would get his head out of his ass and buy a decent case. This was his third phone in as many months. He got carefully off from his perch on the barstool and retrieved his phone, sure Salvatore would let him use the bar’s phone, but knowing in his present state there was no way he could remember Frank’s number. And the bastard owed him one for playing Taxi the last time he’d tied one on. As he’d suspected, the screen was spider cracked all over. Crap. Crap. Crap.

He squinted at the icons through the web of broken glass and hit what looked like his contacts button. The destruction that used to be his iPhone caused him to swear quietly when he got a splinter of glass in this thumb as he tried to scroll. Between sucking his bleeding thumb, the fuzzy buzzing in his head, and the fact that he’d worked the early today following on 2nd shift last night he was only half certain that he’d hit Frank’s name, but he brought the phone up anyway.

“Ed, you son of a bitch,” was the icy greeting that met his ear.

Oh hell. “Ginny. Shit, I’m sorry.”

“You damned well ought to be!” There was more emotion in her voice now but, not unexpectedly, it wasn’t pleasant.

“Look, I didn’t mean to call you. I don’t even know what time it is.” Now he could hear that he was slurring a little. Damn, his bar tab was going to be impressive when he had to settle up.

“Color me surprised.” There was a lot of contempt there, but it wasn’t venomous as it had been the last time they spoke.

“I was just trying to call Franny for a ride. My phone’s busted.”

“Again? Just how drunk are you Eddie?”

He hated it when she just had his number without even looking at him. It was like freaking witchcraft.

Now Ed was starting to feel a little annoyed back. “Well, pretty damn drunk I guess. I hate my job.”

Her voice softened, “You’re still there?”

Ed was defensive, “Yeah, even though it blows.”

There was a knowing note in her voice now, “And you’re at Sal’s place to cope with that fact.”

His inebriation caused some petulance to creep into his voice. “I don’t wanna crash with my folks forever and I can’t do rent on my own.”

“That’s your own fault, Eddie, and you know it, so don’t try to guilt trip me. I haven’t even taken my sneakers off yet from job number two and I’ve got a 7:30 in the morning. Tomorrow’s Tuesday. In case you forgot.”

“I know what day it is,” he snapped, even though that was 100% not true.

He was pulling so many odd shifts trying to get enough money together to get back into school that the days were starting to blend into each other. The dorm was better than with his parents for sure, but damned if he didn’t miss the mattress on the floor of the crappy apartment he and Ginny had shared all semester, until he’d blown it over summer break. Getting fired, then arrested for pissing on that dumpster…at least that cop had been decent enough to just call it vandalism and not public urination. If he’d wound up on the sex offender registry for being drunk and stupid, Ginny wouldn’t even care enough to chew him out. She wouldn’t have answered her phone. She’d kicked him out after that; her name was on the lease after all; told him not to call her unless he dried himself out a little and got his shit together. She couldn’t afford to deal with his childish crap her senior year. She had law school admissions to worry about. He’d lost his financial aid and had to drop out of school on top of everything else.

“Ginny, I’m sorry. I’m trying to get myself together. I am.”

“Sure you are, Ace. Which is why you called me on your broken phone. By accident. From Sal’s. Where I am sure there is now a paucity of tequila.”

Now she just sounded weary.

“It’s not like that … I hardly ever do this anymore.”

“Really?”

She honestly hoped that was true. She actually loved the dumbass. She just wasn’t going to get sucked in to his bullshit.

“I haven’t been here in a couple of months. Hell, I’m the guy the old crew usually calls for rides now. And I know better than to get behind the wheel like this, myself.”

He could hear her breathing but she didn’t say anything.

“That why I was calling Frank for a lift. Douche owes me one. I picked him up off the strip a couple weeks ago and he puked all down the door of my truck. I had to take it apart and everything. Hot wings, vodka, and stomach acid are not the sweetest perfume a guy could hope to ride to work with.”

She gave a soft laugh. God, he’d missed that sound.

“I’m not sobstory-ing or anything, but my ‘rents got into another one of their ‘let’s throw things at each other and scream’ contests and I just had to get the hell out. I don’t know why I came to Sal’s. Just seemed like the thing to do.” He sighed.

“It seemed safe.” Her voice was quiet, sympathetic.

“Yeah … I guess that’s it.” He took a deep breath, and said in a rush, “Last place I felt safe was with you.”

She drew in her breath sharply. “Eddie, I …”

“I’m sorry … You don’t need me crying on your shoulder, even over the phone.” He sighed again. “Go take off your sneakers. Get some sleep. I know your lecture days suck.”

“Eddie,” she paused, not sure if she’d regret what she was about to say, but determined to say it nonetheless. “Do you want me to come and pick you up?”

He really did, but he took a second, not wanting her to hear the naked need in his voice and pretty sure he was too lit to hide it. “I … I don’t really want to go home. God knows they’re probably still at it.” He was met with silence, but it felt warm to him, like before all this. “Could I come over … Just to sleep on the couch? I’m off tomorrow; I’d clean your place to return the favor. Maybe we could talk when you get out of class … Please?”

When she answered it was full of her old humor, full of promise.

“Well, I suppose so.”