Lost Girl: Hidden, Book One Extra: Christmas in the Loft

Note from Colleen: This is a short story that takes place about two months after the events of book one (if you haven’t read it yet…spoilers. You’ve been warned!)  I have not published it until now. Thank you for reading, and enjoy!

* * *

I laid in bed, curled on my side, Nain’s pillow, as always, crushed tight to my chest. I hadn’t slept. Hadn’t needed it. So I’d lain here and watched the red digital numbers tick by on the alarm clock.

His scent was fading.

Part of me thought that maybe, it wasn’t such a terrible thing. It was as if my heart was sliced in two each time I smelled his familiar scent upon opening a drawer or his closet. At the same time, I wasn’t ready to let it go. Not just yet.

I could feel Ada and Stone moving around in the kitchen, hear their low tones as they talked and joked with one another. I could feel Brennan out there, too, hear the sound of the coffee maker percolating.

It was Christmas Eve. Stone had gone out the night before, after taking care of a vampire problem, and come home with a great big Douglas fir. It was the first time I’d seen Ada truly smile in weeks.

I pulled the pillow over my face, flopped onto my back. I didn’t want to ruin it for them. Didn’t want them to look at me and remember his death. How anyone could separate the two….you couldn’t. I’d killed him. He’d lived over three hundred years, and it took someone like me to end him. It didn’t matter that I didn’t know it would happen. Intent was bullshit. All that mattered was that he was gone.

I stayed like that for a while. Maybe I’d just stay in my room all day.

Almost as if on cue, there was a knock on my door. I took a deep breath, pulled the pillow off of my face. I sat up and pushed a hand through my tangled mess of hair. Brennan.

I got up and pulled the door open. He stood on the other side, a huge mug of coffee in his hand.

“Hey,” he said, slate blue eyes seeming to take in every detail of me, the way they always did. He held the coffee cup out to me, and I took it with a nodded thanks.

“Can I come in and sit with you for a while?”

I gave another small nod, turned and walked back into the room. I sat back on the bed, against the pillows, and he eased himself into the chair next to the bed. This had been our routine for the last month or so. He’d bring me coffee, and sit and fill me in on the day ahead, and I’d listen. Sometimes, we’d sit in silence, and that was okay, too.

I drank a few sips of coffee. “You didn’t sleep last night,” he said after a while. I shook my head.

He didn’t say anything for a while. His emotions said everything for him. Sadness, anger, worry, love. It was the love that threatened to destroy me. The way he felt about me….I already knew it. Even if I couldn’t feel it, the Puppeteer had laid it all out for me when she’d used him against me. In our own way, we were still working our way through that, too, patching the damage done by the Puppeteer with nothing more than shared moments of camaraderie and kindness. Nain’s death had brought us together in our grief, as the two people who had been closest to him.

He was the only one who never nagged or begged me to talk. He understood, maybe more than anyone, that sometimes the only way you could deal with things was to keep them locked inside, to turn them over again and again, and hope that, at some point, they’d become less monstrous.

“Ada’s excited about putting up the tree today,” he said. “Christmas was always really her thing. Once she came to live here, we never had a year where the loft wasn’t decked out.” He watched me. “Are you going to join us?”

I shrugged, met his eyes. Don’t beg me. Don’t guilt me. Please….

“Okay. Do you want anything to eat?”

I shook my head, and we sat in silence for a while longer.

“Nain actually really liked Christmas. Did he ever tell you that?”

I shook my head.

“He did. I think a lot of it is because this area was French when he spawned, so he grew up with a lot of French Catholic traditions. And then there were the Irish and the Poles. He liked the churches.” I gave him a look, and he smiled. “I know. What are the odds? That’s actually how he met Father Balester. He was checking out Assumption Grotto, and they started talking.”

I watched him, and he seemed to read the question I didn’t ask. “That was back in the 1880s, from what they’ve said.”

I nodded, reminded again how strange my life had become. My husband had been a 300 year old demon who hung out with Catholic priests who turned into trees, and my best friend was man who could turn into any animal on earth. It was enough to make me wonder if I wasn’t completely insane.

Brennan seemed to be thinking about something, then got up and walked over to one of Nain’s overstuffed book cases. He grabbed a big black photo album.

“Have you seen this?” he asked, and I shook my head. I got up and sat on the floor near the bookcases, and he sat down next to me. He opened it, set it down so it laid across both our laps.

“A lot of this stuff is before my time,” he said. “This stuff on the first page was all from the 20s. I don’t think he had any photos before then. If he did, he never showed them to me.”

I nodded, looked over the photos. I could barely breathe. Nain, looking the way I’d always known him, yet….not. Dressed in 1920s style suits, with men and women dressed similarly. I glanced up at Brennan. “A lot of these people were his first team. He was a loner until the early 1900s.” I looked over the photos, and we turned a page. More of the same. He pointed out the people he’d been told about, and we flipped through the photos, into the 1930s, then the 40s. One of the original members of the 1920s team was in several of these photos as well, I realized, and I flipped back through. Brennan hadn’t said much about him, so I pointed at a photo of him and Nain and looked at him questioningly. To me, he looked quite a bit like Brennan.

“That’s my dad,” he said quietly, looking back down at the pictures. He flipped forward a few pages, to a photo of the man and a tall, thin blond. “My mom,” he said, pointing at the photo. I watched him for a moment. He was sad, but sad in the way people are over a long-lost friend or loved one. There is still pain, but there are also enough good memories to make it bittersweet. Would I ever feel that way? Would I be able to look back on my time with Nain and remember the good times, and not just those last awful moments?

I turned my attention back to the photo album. He flipped through the photos, had a chuckle at a few photos of greaser Nain, and I even had to smile. The sixties saw Nain looking very un-hippie-like; straight-laced and fierce. I noticed photo after photo of a voluptuous brunette on his arm, and I glanced up at Brennan.

“They dated for a while in the sixties and seventies. She was a witch,” he said. “In more ways than one.” His parents were still showing up in photos, straight through into the late seventies. They didn’t look like they’d aged at all.

I pointed to a seventies picture, then back to a twenties picture. He understood what I meant.

“Yeah. Shifters have really long lifespans, compared to humans. We don’t age as quickly. And my parents were both really strong,” he said.

Somehow, that made his parents’ deaths even worse to me. I knew they’d been killed working with Nain, both of them, on the same night, and Brennan had gone to live with Nain afterward. I watched him. He glanced up and met my eyes. “It’s okay,” he said softly. “They died saving a house full of innocent Normals from a bunch of demons who were on a rampage. They lived as badasses, and they died the same way. I miss them, but I’m proud of them, too.”

I nodded, went back to looking at the album. On the next page were photos of scrawny, nine year old Brennan, and he laughed. There were pages of him and Nain, Ada and Stone. Birthday photos. Christmas photos. Ada and her husband, who’d also been lost in the line of duty. It was funny watching Brennan grow through the years, from a skinny little kid to a tall, powerful man. The nineties showed a redhead on Nain’s arm. (“She was a jerk, too,” Brennan murmured, and I shook my head.) Then photos of George and Veronica, sometimes with Brennan, the three of them sitting on the roof or on the sofa on Christmas morning. The last photos in the book had been taken right after I joined the team. A photo of Nain and I on the roof, arguing, our eyes glowing in the fading daylight. Brennan and me, sitting with our feet dangling off the roof. He closed it, and we sat in silence for a few minutes.

It could have all gone so differently. I’d been attracted to Brennan first. He’d become a friend immediately, someone I trusted, relied on. What if I’d fallen for Brennan instead?

Nain would probably still be alive, for one.

I gave his hand a quick squeeze of thanks, then stood up, feeling awkward sitting next to him. He stood up and put the photo album back, then turned to look at me. “Are you all right?”

I shook my head, and he smiled.

“But you will be. You don’t believe it. But you will,” he said. Then he turned and walked out of the room, closing the door behind him.

 

Later, I showered and dressed and made my way out of my room. A glance out the loft windows showed that it was still snowing heavily, our second day in a row. The city was pretty much shut down, which was good for us. Even demons and vampires seemed to hate going out in snowstorms.

As I walked into the kitchen, I watched Ada and Stone stringing white lights onto an absolutely enormous tree. They both said hi to me, and I waved, forced a small smile. I poured another cup of coffee and went into the living room. Brennan was sitting on the sofa, testing lights in another string. I put my coffee down and took the other end of the strand in my hands, trying to tighten bulbs. About twenty in, I twisted one and the string lit up.

“Thank you,” Brennan murmured in relief.

“Oh, you love testing the lights, you little brat,” Stone said.

“It’s been his job since he was ten,” Ada said, laughing a little. She took the strand from Brrennan and started stringing it onto the tree. Brennan leaned over an pulled a large cardboard box over, placing it on the floor in front of us. He reached in and pulled out a box of ornaments.

“I’m always amazed they’re never broken to bits every year, the way Stone and Nain put them away,” Ada said, and then she sobered, realizing what she’d said.

“Yeah. We were usually careful though,” Stone said, trying to break the solemnity. “We knew you’d be mad if we broke them all.”

Ada smiled, continued with the lights. After a while, she was done, and she, Stone, and Brennan started placing ornaments on the tree. I sat and watched.

My imps, Dahael and Bash, came into the room to watch, and both crouched on the floor near where I was. I looked at them, and they both thumped a fist to their chest in greeting.

Brennan was watching us as he placed an ornament on the tree. “Want to do some of these, Molly?” he asked, and I shook my head.

I sat and watched them decorate the rest of the tree. And it struck me how beautiful they all were. Ada, with her deep laugh and honeyed voice, strong arms that had held me when I was lost in grief. Stone with his snow-white handlebar mustache and kind eyes. Brennan. Brennan and his everything. I could barely breathe around the responsibility weighing on me, the fear that I’d lose them, the knowledge that I’d do anything to keep them safe. This was my family, as crazy as we were. I would rip the world apart if it meant keeping them from being hurt.

I wouldn’t lose any more.

They finished with the tree and Ada and Stone moved into the kitchen to work on dinner. Ada had insisted on a full Christmas Eve dinner: turkey, ham, mashed potatoes and gravy, rolls and a crazy number of side dishes. I could smell the ham and turkey already. Ada and Stone talked quietly as they worked together in the kitchen. Brennan turned the living room lights off and sat next to me. We both sat in silence for a while, looking at the tree glowing warmly in the darkness.

“She’s going to make us brave midnight mass,” Brennan said, shaking his head.

I raised my eyebrows and glanced at the snow falling outside.

“We never miss it.”

There were so many things I wanted to ask. I knew it was stupid that I wasn’t talking. In some ways, I felt childish and stupid. But I was afraid that if I opened my mouth, I’d just scream and cry and release all of the insanity I was feeling. I needed to feel some sense of control, and right now, keeping my soul-crushing grief mostly to myself was it.

Brennan took my hand in his. I looked up at him, and his eyes searched mine.

“I wish I could read your mind sometimes, the way he did,” he said softly. “Not to replace him, not to take his place or any shit like that. Just because, then you wouldn’t have that look on your face like the one you have right now.”

I raised my eyebrows at him, questioning.

He smiled a little. “That look that says you feel guilty and embarrassed for not speaking. And you shouldn’t feel that way. No one gets to tell you how to grieve or how to figure out how to do things now that he’s gone. And I know  you well enough to know you’re figuring it’s frustrating or annoying that you’re not talking. It’s not to me, and it’s not to them,” he said, glancing toward the kitchen. “We love you. When you feel damn good and ready, you’ll talk again. Or,  you won’t and we’ll love you just the same.” He squeezed my hand gently and then released it.

I turned away. Nervous around him, unsure how to respond to the way he took care of me, often without even knowing he was doing it. I was saved a few minutes later when Ada called us into the dining room to eat. I hadn’t been eating, other than the saltines I sometimes shoved down my throat to keep Brennan and Ada happy. I would eat tonight, whether I wanted to or not, because this was one small thing I could give to Ada.

We sat around the dining room table that had once been full. The three empty chairs were a silent testament to all we’d lost. The four of us sat around one end of the long rectangular table. Ada held her hands out to her sides, and Stone, beside her, took one, and Brennan reached across the table and took the other. I glanced up, took Stone’s other hand, Brennan’s.

I was expecting her to say a few words, or give thanks, or something. Instead, she bowed her head and closed her eyes, and Brennan and Stone followed suit. After a moment, I did the same. Remembering. Veronica’s easy laugh and beauty. George’s heartbreaking betrayal. Nain. Too many memories, and not enough.

After a few silent moments, Brennan and Stone squeezed my hands, and I opened my eyes, looked up. I met Ada’s gaze across the table. Her eyes were spilling over with tears, as I knew mine were. She stood up, walked around the table, and I stood up. She folded me into her arms, and we stood there, weeping.

I hate crying. I hate anyone seeing me in those moments I do cry. It’s a testament to how much I love the three people in that room that I allowed myself to cry in front of them.

“It’s okay,” Ada said softly. “You will go on, baby girl. And he wanted you to,” she whispered. “You know this.”

I just held her tighter, and we stood, both of us sniffling, trying to pull ourselves together. “He was one of my best friends. Like a brother. He would not want you to live in misery now. Do you hear me?” she asked, her voice regaining some of its strength.

I nodded, met her eyes.

“Good,” she said, hugging me once more. We released each other, sat back down. I glanced over at Brennan as I sat down.

“Christmas Eve dinner was always a big deal,” Stone said as I watched Brennan. He was a mixture of sadness, loss, grief, anger…his feelings were as mixed up and crazy as mine were.

“Let’s eat,” Ada said. Stone gave an “amen!” and everyone started passing dishes and platters around. We ate, and I mostly listened to Ada and Stone joking back and forth, the way only old friends could. I ate in silence, and ended up eating much more than I thought I would. Brennan pushed his food around on his plate, taking occasional bites. He seemed nervous, on top of everything else. He looked up and caught me watching him. I nudged his knee with mine under the table, tilted my head as if to ask if he was all right.

He just gave a tiny nod, held my gaze for another moment or two. He looked away and started eating.

“Molly are you coming to midnight mass, honey?” Ada asked.

I found myself nodding before I realized it, and Brennan glanced at me in surprise.

“Good girl,” Stone said, getting up and carrying dishes into the kitchen, along with Ada. Just then, Brennan’s phone rang, and he grimaced before answering it.

“Yeah?”

He listened for a few minutes.

“Okay. I’ll be there as soon as I can,” he said. By now, Stone and Ada had come back into the room, and were watching him. He hung up and looked around.

“There’s some weirdness going on in Eastern Market,” Brennan said. “I can go check it out, and then I’ll meet you at church after.”

I glanced at the clock. It was just after eleven. He headed toward his room to change, and I reached out and put a hand on his arm.

“I can take care of it, Molly.”

I glared at him, and he laughed. “Fine. Let’s go, then.”

I went to Nain’s room, pulled on my heavy boots, the leather jacket Ada had bought for me, my gloves. I left my room just as Brennan was coming out of his. “Okay. We’ll see you guys there,” he said to Ada and Stone.

“We’ll save you a seat,” Stone said. “Be careful.”

We left, taking the elevator down to the loft, then we got into Nain’s truck. I tried not to think about riding in this truck with him, or about the night I’d met him, when he’d been driving it, following me through the city. Brennan and I had been using it when we went out on patrol, and I was getting over some of the emotion I had every time I looked at it, but I still got a little jolt ever time I sat down on the seat.

We drove in silence for a while, the Christmas radio station playing low. My imps sat in the bed of the truck, and I could just see them out the window. The cold didn’t seem to bother them, just as it didn’t bother me.

“I hope this isn’t too stupid. I really don’t feel like fighting tonight,” Brennan murmured after a while. I nodded. “Dawson…you know him, that shifter from the Eastern Market neighborhood?”

I nodded again.

“He said there were demons skulking around, and it seemed like they were up to something. He was going to keep an eye on things, but Dawson’s not really a fighter.”

I glared at Brennan.

“What?”

I glared at him some more.

“Oh come on, Molly. I can fight demons. I was freaking raised by one.”

I raised my finger, illustrating “one.” Then I glared at him again and crossed my arms over my chest. What the hell was he thinking? Even considering going into a possible group of demons by himself?

“I wouldn’t have gone in if there had been too many of them,” he said.

I just stared straight ahead.

“Okay. Fine. I know you don’t want any of us going anywhere without back up.” Damn right he did. I’d written them all a long letter, as soon as I’d been able to get myself out of bed after Nain had died, telling them how we were doing things from now on. No one went out on patrol alone, ever. No one went out on calls alone, ever. They’d done it before. Not anymore. “I wanted you all to be able to enjoy tonight. We don’t get many nights without bullshit.”

I gave him another look, and he laughed a little. “You can tell me off without words better than anyone I’ve ever met. It’s probably a good thing for me you’re not talking.”

I rolled my eyes, and he laughed again. We were in the Eastern Market area now. “Dawson said they were near shed 5,” he said as he put the truck into park. We got out, walking through snowdrifts that came nearly up to our knees. “Can you feel anything?” he asked me.

I focused, nodded after a moment. I held four fingers up. I could feel at least four demons, not too far away.

“Okay,” he said. We kept walking toward where I felt the demons. Soon we could hear muted, growling voices under the sound of the wind, and we glanced at each other.

We came around the side of the building to find four large demons, wearing their true skins, not the enchantment that made them look human. They ranged from around five feet tall to a little over six. My skin prickled. Too dark. Too quiet. Nobody around, due to the snow. This was an excellent place for demons to do something stupid.

It almost sounded like they were chanting.

And, as one stepped aside, I saw what they were up to. They had a young woman, blindfolded, gagged. She stood with her hands tied behind her back in the middle of the circle of demons. She had no coat on, just a thin pair of pajamas and some flimsy slippers. She stood with her head slumped forward, tears coursing down her face. Trembling, partially from the cold, mostly from terror. She looked mostly unharmed.

The demons continued to chant.

I glanced at Brennan.

“All right. Have your fun. I got your back,” he whispered, and I nodded. I took off the dark sunglasses I wore now when I went out at night (stupid glowing eyes….) and stalked toward the demons, making no effort to disguise the sound of my feet in the snow. Almost as one, they looked up at me.

“Oh shit,” one of them growled.

“I thought you said this bitch was out of commission,” another of them said. All of them glanced at the largest demon. This would be their leader. I pulled the knife out of my pocket and charged him. He did try to fight back.

The thing about my powers, especially since that night….I’m crazy strong now. Before, I used to have to work myself up to really pack a punch. Now, it was like I had access to that rage all the time. So while I refused to use my fire or other creepier powers, when I hit someone, they fucking felt it.

One punch had his nose shattered and blood coursing down his face.

A swipe of my knife across his throat ended him.

Efficient. That’s me.

One of the others tried to jump me, but it was useless. I felt my rage growing, and, with it, my power soared. I turned, kicked out hard at the one who had tried to jump me, and he went crashing into the side of the building. While he was still groggy, I stalked over to him, twisted his neck, ending him.

The third was coming for me, and I scanned the area for the fourth. He’d ducked around the building, and was coming up behind Brennan now.

“Bren, behind you,” I shouted, not thinking, just reacting, trying to make sure he wouldn’t be cut down by the cowardly demon behind him. He turned, started fighting the demon.

He doesn’t hit as hard as I do, but he does all right, I guess.

I turned back to my demon, who was still stupidly trying to get the upper hand. I broke into his mind, shattered it, and watched him fall to the ground, empty.

When I finished, I looked over just in time to see Brennan finishing up with his demon. He met my eyes, smiled.

A bunch of demons (in their demon forms, no less) would definitely raise questions. I focused for a moment, then shot white-hot fire at each of the four bodes. They were incinerated on contact, and all that was left was ashes, smoking, steaming on the formerly pristine snow.

The last time I’d done that…I forced the thought back. I hated it. Hated what I was and what I could do. I felt like I was doing to throw up the dinner I’d just eaten. I balled my hands into fists, trying to keep it together.

Wordlessly, Brennan pulled me into his arms, his presence comforting and confusing all at the same time.

“It’s okay,” he murmured against my hair. “Do what you need to do. Scream. Hit something. Do it.”

“I need to get out of here,” I said, finally pushing myself out of the comfort and warmth of his embrace. “Let’s go.”

He nodded, then we turned to the young woman, who was crying harder now. Fear rolled off of her, almost overwhelming. I put my sunglasses back on, then I untied her blindfold.

She stared at me, whimpered. “It’s okay,” I said, as soothingly as I could. “You’re safe now.” I reached behind her head and unknotted the scarf they had gagging her, and Brennan cut the ropes that held her hands. She was weeping more openly now in relief, the aftereffects of her fear. I took my coat off, insisted she pull it on over her pajamas.

“What were those things?” she asked me, eyeing the ashes on the snow around us.

“Demons,” I said.

She just stared at me. I’d have to erase her memories. This would be too traumatic for her otherwise.

“Where do you live? We can take you home,” I said softly.

She told me the neighborhood, and Brennan and I walked her to the truck. She got in, scooting to the middle, then I climbed in and Brennan closed the door behind me, then climbed in the driver’s side and drove off.

She was afraid sitting between us. Which was actually pretty smart, considering we’d just beat up four nightmares. “What are you?” she asked after a while. I noticed her glancing at me. “You’re her, aren’t you?”

“Who?” I asked, knowing what I’d hear.

“The Angel. I was lost, and you found me,” she said.

“Well. I had some help,” I said.

“You’re hard to keep up with,” Brennan said, grinning.

“But you’re her,” the woman insisted.

I glanced past her to Brennan, met his eyes briefly. “She is,” he said.

“I knew it. I knew you were the real thing. I was standing there, hoping you’d show. I knew I was dead if you weren’t real….”

I could barely breathe. The Angel. Savior of lost girls. The name felt like more of a joke now than ever.

I nodded politely, and we drove the rest of the way in silence. We got out of the car, and she gave me my coat back. As she hugged me in thanks, I worked my way into her mind.

“You never saw your abductors. You remember being saved. You remember meeting me. It will be so,” I said softly, and I felt the instant my power took hold.

She looked a little dazed as she walked away, but she made her way into the house and closed the door behind her. Brennan and I glanced at each other, then he opened the passenger door for me, and we drove off in the opposite direction, heading toward the church on Gratiot.

“Were they just messing with her or….?” I asked him. “That almost looked like some kind of ritual.”

“It was,” he answered. “We’ve seen a few of them over the years. Christmas time is big for them, something about all of the power of faith in the air or something. Usually, they’re trying to open a way into the Nether.” He glanced over at me. “Good to hear your voice again.”

“Feels weird to use it,” I said, staring out the window. “I only did it because you were in trouble. Again,” I said.

He laughed. “Yeah. You saved my ass. I owe you.”

“You don’t. I’m not losing anyone else.”

We reached the church, and he found a parking spot not terribly far away. It was just after midnight. We’d be walking in late. I hated walking in any where late. It felt like everyone was staring at you. Probably because they were, thinking “what is with these assholes?”

I know, because I can hear them.

We walked up the front walk toward the church steps, the stone facade of the church imposing in the snowy night, the air blissfully silent around us. I looked up, watched feathery snowflakes falling from the black sky.

“Molly,” Brennan said, stopping in his tracks. I stopped walking, turned to look at him.

“Yeah?”

“I owe you an apology.”

“No you don’t,” I said.

“I do.” He paused, took a breath. Nervousness came from him, washing over me and setting my stomach in twists. “Back with the Puppeteer…”

I waved him off. “Stop. You weren’t in control. We’ve done this already.” Kind of.

“Not that.” He met my eyes. “Physically, she was in control. As much as I hate to have to admit that, as much as I hate that I wasn’t strong enough to fight her off to save you from that…that was her.”

“I know.”

“You’re still a little afraid of me,” he said. “And you’re not afraid of much. Not anymore.”

“I’m not afraid. Not really,” I said softly. “I know you’d never hurt me. The memories of it are….they’re bad.” Nightmares. Hatred in the eyes of someone I loved and trusted.

“You’ve had too much bad,” he said.

“But it wasn’t your fault.”

“No. That part wasn’t. It was the rest of it.” He stopped, looked up into the sky as if hoping for the right words, or strength, or forgiveness. “I heard everything she said to you,” he finally said, his voice quiet in the silent night.

“I know.”

“When she said…not just that I am in love with you, but that I hated you too, that I was angry with you because shifters are proud and we don’t take rejection well.”

I couldn’t answer. I’d turned her words over in my mind too many times, had them seared into my psyche. I just looked at him.

“I never hated you. Ever.”

I let out a breath I wasn’t aware I’d been holding.

“I was angry with you. Stupidly, assholishly angry. And I did wonder, over and over again, why you chose him over me. Why I wasn’t good enough. Seeing you two together….” he trailed off, and his emotions were a mess.

“I know you were angry.”

“i know you know,” he said. “I was wrong to be that way.”

“You can’t help the way you feel. And you and I…there’s always been weirdness there. We both know it.”

He watched me. “You’re letting me off too easy here, Molly. I was an asshole about you and Nain.”

“Am I supposed to hate you for being hurt? Because that’s what it all comes down to, and I’m not going to be pissed off at you for feeling hurt, so stop it,” I said, turning toward the church. “You’re being stupidly hard on yourself about this. You’re the one person I know would never hurt me, ever. And that’s with the ability to read your emotions completely, more clearly than I can read anyone else’s.”

He looked away from me. “You can really feel me that clearly?”

“Yeah. I really can. Nain was tricky to read. Most people, I get a general sense. You? I can read you like a book, Brennan. And so, yeah. I know you were hurt. And I know you were angry. And I know you love me, and I even know that you want me.”

“Oh, Christ,” he muttered, turning away from me.

I put my hand on his arm, turned him back. “I’m not saying this to embarrass you. I’m not going to lie. I feel every emotion you have. Every. Damn. Thing. So I know all that, and because I know how you feel, I know you’d never, ever hurt me. This isn’t me being blind to your faults. This is me telling you I know you, Brennan Matthews.”

He stared at me, then looked away. “Well, this is awkward.”

“Yeah,” I said, and to my surprise, he laughed.

“If I try to hide what I’m feeling…”

“Good luck with that,” I said. And we started walking toward the church doors again. We entered as quietly as possible, and Brennan spotted Ada and Stone several pews ahead, pointed them out to me. We squeezed in at the end, me between Stone and Brennan. We listened to Father Balester’s homily, then to the choir.

“Is there an amulet or something?” Brennan leaned over and whispered to me.

“No.”

A few minutes later “What about a spell? Could Ada spell me?”

“No.”

After that, “what about–”

“You can’t hide it from me, Brennan.”

“How do you know?”

I shrugged. “I just know.” I met his gaze. “We’ll deal with it. We have been already. At least we’ll never have stupid misunderstandings with me thinking you hate me when you’re actually just tired or something.”

He sighed. Not happy about it, but resigned. “This is so embarrassing.”

“You already know I could do it,” I hissed.

“Not like that. Not with me.”

“For the record, you do a pretty damn decent job reading me, too,” I whispered, thinking of all the times he’d seemed to know what I wanted to ask, or that I needed coffee, or that I was cold or tired in the past few weeks.

He didn’t answer, and I sensed the tiniest bit of guilt coming from him.  I listened more as Father Balester started to talk again.

“None of you are Catholic,” I whispered to Brennan when everyone stood for a prayer.

“We’re not,” he whispered. “But neither is Father Balester, technically. And you’re distracted or you’d realize that his congregation isn’t exactly normal either.”

I focused. I’d felt Ada and Stone’s power signatures, and even those were barely noticeable to me so close to Brennan — he was strong, and his power had a steady pulse to it that it was easy for me to home in on. But when I tried harder, I felt more. Vampires, shifters, witches, warlocks. I glanced around.

I nearly laughed.

Midnight Mass. Christmas Eve. And this idyllic, old Catholic church was full of nightmares. Brennan caught my gaze, grinned a little.

“So we’re not, obviously, Catholic or even Christian,” he said, leaning down toward me again. “But even monsters can come together one night a year and celebrate the important things. That’s really all this night is about, isn’t it?”

The prayer ended, and we sat. In a normal Catholic church, this would be the part where people line up for the Eucharist. Instead, Father Balester walked down into the aisle between the pews, looked around.

“Friends. We come together tonight to share in the joy and spirit of this season. Love, generosity.” He paused, scanned the crowed. His gaze landed on me, and he gave me a small smile. “Hope. Hope is eternal, and even in our darkest hour, the light of hope shines.” He looked away, glanced around again. “Depending on your faith or lack of, that hope can come in any form. It can be a Savior who died so that you would have eternal life. It can be a parent who protected you from the darkness, friends who care for you through the nightmares of life on Earth. Sometimes, it comes in the form of an Angel, or in the form of a demon.”

He paused, seeming deep in thought. “And sometimes, it is what’s inside you. A fire that burns so brightly it chases away the worst of the darkness.” He met my eyes again. “That fire is worth nurturing, because without it, you will be lost to the darkness.” It was as if everyone else in the church had faded away, as if the priest-who-was-not-a-priest was talking only to me, in a voice older than anything in existence. “You must go on. Because the darkness will always be there. Evil will always exist. And there is so much more in store for you, lives untold, adventures you can’t even imagine.”

He finally looked away from me, and I took a shaky breath.

“And that is why we come together on this Holy night. To remind ourselves and each other that the fight is worth it. We live our lives, and those of you in this church know better than anyone, what it is to battle the darkness within.”

“May your light guide you through your darkest hour.”

“Blessed be.”

And with that, the priest smiled, and took a small bow to the congregation. With a smile, the man disappeared, and a cold wind blew through the church and out the doors.

“He’s always loved his dramatic exits,” Ada said as everyone started standing up, pulling on coats and gloves.

“What is he?” I asked. “I mean, really. He’s not a demon. He’s not any type of being I’ve ever met. He’s not even like Eunomia and her sisters,” I said quietly, remembering my friend, a being from myth. She and her sisters escorted the souls of the dead to whatever came after. “His power is completely different.”

Ada and Stone both shrugged. “He’s never bothered to explain it to us,” Ada said.

Stone nodded. “We figure it’s his story to tell, if he ever wants to.”

Brennan stood aside so I could walk out of the pew. “I’ve never met anyone else like him,” he said, and Ada and Stone agreed.

“Yes, our priest friend is definitely one of a kind,” Ada said.

We all made our way back to the loft. The streets were blanketed in snow, and it still came down in soft, feathery flakes. I spent most of the ride staring out the passenger side window, thinking about nothing and everything. “Holly Jolly Christmas” played as Brennan drove the truck toward the loft.

“This took a lot out of you, didn’t it?” he asked after a while.

“What?”

“Talking. Being around everyone. Going out and not just kicking ass the entire time,” he said.

“Well. There was some ass kicking involved,” I said, still looking out the window.

“Yeah.”

“This Christmas is hard enough with all we’ve lost. Especially you and Ada and Stone. Me sitting in my room or moping around wouldn’t help anyone.”

“You lost a hell of a lot, too,” he said.

“I did. But I never had a Christmas with him. You all did. You’re hurting, and I feel helpless to make any of you feel better.”

We drove in silence for a while. The going was slow, the roads slippery. Eventually, we pulled into the parking garage and made our way inside. Ada and Stone had already gone up to their rooms, and the loft was dark and quiet, illuminated only by the glowing lights of the Christmas tree and the city outside.

I shrugged out of my coat and kicked my shoes off. Brennan went to the kitchen, and I went into the living room. A few minutes later, he came into the living room and pressed a hot mug of cocoa into my hand, then sat down beside me.

The imps were both laying on their backs near the tree, looking up at it.

We sat together in silence for a long time, each lost in our own memories, our own thoughts.

“Merry Christmas, Molly,” Brennan finally said said, his voice yet another light in the darkness.

“Merry Christmas,” I whispered, and we sat through the rest of the night together, waiting for the dawn of a new day.

 

 

 

 

 

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