Finn O’Donaghue fumbled in his back pocket, almost letting the vibrating phone slip through numb fingers. Looking at the name on the screen, he smiled before putting it to his ear.
Outside the rundown building, Finn stopped. His Spirit sight showed only two auras. One was Billie’s, the other human, streaked with a sickly green and the blue of docile unconsciousness. A void in the net of Spirit lines, conspicuous because of what wasn’t there, signalled another presence.
Finn’s heart kicked up a notch and he approached the green door, apprehension hastening his steps even as a nagging worry warned him away.
The door, swollen through misuse, creaked open reluctantly. He stepped into the dark and nudged it closed behind him, wincing as it loudly protested. The room was silent but for the heavy, clogged sound of someone breathing through a dry mouth. The auras–and the lack of one–clustered together on the far side of the building.
“Billie?” Damn the boy, Finn thought, unsure if his unease was triggered by whatever trouble the boy was in or the very real fact that Finn was scared. Not of what might be lurking in the dark–no, Finn could likely handle most things that jumped out of shadows. It was the human that bothered him.
“Finn?” Billie’s voice trembled. “Is that you, Finn?”
“Is that Luc hiding in the corner?” Finn asked before moving towards the young pup. One of the few vampires he trusted, Luc’s presence would mean he could quit worrying about the man-shaped lack of life or soul hidden in the darkness.
“I am here.” Luc, his French accent lacking it’s usual cocky cheer. “You should not be. I have brought this shame upon myself, it would not do for Druid–or wolf–to be caught in my mistake.”
Finn relaxed the tiniest bit. “What have you two done now?”
“It was an accident,” Billie said, voice cracking.
“Does this place have a light switch?” Finn felt along the wall near the door, then yanked on a hand-sized lever. Strobes of light flashed on and off, then on. He squinted against the blinding fluorescents, then, eyes adjusting, said, “Oh, shit.”
By the two boys sat a chair, and tied to it, was Jerry. One of the only humans with standing in the magical community, Jerry ran a diner that provided a neutral place for people of all types. People like Billie and Luc–and even Finn himself
“What the hell is going on?” Finn growled, gritting his teeth against the sudden flash of anger and worry that roiled in his gut.
The boys flinched at his tone but Luc stepped forwards. “It was an accident, I swear. I was only trying to practice my hypnotic skills, I thought it was working!”
“You were practicing? On Jerry?” The sheer idiocy caved in around Finn.
“On… Is that his name? You know him? Oh, non, non, non.”
Finn rubbed his face. “Billie, talk. All of it, now.”
“Finn, we were just mucking about, really. Luc said he’d try to score us a couple of free beers. We were gonna pay after, I swear!” His eyes darted around, refusing to meet Finn’s. “Luc… he was doing his creepy vamp stare and Jerry, well he was all slack jawed and all. Then he pulls out a motherfucking shotgun! Just like that! And Luc, he tried to grab it but the guy was too fast, and he yelled something about silver bullets and… I was scared, Finn.” Tears threatened to spill free as he gulped back a sob. “I couldn’t control it, it just happened. He saw everything.”
“You shifted?” Utter disbelief took the bite out of Finn’s rage. The situation couldn’t have been any worse if they’d done it on purpose. And yet… “Let me get this straight. You tried to steal off Jerry. You failed, then kidnapped him because he saw you. I suppose I should be grateful it wasn’t an ordinary person, but Jerry? He’s the one human who knows every damn wolf and vamp in this city–except, apparently, you two.”
“He… knows?” Luc’s baby smooth face puckered into a frown. “But no human–”
“He knows,” Finn barked. “And if Henri had half a brain he’d have told you about Jerry’s by now.” Finn made a mental note to speak to the local head of the Vampire clan himself. It was Henri’s job to make sure things like this didn’t happen.
“You cannot say that! Henri is–”
“Cool it, Luc.” Billie jabbed an elbow into his friend’s ribs.
The vampire obliged by cutting off his indignant tirade instantly. Good, Finn thought. He knows how much trouble he’s in.
Finn kneeled by Jerry and patted his face. The short man snorted, but otherwise didn’t respond. Finn untied the crude knots, slipped back into the Spirit sight and examined the flickering aura before him.
A painful red flare, swollen and hot, lurked near the point representing the mind. Finn groaned. A blow to the head was not only tedious to heal, it was dangerous to inflict. He hoped Luc had done it. Vampire training covered numerous ways to incapacitate a human without causing harm.
This injury, Finn saw when he delved a little deeper, had been perfectly executed. Trickles of Spirit magic flowed from his fingers as he probed the back of Jerry’s head, soaking into the injury and healing it. A little more juice, then Finn sat back as his patient started to stir.
Jerry mumbled something, then shot to his feet, groping at his side. “Move and I’ll cap you with a–Finn?” Jerry sat back down, the sudden weight causing the chair to wobble dangerously. “What the hell?”
He looked around, squinting at the bright overhead lights. His expression darkened when he saw the werewolf and the vampire huddled off to one side, doing their best to avoid eye contact with their victim.
“Jerry, you have my deepest apologies. These two… children”–Finn dripped as much condescension as he could into the word–”seem to be lacking the capacity for good decision making today.”
Jerry took Finn’s offered hand, pulling himself back up to his feet. “I suppose an explanation would be too much to ask for?”
Jerry’s face twitched. He’d adjudicated more than a few supernatural bust ups in his time. He’d been threatened and insulted, yet Finn had never seen him bat an eye. If this little stunt affected the service Jerry provided, the community would lose a great asset.
“Not at all, Jerry. However, I think, perhaps, you might explain exactly who you are to these overeager young men.”
Jerry’s eyes narrowed as his gaze slid to the miscreants, their faces dropping even further under the scrutiny. “I run the diner,” he said, voice flat. He waited for the terrified gazes to melt into confusion. “And the diner is Switzerland–you know, neutral territory. It’s the only safe place in the city for you lot. Yes, both of you.”
Standing straighter and lifting his chin a little, Jerry continued. “My diner is the only–the only–place in the city that welcomes vampire, weres of all types, witches and whatever else godforsaken beings show up on the doorstep. Jerry’s is where contracts are signed, truces are brokered and meetings between some of the highest powers in the world occur. It’s marked as a haven, backed up by a god.” He narrowed his eyes. “Count your lucky stars you weren’t still with me at nightfall.”
The penny dropped. The blood drained from Billie’s face, leaving him as pale as his vampire friend. Luc fell to his knees, prostrating himself on the ground. “I am sorry, Master Jerry. I did not know, I swear, I am so sorry, I–”
“Get up, son. I’m not going to turn Var loose on a child. Not yet, anyway.”
Luc went as far as sitting on his heels, but didn’t stand. Finn would have bet money that the boy’s knees shook too badly to try.
“I think you owe Jerry the full story. Now.” Finn lent a touch of magic to his voice, making it bounce around the cavernous building. Both boys flinched. Neither spoke. Finn angled his glare at Billie.
“I– We were just mucking around. Luc said Henri had told him his hypnotic skills needed work, that he should practice. So… he did.”
“On me.” Jerry folded his arms, nostrils flared.
“We didn’t know who you were!” A whining quality entered Billie’s voice, fanning Finn’s anger.
“That makes it worse,” the Druid snapped. “You,” he jabbed a finger at Luc, “intentionally used hypnotism on a human. And you,” now rounding on Billie, “shifted! In a diner, in the middle of the damn day! Any number of people could have seen you, are you even sure they didn’t?”
Billie hung his head, eyes downcast, while Luc squirmed next to him.
“I’m satisfied the boys intended no harm, Druid.” Jerry ducked his head at Finn. “Though I will request restitution. I’d intended to ask you anyway, Finn, but the boys will work just as well. They can come see me at the diner on Tuesday, at sun up.”
Finn took a moment to let Jerry’s words fall, watching the first glimmer of hope cross the boys’ faces, straighten their shoulders. “Fine. You two, get yourselves home.”
A startled moment passed before Billie and Luc bowed to Finn and Jerry with stammered apologies, before disappearing with undignified haste.
Finally letting his shoulders relax, Finn turned to his companion. “A shotgun, Jerry? Really?”
Jerry grimaced. “I know, I know. It’s this bloody season. People start acting all crazy, then they bring it into the diner. Puts me on edge, it does.”
“Not just people,” Finn said, jutting his chin at the door wedged open a crack, letting in gusts of icy wind. Billie was last out, so focused on leaving he hadn’t shut it behind him. The two men slowly walked towards it.
“No, not just people at all. And not just them. I admit, I overreacted.”
“You taught them a valuable lesson.” Finn held the door open and Jerry passed through before looking back with a chuckle.
“Oh, they’ll get a lesson alright.” His grin widened. “I owe you one for the rescue, Druid. Free lunch, for you and your missus. Say… Tuesday?”
Finn narrowed his eyes. Jerry was up to something. “That’s Christmas Eve.”
“I’ll check with Sarah, but I don’t think we have anything planned.”
“Jerry’s certainly gotten into the spirit this year,” Sarah’s eyes traced the glittering cardboard Santa on the roof of the diner. “Is he.. Playing Christmas carols?”
Finn pulled aside the trails of tinsel hanging from the eves. “He certainly is,” he mused.
He opened the door and the music blared. Inside, the diner was packed. Men, women and children crammed into booths, and cheap plastic chairs were scattered between the usual upholstered seats of the diner. People talked and laughed, voices loud over the carols and tinkling bells.
The source of the bells approached Finn.
“Welcome to Jerry’s Diner, where all eat free on this eve of wonder.” The elf’s French accent was flat and joyless. “I, the elf of Father Christmas, am here to take your order.”
Finn took one look at Luc’s tight fitting costume and jingling hat and burst out laughing.
Luc cringed. “Please, do not tell anyone? I swear I have learned my lesson a thousand times over, if Henri knew–”
“Henri knows, you can bet on that,” Finn said, trying to stifle his laughter.
“You look… very festive, Luc.” Sarah bit down on her lips, eyes twinkling. “Where is Billie? Oh please, tell me he’s dressed like you!”
“The wolf got off easy.” Luc scowled, then glanced at the clock. “He is due to emerge in a moment. I suppose you are staying for lunch?”
Finn and Sarah quickly grabbed some stools at the counter as they were vacated.
“Jerry!” Sarah called, then clapped in delight. “Jerry, you look wonderful!”
Jerry tugged dramatically at the sleeves of his tuxedo before dropping into a deep bow. “Lady Sarah, Master Finn. Allow me to welcome you to Jerry’s, on this day wonderful day.”
A loud jangling bell sounded, setting off a series of raucous squeals from the children and more than a few adults.
“Ho! Ho! Ho! Who’s been a good little boy or girl?”
“I have!” came the deafening answer directed at a rather skinny Santa Claus stepping out from the back room. He hollered back, then hefted a large red sack and made his way to the nearest table.
“Then I have presents for you! And you! Ho! Ho! Ho!” Santa spun around to the next family, plonked a wrapped box on the table, then looked up to see Finn and Sarah cheering. He froze, cheeks taking on the typical ruddiness of a real Santa. “Uh, Finn? Finn! Uhh… Hi, Sarah.”
“Don’t mind us, Bill– Santa. You go do your thing,” Sarah said with a giggle.
Santa let out an embarrassed laugh, then went back to doling out presents to the families.
“Jerry, do you put this on every year?” Sarah asked. “I wish I’d known, I’d have offered to help!”
“It’s a long standing tradition,” Jerry said. “Every year for the last ten. The shelters all know, so they send along the ones who need it most.”
Looking around again, Finn gently touched the Spirit. As Jerry had said, every aura around him glowed with grief, fear or pain. The swirls of hopelessness in both adults and children, the heartbreaking sight of so much sadness clustered together, bit deep.
He blinked away the mist in his eyes, watching Billie approach a table. Bright sparks of pink and white exploded in the aura of a little girl as she stared up into his face. White streaks of hope erupted in the clouds surrounding the adults at her table.
Finn smiled and squeezed Sarah’s hand. He watched the mingling auras, saw flashes of joy flow through the room as Luc pulled out some balls and showed of his juggling skills, all while keeping up a steady stream of banter with the guests.
Jerry whipped from table to table, running plates of hot food and steaming mugs of coffee and hot chocolate to the tables.
He passed by Finn and stopped a moment, eyes shining as he looked out over his diner.
“Yes, Druid, I do think your boys have learned a lesson after all.”
“They’re not the only ones, Jerry.” Finn squeezed Sarah’s hand as a soft smile touched his lips. “Merry Christmas, my friend. Merry Christmas.”