Day 23 and I think I'm one of the last to contribute. I hope you've had an enjoyable reading experience with some fun and interesting ficlets from our many authors. If this is the first time you've heard of the Rainbow Advent Calendar, then the masterlist is here. And you can join the Facebook group here (which is the easiest place to show some love and engage with the authors).
Many thanks to Alex Jane for arranging the event.
This ficlet features Rick and Mal from Resistance. And when I get a free minute I will be making this in a downloadable version.
Dark Nights and Inner Light
“What?” Rick’s long, confident strides faltered and he spun around, nearly taking Mal out with the axe slung casually over his shoulder. His boyfriend had hefted the weighty tool with barely a qualm, and certainly without a word. He’d just expected Mal to follow along behind with no clue as to where they were going.
And this was his point. Or was it? He was fast losing his train of thought, what with the way Rick’s biceps were straining against the flannel shirt he wore. And what was with that, no coat, not even a jumper. In mid-December.
Oh well, if he was going to die he could think of worse ways to go than watching the flex of those bulging muscles wielding an axe.
“Mal?” Rick sounded concerned. He dropped his gaze down to the ground, and then over at Mal’s suede trainers. “Did you want to change your shoes, or something?” Mal glanced at Rick’s sturdy boots and the sodden mulch that the ground became once the past the tree line into the forest. “Be quick if you do. I want to get this done before the light fades completely.”
They’d been home all day—a rare full day spent together because of Mal’s shifts—so if the light was that important, why had Rick waited until now to go out.
Mal looked at his trainers, they were slightly scuffed at the toes but nothing too bad, they still had plenty of life left in them, even if he didn’t. “Not like I’ll be needing them soon,” he muttered.
“Eh?” Rick frowned, but Mal could tell he was restless, eager to get on. You got to know these things when you’d been living together for six months. “What’s the matter, hun?”
“It’s almost twilight and you’re leading me into the forest with your trusty chopper. You won’t tell me where we’re going.” Mal shook the empty sack that he held in his left hand. A sturdy rope was looped over his shoulders. “This sack has got to be six-foot long. Do you plan to carry me home in it?” His voice rose in consternation, even though he tried to keep it level. “I love you. If it’s the disparaging remarks I made about your attempt at mince pies—”
“Attempt!” Rick sounded affronted all over again.
Don’t piss off the man with the massive chopper. Mal eyed the axe warily. “Sorry. If I’ve done something wrong, I’d much rather we talk about it than you chase me around the forest with an axe.”
Rick threw back his head and laughed. Did it have a slightly maniacal edge? No, Rick reminded Mal of the huntsman in that film they’d watched the other night. Or maybe a character from a fairy tale—not the Grimm versions, but like one from the Christmas play the kids had put on at the village hall last week.
“I told you not to go to that lecture on forensic science. It’s not like reading your murder mysteries. That shit is real.” Obviously satisfied Mal was simply being an idiot, Rick started walking deeper into the forest.
Mal had to agree, Rick went out of his way to save ducklings from a drain, and he openly admitted what a bad cook he was, although he was trying, even if Mal still cooked most of their meals. Rick wouldn’t hurt a fly.
Motive is not important. Nobody knows what could drive someone to kill.
But Mal did know Rick. He fell into step behind his—still chuckling—boyfriend. “I had to go. How often do you get to see a lecture on forensic science by an actual working Federal Forensic Investigator in Hillchester?”
And Geoff Samson had been a revelation; interesting, funny, and knowledgeable. That confidence had been a turn on, as had the Wolverine-style sideburns. Maybe he could convince Rick to try and grow some, but Rick’s fair hair made his beard hard enough to see until it grew in thickly, by which time Rick’d had enough and was ready to return to being clean shaven.
Geoff had taken the time to talk to the audience afterwards over tea and coffee, despite most of the audience being made up of authors wanting to discuss plot points and gory modes of death.
Rick had been working, so Mal had gone with Raleigh and Smudge. He’d thought the two of them would have apoplexy when Geoff had introduced them to his husband, the romance writer. Who knew the pair of them read that stuff? Although having listened to the author’s passionate speech on the subject of romance, Mal could possibly be tempted away from his police procedurals and cosy mysteries, at least for the occasional read.
“So where are we going?” Mal asked, sliding in next to Rick. On the side where he wasn’t carrying the axe, naturally.
“Now that you don’t think I’m going to hack you into little pieces over a disagreement about festive pastries? Has that been bothering you? I admit they were shit and I was honestly more pissed at myself for fucking them up than your comments. I just need to resign myself to the fact that I can’t cook and let you bear the brunt of that revelation.”
“You’re a good chopper,” Mal glanced at the axe, “whatever size your tool.”
“Yeah, we both know yours is bigger. But I make a mean breakfast, even without bacon.”
“You do.” Mal slipped his hand in Rick’s. “Why aren’t you cold? Is it much further?”
The pathway came to a junction, left or right the only options, and Mal didn’t know which way Rick would chose. On their walks and cycle rides they normally veered away on a different path at the last fork they’d passed. Mal hadn’t been down this path before. Several feet through the trees Mal could make out a mesh fence.
“This way.” Rick tugged on Mal’s hand, stepped off the path and into the trees.
They followed the wire fencing for a couple of minutes, ankle deep in fallen mouldy leaves. Mal cursed himself for not taking the chance to change his shoes when Rick had given him the option.
“In here.” Rick let Mal’s hand drop and ducked down.
“Where?” But Rick was already scrabbling through a large hole in the wire fencing. “What are we doing? Is this breaking and entering? Am I going to be arrested?”
“Not if you stay on that side of the fence you won’t.” Rick chuckled. He bent to drag his axe through the hole and straightened. “You can stay here if you’re worried.”
“Worried?!” Mal’s voice shot up an octave. “Should I be worried? What are you planning to do?”
“I’m losing the light. I’ll argue the toss with you later but right now I need to get to the grove. Or Nigel will be turning up in the dark.”
Nigel, their farmer neighbour, was somehow involved in all this skulduggery. Mal had met him several times over the last few months and he would have sworn he was as straight as they come; rigid, stoic, his only concern the animals under his care and the quality of the produce with his farm’s name on it. Had he stumbled into some sort of cult?
“Come on, make your mind up. Happen you’ll get lost on this side without a guide. Christmas will be over the way you’re dallying.”
They couldn’t argue about anything later if Mal didn’t know the extent of what was going on. He scrambled through the gap and stood next to Rick. “Come on then. If we’re breaking the law, let’s do it together.”
Rick led the way through the trees. There was no path to speak of, although a way had been cleared by foot traffic of some sort, but it was a treacherous thing with fallen branches and rabbit holes. Mal would have been lost in an instant on his own, or broken an ankle.
He was concentrating so hard on keeping his footing that he didn’t notice the change in the tree canopy until darkness made moving forward even more difficult. He glanced around, the bark on the trees rougher than before and the sudden leaf covering confirmed they were heading into a batch of evergreens.
“We’re here.” Rick stepped through a line of trees and disappeared.
Mal followed. Rick stood in the centre of a clearing. The moon flooded the area even though the sun hadn’t quite set, casting a strange light. Mal turned slowly, taking in his surroundings. The axe made sense now. He was staring at a dense stand of Christmas trees.
“Pick one.” Rick gestured to the trees.
“We’re stealing a Christmas tree?”
“Stealing is quite a harsh term. No one lives here anymore. The trees need thinning out or the whole lot of them will die out.”
“So you help yourself to one.”
“Originally someone would come from the estate to share the trees around the village but it seemed to have been forgotten over time. My dad used to do it with Nigel’s dad, they’d bring us to help carry the trees back to the gate and we’d load them on the tractor and distribute them around the village. I don’t have time for that, and loads of people have fake trees now, so I only clear four trees.”
“One for you and Nigel. Where do the other two go?”
“You’ve seen them both. One’s in the coffee shop. And the other is on the village green.”
“The village tree? We went to the lighting up ceremony of a stolen tree. Does everyone know?” Surely the village Christmas committee weren’t aware of this.
“Where do you think it came from?”
“The Christmas tree farm that appeared just off the bypass on the last week of November.”
Rick laughed. “Those trees are crap. These trees were planted for the village. You’ll have to ask Raleigh the details of the story. But they were planted at some time in the Victorian era, and every year the largest tree was felled by the gardener of the big house and taken by cart down to the village green where the Lord at the time would present it to the villagers. He’d bring roasted meats, and toffee apples for the kids, and mulled cider and he’d help the villagers decorate the tree. That became the basis for the lighting up ceremony.”
“I wondered about the toffee apples,” Mal said. “So the trees belong to the village. And you’re a villager.”
“And you are too, aren’t you?”
“I hope so.” Mal meant that. He really loved living in Slopy Bottom. “Do you still pick the largest tree?” Mal frowned. “When did you come and get that tree?”
Rick wandered to a stump just at the edge of the clearing. The wood looked freshly chopped. “I do. The biggest I can easily get to anyway. You were at work. Smudge, Adam, Trevor, and a couple of the other lads from the cricket team came to help me.”
“Trevor? But he’s police.”
“They belong to the village,” Rick said softly but insistent. “Now would you pick our tree.”
Rick wandered off into the trees. Mal watched for a moment, the way his boyfriend laid a careful hand on the bark of nearest tree, paused, nodded and then moved on. He let himself be lulled by the tempo of Rick’s movements, until he lost sight of Rick completely.
The dull rhythmic thud that followed reminded Mal that Rick had given him a job to do. An important job. This tree would stand in their lounge, would hold the carefully wrapped decorations that Rick had carried down from the loft. Their first Christmas together. The first of many. What made a good tree? Mal reached out and placed a hand on the nearest trunk. The bark scuffed his palm, but apart from that he could feel nothing. What had Rick been doing?
He moved on to the next tree. It looked promising, the branches a wide sweep of dense needles, but still with enough spread to get his hand to the trunk. Perfect for showing off the decorations. The bark beneath his palm trembled as though the tree was alive.
I’m a tree whisperer.
The trunk shook, something skittered over Mal’s hand, and a dark shape pounced out of the branches and scampered off across the clearing. Mal squealed, his heart pounding in his chest.
“Everything okay?” Rick hurried through the trees. “You screamed.”
“I didn’t scream. I yelped.”
“Squealed.” Rick grinned, his worry apparently dissipating as he realised Mal was unharmed.
“A manly squeal.” Mal protested.
“Oh, definitely. Not rodent like at all, my city mouse.” Sweat beaded on Rick’s brow and caught like diamonds in the golden hairs that were scattered throughout his beard.
“You haven’t called me that in a while.”
“You’ve not reacted that badly to anything countrified for months.” Rick brushed the wayward fringe back from Mal’s face. He smelt of sweat and the forest, a woodsy, musky scent that Mal would gladly bottle and take with him everywhere. “What spooked you?”
“I found our tree.” Mal gestured to the conifer in question. Rick glanced over and nodded approvingly. “But I was feeling the trunk like you do and something ran over my hand, then leapt out at me. Frightened me half to death.”
“Squirrel.” Rick tugged Mal into a hug, slipped his hand, which had been lingering in Mal’s hair, into the thick waves and massaged his scalp. “Nothing to be scared of.”
“Your heart’s going wild.”
“That’d be my hot lumberjack boyfriend, pressing his sweaty body against me.”
Rick hummed in agreement and hugged him tighter.
“We have loads of ninja squirrels in London. Wasn’t a squirrel,” Mal said after letting the caress carry on a few moments longer. “Too small. Wrong colour.”
Rick’s hand stilled from stroking Mal’s hair, then he eased back. His eyes shone with excitement. “Fluffy tail? Rusty colour? Tufty ears?”
“Maaaybeee,” Mal stretched out the word, not wanting to commit to what Rick obviously wanted to hear. “It’s getting dark and that critter was fast.”
“But it could’ve been a red squirrel?”
Rick let go of him, stepped away, and peered at the tree in question—their perfect tree. “This one? Shame, it’s a nice tree, would look great in the parlour, but we can’t take it. Not if it’s a red squirrel nesting area, or even a run through. I’ll come back tomorrow. Set up some cameras.”
“Cameras?” Mal asked because he knew it’d be expected of him, but he couldn’t shake his disappointment. They couldn’t have their tree, the one he’d picked out himself.
“I’ll need proof if I want to get the preservation society out here. Hey,” Rick stepped back into Mal, wrapped both arms around his waist, “we’ll pick out another tree. And while it might not be as perfect as the one you chose, we’ll have picked it out together.”
“Together. And that sounds like a perfect symbol for our first Christmas of many. A new tradition.” Mal agreed, settling their hips together. He rocked into Rick, relished the hitch in Rick’s breathing the move elicited. After all, they were already breaking and entering, why not add something raunchier to the list of charges. He reeled Rick in for a filthy kiss, worked a hand up under his flannel shirt, and long-sleeve Tee, resting his palm on the downy dip at the small of Rick’s back, and savouring the heat he found there.
“Jesus Christ! Do you two need to shag every time you’re alone? Where’s my tree?”
* * * * *
“It’s gorgeous.” Mal slipped his arms around Rick’s waist and, resting his chin on Rick’s shoulder, contemplated their tree. The branches weren’t as equally spaced as on the first tree he’d found and the top listed slightly to the left, but covered in Rick’s family collection of ancient and modern glass decorations, and with the light from the multi-coloured fairy lights twinkling off the myriad of reflective surfaces, all the tree’s tiny imperfections disappeared.
“Worth breaking the law for?”
Rick laughed and craned his head back, pressing a kiss to Mal’s neck when he found skin. “How far did you intend to take things? If Nigel hadn’t turned up for his tree?”
“All the way, Dholna.” He turned to capture Rick’s lips, keeping things chaste for the moment. “That’s not the first time Nigel’s caught us out. I’m beginning to think he likes watching.”
“He’s—” Rick cut himself off. “No. I was about to say he’s not gay, but I’ve made that assumption incorrectly once or twice already. He must be lonely, though. He dated Martha Tilsbury back when I was fifteen, but I don’t recall anyone since. Maybe we could ask him over on Boxing Day, once he’s finished with the cows.”
“Sounds like a plan, one more won’t make a difference since Smudge and Raleigh are coming. But for now,” Mal nuzzled Rick’s neck, “can we finish what I started before Nigel interrupted?”
“Hmm. Oh, no!” Rick pulled away and hurried over to the sideboard. He opened a drawer and shifted a few papers.
Then he returned to Mal with sheepish expression, and held out a small parcel wrapped in tissue paper. “I hope this is okay. Not disrespectful or anything. But your religion is important to you and I wanted it to be a part of our Christmas.”
Curious after that little speech, Mal carefully peeled back the wrapping, the metallic green surface catching the light. Nestled in the tissue paper was a disc, carefully cut to show a relief of the crescent moon and a star.
“Inner and outer light,” Mal muttered, the words hard to force out past the lump in his throat.
“Is it alright?” Rick asked. “I got the symbolism right, didn’t I? Love and strength?”
Mal nodded. The threat of tears stopped him from speaking.
“That’s what you are to me.” Rick stepped up, slipped one arm around Mal’s waist. With his free hand, he reached up and swiped at Mal’s cheek. Dampness smeared across his face. “Your love gives me the strength to be myself. Now, let’s hang this on the tree, then you can take me out into the garden and finish what you started in the forest.”
Allah be praised, he loved this man.