“Phoenix” Yuletide story for your pleasure! Yep, free.

Hi there, friends!

I got this lovely review of a MM paranormal I wrote, which came with a free Yuletide story. However, I haven’t published the story anywhere, I just gave it away on my newsletter, so it’s hard for Rainbow book reviews, who reviewed it here, add a download link.

But hey, Merry Christmas! Here you go, the story is here in full, below. I’ll publish it as short sometime next week, but now you can read it for free. This won’t be part of the book, because the book is in KU and I want to be able to offer this story as a freebie whenever I want. It will be available for $2.99 in stores, wide, as soon as I have a cover.



KATE PAVELLE – the real me. My blog, crime fiction, historicals, and memoirs.

For now, take  a brief break from your frantic holiday celebrations, and enjoy this Olivette Devaux title!

*****

PHOENIX – Yuletide short story

 

THE office of Cooper Annenveinen, Architect, occupied a room in a small-business cooperative on the North Side of Pittsburgh. The place used to be a small warehouse, and was supervised by the Corps of Retired Executives Of America, a non-profit organization of knowledgeable geezers who were too old to work an eighty-hour week, and too virile to play Sudoku all day long. It smelled of toner and paper dust, and the lunch lounge reeked of burned coffee and donated Christmas cookies.

Cooper ignored the tempting sugar over load, leaned back in his mesh chair, and peered at his center screen to perform one last, final check. The three-dimensional network of lines and shapes represented a remodeled strip mall. He had done stand-alone building remodels, and he’d done new construction of adjoined commercial spaces. Working with a preexisting structures still pushed his limits in a new direction, one that didn’t allow him to rely on his earth-sense quite so much.

He’d done the usual structural checks, of course. He had spent a whole weekend in the old mall, walking through its cavernous spaces with his senses extended, leaning his hands and forehead against the old, concrete-block walls and feeling the solid resistance the structural walls and pillars put up against the force that was exerted upon them by the second floor. He’d spent hours lying down on the concrete pad, stretched out like a starfish as he coaxed his mind into that meditative state he’d learned from Ash.

He did find two cracks in the foundation and a weakness in one of the supports, and he dropped a hint to the structural engineer, who then substantiated Cooper’s earth-sense by acquiring the same information using a rented LIDAR and other bits of impressive equipment.

And when he came home all chilled, stiff-muscled, and depleted, Ash had guided him through the orchard of dormant fruit trees and right into their hot tub in the back of the garden, and massaged his shoulders. Then he fed him dinner, and tucked him in for solid twelve hours of sleep.

Overusing his earth-sense still depleted him. He’d discovered it only two years ago, the same day Ash had become his client, and he still needed to practice the basics. Ash was happy to guide him along his path. In this, the two of them were a natural pair.

As Cooper saved his project and sent the file to the 3-D printer, he didn’t fret over the project at hand. He knew it would print well. The model would be sublime, he’d color the white plastic and breathe life into it. The client would sign on it and tell him to forward the blueprints, both paper and electronic, to the contractor.

The client would be impressed.

Cooper didn’t worry about impressing his clients – that happened naturally. What he fretted about was Christmas and Yule and the Solstice that was upcoming. He didn’t have a gift that would please and impress Ash, and Cooper cared very much about being a natural pair in every possible way.

 

SOME would call Ash Ravenna an environmental consultant. Others called him an activist. None of his regular clients knew he detected pollutants by asking the river, and by now, Ash knew better than dipping his hand into the icy water and predicting a massive ice dam event with disastrous flooding two weeks in the future.

Nobody had believed him all those years ago. After it happened, they had avoided him. But then again, he’d been only seventeen. He knew better now.

Ash finished emptying the dishwasher, put up a load of laundry, and returned to his computer. He wasn’t working on the waterfront restoration project, nor was he analyzing the fracking pollutants in well water. Ash was shopping, looking for something just right for Cooper.

Not too extravagant – Cooper didn’t care for material things, and when Ash had given him an antique Japanese katana to use in their practice, he’d been blown away for weeks.

Not too trivial – Ash had lived in the house he’d designed for Cooper for over a year now, and Ash hoped he would stay forever. But it wasn’t a proposal, exactly, because Ash knew, in the depth of his heart, that they would have to arrive to that juncture together. Living in a house by the Allegheny River meant actually using the river, and Cooper, being an earth-senser, didn’t feel water very well. It wasn’t dangerous to him, not like to the fire-born Sigmund. But he wasn’t safe.

Ash wanted to keep him safe.

Cooper didn’t know how to swim. Oh, he flailed around and floated, but his aptitude was that of an average person. He’d never stay underwater for half an hour with Ash, that was clear, but he could at least learn the basic techniques that would allow him to traverse distance in a safe manner.

They could go boating, or paddle-boarding, and Ash wouldn’t have to fear that Cooper would fall in and sink like the rock that he so keenly understood.

 

SIGMUND Harte was a PI. He worked from his apartment in Lawrenceville, tracing skips and snooping on cheating spouses, but his biggest strength was analyzing the sites of suspected arson. This was, mostly, because he had the capability of causing a conflagration with a mere wave of his hand.

Sig was fire-born.

That made him dangerous. He could never let go of his hard-earned control, never and with no one – not unless he was with Cooper and Ash, who’d figured out how to keep him from lighting their bed on fire. More than once, when they were in a tight embrace and his desire had crested, Ash had to do whatever he did to put him out, and then they’d end up sleeping on the dry floor, or in the guest room.

Their amorous encounters gave the term “singed sheets” a new meaning, and Sig’s discretionary income was now diverted into buying Ash and Cooper a new set every so often.

They weren’t a permanent threesome. He knew that. All good things had to come to an end, but while he and his friends shared more than just beer and pizza, Sig thought tried to come up with a gift for them. A true, wonderful holiday present they could all enjoy.

Nothing too over the top, but not anything they could buy in a big box store, either.

Ash was more of a Yule guy, with his pagan spirituality and meditation, and Cooper happily joined in. Cooper’s idea of Christmas had more to do with Scandinavian cookies and coffee than with church, or Santa Claus.

And, just like that, Sig smiled and nodded. He wasn’t a fire-born for nothing.

 

DECEMBER 21st came with a blustery snowstorm. Ash surveyed the goose in the refrigerator. That, and the trimmings, were for the next day. Today was just for tea and grass juice, and water. A holy day was a day of a cleansing fast, because only a properly prepared body freed the mind and the spirit to fly free upon the swirls and eddies of elemental energies.

This was the solstice. The tide was turning, the light was coming back. The river that flowed just few hundred feet away from his door would waken from its frigid slumber and teem with life once again, and then he’d go out with Cooper and Sig, and they would enjoy its soft waters.

The rituals were new to the guys. Ash wasn’t going to force anyone do anything, but he sure hoped Cooper didn’t yield to hunger, just to pick up something in a drive-through. He had even less claim on Sigmund, but the fire-born’s motivation to control his internal inferno was driven by the safety of others.

Sig would succeed.

Cooper prepared another glass of hot water with a slice of lemon when the doorbell rang, and Hank, one of his men on duty, answered it.

“Happy Solstice,” Sigmund said in lieu of greeting. He dropped a black duffle bag on the floor. It landed with a thud and a metallic chink, and didn’t feel like the bag of clothes Sig had always brought before.

“What’s that?” Ash couldn’t resist asking.

“Your gift. Yours, and Cooper’s.” Sig flashed an enigmatic smile. “Don’t look so concerned. It’s perfectly safe.” He peeked into the spacious living room with its fireplace and low, white leather seating. “Where’s Cooper?”

“That I can’t tell you,” Ash said. “All I can do is trust him to do the right thing.”

“Burger King?” Sig asked with humor in his voice.

“Heaven forefend.”

 

COOPER was across the river, which was the only way to escape Ash’s detection. A Yuletide gift was supposed to be a surprise, and Cooper still didn’t know the full extend of his lover’s abilities.

Sometimes, it was as though Ash could read his mind.

After a good bit of online browsing, store shopping, and soul-searching, Cooper kept returning to the excitement Ash had displayed over his garden. The flowers, the rare secrecy of the hidden garden wall – and, most especially, the spring blossoms of the fruit trees.

A gift that would stay for a few weeks. One that would change, and grow, and fuel Ash’s gardening passion without the need to break the ground.

Yet, one that wouldn’t add to their barely manageable collection of indoor plants.

Cooper extended his earth-sense, scanning the hillside above the river. He was further upstream now, in one of those little towns where abandoned houses at the end of streets melted back into nature.

Overgrown houses had equally overgrown gardens. Gardens of roses and wild grapes – and fruit trees. Because Ash would’ve killed him if he snipped so much as a twig off one of the carefully selected and pruned trees in his beloved garden.

Up there, behind that condemned, ramshackle house, the rocky soil was anchored by the gnarly roots of a quince. Cooper sensed it as clearly as eating quince jelly – sweet and mildly astringent in the back of his mind, and… pretty.

Ash liked pretty, and few things were as rare and precious as tree blossoms in midwinter. He patted the pocket of his jeans, making sure he had his folding knife.

Then he followed the feeling of mild sweetness into the thick growth up the hill.

 

THE doorbell didn’t ring this time, but Hank hummed a low greeting and Ash heard Cooper answer him in turn. He sounded happy, and secretive, and he detoured to putter around in the basement for a little while.

“He’s got to wrap it, whatever it is,” Sig said over his mug of mint tea. His stomach growled audibly, and Ash flashed him an understanding smile.

They sat opposite each other on the white leather sofas, flanking the unlit fireplace, waiting. Listening.

“He’s like a little kid sometimes,” Sig said, as though is insight was something new and unusual.

Ash nodded. “I know.”

“But in a good way,” Sig said with a fond smile, which now extended to include Ash as well. A curious warmth spread through Ash’s belly, his chest. They had, somehow, acquired a third. A third man to love, a third man to rely on, a third man to care for.

Their eyes met, and Ash knew his cheeks were now painted with an involuntary blush just as surely as his pants got a bit too tight. When Sig leaned forward, as though to abandon his chaste perch on the other side of the fireplace and sit next to him, Ash shook his head. “We’ll wait for Cooper.”

Unabashed, Sig nodded, and leaned back again. A small, satisfied smile played around his usually serious lips, as though the evidence of Ash’s desire for him was some kind of a personal victory.

Cooper didn’t need victories. That’s why, even though Ash loved Sig, he still loved Cooper more.

 

THE old bean crock was one of Cooper’s beloved flea market finds. His earth-sense told him it was no good for baking beans in the oven anymore, as it would crack, but the dark brown, ceramic vessel was watertight, and was perfectly suited to his purpose.

He snipped a branch shorter and wedged it in, using the crooked side branches to make it stand upright. Then another, and another forming an intricate network of bare, dormant twigs which would blossom within three week’s time.

Just when the winter would get truly cold.

Just so Ash would have the lovely, pale quince blossoms to brighten his day.

Cooper assessed his effort with a great deal of excitement, cleaned up the tools and the trimmings, and took his creation up the stairs. He kicked his sneakers off in the kitchen and proceeded down the hall, upon which he entered the living room with a sunken seating area and a fireplace that was, to his surprise, not lit yet. The westering sun, visible through the wide expanses of glass, was ready to dip over the horizon, bathing the room in a pale, yellow glow of the shortest day of the year.

“You weren’t waiting for me, were you?” he asked, peering through the thicket in his hands.

“We were,” Ash said amiably. “And now, perhaps you can join us and tell us what you’ve been up to?”

 

ASH struggled not to narrow his eyes in disapproval. What fruit tree did Cooper molest? Were those cut apple branches? No… not quite. “What is that, Coop?”

“You’ll see,” Cooper said, and set the crock on the irregular cut of polished wood that served as a coffee table. He navigated over to Ash, leaned in toward him, and said, “I brought you quince branches from a wild place across the river. They bloom red come spring, but when they’re forced during the winter, their petals are a pale pink.” He leaned in and brushed his lips against his cheek. “Happy Solstice, beloved.”

Ash melted. No, his prized fruit trees stood whole and unmolested. Not only that, but Cooper had gone out and found a new thing, precious and wild, and he did it just so he could enjoy spring blossoms when snow covered the ground, and when the frigid winter blew up the river and whistled around the eaves of their house.

It pleased Ash to have a little secret of his own – but he’d reveal that at midnight. For now, he pulled Cooper down and met his lips with his own. Their kiss was sweet and heartfelt, with a promise of more to come later.

When he shook off Cooper’s intoxicating spell, he saw Sig’s wistful smile immediately. It tugged at his heart. “Come join us,” Ash said. “Ash and I have something special for just for you.”

Cooper chuckled into his hair, then settled and reached for Sig, making a space.

And Sig came, hesitant at first, as always. Worried that his presence would break them up, which was, of course, impossible. Still yearning for David, who didn’t return his feelings, yet still taking solace in their threesome embrace.

Sig settled between them, with Ash on his right and Cooper on his left. Ash reached behind the sofa and pulled out a black shopping bag with yellow and red flames on it. “We thought the design was appropriate,” he said demurely. “Considering your history of accidental fires.”

“Guys!” Sig’s exasperation was real. “I’m working on it.” He hefted the bag. “Hmm… heavy. May I look?”

“Sure,” Ash and Cooper said in unison. Then they smiled at each other.

Sigmund fished through yellow and red tissue paper.

“What’s this for?” His voice was full of wonder, and curiosity.

“A meditation pillow. You know, like for zen, but… um, in your case, it’s fire proof.” Cooper sounded very pleased with himself. And no wonder, it had been his idea. A pillow made of fire-resistant fabric instead of cotton, filled with gravel instead of barley husks. “That way, when you practice, you won’t have to worry you’ll put your chair on fire!”

Sig laughed. “That’s brilliant.” He turned to Cooper, then to Ash, trading kisses. “I’ll put it to use when the sun goes down. You’ll see!”

 

THE living room was immersed in darkness when Ash proclaimed it was time. “I’ll do it. May I do it? I told you I practiced.”

“And you can sit on your pillow,” Cooper said, all serious. Trusting Sig to make fire inside their house was taking an unprecedented risk.

He knew it, and doing their trust honor, he positioned his pillow by the fireplace and settled into a comfortable half-lotus position.

The swirling orb of flames that was Sig’s center coalesced into a bright, intense star. It took but few seconds, not half an hour like it used to. He felt fire coursing through his veins, flames licking under his skin, fighting to get out. Not on top of it, though. Not this shirt – he wasn’t going to char his favorite flannel plaid off his body.

Sigmund Hart aimed his open hand at the fireplace.

Nothing happened.

Then, with a bang, the Yule log sprang to life. Shrapnel of glowing ambers hit the inner walls of the fireplace. Two flew out on the carpet with an angry hiss, singing the wool beige wool carpet.

Cooper dove for them, picked them up as calmly as though they were pieces of charred bread, and tossed them back into the fireplace.

The silence in the room was underscored by the popping of burning wood in the fireplace. Orange and yellow flames danced, casting flickers of light into the room.

“I’m sorry,” Sig said just as Ash said, “That was stunning.”

Cooper burst out laughing. “Well done! I didn’t know you could do that and, you know, not end up half naked and rolling on the floor!”

Sigmund stood up from his fireproof meditation pillow like a cat whose tail got stepped on. “I’ll have you know I’ve been working very hard.”

“You have,” Ash interjected. “You have, and it shows.” He got up from his sofa and pulled Sigmund into a soft embrace. “Thank you,” he whispered, loud, yet intimate. “Thank you for using your gift to light the fire that will see us till morning.”

Sig sighed as Ash’s lips fluttered against his closed eyes. His kisses were soothing like warm water, refreshing like summer rain. Ash was magic incarnate, and it had nothing to do with the fine control of his element. No, it was a quality most people lacked, an inner strength that made Sig willing to follow Ash into any fray regardless of their odds.

Lips met lips, tongues slid in a comfortable dance of mutual exploration, and when they broke for air, Sig had a soft, content smile on his face. “Did I really do good?” he asked.

“You did,” Ash said. “You energized quickly, you projected in a direction you chose. You hit your target square-on.” He nudged Sig’s nose with his own. “Turning down the volume might help next time.”

“I did.”

“Wow.” Cooper stood up to join them. “If that was you holding back, I’d love to see what you can do when you cut loose!”

Despite the pleasant, familiar heat of two bodies pressing against him, Ash shivered. “No, you don’t,” he said. “That’s the whole problem, Cooper. You just don’t get it – I can’t allow to relax.”

 

ASH declared that they had honored the ancient Gods by lighting the Yule log the right way, and thus, their fast was over. He and Cooper brought out two bottles of red wine, dried fruit, and a corned venison roast they had prepared the day before, and that was ready to slice into delectable, pink sheets of sheer goodness.

There was no bread – just the fruits of the garden and the forest on a day such as the Solstice, but both went well with the wine. Ash poured out, then they raised their glasses in a toast.

“To a new year full of health and love. To our powers growing into useful fullness, and to us making this world a better place!” They clinked glasses and drank, after which Ash poured a bit of wine into the fireplace as a token sacrifice.

It wasn’t nearly as formal as he’d been taught, but he had come to believe that the Gods weren’t all that particular.

A bottle and a half later, the Yule log was half gone, and Ash had felt a curious draw toward the branches that rose out of the old stoneware jar like a primeval forest.

He turned to Cooper. “So when will these bloom, again?”

“In three weeks or so.” Cooper stirred self-consciously. “I thought you’d enjoy watching them get around to it.”

Normally he would, but Sig’s stunt set a certain tone to their Solstice gathering. “I have a thought,” he said. “It may work, but then again, it may not, but I’ll need your help either way.” He got up, moved the remnants of food and drink off the table, and pushed the jar with branches to the edge by the fireplace.

“Sig,” he addressed the fire-born, who was presently curled up against Cooper like a sleepy cat. “I need you to sit on your pillow.”

“Come on, Boss,” Sig said with a yawn. “I’ve been drinking. You can’t expect me to have any control right now!”

“I want you and Cooper to meditate,” Ash said evenly. “Hold hands, put your other hands onto my shoulders. Just… just think of power, nice and easy.”

They did as he asked, and after a while, only the occasional pop of the fire broke the silence.

Slowly, power began to stir at Ash’s center, stir and flow like a lazy lake that suddenly decided to be a river. And like tributaries, power flowed along his meridians and up and down his limbs. He was a waterway and his element coursed through him, singing with joy.

To his left, Sigmund’s hand warmed his shoulder with more than just body heat. “Let it flow, but slowly, Sig,” Ash whispered.

His water warmed up, flowing like a warm spring from his shoulder to his core, and out his hands.

He felt a stirring inside the cool, earthenware jar, and eased off a bit. Too much – too much too soon – he needed an anchor, a solid rock…

“Cooper,” he said, rolling his partner’s name in his mouth like water-smoothed pebble. “Let it flow, but gently… just a little… oooh.”

Ash would’ve been hard pressed to describe Cooper’s energy. He was the Earth, hard and soft, solid and giving, generous and … round? Grit of silt and scent of clay came to mind, the roughness of sandstone and the pure, enticing beauty of clear crystals that sparkled in the light of a Yule log that had been lit by the nascent power of a fire-born.

He felt it, earth and fire and water combining within his body and flowing out the center of his palms.

Into the smooth, cool glaze of a pot that held wildcrafted quince branches, and…

he breathed

and breathed

and breathed some more

until he breathed life into the pot, thorough his hands, and in the darkness of the longest night of the year, illuminated by the fireplace, he saw the tiny buds on the twigs and braches swell, and green – and grow from within until the first one of them burst open. Pale leaves began to unfurl, slowly, like a time-lapse photograph. Barely pink, almost white –

“Enough,” Ash gasped and yanked his hands away from the pot. “That’s enough. If we give it any more, the blooms will fall off and die.”

“Wow,” Cooper said. “I never figured…”

“You combined our elements,” Sig said with wonder in his voice. “You combined them, and it accelerated the natural way of things. Like… like healing.”

“Or like dying.” Ash said the words in a sober tone. “Let’s not talk about this to the others, shall we?”

He saw Cooper shudder, then square his shoulders, and smile. “You got your flowers early, my love,” he said. “But what have you got for me?”

 

SIG nodded with approval when Cooper changed the tone of their entirely too somber conversation. Yes, Ash was right. This was serious, and had to be studied, and had to be held as a close secret among the three of them.

Yet an element was missing. Air. And David, the man who held Sig’s heart captive, was a wind-master. How much of a difference would the addition of air have made to their amazing experiment?

Maybe he’d never know.

Meanwhile, he tuned back in to what Ash was saying to Cooper… and was Cooper objecting to a Yuletide gift?

“… to keep you safe.” Ash finished with resolve.

Cooper held the silicone swim cap and racing goggles in his hand like a dead fish. In his other hand, he held a card. A gift certificate. “But swimming? I can’t even feel the water, Ash! I’ll sink like a rock!”

Ash softened his firm resolve into a beseeching look. “Which is why I want you to try.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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