(advent) Monday, December 17

Monday had dawned gloriously clear and very, very cold. So cold that it felt like she was inhaling shards of ice instead of air when Molly stepped out of the warm kitchen, and even Schrodinger bounded directly to the Jeep rather than exploring around. He still refused to wear the woolen boots that her mother had knit him, but Molly realized how very few steps it took him to get to the Jeep.

The cold persisted all day, and Molly refilled tea pots, not just cups, in between building the last few gingerbread houses she had. Thursday, the first day of winter break, was the day she planned to deliver them. Hopefully the deep freeze would break by then.

“I don’t mind cold,” she said to Lai, who had stopped in for lunch. “But this is ridiculous. I don’t want to keep the kids out in the cold in this weather.”

“Isn’t Old Man Winter going to help you?” Lai said, sipping from the mug in her hands.

“I think so. He’s been out doing something else for the past week, but he adores it,” Molly said.

“Maybe that’s why it’s cold? Because he’s been in the Cove?”

Molly pondered that. “No one’s seen him, though,” she said finally. “And it’s not like he’s not recognizable.”

“Not necessarily,” Lai said. “He’s the personification of Winter, isn’t he? He can probably pass completely unnoticed if he wanted to.”

Molly had to concede the point. “But why?” she said. “Why would he be sneaking around the Cove?”

Lai turned and looked at the Advent calendar. “Maybe he’s still looking to see who took that?”

<><>

Old Man Winter was, in fact, in the Cove, but not to find out about who had taken the Advent calendar. Jade and Jack had decided that trying to find the culprit was a waste of time, especially as the Snow Queen’s Ball was approaching. Left to his own devices, Old Man Winter had decided to see what else was going on.

He’d toyed with the idea of looking Pavel up, and taking the pirate out for a night of drinking, but when he’d stopped by his house, Brynna told him that Pavel had headed out on a short sail, and wouldn’t be back for a few days. She’d offered him a hot toddy, but he’d declined politely.

The children were still in school, and he decided against going and taking them on an adventure. While they would be thrilled, their parents would not be. And he didn’t feel like tea, or coffee. So he found himself wandering through the streets, invisible, just soaking up the feelings in the town. Ever since Molly had freed him from the Eidolon who had taken him over, he’d realized how much he liked Carter’s Cove. It was a town that you could be yourself in, no matter who yourself really was. They were accepting like that.

Which is why the older man standing in the middle of the street and glowering at a new building was enough to halt his progress. And as Old Man Winter looked closer at him, he realized something else.

The man stared angrily – no, not angrily, Old Man Winter corrected himself. Hungrily. As if the shop held something he wanted so much that he would take the building apart at the seams to get it.

He turned his attention from the man to the building. It was a large stone building, looking slightly like a barn and a business had had a child, and there was no sign on it yet. There was a spot for one, though. The building itself was shuttered up, but there was smoke coming from one of the chimneys. Forgetting the man, Old Man Winter walked forward, fully intending to go through the wall and snoop a bit. For him, it was normal.

Which is why when he hit the stone wall and bounced backwards onto his behind, he was more startled than hurt.

The front door opened while he was still sitting in the snowbank, and someone he hadn’t seen in a very long time came out. Kris put her hands on her ample hips and glared down at him.

“Sure, and what are you doing here?” she demanded, obviously able to see him, even though he hadn’t take off his invisibility. “I’ve no time for your foolishness, Old Man.”

He let the glamour drop. “Just passing through,” he said, getting up slowly. “I’d no idea you’d come to the Cove.” Old Man Winter held out his hand. “You staying?”

Kris looked at him suspiciously. “What is it to you?”

“I’m not the same as the last time you saw me, Kris,” Old Man Winter said, knowing full well where her hostility came from. “I promise you.”

“Promises from you are worth less than the ice on your beard,” she retorted. “Especially as you just tried to invade my new home.”

“That was a mistake,” he admitted. “I didn’t realize it was yours. I just wanted to see who had moved in.”

“You haven’t claimed this town,” she said, but he could hear curiosity as well as anger in her voice. “This is neutral territory.”

“Yes,” he said. “I just got used to be one of the few beings who could wander where I wanted here. It’s a bad habit.” He smiled. “Can I come in?”

She glowered a bit more, but then she relented. “Might as well,” she said, gesturing him through the door. “I don’t want to have this conversation in the street.”

<><>

“Molly, it’s so cold out!” Kaylee said, as the children piled into the kitchen. “We need to warm up!”

“I’ve got plenty of cocoa and tea for you!” Molly promised. “And hot sandwiches!” She’d made more cranberry walnut bread earlier in the day, and when she’d heard Jack and Aurora barking, she’d put ham and cheese between the slices of bread and toasted them in the oven. Now, she set out the sandwiches on a big plate and put it on the island, then she put out the tea and cocoa.

Once they were fed and warm, they clustered around the Advent calendar. The little cat was waiting for them in the music room, where he’d been the day before, listening to records on the old gramaphone. Now, he jumped down from the sofa and padded out into a small room with easy chairs around a large, low table. There was a tea service gleaming silver on the wood, with holly berries and ivy leaves on the tray. There were little cakes that had sugared berries and leaves sculpted out of marzipan or fondant, Molly wasn’t sure which. There was a window behind everything that looked out to a tree dripping with bird feeders.

“Wow, that looks like a fun place!” Zoey said wistfully. “I wish we could go in.”

The little cat jumped into a chair and then leaned out and nosed the top of the teapot off. The white smoke puffed up and formed the words “It’s not just Christmas for you.”

“What does that mean?” Kaylee asked, looking at her companions.

They all shrugged, confused. Then the smoke drifted out to them and wound around them, a silvery snake that became a thin thread, laying across their hands.

“What are we supposed to do with thread?” Lily said, puzzled, as she started to wind it back up from the spool she’d discovered in her hand. “Did the Advent calendar break?”

The little cat shook his head, as if he was astounded that they didn’t understand. He turned and hooked his tail through the teapot’s handle, lifted it up, and went to the window. He nosed up one of the window panes, and poured the contents of the pot into the snow. Birds flocked down to peck at popcorn kernels that had come from the teapot.

“Oh, I get it! We’re going to make popcorn strings for the birds!” Lily and Kaylee said at the same time. “Molly, do you have cranberries too?”

“Of course I do,” she said, pulling a large bowl of cranberries from the pantry. She handed it to Zoey, and then pulled a big bag of fluffy popcorn. “And if you guys want to go near the wood stove to string these, Peter is coming from the Humane Society to put them on the trees near some of the farms. So make as many as you want!”

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