Posts Tagged ‘writing’

(advent) And we are caught up!

Finally!  Now I just need to make sure I STAY caught up!

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“I thought I was going to die,” Molly admitted, as she set gumdrops into the frosted wreath in front of her. The island was stacked high with mini gingerbread leaves – she’d decided she was bored with gingerbread men, and she didn’t have any more houses that she could make at the moment. So she was experimenting with wreaths and gumdrops. “I honestly thought he was either going to holler at her, or walk away completely.”

“As if anyone could holler at Lily,” Sue said, stealing a gumdrop from the bowl. “She’s too adorable.”

“Oh, she’s been hollered at a few times,” Molly said, admiring the effect of the red gumdrops. “But not this time, luckily. He was really good to her.” She picked up her piping bag and began to create a red bow on the bottom left-hand part of the wreath. “So, what did you find out?”

Sue had dropped by on her lunch break to bring Molly the information on Old Man Winter she’d found. The folder wasn’t very thick.

“Not a lot,” Sue said. “There’s a couple of old diary entries I made copies of for you – one is from Captain Carter’s journal, so Old Man Winter has been here before. Not recently, though. I think the newest reference to him I found was in the 1800s.”

“So it’s been a while.” Molly finished the bow and laid the wreath aside to let the icing set. “Anything else?”

“Yeah, there was a neat treatise that one of the managers of the Gate Station did in the early 1920s about Old Man Winter and where he might have come from.” Sue pulled out the papers in question and handed them to Molly. “He seems to have been a bit of a theoretical anthropologist, and he did some traveling, interviewing various people about what he called the ‘Old Man Winter myth’ – he apparently never met him in person, and was dubious about whether he existed.”

“Really?”

Sue nodded. “You can read it – it’s pretty interesting. He ended up concluding that if Old Man Winter did exist, he was somehow related to the Snow Queen.”

“Huh.” Molly flipped through the pages. “Interesting.”

“Yep.” Sue put the folder down in a clear spot, and then snagged one of the unfrosted gingerbread leaves. “And now, I need to go grab my Chinese takeout for lunch, and head back to the mines. I’ll let you know if I find out anything else!”

“Thanks,” Molly said, already sinking onto her stool and reading. “See you.”

She didn’t move much over the next hour, except to reach for her tea cup occasionally. The stories about Old Man Winter were varied, and to her surprise, there were as many about his kindness and help as there were about his wolves and his vengeance. After she finished, Molly stared off into space for a bit, wondering what she could do with this information. She’d hoped it would help her understand the man a bit more, but all it did was raise more questions.

In the end, it was the growling of her stomach that moved her. She had barely heard Sue’s last comment, but the idea of Chinese food was a wonderful one. Molly grabbed her coat and her wallet and went out into the tea room, where Schrodinger was asleep beside the wood stove.

“Hey, Schrodinger, Chinese food?” she asked, kneeling down next to him.

One eyelid cracked open. Do I have to move? I’m warm. And comfy.

Molly laughed at the plaintive question. “Not if you aren’t hungry. Want me to bring you some beef and broccoli?”

Sounds wonderful. His eye closed again and Schrodinger heaved a great sigh of comfort.

She stopped at the front desk to see if her aunt or the other cashier wanted anything – they both said no, so Molly stepped out into the chill air and headed for the Lucky Garden Chinese food restaurant, enjoying being on her own for once.

Not for long, however. As she was striding along, Father Christopher fell in beside her. “I thought it was a Wednesday,” he said. “Aren’t you supposed to be at work?”

“Late lunch break,” Molly said, grinning at him. “I had a hankering for Peking ravioli. You?”

“Stretching my legs,” he said. “But now that you mention it, I believe there may be an egg drop soup calling my name.”

Molly noted the bag over his shoulder but didn’t ask. Before long, they were ensconced in a little booth in Carter Cove’s only Chinese food restaurant, with steaming cups of green tea in front of them.

“I hear you’ve been busy,” Father Christopher said, sipping his tea.

“You mean Old Man Winter.” Molly decided to cut to the chase. “I’m not going to sit around and wait for Drew to come home, Father. You know me better than that.”

“I do.” He nodded. “But you know I have to caution you. Old Man Winter isn’t your normal customer.”

“No, he’s not. He’s an old man with a lot of power and a lot of bitterness.” Molly took a deep breath. “And I think I have a chance to help Drew change his mind.”

“Maybe. Just be careful, Molly.” Father Christopher held up his hand to stop her saying anything. “And yes, I know, you’re always careful. But you’re not. And this time, you may have bitten off more than you can deal with.” Then he smiled at her. “Speaking of Drew…”

“Oh, my goodness!” Molly said, as she accepted the gold and red stocking he handed her. “Where did he find this?”

“I have no idea,” Father Christopher said. “I do know that he’s been planning this December for a while, and that he’s doing an amazing job of making you smile. We haven’t seen you smile this much in a long time.”

Molly peeked inside the soft velvet stocking and saw several things, which she pulled out: a CD with the words “Molly’s Christmas Melodies” written on it, a gold and red ornament and a red envelope. “Just wait until Christmas, and Santa and I will fill this to overflowing,” she read, and then sniffled.

“He misses you,” Father Christopher said quietly.

“I miss him,” Molly said, putting the card, ornament and CD back into the stocking. “I’m hoping that if I can make enough of an impression on Old Man Winter, maybe I can get him back soon.”

Father Christopher put a hand on hers. “If anyone can convince Old Man Winter to let him go, it will be you, and Schrodinger.”

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Drew was in the stable talking to Ember when Old Man Winter came in, dragging a sled behind him. He didn’t say anything but he nodded to both of them in greeting and then headed to the end of the stalls, leaving the sled in the center of the room.

“Can I help you?” Drew asked, as the old man came back, carrying a large sealed barrel.

Old Man Winter paused and looked at him. “Why?”

“Because I can carry just as well as you can, and it’s polite,” Drew responded evenly. “Besides, then I have an excuse to ask you how your date with my girlfriend went.”

To his utter surprise, Old Man Winter’s face creased into an unexpected smile. It looked odd on the old man’s face. “She’s a spirited one, boy. You’re lucky.”

“I think so,” Drew said, after a moment.

“Come with me.”

They loaded the sled with the barrels (Drew had no idea what was in them, and Old Man Winter didn’t offer), and then Old Man Winter picked up the sled’s lead. “Do you need more help?” Drew asked.

“Nope. I’ll be fine.” Old Man Winter stopped at the door and looked back at him. “She took me to the ballet.”

“The Nutcracker?” Drew blinked. “Really?”

“Yep.”

“Did you enjoy it?” Drew asked, since the old man was still looking at him.

“Yep.” And with that, Old Man Winter left the stable, pulling the sled behind him.

Well, well, well, Ember said from behind him, as Drew watched him go. I need to meet this Molly, I think. That’s the happiest he’s looked in a very long time. As Drew turned to look at her, the dragon cocked her head at him, and he swore she was laughing. You might want to make sure he doesn’t run off with her.

Drew found that a horrifying concept.

(advent) December 11 post – still struggling to catch up

I’m working on it, I promise!

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“Wait, she said what?” Drew stared at Pavel, torn between horror and admiration.

“She said that–”

“No, I heard you the first time.”  Drew sighed and put his palm to his forehead, wondering if maybe he could blame the entire last week on a fever dream.  His skin, however, was cool – no such luck.

“Do you need me to deliver anything today?” Pavel asked after a few moments of silence.

“Huh?”  Drew looked up.  “Oh, no, sorry.  Thanks, Pavel – I’ve got the next couple of days taken care of. ”  Drew pulled himself up from the kitchen table where they had been sitting.  “Come back tomorrow night?  I’ll have the next gift for you.”

“Of course.”  Pavel drained the last of his beer and got up as well.  “This is more fun than I’ve had in a long time!  And this time, I get to bring home goodies to the crew!”  He grinned.  “You’d better keep her close – my crew is ready to kidnap her so they can get cookies any time!”

“Big, bad pirates, looking for cookies?” Drew laughed despite himself.  “There’s an image!”

“Wouldn’t you?” Pavel joined his laughter.  “Besides, even pirates appreciate cookies!”

After Pavel left, though, dread replaced the laughter.  Drew went out to check on Ember, wondering what the heck he was going to do.   Her proposal to Old Man Winter hadn’t been designed to give him a heart attack, he knew – but it had.  When Father Christopher had called him and let him know what Molly had planned, and that Old Man Winter had accepted…He sighed again and opened the stable door.

That was a very deep sigh, Ember said, lifting her head to look at him.  Her sapphire eyes were kind.

“I’m worried about Molly,” he admitted, crouching down to look at her leg.  It had only been a few days, but whatever was in the ointment that Old Man Winter had been putting on the wound had worked miracles.  The flesh was smoothing out, nearly healed.  That, at least, was one good thing.

You and your young friend Schrodinger are both worried, Ember said, watching him.  I wonder if she is as delicate as you seem to think.

Delicate?  No.  Out of her league?  Probably.”  Drew smeared more ointment on the wound and laid a fresh dressing down.

Perhaps.  Perhaps not.  Ember stretched her head out and tapped him almost playfully on the shoulder with her head.  Perhaps you underestimate her.

Maybe.”

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How do I look? Schrodinger demanded, looking over at Molly again.

“You look just fine, just like you did five minutes ago,” she told him, trying not to smile.  “I promise you.  You are handsome.”

I want to look perfect for Lily!  He jumped up and put his front paws on the window sill of the bookstore again, looking at himself in the window and admiring the bow tie he wore.  Aunt Margie had done the unthinkable during the Christmas season – she had closed the bookstore for the entire day.  It was, as Schrodinger kept reminding Molly, a very important day.

And now I’m bringing Old Man Winter to it, she thought, wondering if she should be worried.  She wasn’t.  She was excited.  For the first time since she, Lai, Sue and Noemi had been in grade school, she was going to see the Dance School of Carter Cove put on their version of the Nutcracker.  It was made more sweet by the fact that her six-year-old niece Lily was dancing in it for the first time.

Do you think he’ll really show up?  Schrodinger looked at her over his shoulder.  Really?

Molly was about to answer when an icy wind blew around her, nearly blinding her.  As she blinked away tears, she looked up to see Old Man Winter, complete with scowl, walking down the street towards her.

“I’m glad you came,” she called out, as if she were meeting an old friend.  “You’re going to enjoy this.”

He grunted.

“However,” Molly continued, looking him up and down, “You might be overdressed.”

“What?” Old Man Winter said, stopping and looking at her.  “What are you talking about?”

“Fur coats are a bit much for an early evening performance,” Molly said.  “And you’ll boil when we sit in the auditorium.”  She looked him up and down again.  “Then again, I guess we could stand in the back.  We won’t be able to see as well, but…”

He stared at her for a long minute, and Molly stared back at him, giving as good as she was getting.  Then that wind blasted around them, and when her eyes cleared, she saw him standing in a neat charcoal grey suit, with a tailored wool overcoat.  Instead of the tall walking stick he’d been carrying, he had a polished black cane.   “Is this better?” he growled.

“Much.” Molly beamed at him and took his arm.  “Trust me, you’ll be more comfortable.”

They strolled down the street towards the Dance School, not talking, but Molly wasn’t uncomfortable in the silence.  Anyone looking at them would think it was her grandfather, or perhaps an older uncle.  In this guise, no one would recognize Old Man Winter.  Even his bushy beard seemed a bit tamer.

“Three tickets, Molly?” Noemi said, grinning.  Molly had filled the Trio in on her plan Sunday night, and they’d all agreed to help.  “I hope you like it, Mr. Winter!  The kids have worked hard!”

Old Man Winter peered at her, perhaps wondering if she were making fun of him.  “We’ll see,” he said finally, and took the program she handed him.  “We’ll see.”

They settled into seats next to Aunt Margie and Uncle Art.  The entire family was there to support Lily; even Jack, who thumped his tail eagerly when he saw Schrodinger.  The CrossCat made a beeline for the shephard/hound mix, who scooted over in the seat to make room for him.  Molly waved to her folks and her brother and sister-in-law, then sat down and opened her program.

“What are we watching?” Old Man Winter asked her quietly. 

It was amazing how the man managed to growl in a whisper, she thought.  “The Nutcracker,” she told him, and explained the general story of Clara, her uncle Drosselmeyer, and the magical doll that took her to Faeryland.

“And your niece is dancing in this?”

“Yes, the little kids are going to be snowflakes.”  Molly grinned.  “I can’t wait.”

The lights dimmed, and the stage lit up.  For the next two hours, Molly sat in rapt silence, watching the beloved ballet.  The snowflakes were adorable, of course, and the young girl they had as Clara was amazing.   It was perfect.

And then it was over, and Lily came bolting down the aisles ahead of her mother to throw herself into her grandparents’ arms.  “Did you see me?” she cried.  “Did you see?”

“We did!” Molly’s mother said warmly.  “You were the best snowflake!”

Molly bit back a giggle.  The snowflakes had come out in a rag-taggle line, and none of them had been really on time.  But they had been perfect.  Snow didn’t fall perfectly, so why should dancing snowflakes be orderly?

Then Lily saw Old Man Winter, standing behind Molly, and her eyes widened.  “Are you Santa Claus?” she whispered.

Molly turned to look at Old Man Winter, who was staring down at the little girl.  “Well?” she asked.  “Are you?”

He amazed her by kneeling down to Lily’s level to respond.  “No, child, I’m not.  But I know him.”

“Are you his brother?” Lily asked, leaning in.

“Something like that.”  Old Man Winter winked at her.  “Do you want me to tell him something?”

Lily nodded and leaned over even farther to whisper something Molly couldn’t hear into his ear.

“I’ll be sure to tell him,” Old Man Winter said solemnly.  “You were a beautiful snowflake.”

Lily beamed at him and threw her arms around him.  “Thank you!”  Then she ran off with her mother to collect her things.

“Yes, thank you,” Molly said, as Old Man Winter stood up, leaning on his cane.  “You made her night.”

“Hrmph,” he said, but there was a twinkle in his eyes that she hadn’t seen before.  “No need to make the little one unhappy.”  He looked at Molly.  “You’ll be heading out with them?”

She nodded.  “We’re taking Lily for ice cream.  Would you like to join us?”

Old Man Winter actually seemed to consider it.  “No,” he said finally.  “I think I need to head home as well.  But thank you.”  And Molly heard the sincerity in his voice.  “This was not what I expected.”

“There’s a carol sing at the church on Thursday,” Molly said.  “You should come.  I have a new book of carols.”

“I might.”  And then he turned and melted into the crowd.

Wow.  Schrodinger appeared beside Molly.  I think he had fun.

“I think he did too.”  Molly leaned down and picked Schrodinger up, so he wouldn’t get stepped on.  “I think he did too.”  Then she looked at the CrossCat.  “Where did you get that?”

In his mouth was a small gift bag.  I found it, he said.  Under the tree out in the lobby.  It has your name on it.

She shifted him to one arm and reached into the bag with her free hand.  This ornament was all shimmery white, just like Clara’s nightgown, and attached to the top were a tiny silver pair of ballet slippers.  The card with them said, “I hope you enjoyed the ballet.”

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Who knew?  Maybe this isn’t such a hair-brained scheme of Molly’s after all!

(advent) Still behind, but trying to get caught up!

I’m so sorry, folks!  I am hoping to be fully caught up by tomorrow!

In the meantime, here’s the December 10th episode.

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It was easy to tell when Old Man Winter entered CrossWinds Books. Molly was out in the tea room, refilling Lisa’s (one of her regulars) tea cup and chatting about Lisa’s upcoming book release when the front door opened and an icy wind blew through. The busy hum in the bookstore stopped abruptly.

Molly finished topping Lisa’s cup off, smiled down at the woman, and then moved to the front of the room, where a tall man dressed in an array of furs and scowls stood waiting.

“Welcome to CrossWinds Books,” she said, smiling up at him as if he were a regular customer and not Old Man Winter, refusing to be intimidated by him, even as her stomach knotted. This was who was holding Drew captive, who had kidnapped him. He was impressive enough in his wild man of the woods outfit, never mind the cold aura of winter wrapped around him, but she refused to let him rattle her. “You look cold. Come on back into the kitchen – it’s warmer there, and we can talk.” And she turned and walked back to the kitchen, not bothering to see if he would follow.

There was a chance that he wouldn’t, of course, but Molly was betting he would. Schrodinger had told her that Old Man Winter had been faintly confused when he’d delivered her invitation. Faintly confused, and curious. That meant he didn’t know what she’d do next. Which gave her an edge; a faint one, but she’d take it.

As she pushed open the kitchen door, well aware of everyone’s eyes upon her, heavy footsteps echoed behind her. Molly suppressed a triumphant smile. That’s it, she thought. Follow me. You know you want to know what the heck is going on. She refilled the kettle in her hand and put it back on the stove to boil again, then turned around to her reluctant guest. “Please, sit down. What kind of tea would you like?”

Old Man Winter stared at her. “Are you serious?” he asked finally, his voice rough and gravelly. He sounded like he’d spent a century gargling rock salt and broken glass.

“Yes,” Molly replied, as Schrodinger came in and jumped up onto his customary stool. She put his mug in front of him and looked back at Old Man Winter. “If you don’t like tea, I have hot chocolate, cider, or chai as well.”

“No coffee?” he asked.

Molly drew herself up, offended. “No. This is a TEA shop. If you want coffee, we can go to the diner and talk. It won’t be as private as here, but it’s up to you.”

They locked gazes, and surprisingly, it was Old Man Winter who looked away first. He sat down heavily next to Schrodinger and looked at the Cat. “What are you having?”

Earl Grey, hot, Schrodinger replied. Just like Captain Picard.

“Who?” Old Man Winter said.

“Don’t get him started, or you’ll be here all day,” Molly said hastily, cutting Schrodinger off. “He’s Schrodinger’s hero.”

Old Man Winter stared at the Cat, and then his gaze slid back to Molly. “Something black, please.” The please sounded like it might have hurt him.

“Coming right up.” Molly went into the pantry and returned with a large mug and three tea bags: Schrodinger’s Earl Grey, and two of her special Christmas tea bags. After she’d poured hot water into the mugs, she set a tray of cookies and scones that she’d prepared especially for him in the middle of the island. “Milk? Sugar?”

“Not in tea,” he replied, and she mentally gave him points for that. Molly preferred her tea black as well. “Now, what did you want to talk about?”

Molly sat down across from him and gathered her courage. “I want to talk about the deal you made with the Snow Queen. To save the Cove.”

Old Man Winter grunted. “What about it?”

So that’s the way this is going to go? Molly’s eyes hardened. “I don’t think it’s fair at all that you can condemn a place to death without even coming into town to see the people you’re going to destroy.”

“What do you mean?” he asked, picking up his mug and sipping. Apparently he liked the tea, because he took a long drink of it. “I won’t kill anyone. Just destroy the Gate.”

“Just.” Molly jumped on the word. “Do you know how many people come to the Cove through that Gate? If you destroy it, you’ll destroy the heart and soul of this town, which will kill it. Completely. And you don’t even know anything about us.”

“I know humans are destructive beasts,” Old Man Winter countered. “Ask your feline friend about the dragon he met last night. She nearly died because of humans.”

“So you’d condemn the entire race for a few?” Molly said, heat rising in her cheeks. “He also told me that Drew helped save her! She said so!”

“Because I dragged him along.”

Because you couldn’t touch the iron trap, Schrodinger corrected him. You needed him.

“Semantics,” Old Man Winter said, but Molly heard the change in his voice. A chuckle? Maybe. If it was, it was buried pretty deep. “I have no need to come to the Cove.”

“Yes, you do.” Molly leaned over the table to make her next point. “So I’ve got a deal for you.”

Old Man Winter looked at her. “What?”

“Come with me to a few things around the Cove before Christmas,” Molly said. “Let me show you this town you’re so bent on teaching a lesson. After all, if we’re as bad as all that, this should only stiffen your resolve. What’s the harm?”

They stared at each other again for a long, long moment, and Molly saw the wheels turning in his head. Would he go for it? Or would he get up and leave?

He finally looked down at the tray in between them. “What are these?”

“Sugar cookies, peppermint candy cane cookies, and orange cranberry scones,” Molly said. “Please, have some.”

Old Man Winter picked up a scone and bit into it. Molly watched his face soften for just a moment as the sweet, citrusy pastry melted in his mouth. Just a moment, but when he looked up again, the scowl wasn’t quite so harsh. “Good,” he grunted grudgingly.

“I’ll send you home with some.”

“Boy didn’t mention you were a kitchen witch,” he said, after he finished the scone.

“He doesn’t know you’re coming,” Molly said.

“Sure he does. Someone told him the other day.” Old Man Winter took a brightly-frosted sugar cookie and bit into it. Molly had spiked the sugar cookies with lemon rind and thyme, and the scowl fractured a bit more. Two more cookies, and he might actually smile, she thought.

“Do we have a deal?” she asked out loud, ignoring the comment about Drew. She had a pretty good idea who’d told him, but it didn’t really matter.

He took a drink of tea before he finally nodded. “Yes, we have a deal, little witch. I’ll come around with you.”

“Good.” Molly smiled brightly at him. “Then meet me back here tomorrow at 6 pm.”

“Why?” He looked warily at her.

“Because we’re going to the ballet.”

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Molly and Schrodinger cleaned up quickly that night. She was exhausted, not just from the strain of meeting Old Man Winter (who had actually thanked her for the tea and cookies, and seemed pleased with the box of pastries she’d pressed upon him), but from the interrogation from Aunt Margie afterward.

The front door had barely closed behind Old Man Winter when Aunt Margie had come barreling into the kitchen, demanding “What just happened? Why was he here?”

“He was here because I invited him,” Molly replied, putting a fresh cup of tea in front of her aunt and refilling the tray of cookies. Old Man Winter had quite the sweet tooth, it turned out. “We had a very civilized conversation.”

“About?”

Molly had been debating how much she was going to actually tell her aunt ever since Schrodinger had come back and said Old Man Winter would meet with her. She could try and lie, but no one had ever successfully lied to Aunt Margie for any length of time. Besides, she’d probably be listening at the door again.

So Molly didn’t even try. She explained the entire situation to her aunt, including the fact that the news was not for public consumption. “Because really, no one needs to know that this guy might blow up our Gate,” she said, and Aunt Margie had agreed. However, after both conversations, Molly was looking forward to a nice quiet night at home with a book and a bottle of wine.

She and Schrodinger went out the front door after calling goodbyes to Aunt Margie (who was staying late to catch up on some bookkeeping). Molly blessed the forethought that had made her pack both her gloves and her thick wool mittens; the temperature had dropped rapidly once the sun went down, and there was a bitter bite to the air. She wrapped the scarf her mother had knit her around her face and turned to head down the street.

Are you sure you’re warm enough? Molly thought at Schrodinger. It was too cold to actually talk.

Yes. He was wearing the coat she’d bought him for Christmas last year, but he’d steadfastly refused to let her put boots on him. Schrodinger started to say something else, but paused, one foot lifted. Do you hear that?

Molly stopped and listened hard. Bells?

Those aren’t St. Michael’s bells, Schrodinger said.

No, they’re sleigh bells! Molly looked around. The roads were icy enough that Doc Robbins’ sleigh had no problems coming down the lane towards them. Except it wasn’t Doc’s sleigh.

This sleigh was drawn by two elegant black horses, decked in silver and black barding, and the young man who drove it was bundled up more than either of them. Pavel grinned down at them from the back where he was snuggled under a massive amount of fur and blankets. “Can I interest you in a ride?”

Molly and Schrodinger willingly climbed aboard and snuggled down with him. “Did Drew send you?” Molly asked, pulling her scarf down. Down in the back of the sleigh, protected from the wind by the high sides of the sleigh, it was a little warmer.

“Of course,” Pavel replied. “He would have come himself, but, well…”

“I wonder what I can get Jade to do for us to make up for this,” Molly mused, and Pavel laughed.

“I don’t know,” he said. “I think you managed to give her quite a start today!”

“It’s good for her.”

Pavel laughed again, and then shouted something to the driver in a language that Molly didn’t recognize. The horses leapt forward.

For the next hour, Pavel took Molly and Schrodinger on a tour of the entire town, looking at the Christmas lights and decorations that twinkled in the clear night air. Despite herself, Molly had to admit it was fun.

When he dropped them off in front of their building, Pavel pressed a package into Molly’s hand, and murmured softly, “Just be careful, Molly. Old Man Winter is not to be trifled with.”

Molly pulled her mitten off and carefully extracted the ornament from the box. Looking at the gold and silver beads caught around the glass ball, she said, “Neither am I.”

 

(advent) The tree, the dragon – and Old Man Winter

And a partridge in a pear tree!  Well, okay, no.

But close.

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It was cold, colder than Schrodinger had expected. The scent he’d been following for the last two Roads wound through the cold like a sharp ribbon, cutting the air around him into shards of icy glass, just out of reach. Old Man Winter was on the move, and moving fast, for some reason. Which meant that Schrodinger also needed to keep moving.

After two days of chasing the man through the Roads, though, the CrossCat had to admit he was getting tired. He sat on his haunches and considered his options. He could continue to follow what he was increasingly convinced was a false trail, or he could think. If I were a cranky old man, and I knew there was someone looking for me, since I haven’t been that circumspect, where would I go? Schrodinger washed one paw absently as he thought about his options. Especially if I didn’t want to be found.

Wait a minute. What if I’m wrong? What if Old Man Winter isn’t trying to hide from me? After all, why should he hide from me? I’m not anyone important.

Except I know Molly. And Drew.

Drew!

Schrodinger’s eyes widened. Why didn’t I think of that? If I find Drew, I’ll find Old Man Winter!

And I know where that trail started…

A firm destination in place, Schrodinger got up and oriented himself, then jumped onto another Road and went back to the small way station where Drew had been captured. When he’d gone before, he’d simply followed the strongest scent of Old Man Winter. This time, when he hopped off the Road and found the station (which involved getting off before the Gate, but not too far before), he sat down in the snow and proceeded to try and untangle the various scent trails.

Old Man Winter had been here a few times, and there were other scents – the other tech and the engineer, both familiar to Schrodinger. And underneath it all, Drew’s scent, of woods, and musk, and the cologne Molly had picked out for him for his birthday. Once he had the scent firmly in his nose, Schrodinger closed his eyes and wound Drew’s signature scent around the peppermint ice of Old Man Winter’s. Then he sifted through the smells again, looking for the strand that matched the image of the one in his mind.

That one was buried in the others, almost as if someone had tried to stamp it into oblivion. Which is why I didn’t find it before, he thought. Old Man Winter is a crafty spirit. Then again, he is ancient. I suppose he got that way by being crafty.

I wonder if I could get to be that ancient by being crafty?

With those thoughts whirling in his head, Schrodinger trotted off down the path, to another Road that wound off into the ether.

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“Do you think we can still find it?”

Molly and Lai climbed out of the Land Rover and looked over the sea of people moving around the parking lot. Unlike Monday night, when they had been one of the few people there picking out a tree, this was a mob. Trees and people ebbed and flowed around the two bonfires that were blazing in the darkness, and above the chatter of happy children and amused (and sometimes tired) adults, there was Christmas carols, of course. It was all a bit overwhelming.

“We don’t have to,” Lai said. “Didn’t you get your tree here last year?”

“No, my uncle got it for me,” Molly said, following her friend to one of the two sheds near the bonfires. “I assumed he had to go and cut it. That’s the way we had to do it before when it was Spencer’s.”

The Spencer family had run the only tree farm in Carter’s Cove for as long as Molly could remember, but old Mr. Spencer had fallen two years ago, and rather than try to run the farm and care for her aging parents, Cara Spencer had sold the farm to a new family in the Cove.

“It’s much easier now,” Lai said, as they got into line. “I called today and told them we’d be here to pick it up tonight, so they cut it down about an hour ago and all we need to do is pay for it.”

“That’s brilliant!”

It was fast, too. In twenty minutes, they were at the front of the line, handing money to Josh Lavalle, the new owner. “Hi! Molly Barrett, right?” he said cheerfully. “You picked a beautiful one.”

“Schrodinger picked it,” she said. “He gets the credit.”

Josh leaned over the counter, looking for the CrossCat. “You didn’t bring him?”

Molly shook her head. “He’s had a busy couple of days,” she said, which wasn’t a lie. “He’s guarding the tree stand at home.”

“Well, let me get Casey to get your tree, so you can get home to him. Wait over there, by the fire.”

They did, and in another five minutes, a young man with a shock of red hair came out carrying the tree, already wrapped in protective netting. “Do you folks have rope to tie it on?” he asked.

“Yes,” Lai said, leading him over to the Land Rover. “I remembered from last year.”

“Great!”

Between the three of them, they got the tree settled carefully on the roof and lashed in place. Then, just as he was leaving, Casey said, “Oh, wait, there’s one more thing.” He turned back and handed Molly a small box. “Dad said this was supposed to go with the tree, but we didn’t want to crush it. He found it under the tree when we went to cut it down.”

Molly smiled. “Why am I not surprised?”

“What is it?”

She opened the small cardboard box and lifted out the evergreen and silver ball out. “It’s a gift from a friend,” she said, and watched the beads glitter in the firelight. “A very determined friend.”

<><>

The cottage was lovely – and huge. Schrodinger sat down in the snow, pondering his options. He’d noted the yetis patrolling the outside of the grounds, but avoiding them had been easy. Now he had to decide what to do.

In the end, he slunk through the bushes to the back of the stables at the rear of the house. Here, the scents of Old Man Winter and Drew were joined by another smell, one that Schrodinger had only run across once before.

Dragon.

He slipped into the stables, wondering what he would find. Dragons were notoriously retiring, regardless of the myths, and very secretive. How had Drew found one? Or had Old Man Winter bribed it to come out, promising it…what? Destruction? Drew? Something else?

Come out, little one, he heard, and stiffened. I know you’re there. I promise, I will not hurt you.

Her voice was gentle, quiet, like Molly’s when she dreamed. Cautiously, Schrodinger stepped forward, into the stable proper, looking for the dragon.

She was lying in a big box stall, curled up on a pile of hay. Her rear leg was swathed in bandages, and her sapphire eyes were bright as she looked at him. Welcome, little one, she said softly, bowing her head down to look at him. You have come a long way today. Rest.

Schrodinger curled up in the straw, grateful for the respite. How did you know I was here?

I could smell you, she said.

Ah.

They sat in silence for a couple of moments, while Schrodinger warmed up. Then he asked, Who are you?

I am Ember, the dragon replied. Your friend Drew helped me out of a trap after Old Man Winter found me.

Drew is a good man, Schrodinger said. He’s why I’m here.

Yes. He’s spoken of you.

He has? Schrodinger blinked. Really?

Yes. He misses you and Molly very much. Ember raised her head as the stable door opened. But you didn’t come to see him. You came to see someone else.

Yes. Schrodinger got to his feet as Old Man Winter came into the stable. Yes, I did.

Old Man Winter towered above him, clad in grey and silver and white furs. Snow danced around him, and ice frosted his beard and mustache. His blue-green bore down on the CrossCat. “What do you want?” His voice rumbled out, harsh in the silence.

I have a message for you, Old Man Winter. Schrodinger’s voice didn’t waver at all. He was rather proud of that. An invitation.

The old man’s eyebrows rose into his hat. “What message?” The rumble didn’t quite hide the hint of interest in his voice.

Molly Barrett invites you to have tea with her tomorrow, at CrossWinds Books Tea Shop, in Carter’s Cove, Schrodinger said. She wants to talk to you.

“Then why didn’t she come here?” Old Man Winter said.

Because she can’t. She promised the Snow Queen she wouldn’t go looking for Drew. So she’s not. Schrodinger cocked his head. She’s a very good cook, you know. Even if you don’t want to talk to her, you should come and let her feed you.

Go, Old Man, Ember added. You stole her lover from her, at Christmas. You owe her the courtesy of hearing her out.

“Fine,” Old Man Winter grunted, coming into the box and kneeling down next to the dragon. “I’ll be there tomorrow. Now scoot. I have things to do.”

Schrodinger scooted.

(advent) Pirates!

You knew it was coming.  I can’t seem to write a story without pirates.

<><><><><><><><><>

“Well, well, well, you have fallen into a nice nest, haven’t you?”

The familiar booming voice echoed through the entire house, and Drew grinned. “It’s a gilded cage,” he said, coming down the stairs. “I’m a golden bird.”

“Indeed you are!” The man at the bottom of the stairs echoed his grin. “But where is your lady? Why aren’t you sharing this with her?” Then he winked. “Or is she still in bed?”

“It’s nearly noon, Pavel,” Drew said. “No one is in bed now.”

“Says you.” Pavel shrugged. “For me, it’s still far too early.”

Drew shook his head and clapped his old friend on the shoulder. “I’m surprised you’re here this early, to be honest. I thought I’d see you at dinner.”

“I made the crew row,” Pavel said, then laughed again at the shocked look on Drew’s face. “Kidding! They’d kill me. But seriously,” and the amusement fell away from his handsome face, “you called, my friend. I came. What are friends for?”

“Helping,” Drew agreed. “Follow me. I was just about to make lunch.”

The kitchen at the cottage (Drew couldn’t help but call it that, even though it was the biggest cottage he’d ever seen) was as decked out as any he’d ever seen. Yet another place Molly would love.

As Pavel settled into one of the kitchen chairs, Drew opened the fridge and pulled out sandwich ingredients. The invisible servants had left him half a ham, already sliced, and some orange marmalade. He added in some sliced tomatoes, a bunch of lettuce leaves, and then dug around the cheese drawer until he found some slices of provolone. He deposited everything on the table in front of his friend.

“Bread?”

“Working on it,” Drew said, moving towards the bread box. It was white, as everything was in the kitchen, and had disgorged all sorts of goodies in the few days he’d been here. Today, it gave him thick slices of a hearty brown bread, enough for two, even given Pavel’s appetite.

“This is a good kitchen,” Pavel said, taking two of the slices from the plate Drew set down. “I approve.”

“I’m sure the Snow Queen will be happy you do,” Drew said, sitting down opposite him and putting a beer in front of him.

His words had little effect on the man in front on him, however. Pavel nodded and just continued to spread marmalade on a slice of bread. “She is a good host. Now, why are you in the Snow Queen’s guest house?”

“That,” Drew said, picking up his own beer, “is a very good question. Eat first.”

Pavel shrugged. “If you insist.”

Once the sandwiches were made and consumed, however, Pavel got down to business. “You are in a lot of trouble, my friend.”

Drew shrugged. “Not me, really.”

“Oh?” Pavel raised an eyebrow. “You are here, with Old Man Winter, and the Snow Queen is letting you stay in her guest house, but there are guards on the road up. Also, there is a dragon here. I say you are in trouble, my friend, and that is before you called me.”

“Guards?” That was news to Drew. “I wonder why.”

“Perhaps because the Snow Queen wants to make sure you are not disturbed?” Pavel shrugged again. “Once they saw it was me, they did not hinder me.”

“Interesting.” Drew filed that bit of information away. “And how did you know about the dragon?”

“Please.” Pavel gave him a long-suffering look. “I hear things. It’s my job.”

Drew gave up at that point. “I need you to deliver a message for me. To Molly.”

“Why don’t you invite her out here to give her your message?”

“I can’t.” Drew outlined his agreement with the Snow Queen in a few sentences. “So this is why I need you.”

Pavel leaned back and laced his fingers over his stomach, frowning. His large mustache drooped over his cheeks. “I was right,” he said finally. “You are in a lot of trouble.”

“Will you help me?”

“Of course.” Pavel shrugged. “Trouble is my middle name.” He winked at Drew. “Now, what message am I delivering for you?”

“Well, first you have to go and get it,” Drew said, and began to outline what he needed Pavel to do.

<><>

Molly was singing along with Burl Ives as she rolled out gingerbread dough in the kitchen, and to all appearances, she was fine. Happy, if a little worried about Drew, which was completely normal. No one suspected what she was actually worried about: not only Drew, but Schrodinger, who had headed out first thing in the morning to look for Old Man Winter.

Mal had come down earlier that morning and let her know what she’d already suspected: that the Road had moved too much to be used by that Gate again, and that they were abandoning efforts to reconnect it. “But that doesn’t mean we’re giving up trying to get Drew back,” he had assured her. “We just need to go about it a different way.”

“You might as well give up,” she’d told him. “Drew isn’t there anymore.”

Mal had gaped at her. “How did you know?”

“Schrodinger went and looked.” There was no reason to lie to the Gate manager. “Drew’s gone from that spot.”

“We’re not going to give up, Molly.” Mal had laid his hand on his chest. “I promise you. We will find him.”

“I know,” she had said, and sent him on his way with a large tin of orange cranberry tea bread slices and frosted sugar cookies.

Now, she relished the fact that even though the store itself hummed with activity, her little corner of the world was quiet and still. The scent of gingerbread and tea filled the air. Even with both the boys in her life off who knew where, for the moment, Molly was content.

This is what life should be, she thought.

Aunt Margie slipped her head around the door. “You have a visitor,” she said, and Molly paused. “Do you want me to send him in?”

She never asks that. This must be good. “I guess,” she said, putting her rolling pin aside and picking up her cookie cutter. “The kitchen is open to everyone, Aunt Margie.” Then she paused and grinned. “Unless you think I need a chaperone?”

“You might, with this one.” Aunt Margie ducked out before Molly could say anything else.

Oh, this should be interesting.

Molly began cutting out gingerbread men, wondering who or what was coming through the door. Aunt Margie took everything so calmly, up to and including the centaurs who came in to do their Christmas or Yule or whatever shopping, that for her to be flustered (and she had been flustered, or she wouldn’t have checked with Molly before sending this person in) was unusual.

Then again, when the…man…swept in through the door (and swept was really the only word Molly could use to describe his entrance), Molly could understand her aunt’s consternation. She gaped at him, her cookie cutter hanging from one hand forgotten, her only thought disappointment that Schrodinger wasn’t here to see him. The CrossCat would have been thrilled beyond belief.

“Have we met?” Molly asked, bemused. Usually only her friends came into the kitchen. Then again, there were few people who lived in the Cove who she didn’t think of as at least casual friends. This was someone she’d never seen before. She was quite certain of that.

He was tall, taller than Drew, with long dark hair pulled back into an artfully mussed ponytail, and dark eyes lined with lashes Lai would be jealous off. Snow dusted his burgundy and gold coat, and he paused to wipe the soles of his knee-length black boots before he entered the kitchen.

“No, but not for lack of trying, my dear lady,” he said, pulling his grey-furred hat from his head and sweeping her a flamboyant bow. “Sadly, our paths have not yet crossed, until a mutual friend asked me to stop by and deliver a present for him.”

Molly’s eyebrows went up. “You know Drew?”

“I do. Or rather, I knew his father, who sent the lad sailing with me one summer, to build character.” He set the hat in the crook of his arm and then offered her his other hand. “Captain Pavel Chekov, of the fine ship Heart’s Desire, at your service.”

“The Heart’s Desire?” Molly let him take her hand and kiss it. “The pirate ship?”

“We prefer deep-sea reassignment specialists,” Pavel said, winking at her as he let her hand slip through his fingers. “Pirate has such ugly connotations…”

Molly laughed. “Drew served on a pirate ship? He never told me that!”

“He didn’t?” Pavel looked mock-shocked. “That scoundrel. I shall have to enlighten you.”

“I look forward to it,” Molly said, picking her cookie cutter up again and beginning to cut out more gingerbread men. “Can I get you a cup of tea?”

“I would love a cup of tea.”

“Then sit.” She nodded toward one of the stools. “Your hat can go on the pegs. What kind of tea would you like?”

Pavel set his hat on the peg and then claimed the stool. “You wouldn’t have a delicate green, would you?”

“I would.” Molly decided not to comment on the choice, but put aside her cutter and went to get another mug from the pantry. I need more ceramic mugs for the winter, she thought, as she looked at the dwindling supply. Then she picked up the light green tea that she’d ordered at the beginning of the month, and went back out to the kitchen.

Pavel was looking at the cut out gingerbread men next to him. “Drew didn’t mention you were a kitchen witch.”

Molly shrugged. “It’s not a big deal,” she said, placing the tea into the mug and pouring hot water over it. She refilled her cup at the same time. “So, you have a message for me?”

“And a gift!” He presented that first: a bag that he pulled from inside his coat. The ornament affixed to the outside was ruby red, with sapphire blue connector beads. The card said simply, “You need to remember to slow down.” Inside the bag was a collection of her favorite bath salts and bath beads. Molly was touched.

“He is a good man,” Pavel said, sipping at his tea. “And he sent another message.”

“You may as well give it to me, “ Molly said, putting the bag and ornament with her coat.

“It’s not written down.” Pavel put down his tea cup and looked at her, the amusing flamboyance gone. “Don’t go looking for Old Man Winter, Molly.”

Ice ran through her at his words. How had he known? Molly lifted her chin. “I know what I’m doing.”

“You don’t,” Pavel said. “Old Man Winter is not one of the spirits who will be charmed by your baking and your smile, Molly. He’s a primal force. He’s not going to play your games.”

“I’m not playing a game,” Molly retorted. “And I’m not going to sit by and let Drew try and save my town.” At Pavel’s startled look, she nodded. “Yes, I know what’s going on. And since you’re delivering messages, you can give Drew one for me. I am NOT going to sit idly by. I am NOT going to wait for him to come back.”

Pavel sighed. “I will tell him.”  He didn’t have to say how unhappy Drew would be to get that message.

Molly already knew.  And it wasn’t going to stop her.

(advent) Only a little late!

I’m sorry, but I finally, FINALLY got the breakthrough I needed!  You guys…

I KNOW HOW THE STORY ENDS!

Tomorrow, more writing!

<><><><><><><><>

“Am I late?”

Lai rushed into the kitchen, the door banging behind her. “I’m so sorry!” she said breathlessly. “I had a conference call run long!”

“You’re fine,” Molly said, setting another cup and saucer in front of her. “We haven’t started yet.”

“Oh good.” Lai sank down onto the stool and looked at the others around her. Noemi, Sue and Schrodinger were perched on their own stools, and Molly was standing in her normal spot between the island and the ovens. She put a stainless steel tea ball into the cup in front of Lai, and then poured boiling water into the porcelain tea cup. Fragrant steam rose from the cup, to join with the other fragrances of tea and cider and chai. “I was worried you’d start without me.”

“Never.” Molly looked around at them, then did something she’d never done before: she went and locked the kitchen door. For the next twenty minutes, nothing would go in or out.

“All right,” she said, clicking the lock and then turning to look at her friends. “Nothing we say here goes outside.”

They all looked at her a bit apprehensively.

“What I’m going to say is going to go no further than this room,” she warned them. “I’m about to cross one of the biggest influences in the Realms, and if you don’t want to go with me, that’s fine. Just let me know now, and I’ll let you out.”

For a couple of moments, the room was quiet except for the ticking of the clock and the strains of Christmas carols from the radio she kept up on a shelf near the door. Then Sue broke the silence.

“No,” she said firmly. “We’re in this together.” Lai and Noemi nodded.

You know I’m not going anywhere, Schrodinger said. So let’s get started.

“You guys are the best,” Molly said, and meant it. “Seriously.” She went back to the island and cupped her hands around her tea mug. “Okay, here’s the deal.”

Between the two of them, she and Schrodinger filled in the Terrible Trio on what they’d found out.

“So, Old Man Winter kidnapped Drew to what…force him to help destroy the Cove?” Noemi asked, her eyes wide.

“No,” Molly said. “I think the Snow Queen set Drew up to be kidnapped so he could get Old Man Winter to change his mind.”

“Wow.” Sue sat back, clearly stunned. “That’s…kind of cold.”

She’s more than just a figurehead, Schrodinger said. She’s got her own Realm to rule, and she’s influential in thousands more. If she needs to sacrifice Drew to save the Cove, she will. But I don’t think that’s what she’s doing.

“So what IS she doing?” Lai asked. “Do you really think she thinks he can change Old Man Winter’s mind?”

I think so, the CrossCat said, nodding. And I think she may be right.

“So what do you intend to do?” Sue said, looking at Molly.

Molly and Schrodinger exchanged glances, then she said, “I’m going to go after Old Man Winter.”

“What?”

All three of the Trio looked at her in horrified admiration, and she giggled a bit in spite of herself. “Not like that! You guys should know me better than that.”

“So what are you going to do when you find him?” Noemi asked.

“I’m going to help Drew,” Molly replied. “I’m going to convince Old Man Winter to spare the Cove, and release Drew.”

“Well, at least we know your self-confidence is intact,” Lai said after a moment. “Where do we fit in?”

“I need to know more about Old Man Winter,” Molly said. “I need to know more than we do right now.” She looked at Sue. “Do you have anything at the Museum that might help?”

Sue frowned. “I don’t know,” she admitted. “There are some archives that I haven’t been in, ever. I have the keys to them, but the Director seems to prefer that they stay forgotten.”

“I can help you go through them,” Noemi said. “I’m on break for the next two weeks.”

“Sounds good,” Sue said. She looked at Molly. “We can start this afternoon, if you want.”

“Do so,” Molly said. “Schrodinger’s going to go and see if he can find Old Man Winter.”

Try? The CrossCat’s tail swished. Please. No one can hide from me.

Molly stroked his head fondly. “I know. Just remember, you need to make sure that he’s not going to do something bad to you.”

He won’t. I’m too fast.

“And what is Schrodinger going to do when he finds Old Man Winter?” Lai asked.

Molly smiled. “He’s going to invite him over for tea.”

<><>

“Wait, she did WHAT?”

Drew stared at the computer screen, aghast. He’d been checking his email when the message from Father Christopher asking him to a Skype session had popped up. Since the only person he was really forbidden to communicate directly with was Molly, he’d clicked on the link. Now he was regretting it.

“That’s what Margie said,” Father Christopher told him. “Since Molly never locks the kitchen door, it piqued her curiosity. Especially considering who was in there with her.”

Drew sat back in the chair, stunned. “She’s going to try and find Old Man Winter.”

“That’s what Margie said,” Father Christopher repeated. “And honestly, I wouldn’t put it past her.”

Me neither, Drew admitted to himself. And that’s what scares me.

“Thanks for letting me know,” he said out loud. “You have the one for tonight taken care of, right?”

Father Christopher nodded. “Luke is delivering it after he gets off shift.” Then he sighed. “What are we going to do with her, Drew?”

“I’ll take care of it,” Drew said. “Just trust me. And see if you can distract her.”

“I’ll do my best.”

Once the priest signed off, Drew sat for a few minutes longer, staring at the blank screen, wondering what the heck he was going to do. Molly could be stubborn, that he knew and loved about her. But sometimes she picks the worst things to be stubborn about!

With a sigh, he got up and wandered out into the hallway, heading for the courtyard behind the house. He and Old Man Winter had brought the dragon out of the clearing to find a sleigh waiting for them, a long dogsled-type vehicle. No dogs, though – Drew and Old Man Winter had pulled the sled back to the cottage, trying their best not to jar the dragon’s injured leg. They’d brought her into the stables, where there were huge box stalls full of soft hay. No horses, but plenty of stalls, and the dragon fit perfectly in one.

Drew went out there now, shrugging into a heavy flannel shirt as he did. The dragon preferred cold temperatures, so the stable was minimally heated.

You are troubled. Her blue eyes were as calm as her mental voice. Someone is worrying you.

“My girlfriend is trying to find me,” Drew said, kneeling down to check the bandages on her leg. Old Man Winter had left the medications and salves in the next stall after giving the young tech instructions on what needed to be done to keep the wounds from getting infected. Now, Drew peeled back the soft bandages and peered at the jagged cuts. “No infection,” he said approvingly.

Old Man Winter is a good healer. She arched her neck, watching him while he spread salve gently on her leg. As are you.

“I’m just a good technician,” he said, putting the salve aside and picking up a fresh bandage.

You are a good man, Drew McIntyre, she said, dropping her head onto his shoulder briefly. And you are worried about your girlfriend. Tell me why. I am a good listener.

And she was. As he wrapped the bandages about her leg, Drew shared everything: what the Snow Queen had asked him to do, what he’d planned for Molly, and what he’d just found out from Father Christopher. “So I don’t know what to do,” he finished. “How can I keep her safe?”

Sometimes, you cannot, the dragon said. Sometimes, you have to let her keep you safe.

Drew stopped, thinking about that. He’d always wanted to protect Molly. That felt right. But in this instance, maybe she’d have to keep him safe too.

“Thank you,” he said to her. “For listening.”

I am Ember, she said, leaning forward to put her head on his shoulder. And I am very happy to have met you, Drew McIntyre. I think you have great things ahead of you.

Then she winked at him. As long as you can survive this December, that is.

<><>

“Molly? Schrodinger?”

Molly heard Luke come into the kitchen as she pulled together boxes for the scones she’d made earlier. “I’ll be out in a second!” she called, reaching for the last set of tins. Then she came out, grinning. “Looking for something hot on your way home?”

Luke’s cheeks were flushed with cold, and he grinned back at her as he shucked his coat. “I won’t say no,” he agreed, putting his packages on the island. “The wind is wicked out tonight! I hope you guys have a ride home!”

She nodded as she put a heavy ceramic mug full of steaming cider in front of him. “Aunt Margie won’t let me walk alone.”

“Where’s Schrodinger?” Luke asked, one eyebrow raised.

“He’s off wandering,” Molly said, waving one hand vaguely. “He does that from time to time.”

“Well, I hope it’s warmer where he’s wandering.”

Not likely, Molly thought, but smiled at him. “I’m sure he’ll tell me all about it when he gets home.” She eyed his bags. “Did some Christmas shopping, huh? Is there a little black box from the jewelers in there?”

He flushed. “Maybe.”

She leaned in. “Seriously?”

Paper crinkled as he reached into one bag and pulled a long black velvet box out. “Do you think Sue will like it?”

“Oh, Luke, I think she’ll love it.” Molly took the box and gazed in awe at the sapphire bracelet nestled into the velvet. “Seriously.”

“Awesome.” Luke took the bracelet back and grinned at her. “I have something for you too.”

“Shocking,” Molly teased him. “You don’t say.”

The ornament this time was blue, just like the sapphires in Sue’s bracelet, with pearl connecting beads, and it was attached to a narrow wrapped box with the red envelope. She opened the envelope first.

“I wanted to watch this with you so we could get ready for next week,” she read out loud. “I hope you enjoy it still. We’ll watch it together, I promise.”

The package contained a DVD of the Nutcracker. Molly smiled. “He remembered.” When Luke looked puzzled, she explained, “Lily is in the ballet at her dance school next week. Drew and I have tickets to go.”

“I hope he’s back by then.” Luke drained the rest of his cider and shrugged back into his coat. “See you around, Molly.”

<><><><><><><><>

There will be much writing tomorrow. MUCH WRITING.  But now, I have a scarf to finish.

(advent) December 6 – and I’m finally decorating!

Yeah, I know, I normally decorate the weekend after Thanksgiving. It’s been one of those years.

My cards aren’t done yet either. That’s tomorrow, I think.

<><><><><><><><><>

Bang!

The slamming of the front door jolted Drew from sleep. He lay there a moment longer, dazed, wondering what he’d heard. Then heavy footsteps clomped across the front hall and up the stairs. Whoever it was, it wasn’t the dainty Snow Queen.

He slipped from the bed and padded in his bare feet across the room to the door. It was still early; the sun was barely above the horizon, and the long rays only reached half-way across the bedroom, so the area by the door was still in shadow. Drew flattened himself against the wall next to the door as the footsteps came closer to his room. It was very obvious that whoever was coming wasn’t concerned about being sneaky.

The door opened and the same man who had surprised him at the cabin stepped into the room, still dressed in furs. Drew frowned. What was he doing here? Why come back?

“Good, you’re up,” the man said, turning around and looking at him. “Get dressed.”

“Why?” Drew asked. “Who are you?”

The man’s piercing blue eyes were cold, hard. “Don’t worry about that.” His voice cut through the room like a winter wind. “Get dressed. We’re going for a walk.”

“You’re the one I have to convince,” Drew guessed. “You’re the one who thinks that the humans shouldn’t be out on the Roads.”

The man nodded, but didn’t say anything. He just crossed his arms and waited.

“Fine.” Drew crossed back to the dresser that was on the other side of the bed. He looked over his shoulder. “You going to stay and watch me dress?”

“Modest, boy?” the man snorted, but turned to leave. “I’ll meet you down in the front hall. Dress warm.”

“Where are we going?” Drew asked, opening a drawer at random.

“Out,” the man said, and left.

“Well, that’s informative,” Drew grumbled, and went looking for his wool socks.

<><>

“So, what did you find out?” Molly asked, cradling her tea mug in her hand. She and Schrodinger were hanging out in the living room after eating breakfast. The CrossCat was curled up on one of his cat beds, taking a leisurely bath. Molly herself was still in her pajamas, sitting in her wing chair with one leg slung over the arm. It was quiet in the apartment, a waiting stillness that was somehow languid and enervating at the same time.

Schrodinger didn’t answer at first, concentrating on his right hind leg. Molly recognized the fact that he was collecting his thoughts, and wondered just where he had gone the day before. He hadn’t come back until she’d gotten home from the bookstore, and he’d been tired; he had nearly fallen asleep in his bowl, and Molly had ended up carrying him into bed. So she waited, knowing he would tell her in his own time.

I went to see the Librarian, he said finally, finishing his bath. He jumped down from his bed and trotted over, jumping up into her lap.

“Who’s the Librarian?” she said, pulling a blanket from the floor so they could cuddle together.

She was my teacher, Schrodinger told her, snuggling down in her lap. The wisest of the CrossCats in my pack. One of the wisest CrossCats in the Realms.

“What did she say?” Molly loved to hear Schrodinger talk of his family. “And why did you go to see her?”

Because there is very little in the Realms that she doesn’t know. She listens, and people tell her things. All sorts of things. And she said there are dark things happening. Schrodinger paused. She said that the Snow Queen has been busy lately, trying to settle something.

“Settle something?”

Yes. The Librarian said there has been dissent in the Realms, old angers boiling over.

“But what does that have to do with Drew?” Molly asked. “Does she need him to be a diplomat? And why him?”

Schrodinger crossed his paws and put his chin down on them. The Librarian said Old Man Winter has been seen again.

“Who?”

Old Man Winter, Schrodinger repeated. He’s almost a legend. I’ve heard a lot of stories – some say he’s the father of the Snow Queen, others say that they are brother and sister. He’s been around as long as I can remember, and he brings the winter winds and snows. For a long time, he wouldn’t come out into the Realms – he’d just send his winds, or, occasionally, his wolves.

“His wolves?” Molly shivered. “Those sound dangerous.”

They are, Schrodinger agreed. They bring the winter storms, and I don’t know anyone who has encountered them and lived to tell about it. But the Librarian said that two days ago, Old Man Winter and his wolves were out on the Roads, and they were hunting. She said that the last time he went hunting, he destroyed an entire village.

“That’s when Drew went missing,” Molly said. “Do you think Old Man Winter took him?”

I don’t know, but it seems odd that suddenly Old Man Winter shows up, and Drew goes missing, Schrodinger said. Drew had a lot of plans for this month, and I don’t think he would have given them up lightly. But if Old Man Winter is bent on destroying something, then I could see Drew trying to stop him.

Molly thought about that as she stroked Schrodinger’s head. “Jade – the Snow Queen – told me that Drew was doing something very important,” she said thoughtfully. “And you say Old Man Winter likes to come out and destroy things. And the Gate that Drew was working on still isn’t responding.”

The Road moved, Schrodinger said. I went and checked, after I left the Librarian’s den. The Road definitely moved, and it wasn’t by accident. Someone ripped it from the Gate.

“That takes a lot of power.” Molly shivered. “Something Old Man Winter would have, especially now.”

Yes. And I checked out the way station that they were staying in. There’s magic all over it, Schrodinger said. And the only scents are Drew’s, the other two who were with him, and cold. Very cold.

Molly shivered again. “That doesn’t sound like what Jade said she did. That sounds like he was kidnapped.”

I think that’s what happened. Schrodinger shook his head. I think that someone told Old Man Winter that Drew would be there. And they waited for him. He paused again. Maybe Jade told her father, if he is her father, that he would be there, that he was the one who they needed to take. Which isn’t like her.

“Unless she knew he was the one that could stop Old Man Winter from destroying wherever he was going to destroy,” Molly said. “I could see that. Drew can be very persuasive.”

I don’t think it’s just Drew, Schrodinger said. Old Man Winter doesn’t negotiate – he destroys. When he decides to hunt, nothing stops him.

“Have you heard of any towns being destroyed?” Molly asked.

No, and neither had the Librarian. It was Schrodinger’s turn to shiver. Which means that he might still be hunting. And if he needed Drew…

Molly swallowed as his voice trailed off, and then finished his sentence. “Then maybe the town he’s hunting is Carter’s Cove.”

<><>

They had been walking for over an hour. Drew didn’t know how long, exactly, but his toes and his fingertips were both numb, and it hadn’t been that cold out. He was carrying a heavy pack, weighted with God knew what, and following the strange old man through the woods. The old man had his own pack, as big as the one he’d handed Drew, but it didn’t seem to slow him down at all.

The sun was up now, and sparkling on the new snow. Drew had no idea where they were – he’d never visited the Snow Queen’s realm, but if this wasn’t it, he’d eat the hat the old man was wearing. He couldn’t ask, either; the pace was enough to keep him breathless. Not that the old man would answer any questions.

He was just about to ask anyways, when the old man stopped and held up his hand. “Wait,” the man said. “Don’t move.”

Drew tensed and looked around. “Why?”

“Because I don’t want you to scare her,” the old man snapped. “Stay here while I go in. Come in when I tell you.”

“Come in where?” Drew said, but the man was already gone, melting into the underbrush. After a moment, he spotted the game trail. What is going on?

As he waited, Drew realized something else – he didn’t hear anything. He could see the branches moving, showing where the old man was heading, but he didn’t hear any crunching of snow, no footprints. Who was this guy, anyways?

“All right,” he heard, after about 15 minutes of silence. “You can come back, but do it slowly. She knows you’re coming, but she’s not happy about it.”

Drew pushed his way through the underbrush. The fresh snow crunched under his feet; the old man hadn’t broken a trail to wherever he was. Fir tree branches scratched against his face and arms, filling the air with fragrance. Finally, he broke into a small clearing and saw who “she” was.

The old man was seated in the snow, but that wasn’t what caught Drew’s attention. Curled half in his lap was the smallest dragon he had ever seen. Of course, it was the only dragon he had ever seen, but still. He’d thought they’d be…bigger.

This dragon was about the size of a large wolf, or a small adult deer; she was sprawled in the snow, her jewel-toned head resting in the old man’s lap. Her wings were furled against her sinuous body, and she glimmered in the filtered sunlight. All in all, she was breathtaking.

“Careful,” the old man warned as Drew stepped into the clearing. “Don’t startle her. She’s in a lot of pain, and not feeling very charitable.”

The dragon’s head had shot up as the young tech came into the small glade; her sapphire eyes fastened on to him, freezing him in place. The faintest wisp of blue-grey smoke rose from one of her nostrils.

Drew saw why she was in pain immediately. Somehow, she’d been caught in a bear trap: the rusted iron teeth of the medieval device had sunk right through her magical scales, biting deeply into her flesh. The old man was supporting more than her head, but Drew noticed he was also keeping well away of the iron. Which is why he brought me along, he realized. I’m the only one who can take the touch of the iron.

Moving slowly, the way he had back on his parents’ farm around the horses they’d bred, Drew knelt down next to the dragon, trying not to flinch back from the feel of her gaze boring into his back. He eased the pack down and reached out to lay a hand on the trap.

“Easy, girl,” he said quietly, as he felt her flinch. “I’m not going to hurt you.” He continued to talk in the same calm, soothing voice he’d used on his father’s prized Percherons as he ran his fingers around the trap, wincing inwardly at the extent of the damage. The teeth had barely missed severing her leg.

“Can you get it off, boy?” the old man asked, using the same calm, quiet voice. He was stroking the dragon’s head. Other than a slight trembling of her body, she hadn’t moved, and Drew knew she was still watching him.

“Depends on what tools are in this pack you had me carry,” Drew replied, sitting back on his heels to study the trap some more. “And if she lets me put any pressure on the trap.”

Do what you need to, mortal. The voice in his head was softer, lighter than Schrodinger’s, but it rang with a resonance the CrossCat’s mental tone lacked. I will endure.

Drew dared to lay a hand on her flank, well away from the wounds. “I’ll be as careful as I can be,” he promised. Then he turned his attention to the pack. The old man had packed well – there was a large set of bolt cutters, as well as plenty of bandages and tubes of ointment. He pulled out the cutters, and positioned them on the end of one of the trap’s jaws, targeting the hinges.

One quick snap, and the trap sang as the edges of the metal parted. The next cut would be the tricky one – he stood up and, moving slowly, straddled her leg so he could get the other hinge. Another snap, and Drew tossed the bolt cutters aside.

Before he started to pull the teeth from her flesh, Drew knelt down beside her again. He couldn’t just lift the trap – whoever had built the wretched thing had serrated the teeth, which meant her scales and flesh were tangled within the metal. If he lifted it recklessly, he could sever her leg.

“This is going to be the hard part,” he warned her. “I’m going to go slowly, but it’s not going to be painless. I promise, I’ll be as gentle as I can.”

“The silver tube has a numbing agent in it,” the old man said. “Smear that on before you start.”

Drew did so, feeling the dragon’s scales shiver under his touch. Then he settled down in the snow and began the delicate, tedious task of removing the trap from her flesh.

It felt like hours later when he lifted the last bit of metal from the top part of the trap from her leg, and lifted it away. Then he looked at the old man and the dragon.

“In order to get the other one out, we’re going to have to move you,” Drew said to the dragon. “The other part of the trap is going to be even more embedded. Are you okay with moving?”

Yes, the dragon said, after a moment. But I will need help.

Between the two of them, the old man and Drew managed to turn her over with a minimum of jostling of her injured leg. In his head, Drew kept seeing, not the dragon, but Schrodinger, or one of the other animals from Carter’s Cove, trapped in the evil thing, and the rage grew in his chest. What kind of monster sets traps like this?

The old man spat on the ground next to him, away from the dragon. “Same kind that brings unrest to the Roads. There are always troublemakers around.”

And there are always friends who will help, the dragon said, laying her head on the old man’s shoulder. Don’t forget that, old friend. There is always a positive to the negative.

“Not always,” the old man said darkly. “Not always.”

Yes, always, the dragon replied. You just don’t always see them.

“Bah.”

Drew bent his head over the wound, his mind working as quickly as his fingers. The back and forth seemed to indicate that the two were friends, longstanding friends, but he had a hard time believing that the old man would have anything like a friend. Then again, he really hadn’t had any time to get to know the guy. Meh, Drew decided, not my problem.

You would be surprised, came that resonant voice in his head. Old Man Winter is a complex man, and his destiny is tied to yours.

What? Drew stopped and looked at the old man and the dragon. “Wait, you’re Old Man Winter?”

“Yep,” the old man said. “So what?”

After a moment, Drew bent back to his work. “So you’re the one who wants to destroy the Cove.”

“Yep.”

That one laconic word, casually dismissing the town that had taken Drew in, had sheltered him when he’d needed it, smoldered in his mind as he continued to pick the jagged teeth from the dragon’s flesh. “Why?” he asked finally.

“Because your people don’t understand about what the Roads are,” Old Man Winter said, still stroking the dragon’s head gently. “The Roads are supposed to bring peace, bring cultures together. All your people want is money, and war. Violence. Things like this.” He glared at the bloodied trap part lying in the snow.

“Because you never had issues before the humans got on the Roads,” Drew countered. “Life was just sunshine and roses, right?”

“It wasn’t as widespread,” the old man snapped. “Your people need to learn a lesson.”

Drew shook his head, and concentrated on what he was doing. The dragon was more important than arguing. But now I know a bit more about what the Snow Queen wanted me to do, he thought to himself. And I’m starting to see what I’m going to have to do to accomplish it.

<><>

The glass doors of the Daughter of Stars Middle School (named after Captain Carter’s ship that he first sailed into the Cove, back before the current town had been formed) was decorated with thousands of paper snowflakes and snowmen, all drawn by the children who were even now squirming in their seats, sneaking looks at the clock and counting down the minutes until they were released. Molly knew exactly where most of them would run: right into the gymnasium, where dozens of table were set up, covered with amazing goodies.

She looked around Sue’s car, making sure she wasn’t leaving anything behind, and then heaved her last box of decorated cookies out of the trunk. Schrodinger was inside, guarding the other cookies with Sue – it should have been Drew helping, but well…We work with what we have, Molly thought grimly, pushing her way through the double doors. We can handle this. Luckily, Sue was willing to come and help.

She’d done more than that – Sue had shown up with tablecloths and placards with prices on them, done in brilliant Christmas colors. While Molly was getting the last of the cookies from the car, Sue and Schrodinger had claimed their three tables, and spread the cranberry red and evergreen plaid tablecloths out. One of the totes held silver trays; as Molly set down her box of cookies, Sue was already laying the trays.

“I figured you wanted me to do this,” she said, as Molly looked over her arrangements. “I haven’t touched the actual cookies yet.”

“That’s fine.” Molly stepped out and looked at the tables from the front with a critical eye. “It looks great so far!”

Around them, other folks were doing the exact same thing: putting out all sorts of homemade goodies, edible and not, onto tables. The proceeds would go to the school, and every year, the folks of the Cove pitched in. Well, most of them did.

Molly shook her head and started to put snowman cookies on one of the trays. “Put the snowflakes on that one,” she said to Sue, who went into another box. “The candy cane ones can be stood up in the vase in the tray box.”

Working quickly and in almost perfect sync, they had the tables set up in no time. Molly and Schrodinger had put their heads together to figure out exactly what kind of cookies to bring. It was the first time in several years that Molly had had the day off for the cookie sale, and she’d wanted to make sure she made every child’s day with her offerings.

“I also made these up for you,” Sue said, passing a stack of papers to Molly, who took them with a blank, puzzled look on her face.

“What – oh! Thank you!”

They were order forms, done in the same colors as the price cards, for Molly’s Christmas goodies. Every year, she took orders for cookies, cakes, scones and other baked goods, and every year, she’d sworn she was going to make order forms for them. She’d never gotten around to it. “What would I do without you?” she said, giving Sue a quick hug. “They’re perfect!”

Sue beamed. “And I have the template saved, so we can make more!” She also produced a couple of clipboards, with candy cane pens already attached. “I borrowed these from the museum, too. I thought we could use them.”

“I should hire you to be my business manager,” Molly said, laughing.

“I work cheap,” Sue replied. “I’ll settle for cookies every day!”

“Done!”

And then, from above, a harsh familiar buzzer sounded, and Molly and Sue got down to business.

It was a frantic rush, but a fun one: children and their parents wound through the passages created by the tables, oohing and aahing over the variety of goods available from all the tables. Molly’s cookies went quickly, and Sue collected a large stack of filled in orders.

“We’re going to be busy this December,” Molly said to Schrodinger, looking at the pile in Sue’s hands. “How many copies of those did you make?”

“Only one hundred,” Sue said. “I didn’t want to overwhelm you. Aunt Margie would kill me.”

“Thank goodness.”

“Molly?”

They all turned at the sound of the voice. There was a little girl standing in front of the table, her pale blue eyes looking past them, her delicate face alight with excitement.

Sarah! Schrodinger leaped out from behind the table and snuggled carefully up to the girl, who leaned down and unerringly hugged him. I was hoping you’d come!

“Of course I’d come,” she told him. “I have something to do.”

“You do?” Molly asked.

Sarah nodded. “It will only take a minute,” she said. “I have to do it quick, before Dad comes over.”

Considering her father was Police Sargent Jamie Carter, Molly grinned. “I have an idea of what it is,” she said, and Sarah giggled. “How many?”

“Mom said we could get two this year, and I’d like to make one a Christmas tree, if you could,” Sarah said.

“We can do a gingerbread Christmas tree,” Molly said, writing down the order. “Did you want the other one to be a regular gingerbread house?”

“Can you do the Gate station?” Sarah asked wistfully. “Mom said it’s beautiful.”

“Of course!” It would take a bit more gingerbread than the normal house, but for Sarah, Molly would do it. The little blind girl was one of her favorites, too. “For the week before Christmas?”

“Yes, please.” Sarah held out her hand, which held not only a check, but a small box. “And I was supposed to ask you to use this as a template for the ornaments.”

Taking the box, Molly frowned. “Okay.”

Then she saw the red envelope as she opened the lid. “Oh Sarah, you too?”

Sarah grinned. “Is it pretty?”

Molly lifted the envelope out, and then pulled out the ornament. This one was gold, with pearl beads interspersed in the webbing. “It’s beautiful,” she said, putting the ornament in the girl’s hand. “All gold, with bits of pearl.”

“It sounds lovely,” Sarah told her, running her fingers over the webbing. Then she handed the ornament back. “I can’t wait to see the tree.”

“I’ll make it shine,” Molly told her.

Sarah turned to leave, but then turned back, her sightless eyes bright. “He’ll be back, Molly. He said to tell you he loves you, and that he knows you’ll help.”

He knows you’ll help. Molly stiffened. That wasn’t what she was expecting.

But it was true. Ever since Schrodinger had told her what he’d found, she’d been turning over ways in her mind to help Drew. To get him home soon.

“You’re right,” she said now. “I’ll help.”

Sarah smiled and then ran off.

How will we help? Schrodinger asked, coming over to her.

“I don’t know yet,” Molly said, looking down at the little ball in her hand. “But we will.”

<><><><><><><><>

Things are definitely changing!  What will Molly, Drew and Schrodinger have to do to convince Old Man Winter to change his mind?

(advent) Sorry for the delay!

Bad Crohn’s evening. 🙁  Sorry, guys.

<><><><>

“So wait a minute,” Sue Elder said, looking over at Molly. All three of the Terrible Trio had descended on the tea shop that afternoon, wanting to hear the story for themselves. The town was rife with rumors as to what had actually happened the previous afternoon, just as Molly had known it would be. Between the Road moving later that night, which half the town had felt (one of the hazards of being born in a CrossRoads town), and the Snow Queen showing up early and then dragging Molly off, the speculations were running faster than the snow melt in the spring rains. “She had one of the ornaments? How?”

“I assume she got it from Drew,” Molly said, scooping up a handful of cinnamon buttons from the bowl next to her. She began to press them into the frosting of the snowman cookies on the tray in front of her.

“Do you know what your problem is, Molly?” Lai asked impatiently, sneaking a few M&Ms from another one of the bowls. “You are too damn nice.”

“You’ve told me that before.” Molly put another button on a snowman. “Why does it continue to surprise you?”

“It doesn’t, it just irritates me,” Lai said. “Why didn’t you ask her what she needed him for?”

“I did,” Molly said. “She told me she couldn’t tell me.”

“And you believed her?”

“Why wouldn’t I?” Molly finally looked up at her friend. “What good would it do for her to lie to me? What would be the point?” Then she quirked an eyebrow at her friend. “Unless, of course, you think she has the hots for him.”

“She could!” Lai said. “He’s hot!”

“He’s about three hundred years younger than she is, too,” Noemi Miller said, trying hard not to chuckle. “Talk about an age difference.”

Lai glared at the three of them, all trying to stifle giggles, and then cracked a smile. “Okay, well, maybe not,” she said. “But still! What could she have wanted him to do?”

“I don’t know,” Molly said, going back to her snowmen. “Schrodinger and I tried to figure that out all last night. He said that she’s got her fingers in more Realms than he could even imagine, and given his imagination, that’s a lot. So it must be something important.” She shrugged. “What else can I do?”

“You could try and figure it out,” Sue said, and Lai nodded. “We’ll help!”

“For what point?” Molly said, pressing the last button into place. She dropped the remaining buttons back into the bowl and picked up one of her icing bags. Each snowman needed a green and red scarf, after all. “She said she needed him to do something for her. Something important. And that he’d be back as soon as he could be.”

“Well, maybe we could help him!” Lai insisted. “Get him back sooner.”

Molly painted another green stripe. “And maybe we could mess it all up.”

Schrodinger had been sitting in the corner of the room, watching everything, listening to everything. Now he said, We might be able to help without actually interfering, you know.

All four of them turned to look at him. “How?” Noemi said finally, since no one else seemed able to speak.

I can find out what’s going on, maybe, he said. There are ways to move around the Realms, and we CrossCats are some of the best at moving unseen when we want to do so. I can do some sniffing, see what I can find out.

Molly was torn. On the one hand, not knowing what Drew was involved in was maddening. But the Snow Queen (Jade, she reminded herself) had been so…sad, really, when she talked about what he was doing. Would it be worth it to risk Schrodinger’s safety?

They have to catch me to hurt me, Schrodinger said, and came over to rub his head against her leg. And I’m not that easy to catch.

“I can’t stop you from going,” she said, putting her bag down and kneeling down to hug him. “But remember, you promised to be good. And part of being good is being safe.” She hugged him close to her. “I don’t know what I’d do if you got hurt.”

I will be so careful, he promised her.

“You’d better.”

<><>

It was snowing again. Drew scowled at the falling flakes, and then let the curtain drop back down as he turned again to the room. The door wasn’t locked any more, but at the moment, there was nothing out in the rest of the house that he wanted to see.

Three weeks. At the very least, this was going to be his home for the next three weeks. A home without Molly, or Schrodinger. As far as he knew, Drew was alone in the Snow Queen’s cottage.

He snorted. “Cottage” in this case meant a small mansion, staffed by apparently invisible servants. Molly would have loved it.

Well, maybe after this is all over, Jade will let you borrow it for a weekend, he thought to himself. She’ll owe you at least that much.

Then he shook himself. That was the problem with being on his own – too much time on his hands to think. “I need to figure out something to do,” he said out loud, more to hear something other than the shushing of the snow against the windows. “Something to keep me occupied.”

Drew looked up at the ceiling, trying to think of options. He could read, of course – there was a library that Jade had told him he had free run of. There was a computer down there too, but he didn’t want to turn it on just yet. The temptation to contact Molly was too great at the moment, and if he did, he would have to tell her. And there was no way he wanted to put that much pressure on her shoulders.

And then it came to him.

“Of course!” Drew threw his head back and laughed at himself. “There’s more than one way to make sure we can keep in touch.”

It wouldn’t be easy. He’d have to keep his influence light. But Jade had said he couldn’t go back. She never said he couldn’t get help from others.

One specific other, in particular. And that was better than nothing.

<><>

It felt good to be out again. Schrodinger trotted out the back door of CrossWinds Books, out into the freshly fallen snow, trying to rein in his excitement. But to be out, without supervision, going back onto the Roads – it was intoxicating.

He paused in the small back alley, raising his nose to sniff the breeze. Sea salt combined with the cold dustiness of snow and the scent of wood smoke in his nostrils, but it wasn’t physical scents he was looking for. No, Schrodinger was looking for a very different kind of scent, and it was not in evidence behind the bookstore.

Which means I need to start walking.

He struck out in a random direction: the nice thing about living in a CrossRoads town was that there were Roads everywhere. You just had to walk a bit to find one. And if you didn’t happen to need a physical Gate to access those Roads, well…

Less than a minute later, Schrodinger found what he was looking for. The wind changed, and his sensitive nose picked up the unmistakable smell of a Road. He gathered himself together and jumped up…

And through something that stretched like a thin membrane around him, then broke, taking him from the world of Carter’s Cove and onto the surface of a Road.

The familiar oddity of the Road surrounded him, its magic stroking his fur with invisible fingers. Schrodinger looked around at the grey-green mist, using his special senses to determine where this Road went and where he needed to go. He hadn’t told Molly where he was going, but he knew where he had to start if he wanted to find out what was going on with the Snow Queen. There was one person who would know what she was doing.

The Librarian.

He oriented himself and trotted off, his head held high.

It was GOOD to be on the Roads again!

<><>

Molly finally threw the Trio out, promising to tell them as soon as Schrodinger came back with any information. “I have work to do!” she told them. “Unless you are going to help me decorate cookies for the school bake sale tomorrow, you need to get out. I need to be able to concentrate!”

They’d gone, promising to come back and help her pack them up in boxes for the next day, and Molly had breathed a sigh of relief once the quiet had descended again. She turned up the radio, since WCOV (Carter Cove’s own radio station) was broadcasting their recording of the Christmas concert from last year. Sharsha, the lovely singer that was studying here in the Cove, had had a starring role – her exquisite voice flowed from the speakers, filling the kitchen with music. Molly picked up her icing bag again and went back to her decorating, making red and green scarves on the sugar cookies she’d iced white before. Then, while the icing scarves hardened, she picked up another icing bag, this one filled with black icing, and filled in the top hats on each cookie, and adding eyes and button smiles. Then she went back to the red and green icing, making a festive holly sprig on each hat, before she picked up the last icing bag, this one filled with orange icing, for the final touch: the carrot nose. Then on to the next tray, starting once again with cinnamon buttons.

She had nearly eight dozen cookies to decorate and slide into clear cellophane bags placed on trays around the room, and the steady, delicate work distracted her from worrying about Drew and Schrodinger. It was like meditation – clearing out her mind of garbage, leaving only stillness and concentration. When she finally stood up and put the icing bag down after the last cookie, Molly was surprised to find it was nearly four in the afternoon.

“Is it safe?” Aunt Margie asked, poking her head around the door and grinning at her niece.

“Yes,” Molly said, placing all the icing bags in an empty bowl. She dropped the bowl into the sink and filled it with hot water, then turned to face her aunt. “Tea?”

“Please.”

As Molly went into her pantry to get another tea mug, Aunt Margie looked around at the cookies lining the tray. “These look great,” she called out. “The kids will love them!” Molly heard a tray move and grinned. Gotcha, you sneak.

“I hope so,” Molly called back. “Any specific tea request?”

“Surprise me,” Aunt Margie answered. “As long as it has caffeine.”

Molly suppressed the urge to get something horribly decaffeinated and plucked a box of her aunt’s favorite holiday spiced tea from the shelf. She put a tea bag in the large stoneware mug she’d chosen and called out, “Can I come out yet?”

“You have sharper ears than Schrodinger!” Aunt Margie complained. “Yes, you can come out.”

There was a small, gaily wrapped box waiting for her on the island, next to the last tray she’d finished decorating. Molly ignored it for the moment, picking up her own empty mug on the way to the stove, where her ever present kettle sat over a low flame, bubbling merrily. She put both mugs down, took a tea bag from her own personal stash in the ceramic tea house cookie jar Drew and Schrodinger had gotten her for her birthday, dropped the tea in her own mug and poured boiling water into both mugs. Then she refilled the kettle, set it back on the flame and brought both mugs back to the island.

“That smells wonderful.” Aunt Margie accepted the mug with a sigh of relief.

Molly went around to her own seat and put the tea down. Instead of picking up the gift, she picked up the tray of cookies and brought it to the farther counter. Then, she took the tray of cookies from the other side of the room, the first set she had iced, and brought them back to the island. All the while, she watched her aunt from beneath her lashes, smiling privately as Aunt Margie waited.

“Are you going to make me wait while you package all of these before you open this?” Aunt Margie said, as Molly reclaimed her seat.

“I should,” Molly said, but relented. Instead of picking up the cellophane bags, she picked up the small box. It was surprisingly heavy.

“Be careful,” Aunt Margie said. “The box it came in was marked Fragile.”

“It was delivered?” Molly looked at her aunt. “By who?”

“The postman.” Aunt Margie shrugged. “It came in the afternoon mail.”

The wrapping paper was silver and gold paisley, brilliant in the kitchen light. Molly unwrapped it carefully and opened the white box she found inside, pulling out a wad of green tissue paper. Then she gasped.

Inside the box, nestled in more tissue paper, was a china teacup, with a small ornament inside it. Molly lifted the cup out, marveling at the thinness of it. Hand-painted holly leaves and gold edging sparkled; she wondered how old it was. There was a matching plate, of course, and she lifted it out. Then she finally lifted out the familiar red card.

Aunt Margie took the ornament from the cup. “These are amazing,” she said. It was red and gold today, and like the others, it was small. Just the right size for the tree Drew had left on Molly’s dining room table.

“I know,” Molly said, opening the card. “I don’t know where he found them.”

The card said, “Tea is the best thing on a cold day. I know you love your tea cups, but you don’t have one that’s special for Christmas. I saw this and thought of you. I hope you enjoy it.”

Molly closed the card and put it back in the box. Then she moved the fragile tea cup to a shelf where it wouldn’t be hit accidentally.

“He’ll be back, child,” Aunt Margie said softly. “He’ll be back.”

“I know.” Molly returned to her seat and picked up the cellophane wrappers. “I know.”

(advent) December 4 – The point where you guys will either love this – or hate it.

Today’s entry is a worrying one for me.  Why?  Because I’m changing the story.  Well, not the story, per se.  But the feel of the story.  And I worry that you guys, the ones who adored the first one, won’t like it.

Note that doesn’t mean that I haven’t written it.  I have.  And I’m going to continue this theme, at least for this Advent story.

But I worry, you know.  I worry that I’ve changed too much.  That I’ve changed the tone too much.

I hope you still like it.

<><><><><><>

The world was dark. And painful. Drew swam up through the inky blackness, feeling every muscle and tendon in his body begin to protest as he came back to the world a piece at a time. The darkness resolved itself into his eyelids at last, and he steeled himself for more pain when he opened his eyes.

At least whoever had kidnapped him had had the decency to give him a room with an actual bed. And he wasn’t tied up – in fact, he was snuggled under a massive down comforter in a bed that could have easily fit him, Molly, Schrodinger and about four of their closest friends. It was soft and warm, and Drew had to fight the temptation to just sink back into unconsciousness. The only thing that kept him from doing that was the need to find out what had happened.

He struggled up to a seated position, his head spinning a bit as he moved. Concussion, probably, he thought, touching the spot on his jaw where the giant that had surprised him at the cabin had hit him. Running his hand over the back of his head, Drew found a matching spot from where he had hit the floor and winced. He sat for a couple of minutes, trying to see if there were any other injuries he’d sustained.

There weren’t. Other than the two lumps on his head, he hadn’t been beaten. The aches in his body were muscular, probably from being carried over the giant’s shoulder, but there were no cuts, no obvious wounds.

Which means they want me alive. Whoever they are. Drew squinted through the dimness of the room, trying to see if he was the only person in the room. He was. As his eyes adjusted to the subdued lighting, Drew realized the room was large, a bedroom that one might have found in a luxury hotel. Two large bookcases loomed out of the twilight, bracketing a fireplace that had the dim glow of coals nestled in its heart. There was a desk under what Drew realized was a large window. And there was a door.

He slipped from the bed stiffly, wondering how long he’d been unconscious. There was a furry feeling to his tongue that suggested he might have been drugged after he’d been knocked out, and his reactions were still a bit fuzzy, but he was relatively steady on his feet after a moment of swaying. Drew made a beeline for the door, hoping against hope that this was just a mistake, a bad dream…

The door was locked.

Drew leaned against the door, his forehead pressed against the cool wood, and cursed under his breath. Of course it was locked. Whoever took me wants me alive, but out of the way, he thought. But why? Why me? It’s not like I’m anyone important. I’m just a Gate tech. No one special.

His mind flitted to Molly. She would be frantic by now, if she wasn’t royally pissed off at him for not showing up at the Christmas tree farm. He hoped Lai had covered for him – no, Molly wouldn’t be pissed, she’d be worried sick. She knew he wouldn’t stand her up.

Gotta get home, Drew thought, pushing himself off the door and turning to look at the room again. There had to be something here he could use to get out. I am NOT missing the Christmas season with Molly and Schrodinger. Not an option. There has to be some way to get out. And get to a Gate. And get home.

Odd how quickly the small town of Carter’s Cove had become home to him. It was so similar and yet so different from the CrossRoads town in the Midwest he’d grown up in. When he’d come to the Cove last year, he’d been counting down the days until he could transfer out, to one of the big towns on the West Coast.

And then he’d met Molly, and Schrodinger, and lost his heart. And his mind, one of his buddies from the Academy had kidded him, but Drew didn’t care. He no longer wanted to be an engineer in one of the big Gate Stations. He wanted to stay in Maine, with its weather and odd inhabitants and Yankee proclivities. He wanted to stay with Molly.

Now I just need to figure out where I am, and see how close a Road is, he decided, striding over to the window. Yanking the curtains aside, Drew blinked at the sudden sunlight. When his eyes adjusted and he saw what lay just beyond the glass, he groaned.

Snow. Ice and snow and clear blue sky as far as the eye could see, tumbling down the sides of what appeared to be a mountain. The snowfields, full of ancient pine trees clad in white, marched off into the distance, disappearing into the horizon. Above, the sun (only one sun, he noted) shimmered in the middle of a cloudless sky.

There would be no escape via the window. The ground was nearly twenty feet below him, and there were no trees close enough that he could jump to. If he could open the window, which didn’t seem possible. He cursed and banged his hand against the window.

“That’s not the usual reaction I get from my house guests,” said a light voice from behind him, and Drew whirled around, astonished. He hadn’t heard the door open or close.

But he was definitely not alone anymore, and the door was still shut tight. However, standing in the middle of the room, surrounded by a pale light that seemed to emanate from within, was the slender form of the Snow Queen.

Her silver-blonde hair was intricately braided and wrapped around her head, a cushion for her small platinum and diamond crown to rest upon. He’d only seen her up close once, at the Ball last Christmas, dressed in a beautiful gown, but she was just as impressive in the simple dark green dress she was currently wearing. A cape of fur, lightly dusted with snow, lay across her shoulders.

“House guest?” Drew said finally, after he’d gaped at her for a few minutes. The fur she wore reminded him of the giant that had attacked him, although he couldn’t say why. “Funny, I don’t feel like a house guest. Maybe it’s because I’m locked in here, and can’t leave.”

The Snow Queen looked at him, her face shadowed with sorrow, or regret. He couldn’t decide which. “I am sorry for that,” she said. “It was necessary, I promise you.”

“Was it?” Now Drew was getting annoyed. “Why? I haven’t done anything to you.”

“No, you haven’t,” she agreed. “And I am sorry that you have been embroiled in this, Drew. But this was the only way.”

“The only way to do what?”

Her next words sent an icicle through his heart. “The only way to save Carter’s Cove from destruction.”

<><>

“So, my fine, furred friend, what shall we do today?”

Molly toyed with the remains of her scrambled eggs and looked down at Schrodinger, who was finishing up his first bowl of Earl Grey. They had both slept in, as was their wont on their off days, and had taken a leisurely breakfast as they watched the snow fall. The light snow from the night before had turned into a steady snow storm, and Molly wondered how many new feet of snow they would end up with before it ended. It had the feel of a storm that was settling in for a long visit.

The CrossCat sat back on his haunches and brushed a paw over his whiskers, getting the last drops of tea from them. We have to make cookies, he said. But we’ll need to take a walk too.

Molly nodded. “I’m out of powdered sugar, and I’d like to get some more cranberries,” she said. “Maybe I’ll make cranberry muffins later today.”

And when we go out to the store, we could stop by the Station, Schrodinger said. Find out more about when they expect Drew back.

“Yes.” Molly got up and picked up their breakfast dishes. She rinsed them off and then put them in the dishwasher. “Let me take a shower and we’ll head out.”

It took a little bit longer than that, of course. They couldn’t show up at the Gate Station empty-handed. Molly had learned that the best way for her to get information from the Gate techs and engineers was with a full picnic basket of homemade goodies, and she happened to have some amaretto brownies that she’d made for just such an occasion.

She and Schrodinger trudged through the snow, feeling the crisp air against their skin, a fabric shopping bag over her shoulder with the pan of brownies and a tin of sugar cookies in it. The Gate Station was only a few minutes’ walk from her apartment in the summer, but in the winter, it took them almost fifteen minutes to get to the large mansion that housed the main Gate of Carter’s Cove.

Once the town was large enough to merit a full Station (as opposed to just a way station, which is what many of the smaller Gates still had), the Gate had been enclosed within a large brick mansion that could not only house the Gate but also the personnel needed to keep it running smoothly.

Molly and Schrodinger trudged up the long, winding driveway, enjoying the snow sculptures that had been erected on the rolling lawns that surrounded the Station. The Station personnel tried to outdo themselves every year, and this year was Molly’s favorite so far. The theme had been Christmas Past, and the lawn was dotted with singing snowmen carrying lit candles (courtesy of a small magical cantrip that kept the flames flickering without melting the wax or the snowmen in question), a sleigh with snowmen, pulled by snow reindeer, and other fantastical objects. In the falling snow, it was like walking through a dream.

The house itself reared out of the snow, decked in green and gold garlands and thousands of icicle lights hanging from its roof and towers. Molly remembered Drew’s groans of pain the night he’d come home after they’d hung the lights – rather than use magic to hang them, Mal had insisted on ladders. And had then retreated to his office to let the “younger, stronger members of the staff” actually do the work.

The wreath on the front door had glass candy canes and peppermint starlites on it, almost glowing against the dark evergreen boughs. Molly didn’t knock, but opened the door and let Schrodinger bound in ahead of her.

Hi Heidi! he called, even as he paused on the mat inside the foyer to shake all the snow from his fur. Then he ran into the main entryway to greet the receptionist

“Hi Schrodinger!” Heidi replied, putting down her book and pushing her glasses back up on her nose. She was a dark-haired older woman with twinkling grey eyes, a friendly smile and a drawer full of treats for the CrossCat and any of the other nonhumans who visited the Station. On his pillow beside the reception desk, her old tabby cat Porter raised his head and meowed a welcome.

Schrodinger paused by Porter, touching noses in welcome, and then rubbed up against Heidi’s leg. Did you miss me?

“I always miss you!” Heidi told him, stroking his head. “Porter and I love to have you come by.” She smiled at Molly, who had finished knocking the snow off herself and had joined them. “Hi, Molly!”

“Hi.” Molly smiled at her. “Any news about Drew?”

Heidi’s smile faltered a little, and she shook her head. “Not yet. Mal and Tom Senior have been working overtime all night, trying to bring the Gate back on line, but for some reason, they just can’t get the Road to reconnect there.”

“Have you ever heard of that happening?” Molly asked her.

Heidi shook her head, but Schrodinger nodded. Sometimes the paths of the Roads, they change, he said. If the Road has shifted far enough, it might go to a different place, so the Gate won’t have the right coordinates to ground it anymore.

“So how do you fix that?” Molly said.

Build a new Gate, Schrodinger said. And hope that something opens up to the old Gate at some point, so you don’t waste the arch.

Molly swallowed. “What about the people on the other side of the Gate that doesn’t work anymore?”

Schrodinger suddenly seemed to realize what he’d said. Oh, Molly, there are other ways to get to someone besides a Gate! He went and rubbed his head up next to her. Not everyone uses the Gates, and if there is a great need, Roads can be moved again. It just takes a lot of energy, and magic, and talent. Don’t worry. Drew isn’t lost forever. He’ll be back.

Mal said the same thing when she and Schrodinger went to deliver their goodies to the techs and engineers in the Gate Room. “Don’t worry, Molly,” the grizzled older man told her, switching his ever-present unlit pipe to the other side of his mouth. “We are not leaving anyone there. We’ll get that damn Gate open again.” He nodded towards the Gate, where a group of people with tablet computers, lit candles and smoking censors were doing various arcane things. “No matter how long it takes us.”

“That’s good to hear,” Molly said, handing him the wrapped pan of brownies and the tin of sugar cookies. “I’m baking later today, so I’ll send up some more supplies.”

“You do that, and maybe we’ll have to bring the boy back and stash him somewhere, so we can get more,” Mal teased her, but relented when she scowled at him. “I’m kidding, I’m kidding.” He reached out and laid a hand on her arm, his oddly light eyes serious for once. “I am sorry, Molly, that we had to send him. I know he wanted to spend this month with you, but I had no choice.”

“I know,” Molly said, turning to look at the Gate again, rather than at Mal. “He knew. It’s his job.”

Mal squeezed her arm. “We’ll get him back.”

Molly just nodded, still watching the group at the Gate, not trusting herself to speak. She heard him leave, presumably to put the treats in the kitchen where the others could help themselves, since he didn’t cross in front of her to join the techs and engineers at the Gate.

The Gate itself dominated the room, which was in what might have been a solarium in a normal mansion. Overhead, the massive glass roof let filtered light down to play along the curving granite-sheathed arches of the Gate, the second Gate to be used in Carter’s Cove, and the grass that carpeted the room.  Real grass, not AstroTurf or carpet, but real grass, keeping the Gate grounded to the land.

Like all the other children who had grown up in the town, Molly had learned how Captain James Carter had sailed into the Cove via a Sea Road, and discovered the first Gate, a simple stone circle high on the hill. How he had founded the town and fought off invaders who had attempted to invade by destroying that first Gate, and how his descendants had built this Gate to replace the ruined one, linking it to a new Road that allowed the Cove to grow and become a major hub in the area. Funny,she thought, watching as Tom Senior opened one of the panels on the side and squinted into the innards of the Gate. I never thought my life would depend on a Gate working this much. Not like this.

Schrodinger had trotted down to the group, his tail wagging and his ears swiveling. CrossCats were twice as curious as any house cat she’d met, and with his expertise on traveling the Roads, she had no doubt he was itching to help in any way he could. Only the fact that he’d promised not to go looking for Drew was keeping him with her at the moment, she knew.

However, that won’t stop him from offering advice to anyone who will listen, Molly thought, her lips twitching in a smile despite herself.

“They could do worse than listen to him,” said an unexpected voice from beside her.  “CrossCats are very sensitive to the paths of the Roads, and he might be able to sniff out a new track for them to use, if the Road truly has shifted.”

The scent of vanilla, peppermint and ice rushed over Molly as she turned to see the Snow Queen standing beside her, looking faintly amused.  It wasn’t unusual to see her in the Gate Room, especially in December, since she took an interest in the traffic for the Ball, but that was later in the season.  And she wasn’t usually alone, like now.  Molly blinked.

“Do you really think he could help?” she said, since it would have been rude to come out and say what she really wanted to, which was, “What the heck are you doing here, and why are you reading my mind?”

The Snow Queen laughed.  “Sorry, I didn’t mean to.  Sometimes I forget that not everyone can hear thoughts like I can.  I didn’t mean to intrude.”  She looked out at the CrossCat, who had sat near one of the other techs, leaning in to look over her shoulder into the panel that she was poking a long metal tool into.  “But yes, he is a valuable resource to them, if they realize it.”

Tom Senior turned and looked down at Schrodinger, clearly asking him something, although Molly couldn’t tell what.  Schrodinger cocked his head and then nodded.

“I knew they were smart,” the Snow Queen said.  “Now, Molly, while your little guardian is busy, I would like to speak with you, if I may.”  She looked around them pointedly.  “In private.”

“Me?” Molly blinked.  “Why?”

The Snow Queen turned and smiled at her.  “I have something for you.”

Molly’s eyebrows rose.  “You do?”

Linking her arm into Molly’s, the Snow Queen said, “Yes.”

There was little else Molly could do but walk alongside the woman.  Everyone took one look at them and got out of the way as the two walked along the grass to the door at the other end of the room, back the way Molly and Schrodinger had come in just a few minutes earlier.  Heidi looked up in surprise as they entered in the foyer, but didn’t say anything as the Snow Queen pulled Molly into one of the empty receiving rooms.  The front of the mansion had several rooms especially for travelers to rest and recover from their journeys before either going off onto the Roads again, or down to the Cove: they had several comfortable chairs grouped around a fireplace, a Keurig coffeemaker and a basketful of coffee, tea and hot chocolate cups, a couple of mugs, and a small table in the corner.  The Snow Queen pointed to one of the chairs; Molly sank into it, wondering what on earth one of the major personages of the Roads could have to say to her.

“You look scared,” the Snow Queen said, settling into the chair opposite her, shedding her fur cloak as she did so.  Her dark green dress was plain but exquisitely made; there was the faintest sparkle of silver shot through the fabric, and Molly could see the faintest patterning of snowflakes on the hem.  Her pale hair was braided in a coronet around her temples, holding her exquisite tiara in place.  Molly felt plain next to her radiance.

“Well, it’s not every day the Snow Queen asks for a private chat with me,” Molly said honestly.  “I’m not sure what I should be feeling.”

The Snow Queen laughed.  “I promise, I have good news for you,” she said.  “Would it make you feel more comfortable if I told you to just call me Jade?  The Snow Queen is such a formal lady, after all, and I’m not really feeling formal today.”

Molly eyed the tiara.  “That’s your everyday coronet?”

Jade laughed again, and waved her hand.  The tiara and cloak disappeared.  “Touche,” she said.  “Is that better?”

Molly opened her mouth to protest, and then shook her head.  “I…yes, yes, it is,” she said finally.  “How can I help you?”

“First, you can relax,” Jade said firmly.  “I’m bringing you good news.”

“Good news?”

“Yes.  I’ve just come from talking to Drew.”

That was NOT what Molly was expecting to hear.  She shot to her feet.  “Drew?  Where is he?  Is he okay?”

“He’s fine, Molly,” Jade said, pulling her back down.  Molly sat, unable to believe what she was hearing.  “He sends his love to you.”

“His love.”  Molly looked at her.  “When is he coming back?”

To her surprise, Jade looked sad.  “Not for a while, I’m afraid.”

“Why not?”

Jade sighed.  “Because I need him to do something for me, Molly.  Something very important, that only he can do.”  She leaned forward and laid a cool hand on Molly’s hand.  “I didn’t want to have to use him, but I have no choice.  I need you to understand, Molly.”

It was hard to resist the earnestness in her voice and her eyes.  Molly bit her lip.  “Why Drew?”

“Because he’s a good man,” Jade said softly.  “And that’s what we need to…” She trailed off, then shook her head.  “That’s what we need.”  She leaned back and reached down to the bag Molly hadn’t realized she was carrying under her cloak.  “But he wanted you to know that he’s still thinking of you.”

Molly accepted the silver ball numbly.  It was cold, as if it had been formed of the snow falling from the sky outside, and instead of Drew’s normal red envelope, there was a scrap of ribbon attached that he had written “Don’t Forget” on in his lovely calligraphy.   “You can’t tell me what he’s doing, can you?” she asked.

“No,” Jade said.  “I’m sorry.  But I can promise you it’s important.  Terribly important.”

 “Can you tell him something from me?” Molly said finally, after the silence had stretched for a few minutes, broken only by the crackling of the fire.

“Of course.”

“Tell him he owes me a Christmas tree.”  It was stupid, but that was the only thing she could think of that wouldn’t have her bawling.  Molly raised her chin.  “And that he better be back by Christmas Eve.”

Jade smiled.  “Done.”

(advent) December 3 – Things are getting interesting!

And yes, that IS all I’ll say.

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“Anybody got a cup of tea for a lonely, parched soul?”

Schrodinger’s ears perked up as the sound of Lai Zhao’s voice floated through CrossWinds Books. The early evening had been quiet – it was still early enough in the season that folks were going home rather than trying to shop. Margie kept the store hours to the normal ones for the first two weeks of December, because after 6 p.m., the only people who really came in were the diehards and the high school students looking to get some project work done. The CrossCat had been drowsing in his bed next to the wood stove, which Molly had kept turned up all day, half-listening to the three girls discussing their paper on the role of the Roads in the development of Carter’s Cove. Now, however, he hopped up, stretched luxuriantly and then trotted over to the tall Asian girl who was shaking snow flakes from her hair.

Lai! He rubbed his cheek against her knee-high leather boots, feeling the cold from outside sink through his fur. Is it snowing again?

“I don’t think it ever stopped,” Lai told him, crouching down to rub his ears. “How’s she doing?”

She’s excited, Schrodinger said, his tail starting to whip back and forth. Drew’s supposed to be home tonight, and I know she has a special dinner planned for him.

“I hope it’s okay if it sits for a while,” Lai said, grinning. “I think she might be distracted.” She stood up again and picked up the leather messenger bag she’d put on the floor. “Come on!”

Schrodinger followed her eagerly into the kitchen, where Molly was singing along with Bing Crosby on the radio as she rolled out dough. The entire kitchen smelled of apples, spices and caramel, which meant she was making more of the caramel apple turnovers that she’d debuted during the fall season to great acclaim. In fact, they’d edged out her cinnamon rolls for a bit. And that was almost unheard of here in Carter’s Cove, where a batch of Molly’s cinnamon rolls were usually gone before the icing finished setting.

“It smells divine in here,” Lai said, shedding her stylish wool coat and sinking onto a stool. “And warm. God, I thought I wouldn’t be warm again walking out there tonight.”

“It could be worse,” Molly said, putting her rolling pin aside. She turned and grabbed a heavy earthenware mug and filled it, not with tea, but with hot apple cider from a pot on the burner. Then she dropped a chai tea bag into the cider. “If it wasn’t snowing, it would be colder.”

Lai shuddered dramatically as she accepted the chai cider from her friend. “Ugh. I still don’t know how I survive every winter.”

“Because you don’t know any different?” Molly chuckled as she slid a plate with two warm turnovers on it. The small triangles of sweet dough were golden brown and drizzled with a caramel-infused frosting, and bulged with apples, spices, raisins and more of Molly’s homemade caramel sauce.  “Watch out, those just came out of the oven.  They’re hot.”

And you’d miss us too much if you went away, Schrodinger added, jumping up on the other stool.  He looked mournfully at Molly, who shook her head but put a large latte mug full of his favorite Earl Grey tea in front of him.  Schrodinger took his tea exactly like his hero, Captain Jean-Luc Picard – hot, and black.

“True.”  Lai bit into one of the turnovers and moaned, half in pleasure, half in pain.

“I told you they were hot!” Molly scolded her.

“They taste better hot,” Lai mumbled, sucking air into her burned mouth.

Molly laughed.  “How can you taste anything with scorched taste buds?” she teased.

“Bah, caramel can’t scorch my taste buds,” Lai said, still fanning her mouth.  “They’ve been fire-tested with wasabi.  The roof of my mouth might never be the same, though.”

Schrodinger dipped his tongue delicately into his tea, trying hard to control his excitement.  Then he snuck a look at the clock.  Almost 7 o’clock.  Almost time for Aunt Margie to come over the store’s intercom and announce that they would be closing in ten minutes.  Then they could get on to the real fun – once Lai convinced Molly to leave the kitchen, that was.

“So, Miss Molly, I hear you have a hot date tonight,” Lai continued, taking a sip of her chai cider.

“That’s the rumor,” Molly said, turning back to her dough so Lai couldn’t see her blush.  Schrodinger saw it, though, and he knew Lai did too.  “Drew’s supposed to be home tonight, and I thought, since it was so cold here, I’d make a beef stew.”

“Do you know when he’s coming?” Lai asked, all innocence, but Schrodinger hastily took another drink of tea so he wouldn’t snort.  Lai was clever, she was.  Molly wouldn’t even be aware she was being led.

Still rolling out to the dough, Molly shook her head.  “He just said this evening, so I figured the stew would be the best idea.  There are biscuits ready to be warmed in the fridge too.”

“He’s a lucky man,” Lai said.  She took another bite (a smaller one, Schrodinger noticed) of the turnover and then said, “How will you know when he’s home?”

“He’s supposed to text.”  Molly put her rolling pin in the sink and then took a pizza cutter from the counter next to her.  The large rectangle of dough rapidly became smaller squares, which Molly filled one corner of with her special mixture.  Caramel from a small pot on the stove joined the apples, spices and raisins on the dough, and then she folded the opposite corner down, creating little triangular packages.  A simple fork pressed the edges together; then she transferred them to the baking sheet she’d had next to her and put the entire thing in the oven, removing the one that had been in there.

Schrodinger loved to watch Molly in the kitchen.  When she was in “the zone,” as she called it, it was an intricate dance that she performed, taking the most mundane of ingredients and transforming them into amazing goodies.  She said it was just cooking, but Schrodinger knew it was more than that.  Molly was magic in the kitchen, never working from actual recipes unless she was redacting them, and in her hands, food became something more than it normally was.  She always knew what went well, and the only burnt food coming out of her kitchen was when she was feeling cross.  The smell of smoke was a sure sign to avoid her.

Now, he and Lai watched as Molly took the last of the caramel and mixed it with some of her homemade icing, thinning it with just a bit of apple cider so it would drizzle nicely on the warm turnovers.  Her spoon moved expertly, laying down a thin line of icing perfectly across each golden pastry.  Then she moved the tray of finished turnovers to the far island, where they joined the rest of their fellows and continued to cool.

Just as she came back to the island, the intercom crackled and Aunt Margie’s voice said, “Attention, folks.  We’re closing in ten minutes.  Please bring your final purchases to the checkout counter downstairs, and we’ll see you tomorrow.”

Molly sat down on the third stool and picked up her own mug of chai cider.  “The last tray should only take about fifteen minutes,” she told Schrodinger.  “So we’ll be out of here on time.”

Okay, he said.  He knew better, but it wasn’t his night to do things.  Drew had promised him that he could do one, but this one required Lai.  More importantly, it required Lai’s car, since Molly didn’t have one.

“Can I help?” Lai asked.  “Then you can get out earlier.  I can even give you a ride.”

“Sure, although there’s not much to do,” Molly said.  “I did the dishes and set everything out for tomorrow already, so Sarah can fill tea orders.  Mostly all I need to do is sweep the kitchen and the tea room, bank the fire in the wood stove, finish off the last set of turnovers and make sure they’re put away.  If you want to sweep once the front door is locked, Lai, I’ll finish in here.”

They chatted and sipped their hot beverages while the turnovers baked.  Then, as Molly frosted the last batch and began to pack the others into air-tight containers for Sarah to serve the next day, Lai and Schrodinger tidied up the tea room, wiping down tables and sweeping the floor.  Molly joined them as they were finishing and she knelt in front of the wood stove, carefully banking the fire for the night.  All Sarah would have to do in the morning was breath some life into the coals, and add wood.

“Molly, do you need a ride home?” Aunt Margie asked, coming into the kitchen, already clad in her heavy lumberjack coat and the hat Molly’s mother had knit for her.  “It’s too cold for you two to be walking home.”

“Lai’s taking us home,” Molly said, and her friend nodded.  “We’re fine, Aunt Margie.”

“Good.”  Aunt Margie shooed them all out of the door and locked it behind her.  “Enjoy your day off!” she called as she strode off to her car.

We will! Schrodinger called back, already bounding towards Lai’s car.  In keeping with her view on life, Lai had eschewed the little black sports car her mother had wanted to buy her in favor of a sleek Land Rover, customized to fit the unique environments she took it into.

Schrodinger bounced into the back seat, barely able to contain his glee.  Now? he asked Lai, carefully, so Molly wouldn’t hear.

“Yes.”  Lai waited until Molly had her seatbelt fastened before she steered the car out of the parking spot.

“Wait, Lai, this isn’t the way to my apartment,” Molly said, as the Land Rover passed the street they normally walked down.

“I know.”  Lai grinned at her.  “Open the glove box.”

Molly gave her a suspicious look, but opened the glove compartment and pulled out a fragrant evergreen branch.  Attached to the middle of the little bough was a gold beaded ornament; still in the glove box was the familiar red envelope.

“You’re rotten!” Molly cried, but Schrodinger heard the joy in her voice.  Just a little bit, but more than he’d heard in a few months.  “You tricked me!”

Lai chuckled.  “You don’t know the half of it.”

<><>

Drew eyed the sky as they packed the rest of the equipment onto the sled they’d brought with them.  The sun was still high, but there were clouds coming in.  The Gate Station at Carter’s Cove had warned them about a storm growing south of the Gate they were working on, and he wanted to be long gone before it got to them.

“We all set, Steve?” he called, and the other tech nodded.

“Good to go,” he said, the southern drawl sounding remarkably out of place.  He’d come up from the Gate station inAustinto help Carter’s Cove over this season, and his accent had most of the girls in town swooning.  The fact that he was tall, tanned and (most importantly) not from the Cove was gravy, or so Molly had told Drew.

“Good.”  Drew spared one more look at the sky.  “Then get that through the Gate.  I’m going to check the cabin one more time, to make sure the only things we left were what the next crew needs.”

Steve nodded.  “Want help?”

“Nah, you and Tom go through.”  Drew looked at the older man who was standing by the arch.  “I’ll be right behind you.”

“Good enough.”  Steve started the engine on the sled and began to guide it down to the Gate.

As he turned and headed back up the path to the little cabin that would eventually be the way station for the Gate (as long as the Road stayed stable, of course, but there was little doubt it would), Drew felt Tom open the Gate.  Each engineer worked the Gate magics a little differently, which made it easy to know who was working.  Tom Alward Senior had been the Gate engineer at the Carter’s Cove Station for nearly forty years.  Rumor had it he was looking to retire next year, although now that his son, Tom Junior, had dropped out of the Academy, that was up in the air.  Drew grimaced.  He liked Tom, even though the guy had hurt Molly pretty badly, and he’d overheard at least one of the tongue lashings the younger Alward had gotten from his father.  No one deserved that.

He was still musing about that when he pushed open the door to the cabin.  Everything seemed to be in order, and Drew made a quick sweep, coming up with an iPod charging cable (Steve’s) and a half-used notebook with row upon row of Gate coordinates (Tom’s).  He stuck both in his jacket pockets and then turned back to the door.

Instead of seeing the door, however, he saw the huge bulk of a man dressed in grey, silver and white furs.  Snow hung around him like a shroud, and his breath danced in the suddenly frigid air of the cabin.  Drew had just enough time to notice all this and then pain erupted from the right side of his face.

           <><>

Molly, Lai and Schrodinger wove their way through the back part of the Cohen Christmas Tree farm, looking for the perfect tree for Molly’s apartment.  As they looked, Molly kept one hand in her pocket, cradling her cell phone, waiting for the phone call she knew would come.

But as the minutes stretched on and on, her faith began to flag.  And then doubts crept in.  Not that he dumped her – no, Drew wouldn’t do that, not even if he was ready for the relationship to be over, which he hadn’t shown any inclination to do.  No, but what if the Gate was delayed?  Mitch would call her, wouldn’t he?  To tell her?

Oh, oh, oh! she heard Schrodinger call excitedly.  Molly, Lai, come on!  Come here!

Her heart swelled.  It had to be Drew.  It had to be.  Molly broke into a run, nearly slipping and falling on the snow.

They burst into the clearing at about the same time, she and Lai, but there was no Drew – just Schrodinger, dancing excitedly around what Molly had to admit was the perfect tree.  I found it! he shouted, shaking his head.  And it even has a birds-nest!

Swallowing her disappointment, Molly smiled at him and knelt down to tie their tag to the base of the tree.  Last year, her father had told Schrodinger that the best, most lucky trees had a left-over bird’s nest in them, and that finding a tree with one in it meant good luck for the coming year.

“You’re right,” she told him, sitting back on her heels after she finished tying their tag on.  “It’s perfect.”

It was – a small Balsam fir, fragrant and full, just a bit taller than she was.  And the precious bird’s nest sat about three quarters of the way up, fully intact.  Lai reached up and took the nest out carefully.

We can put candy in it, right?  And put it back into the tree? Schrodinger asked, looking at Molly.

“Of course,” she said, forcing cheerfulness into her voice.  “That would be really neat.”

She couldn’t fool him, though.  He put one wet paw on her leg.  He’ll be back, Schrodinger said.  It’s just a delay.  We can call the Station and confirm that.  He’ll be back.

“I know.”  Molly hugged him, heedless of the snow melting in his fur.  It had started to snow while they walked: a fine, light snow, like the kiss of stars.  “We’ll call Mal when we get home.”

It was a quiet ride home.  Lai dropped them off at the front door, and waited until Molly unlocked the front door before driving off into the snow, waving. 

She’d been hoping that maybe he’d come straight to the apartment from the Gate – it might have been a rough trip, she reasoned, and he might have just come back, gone to shower and then fallen asleep.  He had a key, after all.

But the apartment was dark and quiet, the lights on the tiny Christmas tree on her table the only illumination.  Schrodinger looked up at her as she turned on the lights in the dining room/foyer.

I’ll check the bedroom, he said, and trotted off.

Molly watched him go, knowing he would find the bedroom just as empty as the rest of the house.  Drew’s jacket and boots weren’t in the foyer.

He hadn’t come back.

She called the Station while Schrodinger watched her with worried eyes.  “Hi, Luke,” she said, when the Gate tech came on the line.  “Is Drew back yet?”

There was a slight hesitation before he answered, so slight that she almost missed it.  “No, he’s not back yet,” he said.  “We’re expecting him at any minute.  There was a storm on the other side, and it caused some Road fluctuations.”

Ice crept along her veins.  “Fluctuations?”

“It’s nothing serious, Molly,” Luke hastened to assure her.  “The Gate blinked a couple of times, and then went dead.  But no one was on the Road between the two Gates when it went down.”

Molly swallowed.  “When will the Gate be working again?” she whispered.

“We’re working on it right now,” Luke assured her.  “I promise you, Molly, we’re doing everything we can to get Drew back home.  Right now, he’s probably in the staff cabin, trying to call home.  The phones won’t work until the Gate reopens.  There’s nothing to worry about.”

The reassurances rang hollow in her ears, but Molly thanked him and hung up the phone.  Something was wrong.  Something was terribly wrong, and there wasn’t a damn thing she could do about it.

Schrodinger came up to her.  Did he come back?

“No,” Molly said, and told him what Luke had told her.

Do you want me to go look for him? Schrodinger asked her, laying his head against her leg.

For one long moment, Molly considered it, but then she shook her head.  “No, if there’s a storm there, I’d hate to be worrying about both of you.  Luke is right – Drew is probably going frantic trying to call at the staff cabin.  The storm can’t last too long.  They’ll get the Gate reconnected to the Road, and then he’ll come home.”

If you say so, Schrodinger said, but his tone indicated he didn’t believe it.

Neither did she.