Sunday catchup, and we’re taking a break from the themed post titles. Why? Well, hold on to your Santa hats – “The Missing Mallard (Or ‘Duck, Macalley! Duck!’)” will be coming out this Tuesday, December 5!
(An important note: “The Missing Mallard” will only be available through Amazon and other e-book vendors, no free offers as with the other Peavley Manor novelettes. However, the price will be just 99 cents US.)
Check back on Tuesday for the official release announcement, with buying links, or keep notified by signing up for my mailing list, liking my Facebook page, or following me on Twitter! There’ll also be a full sneak preview on Tuesday! Here’s another little snippet to (hopefully) whet your appetite until then. In it, Alice has a few words for a sinister pixie countess…
“This auction was intended to be for duck enthusiasts, not villains and their sworn enemies!”
“‘Villain’ is such a harsh term,” Gylburnt said.
“What term should I use, then?”
“‘Destined future ruler of Tirnog, conqueror of the lands of the Crescent Sea, and subjugator of humanity.’”
I shook my head. “That might be a bit too long, Countess.”
After the cut…an annual tradition.
I’ve always been a fan of Christmas and the holiday season. The music, the oddball foods you can’t find the rest of the year, the TV shows, the fun of finding that perfect gift, the time with friends and/or family, all of that. That’s why I wanted to write a story for the season with Michiko and Beth, and though it took me a couple of tries, I finally got it right two years ago. Whether this is the first time you’re reading this, or a welcome reread, I hope you enjoy it all the same. (I’d also like to remind media content creators that the rights to “Freddie, The Little Christmas Fruitcake That Could” are still available. Have your people call my people.) Gentle readers, I give you…”Best Christmas Ever”.
“There!” Michiko carefully hung the last shiny ornament on the Christmas tree and straightened up. “I thought I’d missed a spot!”
It had been a quiet holiday season so far for Michiko Koyama, the young hero known as the Monkey Queen, and her best friend and partner in adventure Beth McGill. One of Michiko’s duties was watching over the various communities of Emigres in and around the town of Nortonville. December was the quietest month for her, as Emigres celebrated their New Year starting with the winter solstice. This was marked by low-key ceremony, somber reflection, and staying warm indoors. Much to her joy, Michiko had had plenty of free time to prepare for Christmas.
The main beneficiary of this was the tall Christmas tree that dominated the small living room of the apartment she and Beth shared. Every square inch of the tree was smothered in ornaments, strands of beads and tinsel, and so many lights that the power grid cringed when Michiko plugged everything in. Michiko was also dressed for the season, wearing a glittery red, green and gold sweater that was almost as shiny as the tree and matched the decorations on the walls, doors and windows. The laptop in her bedroom was playing streaming holiday music, and “Santa Claus Is Coming To Town” echoed through the apartment.
“Missed a spot?” Gregor the guinea pig said to himself as Michiko, all smiles, admired the crowded tree. “How on Earth could she tell?” Gregor had been a powerful but selfish sorcerer in a past life, and had agreed to be reincarnated to seek redemption. No one had told him about the catch, and as a result, he was in a near-perpetual state of crankiness.
“She found another ornament?” Beth asked Gregor as she walked into the living room. In contrast to Michiko, Beth had chosen not to show off what Christmas spirit she had; she was wearing a Grinch t-shirt along with blue jeans and black sneakers.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if she ran out and bought another box,” Gregor grumbled from inside his cage, which was the only space in the living room that had somehow escaped Michiko’s decorating spree. “She’s lost whatever mind she might have had.”
“Christmas Eve can do that to anyone,” Beth said. “Just be glad she didn’t hang any mistletoe over your cage.”
“I knew I forgot something!” Michiko slapped her forehead.
Gregor shuddered. “The one thing that would have been worse,” he muttered.
“What time is Scylla picking you up?” Beth asked Gregor.
“She’ll be here shortly,” the guinea pig said. “Thank heavens. I’d rather chew off my own foot than have to spend Christmas here.”
“What’s wrong with that?” Michiko asked, joining Beth by Gregor’s cage.
“That horrible racket coming from your computer, to start with.”
“The holiday music?” Beth asked.
“I love it!” Michiko said. “It’s so festive!”
“If I have to hear ‘Frosty The Snowman’ one more time,” Gregor growled, “I’ll chase the singers out of town with a broomstick!”
“So crabby!” Michiko grinned. “Somebody’s going to get coal in their stocking!”
“And look at this place!” Gregor waved his forepaws. “It’s smothered in tinsel and sparkly things! It looks like the holiday aisle at the dollar store!”
“I like tinsel,” Michiko said meekly.
“It may be a bit overblown,” Beth said.
“But it’s Christmas!” Michiko said. “I love Christmas! I want everybody to see how Christmasy we are.”
“They can see that tree from orbit,” Beth said.
“‘Christmasy’,” Gregor snorted. “Bah!”
The doorbell rang. “Sounds like Scylla’s here, Ebenezer,” Beth said as she walked over to the intercom.
* * *
A few minutes later, Scylla had picked up Gregor and left, after a round of Merry Christmases and goodbyes. They were headed to the world of Fip for a conference of magic-using professionals, which was focused on recent thaumaturgic developments. Gregor was almost as happy to go talk shop and pick up new tricks as Michiko and Beth were to get him out of their hair for a week.
After Gregor was gone, Michiko went into her bedroom, coming out a few minutes later with a large suitcase and a garment bag. She had changed into what Beth jokingly called her “Monkey Queen costume”—her yellow karate jacket, black t-shirt and leggings, and red sneakers and pillbox hat that matched her very long scarf. “You never did tell Gregor about your conference, did you?” Beth said.
Michiko sighed and shook her head. “I wish I didn’t have to go,” she said.
“It’s okay,” Beth said. “We’ll do Christmas when you get back.”
“I know.” Michiko pouted. “It won’t be the same, though. Why does this have to be on Christmas?”
“Because the Council of Eight got a good deal on a block of hotel rooms up in Ashland?”
“Yeah. And Grandmother Fox said that I really had to come to their semiannual conference this time, since it’s her turn to host.” Michiko looked at Beth. “I tried to talk her into taking you too, but she said there weren’t enough rooms.”
“Awww,” Beth said with a faint smile. “At least you get to be with her.” Grandmother Fox had taken in Michiko when she was a baby, raised her, and supervised her training.
“But I hate leaving you alone on Christmas!” Michiko said. “I wanted to do…Christmasy stuff with you!”
“Don’t worry, Michiko. I’m used to it. I was by myself last Christmas, too.”
“Yeah. It was before we met,” Beth said. “I just had a roommate move out—I think this was the one who changed schools after trying to blackmail the TA—so it was just me. It wasn’t so bad.”
Michiko’s eyes widened. “You didn’t go home to your parents?”
Beth shook her head. “They were on one of their ’empty-nest’ cruises. We had an awkward ten minute talk on the phone and that was it. Thank God.”
“But they’re your mom and dad!”
“Yeah, but they barely act like it. Their idea of a fun Christmas is arguing with each other all day, having Chinese food delivered for dinner, and trying their best to find me the most inappropriate gift possible.”
“Inappropriate?” Michiko asked.
“Very.” Beth stared at the tree. “They never paid attention to what I wanted or anything like that. When I was twelve, they pushed me into trying out for soccer. During the first practice, I got hit in the head with the ball. Twice.”
“Ouch!” Michiko winced.
“Tell me about it. I missed two days of school with a concussion. The coach and my family doctor agreed that I shouldn’t play again.” Beth smiled slightly. “I really didn’t mind that part. So for Christmas, I asked for a pile of Doctor Who and Lord of the Rings stuff…and got a soccer ball and a pair of cleats.”
Michiko tried not to laugh and barely succeeded. “I’m sorry,” she said. “I know it’s not funny for you.”
“It’s okay.” Beth took a deep breath. “So, basically, my Christmas usually stinks. Being by myself is a step up.”
“So what will you do tomorrow?”
“Eat too many Christmas cookies, watch sappy movies and cool cartoons, and try not to be asleep when Doctor Who comes on. When is Grandmother Fox picking you up?” Beth asked.
“Any time—” Michiko was interrupted by a burst of music.
“‘Linus and Lucy’?” Beth asked.
“Yep! That’s probably her now,” Michiko said as she dug her smartphone out of her pocket and answered it with, “Hello?” She snapped to attention. “When?” she asked the caller. “Who is it?…Okay. We’ll be there.”
Beth could see Michiko scowling as she hung up. “That wasn’t her, was it?” she asked.
“No. It was Linden. There’s trouble at the faerie encampment.”
“Runaway. A girl, seven years old.” Michiko put her smartphone away. “A lot of faeries are off at that conference or visiting family for the holidays. Linden’s worried because it’s getting dark and cold. They need to find the girl before anything happens to her.”
“I’ll go,” Beth said without hesitation.
“Me too,” Michiko said.
“Michiko, no!” Beth said. “If you go, you’ll miss your ride! And the Council meeting! I’ll find her.”
“It won’t take long.” Michiko straightened her pillbox hat. “I can hurry back before Grandmother Fox gets here.”
Beth peeked out the window. “It’s too late for that,” she said. “She’s here already.”
Michiko turned pale. Without a word, she walked out of the apartment, leaving her baggage behind. Beth swore quietly and ran to her bedroom to grab her jacket.
* * *
By the time Beth had made it downstairs, the argument was in full swing. Michiko appeared to be wearing jeans and a plain yellow sweater, but with her second sight, Beth could see past the seeming to the “Monkey Queen” outfit underneath. She was standing by a six-door white limousine. A rear window was rolled down, and Beth could hear Grandmother Fox saying, “How could you! We’ve been planning this for weeks!”
“I’m sorry,” Michiko said. “I know this is important to you.”
“And to the Council!” Beth could hear the disappointment, and the hint of anger, in Grandmother Fox’s voice. “They’re expecting you to be there, with everything that’s happened this year. It will look bad for both of us if you’re not.”
“I know.” Michiko swallowed. “But there’s someone here who needs my help. I can’t walk away from that, Grandmother Fox. You taught me that. I’m sorry, but I can’t go.”
“Fine. We’ll discuss this when I get back,” Grandmother Fox said as the window rolled up.
The limousine drove off. Michiko watched until it had turned a corner and was out of sight. She folded her arms and stared down at the sidewalk, her face expressionless.
Beth walked up to her partner and laid a hand on her shoulder. “Hey,” she said softly. “You okay?”
Michiko nodded. “I’ll be fine,” she said in a flat voice. “Let’s go.” She turned and set off down the street, Beth following.
* * *
They were met just outside the faerie encampment, in the forest that surrounded Nortonville, by Linden, the mayor. “Her name is April,” he said. “She went missing about an hour ago. Here’s a sketch.”
Michiko took the drawing of the faerie girl and studied it. “How do we know she wasn’t abducted?” Beth asked.
“She left a note,” Linden said. “She said that everyone was treating her mean because…she wanted a Christmas celebration and no one else did.”
“Christmas?” Michiko said.
“She found some human books about Christmas and got very excited about it. She also took some things that a kidnapper would have left behind.”
“Like her favorite doll?” Beth said, looking up from the sketch.
Linden nodded. “A stuffed brown fox.”
Michiko handed the sketch back to the faerie. “Any tracks?”
“We saw some small footprints heading north, but we’re not sure they’re hers,” Linden said.
“Makes sense,” Beth said.
“We’ll head that way,” Michiko said. “Let’s go, Beth.”
* * *
They walked quickly, in silence, for a few minutes. The sun had set, and the fog had come in, so the only light came from the flashlights Beth had brought. The winter wind, strong and cold, had started to blow through the tall trees, scattering leaves and snapping the Monkey Queen’s scarf back. “Beth?” Michiko asked. “Why did you think it made sense for April to go north?”
“She ran away because she was upset about Christmas,” Beth said. “She might have decided to go to the North Pole.”
“To find Santa Claus?”
“Yeah. She probably thinks it’s really close by. Some kids have no sense of scale.”
“Okay. Should we split up?” Michiko asked.
“Yeah. We need to find her before it gets too cold or she gets much further.”
Michiko pointed with her staff. “I’ll go this way,” she said. “If you see her, yell first, then call; we know how spotty smartphone reception can be out here. I’ll do the same.”
“Got it.” Beth set off into the woods.
* * *
Beth’s thoughts kept drifting back to Michiko as she searched. She got mad at herself for that; there was a little girl who might need her help, and that was what mattered. But Beth felt bad for Michiko; she could tell that her friend was still heartsick after her argument with Grandmother Fox. She scowled and reminded herself to focus as the wind blew harder.
Beth heard a rustling above her. She pointed her flashlight upwards.
The redwood pine tree was old and tall, with a gnarly trunk and branches that grew every which way and stretched down almost to the ground. It seemed to have been designed for children to climb, and one had. She was a young faerie girl with blond hair and pointed ears, wearing a thin green sweater and a small backpack with the head of a fox doll sticking out. She was on her hands and knees on a branch thirty feet above the ground, clinging to it like a security blanket as she shivered in the cold.
Beth cleared her throat. “Michiko!” she shouted as loud as she could. “I found her!”
The girl winced. “Sorry!” Beth said. “I wanted to let my friend know you were here, April.”
Her eyes widened. “How did you know my name?”
“Mayor Linden asked me and my friend to help find you. Everyone’s worried about you. I’m Beth, by the way. Are you okay?”
April nodded. “I’m scared up here,” she said.
“I know,” Beth said. “Hold on tight, and when my friend—“ She stopped and shouted, “Michiko! Get over here now!”
“What’s wrong?” April asked. “Why are you yelling?”
“April,” Beth said, “the branch you’re on is starting to crack.” Beth shone the flashlight’s beam on the spot where the branch met the trunk; there was a visible crack there, about one-third of the way through. “It could break. I need you to stay calm. Okay?”
April nodded. “Okay,” Beth said, silently pleading for Michiko to hurry. “Now, I need you to move back down the branch, towards the tree trunk. Move slowly, and be very careful.”
The girl swallowed and cautiously moved one hand, then the other, along the branch towards the trunk. She then slid her body slightly. The branch held. “You’re doing great,” Beth said. “Keep—“
The wind suddenly gusted. The tree swayed, and April’s branch was pushed back with a creaky groan. The crack widened. “Hold on, April!” Beth shouted as the wind died down. “Hold on!”
The wind picked up again, blowing harder than before. “Micihko!” Beth screamed.
The branch broke. April tumbled backwards and down, crying out, “Mommy!”
There was a flash of yellow, black and red.
The Monkey Queen flew through the air and easily snagged April in one hand, pulling her close as the branch she had clung to fell to the ground. Her momentum carried Michiko towards the old pine tree; she stretched out her free hand and grabbed a sturdy branch. She spun around the branch and let go, flying up in the air again. She somersaulted in mid-air and landed standing on the branch. April was trembling, but seemed to be fine. Beth exhaled with relief.
“Hi!” Michiko said to the faerie girl. “I’m the Monkey Queen! And you must be April!” The girl nodded, and Michiko continued, “We need to get down from here. Hold on tight to me. Really tight.”
She reached into her pocket and pulled out her staff, which had shrunk to pencil-size to leave her hands free. She held it out with one end pointed down. That end quickly grew, stretching downwards until it hit the ground. “Ready?” Michiko asked as she started to step off the branch.
“No!” April shouted, wriggling in Michiko’s arms. “We might fall! I’m scared!” Michiko stopped and tried to gather April in.
“April!” She and Michiko looked down at Beth. “I know it’s scary,” Beth said. “She did that once to get me down from a roof. But she’ll be real careful. Just hold on tight to her and you’ll be fine. Okay?”
April nodded, biting her lip. She wrapped her arms around Michiko and nestled her head into Michiko’s shoulder. The Monkey Queen stepped off the branch.
Her body swung into the staff; she shook slightly but held on. The staff began to slowly contract. Two minutes later, Michiko set her feet firmly on the ground. “We’re down!” she said.
“Are you okay?” Beth asked April; the girl nodded.
“Let’s go!” Michiko said. Her staff shrunk back down to pencil-sized; she slipped it into her pocket and set off, still carrying April. Beth followed as Michiko asked the girl, “How did you get so far up that tree?”
“There were some scary noises,” April said. “I thought there might be wolves or something, so I started to climb, as high as I could.”
“You’re a little monkey,” Michiko said with a smile. “Just like me!” April giggled.
“Why did you run away?” Beth asked.
April shifted in Michiko’s arms. “He was so mean to me,” she said.
“August. He’s my brother, and he’s always mean. He said that Christmas was dumb, and that only dumb humans like Christmas, and he stepped all over a Christmas card I was drawing!”
“Oh, no,” Beth said, shaking her head. Michiko pouted.
“And then,” April said, “he said there wasn’t a Santa Claus! He said it was something dumb that humans had made up!” She looked at Beth. “There is a Santa Claus, isn’t there?”
“Well…” Beth paused. “There isn’t…but there is.”
April’s eyes widened as Beth continued, “If you’re asking if there’s a jolly man dressed in red who sneaks down chimneys and leaves presents under trees, well, no. There’s no such person.
“But a funny thing happens this time of year. People start being nicer to each other. They help people who need a hand. They think about friends and family and reach out to them. They smile and laugh a little more.
“And even in the darkest, coldest days, they put up decorations and make cookies and invite everyone to big dinners and sing Christmas songs. And they buy each other gifts, not because of obligation but because of love. And I think that every time someone does any of that, it’s because there’s a little bit of Christmas spirit inside of them, a little bit of Santa Claus.”
Beth smiled at April. “Hey, tomorrow’s Christmas. Even if your mom and dad and brother don’t realize how special the day can be, you can still have fun. Sing carols, decorate your room, maybe finish that card. Maybe they’ll realize that it’s important to you.”
“Yeah!” Michiko said. “Tell them we said it was okay!”
“Okay!” April said with a bright smile.
“Let’s sing carols!” Michiko said, and so she and Beth walked the rest of the way back to the faerie encampment teaching April all the words to “White Christmas” and “Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer”.
* * *
When they reached the encampment, April was reunited with her parents, who were overjoyed to see her and showered Michiko and Beth with thanks, and her brother, who stuck to glowering and staring at the ground. Beth spoke briefly to the family about doing something Christmas-related for April; August redoubled his glower, but the parents seemed receptive. Meanwhile, several other faerie children had followed April’s family, and Michiko put on an impromptu show for them in the encampment’s public square, with lots of acrobatic feats, staff tricks and goofy faces.
Finally, the parents of the appreciative audience ended the show by taking their children home to bed. April’s parents were about to do the same, but April shouted, “Wait!” She darted over to Michiko, who scooped her up in her arms for a big, gentle hug. “Goodnight, Monkey Queen,” April said.
Michiko pulled back and grinned. “My friends call me Michiko,” she said.
She set April down as Beth walked over. April looked up at her and said, “Goodnight.”
Beth dropped to one knee. “Merry Christmas, April,” she said, smiling warmly.
April threw her arms around Beth. “Merry Christmas, Beth,” she whispered as Beth hugged her back. She pulled away and ran over to her family, smiling as her father picked her up and carried her home.
“Beth,” Michiko said as they left the encampment, “I’m surprised with you.”
“Why?” Beth asked.
“The things you said to April! I wasn’t expecting you to be so Christmasy.”
“Yeah, I know,” Beth said. “But just because my Christmases always stink doesn’t mean I have the right to ruin anyone else’s.”
Michiko nodded sadly. “It’s too late for mine.” She stared at the ground as they walked.
“Hey!” Beth said. “Stop that! You’re supposed to be the upbeat one! I’m supposed to be Miss Mopeypants! It’s Christmas Eve, not Opposite Day!”
Michiko sighed. “I know. I’m just sad about what happened with Grandmother Fox. I just don’t feel that Christmasy any more.”
“I’m sorry, Michiko,” Beth said, laying a hand on her friend’s shoulder.
“It’s okay. It wasn’t your fault.”
“But you missed the meeting. And you had to stay home.”
“Yeah. And that means that tomorrow…” Michiko’s eyes widened. “I’ll be hanging out with you on Christmas!”
Beth grinned. “Took you long enough to figure it out.”
“Yaaay!” Michiko smiled gleefully, throwing her arms in the air.
“Michiko!” Beth said. “Not so loud! People are trying to sleep!”
“Oops.” Michiko blushed.
* * *
Beth opened one eye and squinted at the clock on her bedside shelf. Six-thirty? she thought blearily. Maybe I should sleep in a little more. Michiko would understand.
She heard clattering from the kitchen, and a burst of laughter. Michiko’s already up, Beth realized. It’s the holiday break on campus, so I can sleep in the rest of the week. And it is Christmas.
Beth threw the covers aside and climbed out of her bed. She put on her glasses, stuck her feet into her favorite pink bunny slippers and pulled a robe on over her pajamas. She softly opened her closet door and took out a smallish, simply-wrapped, well-hidden box. She placed it on her bed and pulled the covers over it.
“Good morning!” Michiko said as Beth opened her bedroom door. “Merry Christmas!”
“Morning,” Beth mumbled as she shuffled into the kitchen, heading for the coffee pot. She glanced around as she reached for her mug. Her eyes snapped open.
There were cookies everywhere, stacks of sugary snowmen and Santas, piles of peanut butters, a small cascade of chocolate chips. A tray of snickerdoodles was cooling on the counter. Beth noticed that Michiko had traded in her gaudy sweater for an equally gaudy Christmas tree apron. “That’s a lot of cookies,” Beth said as she fixed her coffee.
“I got a little carried away,” Michiko said, blushing.
“No surprise there—wait. You used frozen dough, didn’t you?”
Beth grinned. “I did that last year. Thanks for all the work.”
“You’re welcome!” Michiko smiled. “Try some! They’re yummy!”
“After breakfast…you’ve already eaten some, haven’t you?”
“Two or three,” Michiko said. “Or four.”
“And you’ve had your coffee?”
Beth raised an eyebrow. “Am I going to have to pry you off the ceiling again?”
“Maybe.” Michiko grinned impishly.
Beth shook her head, mostly to help stifle a giggle, as she headed to the living room. She sat on the couch and sipped her coffee, noticing that Michiko had been watching a performance of The Nutcracker while baking. She set her mug aside, snuggled into the couch and closed her eyes, listening to the music.
She opened her eyes and saw Michiko standing in front of her, smiling bashfully. “I remember what you said about never getting good Christmas gifts,” Michiko said as she started to blush. “I…I really hope you like this.” She handed Beth the present she’d been hiding behind her back. It was thoroughly wrapped, with plenty of ribbon and a big yellow bow.
“That box is way too small to hold a partridge in a pear tree,” Beth said, smiling to cover a sudden attack of nerves. She started to open the present, no easy task considering how much effort and material had been put into wrapping it. I hope it’s not one of those nesting doll wrapping jobs, she thought as she pulled off the last layer of paper.
Beth’s eyes widened as she opened the box. Her heart jumped, and she had to stifle a gasp. Beneath all the ribbons and wrapping paper was a remote control shaped like, of all things, a sonic screwdriver. A Doctor Who gift, Beth thought. I don’t believe it.
“I know how much you like the show,” Michiko said with a big smile, “and we needed a new remote after what Gregor did with the old one.”
Beth stared open-mouthed at Michiko’s present, barely hearing her roommate. I’ve never gotten a Doctor Who gift before. No one’s ever gotten me a gift this cool. And—and—!
“Beth?” Michiko asked, her smile fading. “Are you okay?”
“Michiko—” Beth jumped up from the couch and carefully put the remote on the end table. “Stay—stay there. Don’t—don’t move, just…just stay. I’ll be—don’t move—I’ll be right back. Stay.”
As a very confused Michiko watched, Beth ran across the living room to her bedroom, barely missing the Christmas tree. She threw the bedroom door open, jumped on her bed, flung aside the covers, and grabbed the box hidden there. She climbed off her bed, ran back into the living room, screeched to a sudden stop to keep from crashing into the tree, spun around it, and hurried over to Michiko, pushing the box into her hands. “Here,” she said.
“Beth! Thank you!” Michiko sounded genuinely surprised. “You didn’t have to get me anything!”
“Of course I did,” Beth said. “It’s Christmas. Go on, open it.”
“Yay!” Michiko smiled as she tore the wrapping off and opened the box. She pushed the paper covering aside. Beth realized she was holding her breath as Michiko reached inside.
Michiko gasped as she pulled a small stuffed penguin with a sour expression from the box. “Badtz-Maru!” she shouted, smiling happily as she clutched the doll in both hands.
“You like it?” Beth asked, trying not to sound nervous.
“He’s a Hello Kitty penguin! He’s adorable!” Michiko’s eyes lit up, and she sprinted to her bedroom. She stopped by the doorway and motioned Beth over. “Come on!” she said. “Come on!”
Beth followed Michiko into her bedroom. Next to the door was a small desk where Michiko kept her laptop. Near the computer were two framed photos. One was a posed shot of Michiko, in formal wear, next to a splendidly overdressed Grandmother Fox. Beth recognized the other; it was the photo Michiko had taken of the two of them, dressed to the nines, the night they had crashed Duke Wrexham’s gala.
There was a small empty spot on the desk next to the photos; Michiko set the Badtz-Maru doll there and smiled. “I love it!” she said. “Thank you, Beth!”
“You’re welcome,” Beth said. She left Michiko in her bedroom as she went back into the living room. She stopped at the end table and stared down at the remote. This is such a great present, she thought. It’s silly and sweet and awesome. Just like Michiko. And she decorated, and she got up early to make cookies, and she loved the gift I got her…
Michiko walked up next to her. “Beth?” she asked. “Are you sure you’re okay?”
“Michiko…I was just thinking…” Beth looked at her friend and tried to keep her voice steady as she said, “I’ve only been out of bed ten minutes, and…and it’s already the best Christmas ever.” She grabbed Michiko and held her tight.
Michiko slowly put her arms around Beth. “Did—did you like your present?” she asked.
“Oh, Michiko, I love it!” Beth said, squeezing Michiko just a bit harder. “It’s wonderful! Thank you so much for everything, Michiko! Thank you.”
“You’re welcome,” Michiko whispered, and her arms tightened around Beth.
When Beth finally pulled back, she saw that Michiko’s eyes were sparkling, and her smile was so bright and radiant that it made their Christmas tree look like a cheap flashlight. Beth realized that she was feeling like the Grinch, because her heart seemed to be growing at least three sizes. She hoped it showed as she smiled warmly at her friend.
“Beth…I…” Michiko paused, blushing furiously. “We—we need to get cleaned up. Breakfast!” Beth nodded and, with one last glance at her Christmas gift, headed for her bedroom.
* * *
It was a cold, clear morning, and Beth and Michiko could see their breath by the time they’d finished the brisk walk to the Wonderland Diner and Tavern. As they reached the old seeming-concealed barn, Michiko reached into her pocket and pulled out two Santa hats. She put one on her head and pushed the other into Beth’s hands. “Michiko…” Beth said.
“But it’s Christmas!” Michiko said, smiling hopefully.
Beth sighed and put the Santa hat on. “Happy?” she grumbled.
“Yep!” Michiko said. “Now we’re all Christmasy!”
“I thought we were Christmasy enough already…you know, is that even a word?” Beth had worn a Christmas Story leg lamp t-shirt under her jacket as what she had thought would be her one concession to Christmas fashion. Michiko had donned her sparkly sweater again, and had somehow found matching tree-shaped earrings.
“It is now!” Michiko said as they entered Wonderland. “Merry Christmas, everybody!” she added as the door closed behind them.
It was much less crowded than usual. Many of the regulars had left for the conference on Fip or were visiting relatives for extended Faerie New Year celebrations. Most of the patrons were engrossed in their meals or conversations, though the dwarves did smile and wave hello.
There was a loud grunt from the back of the diner. Michiko and Beth looked to where Sam, the giant reptilian, sat in his favorite oversized chair. He stood and held up a battered lift-and-erase board. On it were written the words “Merry Xmas”.
“Merry Christmas!” Michiko said with a big smile.
“Merry Christmas, Sam,” Beth said. Sam nodded as he sat down and reached for his coffee.
“There are my favorite jingle bells!” Michiko turned and beamed as Mandy wrapped her up in a hug. “Merry Christmas!” The pixie waitress was wearing a glittery red dress along with a green apron and candy cane-striped leggings.
“You seem happy,” Beth said as Mandy hugged her in turn.
“I’ve always liked Christmas,” Mandy said. “Besides, I can get away with singing on the job this time of year, as long as I don’t sing that one song.”
“‘Grandma Got Run Over By A Reindeer’?”
“Okay, two songs,” Mandy said as she led Michiko and Beth across the restaurant floor. “You weren’t around last year, Beth, when Mary Crimble showed up with her accordion and played us her holiday polka carol.”
“Do I want to know what it was called?” Beth asked.
“‘Freddie, The Little Christmas Fruitcake That Could’.” Mandy shook her head sadly.
“I remember that!” Michiko said, smiling excitedly. “I loved the Candied Cranberry Dance!”
“I’m actually sorry I missed that,” Beth said slowly.
“Someone did get a smartphone video,” Mandy said as Michiko and Beth sat at their favorite table, “if you’re really that desperate. I’ll get your coffee.” The pixie headed off, breaking into “Fairytale Of New York” as she walked to the kitchen.
“Like the hats.” Michiko and Beth looked over their shoulders and saw Mec. The gremlin had added a Santa hat of his own to his usual jeans, goggles and grease-stained t-shirt getup.
“Merry Christmas!” Michiko said.
“Merry,” Mec said as he dropped into a chair. “You two having a good day so far?”
“Yep!” Michiko said.
“Very much so. How’s yours?” Beth asked the gremlin.
“Quiet. For a change.” Mec grimaced. “Been so busy at the store. I’m almost finished with your project; I should have it for you by the weekend.”
“Great!” Beth said.
“Yeah. Sorry it took so long. I had to finish the commission I’ve been working on all month.”
“That big, splashy, clockwork Christmas tree?”
“Check this.” Mec pulled his smartphone from his pocket and tapped the screen.
“That is so cool,” Beth said as she and Michiko watched the video. “Are those reindeer rocket-powered?”
“I love the tin soldier chorus line!” Michiko said.
“I’m glad you didn’t see this before you put up our tree!” Beth said with a grin, nudging her roommate in the ribs. Michiko giggled.
“I thought the built-in voice box on the angel topper was a nice touch,” Mec said.
“You didn’t program it with stock mad inventor sayings, I hope.”
“No. Just generic Christmas music.” Mec smiled mischievously. “But the thought was there.”
“Do it next year,” Beth said. “She can say things like, ‘Enjoy your presents before they rise up against you!'”
“‘Fools! You’ll be sorry you laughed at Christmas!'”
“Beth, don’t encourage him,” Mandy said, rolling her eyes as she brought a coffee pot and two mugs to the table.
“It’s way too late for that,” Mec said.
“Speaking of late…” Mandy said as she set the coffee pot down.
Mec glanced at his watch and jumped out of his chair. “Bye, guys,” he said to Michiko and Beth. “Bye, sugarplum,” he said to Mandy, followed by a quick kiss.
“Bye, sweetie,” Mandy said. “See you tonight.” Mec nodded and hurried out the door.
“‘Sugarplum’?” Beth asked. “Why does he keep calling you that anyway?”
“He says it’s because visions of me keep dancing in his head,” Mandy said with a sigh; Beth could tell she was hiding a smile. “The usual for you two?”
“Sure,” Beth said.
“Pancakes!” Michiko said.
“Got it.” Mandy headed to the kitchen, singing “Happy Holidays Too”.
She walked through the swinging doors. “Three…two…one,” Beth counted down slowly.
As she finished, a purple bat-winged giant with fiery red hair and eyes and a chef’s hat and apron barged out of the kitchen and hurried towards their table. “Merry Christmas, you two!” Aloysius shouted with a smile.
“Merry Christmas, big guy!” Beth said, jumping from her chair and hugging the chef.
“Merry Christmas!” Michiko said as she hugged Aloysius in turn. As she did, Beth took off her Santa hat and placed it on his head, pushing back his chef’s hat.
Aloysius straightened up and patted the Santa hat. “It looks good on you,” Beth said as she and Michiko sat back down.
“Now you’re all Christmasy!” Michiko said.
Aloysius scowled. “I don’t know,” he said. “It might fall off. There’s only room on this head for one hat.”
“Maybe if we get some string—” Beth started to say.
“Get back in your kitchen,” Mandy said to Aloysius as she walked past. She reached up and snatched the Santa hat off his head. She set it on hers, singing “All The Right Reasons” as she strolled away.
“Awww,” Michiko said.
“Don’t worry about it,” Aloysius said as he headed back to the kitchen. “It looks better on her anyway.”
“He does have a point,” Beth said, reaching for the coffee pot.
She turned in her chair as the front door opened. “Good morning, all,” Puck said as he entered Wonderland, waving to the other diners as he headed for Michiko and Beth’s table.
As he reached them, Beth stretched out a hand. “Merry Christmas, Professor,” she said.
“Merry Christmas, lass,” Puck said, smiling as they clasped hands.
“Merry Christmas!” Michiko said.
“Merry Christmas, Michiko,” Puck said as he sat down. “I will warn you that if you expect me to wear that Santa hat, you are sadly mistaken.”
“Darn.” Michiko pouted.
Puck raised an eyebrow. “Weren’t you supposed to be at the Council meeting with Grandmother Fox?”
“I was,” Michiko said. “Something came up.”
“Rescuing another stray faerie child?”
“You heard,” Beth said.
“It seems to be a hobby of hers,” Puck said. “How many is this now? Four?”
“Maybe five. I’ve lost track.”
“By the way,” Puck said, “I should let you both know about something interesting I saw on my way here.”
“An angel getting its wings?” Michiko asked.
“Or chestnuts roasting on an open fire?” Beth said.
“Neither,” Puck said. “It was actually a white limousine. It drove by while I was at the bottom of the hill.”
Michiko froze in her chair. “Not one of those really long ones?” Beth asked.
“No. Just a six-door model.”
Mandy set a coffee cup down in front of Puck. “You mean like—” She glanced out the window. “Like the one that just pulled up outside?”
Michiko turned pale. Beth felt a lump in her stomach. The door opened.
Grandmother Fox walked in to Wonderland. She was wearing an embroidered white and gold gown with a flowing full-length skirt and billowing sleeves, ceremonial jewelry, and an up-do held in place with gem-topped hairpins. Since the informal dress code at the diner was “determinedly casual”, she stood out like a beautiful porcelain doll on a shelf of Raggedy Anns.
The other diners looked down, concentrating on their food, their reading or their coffee. Mandy backed away quickly from Michiko’s table. “Amazing what cold weather does to one’s bladder,” Puck said as he got up and headed for the restroom.
Michiko stood as Grandmother Fox approached her. “You want me to come with you to the Council meeting, don’t you?” she said, staring at the floor. “We’ll have to stop off at my apartment first—“
“Michiko?” Grandmother Fox asked quietly. “Did you find the girl?”
Michiko blinked. “We…we did. We got her home. She’s doing fine.”
Grandmother Fox nodded. “Thank goodness. Michiko…I’ve been thinking about what happened all night. I was upset when you told me you weren’t going, but I was thinking more about myself, Christmas with you, all the plans I had made, when my thoughts should have been with a runaway girl who needed your help. And to think I shouted at you! How selfish of me!” She shook her head disgustedly.
“And then, when I arrived at the meeting, everyone asked where you were. And when I told them…” Grandmother Fox paused, looking down and away. “They all said how selfless and caring you must be to give up Christmas with me to help a stranger, and how proud I must be of you.” Her face reddened. “Michiko…I was wrong. I’m sorry.”
Michiko walked over to Grandmother Fox and hugged her. “I’m sorry too,” she whispered. Grandmother Fox bent down and held Michiko gently, smiling as she stroked her hair. Beth found herself blinking away a tear.
Michiko grinned. She took the Santa hat off her head and placed it on Grandmother Fox’s.
As Michiko stepped back, Grandmother Fox reached up and touched the hat, wide-eyed in surprise. As she did, Michiko pulled out her smartphone and took several quick photos. She moved next to her foster mother and showed her the pictures.
For many years thereafter, they spoke of the morning that Grandmother Fox’s laughter echoed through Wonderland like a bell ringing in Christmas Day.
As the laughter faded, Beth stood up. “Give me that phone,” she said with a grin. Michiko did, and Beth took several photos of her friend and Grandmother Fox, both smiling happily.
“Ahem.” Beth looked over and saw Mandy, reaching for the smartphone. “There’s someone missing from those photos,” the waitress said with a wink.
“Come on, Beth!” Michiko said.
Beth handed Mandy the smartphone and hurried over to Michiko, standing next to her. Michiko draped one arm around Beth’s shoulders and the other around Grandmother Fox’s waist. All three women were all smiles as Mandy took photos.
Finally, Grandmother Fox took the smartphone from Mandy and gave it back to Michiko. “Thank you,” she said, her smile still lingering. Mandy smiled back shyly and hurried off.
Michiko and Beth sat back down. “Did you still want me to come?” Michiko asked.
Grandmother Fox waved her hand. “You’d probably be bored,” she said. “All the interesting discussion takes place behind closed doors anyway.” Michiko giggled, and Grandmother Fox added, “But some members of the Council would like to have a…is ‘video conference’ the right term?”
“Yep!” Michiko said.
“They would like to hold one with both of you tomorrow. Could you do it then?”
“If she doesn’t have to get a cat off a roof or something,” Beth said.
“Sure!” Michiko said. “Call me when you know what time.”
“Alright,” Grandmother Fox said with a nod.
“Maybe then, you could…stay a little longer?” Beth asked. “Join us for breakfast?”
“Please?” Michiko added.
Grandmother Fox paused for a moment, then shook her head. “I wish I could,” she said, “but it’s a long drive. My driver has been quite patient, even though I made her get up so early, never mind waiting for breakfast until we got back.”
“Allow us to help with that.” The women all turned to see Puck, emerging from the kitchen carrying a cardboard drink tray, a container and a paper bag. Behind him were Mandy, smiling nervously, and Aloysius, grinning ear to ear. “A pancake breakfast for you,” Puck continued, “along with raspberry chocolate croissants for your driver and two coffees.”
“Thank you!” Grandmother Fox said as she took the food and drinks from Puck.
“You’re welcome.” Puck smiled. “It was a pleasure to see you here. I hope we’ll have the honor again soon.”
“Yeah!” Michiko said. “We’re here every Sunday!”
Grandmother Fox smiled. “Perhaps you will,” she said.
* * *
“What a morning,” Beth said as she and Michiko left Wonderland, carrying coffee and two Christmas lunches to go.
“I know!” Michiko said. “How do we top that?”
“I’m not sure we need to.” As Beth spoke, Michiko took two Santa hats from her pocket, slipped one onto Beth’s head and put the other on her own. “How many of those do you have?” Beth asked.
“Lots!” Michiko said. “So, what’s the plan?”
“Eat too many Christmas cookies, watch sappy movies and cool cartoons, and try not to be asleep when Doctor Who comes on.”
“You were going to do that anyway!”
“Yeah.” Beth smiled. “But it’ll be a lot more fun with you around.”
Michiko smiled back and wrapped her arm around Beth’s shoulders. “Merry Christmas, Beth.”
“Merry Christmas, Michiko.” Beth wrapped her arm around Michiko in turn, and they set off down the hill, heading for home.
With thanks to: Charles Schulz and Vince Guaraldi, Dr. Seuss and Chuck Jones, Charles Dickens, the Pogues, Kirsty MacColl, the Doubleclicks and Dressy Bessy.
To all of you, and to all the world, I wish you: Merry Christmas, Happy Kwanzaa, Happy Hanukkah, Season’s Greetings, a Blessed Yule, a peaceful Feast of St. Nicholas, Joyeux Noël, Feliz Natal, a pleasant Winter’s Solstice, a glorious Feast of Sinterklaas, an Awesome Hogswatchnight, a Festivus with no grievances to be aired, a joyous Beethoven’s Birthday, Happy Holidays, and the very best of New Years! And anything else I forgot! May your days be merry and bright, may your holiday season be dear, may your travels be safe, and may your eggs always be nogged. And thank you all for reading this story, and all my stories, and for all your support.
Robert Dahlen, 11/27/15
© 2014-2017 Robert Dahlen. All rights reserved, except for those guaranteed by fair use laws where you live.
Blatant Self-Promotion Department: Don’t forget that you can support Michiko and Beth by heading to Amazon. Buy their books there, or just click that link before you start your holiday shopping. Or, search for “Robert Dahlen” or “Monkey Queen” at your favorite ebook store! OK, plug over. Go wrap some presents or something, and save some of that dark chocolate pretzel peppermint bark for me. Thanks.