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Holly and Oak

Familiar Spirits Book Two

R. Cooper

Copyright 2017 R. Cooper

Smashwords edition

Cover art by Kimieye Graham

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Chester peeked out one of the windows as he fussed with the dust cover for the waffle cone maker. The rainwater glass didn’t give him much of a view, which was great when he was in the kitchen and didn’t want an audience, but terrible when he was trying to keep a lookout.

Several wavy figures were visible a little farther up the road, probably heading toward the square. The square was the center of Old Town Ravenscroft, and, at the moment, a draw for locals and tourists alike. The cold night and icy streets would not deter them, not this week, anyway.

He considered the pretty white lights on every tree that lined the sidewalk, and the old-fashioned street lamps with iron curlicues all decorated with plastic garland meant to look like holly.

He sighed.

“You don’t have to stay,” Miss Mercy called out from the front. The cash register chimed, although it was after six o’clock and Ravenscroft Creamery was technically closed.

Chester was here before open and after the last customer left—at least in the winter when they closed earlier. Even if he wasn’t behind the counter, he was working. Which was frankly a better deal for everyone. Chester got to develop flavors and do the food prep in the back, and customers got to enjoy the ice cream without having to deal with Chester himself.

“I’m working, Missy,” Chester snapped impatiently, although he did not have nearly as much to do in the winter as he did in the summer, and was actually finished for the day. He’d been done since around four. Goodwin was getting impatient.

“Hmm,” Miss Mercy answered, expressing doubt with one loud hum. The cash register chimed again, this time with the kick of the drawer opening with it. She was probably tallying up today’s totals. She hadn’t locked the door yet and Chester could hear a customer by the counter, but Ravenscroft was that kind of town.

And this building, in particular, should never have that kind of trouble. Chester was as sure of that as any witch could be.

He reached out to scratch between Goodwin’s ears, and let Goodwin’s heavy purr soothe him while tourists skidded and nearly tripped on the sidewalks. They were probably distracted by how prettily the patches of ice reflected the white fairy lights. It had rained last night and the temperature had dropped another ten degrees. Tonight it would probably drop a few more. Chester should leave soon, go curl up at home in his most snuggly blankets.

The three churches in Old Town had rung their bells promptly at six. It was now fifteen minutes past, and Chester was an idiot for staying this late.

He moved from the window and went to the big sink to wash the traces of cat off his hands before he headed out front.

Ravenscroft Creamery consisted of one large workroom, a walk-in freezer, a few storage closets and restrooms, and the front area referred to as ‘the parlor’ by anyone old enough to remember what a real ice cream parlor was.

In the past, when only the few traditional flavors had been offered, the parlor had included a soda fountain and several small tables and chairs, presumably for the kind of couples who courted each other with egg creams before riding off to spark on a bicycle built for two.

By the time Chester had gotten a job here as a teenager, the flavors had been numerous and the display cases had eaten up most of the space for the tables. Of course, the flavors then had also been mostly store-bought, and the back had been more of a storage room than a kitchen. Obviously, store-bought was an abomination that would not stand in his creamery—though he understood the need for ice cream could drive people to desperate measures.

Miss Mercy sat on the stool behind the register, at one end of the refrigerated display cases. Alma Madison was at one of the remaining tables, loudly scraping her spoon across the bottom of a small paper cup. She paused when she saw Chester.

“I swear the chocolate chip peppermint is better this year than it was last year,” she told him, with a smudge of chocolate chip ice cream by her mouth. “I was about to head to the store, and it’s such chaos in there this time of year, especially this week, and I said to myself, ‘Alma, you deserve a treat.’”

“It’s the time of year for treats,” Mercy remarked. She was wearing a fuzzy Santa hat as well as red and green leggings. “A week ‘til Christmas.”

“And the solstice in a few days!” Alma tried her best to get more from her empty cup. “The Solstice Celebration got covered in another one of the city papers. I think we’ll get even more tourists this year.” She focused warily on Chester, who hadn’t moved from the doorway to the back. “You got a write-up this year too, didn’t you?”

Chester stared at her.

“The Creamery did, I mean,” Alma continued quickly. “I don’t think the article mentioned you.”

The article had, in fact, mentioned Chester. Specifically, how a twenty-eight-year-old lanky beanpole with hair six shades of blue was an unlikely person to make such delicious ice cream.

“My hair is only two shades of blue,” Chester commented coolly. “Three, tops.”

Mercy scoffed merrily. “Alma’s the last for the day, Chester. You really can go if you want.”

As if he was going to let five feet, one inch high Mercy walk alone over icy streets in the dark to get to the bank.

“I’ll take the deposit.” Chester came over to get the day’s cash from her and scan the displays as he went, although he had taken a quick inventory earlier. The mainstays—chocolate, vanilla, strawberry, banana—were low, but replacements were already chilling in the back freezers. The seasonal favorites were out or almost out, and the day’s special was completely gone. “Missy, see if Alma wants that last bit of the chocolate chip peppermint. No point in saving just that. Don’t charge her.”

He returned to the back so he didn’t have to deal with Alma fluttering in surprise at the free gift, or going so far as to make herself thank him. He added the money to the money dropped into the safe earlier and stuck it all in a deposit bag.

Another glance out the window made him sigh again.

“This town wouldn’t be the same without this place.” Alma was still talking when he returned. “I’m grateful it’s been kept open, even if—ah, tradition is what keeps this town going,” she finished, catching sight of Chester.

Chester couldn’t have cared less about whatever she’d been going to say, although it had probably been about him.

He stopped on the verge of coming into the room, regretting that he’d put his cardigan and coat on already, and then that he hadn’t buttoned anything, so his blue flannel with the holes from Goodwin’s claws was clearly visible. His dark jeans were stained from work in the kitchen, his sneakers more comfortable than fashionable. It was no worse than he looked after any long day, and yet it felt a hundred times worse, because it was only a few days until the solstice, and Will was there.

Will didn’t come in near closing time every day during the rest of the year, but he usually showed up each evening like clockwork as the solstice approached. He probably couldn’t help himself any more than Chester could keep a stupid flush from turning his face an unsightly pink.

Will was smiling, a pleasant, polite expression that, combined with his face itself, tended to leave men, women, and everyone else in a state of flustered contentment. He gave the appearance of listening earnestly to anyone who talked to him, and he probably was—Chester had never known him to lie. Will either had incredible patience or all that hiding in his workshop for days at a time was his chance to escape the small town pressures. Perhaps both were true.

But his genuine interest and warm, sparkling eyes made people practically glow in response. Like waking up from a nap on a day in early spring and finding the sun had emerged from the clouds.

Chester cleared his throat completely unnecessarily and Will turned toward him with this small, nearly imperceptible hesitation. Chester tried not to think it, but couldn’t help but feel that Will had to force himself to look at him at all.

Chester could have worn his best shoes and a lovely, patterned, cashmere sweater vest with a crisp button-down and cute bowtie. He could have worn the tailored gray three-piece he wore to the rare meetings with his family’s lawyers, with no tie. It wouldn’t have mattered.

The small, plastic heart-shaped clip that kept his bangs out of his face while he worked abruptly gave out. It snapped in half and two pieces of red plastic skittered to the floor.

Thick strands of royal blue, ice blue, and white blonde hair immediately fell over Chester’s eyes. Thankfully, most of the rest of his hair was shaved close to his head, which meant only the swoop of his bangs had to be dealt with.

Mercy got up to hand him another clip from the bowl under the register—a purple clamshell this time. Chester stuffed it into his pocket and huffed at her and successfully avoided having to deal with the not quite six foot tall, black coat and hat wearing, dark-skinned, square-jawed, quietly attentive presence talking to Alma.

Will was in a red plaid flannel button-up, which, first of all, how dare he choose a color that festive and bright and warm and noticeable when the rest of his outfit was stark, sturdy black? He probably had a henley underneath the red plaid, but both had apparently shrunk in the wash since they were stretched over his broad chest and ever so slightly soft stomach. Will’s body spoke of years of hard work, but also someone who had always known plenty.

Rude, Chester decided, with a flutter in his gut and hand shoved into a coat pocket. He hadn’t heard the door open. That was also Will’s fault. Like coming here late, again, or showing up without a scarf or anything more practical than a black felt beanie with the high school football team logo on it.

Will didn’t even like football. He just seemed to take no interest in buying proper winter clothes. In the summer he wore fitted black jeans and thin, white, sleeveless T-shirts as he worked, displaying the chest and arms that drove Chester—and much of the town—to distraction. His style was clearly meant to be practical and to give the impression he didn’t care what he was wearing, and yet Chester did not believe for a second that Will hadn’t deliberately chosen to dress this way, whatever his reasons.

His work boots were caked in mud and ice but he left not a single footprint in his wake. Chester held in his pained sigh with effort and turned on his heel to head to the walk-in. He tried not to think about the faint green lines in the pattern of Will’s red plaid, or the warm grin Will had given Mercy.

Little Miss Mercy was—for the most part—a good and patient person, who deserved a grin or two from a handsome single man who wore flannel as it was meant to be worn and who worked with wood for a living.

Chester stayed in the freezer a few seconds longer than necessary, letting the sharp cold take the heat from his blood. When he stepped out, Goodwin was waiting.

“What?” Chester held onto the cup in his hands. “Don’t judge me. One of these years I will learn, but this is not that year.”

He stepped over his judgy Chocolate-point Thai and walked out to the front, where he busied himself at one of the back counters.

Will was by the wall where the allergen information was posted, backlit by the white lights in the Creamery’s front windows. He shivered slightly as his body adjusted to the heat indoors because of course, he hadn’t worn gloves either. His hands were probably cold and rough.

Chester put down the cup he’d brought from the freezer with a little too much force and got one of the last of today’s waffle cones.

“The special today was vanilla bean with warm bourbon-peach preserves?” Will read from the large chalkboard sign up on the wall behind the register. “My aunt ‘Sia makes preserves like that. They could tempt a Puritan into sin.”

“It was all gone by the time I got here.” Alma heaved a regretful breath even as she scooped up the last of her gifted chocolate chip. “Don’t know why you don’t make the seasonal ones the specials. The gingerbread for example, or the pumpkin pie in November.”

“Those sell out anyway,” Chester explained curtly. “The specials are different.”

“Always just right for the day. Always exactly what you want.” Will continued to stare determinedly at the board, as if the answer to his most pressing question was written there in white chalk. “If you can get them.”

“Do not remind me of summer.” Mercy grunted. “I’m already tired thinking about the lines out the door and the people pissy over whatever is sold out.”

“Summer is your busy season. You should love it!” Alma insisted, getting up to throw her trash out in the bin by the counter. Now they had to empty that bin again. Chester bit his tongue and didn’t say anything.

“Summer is the worst!” Mercy declared, but with a smile that made Will give her another soft grin.

“Who shows up at closing time and complains about something being sold out?” Chester muttered, just loud enough for Will to look over at him again. Will slowly lost his smile. “Summer customers, that’s who,” Chester added, in a much weaker voice than he should have used. He cleared his throat and regrouped. “Where’s Tabitha?”

“Since she’s not a service dog, she’s outside,” Will explained, after a moment’s hesitation and a glance at Alma.

Chester looked out the front windows to where the large black and brown Rottweiler was sitting patiently, with her butt to the glass door and her eyes on the street.

“We’re closed.” Chester clucked his tongue then raised his voice. “Tabitha, get in here.”

Tabitha sprang to her feet and turned to nose at the door. She pushed it open with the ease of practice and went straight for the counter. Chester leaned over, small cone of doggy-ready ice cream held out for her to chomp down in two bites. “Obviously, he doesn’t love you the way I love you, Tabitha, my sweetheart,” he cooed at her. Tabitha wasn’t convinced, the smart girl, but lolled her tongue at him anyway.

“It’s safe for dogs,” Mercy explained to Alma. “Chester makes it. It’s got less sugar and stuff.”

“That’s what I mean!” Alma declared, and Chester looked up in time to see Will quickly turning away. “This place, it’s almost more than a tradition now. You should get written about in the city papers. Specials, doggie treats, and all that gluten-free whatsit over there.”

“Optional flavors for people with dietary… never mind.” Even Miss Mercy’s patience seemed a bit stretched, but, after all, it was the end of the day. She came over to poke Chester playfully in the side. “He’s really turned this place into something.”

“Yes, he has,” Will agreed, his mild tone barely covering some stronger emotion, as was typical with him when around Chester. It was probably his temper.

Chester tensed, then straightened up. “William,” he greeted Will with as much calm as he was capable of.

“Chester,” Will said in return, impossibly quiet.

“I have turned this place into something,” Chester insisted. “Someone wrote about it.” Will’s deep brown eyes were full of caution. Chester crossed his arms over his chest. “My family’s money helped. I have never denied that.”

Will lost his dimple, then clenched his fabulously strong jaw. He had to unclench it to speak. “I didn’t say a word about money.”

“No one did!” Mercy cut in, voice getting high. “We were talking about the Celebration, before you came out here anyway, Chester. You guys going this year?” She frowned. “I don’t know if I’ve ever seen you there, either of you.”

“I assure you, Missy, I have attended the ritual every year since I was a child.” Chester tore his gaze from Will and went to wash his hands again.

“Huh.” Mercy’s thoughtful pause was a worry for another time. “What about the actual celebration part afterward? They’ve got live music in the park this year. Those poor musicians, freezing their asses off. Then Christmas Eve-Eve there’s Marjorie’s big Christmas party. You’re definitely going to that, right? You aren’t going to grump out now, are you? You said you would go.”

“Well, you young people have parties to discuss,” Alma interrupted, although she was only in her early forties and would probably end up at that party too if she found a sitter. “Thank you again for the free treat, Mercy. You’re such a good girl.”

Chester closed his eyes and took a breath.

“Merry Christmas!” Alma wished them as she finally left.

The door swung closed and then locked behind her with an audible click.

“Merry Christmas!” Mercy called after her, then shook her head. “Chester, the door is closing and locking itself again.”

“It’s the cold,” Chester quickly explained. “I’ve told you that before.”

Mercy didn’t appear to be interested in Chester’s lie, or the effect of cold temperatures on metal. “So you are coming out with me this week, right, Ches?” She came out from behind the counter to bag the now-dirty trash bin. “It’s the party week in this town. Maybe because we’ve got nothing else to celebrate until like… June. Well, if I don’t count New Year’s.”

Chester pulled away from the back counter in order to drop a medium-sized paper cup full of vanilla bean ice cream and a dollop of warmed bourbon-peach preserves onto the counter. He had no particular ability to see the future, but this one thing he was good at.

He kept his eyes on Mercy. “The day of the solstice and the Celebration, I’m busy. But the rest of the week, I’m yours, Miss Mercy.”

“Good. Then we’re doing our usual, plus the Christmas party. Hold on.” Mercy gestured with the bag before taking it into the back.

Chester dared a look over. Will had the cup in one hand and the plastic spoon in another. He watched Mercy go, then raised his eyebrows. “You go to a Christmas party?”

He hadn’t touched his ice cream. Chester lifted his chin. “Yes, a Christmas party. It’s making merry and ‘tis the season or whatever. Don’t worry about it. I’ll be focused solely on the eggnog and mistletoe and the cute men giving gifts. It’s almost like the revels, except I’m allowed to have fun.”

Will had two thick, slightly arched eyebrows. Chester caught them drawing together in a scowl and rounded on him.

“Which part bothered you more,” he hissed. “Christmas, or the men?”

He was long past the age where he should still get defensive and dumb about this issue. He did not care what this boy, or any boy, thought about him. He told himself that quite firmly and did not need to hear the approaching pitter-patter of Goodwin’s feet to know it was a lie.

Chester stared heatedly at Will and thought that he could wait through every year, every Yule, and he would never be good enough. He would never be what Will wanted. He clenched his hands into fists and Tabitha whined, low and worried.

“I’m not bothered,” Will insisted, and the fact that he seemed to mean it made Chester turn sharply away.

He opened his arms and Goodwin jumped up to leap off the side of the doorway and into Chester’s embrace. He climbed somewhat painfully to Chester’s shoulders, but Chester was used to pinprick claws and the weight of a fat cat across his neck.

“Chester,” Will said softly, as if he wanted to apologize, possibly as if he needed to.

Chester scratched between his familiar’s ears until the rumbly purr returned. “Poor William,” he stage-whispered to Goodwin, enjoying how Will stiffened in the background, “having to put up with me and my deviant ways.”

Not every coven was liberal. Theirs was old and established, which meant a lot of new-fangled ideas like, apparently, homosexuality, were not as accepted as some outsider, New Age, hippie types might have expected. Perhaps if Chester were as powerful as a Russell or a Dee, he might be more than reluctantly tolerated. Or perhaps it had nothing to do with who he slept with and everything to do with him—tacky, bright hair, outspoken, unable to fit in even if he tried. He was hardly the type of witch to blend in the background.

Will wasn’t either. He drew too much attention for that. But he was quiet and charming and nice. The attention he received was usually positive. He was the sort of person the coven welcomed as an integral part of this tradition.

“Tell me you two didn’t stand here in silence while I was gone.” Mercy reappeared, wearing her coat and a real winter hat and gloves because although her little dusky, elfin face and upturned nose made her seem like a sprite from some movie appropriate for this time of year, she was practical at heart.

Chester quirked his lips into a smile that did not fool her. “The Christmas party was mentioned. Where I shall get gloriously drunk and my many admirers will give me gifts.” Christmas traditions and winter solstice traditions were not all that different, really, minus a fat man in red pajamas and a reindeer with a shiny nose.

Will froze in the act of digging his spoon into sticky peach preserves. “What admirers?”

“Right.” Chester deflated before he’d even had a chance to puff up. He let his hair fall into his eyes and stepped to the side to pretend to examine his display cases again. “I was just teasing, obviously.” His voice was rough with embarrassment. Everyone in town who knew who he was also knew he had no admirers. “Some wouldn’t understand,” he added while noting that the sign for Crunchy Pistachio had been knocked a centimeter out of place. “The kind who get phone numbers on their coffee cups.”

He’d personally witnessed that one just a month ago at the coffee cart by the square. The lady in front of Will had bought a coffee for him and written her number on it in purple ink.

Chester had been back at the end of the line, which could not have been more symbolic and sad if he’d planned it.

Will startled. A flicker of something hot appeared in his eyes, then was gone. “She was nice,” he remarked evenly, and had his first taste of the day’s special. Chester’s creation was mixed sensations and textures, smooth and creamy cold, with warm chunks of spiced peach and the fiery kick of bourbon. It was perfection that could not last, already melting, already cooling. Like most good ice cream, it was an achingly sweet, fleeting moment in time.

Will closed his eyes before he took his second spoonful.

Chester shut his mouth and dragged his gaze away and found Mercy watching him with sudden, sharp interest that was going to cost him later. He was being especially obvious, years of frustration and the solstice combining to humiliate him.

He looked back at Will, who was marginally safer despite the tempting streak of peach on his bottom lip.

“Nice?” Chester rasped, mouth gone dry. “I’m surprised you remember her.”

This was another lie, and he barely winced for the claws in his shoulder. One of Will’s many great qualities was how he did remember people.

“I’m surprised you do,” Will responded, too pointed and curious.

Alarm sent Chester’s heart racing, and Goodwin made a soft ruff-purr in his ear that barely helped soothe him. Chester focused on the deep blue of Goodwin’s eyes, the same color everyone expected Chester’s eyes to be, only to seem surprised when they were plain hazel brown.

He spun around, searching for a distraction, but his creamery was too neat. “She was holding up the line,” he said at last.

Will, because he was Will, did not let it go. “Were you in a hurry to get somewhere?”

Chester wasn’t sure if he meant that with genuine curiosity or if he was implying that Chester couldn’t have had anywhere important to be.

“Because I couldn’t possibly have a life?” He turned back to Will and arched an eyebrow.

Will forcefully stuck his spoon into his mostly empty paper cup. “That isn’t what I said. You know it isn’t.” He exhaled heavily but he wasn’t breathing fast. He was angry and trying not to be, but he wasn’t close to panicking.

The day he got another panic attack because of Chester was the day Chester finally gave up on this.

Though admittedly, he hadn’t made much progress in the years they had known each other, and that wasn’t likely to change no matter how much more Will came around these days.

Still, Chester studied Will covertly from beneath his hair, then nonchalantly resumed petting Goodwin, who allowed it. “As a matter of fact,” Chester was cool and breezy, “I was on my way out of town to meet someone.”

A vendor, but that was irrelevant.

“Yeah?” Will sounded mild, calm, and interested, but he didn’t appear very mild or calm. He hadn’t finished his ice cream, which was an insult to Chester’s time and energy and the recipe he had created to capture the taste of the preserves Will’s aunt made. Chester, of course, had never been given a jar as a gift, but he knew others loved them, Will especially.

Goodwin’s tail hit Chester full in the face. Between that and Will staring at him in disbelief, Chester surrendered. “It was just a vendor wanting me to try a new brand of kitchen glove. I know, I know. I’m a lanky string bean with the big nose who can’t get a date. I’m the most pathetic.”

“Your nose isn’t that big,” Mercy said helpfully.

“Nobody said you were pathetic.” Will was very quiet now. Some would have mistaken that level tone for serenity. That would have been a mistake.

Despite this, Chester pressed on, falling into their pattern with ease. “You didn’t have to. It’s all over your handsome face.” Okay, that last comment was not exactly something Chester would normally have said, not to Will, anyway. But the years were taking their toll. “Don’t worry,” he added quickly, trying for apologetic but sounding bitter, “I’m not hitting on you.”

Goodwin’s claws were tiny little points of agony Chester barely noticed as Will rejected the last of his ice cream. He shoved the paper cup onto the counter.

His eyes were deeply, darkly wounded. “Do you do this on purpose?”

“Do what?” Chester asked dumbly, with his heart loud in his ears. “I haven’t done anything.”

“Are you still twelve?” Will demanded in disbelief. He raised his head to look Chester in the eye and, somehow, Chester felt small. “Everyone knows you can get a date, Ches.”

Chester had nowhere to run, nothing to pretend to do, and Mercy was watching. He gave a haughty sniff for the sake of his failing dignity. “Everyone?” he wondered, with only a small crack in his voice. “Was I the talk of the town at some point I was unaware of?”

Will glanced to Mercy, then shook his head. The signs of his temper were already gone. “Not the whole town,” he confessed on a sigh, which meant the coven had said something. “You weren’t around at Halloween….” He left that unfinished, discreetly making his point without the extra words.

The coven thought Chester was out doing who knew what instead of spending time with them. Most of them didn’t even like him. He doubted they wanted him around, except for the sake of what power he had, or maybe his parents’ money. But they were worried.

So they’d sent Will to check up on him, the one witch in the entire county who wasn’t afraid of him.

That made sense, even as it snuffed out Chester’s secret, rather feeble hopes like the wind extinguishing a candle.

His eyes started to sting, and then Goodwin’s tail curved softly against his throat and Goodwin’s comfortably chubby body rumbled with a purr.

Chester took a steadying breath. “I went to the city. I wanted to have fun for once, with people who liked me, while I was still—” full of power and not weak with a longing that went nowhere “—feeling myself.”

“Feeling yourself,” Will echoed flatly, clearly annoyed. Then he took a step forward, almost bumping into the counter. “You can’t do that here?”

“You know perfectly well I’m this town’s bastard stepchild.” Miraculously, the words emerged evenly. Chester almost sounded calm.

Will was the one who raised his voice. “You can do whatever you want. You’re from one of the founding families.” Of both the town and the coven, as if Chester was ever allowed to forget it.

Chester jerked his head up so fast that Goodwin had to shift to stay on his shoulders and growled in complaint as he moved. “Yes, and they’ve never known what to do with me.”

“They’re not the only ones!” Will snapped in return, frustration making his voice rough. He had his feet planted and his hands clenched at his sides, and at some point, Tabitha had arranged herself next to him, alert and at attention. She was the most watchful of guard dogs.

Chester’s jaw went slack, his lips parting in dismay or arousal or some combination of the two. Will was furious and strong, powerful as few others could be, and his whole being was focused on Chester.

Not how Chester would have preferred, but the only way it could be.

He took a breath and imagined himself, pink and starry-eyed, and hated himself for liking this even a little bit.

But there was only a small distance between them now, a matter of feet. The pull to go to Will and give him everything was overwhelming.

Chester took a step forward.

“Wooo boy.” Mercy might as well have shouted it with how Will flinched. Although Mercy left Will alone in order to stare at Chester. “Wow, do you two really know how to argue.”

Chester flushed hotly. He couldn’t believe he’d let himself get that carried away in front of an audience, an outsider audience. A few jibes back and forth were as far as this should have gone. Will would show up, attempt to be nice. Chester would get pissed because Will was never as completely nice as his image in Old Town would suggest. They’d argue. Will would eat his ice cream and leave. Chester would mentally collect every single moment between them to replay later.

That was how it always was. For years now, since Will had been eleven and Chester twelve, give or take the ice cream.

“Something’s wrong with this year,” Chester decided, trying not to freak out. “Everything’s different. The balance is off.” He looked to Will, whose gaze was shuttered.

“Didn’t finish your ice cream?” Mercy slipped past Chester to grab Will’s abandoned cup. “That’s a shame. He sets some of the special aside for you every day, you know.” Oh, she was evil. She was as wickedly controlling as she had ever been. She only liked to act like a kooky, eccentric artist type with her funny earrings and bright nails. Really, she was sly and clever and not entirely nice. Her friends had named her “Miss Mercy” as a title of respect long before she’d started working for Chester.

At least Tabitha was amused, her mouth open in a doggie grin. Will didn’t move at all.

“That was when I stopped worrying about your arguments,” Mercy continued. “When I realized he saved some of each day’s special for you on the off chance you’ll show up in the afternoon. You really should come in more, Will. And earlier. Maybe then he’d leave sooner, start having a life.”

Mercy,” Will said, with a crackle of magic in the air.

Chester reminded himself he was a Sibley, that he could destroy Mercy with hardly any effort. Then that she was his only friend here, that she stayed with him when he worked late and wouldn’t let him hide in his kitchen no matter how much he wanted to.

“Well,” he pronounced stiffly once Mercy was quiet, “I can hardly let down the town favorite.”

“Town favorite?” Will repeated in a strange tone. “You didn’t need to go out of your way for me. I didn’t ask you for anything, Ches.”

“I am very aware of that, William.” Chester put a hand on Goodwin to hold him steady as he turned away. “Now, if you don’t mind, I need to finish closing up.”

They were finished, short of throwing out that last cup, turning off the lights, and locking the back door behind them.

He didn’t hear what Mercy said to Will, although it seemed pleasant. It would be, now. Mercy would be feeling smug, and pleasant was Will’s default mode, at least with others.

Chester walked into the back to button his coat and pull a knitted cap over his ears. He grabbed the deposit and waited as the front door closed once again and the parlor went dark except for the lights shining through the windows.

Mercy came back to meet him, Will’s used cup in her hand, to be thrown directly into the dumpster. Chester took it to let her put on her gloves.

“Huh,” she commented, and he tensed despite himself. She began slowly. “You know, once in a while, someone makes a remark about you two. Usually not a nice one, and usually about you, to be honest.” She gently nudged him, almost the way Goodwin would have done. “Weird, angry, gay Chester and poor, sweet, innocent Will, and how you fight. But he’s not really, is he? Innocent, I mean. He’s as bad as you.”

“I’m not sure what you’re trying to tell me, Missy. But I can throw this away if you want to get home—”

“I don’t know how I missed this before,” she interrupted. “You know what it looks like, right? What that looked like in there just now, and all the other times?”

“Of course I do.” Chester huffed. A part of him enjoyed her surprise. Evidently, she hadn’t been expecting him to agree or to be so honest. He walked to the back door and waited for her to follow. “It looks like that because that is what it is. For me, anyway.”

“Oh.” Mercy stopped dead, sorrow on her little face, then guilt.

Chester wrinkled his nose in disdain before she could apologize. “Don’t.” It was easier to talk about than he’d ever thought it would be. It was actually sort of thrilling to say any words about it, like a spell only they could know. “We aren’t tortured soulmates.” The lack of pinprick claws making themselves known was telling enough—Chester was not lying. “We’re not even really friends.” He stuck the deposit under his arm and flicked off the last of the lights. “There is nothing between us but the roles we’ve been born to play in this town and the sense that we could have been something, perhaps close friends, if he liked me at all. If I didn’t keep fucking it up.”

He opened the door and Mercy gasped, probably at the cold, or maybe Chester admitting something was his fault. “I’ll see you tomorrow, Miss Mercy.” He bid her farewell with a regal nod because, after all, he was small town aristocracy. Then he locked the door behind her.

Mercy gave him a long, intent study, which he ignored as he tossed Will’s cup into the trash.

Chester moved on, walking slowly until he heard Missy get into her car and start it up. When she was gone, he adjusted the hood of his gray coat to better support Goodwin and keep him warm, and headed toward the bank.

Old Town, as traditionally defined, was the square in what had once been the center of Ravenscroft, and the four original roads that led to it. The Creamery was one of the older buildings in town, although not one of the first. Chester walked down the narrow lane—barely wide enough to be a two-way street—of North Road, past boutique shops that had once been a small farming town’s business district.

Windows were lit up, shops still open to catch any dinnertime Christmas shoppers. A few tourists did double takes when they noticed Goodwin on Chester’s shoulders. Some probably took pictures on their phones.

A glance in a shop window showed him his reflection: Chester could have been a scarecrow except for his hair and the overweight cat curled up to his neck. He was tall, too thin, and frowning.

He couldn’t be blamed for that. It wasn’t every day he was forced to talk about his feelings out loud, much less the impossibility of them. Mercy was going to bring it up again. She was going to interfere for his own good. A stupid, fragile part of him wanted her to. He wasn’t made of ice. His heart beat, hot and loud and real. It wasn’t fair that no one else could hear it.

He should have been past this longing by now. It should have been his twice-a-year-only problem. Instead, the coven’s feathers were ruffled, so Will was in his life on a weekly, sometimes daily basis, and Chester had spilled his feelings to an outsider of all people.

It was the year, he decided again. This solstice in particular. Something had changed. Maybe the coven had reason to worry.

A sliver of fear ran down his back and he reached up to keep one hand on Goodwin.

Chester had done everything they’d ever asked him to do—not quietly, but he’d done it. He had given up so much in exchange for so little, but perhaps it wasn’t enough. Among their coven, he was one of the most potent witches in decades, but he was also, well, difficult, and Ravenscroft was no longer an isolated farm town. If the coven wanted help or new blood in the ranks, it could find them. Possibly even from one of the tourists here for November apple-picking and hayrides or the ones who came out to witness the Old World spectacle of the Solstice Celebration.

He stopped at the local bank to use the night deposit drop and then kept walking, heading inexorably to the square. The hair salons and pricey shoe stores had Santas and snowmen painted on their windows, but his path was lined with white fairy lights and, as he got closer to the square, more artificial vines of green leaves and red berries on every street lamp.

Bells chimed from all directions, above doors and from charities, and dangling from the tips of jolly hats. A season for light and the music of bells. In Ravenscroft, the winter solstice and Christmas were often delightfully indistinguishable.

Chester rather loved it, although he could see his breath, his cheeks were stinging, and the tip of his nose had gone numb. It might have been nice to have someone to share the evening with, to actually stop at one of the tables set up at the street corners and buy hot cocoa or roasted chestnuts or a sprig of mistletoe.

He might even persuade his imaginary someone to purchase a chocolate candy Yule log or a pair of paper crowns from one of the booths the school ran every year to raise money. Chester had always thought he might look dashing in a crown of paper oak leaves, or at least not totally ridiculous.

Goodwin upped his purring until the sound reverberated through Chester’s bones.

“I’m fine,” Chester told his fretting familiar, as one by one, townspeople looked up, saw him, and smiled awkwardly without making conversation.

One of the town’s three original churches tolled its bell, the only one to do that on the half-hour and not just the hour. Two of those churches overlooked the square, which was honestly baffling. Perhaps they couldn’t see the square and its goings on from inside the buildings, although Chester wouldn’t know. He had never set foot inside any of them.

He had once, curious and daring, gone into a cathedral in the city, only to discover altars and flowers and candles and wine, and been utterly disappointed by things so familiar.

Despite the presence of the two stern churches, the square was packed for dinnertime on a weeknight, filled with revelers anticipating the coming events. Booths and carts dotted the landscape. Parents stopped to talk to one another in the midst of shopping, while the children chased each other around as part of some game of imagination. A group of Yule singers—Christmas carolers—sang in one corner.

Chester made a note to avoid that corner.

The square took up about half a block. He stopped without physically entering it and stood on the edge of what would be green grass in the spring. Four stone paths, one from each side, led to the center and a round dais used for concerts and speeches and the high school graduation ceremony.

That was not its original purpose, however. If Chester stayed right where he was on the morning of the summer solstice, the sun would rise like a show just for him. If, in a few days, he crossed the square and turned around, the Winter Solstice sun would rise directly in front of him. He had often wondered what that might be like.

A croaked call from above pulled him from away from the wistful thought. He stared hard at the large raven perched atop of one of the booths offering sprigs of beautiful, mischievous mistletoe, then became aware of a conversation somewhere to his left.

“It’s an Old World tradition,” someone explained. “Like a pagan thing, only, like, watered down, and the original meaning is lost. It says all the farmers used to come from miles and miles away for it. Not a lot to do for fun back then, I guess.”

“You idiot,” another woman responded fondly. Chester suspected they had both been drinking. One of the booths must have had mulled cider or one of the local beers on tap. “It says it was an Old World practice from back when everyone was dependent on the crops and the seasons.”

The paper crowns all came with tiny, typewritten cards explaining parts of the Celebration to tourists. Chester sighed but Goodwin perked up to watch whoever was talking.

“This Solstice Celebration is a modern version of whatever people used to do hundreds and hundreds of years ago at Midwinter. Or maybe thousands of years ago. See, the winter solstice is the shortest day of the year, which means after this, the days are going to get longer because the sun is coming back. So the farmers got together to celebrate that winter was dying and spring and summer were on their way.”

“It’s December. We’ve got two more months of winter at least.” Drunk or not, one of them was very logical.

“It’s symbolic, you doof.” The second one was no less fond of her tipsy companion. “It’s like something the druids probably did at Stonehenge or wherever. They’re welcoming the sun and summer. Everyone wears holly crowns or oak crowns and gets drunk, and there is music and food. Then, at sunset, there’s a show. Two locals come out in these crazy costumes, with way better crowns. Although you look cute in yours, babe.”

That made Chester risk a look at them. Two broad women with short hair were holding hands and sharing a cup not five yards from him. One of them wore a paper holly crown across her brow.

He smiled, although neither woman noticed him, before he returned his attention to the empty dais.

“So, what’s the show?” the woman in the holly crown wondered. “It’s not a musical, is it?”

Her lover choked on a laugh. “Pagan, remember? So two local guys come out from opposite sides dressed like old school kings with the long robes and everything. And swords! I almost forgot the swords! And I think fake beards. Or maybe real beards. Anyway. One king has the crown of oak leaves. The other wears holly, like yours, only more realistic. They meet in the middle there, and then, you’ll love this, the Oak King gives the Holly King a kiss—on the forehead, but still. Then the Holly King kneels and the other one pulls out a sword and takes his head off. Well, his crown off. It’s a wooden sword, anyway.”

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