Chapter Five: Traditions, Ties, and Tension
Ever since Hazel had, quite literally, picked up shop and moved her establishment to the North Pole, she’d had the quietest Christmas mornings since she could remember them being a thing. The tavern looked festive enough, strung with garland, cranberries, and paper chains, and the tree twinkled in the corner with the light of just enough candles sprinkled through its leaves. It was cozy enough to invite even the most cranky of forced early Christmas risers. But the only ones who were awake (and had decided to meander down for breakfast) were her, a handful of the inn’s tenants, and her huldra waitstaff. Although, in the end, it didn’t matter if anyone saw them now. They weren’t up for the elves anyway.
Hazel frowned at the TV screen over the rim of her glasses. It was getting difficult to tell if the snow was part of the bridge scene of It’s a Wonderful Life, or the static from the poor signal. She reached down for her cane resting against her barstool, and with a swift arc through the air, brought it down on the rabbit-eared box with a metallic THWACK. The image cleared instantly.
It was also followed by a wooden clatter, a slosh of water, and a nearly imperceptible curse from behind her. Glancing over her shoulder, she saw Tonna, a waitress, hastily retrieving a fallen bucket. Her prehensile cow-tail had started to mop up the pool of water threatening to spill over the sides of the table. None of this commotion seemed to disturb the passed out rusalka slumped over said table in the slightest.
Hazel started to creak her way upwards, keeping her cane hooked over the crook of her arm. “I’ll get a fresh bucket,” she groaned as she stood up completely. Tonna nodded in response, diverting her attention to mopping up the mess. On the way to the water-access door, Hazel hooked the empty bucket with her cane, not even breaking her stride.
There are three different entrances leading into the Hollow Tree Inn. The main door, which opens onto the foyer, which itself leads to both the apartments and the tavern, is mostly used by the elves renting the rooms. Built into a corner of the tavern was the namesake hollow tree of the Hollow Tree Inn, which leads to the inn’s old location in a particularly hidden part of a forest. This is so the old pub-dwellers didn’t have to make the ridiculous trek up north every time they wanted a drink.
The water-access door was designed so that Hazel and her staff had a shorter distance to the well out back. It also had the added benefit of opening up on the riverbank, giving water-based patrons a similarly short distance to the tavern. And because of this proximity, a portion of the river also made the move with the inn, so that both the river and the door were still used regularly.
The one unforeseen consequence that arose from this was how extreme cold tended to mess with the mental state of water-based fey.
Hazel, having bundled herself up against this cold, was shutting the door behind her, when she heard a splash and a very slurred Russian drinking song. Even before she turned to look, she knew what had happened. Someone had tried to come out through the well. Again.
She couldn’t see who it was yet, but she recognized the voice as belonging to a vodyanoy named Pyotr. Leaning over the lip of the well, she saw him happily splashing around in time with his indistinguishable song. He didn’t seem particularly worried about his predicament.
“Pyotr!” she called down, “What are you doing down there?”
After spinning around a few times, he finally thought to look up. Recognizing her, he called back, “Ah! Hazel! S Rozhdestvom! Merry Christmas!… What are you doing up there?”
“You’re stuck in the well again, Pyotr.”
“I am?” he looked around in confusion, finally realizing his surroundings.
“I’m sending the bucket down, alright?”
“Yes! Spasibo, Hazel!” he said, before resuming his song.
It took at least two more sets of hands and much longer than it should have to finally pull him out of the well. Between the enthusiastic song-based gesticulations, the bucket’s poor design for drawing up humanoid beings, and the freezing temperatures continually eating away at Pyotr’s already limited usefulness, it was a miracle they managed to get him out at all. It also meant that by the time she was able to make it back inside with a refilled bucket, someone had decided to stuff the rusalka’s hair in a mug for the time being.
She hefted the bucket onto the table, which protested under the suddenness of the weight, giving a groan bordering on a crack. Ignoring it, she replaced the still slumbering rusalka’s hair back into the bucket and dumped what remained in the mug back onto her head.
None of this prompted even a snore.
The huldra drafted into Pyotr’s rescue were dragging him towards the foyer and the rooms Hazel kept vacant for situations like this. The group nearly ran into an oncoming figure, who managed to step out of the collision in the nick of time.
The latest crisis dealt with, she resumed her position in front of the still crystal clear image on the TV. George Bailey already didn’t exist and was freaking out Mary by being a general creep. She had left him when he was contemplating suicide. Sighing, Hazel replaced her cane beneath her stool and leaned over to tick the time dial back to the spot she left it at.
“Hazel?” asked a vaguely familiar voice, right as she had gotten comfortable. Again. She sighed. Again. One of these years she was going to see this stupid movie in one sitting. This was obviously not that year.
Spinning around on her stool, she came face to face with an unexpected old friend.
“Bernard! It’s so good to see you!”
She was up, out of her chair, and had almost tackled him in a bear hug before Bernard had a chance to truly register that she actually remembered who he was.
“What brings you down here? I haven’t seen you in years!” she said, pushing him away from the hug for a better look. Her cane, swinging from her outstretched arm, caught a stray corner of Bernard’s attention.
“I…uh…” he stammered, gathering his bearings after the re-introductions sped through faster than he anticipated.
“Spit it out, young man!”
“I… I got fired.”
“Oh, that’s a shame,” she said, as one of the waitstaff slipped by with a tray laden with mugs.
“I was hoping I could move back in,” he said, watching as the huldra dumped a mug on each of the passed out heads slumped around the tavern.
“Well, Myrna got a new roommate shortly after you left.”
“So I gathered,” he muttered, his mind jumping to his stuff strewn about the snow outside. Hazel didn’t seem to hear him.
“Well, I have some vacant rooms down here for the usual crowd,” she said, sweeping her hand around the room. “Although I guess I could make room in the apartment if you’d prefer.”
There was a distant thunk and a short wave of voices trailing from the hallway. It was probably the mumbling, half-passed out fellow he nearly ran into earlier. He remembered quite well what the ‘usual crowd’ was like. It was generally noisier than suited his tastes.
“I’d rather make room if you wouldn’t mind,” he said, rubbing the back of his neck. “And I may need some help moving in.”
A few minutes after the last elf went home and moments before Operation Not Even a Mouse lifted, Myrna decided to circle around the terminals one last time before poofing home herself. The fact that nothing had happened since the initial freakout unsettled her more than the incident itself; the lack of anything to react to made her antsy.
Everything seemed to be in order until she reached the last three terminals. The second to last one, specifically. The screen flickered. Just for a moment. If Myrna hadn’t been looking, she’d have missed it completely. And she wasn’t entirely sure she hadn’t made it up out of a need to do something vaguely productive and a lack of sleep. It was probably nothing. Her body was certainly on the side of leaving it and going home and it wasn’t like the night shift wasn’t going to show up any second now. Still, she sat down at the terminal. Just to double check. It wouldn’t take that long.
After clicking around the screen for half a minute, she was about to brush the thing off as her paranoia and go home, when a light caught the corner of her eye.
It was the house’s communicator light, flashing on the base of the headset stand. Someone was trying to reach headquarters.
Shit shit shit shit shit shit…
She sat there, staring at the blinking light, swallowing the urge to ignore it and go home. Pressing the headset to her ear, she hit the respond button.
“Scout Elf HQ, what’s your emergency?”
“This is Agent 24601, stationed in Safe House 67. Are all the systems still working?”
Well, they didn’t sound very worried. That was good.
“Everything checks out on this end. How about yours?”
“Nothing major. Everything seemed to blink out for a moment, like a power surge. Normally, I’d ignore it, but with that whole mess earlier…”
“Understood. All systems are working. It doesn’t seem to be connected, but we’ll check it out anyway.”
“Thank you, HQ. Agent out. Merry Christmas.”
Myrna smiled. “Merry Christmas,” she responded, before replacing the headset on the stand.
The chair gave a squeak as she leaned back, releasing the last vestiges of professionalism with her sigh. Still massaging her forehead, she allowed herself to dissolve back home.
One second Theodora was storming away from the argument in a huff, the next she was on the floor with a gash above her eyebrow. She had lost her footing near some of the seats and had hit the back of one with her face on the way down.
The security guard was helping her to the first aid station. She was bleeding a lot, but that was to be expected with any head wound, and this one wasn’t deep enough to be concerning. She was going to be fine.
That wasn’t what worried Juniper.
What worried her was the icy patch melting into the carpet where Theo fell.
She looked back over at Santa. To his credit, he actually seemed at least a little worried. But he had still caused it in the first place.
She knew he was Jack Frost as soon as she got close enough to see his hair was stiff with ice instead of hair gel. The other hints, like the temperature dropping, or how his face tinged blue before she convinced Theo to walk away, only confirmed her suspicions.
So, the Jack Frost, who was somehow also Santa Claus now, had, intentionally or not, injured her friend, and was just standing there.
She knew what Myrna would do: she’d just hit him. He had established himself as a threat, and she’d been trained to take down people three times her height and weight, neither of which Jack even came close to.
Juniper was pretty sure that the most she’d be able to do was break her own wrist with the first punch she threw. Physical confrontation wasn’t where her strengths lay.
Taking the shallowest of deep breaths, she stood up from her crouch where Theo had fallen and walked calmly over to him.
“She’s going to be fine, right?” he asked before she got a chance to open her mouth. She glanced over her shoulder at the doorway Theo and the guard were leaving through.
“Don’t worry, sir,” she said in her most soothing PR voice, “It was just a scratch. She’ll be alright.” She cleared her throat before continuing. “Was there anything else I could clear up for you, sir?”
“Ah, yes!” he said, shifting his attention to her, his demeanor changing as quickly as his eye line. “The play. The most I was able to gather was that it wasn’t tonight.”
“That is correct, sir.”
“So when is it supposed to be exactly?”
“Nine o’clock on Elfmas Eve,” she smiled, before adding, “In the evening.”
“And this isn’t Elfmas Eve.”
“No, sir. That would be January 5th.”
His grin looked about as fake as her own. “I’m going to pretend that makes a semblance of sense, and just come back then, alright?” he announced, before bee-lining for the entrance.
“You’ll need a ticket!” she called after him, momentarily dropping her customer-friendly facade.
He didn’t even bother to stop. “That’s what I said!” he yelled over his shoulder, before disappearing through the entryway.
“… what?” she mumbled to herself, parsing out exactly what was said.
“That was Rude Person for ‘I would like to order a ticket, please’,” Theo said, re-entering the room. The bandage stood out like a bullseye against her dark skin and hair.
Juniper didn’t say anything. Nothing she said at this point would help.
Theo scowled. “Bet you’re gonna reserve one for him anyway. You always do.”
“I’ve never met him before—,”
“No, but I’ve seen you kiss up to enough people to know you will.”
Juniper bit back her remark, turning back to the stage. The cast was still watching their spectacle at the entrance of the theatre.
“You okay enough to work?” Juniper asked, still looking straight ahead.
“I’m fine. Let’s get to work,” Theo snapped as she stormed off, heading to her usual position backstage.
AN: None of the fairy species mentioned were made up by me. Some dude named Folklore did. All credit to them.