A prequel to the Tales of the Captain Duke, as featured in the December 2015 edition of Airmail.
‘Twas the night before Christmas and all through the house,
not a creature was stirring—except Cat & Mouse!
“Cat? Cat? Are you awake?” Mouse called as he tiptoed to his sister’s bed.
He narrowed his eyes at the lumpy covers and reached up to poke the slumbering shape. He seized the edge of the blanket and pulled, revealing a pillow underneath.
“Cat!” he cried, racing from the room, “Cat!”
He ran down the hall toward the stairs, only to be grabbed by a shadow when he reached the darkened gallery that stretched along the second storey of the Haven.
“Shhh, there’s no need for that. You’ll wake the entire house,” said Cat, before pulling her tearful brother in for a hug.
“Why did you go?”
“You should go back to sleep, I have something important to take care of first.”
“On Christmas Eve?” He looked at her clothes, “You can’t leave me here!”
“I would never! I just—well, I was going to try to stay up to meet Father Christmas this year.”
Mouse said nothing, but his eyes were round as saucers.
Cat sighed, and made room for her brother in her lookout point, tucking the throw under his feet to keep his toes warm. Their father had always tucked them into bed early with a story to send them to sleep dreaming of candied fruits and autobaubles. Whether landed or afloat, he always made sure they were together. This would be their first Christmas alone and Cat was determined to make it a good one. Most of the pilots had left for the storm season, off to enjoy their holidays as they saw fit. But the Captain Duke had stayed, along with his first mate Trick and a few of the pilots.
The problem was, she’d never planned a Christmas herself before, and she dared not ask the Captain when they were already so indebted to him for his generosity. In the months since they’d joined his crew, he’d been nothing but welcoming. He’d fed and clothed them, he’d even allowed her to begin training with Trick once they’d returned to the Haven. Their father had been right in sending them to the Captain. Cat couldn’t shake the feeling that she needed to prove her usefulness if she was to keep her brother safe. But Father Christmas knew all—at least her own Papa always said so.
She curled up around her brother to keep him warm and blinked quickly to keep her eyes open as she peered through the banister at the hall below. Her father’s words echoed through her mind as she drifted between dreams: “This is too much to ask of you, my child, but I must. You are so loved. Remember that, little Cat, you are so loved.”
When Mouse next rubbed the sleep from his eyes, he couldn’t believe the sight before them. He nudged his sister awake.
“Mm? I’m still up. I’m here, Mouse, don’t worry.”
Green garland was woven around and through the banister, all the way down the curving stairs. Bright red ribbons were tied around the columns and fresh sprigs were tied to the windows. The siblings looked at each other and ran down the stairs to find a small tree bedecked with strings of popcorn and small gifts nestled in the branches. Over the hearth, one of each of their stockings was filled to bursting with treats. The early morning light gave the room a sense of quiet magic, a lingering joyful hum in anticipation of unwrapped gifts and sticky sweet smiles and bellies full of cheer.
“What’s all this now?” asked the Captain Duke. He stood in the doorway in blue pyjamas, flanked by a yawning Trick.
“Happy Christmas!” Mouse yelled, his face full of delight as he ran to them. Cat watched as he wrapped his little arms around each of their knees in turn before returning to his inspection of the tree.
Cat hung back, looking between her brother, the stockings, and the Captain. To her complete dismay, her eyes filled with tears. She barely registered the look of shock on the faces of Trick and the Captain as she fled the room, running up the stairs to the farthest wing of the Haven, curling up in a gabled window that overlooked a tall oak.
After a few moments, there was a gentle knock on the door. The Captain Duke entered, crouching down to sit on the floor beside her, stretching his long legs out as he watched the snow fall outside.
“Cat? Tell me what’s wrong. We can fix it. Anything, you say the word and it’s done. Is it the tree? We can find a bigger one if you like.”
She wiped her face on her sleeve, “No, Captain, it’s perfect. Everything’s perfect.”
The Captain frowned and shifted in his spot, “Then why are you sad?”
“Because I wanted to ask Father Christmas how he does it, but I fell asleep.”
“You wanted to—ahh,” he said, nodding. “Well he only comes when you’re sleeping.”
Cat turned her face to the window in despair.
“Why do you need to know?”
She tried to put her swirling thoughts into coherent form, “I thought he could tell me how to make Christmas happen so I could do it for Mouse now that our father—now that we’re orphans. I promised to take care of him. It’s my responsibility.”
“Oh, Cat. Cat, I swear to you, as long as I walk this earth, that is a burden you will not bear alone.”
When Cat finally dared to look at the Captain Duke, his sincerity nearly sent her into tears again. But she held her composure and extended her hand.
The Captain smiled and shook it firmly, “Do we have a deal?”
With that, she allowed him to gather her into his arms and carry her downstairs, resting her head against his shoulder. She felt as though everything she’d been holding in since their father died had come to rest on her heart. But there was a new feeling seeping into the space that her worries had previously held… a big, glowing feeling that spread to her cheeks at the sight of Trick on the floor, helping Mouse examine every item in his stocking. The Captain set her down, but she held to his hand as he led her to the fireplace to unpin her own stocking.
The feeling grew as they were joined by the other pilots, and Cook and Peg brought out a basket of oranges for everyone to enjoy before breakfast as they exchanged gifts. A book of poems and a new wooden training sword from the Captain, a music box from Trick, and trinkets from the rest of the crew, who’d sent packages from every corner of the Empire it seemed. Mouse was soon busy chasing an autobauble that could float about the room at knee height, puttering along with its tiny propeller.
Cat smiled and felt the tightness of her chest dissolve into happiness as she looked at their new family. On closer inspection, she could see the telltale signs of the care that had been put into crafting this celebration. The greenery was freshly cut. The ornaments had a shine to them that did not come from being stored in dusty attics year over year. There were bits of evergreen hastily swept into the hearth that had not yet burned. She looked around with gratitude and knew in her heart she was home.
The Captain Duke and his crew celebrated their first Christmas at the Haven that year. Peg’s sugar cookies became an annual tradition, as did the carols led by Trick and his new violin. And Cat and Mouse helped create a new Christmas story, complete with airships to help Father Christmas on his way through the stars.
And we heard him exclaim, ‘ere he flew out of sight—
Happy Christmas to all! And to all a good night!