With a final blow of the whistle, the train squealed to a stop.
Then, there was a long moment of near silence. The only thing Flynn heard was the soft sound of snowfall.
Out one side of the train car, the snow was falling so thick that they could see no more than ten or twenty feet. On the other side, they could see that the train had pulled up to the boarding platform of a very ornate train station.
A bell rang on the platform, and the train’s doors slid open, allowing a blast of cold air to rush in and nearly freeze Flynn to the bone. He hadn’t dressed for this kind of intense cold. He looked to Grace and saw a similar look of fear on her face.
William appeared at the door of their train car, a big smile on his face. When he saw their concerned looks he immediately understood. With a quick signal to someone out of sight, William looked at them both and said. “I have some warmer clothes for you.”
Two individuals showed up almost instantly, each of them holding outfits.
“William,” Flynn started. “Before I get off this train, I have to know… where are we?”
“Well, technically you’re near the peak of Mount Machina. On the far side, facing away from town, where the most snow falls. Before long, though, I doubt anyone will call it anything other than the name I have chosen. My friends, you’re the first guests to arrive in Winter Village!”
“Say what?” Grace asked.
“The Winter Village,” William repeated. “A magical town up here on the mountain where the wintery environment never changes. It is a true winter wonderland.”
“I’m not following,” Flynn said. “You’re building… another town?”
“Yes and no,” William said. “I like to think of it more like a vacation hotspot for all of our citizens who need to step back and recapture some of the magic that our town has been lacking lately. Snow and ice and music and festivity!”
“It is quite magical,” Grace said. “What will it be like?”
“No more questions,” William said with a wide smile. “First, get changed!”
Reluctantly, Flynn and Grace agreed. William waited patiently for them to get dressed, and when they finally presented themselves he applauded their choices.
“All ready then?” he asked.
“So, you were saying this town is called Winter Village?” Grace asked.
“Yes indeed,” William confirmed. “I can show you around a bit and let you get a feel for what I’m trying to capture here. I’m sure once you’ve seen it you’ll agree that I’m on the right path.”
“How big is this place?” Flynn asked
“Oh, not too large right now. The station is done, and that was a big undertaking, but there is so much more we’re going to accomplish here.” William said proudly. “We have a life-size gingerbread house that will serve as the main attraction. It’s gorgeous. We can walk past it. We will have a variety of housing options here too, where people can rent and live for a bit. I am so excited to capture that holiday spirit.”
Those words hit Flynn light a freight train.
His mind was suddenly filled with knowledge of decorated trees, presents, and hot cocoa. The bright lights and festive displays went from nonsense to full understanding. His heart was warmed by it all, and he felt a strange comfort that he had not truly felt since arriving from the Core.
“There it is,” William said, watching Flynn’s expression change. “It comes to everyone at different times. Sometimes they remember it differently, too. Not everyone remembers the holidays the same way, so there is plenty of stuff we’ll need to add to make sure we have it all, but this is the start of my grand plan.”
“I… I can’t believe it,” Flynn said. “Can you show us around?”
William beamed. “I thought you might never ask!”
The train station was filled with all the modern commodities one could hope for, including indoor plumbing and electricity. As they looked around, William explained how all throughout the World Ship there were pipes with clean water and waste recycling that were buried and accessible. Even here atop Mount Machina, he was able to dig down, find the pipes, and run them up to the village.
“We’ll have a train station at Willow Creek too,” he said as they led them away from the station. “There is going to be some housing there for new arrivals, and the farmland. The winter train will run from that station up here to the village. We have another train, more to Rayland’s liking, that will run from Willow Creek to town. It’s a much faster machine, but less charm.”
“Does it really always snow here? Grace asked.
“Yup,” William answered. “I mean, there are breaks in the snow, but the weather stays cool enough that the snow is always here. It’s not always this much snow, but there’s always something. In fact, I’m drafting plans for a ski resort to capitalize on that.”
“I’m only confused about one thing,” Flynn said. “Why build all of this in secret?”
“I’ll tell you,” William answered. “I want every citizen to be exposed to the wonder of this place as you were. I want to see their eyes sparkle when they get here.”
“What does your family think of all this?”
“I brought them up a few weeks ago, and they loved it. I admit it was very special for Elizabeth. She didn’t seem to remember snow at all. It was more surprising that way.”
Flynn nodded. “Well, this isn’t quite the conspiracy I had expected, and I am very thankful for that. I think this place will be a wonderful thing for the citizens.”
“I couldn’t agree more. Our town has been through so much in the last few years. The crash of Explorer One, then the ‘Incident’ with that man from the Upper Levels, and then the ‘Schism’ between Rayland and Olivia… it’s been one crisis after another.”
“An unfortunate trend that I hope is behind us,” Grace chimed in.
“Me too,” William said cheerily. “I hope this village can help. It wasn’t too long ago that we shopped at our town bakery and pretended our world wasn’t so odd. I want the village to help bring back some of that fantasy, even if it’s just for a while.”
“You don’t have to convince me,” Flynn said happily. “I’m sold.”
“I’m glad you say that,” William added, a sparkle in his eye. “I have one more thing to show you.”
The group trudged through the snow, with William leading them to the far side of the village square, where they found a new building with bright lights that pierced the snowy air. It was clearly a firehouse, not completely different from the one back in town.
“You might see where I got my inspiration,” William chuckled. “Come inside.”
The group walked through the garage door, and Flynn couldn’t help but laugh when he came face to face with another old-timey fire truck inside. William didn’t add anything about it, so Flynn assumed the World Ship simply didn’t have modern designs available.
“I want this place to serve as a sort of headquarters,” William said proudly. “I knew you were talking about taking over the firehouse in town, so I stuck to the theme. I want the Protectors to have a presence here, in the same vein as you envision back home. If a citizen needs help, they come here.”
Flynn was floored. For the first time in a long time, he felt a wave of appreciation. He looked around the room and then made his way over to a small table and took a seat.
“Thank you,” he said, struggling to force the words out as he fought back a wave of emotion. “Your support is… overwhelming.”
“Of course,” William said. “To be frank, your timing was well suited for my schedule. I wouldn’t want to impose on your plans, but I could really use someone up here to help me while we’re doing all this construction.”
Flynn grimaced. “I see. I can’t stay here myself, but I can talk—”
“What about this one?” William asked, gesturing to Grace. “Would she be interested?”
“Me?” Grace asked.
“She’s not a Protector,” Flynn said.
“Doesn’t she want to be?” William pressed.
“I do,” Grace answered, honestly. “I don’t know that I’m allowed.”
William frowned. “Why not?”
Flynn took a deep breath. “William, this is Grace. She was one of Leonard’s lead militia members during the conflict with Rayland and Olivia.”
“Ah,” William said, seemingly understanding the situation. “So you supported Leonard’s bid for power and control?”
“Not exactly,” she said. “I believed in Leonard when I thought he had our best interests in mind. Once he showed his true colors, I was not a fan.”
William looked her over for a long moment. He glanced to Flynn, then back to Grace. “You’re sorry then?” he asked. “If you did it over now, would you still join him?”
“I wouldn’t,” she answered. “I accept the mistakes I made. I would not repeat them.”
William looked back to Flynn. “I don’t see the problem.”
“What?” Flynn asked.
“She said she is sorry. I can’t see why we shouldn’t move past it.”
Flynn furrowed his brow. “William, this isn’t about moving on. I don’t have any ill feelings toward Grace. She is, however, one of the most known militia members that put the citizens on edge during Leonard’s short run.”
“She’s not the only one who followed Leonard, either,” William said, his voice calm and wise. “I think a lot of people made a mistake on this one. Your forgiveness here could send a different message to the citizens. Maybe it’s time for us to bury the hatchet and grow together.”
Flynn didn’t know how to respond. A part of him wanted to turn William down without a single moment of thought on the matter. Grace had been caught up in Leonard’s ideals, and those ideals had failed. Would she still be here feeling so innocent and concerned if Leonard had succeeded at his task?
His deliberation must have taken too long for William’s liking, as he turned away from Flynn and looked to Grace instead. “You know, I don’t see any reason I can’t hire you anyway. If Flynn won’t let you be a Protector, I can come up with another name for it. You’ll have to sign an NDA about Winter Village and whatnot. It’s all pretty standard. What do you say, Grace?”
She looked from William to Flynn, and she looked genuinely sad. “I don’t want to force myself upon Flynn,” she said. “What good would it be if I was a Protector in name only? As much as I appreciate the offer, Mr. Everett. I must refuse.”
William frowned. “Flynn?”
Flynn thought about all the reasons this was a bad idea. Grace had demonstrated a clear desire to stir up chaos. She had willingly served Leonard and nearly brought about the end of the Main Six. There was absolutely no reason to trust or give her any level of authority whatsoever.
But he also knew the looks she got in town. He understood the pain of making a bad decision and the limitations that the town had when it came to making a clean break from the past. William wasn’t a fool, and Grace gave no aura of aggression or danger. Most importantly, this holiday spirit weighed on his heart and made him feel far more forgiving than he thought he should.
He groaned, mostly for show, and then nodded. “Alright. She can stay.”
Grace looked like she might explode.
“On a temporary assignment,” Flynn amended. “She reports to you, regularly, and she does her duty as a Protector full time. If she meets your expectations, William, I will withhold my judgement of her for now.”
Grace tackled him and wrapped him tightly in a hug. Her warmth was a sudden reminder of how absolutely cold he was while walking around in the snow.
“Now, if you don’t mind,” he added. “I’d like to warm up.”
William nodded, still sporting a mile-wide grin. “Of course. Right this way.”
Despite William’s begging, Flynn assured him that he needed to report back to town rather quickly, so as to put Bryan’s growing concerns to rest before they escalated to a council meeting and pandemonium.
“You will keep it a secret?” William asked as he helped Flynn board the train.
“I won’t reveal your village directly, but if I were you, I’d arrange a visit with the town council so they can see what you’ve done here,” Flynn said.
“Alight, yes, I will get them out here. I just don’t care for Rayland Walsh if I’m honest.”
“Few do,” Flynn said.
“I’ll make sure the train is primed and ready for you at the station before we go.”
William marched off, and Flynn moved to Grace. “Are you sure about this?” he asked her. “I mean, staying here, becoming a Protector, all of it?”
“I am,” she said. “I needed to get away from town after the whole thing. This is as good an opportunity as any other.”
“It won’t be easy,” Flynn added.
“I know,” she agreed. “I think that’s okay. I don’t want easy.”
“What about back home? Don’t you need your belongings?”
“I don’t have much,” she admitted. “None of my clothes will work here anyway. I’ll come down in a while and make sure I am cleared out of my place. Right now? I just want a warm fire and some hot cocoa.”
Flynn laughed. “Well, I will be back up here to check on things sooner than later. I am thankful William wants to work with the Protectors, and it seems like a win for us. I will have some explaining to do with the council, but I’m not worried about that.”
“I promise I won’t let you down,” she pressed. “I want to be a Protector. I promise.”
He believed her words enough to give her a nod. “I’m holding you to it.”
Back on the train, Flynn fell into his seat and tried to warm himself up as best he could while he waited for the train to get moving. He wanted to try and get some sleep if he could, but he was far too cold to even think about it at the moment.
He contemplated his adventure instead.
The Winter Village was a thing of beauty. William was a genius in that way. The citizens back home had been faced with far too much reality as of late. They needed an escape from it all, at least for a time, and this snow-filled town would be the solution.
A mountaintop resort would be a big hit.
The train started to roll a moment later, and the conductor called up to let Flynn know the heat would improve now that things were moving. He fell asleep a short time later, drifting away as the train whistle echoed in the night air. His mind was filled with lots of new data to consider, and he was happy for it. He drifted away thinking of candy canes, warm fires, and clear winter nights looking up at a clear and starry night sky…