“Like this, Papa?”
“Not quite so much, sweetie. Remember: baking is more sensitive than cooking. The slightest difference in your measurements could ruin the entire batch.”
Gunberd smiled as his seven-year-old daughter used the handle of the mixing spoon to level off the flour in the measuring cup.
“Perfect,” he said. He leaned over to kiss her on the forehead, and she giggled as she dumped the flour into the bowl.
Usually he would do this himself, probably with the help of Cube, but Yucie had been adamant this year. She had been helping more and more in the kitchen lately, slowly learning basic cooking skills and how to prepare simple dishes, so when the time had come to prepare the Winter Solstice baskets she had jumped at the chance to add baking to her repertoire. They would be making various holiday breads tomorrow, but for today they would be tackling the staple of any Solstice basket: cookies.
Of course, the young girl had been all too excited at the prospect and had readily leapt at the chance.
As he watched her mix the dry ingredients, he couldn’t help but marvel over the turn his life had taken. Seven years ago, he wouldn’t have given the coming holiday a passing thought. While other families were preparing for the season, he had been in a military camp, seeking out one battle after another. The Winter Solstice was a time for friends, family, and home, and having none of those (or none that he’d like to think of) the acknowledgment of its passing was…irrelevant. The year before, he had been busy trying to assemble the Eternal Tiara, and the year before that…
He pushed thoughts of his last pre-Yucie Winter Solstice far from his mind. They only led to dark places, and Solstice was a time of light. Warmth. Hope. Those roads contained none of those.
“What next, Papa?” he smiled at Yucie’s question and pulled his little girl into a hug. She was everything the Solstice stood for, embodied in this one miraculous gift that had stumbled into his life. She squealed and squirmed, trying to wiggle out of his hold, and he laughed as he kissed her cheek.
“We add that,” he said, nodding towards her bowl, “to this.”
He placed the bowl he had been working with, the one with the eggs and butter and sugar that was substantially messier than the flour he had given her to measure out, in front of her. Her eyes grew wide as she saw the yellow, creamy mixture, and she grinned up at him. He chuckled at her smile, missing a tooth up to the side, and ruffled her hair before grabbing a spoon.
“Only add a little bit at first. If you add too much at once, the flour will go everywhere but the bowl it’s supposed to be in,” he explained. He spread his arms out wide at the word everywhere, emphasizing the mess he was trying to avoid with this little kitchen experiment.
“Ok!” she chirped, and he moved back as she took a heaping spoonful and dumped it in the bowl. He laughed and stepped back as the flour plumed up, coating her face in a fine coating of dust. She blinked owlishly before looking up at him, uncertain, and he smiled as he took the dry bowl from her.
“See? I told you it would go everywhere but the bowl,” he said, tapping her nose. He took a spoonful and carefully put it in the bowl. “Like this, Yucie.”
After mixing the flour into the butter mixture, he handed the spoon back to her. She followed his example, carefully scooping a smaller amount into the bowl, and he nodded before saying, “Good.” They followed that pattern, slowly adding flour and mixing until they had a decent dough in the bowl. He handed her a small bowl of dried berries, nuts, and chocolate pieces. He moved aside a bit of batter before telling her to add the bowl to the mixture. After giving it a final stir, he placed his hands on his hips and gave her an approving smile.
“Well, Yucie, I think we did it. That looks like a fine cookie dough,” he said. She bounced on her stool and grinned.
“What next, Papa?” she asked. He chuckled and tapped her nose.
“Next,” he said, “We scoop the cookies onto the trays. Just…like…this.”
– V –
“No, Arc, you’re not doing it right!”
A blonde eyebrow lifted above a clear blue eye, and Yucie puffed out her cheeks as she pointed to her spoon.
“You’re putting too much on the spoon! The cookies will be huge and melt together!” she said, and he shrugged before plopping the dough on the tray.
“I want a bigger cookie,” he said. “The last batch was too small.”
“They’re supposed to be that size, you big dummy! You’re gonna mess it all up!” she said, attempting to snatch the spoon back from him – but even with her added height and standing on her old stool, he was still able to lift it high above his head and keep it out of her reach. She puffed out her cheeks and hopped again, but as she landed her foot slipped and she shrieked as she went tumbling off. She closed her eyes, bracing for an impact that never came, before peeking open an eye to stare up at Arc’s infuriatingly amused face. His smile softened as he pulled her closer to his chest, and he rubbed a comforting hand along her back.
“Careful, Princess,” he chided. She smiled slightly and squeezed the hand that was fisted in his tunic.
“Thanks,” she said, but when she moved to stand he held her tighter. She raised an eyebrow at him, and he grinned as he bent down and stole a kiss before he righted her on her stool and dipped his spoon back into the dough.
“Now, how much am I supposed to use again?” he asked, and she rolled her eyes as she walked him through the process yet again.
Being a “pampered royal brat”, as she liked to call him on his more infuriating days, he was absolutely hopeless with things she considered simple, everyday tasks (or the “domestic life”, as he dubbed it). Well, maybe she was being a little harsh. His time away from the palace, searching out information on her father, had afforded him some basic life skills, but those skills were rather limited and did not extend to the realm of baking. He could cook a decent campfire meal – nothing as elaborate as herself, but passable enough – but the man had never made a single cookie in his life. When she had first mentioned the Solstice tradition her father had started all those years ago, he had been perplexed. He had wanted to kidnap her for the day, but then she had told him she’d be using her day off to help Gunberd make the Solstice baskets. He had readily agreed when she’d asked if he minded spending the day with her at her home instead, as either way would find them spending time together, but she had been quick to realize she probably never should have offered in the first place.
Still, watching him struggle in the kitchen had been cute. By the time they were finished mixing the dough, he had ruined three batches, somehow got a bit of egg on the ceiling, and doused both of them in a fine coating of flour. Gunberd had decided to leave the baking to them and had gone out to the forest to gather wood for the baskets, and when he had returned to find them arguing vehemently over a sack of flour torn on the floor, he had hastily escaped to his study to make said baskets. Part of the problem had been Arc’s natural stubbornness. The rest had been his tormenting nature, as he had been more interested in riling her up than actually learning how to bake (which she learned when half the day had passed, she had started to panic over their lack of product, and he had grown serious and proved he actually could crack an egg without getting shells in the bowl).
Now if he could only learn how to spoon out equal-sized clumps of dough.
“Did I do it right this time?” his voice snapped her out of her musings, and she blinked her eyes in surprise as she realized she must have zoned out for a few minutes. The tray was filled with twenty-four perfectly rounded tablespoons of cookie dough. Arc was grinning that self-satisfied, smug bastard smirk he had, and she sniffed as she nodded.
“They’ll do,” she said, not wanting his head to get too big at his success. Knowing him, he was just acting incompetent to piss her off. He rolled his eyes and nudged her hip with his own.
“Say, after we finish the ones for the baskets, can we make some for us?” he asked. She mirrored his gesture, turning her eyes heavenwards as she sent up a silent prayer for strength.
“You mean some for you?” she deadpanned, and he kissed her cheek as he picked up the tray.
“If you insist,” he said. “I want big cookies!”
“Must everything be big with you?” she asked, turning to watch him carry the tray to the oven.
“If you must know,” he said. “It’s part of why I love your forehead so much, isn’t it?”
“Arc!” she cried, and he laughed as he slipped the tray onto the rack above the fire.
“Now, into the oven!”
– V –
“Here, let me get those.”
Yucie smiled gratefully at Gunberd as her papa took the tray of cookies from her hands and carried them over to the oven. She sat back down on the stool, sighing as she rested a hand on her overly-pregnant belly. Usually she would make the cookies on her own, but this Solstice found her nearly at her due date and unable to maneuver in the kitchen quite how she had wanted. Arc had called Gunberd in for assistance, as Yucie had nearly come to tears when she realized she wouldn’t be able to bake the cookies on her own and she had long ago banished him from sharing a kitchen with her.
“Thanks, Papa,” she said, and he returned her smile as he walked back over to the table and took a seat beside her.
“Not that I’m complaining about getting to spend a day in the kitchen with my favorite –” he started.
“Only,” she cut in, as she always did.
“Favorite daughter,” he said without missing a beat, “but why didn’t you just have Aero help you with these?
“You’ve seen him in a kitchen,” she quipped, giving him a grin as she reached for the mug of tea he’d prepared for her. “He’s a hopeless wreck.”
Gunberd wanted to smile at the memories her comment induced. He remembered all too well the first Solstice the then-prince had spent with them, only a few short months after his daughter had been crowned Platina Princess. Those months had been the hardest for him. Though he had sensed the distance approaching as he had watched her undergo the trials of the Eternal Tiara, it had never been more clear to him that his time with his precious baby girl would soon be ending than when he had properly seen her with the prince. He knew from the moment he had burst into that room and seen him sitting so intently by her side as she recovered from her wish that he was fighting a losing battle. And, if he was honest with himself, he had known it long before then – months before, when Aero had shown up at their house during the Harvest Festival. He had seen the concern for him on her face, had watched as they’d danced under the stars. He had known that young man would be the one to take Yucie from him, and like it or not he would have to willingly hand her over. As her father, Gunberd knew he would always be Yucie’s family, but she was reaching that point in her life where her family would expand. Gunberd couldn’t be the one to go with her through that.
So he wanted to smile, appreciating the good-natured heckling that defined Aero and Yucie’s relationship, but there were lessons to be taught here, so all he did was sigh. Yucie’s smile faltered as her head tipped to the side, confused at her father’s reaction.
“Papa?” she asked, and he gave her a weary smile as he sat down across from her.
“Yucie, you know I love spending time with you. It’s getting to be a rare thing, with your busy schedule ruling the country,” he joked, and Yucie’s smile warmed as she reached out and grasped his hand.
“Papa, you know I’ll always make time for you,” she said. He smiled and nodded, but he wasn’t done.
“I know, Yucie,” he said, “but that’s not my point. I know baking for the Solstice baskets was our tradition, and I’m glad to continue it with you, but sweetheart, you have more family than just me now. Soon you’ll have a little girl or a little boy all your own, and eventually you’ll get to make the baskets with them.”
“But…?” she asked, her spare hand automatically going to her belly again. Gunberd shrugged helplessly.
“Don’t you think Aero should be part of that tradition, too? He is your family now, too, you know, and this is a family tradition,” he said. “Even if he is hopeless in a kitchen. Shouldn’t he still be here?”
“He thought I’d appreciate the time alone with you,” she offered, but he shook his head.
“The tradition was never about the baking, Yucie,” he said. At her confused look, he gave her a warm smile and squeezed her hand. “The tradition is about the time spent doing something as a family. Together.”
Yucie looked down, guilt and longing in her eyes, before she sighed and looked over to the busier side of the vast kitchen.
“Marie?” she called, and a brown-haired girl looked up from the dough she’d been kneading.
“Ma’am?” she asked, and Yucie’s answering smile was brilliant.
“Can you go find that stupid husband of mine and bring him down here?” she asked, and at the girl’s confused look she grinned at her father. “We have some memories to bake.”
“Yes, ma’am,” Marie answered, smiling fondly as she wiped her hands on her apron, asked another girl to continue with the dough, and left in search of the king. The timer dinged, and Gunberd stood to retrieve the cookies.
“Well, at least we already have the doughs done, and I can always handle the baking while you two start assembling the baskets,” he said as he placed the hot tray on a counter to cool. “How much harm can he really do?”
Yucie laughed as she reached for a basket, grinning impishly at her father as she said, “Oh, Papa, you really don’t know Arc at all, do you?”
– V –
His fingers weren’t as nimble as they used to be, but he was still determined to tie the ribbons around the baskets. Weaving the ribbon took longer than before, but the bows were still simple enough. Yucie would be probably be appalled at their finished appearance, had she still been here to criticize him.
His hands stilled at the thought, that familiar ache twinging in his heart with the memory of his dead wife.
He looked up to find his eyes looking back at him beneath her forehead, her graying midnight hair tied back in a messy braid. It may be his bright aqua eyes looking back at him with such concern, but Maggie was still the spitting image of her mother.
“Are you all right?” she asked, concern lacing her voice and words, and he gave her his best smile.
“I’m all right, dear one,” he said. “Just missing your mother. She was always so much better at all this than me.”
Maggie’s smile warmed as she put the scissors and ribbon down on the table. Her gaze travelled over the assembled baskets, nostalgia painting the view as years and years of baking played out in her mind. Her mother’s smile and clear laugh rang out in her mind, and for a moment it was like she was there with them again. She remembered how she had always baked an extra batch just for them, and how she’d slap at her father’s hand when he tried to sneak one of the basket cookies. The hopeless way she’d lecture her father when he tried to help with the baking, and her dismay when it seemed Maggie would inherit her father’s lackluster kitchen skills. The joy when time and practice showed her to be as talented in the kitchen as her mother, and the good-natured teasing when she flaunted that fact to the king.
“I miss her, too, Papa,” she said. “She always made the best baskets.”
“And cookies,” he chuckled, leaning forward to rest his arms on the table. “You know, I never did get the hang of making them.”
“That’s why she taught me, and I taught my little ones, and one day they’ll teach theirs,” Maggie pointed out. “That’s why it’s a family tradition: so it can be passed on down the family.”
“She always told me the tradition was about the time together,” he said, and Maggie’s smile turned bittersweet.
“We had a lot of good times together,” she said. He hummed in response. In his mind, he was nearly sixty years back, standing in a small kitchen with a torn sack of flour on the floor between them. He remembered the fire in her eyes as she screamed at him, and he remembered thinking she was never more beautiful than when she was furious. He remembered Solstices years later, when the fire had dimmed and they had settled into the easy routine of a family, and then when the chaos returned with a young daughter running around the kitchen. He remembered the last Solstice, when she had been too weak to actually help but had insisted on sitting in the kitchen with them as she drank her tea and watched Maggie bake.
They had lost her not too long after that. The winter had been hard on her that year, and she had caught a cold she just couldn’t seem to shake. He remembered entering their bedchamber that night, checking on her after she had gone to bed early only to find…
“Yes, we did,” he said, taking a bite of one of his cookies – the special big ones Yucie had shown Maggie how to make so many years ago now – before he smiled back at Maggie. “But that’s what Solstice is all about, isn’t it? Family being together.”
He chuckled when Maggie walked around the table to wrap her arms around his shoulders, giving him the fiercest hug she could without hurting his old bones. He placed a hand over hers and smiled when she kissed his cheek.
“Happy Solstice, Papa,” she said, and he kissed her cheek in return.
“Happy Solstice, dear one.”