This story is for Lynn/nebula2 for the holiday fic exchange. I think I've managed to work in her requested song (The 12 Pains of Christmas), though some of them had to be a little over-simplified to make them Hope Valley appropriate. I found places for all three of her suggested objects as well as a nod to another KM character, and I hope I've done justice to the friendship she wanted to see highlighted.

Special thanks to Amy for beta reading for me- you really did help so much!

Happy Holidays, everyone!

December 1918

Sighing as he passed the garland and bows adorning all the shops, Nathan Grant closed the door of the jail behind him and sank into the old chair behind his desk. As the holidays approached, Nathan knew he had to get into better spirits, if not for his own sake, then for Allie's. His daughter had changed a lot in the last year. For one, she was officially his daughter instead of his niece. Not that a piece of paper affected how they felt about one another; they'd been more like father and daughter for years, even if they hadn't been about to admit it to one another before now. She was growing up, maturing into a beautiful young woman. Unfortunately, she had also known heartbreak. When her beloved teacher had turned Nathan down and started a relationship with someone else, Allie had been devastated. She thought it was her fault, that if she had said or done things differently, everything would have turned out in their favor. It had taken a lot of hugs and long talks to convince her that Mrs. Thornton's decision had nothing to do with her, and all to do with Nathan's position as the town's Mountie. Watching the way his daughter avoided her teacher outside of the school, he worried about how she controlled her feelings in the classroom. So far, it hadn't affected her grades, but he knew he had to help her find a way to move on.

Just as soon as he figured it out himself.

He was shaken out of his dark thoughts by the slamming of the door. Bill Avery huffed as he sank into the chair across the desk, his face a dark scowl.

"Bad day?" Nathan asked hesitantly.

Bill glared back at him before grumbling a reply. "All the holiday fuss. It's crazy out there!"

Nathan's eyebrows rose in surprise. Sure, Bill wasn't the most sociable person even on his best day, but Nathan never expected him to be this put out by holiday preparations. "Since when are you against Christmas?"

Bill sighed, his face falling from the angry scowl into what could only be described as sadness. "I just can't find the energy to get into the holiday spirit this year," he admitted. "Not much to be happy about these days. I am officially no longer a Mountie, so it feels like I've lost a part of me. Then all that drama with Elizabeth and…well, you know who. I knew things were never going to work out with the two of them, and I tried to tell her more than once, but she refused to listen. It wasn't enough, seeing what she did to you and Allie, but then watching her suffer when HE broke things off. I knew he was only in it for the game and as soon as he won, it was time for the next gamble. I'm glad he's gone off to wherever; I just hope the new saloon owner is a better fit."

Nathan willed himself not to react to Bill's words and the reminder of the pain he and the women he loved had suffered. "What's done is done," he said firmly. "It's time for all of us to move on. Surely there must be something you're looking forward to this holiday season."

The older man frowned, shaking his head. "I just think everyone has lost the true meaning of Christmas these days. Now it's all about the fuss and the noise. First you have to find the perfect tree, and then figure out how to light and decorate it. Then there's always some idiot who has too much to drink and falls off their horse or starts a fight, and it just ruins everyone's night. And those Christmas cards-who has time to write out cards to everyone they know? I'm lucky—no family to buy for means no extra bills for the next five months, and no in-laws to deal with! Oh, and even if you do manage to find that perfect gift, there's always some little piece missing."

Nathan tried to find something to say to cheer his friend, but the judge wasn't finished yet. "And everyone expects everyone else to give more to charities. We should be doing that all year, not just a few weeks at the end of it! And don't get me started on all the kids… every one of them is whining about what they want or what they didn't get."

The Mountie couldn't help but chuckle at that mention of the kids. He had seen Bill with young Jack Thornton the other day, teaching the boy how to make snowballs. He'd even become their target when the boy tried to throw them. True, the judge did lack patience with most children, but his godson could do no wrong.

"And another thing," the rant continued. "The holidays always bring all kinds of visitors to town, and they're going to get their cars stuck in the snow or park them every which way along Main Street, like they own the place or something."

"I supposed next you're going to tell me that you don't want to be a part of the special Christmas concert." When Bill glared back at him, Nathan gaped. "How can you hate singing Christmas carols?!"

Bill grumbled under his breath but didn't answer for a few minutes. "It's not that I don't like the carols. I do. I just… Like I said before, I'm just not in the holiday spirit this year." He narrowed his eyes, looking pointedly across the desk. "You're one to talk. I haven't seen you shouting for joy or decking the halls." He glanced around the jail. "At least I let Molly hang some garland around my office. You could put something up in here."

"Oh yeah? And what do you suggest? Maybe a tree in the cell? Then if I arrest anybody, they'll have something to decorate. Or maybe some mistletoe in the doorway? You know this place has so much romantic potential."

Bill studied the younger man carefully. It was obvious that Nathan was still hurting, and his last comment made it clear who and what was causing it. "Have you two talked about that day?"

Now it was Nathan's turn to scowl across the desk, but when the other man just stared back at him, waiting patiently for an answer, he closed his eyes and sighed. "I think she said everything she needed to that day. She can't see me as more than a shadow, a stand in for Jack, and there's nothing I can say or do to change her mind. I need more than that."

"You should have more, and you deserved better than that," Bill agreed sympathetically. He waited a few minutes before adding, "I know she regrets the way she handled things. Do you think there's any chance the two of you can work things out?"

Nathan shook his head. "I don't think I have anything left in me to give. I offered her my heart, my future, a family for Allie and Jack… I even suggested I'd leave my job if it would make her happy, but none of that was good enough."

They sat in silence for several minutes before Nathan sighed and got to his feet. "I'm going to head home. Allie is making meatloaf for dinner, one of my favorites, so I want to be there when it's ready." He paused as he picked up his hat, turning back to face Bill as the older man followed him to the door. "Try to find something to be happy about out there, Bill. Bake some of your favorite Christmas cookies, or let Jack help you decorate your tree. I'm sure he can get you into the spirit of things."

Bill smiled fondly at the mention of his godson. "I was going to make some snickerdoodles tomorrow night. Maybe I'll ask Elizabeth if he can help, let him make his own gifts for people." His eyes brightened as Nathan locked the door of the jail and turned towards the road out to the rowhouses. "Maybe while Jack is out, you could use that time to talk to Elizabeth. You both deserve a chance to see if that door is really closed, and I bet Allie would enjoy the opportunity to spend some time with the little guy. I think she misses him just as much as you do."

Bill grinned as he walked away, leaving Nathan stunned behind him, humming something that sounded suspiciously like "Deck the Halls" as he waved to everyone he passed.

December 1919

"You're doing it again."

"What?" Nathan asked, surprised by the growl in Bill's tone.

"You're whistling. "Jingle Bells" this time." You're in a pretty good mood for a guy who was up half the night settling a drunken brawl at the saloon."

"Coffee, my friend," Nathan replied, only half-teasing as he raised his cup with a grin. While it had been a long night, the young men were sleeping off their stupidity in jail cells while he was sitting in the café, waiting for Elizabeth.

"So, what are you doing sitting in here, anyway?" Bill groused. "Don't you have a Christmas tree to decorate or something?"

Nathan smiled. "With school out for the holidays, Allie and her friends are out at the pond ice skating and playing in the snow. And before you ask, Cat Montgomery is keeping an eye on them. Laura agreed to stay with Jack for the morning, so Elizabeth could get the last of her Christmas shopping done. Later this afternoon, we are taking the kids to get trees for both our houses, and we'll decorate them together tonight."

Bill grumbled under his breath but went back into the kitchen. Nathan sighed as he watched his friend through the curtained doorway. His own heart lighter and happier these days, Nathan wanted the same thing for Bill.

The jingling of the bell on the front door distracted him, and Nathan rose with a grin as his fiancée rushed in, her cheeks rosy from the cold and her eyes glowing. Hurrying to his side, she gave him a quick kiss before letting him take her coat and settling into the chair he held for her. "I found the perfect pair of earrings for Allie," she said excitedly. "I can't wait to see the look on her face when you tell her she's allowed to get her ears pierced."

As they got further into the teen years, Nathan was glad to have Elizabeth's guidance and support with Allie. The little girl who used to be content to fish with him and usually kept to herself was now the social butterfly of the classroom. She was off to sleepovers at all the girls' houses, getting dance lessons from Mrs. Coulter, and trying to look prettier and more mature for the boys. Nathan cringed at the thought of the teenage boys; he remembered all too well what they were thinking at this age.

Elizabeth chuckled, reaching across the table to squeeze his hand. "You're still the most important boy in her life," she assured him. "There's no way anyone is going to get between that girl and going fishing with you."

Nathan smiled back, raising her hands to kiss her fingers.

"Acting like they're the only ones in the room," Bill muttered as he filled both of their coffee cups and sullenly went back to the kitchen.

Elizabeth watched him go, her face falling into a frown. "He's still fussing, huh?"

Despite appearances, they knew Bill was happy for them and their blossoming relationship. He had been the one to encourage them to talk things out, went out of his way to make sure they had time to themselves while they were courting, and was the first to congratulate them upon their engagement. They couldn't help but notice that he seemed lonely, so when fate offered them a chance to help, they jumped at it.

Abigail Stanton.

She and Elizabeth had stayed in touch in the years since she'd gone back East. When her mother passed last month, Abigail mentioned the possibility of returning to Hope Valley once she settled the estate. She and Cody both missed their friends and the simpler life in Hope Valley, and Elizabeth was quick to assure her that they were missed here as well.

Especially by Bill.

"I watched the two of them start a relationship, only to have it fall apart when his ex-wife came to town," Elizabeth had explained as she and Nathan started planning. "After Nora left, it seemed they were too afraid to try again."

Nathan had heard many great things about the former mayor and café's namesake but never had the pleasure of meeting her. Everyone in town who knew Abigail respected her, but none more so than Bill. He mentioned his partner in the café regularly, and not always in a tone of business or friendship. Instead, there was a hint of regret.

"She's the one that got away," Nathan had reasoned, even more determined to fix things.

Elizabeth knew that Abigail had strong feelings for Bill at one point, and that she hadn't been in any romantic relationships since leaving Hope Valley. Now that she and Cody were arriving on today's train, there was still a chance. "Maybe something more will come of it, maybe they will remain friends and business partners, but they both deserve the chance to figure it out."

"If nothing else, he'll get to taste her Christmas cookies again. I know he's missed those," Nathan joked, but he truly hoped there would be more than that. Bill had admitted to him—only once and under the influence of morphine after a bad fall landed him in the infirmary for a couple of days—that he had sometimes wondered what could have been. "That's why he encouraged me to talk to you after…" he stopped, hesitant to broach the topic of her previous relationship.

Elizabeth flushed, still embarrassed by her poor choices and horrible behavior. It had been a relief to realize that the man she pledged herself to out of fear wasn't prepared to continue their courtship. When he'd learned that her father was insisting on a prenuptial agreement, to safeguard the trust fund she now had access to, he had been furious. When a "better opportunity" arose in California and she refused to leave her life in Hope Valley, they had parted ways. He left town, suddenly and bitterly, while she was far from heartbroken. It had been a mere matter of days before Bill had started pushing her to work things out with Nathan.

Elizabeth kept glancing back at the door, eager for her friend's arrival. While she had been doing a bit of shopping this morning, she had also been making arrangements for Abigail and Cody. For now, Cody would be staying with the Wolfe family, while Abigail would use the spare room over the café.

Hearing a familiar laugh as the front door opened, Elizabeth jumped to her feet.

"Well, isn't this a sight for sore eyes."

"Abigail!" Elizabeth rushed across the room, enveloping her friend in a long hug. When they finally stepped apart, Nathan reached out a hand in greeting, only to be pulled into a hug himself.


They all turned at Bill's surprised exclamation. He stood in the doorway of the kitchen, jaw slackened, apron splattered with flour, and a pan of brownies seemingly forgotten in his hand. It was the heat of the pan finally making its way through the cloth that shook him out of his daze, causing him to jump and nearly drop the pan before tossing it onto the table behind him.

"Hello, Bill," Abigail greeted him warmly, pleased but confused by his shocked reaction. Everyone else in town had welcomed her and Cody happily and seemed aware of their return, but her business partner of all people was clearly out of the loop. "It's good to see you again," she continued, coming across the room to embrace him just as tightly as she had Elizabeth.

Bill was still for a few seconds, shocked, but then raised his arms to return her hug. "You, too," he managed to reply. After a moment, Abigail stepped back, turning back to Elizabeth as she removed her coat and hat. Nathan smirked at the older man's stunned expression. Bill narrowed his eyes. "Why do I think you had something to do with this?"

"Because I did." Chuckling at Bill's scowl, Nathan lowered his voice. "It's like you told me last year- you both deserve to know, once and for all."

Bill's eyes widened and he inhaled sharply, stunned once again. "How did you know…?"

Nathan clapped his friend on the back before turning to gather their coats. Helping Elizabeth into hers, he guided her to the door. Just before they stepped outside, she paused, watching and smiling.

"Bill, what have you done to my kitchen?" They heard Abigail exclaim.

"Was that anger or surprise?" Nathan chuckled.

"Probably a bit of both," Elizabeth replied, still grinning. "Abigail always kept the kitchen much…. neater than Bill does. Less flour and crumbs on the floor, no grease drippings on the stove… Bill is a good cook, but he isn't much for housekeeping." They both laughed as they began walking. "Looks like it will be Bill and Abigail making cookies with the kids tomorrow," Elizabeth gloated cheerfully as they started across the street. "I can only imagine the bickering that is going to ensue."

"Hopefully she is a little more civilized when it comes to frosting," Nathan teased with a grin.

Elizabeth shook her head, still beaming. "Jack is sure to get frosting on all of them. I would be more worried about Allie and the mistletoe if I were Bill. How many times has she arranged for us to get caught under it?

Nathan hugged her close, laughing. "I'm sure Bill has no clue what he's in for. Do you think Abigail has any idea?"

Elizabeth's eyes glowed with mischief. "Who do you think suggested it?"

December 1920

It was a perfect winter morning. The temperature was what one would expect for early winter, but not the outright frigid that was always a possibility this time of year. There was a light dusting of snow on the trees and the fields, but not enough to accumulate on the road and bog down traffic. Not that there were many people moving around this far from town. The quiet stillness was one thing Nathan enjoyed about his morning rounds.

Today, however, he found himself accompanied by an unexpected guest. Bill had caught up with him just as he'd ridden out of town, asking if he could use some company. With Abigail in Union City visiting her daughter, and Minnie Canfield taking on more time at the café, Bill found himself at a bit of a loss as to what to do with the extra time on his hands. Nathan and Elizabeth had already received a handwritten Christmas card from the judge, and everyone in town had seen him hanging lights and decorations around the café the other day. Abigail and Cody were due back on the 23rd, and Nathan knew she and Bill already had plans for dinner before leading the town's holiday concert on Christmas Eve. Adding in the party for Jack's birthday that same afternoon, and it would be a busy day. So, it couldn't hurt to let his friend join him now.

"I see Allie made you a new wreath for the door of the jail," Bill pointed out. Nathan had hung the small bundle of evergreens, berries, and an oversized bow yesterday, as soon as his daughter brought it home from school. "Did you make the other one?"

The other side of the doorframe held a smaller, messier bundle of branches and berries. Seeing Allie's masterpiece, Jack had immediately asked to make a wreath as well, and he could hardly refuse his son's efforts. "No," Nathan chuckled. "Jack wants to do everything his sister does. If Allie makes a wreath for Dad's office, then he's going to make one, too. Elizabeth tried to help, but you know how independent the little guy is…"

Bill smiled. "I remember that feeling. I wanted to be just like my brother when I was a kid. Even when it meant getting in trouble right beside him…"

"Well, let's hope Allie doesn't lead him into too much mischief."

Bill nodded, still grinning.

"Speaking of mischief, why are you really out here, riding around in the cold with me when you could be warm and toasty in front of a stove at the café?" Nathan queried. "It wouldn't have anything to do with Rosemary Coulter going around town trying to find someone to volunteer as Santa, would it?"

Bill shrugged, unconcerned. "I don't see you stepping up to be the town's jolly old man in red."

Nathan smirked. "It's like I told Rosemary. I already spend most of my day in a red suit, except with this one there's a chance I could be tied up on rounds or end up out of town on a case. What happens then? She'd be left to find another Santa at the last minute. I will stick with my serge, thanks."

They rode in silence for a while, just taking in Mother Nature's winter splendors. As they passed one of the outlying homesteads, Bill paused.

"What's wrong?" Nathan asked, immediately looking around for anything suspicious.

"Oh, it's nothing," Bill said, turning his horse back towards the trail, but Nathan continued to watch him. After a moment, Bill sighed and answered. "I was just remembering…that hill there made me think about the one my brother and I used to sled down. We got a toboggan for Christmas one year… we took that thing out every chance we got, even on the days there wasn't enough snow for it. Boy, was that fun."

Nathan had a hopeful look on his face. "A toboggan, huh?" he murmured.

"Yeah. Why?"

Nathan sighed. "I'm having a hard time figuring out what to get Jack for Christmas. I don't want him to think that now that his mom and I are married I'm going to stop caring about him. I want to get him something special, from me and Allie. I've seen what Elizabeth and Jack are giving her, and she's going to love it. I want Jack to be just as excited.

Bill smiled. "Nathan, that boy adores you. You could give him a rock and he'd think it was the greatest gift in the world, because it came from you. His dad."

Nathan's cheeks got a little redder than just the cold, and he studied his saddle for a moment before he finally met Bill's gaze, smiling softly. "He's a great kid. I just want him to be happy."

"He will be. So, you think he's ready for a toboggan, huh?" Bill grinned. "I know you're pretty good when it comes to carving and woodwork and all that, but I think you should go ahead and order a real one this time. You can make the next one. I'll even come over and help teach him the right way to ride it."

Nathan studied the other man for a moment, certain there was more to the offer than just playtime with his godson. "Why do I think your 'right way' is going to involve more work for me?"

Bill shrugged as he nudged his horse into movement, chuckling as he turned away. "Well, someone has to carry the sled back up the hill for him…"

Nathan shook his head as he and Newton started to follow them. They rode quietly for a few minutes before Bill turned the tables on him. "So, what was your favorite Christmas gift as a kid?"

Nathan contemplated his answer. His most vivid memories of Christmas were the ones he'd spent with his mother and sister, after his father had gone to prison, and then the ones he and Allie had celebrated together. His mom always made the day special for him and Colleen, but he knew she'd struggled, and he was certain he had disappointed Allie with their years of mess hall dinners and speeches from not so jolly old men in red suits. This year was the first real family Christmas he'd had in a long time, thanks in part to the man riding beside him. Without Bill's fatherly advice and more than a few friendly pushes, he wouldn't be the husband and father he was today.

Refocusing on the question, he grinned as he recalled a gift from when he was five or six. "There was this one year…Colleen and I both got books. She didn't care much for hers, saying it was too much like reading for school, but I loved mine. Took it everywhere, and made Mom or Colleen read it to me every night. It was about dragons."

"Dragons?" Bill scoffed. "Like giant flying lizards?"

"Yeah, dragons. I was fascinated. I think I even told Mom I was going to write my own stories about them when I grew up." He smiled fondly at the memory.

"You should get those books back out," Bill suggested. "I bet Jack wouldn't mind reading them with you. Or maybe go ahead and make up some stories of your own. You do live with a published author. I bet she'd be willing to share a few tips with you. Maybe you can even finish one by the time the baby gets here, and you can read it to him or her, too."

Nathan paused, startled. "How did you know…?"

"I knew it!" Bill laughed and stopped next to Newton. "Congratulations!" he cheered, slapping Nathan on the back.

Nathan smiled proudly, unable to help himself. "But how did you know? We haven't even told the kids yet."

"Elizabeth. The only time I've ever seen that woman refuse coffee was when she was pregnant with Jack, and she turned a nasty shade of green the other day when I tried to hand her a cup."

"She told me about that," Nathan replied. "She was hoping you didn't put two and two together."

"Ha!" Bill chuckled. "I wasn't an Inspector for nothing, you know."

"I do know," Nathan assured him. "And now I'm hoping we can depend on your Mountie discretion to keep this quiet. We don't want to say anything until after Jack's birthday, so we're going to tell the kids on Christmas. The last gift under the tree is going to something from their baby brother or sister."

"Well, I'm prepared to step up as godfather again," Bill promised.

Nathan shook his head. "Thanks, Gramps, but I think we've got that covered."

"Gramps?" Bill repeated, truly surprised.

"Oh, come on. You know you've become like a father to both me and Elizabeth. It can't be a surprise that our kids would see you as another grandfather!"

"Grandpa Bill…" he muttered reverently, his eyes getting a little teary as they started back towards town. "Sounds good to me, Son."