Charlie Boone was asleep, and he knew he was asleep. The blackness around him was deep, and oppressively close as only the dark of dreams could be. He turned his head, stared about, seeking any break in the uniformity of the night that held him, but could find no light to attach his gaze to, no safe island in the perpetual gloom.
"Why is it so dark?" a voice asked, so close by that Charlie jumped.
"Kip? Is that you?"
"Who else would it be?" His boyfriend sounded sleepy, maybe not completely awake. "The nightlight must have gone out, Charlie. I can't see my hand in front of my face."
Charlie bit at his lip. "We're not in my room anymore, Kip. I think...I thought...that this was a dream. But if you and I can talk, it must be something else."
He heard the other boy take a quick and startled breath, felt a presence beside him, and then a hand touched his arm. "Is that you, Charlie?"
Despite the strangeness of their situation, Charlie had to smile. Kippy sounded subdued, about as far from his normal bright, somewhat extroverted character as he could be.
He put a hand on Kippy's and pressed firmly. "Yes. We're together. We're safe, I think."
Kippy moved closer, and wrapped an arm around him. "Yeah, but where? How'd we get here from the bed?"
"I don't know. I was asleep, and then I thought I was dreaming. I still feel like I'm asleep and dreaming."
He heard a soft chuckle, and then Kippy snuggled closer. "I don't really feel awake, either. It's just like you to dream so hard that we're both caught up in it, Charlie."
Despite the oddness of their situation, Charlie had to smile. "I don't go anywhere without you, Kip. Who would do my thinking for me?"
Kippy understood that it was not meant as a barb. He briefly tightened his grip around Charlie's waist and sighed. "Oh, Charlie. You say the nicest things."
Charlie turned his head and planted a kiss on Kippy's cheek. "Let's walk around some and see if we can figure out where we are."
They took a step in unison, and then Kippy stopped. "I just realized I have shoes on. And clothes. How'd that happen?"
They had been asleep in Charlie's bed, and the only thing covering their bodies had been the soft quilt that Charlie's grandmother had given him as a boy. Well, as a little boy. At a still fresh sixteen, Charlie had no illusions that he was an adult yet, but neither could he quite think of himself as just a boy.
Kippy, who turned sixteen in less than a month, was hardly an innocent child, either. Charlie's boyfriend had a tongue that could slice cold butter just as neatly as any knife, and to have that tongue turned against you would quickly dispel any notion whatsoever that Kippy was unwise about the world.
Both of them had been asleep in Charlie's bed, wrapped together beneath the plump quilt, warm and happy after making love, and hardly outfitted to be traipsing about in the pitch black, dreamlike, or otherwise. But now they were fully clothed.
"I still think this is a dream," Charlie ventured. "It feels like a waking dream, where you know darn well you're asleep, but everything that goes on about you is out of your control."
"Well, I wish we'd hurry up and wake up," Kippy said, his voice sounding annoyed now. "I have much better things to do with my sleep than stumble about in the dark."
Charlie smiled, even though he knew that his boyfriend couldn't see it. Nothing kept Kippy down for long. "Let's go on a bit, and see what we can see," Charlie suggested. They resumed walking, stepping carefully and feeling their way forward. Despite what Kippy had said, they hadn't stumbled yet. There seemed to be nothing in the dark with them, and the ground beneath their shoes had all the resiliency of concrete, and its evenness, too.
Kippy made an impatient noise. "We can walk on a bit, but it sure looks to me like there's nothingto see."
Almost as if in answer to that declaration, a faint light winked on, very far away. Kippy gasped, and they stopped moving. "What's that?" he whispered.
Charlie, knowing better, but unable to help himself, turned his face to Kippy's ear and whispered, "It appears to be a light."
It was a measure of Kippy's unease that he didn't come back with too sharp a reply. "I can see that, dum-dum," he whispered. "But what's making it?'
That was the question, wasn't it?
Charlie shrugged, and he and Kippy stood still in the darkness and watched as the light began moving. Began coming their way. There was an odd canter to the motion of the light, as if it was being carried, and swung slowly back and forth in front of its bearer. As the brilliant spot came closer, a distinctive cone-shape to the light became evident, and Charlie's eyes widened as he realized what it was that he and Kippy were seeing.
A flashlight. Someone was coming closer, feeling out the path before them with the sharp beam of a hand-held light. Kippypushed himself a little closer to Charlie, and Charlie put a reassuring arm around his boyfriend. Kippy was a brave soul when out and about in the real world; but things that went bump in the night got to him a little more than he would ever admit. Charlie, too, felt uneasy at the the light moving slowly towards them. Not scared, just deeply in doubt about what they might be facing. He could not get past the feeling that he was still asleep, but the fact that the dream was so real, and so odd, and so obviously beyond his control, was supremely disconcerting.
The boys watched as the light continued to approach, and when it was twenty feet away, the beam of the flash suddenly swung upward and pinned them in its glow.
"Aw, there you are!" said a familiar voice, with just a trace a humor in it.
Charlie realized immediately who that voice belonged to, and so did Kippy.
"Max!" they both called. Charlie felt a feeling of relief flood throughout him.
The elf came closer and dropped the light. "Sure is good to see you fellas again! How's things?"
Charlie and Kippy surged forward, pushing past the flashlight to wrap their arms around the elf behind it. They both squeezed him mightily, causing Max to flinch, and then to laugh. "Aw, geez! Easy on the merchandise, guys! I'm an old man, ya know!"
Charlie grinned and stepped back from the elf, eying him in the dimmer light behind the flash. Max was slightly shorter than they were, and dressed all in red. His face appeared to belong to a teenaged boy their age. Max had very blue eyes, and a cute little nose, and a mouth that looked like it might like to be kissed. His hair was blond, and curly, and circled about his face like the wind had blown it there.
"You're still too cute for words," Kippy sighed out, putting to voice exactly what Charlie had been thinking.
Max grinned. "Just remember that I'm six hundred and thirteen, and the feeling will go away."
"I doubt it very much," Kippy returned. "Your kind of cute is ageless."
"I'm sure there's a reason we're here," Charlie cut in then, trying to rein in the conversation. Kippy could get going with a vengeance if he found a topic to his liking, and cute guys were always to his liking. "In fact, just where is here, Max?"
The elf laughed. "Shh. Talk quieter, okay? We're in the cellar of the Big Guy's shop. He's upstairs somewhere, inspecting things." Max sighed. "He's always inspecting things."
Charlie blinked. "We're at the North Pole? For real?"
Max nodded. "Well, at an undisclosed location nearby. For all intents and purposes, it's the same."
"I knew I was dreaming," Charlie said, nodding. "But you're the one running the show."
"Yeah, more or less. I would've come to your place, but we're really busy, and I couldn't get away." He grinned, turning his gaze from one boy to the other. "So I invited you here!"
"Why are we in the basement?" Kippy asked. "If it's just a dream, you could have met us anywhere."
"I had to pull you guys in at a certain moment in your sleep. I just happened to be finishing up my shift when that happened. But I'm off now, so we can get outta here, okay?"
Kippy sighed, apparently feeling a need to balance out his anxiety with a little annoyance. "You couldn't do any better than this?"
Max frowned. "Well, it had to be somewhere out of the way. The Big Guy can feel everything that happens around here. I needed to put you someplace the boss don't like to concentrate on."
Kippy gave a little huff of air. "Well, there had to be something less startling to the senses then this place." He looked about at the darkness that surrounded them. "Somewhere less creepy than this empty dungeon, that's for sure."
"Oh, this place ain't empty," Max told them. "Heck, it's crammed full. There's five hundred years worth of failed toy attempts down here. That's why the Big Guy ignores the place."
Charlie frowned at that. "Really? I'm surprised we didn't bump into something in the darkness."
Max laughed. "You can't. If you can't see it, you can't bump into it."
"What?" Kippy looked over at Charlie. "What's that mean?"
Charlie shrugged, and looked questioningly at Max. The elf grinned at them. "Aw, geez. I sucked at fourth-dimensional mechanics in school, fellas. I don't know if I can explain it." He waved a hand, as if taking in all the darkness. "This place is really big, but it's finite. The Big Guy, well, he's a creative genius. Maybe one that ain't quite perfect, though. He's always thinkin' up new toys and gifts, and most of them are just really cool, and go right into production."
Max shrugged then, almost indifferently. "But no one's a hundred percent, not even the Big Guy. Every now and then there's a clinker, some toy that proves, uh, not to appeal." He waved his hand again. "The Big Guy's prototypes are kinda indestructible, and they need to be, because we make a few million copies of most of them over time. Unfortunately, when one of them is a clinker, it also means it can't just be destroyed. So we put them here. This place is crammed to the gills with toys that didn't quite make the production lines."
Charlie looked about them again. "You mean...if you wave your light around, we could see them?"
"Oh, sure. Put a light on them, and there they are."
"But they're not there if there's no light?" Kippy asked.
"Nope. Not exactly. I mean, they're here, but they ain't, until you can see 'em. Heck, if this whole room were suddenly lit up, it would explode. The toys would all be visible at one time, and probably push the shop right off its foundations!"
Charlie looked at the elf with one eye closed, almost feeling like Max was having fun with them. "Okay. Humor me, huh, and point the light up from the floor somewhere for a moment."
Max nodded. "Sure. Where do ya want it?"
Charlie extended his index finger, waved it uncertainly a moment, and then suddenly pointed it to their right. "There."
Max obliged, turning the light in that direction.
It was almost as if things suddenly surged towards them out of the darkness. Kippy let out a startled squeak and jumped backwards, and would have pulled Charlie with him, if Charlie wasn't already jumping that way, too.
"Whoa!" Charlie exclaimed, staring at a frightening face that seemed to lurch forward right at them. It took a moment for the details to sink in, and then he realized what it was: a wooden horse mounted on curved rockers, a child's toy meant to enchant.
It looked to be finely crafted out of some dark wood, and polished to a high shine. The rocking horse was large - large enough for a good sized kid to ride. A saddle was carved into its backside, and its neck and flanks below the perfect mane flowed with beautifully etched equine muscle. Handholds projected from the bridle on each side, with a woven leather rein dropping beneath the horse's chin. The workmanship was superb.
But it was the animal's face that commanded their full attention. The eye's were large, deep, and strangely hooded, almost sinister in appearance, and certainly too darkly ominous to be appealing. The horse's mouth was open in a big grin, and long, pointed white teeth lurked within. The friendly smile of a horse, it was not.
This was the grin of a tiger, that fatal look of triumph a big cat might wear just as it landed on the unsuspecting back of its prey, and so unnerving in its realism that Charlie took another involuntary step backwards. The horse looked ready to pounce and devour, not to provide an exhilarating riding and rocking experience for a child.
Kippy looked aghast. "Oh my god! If a velociraptor could be a horse, that would be this guy!"
Max nodded, looking sadly at the wooden animal. "Lot of good materials went into this toy. Just a small design flaw or two, and it's all wasted. The Big Guy musta lost his concentration on this one." He brightened then. "Fortunately, he has infinite resources."
Behind the rocking horse, other things were visible, some recognizable, others just shadows. They marched away to the limit of the flashlight beam, and faded into the seemingly infinite blackness beyond.
"That's a lot of screw ups," Kippy observed. "I always thought your boss was this master toymaker."
For just a second, a pained look flitted across the elf's face. "He is. He creates a lot of great stuff. It's just...everyone makes mistakes. There's bound to be some clinkers."
Charlie watched the elf a moment, unsure of what he'd just seen in his face. "So if you turn off the light, I could walk forward, and there would be nothing there?"
"Yup. Wanna try?" The flash suddenly went out.
Charlie licked his lips, staring at the inky point where the horse had just been. He nodded to himself, took a tentative step forward, his hands outstretched...and encountered nothing at all. He took another step, and then another...still nothing.
"That is so weird," he said softly, really to himself. But Max heard him anyway.
"It's necessary, or there'd be warehouses all over the pole full of this stuff." The light winked on, pointed at the floor, and Max gave a soft sigh. "Happy? Now c'mon back over here, Charlie."
Charlie returned to the others. "Now that I know there's stuff here all around, I can almost feel it."
"Sure. That's the way it is for me, too."
Kippy gave Charlie a nudge with his elbow. "So, Max. Why are we here?"
Charlie smiled. Oh, yeah, there was that. The elf nodded. "Okay. But not here, huh? Follow me, and I'll take you guys someplace a little more comfortable." Max turned, jiggled the light, and started off.
Kippy reached out and grasped Charlie's hand, and the boys followed.
"What do you think?" Kippy whispered. "I think he needs our help for something." He squeezed Charlie's fingers. "Something big."
Charlie considered that. "Is it skwish? You have a feeling?" He knew that Kippy possessed an odd talent for divining things before they happened, at least sometimes. Skwish is how the elves referred to this talent.
"Yes. If he doesn't say something soon, I'm going to ask him. The suspense is killing me."
Charlie tried not to laugh, knowing full well that Max possessed extremely acute senses and could certainly hear every word. "Calm down. Let's just wait and see what Max has to say."
Kippy sighed, and nodded, and drew a little closer as they followed the elf into the darkness.
* * * * * * *
Max lived in a house that looked like a snowball. A big snowball. Charlie stared, wide-eyed, at the structure as they approached, taking in the merry candles burning in the small windows on two floors, the lazy stream of smoke rising from the chimney pipe, and the colored Christmas lights around the front door. A brief, rounded weather roof supported by two pillars sheltered the entry, and a small garden behind a short, white picket fence to one side of the front door held rows of strange-looking flowers that looked for all the world like blooms made from charcoal briquets.
The landscape all about them was buried in several feet of snow, although there was a clear area about the house that seemed carved rather than dug from the icy wilderness. The sky above them was dark, filled with stars, and laced with the delicate red and green flowing lines of the aurora. It was beautiful, and quite telling. Clearly, they were very far north, near the pole, and could only assume that Max's claim about their location was genuine.
And yet, they were not cold at all.
Max cocked his head at Charlie when the boy mentioned the absence of chill. "I can make it cold for you, if you want realism," he said, his eyes twinkling.
"No!" Kippy barked immediately, and then cleared his throat. He glared at Charlie a moment before returning his gaze to Max. "Um, we're good. Thanks, anyway."
Max laughed, but said no more as they climbed the three small steps to the landing before the house's entry.
"Uh, nice," Charlie said, smiling at Max as they stopped before the small front door.
"Hey, it's paid for," Max returned, his eyes bright. "And I've raised a mess of elflets in this place." He gave the molding around the oval-shaped door a fond thump. "Lotta memories here. All good ones, too."
The structure certainly wasn't made of snow, that was for sure, although some loose flakes did rain down about them from the small roof above in response to Max's thump. Charlie held out a hand and caught a few, and watched them turn to droplets of water on his palm, without feeling a thing.
Max dug in the nearly invisible front pocket of his red trousers and produced an impossibly large ring of keys, flipped through them, and selected one with an odd set of fine notches in it. He was about to insert it into the door's lock when the panel flew inward, and they were confronted with the curious face of another elf.
This one was plainly feminine, with long, golden hair, and a red dress with a high hemline that revealed a very shapely set of legs beneath. Her face was every bit as cute and appealing as Max's, and the small breasts that perked up the top of the dress gave her a certain sexy charm that even Charlie noticed.
"Oh, it's you, muffin!" she exclaimed, her eyes lighting up at the sight of Max. "I thought I heard voices out here."
Kippy snickered, and Charlie smiled, and they both looked at Max, whose face immediately reddened with embarrassment.
"Uh, ixnay on the uffinmay, buttercup," he said quickly, holding up a hand in alarm. "Hon, this is Charlie and Kippy." Max turned to look at the boys. "Meet the missus, gents."
Charlie and Kippy in turn each shook a petite hand, and were invited inside the home. "Just call me Mrs. P," Max's wife said, laughing. "I can imagine that our last name can be a little fearsome to people ears."
Max frowned. "Pribilownakowskif ain't nothing. We oughta introduce them to Phil Garospondalooietooiemastiffmacawlin."
Kippy laughed. "Do all elves have names like that?"
"Nope. Got a Filbert Smith on the line at the shop. Don't say much, but a real nice guy."
Charlie was staring about the front room they had entered. He could see now what Max had meant about the squareness of human houses. The room they were standing in didn't have a straight line to be seen anywhere, with the slightly curved walls curling right into the floor and ceiling, giving the room a kind of fishbowl look. And, the room was far bigger that Charlie could account for, seeming to offer more space than the outside of the house would have allowed possible. Not only that, but three doorways spaced around the room suggested that quite a bit more house was to be found in each direction.
"It's...big in here," he noted, thinking out loud.
"Sure," Max replied, grinning. "We need the space. Got a big family living here."
Kippy squinted at him. "How big?"
"Well, like I told you before, I got a wife, and twenty-seven kids, eighty-four grandchildren, and one-hundred-sixty-six great grandchildren. There's some great, great grandkids, and some great, great, great grandkids, too, but I lost count of them."
"Three hundred and eighty-seven," Mrs. P said brightly. "Well, three hundred and eighty-eight now, with Delly and Pique's new baby."
Kippy and Charlie both gaped. "All those people live in this house?" Charlie looked around the room in disbelief. "That's hundreds and hundreds."
"More than that," Max countered. "Lots of those kids and grandkids and what-not are married and have families of their own. There's about three thousand living here, I think."
From the outside, and despite the house's odd shape, it hadn't looked much larger than Charlie's parent's house.
"No way!" Charlie exclaimed, certain now that Max was pulling their legs. "Where would you put them all?"
"Oh, the house is quite roomy," Mrs. P said. She smiled brightly, as if it was all perfectly obvious. "If we get short on space, we just add on."
Charlie stared at Max, who just shrugged. "It's just size, Charlie. It's all relative."
Kippy burst out laughing, and grabbed Charlie's arm. "Frit and Pip told us that, remember?"
Charlie suddenly recalled Max's thrice great grandson, Frit, and his boyfriend, Pip, who had spent the night with Charlie and Kippy and their best friends, Ricky and Adrian, the year before. Both elves had spoken of size being relative - relative, apparently because they could alter the size of things at will. They had performed their magic on Adrian's bed, causing it to grow to a size that would accommodate all six boys for sleeping.
Sleeping, and, um...other things.
Charlie's face warmed at the memory, and he looked over at Kippy, whose eyes were too bright not to be remembering a few things himself.
"Oh, yeah," Kippy said then, his smile quite delighted. "Frit and Pip could make all sorts of things big."
Max's eyes widened, and he glanced quickly at his wife before looking desperately at Charlie. "Uh...how are those guys? Uh...you know, Ricky and Adrian?"
"They're fine." Charlie could see that Max wanted to direct the conversation away from Frit and Pip and their...appetites. "Adrian's mom loves her job, and Adrian and Ricky are very happy together."
Max managed a smile. "Ah, love."
Kippy looked curiously at the elf. "You didn't want them here, too? I'm sure they'd want to help you out, especially after what you did for Adrian and his mom."
"Oh, they'll be along," Max said, a little vaguely. "They was a little...occupied, and I didn't wanna disturb them."
Kippy suddenly whipped his head around to face Charlie, a smile spreading across his face. "Ricky was spending the night at Adrian's tonight, remember?"
Charlie grinned at the elf. "Oh, yeah. Didn't want to disturb them, huh?"
Max's face reddened slightly. "Hey, I got respect, just like the next guy."
"Are you boys staying for dinner?" Mrs. P asked, looking from one to the other, and then to her husband. "We have plenty."
"Yeah, you guys are invited," Max agreed. "We can go in my den and talk until dinner is ready." He smiled at his wife then. "Be four of them by then, honeypot. Two more are on the way."
Mrs. P held up her hands and bounced her fingertips together happily. "Always room for more. I'd better go and see to things, then. Enjoy your talk." And with that, she hustled away through one of the side doorways.
"Be a little bit before we eat," Max said. "We got time to go over a few things. Come on into the den." The elf turned, and headed for the doorway his wife had just left through. Charlie and Kippy followed.
They entered a room that looked like the interior of a large, comfortable cabin in the mountains somewhere, except that the walls and ceilings all had that rounded look to them where they met. But those walls were dark, and looked like wood, and were lined with shelves full of books and other items that could only be family memorabilia. Photos of smiling elf children were everywhere, and family groups that looked happy to be posing before the camera.
A great stone hearth held a crackling fire, and the end of the room was composed of large panes of glass that framed the great expanse of snow and ice beyond, and what looked like a range of snow-covered mountains in the far distance. A group of upholstered chairs and a sofa formed a three-sided area facing the window, with a large, low wooden coffee table between them, that held other personal items of a family nature. The room was warm and comfortable, cheerful without being overbearingly so, and Charlie couldn't help smiling at the urge that came upon him to sit and stay a while.
"Nice," he said, smiling at Max. "Don't know who does your decorating, but I'm sold."
"Aw, it's mostly my missus that does this stuff."
"Speaking of whom," Kippy said, suddenly sounding surprised, "where did she go?"
Charlie looked about the room, and realized that there was no other exit but the doorway that they had entered through. Yet Mrs. P was plainly not with them. He turned to look at Max. "Yeah. Where did she go?"
Max looked surprised. "She went to the kitchen."
"But she came in here," Kippy said.
Max grinned. "No she didn't. She just went through the same doorway."
"Uh...yeah. That usually leads to the same room beyond," Charlie argued.
"Maybe in people houses, but not here. Sheesh, all the people livin' here, you know how many doorways we'd need to connect all those rooms together? What a waste! So we just use a few doorways, and let the people stepping through them decide where they want to go."
Charlie gaped. "You mean that same doorway can go to any room in this house?"
"Sure. Why not? Who wants to walk all over creation to get someplace when they can just step through a door?"
Charlie looked over at his boyfriend and shook his head. Kippy smiled, and gave him a slightly accusing look that plainly said, It's your dream, Charlie!Yeah. About that.
"Okay. Well, how about this: was there a reason you had to bring us here in a dream, rather than just snap your fingers and bring us here in reality?"
"Just convenience. Having you asleep makes it easier to manipulate the flow of time, and we can get everything done while you guys are in REM, and it won't take any real time away from your life. Then, if we need to, we'll move things into the real world." The elf laughed. "Or, at least, my part of it."
Charlie sighed, and shook his head. "I don't know what's real, and what's a dream. I hope you won't be offended, Max, but his place is a little nutty."
Max looked about the room and gave a small, contented sigh. "Yeah. No place like home, I always say."
"You and Dorothy, both," Kippy countered, not unkindly. "It's a pretty place, even if it's only half-real. Now can we sit and find out what this is all about?"
"Almost. I need to bring the other guys in now."
Max went to the sofa and sat, and waved a hand at the chairs, indicating that the boys should sit down. Kippy grabbed Charlie's hand and led him around to a large overstuffed chair, pushed Charlie into it, and then wedged himself in beside him.
"Just in case," he whispered, snuggling against Charlie.
Charlie sighed, but knew better than to say anything. Instead he watched Max, who was pulling up his sleeves and gazing into the air above the coffee table. The elf rubbed his hands together, narrowed his eyes, and let out his breath.
"Eenie meanie, chili-beanie, the spirits are about to speak!"
Kippy took a startled breath. "Are they friendly spirits?"
Max grinned. "Friendly? Just watch!"
The air above the coffee table darkened, and then seemed to turn to mist. A hazy outline appeared, that looked tantalizingly familiar, and Charlie squinted at it, almost recognizing the long, flowing shape.
And then the outline took the form of two bodies, laid out as if in a bed, but entwined in an obviously fond embrace. Charlie's eyes widened as details formed and settled into place, until, with a small plop of displaced air, the figures of Ricky and Adrian appeared, floating in the air, their bodies wrapped together as if they were still laying together in the bed, happily asleep.
Both boys were naked, and Kippy gave out a delighted little titter and leaned forward next to Charlie, his eyes roving over the beautiful lines of the pair as they slept in each other's arms.
"Oh, Max! That isone hell of an entry!"
Charlie let his eyes slide over to the elf, whose own eyes were wide in amazement. Max blinked, and threw up his left hand to cover his eyes, while rapidly waving the fingers of his right hand at the two sleeping boys. "I see now there was advantages to doing this in the dark with you two!"
A blue splotch appeared on Adrian's back, which was facing Charlie, and rapidly spread, until both sleeping bodies were covered, neck-to-foot. The splotch pulsed a second, and then became jeans and tee-shirts, and socks and running shoes. There was a small ding! from out of the air, which sounded for all the world like a kitchen egg timer, and then Ricky and Adrian each took a deep breath, sighed it out, and opened their eyes.
"Why are we floating in the air?" Adrian asked sleepily, closing his eyes again.
"We're dreaming," Ricky said, smiling and snuggling closer to his boyfriend. "Stupid dream, too."
The two boys floated in silence for a few more seconds before Ricky jacked his eyes open and looked directly at Charlie and Kippy. "What the hell?"
Adrian, reacting to the tone of his boyfriend's voice, opened his eyes again and seemed to focus on the ceiling above. "Where is this?"
Ricky gave him a little push, and Adrian turned his head. "Charlie? Kippy? What the --?" And then both boys spied the elf, and broke into grins.
"Max!" Adrian said in delight, sitting up and disentangling himself from Ricky. Ricky sat up, too, and looked down to see what they were laying on...and saw only air, and the coffee table, three feet below.
His gaze came back to Charlie, and he shook his head in confusion. "What's going on?"
"Relax," Charlie said, smiling. "You're at the North Pole with us."
"Or at an undisclosed location nearby," Max put in then. "But it's the same thing, really."
Charlie rolled his eyes, but continued to smile at his friends. "You're asleep, and Max brought you here while you were dreaming. Same as Kippy and me."
"I'm asleep?" Ricky asked, looking like he didn't believe it. "And you're asleep? It all seems so real." He looked down then, at where he and Adrian were still floating in mid-air, and shook his head. "Well, it almost seems so real."
"How do we get down?" Adrian asked.
Max waved a hand, and the two boys moved away from the coffee table, and silently lowered until they were sitting on the floor. They got up, brushed themselves off, and looked at each other. Then they grinned, jumped at Max, sat down on each side of him and wrapped him in their arms, and each planted a big kiss on opposite cheeks.
Max closed his eyes and hunched his shoulders inward, a mix of delight and sheer terror appearing on his face. "Aw...geez! Careful, fellas! I might break!"
"I doubt that very much," Adrian said, pulling back long enough to grin at Charlie and Kippy. "We just wanted to thank you again for helping to keep Ricky and me together!"
"Yep," Ricky said, nodding. "We've been butt-nutty-happy together, all because of you!" His eyes sparkled playfully as he leaned in and kissed Max's earlobe, and then tickled it with the tip of his tongue. "Mmm! I always wanted to taste an elf!"
"Again!" Adrian said, laughing.
"Uh, yeah," Ricky admitted, nodding, obviously remembering a night now nearly one year past.
"Stop that!" Max hollered, looking panicked now. "Charlie...help me!"
Charlie and Kippy both burst out laughing. Kippy heaved himself out of the chair, and Charlie followed.
"What's he taste like?" Kippy asked, sitting down next to Ricky and leaning against him.
"He's sweet!" Ricky said, laughing...but then caught himself. "Um, from a strictly bisexual point of view, of course."
"Of course," Charlie agreed, sitting down next to Adrian. He was unable not to enjoy Max's apparent discomfort, which seemed a cloak to mask the elf's delight at being the center of so much affection. Charlie had come to understand that Max felt compelled to defend his heterosexuality, but that, underneath, he was far lass concerned about it than he let on.
Kippy sighed dreamily. "I'll bet that if that ear tastes that good, there are some other parts that taste even better!"
Max gave a little squeak of alarm at that, and then disappeared in a pop of inwardly-rushing air. He reappeared, standing, across the coffee table from the four boys, who all started laughing.
Kippy shook his head, grinning. "You're just too easy, Max."
"I am not. I ain't easy at all. And you guys just remember that, too!" But the elf's eyes held an obvious glow of humor, unable to be hidden by the apparently indignant stance of his body.
Charlie sighed, and sat back on the sofa. "Okay, let's stop playing. Ready to tell us why we're here?"
Kippy nodded, got up and went to sit by Charlie. Ricky and Adrian scooted together to fill the void that Max had left, and twined their fingers together, their eyes on the elf.
"Give," Ricky said, pointedly.
Max nodded. "Yeah, okay." He frowned, and shook his head. "Heck, I don't know where to start."
"At the beginning," Charlie suggested, smiling. "Just spit it out, Max."
Max compressed his lips, and then nodded. "It's...it's about the Big Guy. I...we need some help with him."
Kippy's eyes widened. "You mean San--?"
"Shh!" Max interrupted, waving his hands frantically. "He'll hear you!"
Kippy looked over at Charlie, who just shrugged and turned his gaze back to the elf. "Something's wrong with...the Big Guy?"
Max nodded, suddenly looking stricken. "Yeah. I think...we think...that he might be...uh...going...a little...nuts." A silence descended upon the room as the four boys just stared at the elf.
Kippy laid a hand on Charlie's wrist and squeezed it as he leaned towards Max. "Are you saying that San...that the head man...is going crazy?"
Max blew out a puff of air, and closed his eyes. "Actually, I think he's already there."
* * * * * * *
"I've been noticing things for a few years now," Max said, pacing the floor. "Most of the other guys have, too, but no one has wanted to say anything."
Kippy looked at Charlie, his eyes wide. "You mean he's doing crazy stuff, and everyone is ignoring it?"
The elf looked pained. "It ain't that simple, fellas." He stopped, and his eyes searched their faces, looking for support. "The Big Guy ain't like anyone else, anyway. A lot of the things he does are kinda weird, but they always work out. Usually, it's just too big for us to follow until it's all laid out at the end."
"Then why do you think there's a problem?" Charlie asked.
"Well..." Max came over and sat on the edge of the coffee table, facing them. He glanced around the room, as if searching for hidden listeners.
"Is this a secret, or something?" Charlie whispered.
"Are you kiddin'? If it got out to our families that we thought the Big Guy was on the edge, there'd be hell to pay!" Max looked frightened at the very idea of the knowledge going public. "You gotta understand, fellas, that the Big Guy ain't just a paycheck and security for all of us. He means...Christmas. And you don't mess with Christmas in these parts, not lightly."
"You don't mess with Christmas where we're from, either," Adrian put in. "It's not just elves that would be upset."
Ricky sat forward. "What kind of weird stuff is he doing?"
Max looked at Charlie. "You know the cellar you guys showed up in? Underneath the Big Guy's shop?"
Max nodded, looking at Ricky and Adrian. "It's where we keep the Big Guy's booboos. The stuff he imagines that don't quite work out." He shrugged. "Lotta stuff there, but it's been five hundred years in the makin'. Used to be, we'd put four or five things a year down there. Then, a few years ago, it got to ten a year, and it's been going up ever since." Max actually looked scared now. "This year he's hit twenty already, and it ain't even Christmas yet!"
Charlie and Kippy looked at each other. "That's it?" Kippy asked, surprise obvious in his voice. "He's making more mistakes than usual? That's hardly crazy, Max."
The elf put a hand to his forehead and closed his eyes. "Mistakes." He sighed. "You just don't get it, fellas." Max opened his eyes again and shook his head. "The Big Guy is a creative genius. He can lose his concentration, yeah. But he never makes mistakes!"
"How old is the Big Guy, if I might ask?" Charlie wondered.
"Aw, geez. No one knows that. He's older than any elf alive, and my great granddad is still going strong at almost eight hundred!"
That was a surprise. "Elves haven't always been withhim?"
"Nope. That all started maybe seven hundred years or so ago. Before I was born, that's for sure."
"Really? Who helped him before then?"
"Nobody. Before that it was just him and a horse." Max smiled. "Working with us has allowed the Big Guy to expand his activities pretty dramatically."
"A Horse?" Kippy wondered aloud. "No magical reindeer?"
"Nah. The ones he's got now are kinda...well, it's a long story. We can do that another time."
"I never really thought about how he got started," Ricky said."I mean, I knew he had magic powers and all, but I never thought about how the Big Guy got to be the Big Guy."
Charlie frowned at that. "I always kind of thought that, uh, your boss...was human. Maybe magical, but still...human."
"He is human. He just ain't people human."
"What's the difference?"
The elf looked surprised at that. "Really? Besides the obvious? That he's the oldest living person on the planet, who can create stuff out of any matter he wants, in any shape or form, by using his mind and the energy that makes up that matter itself? Just from his own imagination, and the imaginations of the children that write to him? And that he then flies around the entire planet in a single evening and leaves those wonderful treasures at every home, for every child to awaken to? "
Kippy gave a soft laugh. "Ooh. You make him sound so sexy, Max."
Even Charlie blinked at that one. "Sexy? How does being able to manipulate matter and energy make him sexy?"
Kippy huffed. "Oh, Charlie, come on. The man's an artist. He creates wonderful things out of nothing and gives them to people. How can that not be sexy?"
Charlie opened his mouth, and then closed it again, and smiled at his boyfriend. "Well, when you say it like that..." Ricky and Adrian both laughed."Okay, the Big Guy is sexy," Adrian said. "I never heard of anyone going nuts from being too sexy."
"Agreed. "Charlie frowned. "Still, being special in the way he is doesn't mean he's immune to some of the things that bother regular people." He nodded at Max. "You say you don't even know how old the man is. Maybe it's age, then. It's normal for people to lose some of their concentration as they get older."
"I thought of that. We've all thought that might be it, over at the shop. If it was just a concentration thing, it might be the right idea. But, he...well...he talks to himself a lot lately, and sometimes he just kinda zones out and stares off into space. And when the Big Guy stares off into space, he's really seeing out there. Like out around Rigel, maybe."
"Sounds like he's just a little introspective to me," Charlie decided. He smiled. "You can daydream a little and not be crazy."
Max shook his head. "There's other things, Charlie. He's not sleeping well, either. He has bad dreams, and wakes up in the night, yelling." Max sighed. "Sometimes it's so loud the night shift guys in the shop can hear it."
"He never did that before?"
"Not since I've known him. It all started in the last year or so."
Charlie frowned again. "Well...what does, uh...what does Mrs. Big Guy think is going on?"
For just a second max looked stunned. Then he shook his head. "Oh, that's right...you don't know." He shrugged. "There ain't no missus. Not for a long time now. That's just stuff the PR boys came up with back in the old days, to make him seem more like people."
"There's no Mrs. Claus?" Kippy blurted, looking shocked.
Max winced, and looked quickly about the room, and then shook his head. "Nope. There was a few a long time ago, but they don't live as long as the Big Guy. He got tired of losing them, and stopped looking for new ones."
Charlie held up a hand. "That sucks. Are you saying he lives alone?"
Max nodded. "Pretty much. Some of the boy's wives look out for his place...you know, keep it dusted and the dishes washed...but just during the day, and that's it." Max shrugged. "He ain't got time for housekeeping, let alone socializing, fellas. He spends all year dreamin' up new stuff for you people. Makin' his lists and checkin' 'em twice, and all."
Kippy's mouth sagged open. "He's been doing this for hundreds of years?"
"Uh huh." Max suddenly looked wary. "Why? You think of something?"
Kippy sputtered, and looked at Charlie like he couldn't believe it. "He's lonely, Charlie. He's gotta be."
Max blinked, and then gave a look that said he thought the idea stupid. "How can he be lonely? He's got all of us!"
Kippy stood and put his hands on his hips, and glared. "Really? And do you talk to him every day, and ask what he's thinking, what he's feeling? Are you his friend, and his companion? Do you sit with him at night and watch TV? And rub his feet after he's had a long day? Tell him what a great job he's doing? And smile and kiss him when he says nice things to you?" Kippy snorted. "Do you sleep with him, and make love to him?"
Max's jaw dropped open. "Heck, no!"
"Well, then. How would you feel if you came home to this big house of yours every evening, to nothing? No wife, no kids, no people at all? Just an empty house, where you fixed your own dinner and sat and stared at the TV, and then went to bed, all alone?"
Max winced. "We don't watch people TV up here. It rots the brain." But he quickly held up a hand when he saw Kippy's ire rise. "But I know what you mean!"
Charlie nodded. "You may have something, Kip. Loss of focus and sense of purpose are both signs of loneliness."
Ricky laughed at that. "How would you know? No one has pried Kippy away from you since you two guys met."
Adrian smiled, and hugged himself to Ricky, but nodded. "Yeah."
Charlie gazed fondly at Kippy. "I read it in a book, somewhere."
Kippy raised an eyebrow, but didn't take his gaze off Max. "That's the answer, Max. I feel it."
"Skwish?" Charlie asked, suddenly having a feeling.
Kippy shrugged. "Who needs skwish to see that?" But then he frowned. "But maybe it is. I feel I am certain that's what the problem is."
Charlie blew out a little puff of air. "Wow. So what do we do about it?"
"What can we do about it?" Adrian asked. "If he won't look for human companionship on his own, how do we persuade him to get a girl?"
"Or a guy," Kippy said, suddenly grinning. "Maybe the Big Guy swings both ways!"
Max gave a little cringe. "I don't think the boss wants a boyfriend, fellas. Thanks for the nice thought, anyway."
Charlie and Kippy both gave a little laugh. "Worth suggesting," Charlie said, winking at Kip.
"You say he was married before?" Ricky asked. "Where'd he meet his wives?"
Max rubbed at his chin. "It was different in the old days, fellas. There was a lot less people in the world. Lotsa little villages, and people was close together. The Big Guy used to visit villages during the days before Christmas, and talk to people. They loved him, and believed in him. He wasn't so isolated back then."
"What happened to that?" Charlie asked, unable not to be fascinated by the past of so famous a personage as Santa himself.
"Ha! I'll tell ya what happened! The world changed, that's what. People stopped wantin' to accept the boss just on faith. They started wanting to know who he was, and pry into his private life. Do background checks, and credit checks, and every other kind of check. Like he was some Joe Blow on the street." Max looked angry now. "And then all them human advertising nutbags wanted to steal his image to boost their junk!." Max made a - for him - nasty face, and his voice took on an unusual depth and speed. "Buy Snorg, the fabric softener that's as soft as the driven snow! Even the Big Guy uses it, to keep his red suit looking soft and fluffy!"
Charlie looked askance at the elf. "Do I detect some bitterness there?'
"Maybe." Max nodded. "Yeah, I guess so. All the stuff he's done for you people for hundreds of years, and look what he got back."
"That's not fair," Kippy said quietly. "Your boss is loved by millions of children and adults, everywhere on the planet. You can't blame them for what the assholes among us do."
"Yeah...I know. It just pains me to see the steps back he has taken in the last coupla centuries. If he showed up in a big city today and said who he was, someone would want to arrest him, or mug him."
"Could that even be done?" Adrian looked like he didn't believe it. "Who could get away with arresting San...uh, him?"
"No one. I wouldn't want to be the guy that tried, either. "Max laughed bitterly. "The Big Guy has a heart of gold, but he can toss lightning bolts around with the best of them if he gets pissed off."
Briefly, Charlie imagined a scene on a busy street corner with Santa trading lightning bolts for bullets from New York's finest. It was a scary picture, indeed.
"I think he's lonely," Kippy repeated. "Everyone needs some love in their life." He squeezed Charlie's hand, and Charlie smiled at him.
"I second that," Charlie agreed. "It's at least worth looking into, isn't it?"
"Well...he knows that kids everywhere love him. But..." Max considered the idea, and then gave what appeared to be a reluctant nod. "Yeah. I gotta admit I didn't think about him not having anyone special. It almost seems obvious now that a guy that loves people like he does needs to get something back now and then."
"Something personal," Kippy said, smiling. "There's all kinds of love in the world, Max. But it's hard to beat the warm and fuzzy kind, you know?"
Adrian sighed, and planted his lips firmly on Ricky's cheek. Ricky immediately turned into it, and both boys laughed as they kissed.
Kippy's bottom lip thrust out, and he looked at Charlie. "Do I get some?"
Charlie grinned, and leaned into his boyfriend, more than happy to share a little of the warm and fuzzy that Kippy had been talking about.
Max crossed his arms and made a little impatient sound. "Uh, fellas? Could we? It's the Big Guy that needs the lovin', ya know?"
Charlie pulled back from Kippy, and smiled at him. "There's always later."
Kippy smiled, but didn't say anything. But his expression held a promise, and Charlie knew it would be one worth waiting for.
"So how do we go about this?" Charlie asked, returning his attention to Max. "I mean, we can't just walk up to your boss and ask him if he's eyeballed any hot chicks lately."
"You can't walk up to him at all. You're not supposed to be here. And I don't know what he'd do if he knew that people were here at the undisclosed location."
"Don't make it easy on us," Ricky said, frowning. "Shee-it. How can we help the guy if we can't even get near him?"
Kippy turned to look at Charlie. "Well?"
"Well, what?" "You're the brains of this outfit, Charlie. Think of something."
Charlie gave a little laugh, and shook his head. "Give me a moment, and I'll pull a solution right out of thin air."
Adrian grinned. "Come on, Charlie. Something has to be going on inside that encyclopedia-head of yours."
Charlie turned his gaze to Ricky, who simply shrugged and nodded.
"Great." Charlie turned back to Max, considering. "Your boss have all the same magic stuff you have?"
"Huh? Well...no. Actually, elves have powers that nobody else has got."
"Stronger powers than the Big Guy?" Kippy asked.
"Oh, heck no. Just different powers." Max frowned. "We can kind of play with time...relativity...but you know that." Then he laughed. "And you already know about the size thing."
Kippy bounced his eyebrows up and down. "Do I!"
"What about the dream thing?" Charlie asked, feeling a sudden burst of inspiration.
"Yeah. You know...how you brought all of us here in our dreams? Does your boss have that kind of power?"
"Nope." Max looked pleased with himself. "That's an elf thing, and not every elf has got it, either. I'm pretty good at it, if I do say so myself."
"You could visit your boss in his dreams?" Charlie asked. "While he was asleep? And maybe take us with you?"
The look of self-satisfaction vanished from the elf's face, to be replaced with one of horror. "Are you kidding! I can't just go dragging you fellas into the Big Guy's dreams!"
Kippy shrugged. "Why not?"
Max opened his mouth...and then closed it again. He looked at Charlie, and then at Kippy. And then he frowned. "What for?"
Charlie briefly closed his eyes. An idea was forming in his mind now. And an unconventional one, at that. "Uh...could we visit your boss in his dreams, and make him think it was just a dream?" Charlie opened his eyes and grinned.
Max simply stared, looking appalled. At first. And then he seemed to consider the idea, walking around it and viewing it from all sides. "In his sleep, huh? And have him think it was just a dream?"
Charlie nodded. "Uh huh. Can it be done?"
The elf licked his lips. "I dunno. Maybe. I'd have to think about it."
Kippy bounced up and down on the sofa, his expression delighted. "We're going to visit the Big Guy's dreams!"
Max looked annoyed. "I didn't say we could do it."
"You will." Kippy looked quite assured. He leaned forward and kissed Charlie. "Skwish, remember?"
Max studied the boys a moment longer. "Okay. Let's say for just a minute that it could be done. " He narrowed his eyes, staring intently at Charlie. "What are your plans?"
Oh. There was the sticky part. "Well...I'm not quite sure. We'd need to talk to him before I really even have an idea."
Max's eyes widened. "Talk to him? You? You've got to be kidding!"
Charlie shook his head. "Um, no. Uh, well...you can change the way we look, right? I mean, you put clothes on us that aren't there. Can't you dress us any way we need to be dressed?"
Max gave a little shake of his head. "Oh, man!" He closed his eyes, looked momentarily like he was praying, and then reopened them. "Yeah, I can do that. But just what is it we're going to do?"
Charlie laughed, feeling a little ridiculous. But an idea was an idea. "I'm not sure, exactly." He looked at Kippy, and then back to the elf. "I think we'll just have to wing it when we get there."
* * * * * * *
The snow fell lazily, coating the world in a soft, white down that softened the footfalls of Nicholaas and his horse, Kirka, to the faintest of crunches. There was something grand about walking out in the fresh, hard snow that touched Nicholaas deeply. Especially this night, the night of nights. Even as the sky above was exceptionally dark with snow-filled clouds, a strange, full moon had pierced the haze at the horizon, and now coated the land with an additional white of its own, in moonlight.
"A beautiful evening, I think," Nicholaas said, running his fingers gently through Kirka's mane of yellow hair. "A perfect night for giving."
The horse gave a small, affectionate chuff, blowing mist from his nostrils as if to acknowledge his master's words, and Nicholaas smiled. Kirka understood. That animals were far more in tune with the world than was humankind was one of the many things that Nicholaas had come to understand. Understanding things seemed to be his new gift; or, just one of the many new gifts he had found within himself as he neared full manhood. That he was somehow different from those around him, Nicholaas had also come to understand. Only the why of it had escaped him.
But it did not matter, the why. To have when others did not only meant to Nicholaas that he should give, and that sharing had become one of his chief joys in life. For the balance of each year he studied those around him, looking for the things they needed most, which he then would create and pass along on this very special evening that came but once each year. He was in his third year of doing this now, this sharing, and the joy this time was almost hard to contain.
The tiny village that he and Kirka approached even now was called Tirma. He already knew that the people that lived here were basically good folk, poor as the stunted harvest the too cool summer this year had provided, but steadfast in their determination to aid one another in making it through to the next hopeful spring. He had sampled their worries and spent time with their fears, and so knew in his heart that these people deserved more than they currently had. Knew that they deserved to make it to the next harvest, which something told him would be as bountiful in nature as this last one had been poor.
And so, here he was, with Kirka to aid him and the night to cloak him, and the snow to silence even his footfalls. The world had conspired, it seemed, to aid him this night.
Kirka chuffed again, more quietly this time, as if to rouse Nicholaas from his introspection and alert him to the nearness of the first small house.
"I see it," he said softly, his eyes moving about the small plot of land among the trees that held the modest home. Here was Faram the smith, who shod the local horses and repaired his neighbor's wagons and tools, often for no pay, in order to keep the town going. A chicken here, some grain there, and he was able to keep his own family at least reasonably comfortable.
But there had been a setback to that comfort. Recently, while pounding straight a shaft of iron upon the great anvil handed down to him by his father, that anvil had cracked in two. One portion had remained whole, but the other had dissolved into chunks of useless iron. Faram was horrified and distraught, but had been making do using the much reduced surface area of the remaining half to perform his duties. What else could he do? But his output had been curtailed by the accident, and both the town and his own family were poorer as a result.
But not after this night.
Nicholaas led Kirka boldly into the yard before the house, and around the side to the forge. The great fire had been covered for the night, and the coals shed a glow that escaped from beneath the edges of the hood. A small wisp of warped air and smoke wafted upwards from the chimney pipe of the hood, vibrant in the soft moonlight; but that was the only sign that the forge was still alive.
To one side stood the remnants of the anvil, the shattered remains of the one side stacked in a sad pile near the remaining whole half. That would make things easier, as Kirka could only carry so much weight, and to have brought enough stone along to make the complete repair would have seriously curtailed Nicholaas's efforts that night. But remaking the anvil from its own remains would be easy, with just a few stones tossed in as a binder.
Nicholaas was not worried about being discovered. In addition to the snow and the night, his own cloak of invisibility protected both himself and his horse. Another gift from within, one that made the eyes of onlookers skitter away, to focus elsewhere, never to alight upon man nor animal in their tasks. It would not do, to be observed in the act of giving.
"This way," Nicholaas said softly, guiding the horse to a spot by the anvil. Kirka knickered softly, excited at what was to come. The horse had come to somehow grasp the special nature of these holiday eves, and seemed as entranced by them as was Nicholaas himself.
The cracked iron lumps were cold, but that mattered not. The energy they contained, deep down upon that most smallest of levels, the domain of tiny vortices that only Nicholaas could see, was more than enough to fuel the process of reconstruction. First he withdrew several small stones from the pack draped over Kirka's back, and placed them on the ground next to the pile of iron fragments. Then he closed his eyes, and looked deep into the iron, and then imagined that the pieces could be melted and reformed, and remade with the remaining side of the anvil into one that was whole.
He pulled certain of the tiny, swirling vortices from the stones he had laid upon the ground, and sent them along to assist in the reconstruction, setting them to finding the points where the iron pieces would meet, and assisting in the fusion that would make them whole again. He could feel the air around him warm in reaction, and the faint scuff of Kirka's hooves against the frozen ground as the horse edged nearer to watch.
The remaining side of the anvil also possessed minute cracks in its structure that might one day separate under the right force, and Nicholaas fused these also, to prevent that from happening. In his mind he could see a complete anvil, shiny and new, stout with the perfection of the metal it contained, now all of one, and without fracture. The heat about him intensified, and the briefest of flashes lit against his eyelids; and then Nicholaas sighed and opened his eyes.
Before him stood the anvil, bright as if new, all of one piece, and ready for use. Nicholaas smiled, and set about examining the tools that Faram used in his work, and repaired and strengthened all those he found wanting. A bit of wood here, a sliver of metal there, and the forge was once again a business that could feed a family and support a village.
Next there was Anna, Faram's wife and the mother of his two children. A practical woman, the things she wanted were practical as well. Nicholaas set about repairing her butter churn, and the can she used to transport milk from the tiny dairy farm down the road. The pennies she had earned selling the butter had been sorely missed when the churn had broken, and, Nicholaas felt their return would be a cheer the entire family would feel.
He regrew the worn broomcorns of her hearth broom, and retied them to be stout and lasting. And, finally, there was the dress, simple yet fetching to the eye, not so lavish that it would be out of keeping in such a small village, nor so rich that it would be envied more than briefly. It was the sort of dress a woman could wear to any sort of village gathering and feel comfortable in its cleanliness, and moderately prideful in its appearance.
Anna had dreamed of the dress, only briefly, as she has sat and churned butter one day, and Nicholaas had been passing by and seen it in his mind's eye. He never forgot such things, and this eve, the special eve, all those memories came rushing to the fore of his mind.
There were gifts for the children, too. For Laina, the girl, a warm cloak, fur-lined, and a pair of leather shoes for the winter. For Mikel, the boy, a pair of shoes as well, and a jacket to keep him warm in his chores. For both children there were small figurines of animals and birds, beautifully carved from wood and painted as if by hand by the power of Nicholaas's mind.
He left the treasures upon the doorstep, where they would be found on first rising, and then he and Kirka moved on up the road to the next house, and the next, until all in the village had received their gifts. The night was half over now, and Nicholaas and Kirka cut across the fallow winter fields to the next village, Ramini, and repeated their performance there.
And so it was that the first gray streaks of predawn were appearing in the sky as Nicholaas and Kirka walked the road back to their own home. The snows had ceased as the clouds had lifted, and the first hints of light suggested that this might be a brighter day than the last. Nicholaas smiled, knowing in his heart that this day would be brighter for many, certainly. The satisfaction made him glow, and he was so wrapped in his own thoughts that he failed to notice that others were out and about as well.
Kirka slowed and gave a soft knicker, and Nicholaas looked up to see a party of travelers on foot coming along the road towards him. At first they were indistinct in number, too merged with the grayness of the early morning to count. But soon, as the two parties neared each other, Nicholaas could see that there were five of them, all young men, and that they strode along watchfully, their eyes already upon Nicholaas and his horse.
Nicholaas smiled. He felt no fear at such an encounter, for the protections he could bring to bear were formidable, and quite beyond the abilities of anyone to counter. Anyone he had yet met, that was. But Nicholaas had been all about the land in these parts, and he had always been certain that he would feel anyone using the powers that he himself possessed. He had never once felt a thing, and felt nothing now as the five approached him.
Nicholaas reached up and pulled back the red hood of his cloak, allowing the brisk morning air to circle about his face and chase away any sluggishness he felt at being out and about all night. As the others neared he smiled and nodded, and then drew to a halt as they met at the side of the road.
"Good morning to you, fellow travelers. I see I am not the only early riser to take to the road."
The five separated and stood before him, and drew back their own hoods, and Nicholaas was surprised to see that the travelers were young, even a few years shy of his own eighteen years.
"Greetings," the one out front said, smiling. Like the others, he was a little shorter than Nicholaas, but a handsome lad, with bright, intelligent eyes and an honest smile. In fact, all the lads were appealing, and looked healthy and strong, their clothing clean and only scarcely worn.
Another lad moved forward, this one straw-haired, and smiled as well. "A fine horse you have there."
Kirka gave a soft chuff, as if he understood the nature of the compliment, and cast a look at Nicholaas, as if to say, 'did you hear that!' Nicholaas laughed. "This is Kirka, and I believe you have made a friend by your comment."
"It's early, but looks to be a fine day in the making," the first lad said, the dark-haired one with the bright eyes. "We were just thinking of stopping and making a fire, and having something hot to eat and drink. Would you care to join us?"
The offer seemed in earnest, and Nicholaas was touched, as he was always touched when someone offered to give to him without thought of recompense. He looked at Kirka, and the horse gave a soft knicker as if to say the idea was a good one.
"It seems that Kirka is of a mood to rest," he said. "And I have been out for some time now, and I am hungry, I think, and I have a few things in my pack I can share, as well. So let us move there by that fallen tree and make a fire, shall we?"
The dark-haired lad grinned. "I'm Charlie. And these are my good friends, Kip, Rick, Adrian, and Max."
Nicholaas nodded to each lad in turn, and then offered his own name. He made no comment on the oddness of the traveler's names, for it was already obvious that they had come from some distance, indeed. The six of them moved to the fallen tree by the road, cleared a spot in the snow, and broke limbs from the fallen trunk for kindling. The one called Max pulled out a flint and striker, and in very short order he had a fire going. Nicholaas marveled at the proficiency. It was the quickest he had ever seen a fire produced.
"You possess the magic of fire," he said, smiling at Max. "I have never seen one kindled quicker."
For just a second the boy looked startled, but then smiled. "Aw, geez. It ain't nothin' to comment on!"
Nicholaas smiled, sensing something different about this boy, but unable to put his finger upon it. For one, the lad possessed a sense about him that was far more mature than his apparent years, and conveyed a feeling of age much greater than his boyish features would suggest. But of course there was no comment to make, as Nicholaas also believed that while curiosity had its place, the privacy of others took precedence. Yet this lad was an odd one, indeed.
"Busy night?" the straw-haired lad - Kip, it was - suddenly asked.
Nicholaas looked at him, and for the strangest moment felt that the other boy knew exactly what Nicholaas and Kirka had been about all throughout the dark period. But that was not possible, and the question therefore had to be more innocent than it sounded.
"I was off late last night, and will arrive home in another hour's travel." He smiled. "I wished to be home for this day, of all days."
Kip smiled. "It's Christmas. A merry one to you, I should add."
The obvious warmth of the wish was touching. "Thank you. And to all of you, as well."
A small kettle was dug from one of the boy's sacks, and a unique little rack made of iron, with legs that folded out to make a stand, which was set above the fire. The kettle was filled with fresh, clean snow, and placed upon the rack over the fire. The boys dug in another sack and found potatoes, carrots, celery, and what looked like dried beef, which they happily cut into small pieces over a clean section of leather and then poured into the kettle. To this mix was added a toss of blended spices, and then the pot was stirred slowly by the boy named Rick while Adrian retrieved a whole carrot from the sack and pointed at Kirka with the sharp end of it. "May I?"
Kirka immediately made a pleased sound at the sight of the carrot, and Nicholaas laughed. "I could not stop you now if I tried."
Adrian laughed, and got to his feet and approached Kirka slowly, the carrot extended before him. Kirka was not bashful, and came forward to accept the prize, taking it carefully as the boy held it closer. Adrian looked pleased, and rubbed a hand along the horse's muzzle, and sighed. "He's beautiful."
"He is a Carmargue," Nicholaas explained, "and a free agent. He is with me by his choice, and I am honored by his presence."
Kirka chuffed and looked pleased, and then took another bite of carrot.
"Wow. He seems to be very smart," Adrian returned, smiling even more broadly and again gently rubbing Kirka's muzzle.
"He is that," Nicholaas agreed. "A finer traveling companion I could not have asked for."
The pot was brought to a boil and tended by Rick, as the others sat about it on the lengths of broken tree and talked. Nicholaas quickly found that his new friends were an interesting lot, indeed, tossing about odd bits of language that were totally unfamiliar, but getting their meanings across with an exuberance that Nicholaas found charming. That these were lads used to a more civilized life than just a farm and a cow was soon quite obvious, and though Nicholaas burned in his curiosity to know more about them, his nature kept his questions to a minimum. But he absorbed everything that was said, and his memory was such that he would forget nothing.
At last the stew was ready, and the boys produced a set of six wonderful little ceramic bowls from yet another pack, and spoons made of finely worked metal. Nicholaas was surprised and impressed, and examined his spoon quite carefully, marveling at the intricacy of its handle. "I don't believe I've seen such fine spoons before."
Charlie squinted at his own, and briefly looked over at Max, who just shrugged.
"Something we picked up in our travels," Charlie said then, smiling. "If you like it, please keep it, and the bowl, too."
Nicholaas stopped in the middle of chewing a mouthful of stew, and looked first at Charlie, and then around at the others. "For me?"
"Yes. Merry Christmas."
For a moment Nicholaas did not know what to do. In all of his life no one had ever given him a gift. For just the briefest of moments, he felt what it was like to be on the receiving end, to have something given to him for no reason but for the giving. His thoughts whirled back over his night, to all the things he had left for others in two villages, which many would be wakening to find about now. Nicholaas looked again at the spoon in his hand, and the bowl that held his stew, and the stew itself. All things given to him, for nor reason other than the gift.
The feeling was blissful, exquisite, and quite beyond anything he could have imagined on his own. Up until now he had enjoyed giving for the thrill and pleasure of doing for others. But now...now he knew what it was like to receive the gifts he gave out. He could see the smiles on the children's faces, the wonder and perhaps even the tears on the faces of the adults, who were mostly beyond the stage of life where one subscribed to wonder at all. That they could not imagine who had left them these things, and ascribed them to some variation of the old Saint Nicholas, only made it better. The gift of receiving good things, and the sense of wonder about how it had all come about.
And in that instant, Nicholaas knew for certain that this was the course his life would take. He had been enjoying what he was doing without much thought to the future of the endeavor; but now he knew that what he was doing once each year was his future. The gifts he had been given in life could be passed along to others in variant form, all to the good of the world, and the many wanting people in it.
"Thank you," he stammered, his eyes trying to water. He rubbed the sleeve of his cloak quickly across them, and went back to eating his stew.
The boys around him smiled, and went back to eating, too...
* * * * * * *
"...What happened?" Charlie asked, shaking his head, and looking about Max's study. No time seemed to have passed since they had started. The fire still burned tall in the hearth, and the cold and quiet night world beyond the window glass still stared in at them.
"Dream shift," Max said, leaning closer from his position seated on the edge of the coffee table. "You know how dreams are. One moment you're walking along a brightly lit street with your missus, and the next instant you're flying like a bird over some dark castle full of dragon eggs."
Adrian laughed. "Dragon eggs! Not in my dreams!"
Kippy, who was sitting next to Charlie and holding his hand, shook his head briefly. "Wow. That was so real!"
"What was up with the spoon?" Ricky asked, from his seat next to Adrian. "The Big Guy looked like he'd never seen a spoon before."
"My fault," Max said. "Spoons like that didn't come along for a few hundred years, at that point. Temporal flummox on my part." He smiled at Charlie. "Nice thing you did, though, giving him the spoon and the bowl. I could see he was touched by it."
Charlie shrugged. "Seemed the right thing to do." He frowned. "Are you somehow guiding the Big Guy's dreams? It seemed odd that we were just suddenly with him as a teenager."
"Nope. Whatever is happening is all in the boss's own mind. We're just along for the ride, although what we say and do adds to what he is experiencing. So just remember that and be careful what you guys say and do, okay?"
"Yeah." Charlie nodded. "I'm still not sure just what we need to say to him. We don't seem to have arrived at a point where we can talk about him maybe finding a girl or something."
The elf shrugged. "It'll either happen, or it won't. But you'll know it if you see it, I'm pretty sure."
Charlie nodded. "So what do we do now?"
"We're in a brief bit of no-time between the dream shift. We just wait until...oh! Here we go!"
* * * * * * *
...The castle ballroom was alive with movement, with candelabras and wall sconces full of cheerful flames casting a warm glow everywhere as the crowd danced to the strains of the waltz. Nicholaas had been introduced to a dozen people, all of whom had inspected him closely, examining his clothing, and his bearing, and who had then relegated him to some lower status than themselves. He did not mind that at all, hearing their small thoughts and seeing their small desires, and understanding that they had no need of his visits on the next Christmas Eve. Yet for each one he marked in memory some small thing to give, some item that would touch the tiny grains of joy still left deep within them. Even the wealthy were once children, and the spark that is the child that lives on in everyone has dreams of its own that never quite die away.
"...the Countess DeWard," Lady Tipperink was saying. "Oh, I'm sure you will like her, dear Nicholaas. She is from the west, and is quite a charmer, if I do say so myself." This followed by the horse laugh that the Lady was so self-conscious about, but which she seemed unable to change.
Nicholaas smiled and nodded. "I would be pleased to meet any of your friends, Milady."
The woman quite chortled, probably at the notion that a personage of the Countess's status could actually be her friend. But she pulled even harder on his sleeve as they approached a woman dressed in elegant, bejeweled finery, and with blonde hair piled unbelievably high upon her head in the style of the western continent, those notions which were now making their way to this part of the land. She turned and saw them coming, and a frown immediately covered her otherwise glacial features. Nicholaas sighed inwardly, knowing that more pleasantries were about to ensue with someone who had not the slightest desire to hear or offer them.
"Oh, Countess, there is someone I would like you to meet," Lady Tipperink said quickly, before the Countess had a chance to melt away into the crowd. She pulled hard on Nicholaas's arm, and then just as quickly yanked him to stop before the other woman, who barely managed to mask her annoyance at yet another man being thrust at her. But Nicholaas could hear her interior dialogue, and so knew that he must keep this encounter as short as was possible without appearing rude to Lady Tipperink.
The Lady formally introduced the Countess, who offered her white-gloved hand. Nicholaas bowed his head over it and said he was enchanted. The Countess did the appraisal thing with her eyes, and quickly assigned him to social climbing status, with a small warning to not be taken in by Nicholaas's youth, good looks, and apparent charm. Nicholaas smiled inwardly at that; he was all of thirty years now, but the Countess spent many hours before each vespertine social engagement with her couture and appearance staff, mostly to conceal her age, which was much greater than the eye could now tell.
There was some small talk, and the mention of some social engagement that the Countess was planning a month down the road, to which Lady Tipperink virtually invited herself, and pulled Nicholaas into as supposed bait. The Countess was not fooled in the slightest, but could see no clear way to avoid inviting them - though Nicholaas could see her already formulating plans in her head to avoid both of them at the event when it transpired.
"I will have my secretary add you to the list," the Countess said, with just a touch of unintended chill in her voice. She turned, and looked at a small knot of retainers, who had been standing nearby, pretending not to have heard every word.
"Margrait? Come here."
A young lady in pleasant but scarcely royal attire detached herself from the crowd, came forward, and bowed her head with the right amount of subservience. "Yes, ma'am?"
"Please add the Lady Tipperink and this Nicholaas fellow to the guest list for the Magister Ludi's award ball."
And with that the Countess turned and swirled away, glad to be done with the whole thing.
The young lady produced a small book and stepped forward, and as she did so, her eyes came up and met Nicholaas's gaze.
For a brief moment, the world stopped as they stared at one another. A series of enchanted thoughts came to Nicholaas from the mind of the girl as she instantly fell in love with him, and he her, in one of those magic moments that normally take time to become apparent, but to which Nicholaas's gifts made him immediately aware.
"Hello," he managed, smiling. "I am Nicholaas, and quite charmed to meet you."
A sterling silver smile appeared on the young lady's face, and then a slightly timid cast as she briefly averted her gaze. But she could not keep her eyes away, and when they returned they were warm with feeling. "Hello. I am called Margrait."
But then duty, and a sense that she was about to overstep her bounds, came upon her. A moment of the briefest pain passed behind her eyes, followed by another brief appearance of a boundless inner strength as she composed herself and got down to business. "May I have addresses to which to send your invitations?"
Nicholaas warred with himself, too, but like the girl, only briefly. He, too, had a duty, one to a larger world, and could not take the time to be in love. He steeled himself, and waited while the Lady Tipperink gave her location, and then gave his own, and then did not have to act to say he was charmed again to have met Margrait. And then he watched her turn away with a hollow feeling he would never forget.
The Lady Tipperink gave an indignant little huff to Margrait's back, and looked at Nicholaas with disdain in her eyes. "Forward little thing, isn't she? I did not miss the way she gazed at you, dear Nicholaas." She turned to watch the secretary as she melted back into the Countess's entourage. "Some people just do not know their place."
For a second, Nicholaas felt an uncharacteristic anger. But it passed quickly, for he realized that Lady Tipperink was not to blame for the social conventions of the land. But he did feel a need to be away from the woman now, and so he directed her to a group of other personages, and then left her in the conversation there.
He found himself wandering about, hoping to again see the Countess DeWard's secretary.
Instead, his eyes lit on five young men in splendid dress, who all seemed to be looking at him at one time. Something in their gazes demanded that he take notice, and he moved slowly towards them, inspecting each face. And then the oddest thing occurred.
He felt like he knew them. All five faces were familiar, but from when and where, he could not place. And since Nicholaas forgot nothing, the feeling was quite eerie, indeed.
They smiled as he approached, and a dark-haired lad with sparkling eyes nodded briefly. "Hello."
Nicholaas stopped before them, and again looked to each face. "I'm sorry...do I know you gentlemen?"
That the five were just lads was apparent to him now. But they were so familiar that he just could not believe that they had not met somewhere before.
"I don't think so," the dark-haired boy said. "I'm Charlie. These are my traveling companions, Kip, Rick, Adrian, and Max."
The last one - Max - especially roused some awareness of having been met before. "You seem very familiar," Nicholaas insisted. "Perhaps at the Magister Ludi's homecoming?"
"We were not there," the one called Kip said. He had straw-colored hair, and a hint of mischief in his eyes that Nicholaas found somehow appealing.
"No, we weren't," Charlie confirmed. "We've only just arrived to the city, in fact. This is the first event we have been, er, invited to attend."
Nicholaas frowned, but decided that he could not let the familiar feeling cause him to be rudely inattentive. He smiled again, and gazed about the crowded ballroom. "I attend these things, but they really are beyond me."
"Then why come?" Kip asked, again with that hint of something else in his gaze.
"Oh...I like people." Nicholaas understood then that these lads were unconcerned with station. "Even this sort," he kidded.
All five of the lads laughed. "It is a little hoity-toity," said Rick.
Nicholaas took in the unfamiliar expression and intuitively understood its meaning. "Yes. Uh, hoity-toity, indeed."
He was taken now by the apparent strangeness of the five, so out of keeping with the surroundings. So when Charlie announced that they were just ready to leave, and asked if Nicholaas would like to join them for a small meal in less spectacular surroundings, Nicholaas jumped at the chance to get away. Get away form the ball and it's layers of pretense...and to get away from Margrait, who was now somehow firmly lodged in the back of his mind.
So they quietly left by a side doorway, and emerged into a street just filling with new snow falling from a gray sky overhead.
"Man!" said Kip. "It sure snows here a lot!"
Nicholaas laughed. "I love snow, personally. If I could have it year-round, I probably would."
"I like it, too," Kip returned. "I just wish the cold didn't have to always go with it!"
Charlie reached out and gave a squeeze to Kip's arm that was somehow very fond, and Kip turned and beamed at him, and Nicholaas felt surprise at the intimacy that was conveyed by the simple touch and gaze between the two. An unusual intimacy, even.
The one event was by no means conclusive; but as they followed Nicholaas's directions through the streets to his favored inn, he noticed more of the seeming intimacy between Charlie and Kip, which was entirely unconscious on their parts, but which could not be concealed from a sharp observer like Nicholaas.
And not only that, but Rick and Adrian displayed much of the same fondness, laughing and touching one another, and looking at each other in such a way that there could be no denial that there was love between them. It seemed now that Charlie and Kip were a couple, and Rick and Adrian, too.
Nicholaas had heard of such things, mostly whispered about and concealed among the upper class, and occasionally dealt with more openly and brutally by the lower class. He had been surprised to understand that, while the idea of being with another man in such a fashion did not appeal to him, he saw no evil in love shared by any two people old enough to understand its implications. There was never enough love to go around, really.
Max seemed the odd man out. He seemed aware of the other boy's closeness, and displayed a good-natured tolerance of it that spoke volumes about where his heart lay. But there was a difference in his manner, and not just that he seemed tolerant of but not interested in the other boy's form of companionship. Max, despite his appearance, seemed somehow older and more experienced than the others, and Nicholaas felt inside himself that Max might be one with a woman waiting somewhere for him to come home.
It was of no importance. As they walked along and talked, Nicholaas found that he liked all five of the lads, with their good spirits and their obvious affections for one another. Here were people that cared far more for each other than for any social convention, and who obviously would dare to be together no matter what the cost. That their closeness would be much less apparent to most people he was sure of, as few - if any - others saw the things that Nicholaas could observe.
They found the inn, and took a small back room to themselves and ordered a small meal. A curtain separated them from the inn's dining area, and no one could see them, and no one was close enough to hear. They talked freely, and Nicholaas learned that the lads had found the ball they had quitted faintly distasteful.
"Nothing personal," Adrian said, holding up a hand as they discussed it. "Some nice people there." He frowned then. "Some not very nice ones, too, though."
"Oh, I agree," Nicholaas said, smiling to put the others at their ease. "But everyone has their value to the world, even if the coinage often seems small."
The boys stared at him a moment, and then broke into laughter, as if it took a full moment for what Nicholaas had said to sink in. Odd, that they spoke and acted so differently than the people he knew. Nicholaas had met visitors from all across Europe, but none with quite the attitudes and ideas of these.
Charlie laughed. "We saw you were having fun with the lady, though."
Nicholaas thought he was referring to the Lady Tipperink, and gave a wan smile. "As I said, sometimes the coinage is a bit small."
Kip leaned forward on the tabletop and gazed at him pointedly. "Not her. We mean the young one that took your name and street."
"Margrait," Nicholaas said, automatically. He smiled, unable not to. "Yes, she was quite fetching, actually."
"Is that all?" Charlie asked.
Nicholaas stared at him, unable to believe that others might have seen the brief acknowledgement between himself and Margrait that there was room for each other in their hearts.
He swallowed, feeling unaccountably vulnerable for some reason. "Oh...I don't do love. Especially at first sight. I have a busy life, and no time for such things."
"Everyone has time for such things," Kip said, giving a small shake to his head. "Even you."
The forwardness of the suggestion was surprising, almost as if Kip had some secret knowledge of the life that Nicholaas led. But that was impossible.
"No, you don't understand. I travel about a lot, and I am very busy all year long, and to leave some poor woman waiting about a home for my rare returns would be unconscionable."
"Take her with you," Rick suggested. "That's what people in love do. Things together, I mean."
Again, Nicholaas was surprised. How could these boys know what had transpired between himself and Margrait, just by observing? They had to be guessing, or, worse, assuming.
Nicholaas felt mildly affronted, and had no idea why. The five seated with him radiated nothing but decency towards him, and yet he was just starting to discern some subtle purpose to their actions.
"You are rather young to be making such judgments, are you not?" he cast out, feeling on the defensive and not knowing quite why. "Just because you have all found love together is no reason to feel you can direct my love affairs as well."
It came out before he knew it, and Nicholaas was immediately aghast at what his mouth had dared.
Kip sucked in a little air, obviously startled; but Charlie immediately reached out an arm and dropped his hand on the other boy's wrist, and gave it a gentle squeeze.
"You're right, of course. Just because we have love is no reason for us to point out what you are deliberately allowing yourself to miss."
Nicholaas froze at the boldness of the statement. And yet, he had asked for that, hadn't he? "I apologize for being rude," he said immediately, and made to get up from his seat.
Max, who was sitting beside him, reached up a hand and placed it on Nicholaas's shoulder, and pulled him back to his seat with surprising strength. "Please don't go."
The other four boys nodded immediately. "Yeah, we're sorry," Kip said, looking upset now. "We just wanted to help."
We just wanted to help.
The sound of those words echoed inside Nicholass's head, and he could not ignore the honest feeling behind them. He stared around at the circle of faces, and saw only concern in their eyes. Only concern for him. It was strange, and unaccounted for, and yet...welcome.
"I am sorry," he repeated. "I just...I don't know what came over me."
"I do," Kippy said, leaning forward again. "You know we're right, and you don't want to admit it."
Brazen lad! But Nicholaas smiled, and then laughed out loud. "How can you know my desires so well?"
"You wear them in your eyes," Charlie returned, once again squeezing Kip's hand. "It's easy to see that you care about people. That...appeals to us."
"Ain't that the truth," Max said. "And you're in danger now of caring so much about everybody else that you won't care for your own feelings."
Nicholaas blinked at the lad, but could find no fault with his words. Blind he could be at times, but Nicholaas was never one to run from the truth when it so boldly pursued him.
"You saw that, eh? The...I don't know what to call it. The spark between myself and Margrait?"
"Did we!" Rick said, patting Adrian's hand where it lay on the tabletop. "LIke a flag going up and fireworks going off!"
Nicholaas did not stop to ask what these fireworks might be. "I admit it, then. I felt in my heart for her."
"Then why did you walk away?" Charlie asked.
But Nicholaas knew the answer, even if he had never before placed it into words. "I had a horse once, named Kirka. A very special horse, that simply walked up to me one, um, night in my travels, and stayed with me of his own accord thereafter."
Charlie scratched his head and looked at Max, who just shrugged. "What's that got to do with it?" Charlie asked.
Nicholaas took a deep breath and let it sigh out before continuing. "Horses don't live as long as people. My horse eventually died." Surprisingly, even after five years, the grief quickly returned. "It was...difficult for me. The sense of loss. I was able to imagine what that would be like with a person. With a wife."
Charlie's eyes widened. "You cannot refuse love just because someday it might end."
"I didn't mean it quite that way."
"Then how did you mean it?" Kip asked.
How indeed? Nicholaas sat still, knowing full well that that was exactly how he had meant it. That, after losing Kirka, the idea of losing anyone else, ever again, was too painful for him to imagine. Nicholass was blessed with incredible imagination, that allowed him to visualize things, to create things out of the smallest bits of space and time. It gave him considerable insight into those around him, and considerable empathy for their plights. It was this very imagination that prodded him to give so much of his own talent to assist his fellow men.
And so much pleasure for doing it.
But what was a boon to creativity could be a bane to his peace. That same imagination could chain him to uncomfortable remembrances, like that of a horse with the intelligence and personality of a person. He had loved Kirka like a friend, and his loss had run deep into Nicholaas's soul.
"To never have love is to never have lived," Max said quietly. "The things you do in life, you do for love. You cannot deny yourself the same thing you give so freely to others."
Nicholaas stared, questions aflurry within his mind, not the least of which was how these people could seem to know so much about him. But all questions were pushed aside now, and only the face of Margrait remained. No...there was one question still there, and it concerned himself and Margrait: what was he going to do about it?
The answer started within his legs, as he pushed himself to his feet. "I need to go. Maybe she is till there."
The others stood up, all of them grinning now. "Go!" Charlie said, waving a hand at the curtained doorway.
Nicholaas nodded, and ran for the door. But something made him pause at the curtain, to turn and look back at those oh-so-familiar faces. "Will you come? To the wedding?"
The lads laughed. "Sure," Charlie said. "If you don't miss it yourself, standing here talking about it!"
Nicholaas grinned, his spirit suddenly soaring outward for the first time in years. "I will! I will go!"
And he did...
* * * * * * *
..."That was kind of intense, " KIppy said, squeezing himself against Charlie. But that was not nearly enough, so he turned to kiss Charlie's cheek, and found him waiting with his lips instead. They kissed, until Charlie and Kippy both started laughing.
"Did he marry her?" Adrian asked, leaning forward to gaze at Max.
"Sure. And they were happy together for fifty years before she died. The Big Guy took it hard, but he still married two more times after that." The elf shrugged. "I don't know what happened after the third one. I always assumed he couldn't take losing them anymore. I can sure feel that, myself."
Charlie looked at Kippy, and nodded. "Yeah."
Kippy stuck out his tongue, his eyes bright. "What are you worried about? I'll outlive you. It will be me with all the grief, not you."
Charlie frowned at that, but then smiled. "Oh...I dunno. I don't usually go anywhere without you. Maybe we'll go together."
"Maybe you should stop talking about it, huh?" Ricky said then. "Neither one of you are going anywhere, got me?"
Charlie and Kippy both laughed, and Adrian put an arm around his boyfriend and drew him closer.
"Aw, geez," Max said, rolling his eyes. "If you guys ain't the lovebirds!"
"That's right," Kippy offered, nodding. "Anything wrong with that?"
The elf held up a placating hand. "Nope. Not at all."
"I have a question," Ricky announced. "If the stuff in these dreams already happened, why are we doing this?"
Max frowned at that. "Well, I don't know that everything that is happening while we're there actually happened the way it happened in the dream. Yeah, the boss's first wife was named Margrait. But he's just dreaming, guys, so we don't know exactly how what we say and do will affect the way the boss thinks."
Charlie nodded. "Yeah, that's right. Our purpose is to somehow put a bug in his mind that he needs to go on finding companionship even when his wives pass on." He shook his head. "I somehow don't feel right doing this. I mean, the man is entitled to his grief, and the way he feels about having another wife." He looked over at Max. "Is it selfish of us to try to push him into staying healthy for the sake of the world?"
"You're having doubts now?" Max asked, shaking his head.
Charlie reddened slightly. "I'm sorry. I just...I'm only just getting to know him a little, and I have to wonder if we're doing the right thing."
Kippy nodded. "It seems kind of like meddling. Or manipulation."
Max closed his eyes, and then nodded. "I know. I love the guy, too. I don't know if what we are doing is right. But we can't stop now. The sequence is shifting and about to pick up again."
Charlie nodded, and grasped Kippy's hand again. "Then we're ready, right, guys?"
Max licked his lips, and closed his eyes. "Okay..."
* * * * * * *
Nicholaas paced the floor, until the doctor finally emerged from the room. "Well?"
The man had a fine reputation, and Nicholaas believed in getting the best. But Dr. Sebastian only shook his head. "I'm very sorry. But I don't think there is anything I can do for her."
Nicholaas stared at the man, feeling the first pangs of shock. He had known it was time, and yet...he had still maintained some small hope...
"She is eighty-two," Dr. Sebastian said. "I just think it is your grandmother's time, young man."
Nicholaas winced at the charade, that Inya was his grandmother, and not his wife of over fifty years. Of course no one would believe they were married. Nicholaas still looked thirty-five, while Inya looked...
He nodded, rubbing a hand across his eyes. "May I see her?"
"Yes. She is asking for you, in fact."
Nicholaas nodded, and went right in.
It was a cheerful room. Despite the weak winter sun and the snow on the ground outside, the room felt warm and cozy. The little stove in the corner was well stoked, the bin of coal had been kept full, and flowers from many well-wishers filled pots on the small table near the bed. There were notes among the flowers, from friends of the family, and even a few written in the oddly curved script that only elves could manage.
Outside the room, in the street below, bells rang to herald the holiday, and the clip-clop of horses and the creak of wagons accompanied cheerful voices calling for a splendid new year. Christmas was done, 'in the bag', as Inya had always said, and the next year ready to begin. And this year had been a very fine year, indeed.
It had been Inya who had engineered the new contract with elfkind, that had ushered in a new era for Nicholaas and his Christmas activities, allowing him to create far more variety and quantity in the way of gifts and distribute them ever wider in the world. Nicholaas had not known of the ties that Inya's family had with the invisible world until he had started revealing things to her about himself after they were married. What a joy it had been to learn that his new wife so easily accepted what he was and what he did in life!
And, true to her nature, she had looked into ways to help him, and ease his load, and even to expand his capabilities, widen his horizons. The world was at their feet, and the eventual ability - with the aid of the elves - to reach every corner of the planet with needful things for others!
It had been wonderful, while it lasted. But the one thing that Nicholaas could not conquer was time. It had crept upon them, slowly at first, and then in ever quickening steps these last few years. Eventually, to maintain their public face, they had been required to move around, and for Inya to eventually move in the public eye from wife to mother, and then grandmother within the household, for no one would believe that a young man like Nicholaas would be husband to one so aged as Inya.
But behind closed doors, they had maintained their love, in private.
But now...it was all about to end. For the third time Nicholaas was about to lose a great love, a great light from his life. His heart burned with the anguish of it...and the helplessness with which he viewed its approach.
Inya heard him come in, and raised an arm from the bed. "Nicholaas?"
He circled the bed, and sat in the chair by the arm. "Yes. I am here, my love."
She smiled, the years in her face unable to conceal the beauty that still resided there. "I am so glad. How are things with the new shop?"
"They are fine, my sweet. Greylisk installed one of those peculiar elfin doors in the back of the house, which, when I now step through it, I am transported directly to the shop." He smiled. "I do not think anyone will be stumbling across this shop anytime soon."
"It is well-concealed, as I suggested?"
"Yes. Farther north than any man has yet to set foot, and likely to be so for some time to come."
For a moment she grayed out, her eyes closing, and Nicholaas felt an immediate grief. But then she opened her eyes, and smiled. "A good thing, my husband. All we have worked for can now progress smoothly and undetected for many more years to come."
Nicholaas nodded, but said nothing, just gripping her hand and offering what he could by touch.
The door of the room opened then, and a parade of people started in.
Nicholaas whipped his head around and stared as five men - boys, rather - entered the room and took up positions at the end of the bed.
"I beg your pardon!" Nicholaas stood, prepared to be quite angry at this intrusion. "This is a private room. I think you have made a mistake."
"No." But it was Inya who said this. "I asked them to come back, husband. Let them remain."
Nicholaas stared at his wife. "You asked them?"
Inya smiled, and Nicholaas returned to his seat and picked up her hand again.
"They are well-wishers," Inya explained. "Come to wish only good for you and I both."
"Well-wishers," Nicholaas repeated, in disbelief. He stared at the five young men, wondering just how they had managed to get past Inya's commonsense safeguards. Inya was not one to let just anyone walk into their world, and these five had the look of...
He stopped, staring at the five lads. They looked familiar! He let his eyes go from face to face, certain he had seen all of them somewhere before...but where? Nicholaas never forgot anything, and so it was extremely disconcerting to feel like he knew these lads...but not to know how. "We've met?" He asked,his eyes moving among them, and finally settling on the dark-haired boy in the middle.
"No," that one said. "My name is Charlie. These are my friends, Kip, Rick, Adrian, and Max."
Nicholaas shook his head. "Why are you here?"
"Because we need to see this thing out," Charlie said. "Whatever the cost."
Nicholaas squinted at them, not understanding. He was about to demand a full explanation when he noticed a difference in Inya's breathing. It had slowed, grown deep and somewhat noisy. His eyes bounced to her, dread pushing away any thought of the interlopers. "Inya?"
Her eyes were closed. and she did not answer. Nicholaas squeezed her hand, but to no avail. "Not yet," he whispered, tears coming to his eyes. "Please...not yet."
He stared at her still form...and for the very first time, his power to see within things opened in his mind while looking at a person, and he was looking inside a human being. It had never happened before, and Nicholaas was stunned. Here were muscles and bone, and veins and arteries transporting blood. It was in a way gruesome, and in another way fascinating. His eyes darted about, examining, until they came to a single spot, an irregularity in a vein leading to the heart. There was a slight bulge in it, a tear, from which blood was oozing into the surrounding tissue.
Shock hit him in stunning measure as he realized that he was seeing the cause of his wife's ailment - the thing that was pushing her towards death. A tear in a vein, the resulting loss of blood and blood pressure slowly ebbing away the life in Inya's body.
Nicholaas felt a familiar swirl of energy behind his eyes, and realized that his powers were getting set to make repairs! For a moment he panicked. This was not some broken tool, to be casually manipulated! This was a person!
He dragged his eyes away from the torn vein, and they settled upon an irregular mass inside Inya's abdomen. Certainly, it was not something that belonged there! And then he began to see other things, things that were wrong with Inya's body, as his power, so efficient with broken things of an inanimate nature, slowly figured out the collective nature of the problems that were killing his wife. And with the vision of what was wrong, came the vision of what could be done to save her.
He could fix her, make her whole.
But...for how long? Aging was built into all humans, and how long could his repairs last before something else cropped up to steal away her life?
And...did he even have the right to do anything at all?
Nicholaas, despite the holiday around which his world revolved, was only vaguely aware of religion. But he had always felt inside that there was more purpose to things than he was aware of, and that there were rules by which all the things that he could see and hear operated by. Rules that meant something, and must be maintained. He used these rules every day in his work, and had always been careful to maintain their sanctity. Without the rules, there was nothing. He had a great gift, a gift that no other human seemed to possess, and he had always felt that he used it for the betterment of his fellow kind.
But now...to be able to prolong life? If he used his powers upon Inya, to heal her and bring her back, could he then walk out among all those in the world dying slowly each day, and do no less for them? The idea was staggering, and frightening, and for the first time Nicholaas doubted his ability to cope.
And then he was aware of movement, as the five lads circled behind his chair, and then the warmth and comfort of hands upon his shoulders.
"It is a terrible decision to have to make," came the soft voice of the one named Max. "We never knew you had faced such a thing before. Never knew how alone you were. Not this time, though."
Nicholaas heard the words, but could make no sense of them. Yet the voice was reassuring, and the hands upon his shoulders firm with caring and...love.
He closed his eyes, tried to settle his whirling thoughts. The answer was there before him, the choice...but he could not quite grasp it. Could not quite make the decision he needed to make. He opened his eyes again, trying to see order in the chaos swirling about him.
Inya opened her eyes, and smiled. "I love you, Nicholaas."
He felt her life slip away, like a morning mist evaporating in the new sunlight...and did not act. The decision was made, whether he knew it or not. He could not change the natural order of things, not without threatening the world he loved so much.
He lowered his head to her breast, and cried.
The five behind him crouched over him, pushing close, holding him, offering what solace they could.
"I'm so sorry," Max said. "So sorry, boss."
The comment slipped by, lost in the wave of grief that overcame Nicholaas.
He remained there, holding her, for what seemed like forever.
Finally, the fact that he was not alone seeped into his mind, and he became aware again of the five bodies pressed close to his own. He straightened, and they straightened with him.
He looked up at them. All five had tears in their eyes, a sharing of grief, both for Inya's loss, and for his own pain.
"Who are you? I feel...I feel that I know all of you."
"We're your friends," the one named Kippy said.
"Friends?" Nicholaas repeated, not understanding. "I don't have friends."
"Don't be silly," Charlie said. "The whole world loves you."
Nicholaas looked down at what had been Inya, and shook his head. "I could have saved her."
"No," said Max, "you couldn't." The finality in his voice was so firm that Nicholaas turned to look at him.
"I have the power," he whispered.
"Not for that. No one has the power for that. No one should have the power for that." Max shook his head. "Your power is for sharing life, Nicholaas. Not for stopping its end."
Nicholaas looked down at Inya a last time. "Never again."
Someone settled down beside him, laid his head against the side of Nicholaas's. "That's ridiculous. Would you wish her away?"
He looked, and it was the straw-headed boy. "Wish her away?"
"Yes," Kippy said, shaking his head. "If you knew when you met her that this moment would eventually come, would you have walked away from her, never gotten to know her?"
"Never gotten to love her?" Charlie added, rubbing Nicholaas's shoulder.
The thought was a little horrifying. Walk away from Inya? To have never felt the touch of her hand, the warmth of her lips? To have not spent all the wonderful years together that they had shared? To not have worked together, laughed together, cried together, and...loved together?'
"No. I would not have walked away." No.
Kippy made a tsking noise, and straightened. "Then never say never again."
Nicholaas closed his eyes. It was too much to consider now. An odd feeling came over him, a feeling that he was sliding away from things.
He fought it a moment, and then just let it go...
* * * * * * *
Kippy and Charlie sat together quietly, their faces pushed together. Next to them, Ricky and Adrian were the same way.
Max sat on the edge of the coffee table, his head hung forward. "Man, I'm beat."
Kippy sniffed, kissed Charlie again, and then wiped at his eyes. "Do you think we did any good?"
Charlie nodded, wiped at his own eyes. "Yeah. Was this a waste of time, Max?"
"What time? This has all happened while you fellas are sleeping."
Ricky and Adrian raised their faces, and both stared at the elf questioningly. "You know what we mean," Adrian accused.
Max shrugged. "I dunno, fellas. It was a risk. I hope the effort wasn't wasted."
"Risk?" Charlie shrugged. "What risk?"
Max stared at him. "Seriously? We went into the Big Guy's dreams, Charlie. How would you feel if someone did that to you?" The elf looked glum. "I...I may not have a job tomorrow. And the Big Guy can wipe all of this - and me - from your memories, if he wants to. It will be like we never met."
Charlie sucked in his breath. "He can't! You're our friend, Max!"
"He can, and he will if he feels like he has to. The boss is a very private person, Charlie. We probably know more about him now than any other people on the planet. He may not like that."
Charlie and Kippy looked at each other. "We only wanted to help him," Kippy said.
For a moment no one said anything. Finally, Max shrugged, and stood. "We'll just have to wait and see, I guess."
There was a soft rap at the door to the den, and Mrs. P stuck her head into the room. "Max? Dinner is ready. Want to come, and bring your friends?"
Max grinned, and suddenly looked like his old self. "Come on, guys. Let's have dinner, and then I'll send you home."
Charlie and Kippy exchanged glances. "Really?" Charlie asked. "You feel like eating now, after all that?"
"I always feel like eating," Max confided. "Come on...it'll be fun."
Kippy gave a short laugh. "How can it be fun after all that?"
Max came and took each of them by the arm, and tossed his head at Ricky and Adrian, indicating that they were to follow.
"Oh, it'll be fun, all right. You ain't never had dinner with three thousand elves before!"
* * * * * * *
Christmas morning, Charlie got up and took a shower. He was tired, and he was feeling kind of down, the amazing dream of several nights before still circulating through his head. That it had been a dream he was certain of, but that it had also been real he also knew to be true. So far he still remembered it, and Max, so there had yet to be any negative fallout over what they had done.
Charlie would not be surprised if there was. In retrospect, invading the mind of anyone was simply a terrifying thought, and to think that they had done it to someone like Santa Claus was just plain appalling. What had they been thinking?
He had breakfast with his folks, and they opened their presents. That brightened things up, and Charlie and his folks sat at the kitchen table and talked about Christmases past. After a while, Charlie decided he'd better call Kippy and see what he had gotten for Christmas, and went upstairs for his phone, which he had left on his nightstand.
He took four or five steps into his bedroom before the fact that there were wrapped presents on his bed registered. He gaped at them, then turned as the bedroom door closed behind him.
Someone was standing there, in the shadows by the door.
The elf stepped forward and opened his arms, and Charlie rushed forward and unabashedly hugged him, squeezing their bodies tightly together. Max hugged him back, and didn't even flinch when Charlie kissed him on his cheek.
"Merry Christmas, Charlie!"
Charlie stepped back, grinning ear-to-ear. "It's so good to see you!" He stepped closer again, and lowered his voice. "I was worried about you. But when you didn't disappear from my memory, I figured maybe you were okay."
"I'm okay," Max agreed. Charlie watched him closely, but the elf didn't volunteer more. Charlie wanted to ask, but couldn't quite bring himself to do it. Instead, he pointed at the wrapped gifts on his bed. "What's this?"
"Oh, those are for you and the guys. From me. Can you see that they get them?"
Charlie frowned. "You don't want to give them to them yourself?"
"Naw." Max grinned. "And have your boyfriend stick his tongue down my throat? Or Ricky taste my ear again? No thanks. I'll pass this time."
Charlie couldn't help giving a little pout. "They'll be upset they missed you."
"Oh, I'll be around."
Charlie sighed. "I'm sorry, but I didn't get anything for you."
Max's face got serious, and he stepped closer and laid a hand on Charlie's arm. "Oh yeah, you did. Trust me, Charlie. What you and the guys gave me is the best present ever."
That brought a smile to Charlie's face. That could only mean that Santa had forgiven them, somehow, for the trespass. "Are you gonna tell me?"
"Later." Max held up a finger and crooked it at Charlie. "Come closer."
Puzzled, Charlie stepped nearer to the elf. Max pulled him closer, and placed his lips near Charlie's ear. "Look under your Christmas tree, Charlie."
There was a soft pop of displaced air, and the elf was gone. Charlie stared at the space where he had stood, trying to register everything that had just happened.
Look under my tree? They had cleaned all the presents out from beneath the tree and opened them earlier. There should be nothing left. But he headed for the stairs anyway, took them two at a time, and returned to the family room.
"What's up?" his dad said, from the kitchen as he passed.
"Uh, I think I missed a present from Kippy. He said it was all the way in the back, or something."
His dad laughed, and winked at him. "Can't have that."
Charlie hated lying to his folks, but knew that sometimes it was necessary. He smiled, and went to the tree, and got down on his knees and peered under it.
Sure enough, there was a box under the tree, wrapped in gold paper with a red ribbon. He pulled it out, and turned the label around to read it:
To Charlie, From Santa Merry Christmas!
Charlie gaped, and then hurriedly closed his mouth, got to his feet, and rushed upstairs.
Every year there were a few presents under the tree addressed to him, and signed as from Santa, but in his mom's handwriting. This label was none of that. It was in a black script, like calligraphy, and looked as beautiful as the wrapping and the red bow.
He got to his bedroom, went in and closed the door, and sat on the end of his bed. Taking a deep breath, be pulled at the ribbon and untied the bow, and pulled the top off the box.
At first he didn't recognize what was inside. It was dark and rough-looking, and felt quite massive when he reached inside to pull the object out. He held it up to the light...and gasped.
It was like a small statue, two figures carved out of some dark red wood, beautifully polished, beautifully detailed. The first figure was a man in a flowing cloak with a hood, cinched at the waist by a thick belt, and when charlie peered closer, he was astounded to see the face of Nicholaas inside the hood. One of the figure's arms was stretched out behind him, and he was leading a horse by the reins. There were small packs strapped to each side of the horse's back, and small items protruded from beneath the flaps.
The base was carved to resemble snow, with the footprints of both man and horse plainly visible. Nicholaas, and Kirka.
"Beautiful," Charlie whispered.
As if in answer to his voice, the figure of Nicholaas raised his other hand and waved, and Kirka tossed his head and gave out a clear, tiny little chuff.
Charlie simply stared, unable to believe his eyes. The statue was clearly made of wood, but it moved with the grace of a living thing.
"Do that again," he breathed.
And again, the small Nicholaas waved his hand, and Kirka tossed his head and spoke.
Over on the nightstand, Charlie's phone rang. He stood, still staring at the beautiful statue, and picked up the phone and looked at the screen. Kippy.
"Hi. Merry Christmas," Charlie answered.
"Oh, Charlie, I just found something under my tree --"
"A statue," Charlie blurted, without thinking.
"How'd you know?"
Charlie described Max's quick visit, and his instruction to look under the tree.
"I don't know what made me look," Kippy said. "It was like a little voice in my head. But I looked under the tree, and there was the box."
Kippy described his statue, and Charlie realized that, while similar to his own, the two were plainly different. "Amazing, "Charlie said.
There was a bleep in the background, and Kippy grunted. "Hold up, Charlie. That's the house phone."
Kippy went away, and was gone for several minutes. Charlie was just starting to get impatient when Kippy returned. "That was Ricky. He called the house phone because both our cells were busy. You'll never guess, Charlie."
"He got a statue, too?"
"Uh huh. And Adrian. Just like me, they heard a voice saying to look under their tree. And Charlie, it looks like their statues are a little different from ours."
"Come over," Charlie said. "And bring your statue."
"I am. And Ricky and Adrian are on their way, too." Kippy gave a little laugh. "It's sure is fun being your boyfriend, Charlie."
Charlie smiled. "I love you, Kip."
"I love you, too, Charlie. See you soon, okay?"
"Okay." Charlie was just about to turn the phone off when he heard Kippy's voice again. He returned the phone to his ear. "What?"
"I want to see your note, too, okay?"
Charlie blinked. "Note?"
Kippy gave out an astounded laugh. "In the box, dummy! There's a note!"
Charlie looked over at the box, his heart racing. "See you when you get here, Kip."
Charlie laid the phone down and took a deep breath. Then he went back to the box that had held the wonderful statue, and looked inside. A folded piece of red paper lay in the bottom. He retrieved it, and opened it wide. The paper was covered with more of the elegant black calligraphy:
I know who you are now. And, I know all of your friends. Amazingly, I have known you four all along, through the activities of my shop supervisor, Max, and his secret activities with PEE. Yes, I know of that, too.
I wanted to write to you personally and say thank you. You already know the reason why.
I have decided, after the holiday is over, to take a small vacation. I know a little town in Switzerland that has the most comfortable little chalets for rent, and it is just beautiful this time of the year.
I passed through that town a year ago, and one of the ladies that worked at the ski lodge there caught my eye, and we hit it off rather splendidly. Before my dream the other night, I was not prepared to do anything about it. Now...who knows? Life is short, yes. But it is there to be lived, and one can never run away from the responsibilities it brings. I know that now, thanks to you and your friends.
So tonight I am wondering, how she might get along with elves!
Please accept the little gift I have enclosed. You will recognize myself, and my good friend, Kirka. Together again!
I want you to know that you always have a friend in me. Any time you speak to the figures, they will acknowledge your presence and greet you. But if you ever need help, ever need a friend, just tell them, and I will know.
As I write this, I am preparing to go out into the world and make my deliveries. I am looking forward to this even more than usual, it seems.
Merry Christmas, my friend. It is always nice to meet a fellow traveler on the road, especially one that knows what the journey is about.