There was a subdued pop far overhead. One moment there was only the pale sliver of moon and stars twinkling in the blanket of midnight sky. Then, from a faint sparkling of a cloud that wasn't a cloud, emerged the silhouette of a sleigh pulled by nine reindeer.
"Here they come." Pol pointed needlessly. They all knew what was there.
Lon watched with the rest of the handlers, captivated by the sight regardless of having seen it nightly over the past few months. At first, the sleigh and its chargers looked like little flying dolls, coasting shapes against the stars. Then they became more distinct as they neared. Reindeer galloping on air. The magical sleigh seemed weightless behind them. Even closer and the soft trill of jingle bells filled the air.
"Welcome home," one of the handlers behind Lon and Pol murmured.
Lon smiled, nodding. It still filled his heart to see Santa and his sleigh, and it always would. It was part of the magic that still affected him and his brethren even though, as elves, they didn't receive any of the physical bounty of the season. The feeling, the tone, the power of the giving and love of the Christmas season fueled the magic that kept their little corner of the universe in existence, and there was no harm in enjoying it.
The sleigh and its team touched down in the midst of a meadow spread before a sprawling barn at one end of Santa's Village. The pulsing beacon of Rudolph's nose shed its ruddy glow on the snowy field. Small hooves caused shallow dents in the deep rifts, the reindeer's magic keeping them from sinking. The sleigh itself, although weighted by its rotund master, barely caused any runnels in the snow. The reindeer held their heads high, tossing proud antlers. They gradually checked their speed as they neared the barn, showing only a little of the exhaustion Lon knew they felt from the full night's work. Each year, for the six months prior to Christmas in the human realm, Santa, the reindeer, and the sleigh passed between dimensions, bending time so that Santa could personally deliver joy to human children. The magic of Christmas had created the realm of the elves and sustained it, and for that the elves worked tirelessly to feed the joy so that on the one magical day when the times of the two planes converged and Christmas Day was celebrated simultaneously in both realms, the magic would support them for another year. Even though that special day was still five weeks away, the anticipation was palpable.
Lon stood aside with the other handlers, making a pathway toward the open barn doors. He waited as the sleigh passed by, then followed in its wake into the brightly lit expanse of the barn. Specially designed to house a unique sleigh, the interior of the barn was brightly lit and efficiently ordered. A large cubicle in one corner housed the sleigh itself during the off hours. Along the wall beside it were cupboards and shelves to hold spare parts and materials for the mechanics who tended it. Along the opposite walls were matching cupboards and shelves where the reindeer handlers like Lon stored the leather harnesses and jingle bells that adorned the reindeer. Directly across from the large doors was the single red door that was an entrance to Santa's workshop. The reindeer brought the sleigh to a halt in the midst of the clear, hay-dusted floor, and only then did the runners settle from the air to the ground. Santa accepted the help of two assistants ready to see him safely to the ground as Lon and three fellow handlers approached the reindeer, two from each side.
Lon took a deep breath to still his nerves as he approached Dasher. Even after nearly a full season of working with the reindeer, he still found them wondrous, Dasher most of all. Three and a half feet at the shoulder, Dasher was the biggest on the team, and his thickly furred shoulder was on level with Lon's chest. Lon made sure to catch the attention of Dasher's large brown eye before reaching out to start unbuckling the harness. Jingle bells chimed as Pol worked with another handler to free Rudolph of the harness, while their other coworker aided Dancer. Supple red leather slid smoothly through gilded buckles, but most of Lon's attention was on the gray and brown fur that covered Dasher's powerful shoulders. Dasher's spreading antlers rose above both their heads. By the time Rudolph had moved forward, free of the sleigh, Lon had the buckles loose from Dasher. A polite pat on the shoulder let the reindeer know he was free, and Lon held the harness until Dasher's rump had passed by. As he moved to his left to begin loosening the straps of Prancer's gear, Lon kept a part of his attention on the lead reindeer.
Dasher, Dancer, and Rudolph spaced themselves out in the center of the barn. Change charged the air, palpable to everyone. Slowly they turned, each carefully making sure everyone was clear of them. Then separate clouds of what looked like shimmering snowflakes filled the air around them, obscuring them briefly. One by one they emerged from the cloud in their true forms. Lon's breath caught, his hands stilling for just a heartbeat on Prancer's harness. From the cloud of magic that had encompassed Dasher emerged the most beautiful man he'd ever seen. Like his reindeer form, Rom was tall, just topping five feet. Sleek muscle filled every inch under pale, milky skin. He laughed and stretched skyward as the magic dissipated around him, proud and unashamed by his nudity. Not that he had anything to be ashamed of. He was a perfect specimen of an athletic elf, a prime candidate for his coveted spot leading Santa's team. Broad of shoulder, narrow of hip, and hung like a buck, with sky blue hair falling in a shining straight cascade nearly to his tight, trim buttocks. He reached over to slap the meat of Wod's shoulder, congratulating Dancer for another successful night. Wod grinned back at him, tucking his deep mahogany hair behind the delicate point of one ear. The blue-silver of their reindeer medallions shone from the centers of two powerful chests, Wod's satiny skin a few shades darker than Rom's, more of a pale caramel to smooth milk. Behind them, Tessie, the team's Rudolph guide, stretched and yawned under the cloud of her bright orange hair, her own medallion resting between two small, creamy breasts. The three of them moved to the side to make room for the next reindeer to change. They were immediately surrounded by a number of other handlers, these bearing robes, shoes, and refreshment for the exhausted members of the team.
Lon bit his lip and forced himself to concentrate on his remaining work before his obsession with the lead reindeer became obvious. It wouldn't do to let anyone know he was hopelessly, madly in love with Rom. True, nearly everyone was in love with Rom, at least a little, but Lon was sure his feelings were different. His heart constricted when he was around the sexy lead reindeer. But he didn't want to be seen as a simpering follower. He wanted Rom to notice him as a man. He would, one day. Soon. Although he had yet to come up with a suitable way to make that happen.
He managed to keep his eyes off Rom, and soon all nine reindeer were free of their harnesses and had shed their four-legged forms. Five men and four women, all chosen for their physical prowess to fill the role of Santa's chargers. The waiting list to become one of the reindeer shifters included at least half of the population of Santa's Village, certainly most of the youths. Although it was acknowledged hard work, nearly everyone wanted not only the excitement of crossing into the human realm to deliver toys but also the unique magic that allowed the shift into reindeer.
"Ho ho ho." Santa's signature laugh got everyone's attention even if it was uttered by a feminine throat. Jannie mounted a small platform by the workshop entrance of the barn, still wearing the red pants with the white fur trim. But since the special coat that enabled her shift was slung over one shoulder, she was revealed as the elf she was. Her small breasts remained bare underneath the suspenders that held up the pants that sagged about her legs, pert, rosy nipples vivid against her snowy white skin. At all of four feet, she was much smaller than the five-and-a-half-foot form she presented in full Santa regalia. It wasn't physical prowess that qualified Jannie for her leadership as Santa among them. Jannie had gotten her job for her smarts and her natural talent for magic. Not for the first time, Lon wondered what humans would think if they knew that Santa wasn't always a man. For five years now, Santa had been this petite little woman with short, grape purple hair and silver and gold rings pierced along the edges of her pointed ears.
Jannie raised a golden goblet. "A fine night and a fine job, everyone." She toasted her team and the handlers that surrounded them. "We made many a child happy this night." Cheers all around as Jannie drank, and then everyone with a glass--namely the reindeer--joined her.
The door opened behind Jannie, and Gus, the reigning Mrs. Claus, stepped through. Because he didn't typically have a public face, he didn't wear the shifting gown that would make him look like an aging, snowy-haired woman. Instead he just wore a sleeveless red jacket with something of a short skirt that flared out from his waist almost to his knees. The role of Mrs. Claus was no longer only held by the wife--or husband--of the current Santa but rather by a person appointed as the most qualified to run the "housekeeping" of Santa's Village. Mrs. Claus was in charge of the communal kitchens and all housekeeping staff, leaving Santa to concentrate on the business of The List of Good and Bad as well as the acquisition and distribution of toys. Gus was the first man in history to fill the role of keeper of the house, but no one begrudged him the fine work he'd done for the past eight years.
Jannie saw Gus. He gestured over his shoulder, and she nodded. "Good work, everyone. Get a good night's rest, and we'll do this again tomorrow night."
A genial groan followed her off the platform, and she laughed at it as she approached Gus. The housekeeper immediately started talking to her in a low voice as he accompanied her through the workshop door. Although the day was longer here than in the human realm, there was still much to do before the next night. Toys had to be gathered for the proper region, and the exact time schedule had to be perfected before Santa and the reindeer made their time jump to the Christmas Eve that wouldn't happen for another month.
"Work work work."
Lon jumped at the sound of a low male voice right behind him. He spun to see the reindeer second-in-command leaning against one of the posts that supported the storage loft. Like Rom's, Wod's hair draped heavy and loose almost to his waist, and it had something of a wave, so the tips just brushed the soft green velvet of his fur-trimmed robe. The robe was loosely belted so it fell half open in front, letting his Dasher medallion sparkle against the hairless backdrop of his muscular chest. Wod smiled at Lon, eyes every bit the deep almost brown but mostly red color of his hair. Lon wasn't entirely sure why but Wod's darkness of hair and eyes had always frightened him slightly. Wod wasn't the only elf with dark hair and skin, certainly, but they weren't many. Lon had heard that the darker-haired elves were descended from a different race of fae, maybe even a different realm, and had access to a different kind of magic. Neither Lon nor anyone he knew had ever been able to prove that, but it was the rumor nonetheless. Wod was certainly mysterious enough. Lon could only attribute the way his heart raced and throat tightened around Wod to fear of the mystery.
Wod's smile darkened, and he brought his goblet to his lips. "Are you all right, little Lon?"
Lon startled, realizing he'd been staring. "I-I'm fine." He tore his gaze from the taller man to stare at the loose hay at his feet. Wod remained barefoot, and a small silver ring winked around the second toe of his left foot. It matched the ring that dangled from his right ear. Wod said nothing, but Lon knew he was still watching. Wod did this to him often, showing up and saying little. Lon didn't know if the bigger man was teasing him or what. "E-excuse me, Wod." With a little bow that wasn't necessary but showed respect, Lon gathered up his harnesses and fled.
Or would have fled, if he hadn't slammed into a bigger, more solid person. The collision barely moved the other but sent Lon sprawling onto his back, harnesses spewing from his hands and landing about him in a loud jangle of jingle bells.
Lon knew that voice well and squinched his eyes shut, too mortified by falling to see.
But he heard the swish of Rom's robe and felt a strong hand on his shoulder. "Hey, little Lon, sorry about that. Did I hurt you?"
Suppressing a groan, Lon opened his eyes. Rom's face hovered above his, the sweep of his light blue hair draped down the right side of his face. His uptilted eyes shone crystal blue even in the shadow his head and hair made over his face.
Rom grinned. "You okay?"
Embarrassed, Lon reached up to rub the point of his ear. "I'm okay."
"Excellent." A slim, strong hand gripped Lon's shoulder to help him up. "You shouldn't rush about in a crowd like that."
Lon nodded, keeping his eyes down. Look at him, you idiot! he yelled silently at himself, but he was too mortified to meet those gorgeous eyes. He wanted Rom to fall for him. He wouldn't do it if Lon showed himself as a joke. He climbed to his feet and tried to keep Rom from brushing him off, but the bigger man would have none of it. Lon was grateful for the loose, long fit of his jacket, for it covered the state of his erection when Rom's firm hand dusted off Lon's backside.
To make matters worse, while Rom was righting Lon, Wod had gathered the strewn harness bits. He stood beside Lon and Rom, dark eyes gone stony as he watched Rom put Lon to rights. "Here you go."
Lon took the straps of leather from Wod quickly, avoiding any contact. "Thank you." He nodded his head at both reindeer as he backed from them. "Thank you. Good night." He spun before he could blindly collide with anything or anyone else and this time succeeded in fleeing the room.