Justin decides he must have fallen asleep. He hates working the graveyard shift, but everyone else wanted Christmas Eve off and he hasn't had anyone to go home to since Charlie left. The store is warmer than his apartment, his phone's battery is low, and not even the usual late night weirdos have been in to keep him busy. Justin has been ready to nod off since ten. He remembers thinking that if he locked up early and went for a snooze in the back room, no one on Earth would care.
It's a dream. He must have rested his eyes too long at the checkout counter, or dragged himself into the back for a nap. That's the only explanation. Chilly but not frigid winds buffet his face even though it's freezing out tonight. He's plonked down in the back seat of Santa's sled. The Big Man himself is driving with his "Ho Ho Ho"'s muffled by Oreos. Way out in front of them, Justin keeps looking for a red light guiding the way. He didn't see Rudolph when he got into the sleigh but dreams tend to add curve balls in the middle.
"What do you think?" asks a timid voice beside him. The elf is snug up against his side. The wind feels real. Santa sounds real. The elf can't be real. He's exactly Justin's type except at half scale. That didn't matter when they were dancing through the aisles of the store together.
"This is trippy." Testing the dream, he pulls his hand free and tentatively places it on the elf's shoulder. He feels real, and the pleased sigh he makes is realer than anything Justin has heard in months. "My name's Justin."
The elf grins back at him. Then he glances away, his expression changing. "Here we go!" Before Justin can ask, the sleigh descends upon a rooftop. Danny jumps up and starts digging into one of the huge sacks beside them, coming up with a somewhat smaller bag and a smile of accomplishment.
Santa reaches back and takes the sack. "Thank you, Danny." He's got a few crumbs in his beard. Justin reaches out and brushes them away. Santa gives him a twinkle. "And thank you. Now, you lads watch the sleigh for me." He heads off towards a chimney.
Justin is alone in Santa's sleigh with a hot elf.
"So, it's your first night?"
Danny nods. "I'm so lucky Santa picked me! I thought I'd be on wheel-attaching duty for another five years before I got a chance at Sleigh Duty. My pal Jane went last year and she'd been waiting for a decade." He looked down and away, suddenly nervous again. "What about you? First night at the store?"
"I've been there for a couple of years."
Dreams don't tend to have awkward pauses. Justin says, "It must be interesting to help Santa Claus make toys."
"It's a job," says Danny. "When you're an elf, you only have so many career options. The benefits are pretty good."
Justin laughs. "That's why I have my other job. The pay's bad but I've got the bennies."
"I have a friend named Benny."
They descend into a weird silence, broken by the jingling of the reindeer in harness. Danny looks like he's chewing on a ton of words, as though he's crammed his mouth too full of cookies to speak. Justin's starting to wonder about this dream.
Santa pops out of the chimney, soot flying like confetti. Justin is the one who does cleanup at the store and he immediately cringes at the mess they're leaving, but as Santa chucks the reins and they lift off, the soot vanishes. Christmas magic or dream-logic, it doesn't matter. He settles back into his seat. Danny presses in against him with cozy warmth.
They dash to the next house, skipping along rooftops in a pattern Justin doesn't even try to understand. Danny digs out a sack of toys for each stop. Santa thanks him with a kind smile every time. Justin wonders what part of his psyche is at play here, if he's dreaming of validation from the ultimate kind boss recognizing good yet tedious work, if he's working through childhood disappointment at gifts under long-forgotten trees. Between visits, he and Danny try and fail to talk. His brain may be telling him he's bad at relationships and there's a reason he's alone this Christmas Eve.
As they pause at another rooftop, Santa says, "Danny, why don't you get this one?" The merry glint in his eye is even brighter.
Danny perks up. "You mean it?"
"Go on. And take your friend."
Justin's jaw drops. "Really?"
"Hurry up, my boys. The night is getting on."
Danny hops out of the sleigh with a sack in one hand. He extends the other to Justin to help him out. Justin's legs prickle with warning. His feet have fallen asleep and he nearly trips. Danny helps him, holding the huge bag of toys casually while making sure Justin gets his legs under him again. He's much stronger than he looks. He keeps hold of Justin's hand as they walk over the slippery roof.
Justin doesn't know how this should work, but Danny seems to. They reach the edge of the chimney, which doesn't look big enough for an elf much less a human. Danny squeezes his hand, and Justin feels his body twitch like he's about to sneeze. There's a sensation, like he's traveling at speed through a straw, then he blinks, looking on a living room. There's no fire lit, but there's a tree, stockings with names, the usual. Plenty of presents already under the tree from Mom and Dad. Pictures on the mantle of a couple of grinning kids. Danny drops a couple of toys in each stocking.
"Here," he says, handing Justin a wrapped package. "Stick this one in the very back." Justin notices the wrapping paper is similar to the other presents already there. Bemused, he bends down and shoves the present behind the tree while Danny places another one off to the side.
This is the weirdest dream he's ever had.
"Let's go," says Danny.
"I don't get it. Your sack is huge. Why only these two gifts? And they look the same as the rest?"
"Those were all that was in there for these kids." Danny opens the bag and lets Justin see it's empty now. "They have lots of presents already, and the bag knows how to make them blend in." His eyes light up. "Cookies!"
He hurries to the table where a few chocolate chip cookies and some milk await Santa. With the pride of a new expert, he picks up a cookie and gingerly dips it into the milk. Justin can't help but smile. Danny offers him the second cookie, which Justin downs in two quick bites.
"You spent more time on the Oreos."
"You have to lick Oreos. It's the rule."
For a moment, he sees what could be a naughty flash in Danny's eyes. "I'll remember that."
They return to the fireplace and clasp hands. With a pop and a gasp, they're on the roof again, and the reindeer are impatient to take off as they board the sleigh.
Santa takes the next house. Justin watches him vanish. "I stopped believing in Santa Claus a long time ago."
"I don't believe in him either. He's just my boss."
"And you live at the North Pole making toys for him." Sure. Why not?
"Elf," says Danny, gesturing at the hat. "What else am I going to do?"
"What do you want to do?"
Danny gives him a strange look. "I don't know. No one ever asked me that before."
Santa returns and they're off again. Justin is wondering more and more about this dream. By now, his socks should have turned into dragons, or he should be naked and almost ready to wake up sticky and alone. Instead he's aware of the city sounds below them, and the good pine scent of Danny's hat mixed with the rougher odors of the reindeer. He can see individual hairs on the fur ruff of Santa's coat in front of him.
He feels his phone in his pocket. He reaches in to grab it. He can read the numbers on the clock and the names of the apps, but the battery is blinking a warning. "Smile," he says to Danny, and brings up the camera app. Danny gives him a sunny grin as they lean in together for the selfie. The flash of his camera doesn't go off and it dies in his hands.
A worrisome suspicion grows that he might not be asleep.
The sleigh lands. "Boys, you can get this one."
Danny and Justin get out with another bag in tow. Justin is a little more clear on the details this time. They hold hands and vanish into the chimney. Justin helps tuck toys into the stocking, and leaves a couple extra presents beneath the tree. The apartment they're in looks smaller and cheaper than the one where Justin lives. Justin has an urge to put a few bucks into the toe of the stocking, but his wallet doesn't hold any cash tonight.
They head outside again. He likes holding Danny's hand for these trips. Back aboard the sleigh, Santa lets them know they can take the next house as well. When Justin gets out, he feels his arm jostled by Santa's elbow. Santa winks at him.
This house suffers from Christmas overload. Danny sticks a tiny package at the back of the tree and doesn't bother with stockings before he pounces on the cookies. These look like Snickerdoodles. Justin isn't a fan but he can't resist the look on Danny's face as dunks.
Justin takes a polite nibble of Snickerdoodle. "Why do we put our gifts in the back?"
"By the time the kids get to those, nobody remembers what's been opened or who it's from. Between that and the wrapping paper, it's easier to pass off in case of suspicious parents." He recites the words like he's reading from a manual in Elf Training.
They head back to the living room. Justin notices the boughs of holly everywhere, and with them, another bit of greenery. He clears his throat. "Hey, Danny."
Danny turns his head, and looks above them. His eyes get bigger. "Oh, that stuff."
A little squeeze hurts his heart. "Not a fan of mistletoe?"
"It's a weed. Can't get rid of the junk." For a moment, a wave of disappointment moves through Justin and he reminds himself this is just a fun dream about a cute guy. Then he catches the amused glitter in Danny's eyes.
"Did you just tell a joke?"
"I think I did. I'm not sure. Is that what happens when you say something that isn't true to be silly?"
"It can be when you both know you're being silly. If you do it wrong, you can be hurtful."
Danny's eyes widen. "I don't want that. I wanted to make you smile. I like it when you smile at me." His face is open and honest.
"I like you too," he says, and now he's a little too aware of when he's smiling, but he can't stop this one, not standing under the mistletoe with Danny.
The height difference is a little weird, but Danny's mouth is sweet like cherries and cookies. They're interrupted by the sound of Santa's horn on the roof. Santa Claus may be willing to act as wing man, but he's got a schedule to keep.
"Time to go," Danny says, and takes Justin's hand.
They get back into the sleigh under Santa's smug but fond glance.
Sunlight slants into Justin's eyes, waking him suddenly. He startles, almost falling out of bed. Heart pounding, he glances around his own messy room. He's alone. Of course he's alone. It's Christmas, he's by himself, and his dreams gave him a hot boyfriend for the holidays. It doesn't matter now. He's scheduled to work tonight but he's got the rest of the day to play on his Xbox. By lunch, he'll have forgotten all about Santa Claus.
Funny though. He can't remember how he got home last night.
Midway through his second coffee, he digs out his phone. The battery is dead. He charges it, and feels a thin sadness move through him when he checks recent photos and doesn't see anything from the past week, much less last night.
"Whatever." He sets down the phone, and he does not call Charlie. He kicks back on the futon he uses for a sofa and he turns on his system. Off on the table, he sees the sketchbook and pencils he hasn't picked up in weeks. Midway through the loading screen, he lets out a breath and drops the controller. While he can still remember the dream, he wants to capture the sweet grin on Danny's face and the tender points of his ears.
The day passes. Justin tapes his new sketch to the wall and he calls his mom. She liked Charlie but she's sure Justin can do better, and after twenty minutes spent on his love life, Justin tells her he loves her and hangs up.
He shows up early for his shift. Leslie thanks him profusely and closes out. "Johnson said he'd be in later."
"Thanks for the warning." Johnson is their boss. He's all right. Justin didn't expect to see him on Christmas but maybe he's got family to avoid, too.
Today's a little busier than last night was. He rings up gas purchases and rotates the potato chip bags. The frozen goods are pushed aside in the freezer. He must have noticed last night when he'd been so tired, and that's why his brain provided Danny's face peeking out beside frozen pizzas and ice cream. His brain had turned the scuff marks on the floor into a happy slide through the aisles.
And there's the biggest proof, he thinks, looking at the cookies. The Oreos are out in a little cardboard display featuring Santa and an elf. Justin had invented all of it. He stands there by the blue packages, his heart squeezing. It was such a good dream.
The door jingles open. Johnson's voice says, "You'll start with the late shift like everyone else."
"That's fine. I like working nights." The other voice cuts straight through him. Justin steps into the next aisle. Johnson gestures at the store. Beside him, a shorter figure looks around himself in amazement. "Thanks so much for this opportunity, Mr. Johnson!"
"Justin, hello. I thought Leslie would be here."
"I came in early." His eyes are fixed on the short man beside his boss. He's a dead ringer for the picture taped to the wall at Justin's place.
"Wait here, Danny," says Johnson, and takes Justin's arm. They head into the back room. "Justin, I didn't mean to surprise you with this. I'd completely forgotten Danny was supposed to start today before he showed up at my house this afternoon." He's got a slightly befuddled expression, like he's trying to remember something important. His gaze clears. "I was expecting Leslie to be here. She's got a cousin who's a little person. I expect you won't have any issues working with Danny, correct?"
"Not at all." He has so many questions. How did Danny convince Johnson he had a job waiting? Did Santa give him a Social Security number for Christmas? Was he still dreaming?
"Good man," Johnson says, clapping him on the shoulder. "I always say, our team embraces diversity. He'll be on shift with you while you train him."
They exit the back room, and Justin finds himself straightening his work tunic and rubbing his hand over his hair. Johnson introduces them, wishes them both a merry Christmas, and heads home. Justin barely notices. "Hi."
Danny has that same eager to please yet nervous smile on his face. "Nobody ever asked me before what I wanted to do as a job. And after we dropped you off, I thought, I sure do like this store. Santa said if I come back to help with the October through December rush every year, I can keep my benefits."
Justin feels his heart fall again, already sad at their upcoming parting even if it is months away. "You're going to be gone for three months?"
"Yep. But we can always use more helping hands making the toys, and the 'bennies' are great." He's pleased with himself for using the slang. "Plus, I hear my boss likes you." He grins. Justin grins back.
They don't keep mistletoe in stock, and they're sold out of tinsel. Instead there's a cardboard display of blue-wrapped cookies, and the gentle glow of the lights from the freezer, and Mel Tormé on the overhead speakers. It's perfect.
The sweet taste of Danny's mouth is the best Christmas present Justin could ever ask for.