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Charlie was nine years old the first time he convinced his mom and Neil to let him spend his whole summer vacation at the North Pole. It wasn't hard to do; he'd spent parts of his school breaks with his dad before — a few weeks in the summer, Christmas break once his dad was on vacation, too. Plus his mom and Neil were busy with Lucy, who was tiny and pink and still cried all night sometimes.

He carefully shook the snowglobe Bernard had given him, then packed the duffel bag he took with him when he went "up north". It wasn't really big enough to hold all the clothes he needed, these days, but that was okay with Charlie; the elves were always happy to make him anything he needed, and the clothes they made were more fun than the boring ones his mom made him wear to school, anyway.

He took his duffel down to the foot of the stairs and settled in to wait at the dining room table with a box of animal crackers and the comics page from Neil’s Sunday paper. But it took hardly any time for his dad to get there, and even less for him to take in mom's exhausted face and Charlie's excited one.

"I gotta warn you, sport, I've got work to do. I'm not gonna be able to be with you all the time." His dad's expression was serious; it was the face he made when he really wanted Charlie to listen.

"I know that, dad," he said, taking the empty animal crackers box to the trash to demonstrate the necessary levels of responsibility, and folding up the comics page small enough to fit in his pocket, since he wasn’t done reading it yet.

“It really would be a big help, Scott,” his mom said, loading Lucy’s bottles into the sterilizer. His dad’s face softened, and Charlie knew that meant yes.

~*~

Charlie spent his summer exploring the North Pole. He was welcome everywhere, and he learned where they made all the toys, from the soft plush animals to the fancy remote-controlled helicopters and video games. He made a doll for Lucy, to be specially delivered on Christmas Eve. He learned to play the elves' games, and ate too many sweets and not enough vegetables, though Bernard took it upon himself to make sure he ate some (Charlie didn't mind, though, partially because he couldn't imagine being mad at Bernard and also because Bernard seemed to magically know which vegetables Charlie actually liked).

When he wasn't with his dad or out exploring the winding, spiraling streets of the North Pole on his own, he spent whole days in the labs with Quentin, working on strange and wonderful projects that involved combinations of bubbling beakers and pure magic; or with Judy, who was teaching him to make cookies in a thousand variations and encouraging him to develop his own cocoa recipe; or with Bernard, who moved around constantly, keeping track of every elf in the workshops - which would have been boring if Bernard hadn't always had something amazing to show Charlie; and he did, even if he had to go out of his way to do it. Charlie saw gardens of ice flowers that glowed under the aurora borealis, and got piggy-back rides around the town square from the polar bears, and learned the name of every constellation in the northern sky, even the ones humans hadn't gotten around to seeing.

By the middle of the summer, Charlie could find his way around all the workshops with his eyes closed, and he never got lost in the city like he had in the beginning (not that he was ever really "lost", when every elf knew his name and the spires of the main workshop were always visible). All the clothes he'd brought with him were packed away in his duffel, covered in a fine layer of dust and kicked halfway under his bed. He wore bright elf colors and didn't even notice the ever-present chill in the air anymore.

When he tried on the cap that Larry knitted him, his dad smiled down at him and said, "You're turning into an elf!" and laughed and scooped him up into a hug (though he was getting a little too old for that sort of thing in his opinion).

Charlie laughed with him, but he pulled his hat down so the tips of his ears stuck out and looked — just a bit — like they might be pointed. He got Judy's girlfriend in Wrapping to teach him how to make perfect bows and ate too many ice cream sundaes and spent two afternoons learning how to groom the reindeer and trying to forget how quickly August was approaching.

Leaving the North Pole at the end of that summer was maybe harder than watching his dad fly away the first time had been; he said goodbye to as many of the elves as he could — Judy packed him a thermos for the trip, Quentin ruffled his hair and Larry gave him a big thumbs-up on his way out. Bernard waited until Charlie had said the rest of his goodbyes, then gave him a crushing hug and said, "See you soon," which meant "at Thanksgiving," when he was going to be allowed to spend the long weekend "up north" again.

He had to leave most of his elf clothes behind, but he took his knit cap with him. He wore it to school every day, and did his best to pretend that the world of multiplication tables and the after-school piano lessons his mom was making him take wasn't just a little bit dull, a little bit less.

When his dad visited at the end of the school year and asked (in the way that meant his mom and his dad had already talked, and it was fine with her) if he wanted to spend the summer at the North Pole again, he took a few seconds to think about his friends from school and getting sno-cones in the park and spending days at the beach, then thought about glittering domes of ice and Larry's promise that if he was strong enough, he could learn to ride the reindeer all by himself.

He didn't bother to pack a whole bag of clothes that time.

*o~o~o*0*0*0*o~o~o*0*0*0*o~o~o*0*0*0*o~o~o*

Charlie was eleven when he really, truly discovered the toy painting department. He'd known where it was, of course; he'd learned every inch of the North Pole the first summer. But when he was eleven he walked in one day and walked out a full hour late for dinner, with paint under his fingernails and Astrid's promise to teach him everything she knew in the two months of vacation he had left.

He spent the next weeks lost in a blur of colors and lines, until, finally, one day when he handed over a monster truck — complete with custom stripes and a tiger design — for Astrid's inspection, she smiled and placed it on the conveyor belt to join the other toys destined for Santa's bag. The entire department erupted into cheers and whistles and Charlie felt ten feet tall. He wondered who would find the truck beneath their tree on Christmas morning and hoped they would like it, whoever they were.

Santa personally presented Charlie with his very own toy painter's smock, a proud father's smile on his face, and Charlie didn't even mind the hug when his dad told him, "I'm proud of you, sport."

He spent the rest of the summer working for Astrid — and, even though he was slower than the elves, he soon lost count of how many Christmas toys he'd helped to create. It didn't matter, really, and he said so to Bernard, who never seemed to get tired of listening to Charlie talk about his work, though of course he already knew all about it.

"What do you mean?" Bernard asked while they waited for the polar bear to wave them across the street.

"It doesn't matter how many toys I made," Charlie explained, hopping off the curb, "It just matters that every kid gets the right one."

Bernard gave him that smile, the surprised-and-proud one, and said, "Right!"

He didn't make Charlie eat any vegetables that night and looked suspiciously innocent when Charlie ended up with extra hot fudge on his sundae.

When Charlie went home at the end of the summer, he talked his mom out of the never-ending piano lessons and signed up for art class. He came home with straight A's in the class and his teacher wrote notes congratulating him on his "wonderful imagination!"

His mom hung his final project of the year — a scene from the previous summer, of his dad and Bernard arguing over model train quotas, with Judy looking long-suffering in the background — in the hallway and talked all her friends' ears off about Charlie's 'talent'. That was excruciatingly embarrassing — and made him even happier than usual to escape to the Pole, where approving nods from Astrid and his dad and Bernard's proud smiles were more than enough praise.

*o~o~o*0*0*0*o~o~o*0*0*0*o~o~o*0*0*0*o~o~o*

Charlie had always been small, but the Autumn of the year he turned twelve, Laura realized something was actually wrong. The other mothers in the PTA had warned her about growth spurts — Be ready when he comes back from visiting his father! He'll have shot up six inches! — so she'd gone out and bought a few pairs of jeans and some shirts in bigger sizes, enough to hold Charlie over until she could take him shopping for new school clothes.

But when he came home, he was still wearing the same jeans and the same t-shirts as he had when he left, no problem, and Laura realized with something like dread that Charlie had always been able to fit into his old clothes when he came back from the North Pole. He grew so quickly sometimes, during the school year, that it was all she could do to make sure his shoes still fit and it had always seemed like such a blessing to not have to hit the stores during the mad Back-to-School rush.

Laura Miller had rarely had occasion to feel like a fool, but the small pile of brand-new, too-large clothes made her want to cry.

She talked to Neil, and both of them signed their names to the letter they put in the mail. It felt ridiculous, addressing it to "Santa Claus, North Pole", but Scott had assured them that every letter with that address made its way safely to the mailroom at the factory.

Scott came to visit them, that Thanksgiving, rather than inviting Charlie to travel to the Pole. They sent Lucy to play at her friend Becca's house and sat down in the Millers' living room to talk.

When the screaming and yelling and crying were over, Charlie slammed the door to his bedroom and propped his desk chair under the knob. Scott said goodbye through the door, but Charlie didn't answer.

Charlie refused to speak to anyone but Lucy for what felt like ages, but was really only the few weeks between Thanksgiving and Christmas. His grades were good, but Laura worried (Neil told her it was fine, that it was his way of expressing his anger, but she was his mother and it was her job to worry). Christmas Eve was tense and unhappy; bad enough that even Lucy knew there was something wrong. Charlie was even surly and quiet on Christmas morning, the way he'd never been before, and certainly not since Scott started his new career. Laura almost gave up hope, but under the tree were three small packages with gravity-defying bows that nearly broke the laws of physics, all addressed to Charlie.

There was one from Astrid — a Hot Wheels-sized monster truck painted to look exactly like the tiger truck Charlie had made when he was eleven. There was one from "Dad" -- a certificate written out in the elves' meticulous script and signed in his dad's messy scrawl for a one-week stay "Up North" that summer, the first summer since he was nine that he wouldn't be allowed to spend at the Pole. And there was one from Bernard — a brand-new elf-made knit cap to replace the one Larry had given him so long ago (which he'd long grown out of, but never gotten rid of), dark red and gold like Bernard's best tunic.

Charlie stuffed the hat on his head immediately (it was a little too big, fell a little too far over his forehead) and he didn't let the certificate or the little truck out of his sight all day. Laura caught him smiling as he ran the tiny wheels of the truck over the armrest of the sofa, his hat pulled down over his ears, and when he said, "I'll get that," and took a tray of green bean casserole out to the table for dinner, she had to excuse herself to the bathroom so Charlie wouldn't see her tears of relief as the last month's tension and worry drained out of her all at once.

*o~o~o*0*0*0*o~o~o*0*0*0*o~o~o*0*0*0*o~o~o*

The next two summers were hard. Charlie wasn't used to the heat, wasn't used to remembering things like having to put on sunscreen or close the shades on his window during the day. His summers had been built of ice and snow, made up of reindeer rides and toymaking and curling up with a mug of cocoa in the evenings while Bernard and Quentin and Judy traded stories; sometimes about things that had happened during the day's work, but mostly ancient tales that the human world had forgotten long ago, full of magic and wonder and excitement.

Some of Charlie's friends from school held an end-of-summer barbeque down by the lake, with a big bonfire in the evening. The first year, Charlie spent most of the evening staring into the fire, wishing that he could be up at the Pole sticking his wool-clad toes under Bernard's thigh while Judy told the story of the princess who became a fish and saved the ocean from the great serpent who wanted to drink it all up. When the weather turned cold he missed the Pole and the elves so much it hurt, a real physical ache that lasted all through the spring, and the too-short week he got to spend at the workshop in the summer only made the pain sharper. But at the bonfire that second summer, Danielle smiled at him, and he felt something inside him flip over. Being around her made it better, easier to bear.

Even her smiles, though, couldn't erase the anger he felt about his stupid high school and stupid Principal Newman's rules. There were no decorations at all, not a single wreath or garland in the weeks approaching Christmas, and some part of him knew he was overreacting, but Christmas was his favorite time of year, the one time he felt like the warmth and magic of the North Pole were everywhere; when he felt his dad's presence wherever he went. (Try as Scott might, Thanksgiving and Spring Break and a week in the summer just weren't enough.) And the worst part was the secrecy of it, because guys his age didn't believe in Santa Claus — that was for little kids — and there was no way to explain how much it meant to him without sounding crazy.

The first year, Charlie and his friends had a snowball fight indoors and brought in every plastic snowman, Santa, reindeer and Wise Man lawn decoration they could find. They turned the hallways of the school into a slushy mess and ended up with detention for a month. The superintendent called it a "prank" and laughed at their "holiday spirit" and got Principal Newman to agree not to suspend anyone, since the hallway was clean and dry by the following Monday and all the decorations had been returned to their rightful lawns.

His dad came down from the Pole to meet with Principal Newman and Charlie promised to behave himself from then on. And he did, mostly. But he could feel Principal Newman watching him all year, and when he came back to school in the Fall, she greeted him with a level, "Charlie." Which he knew meant, "Make my day, punk," in principal-ese.

The plan to spraypaint the wall of the gym wasn't even really a plan, just a mean little fantasy, something that spilled off his tongue when Starbucks' hot chocolate tasted nothing like Judy's or even Abby's, and the hallways at school were once again barren of anything resembling cheer. But his friends told him he should do it, man! and Danielle looked at him like he was someone new and exciting, so he found himself going out to the hardware store in town to buy paint, and rappelling down from the roof of the gym in the middle of the night.

Then he got caught.

*o~o~o*0*0*0*o~o~o*0*0*0*o~o~o*0*0*0*o~o~o*

It takes a while to sink in, that his father is not only still Santa Claus, but that he’s married, and that Charlie's new stepmother, the new Mrs. Claus, is Charlie's principal, who’s basically hated him for a full year. But when Santa and his new wife show up on the Millers' doorstep two days after Christmas, she smiles at Charlie and says, "I'm not going to be your principal anymore, Charlie. Call me Carol, okay?"

She seems so happy that Charlie can’t help but think that he made the right decision, telling her the truth about his dad and taking her up to the Pole to help save Christmas — though his friends at school will probably never let him live down that the principal ran off with his dad.

They’re staying in the Millers' guest room while Carol sells her house and helps the bewildered superintendent conduct emergency interviews for an interim principal to take her place for the rest of the school year. Charlie worries that it will be awkward, but his dad is back and in fine form and the house is full of people and smiles.

The Millers and the "Calvins" go out on a double-date on New Years', leaving Charlie at home to look after Lucy. They eat mac n' cheese for dinner (the dinosaur-shaped ones that are Lucy's favorite) and play Go Fish afterwards. Lucy is painstakingly shuffling the cards when the doorbell rings.

"I'll get it!" Lucy puts the cards down on the table and bounces up out of her chair.

"Wait! Lucy!" Charlie goes after her quickly. She’s hit a phase where she loves to get the door, but she still hasn’t learned to always check who’s on the other side first. This particular time, though, he doesn’t have to worry.

"Hi there!" A familiar voice says from the entryway - and Charlie smiles as he hurries over. "You must be Lucy," Bernard is saying, kneeling down on the Millers' welcome mat so he’s closer to her eye level.

Lucy nods excitedly, her eyes glued to Bernard's ears (or, well, ear, as his ever-present hat hides the other from view). "You're an elf!" She squeals, lighting up like the Christmas tree they haven’t taken down yet.

"Yeah, he is." Charlie takes hold of the door with one hand and puts the other on Lucy's shoulder. "Hi, Bernard."

"Hey, Charlie." Bernard looks up and smiles at him, wide and bright like they hadn't just seen each other (albeit briefly) a few days before, and Charlie's stomach does an unexpected somersault. “Is your dad home? I brought the post-Christmas status report and next year’s production schedule for him to approve.” He shrugs a shoulder, indicating the bag he has thrown over it, which looks to be full of long scrolls.

“Don’t you ever take a break, Bernard?” Charlie smiles back helplessly; Bernard is one thing that hasn’t changed, not one bit.

“You know I do,” Bernard’s eyes twinkle and the corner of his mouth curls up like an inside joke — one that Charlie knows the punchline to, remembering long, cold Polar nights and hot cocoa and falling asleep warm against Bernard’s shoulder, snuggled into an elf-made couch large and soft enough that there was no need for him to move to his actual bed. Those memories used to make him feel happy and safe, but right now… Right now those memories are making him feel decidedly unsafe, throwing him off-kilter and making his hands shake. He pulls the one off Lucy’s shoulder and stuffs it in the kangaroo pocket of his hoodie.

“You could take one right now, if you wanted,” Charlie suggests, keeping his tone as even as he can. “They’re all out having a date night thing, so it’s just Lucy and me. But my dad’ll be back around one, I think.” The clock on the microwave reads 8:07.

“We’re playing Go Fish!” Lucy adds.

When Bernard turns away to grin at her and say, “I love Go Fish!”, Charlie feels something in his chest loosen, just a little.

The three of them sit around the kitchen table to play, and Lucy makes Bernard slide around to the back so that when Charlie sits down on his side, their knees knock together, just a little bit, and for all that Charlie is suddenly hyper-aware of the contact, it’s comfortable. He nudges Bernard’s leg, on purpose this time, and they trade silent glances while Lucy painstakingly lays out everyone’s cards. Between the two of them, they win one game each, and let Lucy win five in a row, until her delighted smiles turn into tired yawns and she nearly falls asleep at the table while asking Bernard if he has any fours.

Charlie scoops her up to carry her upstairs to bed and Bernard follows close behind, stepping ahead in time to get Lucy’s bedroom door open and then pull down her blankets so Charlie can tuck her in. Charlie gives her a kiss on the forehead and says, “Goodnight, Lucy. I love you,” then turns off her lamp and ushers Bernard back out into the hallway so he can close the door behind him. Charlie tries not to examine the look on Bernard’s face too closely; it’s too confusing.

“Do you want some cocoa?” he asks instead, and Bernard’s smile could light up city blocks.

“It’s not as good as Judy’s,” Charlie warns as he sets the pot on the stove and pulls the cocoa and sugar down from the pantry.

Bernard scoffs like Charlie has personally insulted him, and Charlie laughs.

“I remember when she taught you how to make it. Lying will get you on the naughty list, you know,” Bernard teases.

Charlie laughs again, but it’s not as free - and he blushes to the tips of his ears and hopes there isn’t a special place on that list for teenage boys who suddenly develop extremely inappropriate fantasies about elves. He also hopes Bernard will chalk the blush up to the heat of the stove on his face, and he spends the next few minutes deeply interested in watching the cocoa come to a boil.

They end up drinking their cocoa on the living room sofa, the TV tuned to New Years Rockin’ Eve with the sound turned down low so Lucy won’t wake up, sitting close together so the snowman afghan Charlie’s mom only gets out during December will cover both of them. Bernard’s hat is on the coffee table, his dark curls hanging loose. They watch the ball drop in near-silence, the volume so low that the cheering of the crowd in Times Square is barely a whisper. Charlie watches Bernard’s face more than the screen, the play of light over his cheekbones in the dark living room as the fireworks start in New York.

Charlie is sixteen and stupidly brave, so when Bernard turns his head and smiles at him and says, “Happy New Year, Charlie,” Charlie leans forward (he doesn’t even have to lean very far) and kisses him.

It’s not perfect, as kisses go — a little too much pressure, and the angle isn’t exactly right — and it only lasts a moment or two before his courage fails and Charlie pulls away. Bernard hasn’t moved and, when Charlie nervously licks his lips, all he tastes is cocoa.

Charlie,” Bernard breathes, and Charlie can’t tell what the shock on his face means, good or bad or undecided, but he flushes with embarrassment anyway.

“I—“ he starts, before realizing he doesn’t know where that sentence should go, and starts over. “Happy New Year,” he says, heartbeat pounding in his ears and his stomach in knots. His voice sounds strange to his own ears, like someone else entirely. He turns to watch the fireworks on the television screen, doing his best to not-notice how Bernard is the one staring at him, now, his surprise fading into something Charlie isn’t sure he wants to see.

It feels like a long time before either of them moves. Then Bernard reaches out and Charlie nearly flinches; it’s a close thing. But all Bernard does is reach out and turn Charlie’s face toward him, searching for something, and Charlie doesn’t know what it is, but Bernard seems to find it. His lips really do taste like cocoa; he tilts Charlie’s head just so; and it’s brilliant and perfect and everything Charlie’s first attempt wasn’t, especially when Bernard coaxes his mouth open and teaches him how to use his tongue.

Bernard starts to pull away, and Charlie gets the feeling that Bernard means to stop there, so Charlie doesn’t let him. He gets his fingers in all those curls and twists himself around so he ends up half in Bernard’s lap, chasing after his mouth and catching it again and again, and Charlie sighs when Bernard fists a hand in his hoodie and anchors him there. He loses track of things after that, like when the snowman afghan ended up on the floor, or when exactly Bernard stopped tasting like cocoa and started tasting like pumpkin spice and cloves, or when the clock chimed 1AM.

They break apart to the sound of booted feet on the front porch — the Millers and the Calvins returning home from their night out — and trade mildly panicked looks as Charlie nearly falls off the couch attempting to climb off of Bernard’s thighs, straightening his hoodie as he goes. They’re both flushed and still breathing too heavily when the door opens in a rush of cold air, but the snowman afghan is covering the state of Charlie’s lap enough that he can pretend to have fallen asleep against Bernard’s shoulder, long enough to hear Santa’s deep laugh and smell his mother’s favorite perfume, until he really does fall asleep.

When he wakes up, it’s in his own bed - and even though Charlie half-expects to see Bernard sitting at the kitchen table when he wanders downstairs following the siren call of sizzling bacon, all he finds is Lucy still in her pajamas, watching as Neil tries to flip the pancakes without breaking them.

*o~o~o*0*0*0*o~o~o*0*0*0*o~o~o*0*0*0*o~o~o*

Charlie nearly loses his virginity that year, nervous and fumbling in the backseat of Danielle’s mom’s Tahoe. Her pretty Winter Formal dress is crumpled on the floorboard alongside his jacket and tie, and he looks at her in her lacy purple bra and matching panties that he thinks, with a pang of something like guilt, she may have bought just for tonight, and he doesn’t feel anything he thinks he’s supposed to as he takes in the swell of her breasts and curves of her hips.

She reaches up to touch his shirt collar and asks, “Charlie? What’s wrong?”

“I think I might be gay,” is what comes out, and he knows it’s not the right answer, because he remembers that time when her smile alone could convince him that tagging the gym was a good idea. But he also knows that while I think I’m in love with the Arch-Elf of the North Pole, and probably have been since I was eight years old might actually be the right answer, it would probably go over even less well.

He expects tears, maybe, or to be punched in the face, but instead she just sits up and hugs him hard, and says, “My cousin came out last year; it’s not like it used to be. But if you need to talk…”

After that night, Danielle isn’t his girlfriend anymore, but she’s still his best friend. He catches the looks his mother gives him sometimes, though, and doesn’t press his luck by begging to spend the next Spring Break at the Pole. He dyes eggs with Lucy for the Easter Bunny to hide (he always finds new places, even though they’ve been in the house for years and years now), eats too much chocolate, and can’t decide if he’s happy or sad that it’s too warm, now, for snow.

*o~o~o*0*0*0*o~o~o*0*0*0*o~o~o*0*0*0*o~o~o*

The week he spends at the Pole in the summer is a blur, different from the summers before. Carol is there, for one, baking cookies and playing governess to a whole host of elflings, humming and smiling as she works. Charlie can’t help but see how much happier she is here than she was before. He knows his dad is happier, too — less lonely, for all that he was always jolly about his life and his work. The Clauses’ personal quarters smell like baking and family in a way they didn’t before, even Charlie’s room (kept for him year-round, just in case).

And yet, for some reason Charlie can’t stand to spend much time there. It’s not bad, but it’s strange that it’s not just him and his dad anymore, the way it’s been for years and years. He goes out, wandering the streets and stopping in to help out in Painting for a few hours. After the closing bell and an awkward dinner, he leaves the long, twisting corridors of the central workshop, heads across the Plaza and down Mistletoe to the corner of Tannenbaum to knock on a green-painted door. He’s known where Bernard’s house was since he was ten and realized that Bernard didn’t live in the workshop like his dad does; he has a house like most of the elves, but during the busy season he’s rarely there.

Summer isn’t the busy season.

Charlie stands in front of the door, nervous as his knocks fade from the air, not entirely sure if he wants Bernard to answer or not. He doesn't have time to decide if he should just walk away, though, because the door swings inward and Bernard is standing there, looking almost as adrift as Charlie feels.

"I'm not sure you should be here," Bernard says, but he stands back to let Charlie through the door.

"Probably not," Charlie admits. There are so many reasons why it was a bad idea to come here. Like the fact that Bernard is a Christmas elf and Santa is Charlie's father, not that there’s anything Charlie can do about either of those facts. "But you want me here."

He's not as sure of that as he's trying to sound, but Bernard sighs and looks slightly pained, and Charlie knows he's right.

"Charlie, I'm five thousand years older than you," Bernard says, slumping against the wall. Charlie suspects he may have shaved a few centuries off that number, but he's more polite than to say so.

"You look good for your age?" He offers weakly, and Bernard snorts, like he can't help it.

"This is a monumentally bad idea," Bernard mutters, and Charlie crowds in close, wrapping his arms around Bernard's waist. "Your father is going to kill me."

Charlie laughs. "I don't think Santa is allowed to kill anyone."

"He could call in a favor," Bernard says darkly, but he pulls Charlie tight against him, and when Charlie kisses him, he kisses back.

"So we don't tell him yet," Charlie says a moment later, leaving aside how hard it is to keep any kind of secret at the Pole. He's pretty sure he's destined for the naughty list after all, but Charlie has a few favors he can call in, too, and Bernard has hundreds more. They can make it work. They will make it work. Charlie has spent his whole life believing in all the things most people think are impossible; one more isn’t so much.

~*~

The inside of Bernard’s house smells like gingerbread, but Bernard still tastes like pumpkin spice and sometimes like the cocoa Charlie whips up for the two of them — so much better with the miraculously good chocolate and spices at the Pole that Charlie has never been able to find down south. They curl up on Bernard’s sinfully comfortable couch in the evenings, kept warm by furs and thick woven blankets and the fire burning in the hearth, trading stories and kisses in equal measure.

Charlie spends hours like that, so many that he’s worried he’s getting in the way, but Bernard reminds him that elves don’t need as much sleep, and that Charlie’s always, always welcome, and Charlie realizes that he was missed at the Pole as much as he missed being there. That night Charlie’s fingers find their way to the catches on Bernard’s tunic and Bernard doesn’t stop him. He shrugs out of the thick brocade and out of the thin undershirt beneath, helps to tug the tunic that Charlie’s almost outgrown over his head. They spend the night wrapped up in Bernard’s furs, learning the vast stretches of skin neither has had permission to touch before.

Bernard is pale, so pale (and of course he is - he lives at the North Pole where no one has a tan), and the dusky pink of his nipples stands out against such a light canvas. Charlie can’t help but lick them, needing to taste, nipping lightly until the skin there is nearly red and Bernard is panting under him, blunt nails digging into Charlie’s shoulders. He pulls Charlie up from where he’s nuzzling into the surprising patch of dark hair on Bernard’s chest and finds the places on Charlie’s neck where a flick of his tongue makes Charlie shudder and gasp. His hips jerk, rubbing his erection into Bernard’s thigh, and Charlie gasps again — less because of what the friction does for his aching cock, than because of the fact that he can feel Bernard, hard in his trousers, for the first time.

Charlie comes what should be embarrassingly quickly — and maybe he would be embarrassed about it if he wasn’t a sixteen-year-old virgin, or if the feel of Bernard’s skin and the thought of what they could do without pants on wasn’t enough to fuel Charlie's late-night fantasies for the rest of his life. As it is, Charlie’s not really coherent after that, though he does have hazy, firelit memories of Bernard groaning and arching beneath him, and there's an answering wetness soaking through the fabric between them. He lies there, breathing heavily against the curve of Bernard’s shoulder and feeling drowsy enough that he lets his eyes close, just for a moment.

He’s woken up by Bernard’s hand on his hip, shaking him lightly.

“You can’t sleep here,” Bernard reminds him, glancing significantly in the direction of the workshop with something like a wince.

He sees you when you’re sleeping.

It’s the closest Charlie has come to feeling guilty.

He borrows a pair of Bernard’s trousers, just a hair too short for him since he’s started putting on height. He hates that he’s taller than Bernard now, even if it’s only by a bare inch or two. He helps clean up the cocoa mugs and rinses out the saucepan, leaving it out on the counter at first, before he realizes that he’s due back down south the next night. The week is over.

Charlie nearly doesn’t make it out the door, pressing Bernard up against the honey-wood wall of his kitchen and kissing him until they’re both breathless. He doesn’t know how he could have forgotten that he doesn’t get to stay, that he has to go. The months between July and November seem endless.

He takes the long way back to the workshop, tracing a path down Tannenbaum to Fir, and taking winding Ivy in a looping trail past the Reindeer Stable and around the edge of the city, the midnight sun beating down on the black beret Bernard had tucked around his ears before he left. His ears still stick out, when he puts a hat on like that, and he still wishes they had points.

*o~o~o*0*0*0*o~o~o*0*0*0*o~o~o*0*0*0*o~o~o*

He goes “up north” for Thanksgiving weekend.

He doesn’t see Bernard right away; Thanksgiving is when the true busy season starts, as children’s letters come pouring into the mailroom by the thousands every day and Charlie knows Bernard is busy there, overseeing the sorting and counting, the checks against current inventory, the rush orders to departments unexpectedly swamped by numbers way over the projected figures for the year.

Charlie himself is snapped up by Astrid almost as soon as Dancer lands; he barely has enough time to pass his backpack off to the stable-elf for safekeeping before he’s spirited away to the painting department to help them meet quota. He’s a little bit rusty, more used to paper and canvas than metal cars and wooden horses, but he gets past it quickly and so into the work that he’s nearly late for Thanksgiving dinner with his dad and Carol. He still has paint under his nails, but his dad just laughs and says, “Thanks for helping out, sport,” and Carol jokes that she’s just glad he has something constructive to do with his talents. Charlie makes a face, because she’s still such a principal sometimes, but she’s not bad, as stepmothers go, and he has to admit that she makes a wonderful Mrs. Claus.

He runs into Bernard on Friday evening as he’s heading back to the main workshop, paint still flaking as it dries on his fingers. They walk down Tannenbaum together, shoulders brushing the way they won’t for long if Charlie keeps growing. Charlie stops at the green door.

“It’s not time for dinner yet,” he says, turning into Bernard until they’re standing only a little too close.

“Make me some cocoa?” Bernard suggests, the corners of his lips turned up and his eyes sparkling in the workshop lights reflected off the glittering ice dome over the city.

It’s been a month and a day since the Pole has seen the sun, but they leave Bernard’s heavy curtains pulled. Elf magic keeps the fire burning steadily in Bernard’s bedroom, casting red-gold light over every inch of skin revealed, glittering on every bead of sweat. Bernard pulls his own hat from Charlie’s head, carding graceful fingers through Charlie’s hair as Charlie pulls a bruise to life on the pale skin just over Bernard’s collarbone, low enough for his tunic to cover.

They fit together easily on Bernard’s enormous feather bed, bare chests pressed together, feet tangling. Somehow there’s less urgency to everything now than there’s ever been before, and Charlie lazily kisses his way across Bernard’s chest and down over the smooth paleness of his stomach to the trail of hair that disappears below his waistband.

“Please?” Charlie asks, slipping the tips of his fingers between the fabric and Bernard’s warm skin, and Bernard sits up, his hair a tangled mess where Charlie’s hands have worked through it. He kisses Charlie as he slips out of his pants, wiggling to get them past his thighs, then tugs at the button on Charlie’s own trousers until it pops open. Everything ends up in a tangled heap at the foot of the bed somewhere, colors mingling, red and green and silver and gold. Charlie’s hands are shaking, so it’s Bernard who reaches out and takes hold of his hips, slots them together until they’re almost one instead of two, slick and sweaty and moaning in the Polar night.

Beautiful,” Bernard says, as Charlie thrusts helplessly into Bernard's callused fingers. It shocks Charlie into opening his eyes, because that can’t be right. Bernard can't mean him; he’s still missing a tooth, for one, and he’s too tall, too awkward, too human. But none of that seems to matter then, as he takes Bernard in his hand and strokes them both together until they’re crying out into each other’s mouths, spilling over their joined hands.

“I’m human,” Charlie says into Bernard’s neck, once he can gather the breath to speak.

“You don’t have to be,” Bernard whispers, like a secret. Like the deepest secret, like something neither of them is supposed to know. Charlie stops breathing for a moment, and then he wraps the secret up and tucks it away deep in his chest, behind his heart, where it will stay safe until it’s needed.

In the end, they don’t make any cocoa at all and Charlie walks back to the main workshop before he can fall asleep in Bernard’s bed, pumpkin spice on his lips and the secret glowing like a jewel inside him.

*o~o~o*0*0*0*o~o~o*0*0*0*o~o~o*0*0*0*o~o~o*

Mother Nature comes to visit more often, now.

Scott isn’t under any illusions that she’s there to see him, though of course all the members of the Council are friends. But there hasn’t been a Mrs. Claus in years, and both Mother Nature and Carol seem glad of the companionship. He comes home from a day in the workshop to find them, more often than not, sitting around the enormous kitchen table, sipping mugs of tea or spiced cider and talking. Sometimes he knows what they’re talking about, but more often he’s left in the dark (becoming Santa meant Scott was privy to more secrets than he’d imagined existed, but some things even Santa isn’t allowed to know).

He comes in to claim a mug of his own — cider today, yum — and give Carol a kiss on the cheek. The way she smiles makes him warmer than the cider ever could.

“Where’s Charlie?” She asks, looking toward the doorway as if she might have missed him coming in. Scott shrugs, unconcerned. Charlie knows the Pole as well as any of the elves; Scott isn’t worried about him.

“I’m sure he’ll be back for dinner,” Scott assures her. It’s Charlie’s last night with them until Spring, after all, and they haven’t had as much time together as they had in years past. They’ve already planned to visit the Millers for a few days after Christmas, but it’s not really the same thing.

Carol nods and takes a sip of her cider, but Mother Nature smiles and places her mug down on the table, wrapping her hands around it.

“Don’t be too surprised if he isn’t,” she says, her smile turning secretive.

Scott knows Mother Nature well enough to only be confused, but Carol looks alarmed.

“Did something happen to Charlie?” she asks, and Mother Nature shakes her head, Autumn leaves rustling in her hair.

“Nothing unexpected. But Charlie’s growing up,” she fixes her gaze on Scott, who nods in acceptance. “He’s becoming the person he’s meant to be.”

Scott nods again, even though he’s sure he’s missed at least half of what Mother Nature is trying to tell him, but when he’s setting out the plates for dinner a little while later, he only sets places for two.

*o~o~o*0*0*0*o~o~o*0*0*0*o~o~o*0*0*0*o~o~o*

Charlie loses what’s left of his virginity over Spring Break, in the first days of the midnight sun. The oil smells a little bit like sugar cookies baking; it’s distracting, but Charlie doesn’t have to try very hard to focus on what he’s doing as he slides into Bernard, nervous but sure. Charlie’s hands leave bruises on Bernard’s hips, dark against his skin and he doesn’t leave Bernard’s bed all day, not until the end of shift bell rings (the sun won’t set for six months, and there’s only the bell to divide the day from the night).

They sit together in the enormous claw-foot tub in Bernard’s bathroom, scrubbing each other clean of sweat and come and the sweet smell of cookies. It’s only when Bernard pulls on his tunic, his skin still reddened from the hot water and his hair still damp, that Charlie remembers who Bernard is.

“Shouldn’t someone have noticed that you’re missing?” He asks, pulling on warm leggings and a brand-new tunic Bernard had made in his latest, even larger, size.

Bernard laughs and grins. “I sent Curtis a note,” he explains, grin turning mischievous. “I told him it was a test.”

Charlie laughs with him, seventeen and unafraid of being in love.

~*~

“Did you have fun today, sport?” His dad asks over dinner, and Charlie feels the ache in his thighs and abs and feels his face heat. He shoves some mashed potatoes into his mouth to hide the stupid, satisfied grin threatening to break out.

“Mm-hmm,” he nods, and avoids his father’s too-wise gaze as much as possible for the rest of the week, because he’s really only got space inside him for one big secret, and he already has one hiding there.

*o~o~o*0*0*0*o~o~o*0*0*0*o~o~o*0*0*0*o~o~o*

Laura knows what it means, that Charlie hasn’t started any college applications, hasn’t really made any plans. (Danielle made it in early decision to GWU and her Christmas list had been full of dorm necessities.) Charlie’s grades are decent, his SAT scores not perfect but good enough. That’s not what’s stopping him, and Laura knows it. So, on a Tuesday during the last days of December, she decides to talk to him about it. He’s been out in the snow with Lucy, building a small army of snowmen all morning, and it’s time for Lucy to come inside and get warm anyway, but she hasn't had the heart to stop them yet.

She’s going to say something. Say that it’s not too late for some schools, or that she doesn’t mind if Charlie takes a year off to decide what he wants to do. She’s going to, until she looks at her son shaking off the glittering snow that’s dusted over his coat and hat.

The coat is elf-made, stronger and warmer than anything she could have bought, and she realizes with a sudden pang that she should have recognized that stupid beret long ago, that any chance she may have had to stop this has long since slipped by, unnoticed. She looks at her son’s sparkling eyes, and at the hair sneaking out from under the hat, a few inches too long to be stylish according to the current trends of teenage boys.

It almost-but-not-quite hides the way the upper curves of Charlie’s ears have started to sharpen.

Laura can’t find the words she meant to say, all of them turning to ash on her tongue. He’d said it, hadn’t he? When he was so young and she still had no real idea what they had all gotten themselves into.

I’m going into the family business.

She tells Scott, when he and Carol come to visit at New Year’s, but she’s not sure how to feel when Santa and Mrs. Claus trade heavy looks, and neither seems surprised.

*o~o~o*0*0*0*o~o~o*0*0*0*o~o~o*0*0*0*o~o~o*

Three days after Charlie graduates from high school, after the parties with his friends and the big, fancy dinner they have together as a family, him and his mom and Lucy and Neil, he calls Lucy into the living room. He isn't taking anything but his duffel bag with him, hasn’t packed any clothes; just the photo album his mother gave him as a graduation present — like she knew, even before he told her — a handful of his most treasured possessions, and a half-dozen of his favorite paperbacks. He doesn’t need much.

The snowglobe Bernard had given him all those years ago isn’t packed with the rest of Charlie’s treasures, because it’s not going with him.

Lucy bursts into tears when she sees it on the coffee table, hugs him tight around the waist and refuses to let go. He crouches down with her until she stops crying nearly an hour later, rubbing her back until she exhausts herself.

“I can come visit anytime, okay? You know how to use this,” He hands her the globe, remembering how heavy it had been the first time he’d held it. “Do you think you can take care of it for me?”

Lucy nods, eyes still bright with tears, and before he leaves she tells Dasher that he had better take good care of her brother if he knows what’s good for him. The reindeer headbutts her lightly in the stomach, and she smiles despite herself.

Charlie hugs Neil, kisses his mother and sister goodbye as the first brush of summer comes to their quiet suburb, and leaves for the endless, glimmering winter of the North Pole.

*o~o~o*0*0*0*o~o~o*0*0*0*o~o~o*0*0*0*o~o~o*

There is an elf at the North Pole, who is taller than all the other elves save Santa himself. He has dark hair and bright eyes and is still missing a tooth.

His title is Second-Assistant to the Master Toy Painter, but no one really stands on titles at the Pole. Once a week he has dinner with Santa and Mrs. Claus, and sometimes he makes special trips south, when a special family with a very special secret has need of a little bit of magic.

Mostly, though, he can be found in the Painting department, lost in his work, or at home behind a green door at the corner of Mistletoe and Tannenbaum, making cocoa.

 

~end.~