Part Four: Good news and bad news
It took hours for Jim to clean the woodshop to his satisfaction. Apparently, the other elves really didn't like woodworking because he was alone. He didn't mind, since he could arrange things to suit himself. No one complained about the cleaning products he used, or how he sorted the wood by size and type, or how many varnishes he insisted on stocking because it really did depend on how shiny he wanted the toys to be.
He was just about to stack the paint colors by prism array when Blair suddenly appeared in the room.
"Hey," Jim said, surprised but unaccountably pleased to see the elf who he was starting to consider a friend, "what are you doing here?"
"I expected you for lunch," Blair replied. "When you didn't show, I wanted to make sure you were okay." He looked around the room. "I thought with, you know, the senses, you might have trouble with dust or something, but this place is immaculate."
Jim smiled. "I spent all morning cleaning. I guess I lost track of time and forgot about lunch."
"Well, let's fix that." He grabbed Jim's shoulder and they appeared in the kitchen.
"Wha--" Jim began.
"I need help and it's the kind of help only you can provide." Blair softened his voice until it was barely audible. "Sentinel help."
Jim looked at him strangely. "You know, being a--oof!" He gasped, as a well-placed elbow hit his solar plexus. He continued softly. "Sentinels aren't common, but we're not unique."
"But you're unique here. We need your gifts to help avert a crisis, so they need to stay secret until we fix it."
Jim stared at him for another few seconds, then shrugged. "Okay. What's up?"
"Well, first, I need help with this menu. Taste these and tell me what you think."
The table was spread with every menu item, including the new ones. Jim realized he was hungry. He took a bite of each item, but stopped after he'd tasted about half. "The flavors are all fine, but it's kind of heavy on the sweets, don't you think? The pretzels are nice and salty, and I like that mocha, but it needs more coffee." He took a sip of water. "Don't you have anything with maybe a little protein in it? Back home, there was this great place called Wonderburger. They had the best burgers, especially topped with cheese and bacon."
"Well," Blair said hesitantly, "the only animals that could provide meat up here are the reindeer. We can't eat them."
"Well, what about fish?" Jim asked. "I love sushi."
"Hmm," Blair said thoughtfully. "We don't have rice, but I could make sashimi. Pickle some of the fresh ginger we keep for the gingerbread. We're SOL on wasabi, though." He gave Jim a big grin. "This is great! We'll go fishing this afternoon and catch some salmon. You can listen in on the diners and tell me if they like each new dish." Blair slapped Jim on the back. "Awesome! Now we have to--oh, wait, are you still hungry?"
Jim looked at the table and felt a little queasy." Nah, I'll wait for the fish."
"Great. Let's go." He grabbed Jim's arm and they were out in the stable. "Listen to see if anyone's within earshot--I mean my earshot, not yours, of course!"
"No one's around except the reindeer. So, what's up, Chief?"
Blair smiled at the nickname. "Well, Joy from Orientation was right. Santa might not be entirely a grinch, but he isn't holly-jolly either. At lunch today, some elves were enjoying the new menu. They were relaxed and yakking, you know?"
"And then Santa stomped into the lunchroom and yelled at everyone to get back to work."
"Well, maybe they were late. H did say this is their busy season. Maybe he's just stressed."
"No, trust me, there's something terribly wrong."
Surprisingly, Jim found that he did trust Blair. "Okay, so what do we do?"
"We're going to do some covert surveillance." And, with that, Blair explained his plan. As they sat on hay bales, reindeer of various sizes came up, sniffing and nudging them. Blair reached out to pet one, absently scratching under her chin.
"Hey," Jim said, "how come some of them have antlers and some don't?"
Momentarily nonplussed by Jim's question, Blair quickly fell into lecture mode. "Male reindeer shed their antlers at this time of year because mating season is over. Females don't shed them until after their calves are born in late spring."
As Jim listened, he sniffed, realizing that many of the antlered reindeer were, indeed, female--and pregnant. "Wow. Is it okay for them to pull Santa's sleigh?"
"Oh, sure. These cows are strong." Blair gave the closest one a last pat, then faced Jim. "So, any questions on the plan?"
"Yeah. I'm supposed to be making wooden toys. How do I do that if I'm spying on Santa?"
"No problemo!" Blair declared cheerfully. "I'll get the kitchen elves working on the new menu. Then, I'll slip out, telling them I need supplies or something, but I'll be helping you. Until I get there, you'll do surveillance from the woodshop, since it's empty anyway."
"And if H or Rafe come by to check up on me?"
"We'll whip up some toys with magic and put them on the shelves, so it looks as if you're doing a lot of work."
"You mean lie to them?"
"It's not really lying, more like… an obfuscation. We just need to keep it up long enough to fix what's wrong with Santa. Then you can make all the toys you want, and everyone will be happy. In the meantime, make a few really good ones for show."
"Obfuscation, eh?" Jim asked doubtfully. "Well, if I get caught, you're going down with me."
"Of course!" Blair exclaimed happily, slapping Jim on the back. "We're partners, aren't we?"