1803 – Nova Scotia
Rodney McKay packed his valise with more haste than was his habit, eager to get started on his journey. When he’d met Mr. Nicholas just two days ago he never dreamed he’d be leaving everything he knew for a venture that would be incomprehensible to even the most forward-thinking individual. Luckily for Rodney he had more of an open mind, though the promises that had been dangled before him were fairly motivating. If he had not seen for himself, he would have declared Mr. Nicholas a cad and a charlatan and sent him on his way.
Mr. Nicholas had woven an incredible tale of visitors from beyond the stars who had bestowed upon him machines of incredible ability, far beyond the steam power that Rodney was helping to refine. He wanted to be part of that, wanted to learn things no other man could know. And it wasn’t as if he was leaving much behind. His sister Jeannie had married an English professor and moved with him to Boston. His parents were deceased, and he had no real friends to speak of.
Rodney snapped shut the valise and affixed the straps, heedless of a bit of shirt linen sticking out one side. He looked around his small boarding house room and felt no melancholy at leaving it. Mr. Nicholas had spoken to him of a city with shining towers that existed beneath a magical bubble that kept it hidden from all view, where he would have his own suite of rooms. He could have no further contact with anyone he knew, but that suited him just fine. He had already posted a letter to his sister, bidding her farewell. He’d enclosed what money he had left, since Mr. Nicholas said that where they were going he would have no need of it.
As Rodney walked down the stairs and out to where the carriage waited he was filled with anticipation for the new life he was about to begin.
John was leaving his home against the wishes of the family council, and despite the many tears that his mother had shed since he informed her of his plans. His family had lived in the forest since before there were even colonies, and would stay as long as the trees grew. But John – he wanted more.
The man called Mr. Nicholas had come, had sought John out specifically. Somehow he knew all of John’s secret dreams, and the way he would watch people from the edge of the forest, always curious about them and their customs. Mr. Nicholas had promised him more, had told him of a great city that would welcome him as one of her own and fulfill all of his wishes.
John’s friends had called him reckless and his mother called him selfish, and they were probably right. As much as he loved the forest, though, it had never met all of his needs. There was always something missing, some vital piece that he could never identify but felt strongly nonetheless.
He took nothing with him when he left, though he paused briefly to take one last big breath of the clean, earthy air. The scent of home, which was pine and wood and animal musk. And then John went to meet Mr. Nicholas, who would take him on his very first train ride to his new home. He was filled with anticipation for what was to come.
His current deadline was only days away, which was why he was hunched over his desk, carefully watching the results scrolling across his tablet screen as the latest simulation finished running. The numbers were looking good and he grinned, smug, because he’d tweaked the engine enough to add a bit more speed to the rig; the population being what it was, every second counted.
He looked up and grinned. “You’ll like this, John. Take a look.” Rodney held up the tablet so John could read the simulation results. He was the one person who could really appreciate what Rodney had achieved.
“Wow! That’ll take, what? Another fifteen or twenty minutes off travel time?” John grinned, in that easy way he always had.
Rodney nodded, pleased as he always was when John shared his enthusiasm about something. Not many of his so-called co-workers had the head for numbers and equations that John did, and fewer still even cared. They were a very insular group and he’d been an outsider since the day he’d arrived in the city. There was never any blatant rudeness, but Rodney always felt like they just didn’t understand him. And he was never invited to anything they had going on the side.
“How’s the new line coming?” he asked, saving his results before setting the tablet down. He always tried to at least make the appearance of taking an interest in John’s work.
“Pretty good.” John sat on the edge of Rodney’s desk, legs swinging. If it had been anyone else Rodney would’ve been annoyed, but John had long ago cut the bells off his boots. “I made those changes you suggested and now the remotes work ten times better. Although, if we could tweak the speed a little…”
“Absolutely not,” Rodney said, lips twitching as he fought a smile. John’s division might well have been called Toys that Go Too Fast; he was an adrenalin junkie and loved anything that broke speed barriers. “They go fast enough. The kids won’t have your reflexes, don’t forget.”
John pouted. With the pointy ears and the green felt cap set back on his head behind messy tufts of hair it was an adorable combination. Not that Rodney would have said so. In fact, he hadn’t said anything in the hundred-plus years they’d been friends. Immortality had been a great gift, one that Rodney would always be grateful for, but it didn’t come with courage or self-esteem. John was the only friend he had and he wouldn’t risk that friendship for anything.
“I hate when you’re logical.”
Rodney rolled his eyes. “You’re such a baby. Tell you what, you have any extras bring me one and I’ll make it go faster for you. But just for you.”
John immediately brightened. “Yeah? Thanks! That would be awesome.”
“Awesome? Can’t you act your age?”
“Nope. Don’t need to, you’re crotchety enough for both of us.” John slid off the desk, smirking in the face of Rodney’s scowl. “See? Grumpy.”
“Don’t you have work to do?”
“Sure do. Hey, you going to the party tonight?”
Rodney shrugged. He didn’t really enjoy the annual Christmas party. It was their busiest time of year and it seemed counter-productive to take a whole day off to make merry when they could do it afterwards, but sometimes Mr. Nicholas could be painfully old-fashioned about things.
“Come on, Rodney.” John was pouting again. “It won’t be any fun if you don’t come.”
“Like anyone will miss me,” Rodney replied. And yeah, that sounded pretty pathetic even though it was true.
“I’d miss you.”
“Fine. Maybe I’ll stop by.” It really was ridiculously easy to make John happy.
“I’ll save you some eggnog!” John called on his way out the door.
Rodney shook his head, but he couldn’t help the happy feeling that his friend always left him with. It stayed with him most of the day as he implemented the engine upgrades.
Rodney sidled along the wall until he reached the buffet table, which was laden with every possible type of Christmas cookie. He’d come too late for the dinner, but that was fine; he’d grabbed an extra sandwich at lunch for just that circumstance. He helped himself to a couple chocolate crinkles, immediately getting powdered sugar all down the front of his orange fleece pullover.
Jingle Bell Rock was blaring out of the speakers and Rodney had no trouble picking John out of the crowd, and not just because he was a little bit taller than everyone else. He was a really good dancer – Rodney suspected that had a lot to do with his often boneless posture – and was currently in the middle of the dance floor doing some sort of modified Jitterbug with Lanie from Wrapping.
As always, Rodney felt a little pang as he watched John laughing and having fun with his peers. They accepted him in a way they never had Rodney, even though he was just as much an outsider in a lot of ways. John had taken a little guff for not wearing any part of the uniform save the hat – secretly Rodney thought he looked much better in the cargo pants and tight green t-shirt – but for the most part they’d overlooked his quirks since he was still technically an Elf, just a different branch.
Lanie laughed, high and clear, and whispered something in John’s pointy ear that made him blush. Rodney looked down at his feet, his chest tight. His work was usually enough to sustain him but every once in a while he’d get a sense of what he was missing: someone to love, a family of his own.
“Rodney, my boy. Why the long face?”
He really must’ve been lost in his thoughts to miss the arrival of Mr. Nicholas. He had a plate piled high with cookies, and how the man never got sick of them Rodney would never know. He had on green corduroy pants held up with red and green striped suspenders, and a long-sleeved white linen shirt. Rodney felt a little better seeing that the boss was liberally dusted with sugar and cinnamon.
“Nothing, Sir. Just thinking.”
“Pretty deep thoughts, by the look.”
Rodney shrugged. He wished he hadn’t come to the party. It wasn’t like he didn’t have plenty of work he could be doing instead. But Mr. Nicholas had neatly cut off his exit, boxing him in between the table and the wall with his big belly.
“I’ve always wondered if I was wrong, bringing you here all those years ago,” he said. There were crumbs in his long white beard.
“Oh, no! I’m really happy here, Sir. Really. I love my work. I’d never be able to do things like this back in the real world.” Rodney was feeling a bit panicky. He wouldn’t be sent away, would he? He’d been gone from that world for much too long, he’d never fit in. Maybe he’d never fit in anywhere, but at least in the city he had John.
“There’s more to happiness than work, Rodney,” Mr. Nicholas chided. “I know it’s been difficult for you.”
Rodney shook his head in denial, though it was true. It was hard to remember back to the time before he’d been recruited, but he seemed to recall having just as hard a time back there. Too acerbic, too pessimistic, too certain of his own brilliance to pay attention to anyone who couldn’t keep up. It hadn’t been a popular attitude back where he came from, and that was doubly true where he was now.
“It occurs to me, my boy, that in all the years you’ve been with us you’ve never once asked me for anything for Christmas.” Mr. Nicholas set down his plate and picked up a beautifully carved wooden stein filled with eggnog. He took a hearty swallow and Rodney thought that if not for the whole immortality thing his boss would’ve been dead from hardened arteries centuries ago.
“I have everything I need,” Rodney said.
“Ah, but what about the things you want?” Mr. Nicholas’ eyes twinkled. “Don’t you think it’s time?”
Rodney narrowed his eyes suspiciously. “Have you been reading me? You’re only supposed to be able to do that with children.”
“That’s our Rodney, always believing the best of people. Hello, John.”
He turned to see John standing by the table, looking between the two of them uncertainly.
“Is everything okay?” John asked
Mr. Nicholas nodded solemnly. “We were just discussing whether it’s time to send Rodney back to the world to live out the remainder of his human years.”
Rodney’s heart stuttered in his chest. They hadn’t been talking about that! Had they? He looked at John, whose eyes were wide.
“Sir, you can’t send Rodney away! He’s done so much for us, for you!”
“True. His keen mind and inclination towards mechanics are what made me recruit him in the first place. But John, a man needs more than just work and hot cocoa. He needs a home, and I fear we haven’t been able to give that to him here.”
For the first time in two hundred years, Rodney was afraid. When Mr. Nicholas had first come to him he’d been skeptical at first; if PowerPoint presentations had existed, he’d have used one to demonstrate how the existence of Santa Claus was nothing more than a fairy tale. But then he’d seen, and understood, and been so incredibly flattered. He’d been chosen, hand-picked because of his innovative work with the steam-powered engine and his ability to see beyond what was to what could be.
It hadn’t all been wonderful, but most of it had been very, very good. He hadn’t been kidding about that. He loved the work, the way he was able to play with technology that no-one else on Earth had access to. The origins of it were still a bit unclear in his mind but it was his. And he was good at it.
“I’m not going back,” Rodney said, lifting his chin. “There’s nothing I want there. And I’m perfectly happy here, even if I don’t have anyone.”
John stared at him. “What does that mean? You have me!”
Mr. Nicholas chuckled, the sound rumbling up from his belly. “Ah. I see. John, Rodney needs someone to love. He needs a family.” He gestured towards the group at the party.
There were Elves kissing, and dancing close. Families with small children playing tag between the tables. Newfound lovers slipping off to a nearby alcove to be alone, whispering in the dark. Rodney saw them all, his heart aching in want of it. To be someone’s special someone. To be touched, to be seen. To be wanted.
“But…Rodney, I love you,” John said plaintively. “Don’t you know that?”
“Like a friend loves another friend,” Rodney replied. He smiled at John. “You’re my best friend, John. I never doubted that.”
John looked stricken. He looked over at Mr. Nicholas, who merely stared placidly back at him. “I thought…I thought that’s all you wanted. Just a friend.”
Now Rodney was the one that was confused. Surely John couldn’t be saying what he thought he was saying. And then there were bells jingling and Otto appeared, carrying a long, slender tree bough with mistletoe tied to the end. He had the stupid thing at every Christmas party, moving through the crowd and leaving kisses in his wake. Now he held it over Rodney’s head with a mischievous smirk.
“And who’ll kiss the human?” he asked merrily.
Rodney wanted to melt through the floor, because no-one ever wanted to kiss the human. Then John moved forward, so fast he was nearly a blur, and pushed himself into Rodney’s personal space. His hands were on Rodney’s shoulders, his lips on Rodney’s lips, and suddenly it was as if the final puzzle piece suddenly slid into place, revealing the completed picture at last.
John. After all this time.
“Ho ho ho!” Mr. Nicholas belly laughed. “Merry Christmas, you two.”
He patted both of them on the back and then he was gone, mingling in the crowd of Elves who partied on, oblivious to the fact that Rodney’s whole world had changed for a second time.
“John?” Rodney pulled back, to catch his breath. And to make sure he wasn’t dreaming.
“Rodney,” John replied. And then he grinned, so big and so bright that it almost hurt Rodney to see it, and he darted in for another kiss with a smile on his own lips.
Things were going to be different now, he knew. Better. Because Elves never did anything by halves, and immortality came with a decisiveness that let them know exactly how they wanted forever to go. And who they wanted to spend it with. It wasn’t a fluke, or a trick, or a mistake. It was John, and it was Rodney, and from now on every day would be like Christmas.