A Gift of Love

Lahja stared morosely at the flakes of snow drifting down, wondering just how long he was going to be out here this time. If the pattern held true, he probably had about two days before someone came and got him.

Because in three days Kris was due to return, and everything had to be in its proper place or Kris would notice. And the last thing they wanted was for their "game" to be exposed.

At least they'd left him with his coat this time. Last time he'd been forced to use entirely too much magic to keep warm, which had put him way behind schedule, and, well...

All right, so he could be a little tense when he was on a deadline. Was that any excuse to tie him up, blindfold him, and leave him in the middle of nowhere?

Apparently, it was enough for some people.

Lahja sighed and shifted a bit, though the view didn't change much. Miles and miles of snow and ice, as far as the eye could see. If he'd been anyone else he'd have been able to find his way home in a snap. But no, Lahja just had to be the most directionally-challenged elf on the planet. He regularly got turned around in the workshop, and Kris had never let him forget the time he was lost overnight in the stable.

So, he just had to wait it out. Eventually Rautatammi or Piparkakku would come and get him, then he'd have to work double-time to catch up, which would make him cranky and irritable, thus causing them to pitch him out in the snow again.

If they'd just do their jobs properly, and more importantly, let him do his job properly, then none of this would be necessary. He'd be on-schedule, like he was supposed to be, and... well, maybe 'calm' wasn't a good word. Marginally less stressed with a slight drop in acidic barbs?

It wasn't his fault they were all slackers! Their jobs were extremely important, and nobody else seemed to take it seriously! They were always joking and playing and goofing off when they should have been working. They only had three-hundred and sixty-four days to make it perfect. No time at all!

And yet just this morning he'd caught Kello and Kilista having a rocking-horse race down the grand staircase. Precious time that could have been spent hard at work making toys, instead wasted away on pointless endeavors. Every elf was absolutely necessary for the success of the final product.

Including Lahja, currently forced to watch precious minutes drift away while he waited for someone to decide it was time to come and get him.

If they'd at least left him with some paper or his digi-pad he'd be able to jot down some concepts, but of course he was empty-handed. He supposed it was their idea of 'punishment'.

It was very effective punishment.

Heaving a sigh, Lahja got up and kicked at a snowdrift, nearly overbalancing and having to wave his arms wildly to stay upright. When at last he had his balance and was no longer in danger of toppling over, it took a moment for the pounding of his heart to subside enough to make out a sound he'd initially written off as his imagination. But there was no doubt, as the pounding in his chest slowed to an even beat, and the sound grew steadily stronger. Even the chill arctic wind was no match for the silvery jingle of tiny bells.

Lahja paled. It couldn't be. Kris wasn't due home for three more days! And yet there was no mistaking the jingle of sleigh bells, not on that sleigh.

It was only the small errands sleigh, he knew, but still, Kris's sleigh bells always sounded different from every other bell in the world. No one had ever figured out why; privately, Lahja believed it was just part of Kris being Kris. He was different.

"Woah, Dancer. Woah, Blitzen." Kris's voice rang out as the sleigh glided to a stop. Lahja pulled his coat tighter around him and tried not to look as pathetic as he suspected he did.

"Lahja?" Kris's voice was reminiscent of hot spiced cocoa with a thick dollup of honey. It always made Lahja hungry. "Why are you way out here?"

"Uh." He didn't want to get anyone in trouble. It was his own fault they pulled these pranks anyway. "I got lost?" Lahja offered lamely.

One of Kris's pale brows arched, but he didn't contest the explanation. Rather, he scooted over on the seat and gestured to Lahja. "Come on up, then, before you try to find your own way home and wind up in Australia."

Cheeks burning all the way to the tips of his ears, Lahja moved to do as instructed. Kris hadn't questioned his lame excuse, which was a relief, but at the same time Lahja almost wished had. On the one hand, he didn't want to get anyone in trouble, but on the other, it was highly embarrassing that Kris believed his sense of direction to be so incredibly bad.

There was a reason he rarely set foot outside, after all.

"Oh." The tiny sound escaped him before he could stop it, but it was just so warm. Lahja all but melted into the seat, his head resting on the shoulder of Kris's dark green jacket.

His makeshift pillow shook slightly as Kris chuckled. "Better?"

"Mmm." Lahja cracked open an eye. "S'warm." It took a moment, then his brow furrowed and he forced himself to sit up a bit. "Why is it warm? That wasn't in the blueprints..."

Kris's melted-chocolate laugh rumbled over him again. "I made some modifications."

Lahja fixed his best Disapproving Look on Kris. "And this is why the Transportation Design Team gets so worked up. You're not supposed to be tweaking their designs."

"But it's better this way," Kris pointed out.

It wasn't like Lahja could really argue with that, but still. "That's not the point. The point is that the TDT is supposed to do that kind of thing. It's their job."

"I like helping," Kris said mildly.

"Kris!" Lahja sputtered. "That's not... you're not... it just isn't..." A finger to his lips shushed him.

"Not everything needs to be meticulously planned out in triplicate, Lahja. There is a time and place for it, and a time to let it go. Once you learn that, the rest of your department will stop trussing you up and dropping you off on the nearest ice flow."

All of the blood drained out of Lahja's face as his heart sank into his shoes. "You-" It came out barely a squeak. "You knew?"

A shadow of sadness passed through Kris's warm blue eyes. "I know everything that happens in my domain. Lahja..."

Lahja looked away, over the edge of the sleigh and out into the silent snowscape. A warm hand landed on his shoulder, but made no move to pressure him.

"The purpose of Christmas is to spread joy and happiness to all," Kris said gently. "That includes you and all the rest of the workshop elves as well."

"I am happy," Lahja protested. "I love my job. But they... they don't take anything seriously. They goof off all the time and then we're behind schedule and I just..."

Kris's mouth quirked. "Are you?"

Lahja blinked, confused. "What?"

Kris smiled. "Behind schedule. Are you?"

Lahja frowned. "Well, not now, but we will be if they keep goofing off."

"Are you sure about that?" Kris asked, eyes twinkled with mirth.

"I, uh..." Lahja's first impulse was to protest that of course they would be, every unscheduled break put them further and further behind, but something about the way Kris was smiling at him made him hesitate.

They weren't behind, not really, and despite all the goofing off last year they'd still managed to get everything completed on time for Kris's big ride. No matter what had happened that should have set them back, everything always managed to work out in the end.

Like magic.

Lahja eyed Kris suspiciously. "You did something. A spell, or... or something. One of those things you do when nobody's looking."

Kris's smile widened into an impossible grin. "Perhaps."

"But... I..." Lahja waved his hands in a helpless gesture. "If I don't work double-time to make up for breaks then how...?"

Kris gave an elegant shrug. "Most likely, another village elf would hear their calling and present themselves at the workshop. We're actually overdue for another pair of hands, I suspect because of your tendency to overwork yourself."

"Oh," Lahja said softly, sinking back down into the entirely too comfortable seat. That made sense. How else were they to keep up with the growing population of children if their numbers always stayed the same? He'd never really thought about it before, but obviously Kris had. And quietly fixed it, like he always did.

Lahja felt like an idiot. All this time he'd been getting frustrated and angry and worked up for no reason. The others had had every reason to get annoyed with him.

A warm, cocoa-scented hand gently tipped Lahja's chin up. He met Kris's ice-blue eyes, filled with concern and something else he couldn't name.

"Lahja, don't. You weren't supposed to know."

He supposed that made sense. If the other elves didn't know then their unscheduled breaks would be kept to a reasonable length and not get out of control. As usual, Kris had planned for everything. It was just Lahja who made a mess out of the whole system.

Kris sighed softly, the scent of peppermint wafting around them. "I apologize, Lahja," he said quietly, making Lahja startle. Kris never...

"I should have done something about this a long time ago, but I thought you would work it out amongst yourselves." He smiled wryly. "I've never had to deal with a workaholic elf before."

Lahja flushed. He hadn't thought he was all that unusual. Rather, he'd thought he was behaving the way all elves were supposed to behave and it was the others who were odd. Apparently he'd had it backwards all these years.

Kris thoughtfully stroked the trim white goatee he maintained for most of the off season. "So what, I wonder, am I going to do with an elf who doesn't want to take the time to play? Even knowing the secret of the workshop, I suspect I will still find you hard at work in the middle of the night when everyone else has sensibly gone to bed."

Lahja's flush deepened. He hadn't thought anyone, even Kris, knew about that. He should have expected it, though. Kris knew everything. He was what every elf aspired to be like, although of course no one could ever even come close to being as wonderful as Kris.

"I wonder if you just need a little inspiration," Kris mused thoughtfully. "Someone to give you a good reason to take a break, perhaps?"

"Erm." Lahja tried not to be mortified when it came out a squeak. "N-no, I d-don't think..."

It wasn't that he was opposed to the idea of a companion. Far from it. Every time he noticed Kello and Kilista look at one another in that special way he felt something twist in his guts and had to throw himself into his work so that longing and envy wouldn't consume him. It would be so nice to have someone look at him that way, like he was the most important person in the whole room, but it was impossible. He'd never met a single elf who stirred any special feelings in him. They were all far too mundane, nothing like...

His thoughts skittered away from that particular bit of blasphemy. He was in enough trouble already. He didn't need to add to it with thoughts of Kris that no elf should ever be having.

"Mm." Kris regarded Lahja for a few moments longer, then turned away to pick up the reins. "Well, we can at least get you back home and get a cup of cocoa for both of us." He smiled. "I ran out somewhere near Rovaniemi. Home, Dancer! Home, Blitzen!"

The sleigh began to move, slowly at first, then rapidly picking up speed as the reindeer worked their way up to a ground-devouring gallop. It seemed as though no time at all passed before the familiar walls of the workshop came into view, with the rest of the village spread out across the ice beyond it. Dancer and Blitzen headed straight for the warmth of the stable where the rest of their herd awaited.

"You're home early, sir," one of the stable elves said in greeting as the sleigh came to a stop. "Would you like me to-" She broke off, blinking, as she noticed Lahja.

Lahja tried to hunch himself smaller on the seat, his efforts thwarted when Kris picked him up as though he weighed nothing and set him down on the ground beside the sleigh. Kris jumped down next to him a heartbeat later.

"Thank you, Lumi," Kris greeted warmly, the richness of his voice reminding Lahja of the promised cocoa. "If it's not too much trouble, perhaps you could ask Transportation Design to see about increasing the cocoa-holding capacity for me? I ran out in Finland."

Lumi's eyes widened and she placed a small gloved hand to her mouth. "Oh no! Of course, I will inform them at once. Do you need-"

Kris shook his head. "I can get it myself Lumi. Don't worry about me. Just take care of Dancer and Blitzen for me. They had a long run this trip."

Lumi gave a deep bow. "Of course, sir." She straightened and walked off, calling to other stable elves who immediately swarmed the sleigh and reindeer.

A large hand landed on Lahja's shoulder. He looked up to find Kris smiling at him. "Shall we go find that cocoa?" he asked.

"Um." A thousand reasons why he should say no ran through Lahja's head. He had work to catch up on. Kris had much more important things to be doing than drinking cocoa with him. He really didn't need any fuel for his Kris-themed dreams. They were distracting enough already.

"All right," he heard himself say.

Kris smiled broadly and slung an arm over Lahja's shoulder, steering him out of the stable and into the workshop proper.

Nobody knew why Kris preferred to dwell above the workshop rather than in the village like everyone else. It had simply been that way for as long as anyone could remember, just another facet of the enigma that was Kris Kringle.

Like why was he taller than every other elf? Most of them barely topped five feet and yet Kris was a little shy of six feet. There had been rumors a couple of decades back that Kris had sidhe blood but Lahja couldn't see it. Kris was too nice to be one of the arrogant, snooty sidhe. Besides, Lahja had never heard of any sidhe with the ability to manipulate time the way Kris did. Kris wasn't of the sidhe. Kris was something special.

Two staircases and three hallways later, they reached an ornate set of double doors carved with all manner of fanciful things. Unlike every other door in the workshop, there were no handles to be found. Lahja watched curiously as Kris tapped on a seemingly random series of spots on the door and tried not to jump as the doors swung slowly outward.

"How..." he asked, biting his lip to stifle the question. It wasn't any of his business.

Kris laughed, a rich, warm sound that had Lahja unconsciously leaning closer. "Magic, of course. Old magic, I think, as I've not seen anyone else utilize it in quite an age." He rubbed his goatee thoughtfully with the hand that wasn't still slung over Lahja's shoulder.

"How did you learn it?" Lahja wondered aloud before he could stop himself.

Kris's eyes twinkled. "Ah, I have to keep some secrets. Come on."

He steered Lahja inside, into a suite of rooms that few elves had ever seen given how Kris was a fairly private person. Lahja nearly tripped at the sight that greeted him, Kris's steady grip on his shoulders the only thing that kept him upright.

It looked like a child's toybox had exploded. There were toys, parts and pieces of toys, and things that Lahja couldn't identify strewn everywhere. He was fairly certain there was a long work table off to one side, although it was difficult to see underneath all of the clutter. From overhead a horn sounded, making him jump, and he looked up to find a small train running along a track near the ceiling.

"Works in progress," Kris said, waving a hand at it all and steering Lahja toward a door he hadn't initially noticed on the wall opposite the buried workbench.

The second room proved to be considerably tidier than the first, with only a handful of toys scattered about and all of them apparently complete. It was decorated to give the impression of a winter forest, the walls meticulously painted and the furnishings all made out of dark woods carved into intricate shapes. There was a small table and chairs, a large wardrobe and matching dresser, several short tables of various shapes, and a large four-poster bed underneath a window that took up nearly one entire wall.

Lahja couldn't help the blush that spread across his cheeks as he realized they were in Kris's bedroom.

"Now you just have a seat there and I'll make us a nice cup of cocoa," Kris said, giving Lahja a little push toward the table and chairs and going to a cabinet that had blended into the wall so perfectly Lahja hadn't noticed it until Kris opened the door and began to get things out.

While Kris made the cocoa, Lahja settled gingerly into one of the two seats and tried not to overtly stare. He couldn't quite grasp the idea that he was in Kris's bedroom waiting for Kris to finish making a cup of cocoa for him, Lahja, as though he was someone special and not just one of the many elves who worked in the massive workshop. Maybe he'd hit his head when Rautatammi and Piparkakku had tied him up and he was really still out on the sea ice, hallucinating. That made far more logical sense than what his eyes, ears, and nose were telling him.

"There we go," Kris said, turning back around and carrying two steaming cups over to the table. He set one down in front of Lahja and took a sip from the other one as he slid into the unoccupied chair. "Mmmmmm."

Lahja peered down at his cup, inhaling the delightful scent wafting upward from it. It smelled rich and creamy, with a subtle hint of spices. It smelled like Kris.

Banishing that thought to the furthest reaches of his mind, Lahja picked up the cup and took a small sip of cocoa. The thick chocolatey flavor rippled through him, drawing out a tiny, involuntary moan. It was without question the best cocoa he had ever tasted. He quickly took another, larger sip, letting it roll around on his tongue and slowly trickle down the back of his throat as he savored it.

Kris's warm chuckle drew him out of his state of bliss. "Looks like I've still got the touch," he said, smiling over the rim of his cup as he drank.

Lahja could feel his entire face going scarlet. "Um, I... er..."

Kris grinned. "You're welcome. Drink your cocoa."

Ducking his head, Lahja obeyed. He closed his eyes as the flavor enveloped him again, wondering why the baking elves couldn't make cocoa that tasted this good. Then again, if they did, everyone would be so busy savoring their cocoa that nothing would get done. Maybe it was for the best that this was something one could only get from Kris himself.

It was with great regret that Lahja reached the bottom of his cup. He stared at the little chocolatey remnants and wondered if it would be incredibly rude of him to lick the sides.

"I seem to have discovered a weakness," Kris's smooth voice rumbled, jerking Lahja's attention away from his empty cup.

Lahja's face heated again and he tried not to fidget. "It's very good," he admitted.

Kris smirked. "It is. I'll tell you what. Tomorrow, if you take all your breaks and don't work overtime, we can have another cup when the workshop closes. How about it?"

Lahja's eyes widened. We? As in, he and Kris? Together? And more of that delicious cocoa? He looked down at his cup, then back up to tentatively meet Kris's eyes. Part of him wanted to scream that he didn't have time for this, that he had work to do, but the greater part of him quietly quashed his other self.

"I would like that," Lahja admitted, immediately dropping his eyes to stare into his still regretfully empty cup.

Kris's grin would put a cheshire cat to shame. "Good," he said. "It's a deal then."

One cup turned into another, then another, until finally Lahja was meeting Kris every day for cocoa and whatever random edible Kris felt like at the time. Lahja had tried things he'd never even heard of, from corners of the world he wasn't even sure existed, or at least not anymore. He told Kris about his projects, the things he was working on, and then gradually he started talking about those things he would like to work on, the ideas that were only glimmers in the back of his mind that he'd never gotten the time to fully realize.

Kris, in turn, told him little bits of everything. Things that had occurred in random corners of the workshop, places he'd seen, toys he'd crafted, and the history of whatever caught his attention at the moment. Lahja learned so much more about his home than he'd ever thought to know and he found himself smiling at corners and staircases, picturing the various tales that Kris had related to him.

He hadn't thought anything of it until Koynnos confronted him one evening, just before closing time.

"Hey Lahja. When are you going to introduce us?"

Lahja blinked in confusion. "Introduce whom?"

Koynnos rolled his eyes. "Your new lover. The one that's got you acting like a normal elf and not a robot. I think the whole department would like to thank them."

Lahja's mouth fell open. "I don't have-"

Koynnos snorted. "Right. You're totally not sprinting through the workshop the moment the quitting bells ring to go meet someone." He arched a brow.

A slow burn spread across Lahja's face. They thought that Kris was... That they were... The distant sound of the bells marking the end of shift only barely registered.

He shook his head. "It's not like that, Koynnos. It's just cocoa. We're not..." Lahja shook his head again. "It's not like that."

"Uh huh." Koynnos crossed his arms, unconvinced. A moment later a slow smirk spread across his face. "But you'd like it to be, wouldn't you?"

Lahja opened his mouth, then shut it. His face felt like it was practically on fire and Koynnos's knowing smirk didn't help one bit. "It's not that simple," he muttered, dropping his gaze to the floor.

"Sure it is," Koynnos retorted. "You just say, "Hey, I think you're hot, you can put up with me for some weird reason, we should totally fuck."

"Koynnos!" Lahja gasped, the burn in his face spreading all the way to the tips of his ears. "You-you can't just... I can't..."

"Sure you can," Piparkakku said, coming up behind him. "Whoever it is, they've got to be interested or no one would put up with you this long."

Lahja grimaced. "Hey. I'm not that bad."

"Yes, you are," Rautatammi asserted, coming up to stand next to Piparkakku. "I didn't think anything could get you to act like a normal, sane elf. You seriously need to introduce us so we can see what kind of elf could possibly-"

All conversation abruptly stilled as Kris's unmistakable voice boomed out across the nearly empty workshop.

"What's this? Four elves in the workshop after hours? Tell me it's not spreading."

Lahja couldn't help but admire as Kris descended the staircase to the main floor of the workshop. He was dressed in silver-trimmed dark blue with glossy black boots that came up nearly to his knees and looked entirely too good in the ensemble. For all that Lahja had come to treasure their burgeoning friendship, it hadn't done a thing to silence his libido.

"Uh, sir?" Piparkakku questioned hesitantly.

Kris gestured at the group of them. "I was under the impression that Lahja was the only workaholic in this department. Have the rest of you caught his bad habit of working overtime as well?"

Everyone but Lahja shook their heads rapidly. "No, sir," Koynnos said quickly. "We were just talking with Lahja a little before we headed out."

"I see." Kris caught Lahja's gaze, eyes twinkling merrily. "Anything I should know about?"

They all hesitated. Lahja flushed again.

Koynnos ran a hand through his hair. "I don't think so, sir, unless you know who his secret lover is..." He looked at Kris with a vaguely hopeful expression, since he knew as well as anyone that Kris had a tendency to know things.

Kris's mouth quirked. Lahja desperately wished he could sink into the floor.

"Secret lover? Lahja, you should have told me. I wouldn't want to take time away from your special someone." Kris sounded amused.

"There's not... I don't have anyone... there's no secret lover," Lahja muttered in the direction of Kris's shiny boots.

Kris chuckled. "You're quite certain?"

Lahja nodded, face still burning.

Kris's warm laugh wrapped around him like a cocoa-scented blanket as his arm settled across Lahja's shoulders. "Good. I have a new recipe I want to try out on you then. Bit of a modification on one I got from a woman in Tlaxcala who had trouble sleeping. Very sweet lady, wonderful cook. Had three children and eight grandchildren, as I recall. Slightly round grandchildren, as who could resist sampling all of Grandma's masterpieces? Certainly not I. She left out the most delightful assortment of sweets for me every year and I couldn't help but finish every last one."

He continued to ramble as they left the workshop and the gaping elves behind, up the stairs and down the hallways all the way to his personal suite. He didn't stop talking until they were inside and the carved doors firmly shut behind them.

"Are you all right, Lahja?" Kris asked, his arm sliding off of Lahja's shoulder as he gripped Lahja's upper arms instead.

Lahja could feel his blush returning with a vengeance. "I'm-I'm fine," he managed, staring at Kris's boots in lieu of meeting his eyes. When Kris didn't respond, he dragged his gaze up as far as the elaborate buckle on Kris's belt. "You... you know they're going to think that... that you..."

"Mm," Kris murmured in agreement. For a moment it seemed as though that was all he had to say on the matter, then Lahja's head snapped up as Kris asked softly, "Is that such a bad thing?"

Lahja opened and shut his mouth several times, though no words would emerge. Never, even in his most cherished dreams, would he have thought Kris might see him as anything more than just one more elf among many. No, he had to be mistaken. Kris was only implying they let Rautatammi and the rest think that-

The spiral of his thoughts cut off abruptly as warm lips covered his own, the soft scratchiness of a pure white goatee leaving no question that it was Kris, could only be Kris, as the unmistakable scent of chocolate and peppermint enfolded him in its embrace just as Kris's arms did a few heartbeats later.

In his few prior halfhearted attempts at romance, Lahja had never quite understood what the big deal was with kissing. It had been, quite frankly, a bit boring.

Kissing Kris wasn't remotely boring. Kissing Kris was like having all of his favorite flavors dance across his tongue in perfect harmony. Although he would have said it impossible before, Kris tasted even better than the perfect cocoa he made.

It wasn't until Kris finally released his mouth that Lahja realized his knees had buckled and it was only Kris's strong arms that were holding him up. He flushed.

"Oh," he said softly.

Kris's mouth quirked. "I will take that to mean I am not as out of practice as I had feared."

Lahja blinked slowly, trying to regain his scattered wits. His brow furrowed. "How did you know?" he asked, puzzled. "I never told anyone..."

Kris chuckled softly and tapped his temple. "I always know a person's greatest desires. I will admit to a bit of bafflement as to why such a dazzling young elf would have any interest in an old man like me, but far be it for me to deny myself the pleasure of such a priceless gift."

"You're not that old," Lahja retorted automatically, his mind still processing the rest. He was a gift to Kris? What did that mean? Had Kris been dreaming of finding someone special too?

Warm, velvety laughter washed over him. "Oh, but I am," Kris refuted. "Older than you know. I have seen the world when it was new and that was long ago."

Lahja opened his mouth to reassert his belief that Kris wasn't old, then shut it again as a tiny thought wiggled its way into his mind. If Kris really was as old as he said, what must it be like to live that long, watching everything and everyone around you change time and again? It seemed as though it would be a terribly lonely existence.

Lonelier even than Lahja, who knew the feeling well.

Kris had called him a gift. Perhaps they could both find in each other something that had been missing for far too long. If he was Kris's gift, then Kris was his. Everything he had ever wanted, all wrapped up in a cloud of peppermint-scented chocolate.

Slowly, deliberately, Lahja twined his arms around Kris's neck, smiling when Kris's breath caught. "Thank you for my present, Kris," he murmured. "I like it very much."

A wide smile slowly spread across Kris's face as he tightened his grip on Lahja. "You haven't even unwrapped it yet."

Lahja laughed, smiling even as the blood rushed to heat his face. "Oh, don't worry, I will."