Maynard looked pale and haggard when he finally showed up at the door. “How is he?”
“Asleep. Come in.” Naomi took him upstairs to see Colin, but the boy was out in his cozy cocoon of blankets. His cheeks were rosy, and sweat beaded on his forehead—the only part of him visible above the duvets.
“Should he be under so many covers?” Maynard asked doubtfully. “He looks hot.”
“Good,” Naomi said. “He should be hot after almost freezing. If he sweats through the night, he might get off lightly and not develop pneumonia from his long exposure. But you should check with his doctor tomorrow anyway, just in case.”
Maynard nodded thoughtfully. “Of course. I’ll take him home now.” He stepped towards the bed.
“Don’t,” Naomi said. “Don’t take him back outside now. Let him sleep here till morning.” She hesitated before adding, “You can stay here too. You look knackered and almost as frozen as Colin was. You need to rest too. The bed is wide enough for both of you.”
Maynard glanced around the room. “It’s your room,” he said.
“Yes.” Naomi smiled. “I’ll sleep with Miranda tonight. We’re both small. We easily fit together into her bed.”
“Maybe.” He sighed, his expression apologetic. “I really don’t have the energy to go anywhere right now. I was driving for hours. It’s already midnight.”
“Come downstairs for a moment.” Naomi beckoned. “I’ll make you hot milk with brandy. It’ll warm you up good. It helped Colin. My grandmother’s remedy; works like a charm.”
He chuckled as her followed her to the kitchen. “Thank you. I owe you so much. Tell me how you found him.”
“You don’t owe me anything,” Naomi said. “Sit down.” She warmed the milk for him and told him about their adventure. She added a rather larger portion of brandy into his glass than went into Colin’s.
“So where is that girl, Willie?” he asked between his sips. “I want to thank her too.”
“Asleep. They’re both asleep. I just stayed up to let you in. You can thank her in the morning.” Naomi took a big bowl full of cookies out of the cupboard. “Take a cookie,” she offered. “The girls baked this afternoon.”
The next morning, the Christmas day, was sunny. The snow had stopped during the night, and everything behind the windows sparkled like white fairyland.
Colin was downstairs first, before his father appeared. “You have a tree, Miss Peterson!” he exclaimed with a wide grin. His eyes shined. “With all the ornaments.”
“Good morning to you too,” Naomi said. “Come have breakfast with us.”
Both girls were already eating the hot oatmeal, and Colin slid on the bench beside Miranda.
“How are you this morning?” Naomi ladled the oatmeal into a bowl and set it in front of him. “Where is your dad?”
“Sleeping.” Colin tucked into his food. “Mmm, good,” he said. “How come we never have oatmeal for breakfast?”
“Maybe because you don’t have Miranda,” Naomi suggested and winked to the little half-elf. “She is the designated cook in this house.”
Miranda beamed but stayed quiet. She was too busy eating. Naomi settled on the bench next to Willie and started on her own oatmeal. Laced with honey and cranberries, it was delicious.
“You have gifts too,” Colin said, eyeing the wrapped boxes under their tree with undisguised interest.
“Don’t you?” Miranda couldn’t keep silent anymore.
“No. We don’t celebrate Christmas.”
“Why? Are you Jewish?” Naomi asked. “My Jewish friends on Earth don’t celebrate Christmas either.”
“No,” Colin said. “My dad wants to be like the elves. He said it is political, and they don’t have Christmas.” He stuffed his mouth with more oatmeal. “I wish…” He didn’t finish the sentence but took a huge bite of his toast instead, as if he needed his mouth full of food, so he wouldn’t say what he shouldn’t.
Miranda didn’t have the same inhibitions. “That sucks,” she declared. “I love Christmas, and I’m half-elf.”
“Yeah,” he said and grabbed the second toast.
Naomi and Willie exchanged glances. “You can stay with us today,” Naomi said. “We have turkey for dinner, and nobody but us three to eat it. Miranda even made Napoleon yesterday. And I have a gift for you too.”
“You do?” His eyes filled with so much hope, she wanted to hug him and hold tight.
“You’re spoiling him,” Maynard said from the upstairs landing. He came unhurriedly down the stairs, his lips stretching in a faint smile. His eyes drank in his son. Colin, oblivious to his father’s attention, licked his spoon and pushed the empty bowl away.
“Come, dad,” he invited, and picked up a slice of orange from a platter in the middle of the table. “They have the best oatmeal in the world.”
Maynard laughed silently. “You’re Willie,” he said as he stopped behind his son and inclined his head gravely towards Willie. “Thank you for what you did for my son yesterday.”
“That’s okay,” Willie mumbled. “I didn’t do anything, really. Just drove around with Naomi.” She squirmed uncomfortably beneath his heavy regard and elbowed Naomi. “I’m done. I need to get out.”
Naomi let her squeeze past her, and Willie fled the kitchen. Maynard followed her with his eyes. Then his gaze met Naomi’s briefly, before sliding towards Colin again. She expected some loaded questions about Willie, but Maynard didn’t ask anything. “I’m ready for the best oatmeal in the world,” he announced instead. “I can serve myself, you don’t have to get up,” he added, when Naomi started to rise. “Where could I get a bowl?”
He refrained from asking Willie anything during the day he spent with them. He was the perfect guest, joked and told stories, made them all laugh, and sincerely admired Naomi’s gift to Colin—an enlarged photo of the boy’s dancing she had taken during their recital.
“I thought he would be scary,” Miranda said, after Maynard’s car pulled away from their drive later in the afternoon. “He was so nice and funny. I like him.”
Willie wasn’t so sanguine. “I think he knows who I am.”
“I think so too,” Naomi said. “He is very smart. But I don’t think he’ll give you trouble. He feels indebted to you for Colin.”
“But I really didn’t do anything,” Willie objected. “He might rethink his gratitude. I should move away.” But she didn’t have a place to go, so she stayed and fretted.
Two days later, Maynard called Naomi and asked her to meet him at a coffee shop alone.
“I’ll pack,” Willie said grimly.
Naomi didn’t know how to reassure the girl. She felt uneasy herself, but her intuition told her Maynard presented no danger to her or her roommates.
“Mr. Maynard. How is Colin?” she asked as she seated herself across from him in a small, dimly lit coffee shop, her coffee and muffin in front of her like stage props. She took a sip.
He nodded gravely. “He is okay. He did develop some cold, but the doctor said his lungs are clear. Thanks to you and your friend.”
“No. We didn’t do anything special.” Naomi shook her head. Should she use his gratitude to help Willie? She wasn’t sure how to breach the subject, when he beat her to it.
“I was thinking about what you said the other day, after the recital.” He picked up his pastry, looked at it, and put it back down on his plate. He picked up his coffee mug and put it down without drinking. “You might be right about the law in general, but I’m not at liberty to change the law in this city. On this planet, actually. I’m trying to keep humans safe here, and it requires me to… make tough decisions. Occasionally, I can… cross the line, but not often, you understand.”
She opened her mouth to reply, but her mind went blank. No words emerged. She had only known the man for a few weeks, and she had already corrupted him into bending the rules. She nodded mutely.
He pushed a thin file folder towards her across the table. “I have a lady handling the citizenship applications at the office. She is leaving Elfhome the next Shutdown, on the 29th, the day after tomorrow. Her replacement is arriving on the same day, but she won’t be in the office until after the New Year. There is a several-days window when I can slip in an application without the proper checks.”
He swallowed, and red flags bloomed on his cheeks, but he didn’t look away. Breaking the law he had been sworn to uphold didn’t come easy for him, and Naomi didn’t know how to make him feel better. He tapped the folder with his finger.
“This is a citizenship application. If you know how to reach that girl we talked about, have her fill in the application and get it to me as soon as you can. I’ll put it inside the computer, after my citizenship manager leaves Elfhome. Her replacement will process it, as normal, and no one but you and me will know. But it’s a one-time deal.”
“Of course. Thank you,” Naomi whispered. She felt guilty. She didn’t want this man struggling with his principles, but she didn’t want Willie getting deported either. She took the file.
“I also wanted to ask you if you had any plans for the New Year Eve. We have a party at the EIA headquarters. It starts at five on the New Year Eve. If you don’t have other plans, would you come?”
Naomi’s brows lifted in surprise. He was inviting her to a party?
“Of course, you can bring a date,” he hurriedly went on. “But no children. You can bring your elf friend. There will be other elves there.”
“My elf friend left for the Easternlands,” Naomi snarled. She was still peeved with Falcon for leaving her just before the holidays. At least he had stayed for the recital, so her dances with him didn’t collapse for the lack of a partner. “I’ve only been here since September. I don’t know many people, except my students’ parents.” She smiled self-deprecatingly. Her next boyfriend would definitely be human. No more gorgeous sekasha elves who would leave her without an advance warning.
“Oh,” Maynard said faintly. His eyes gleamed. “Then I could be your date for the party. Right? If the position is vacant.”
Naomi leaned on the back of her chair and studied him with a sudden absorption. The guy was hitting on her. He was as old as her father, but extremely well-preserved. Trim. Smart. Very good-looking. Powerful. He just made her a precious gift of Willie’s citizenship. He loved his son. Why not? She wouldn’t mind getting to know him better.
She allowed herself a small, flirty smile. “I’d be delighted to be your date for the party,” she purred. “Will there be dancing?”
“Of course,” he said. “No New Year party could be complete without dancing. Could I have a waltz with you?”
“Yes.” Naomi beamed.