Breakfast, in the mess. As the elves filed in for the morning shift, Sally kept an eye out for Peter. He had promised to continue her training in the morning. She stood with her tray as though looking for an empty seat, though anyone could see there was plenty of room to go around; the tables were built for human children, and elves took up half the space. It was part of why the elves had been brought in in the first place.
Quarter bell rang, and the messenger for her bunk, Holly, sidled up next to her. “Whatcha doin’?” she asked brightly. It dawned on Sally that everyone she knew had the same sunny disposition, everyone except Peter. The contrast was startling, when she thought about it.
“Waiting for someone,” she said.
Sally turned to face Holly. No use pretending. “Yes. Have you seen him?”
“He got called into the Workshop last night,” Holly said. “The Saint looked pretty angry, from what the others tell me. I don’t know what happened, but Pete’s bunkmates said he didn’t come home at all last night.”
“What did Saint Nick want with Pete?” Sally felt a knot building in her gut. It was the training, obviously. The elves weren’t supposed to work in the factory. Everybody knew that.
“Don’t know,” said Holly. “Might have been something to do with you, or maybe he just wasn’t meeting his quotas. They’re crazy strict about quotas in the factory, or so I hear.”
“I heard that too,” Sally said, scanning the room again. Still no sign of Peter. “Thanks for the info, Holly.”
“No problem,” said Holly. “Hey, you mind if I ask a personal question?”
“Why does Pete call you chestnut?”
Sally sighed. “You want the long version or the short?”
“I’ll take whatever you can give me,” said Holly. “I love a good story.”
“The short version is it’s because of my hair,” said Sally. “He told me he had a thing for girls with chestnut-colored hair, and started calling me chestnut.”
Holly grinned. “Scandalous. What’s the long version, then?”
“The long version is the same as the short version,” said Sally. “Except it includes the reason he likes chestnut-haired girls. And that’s a story I’m not telling, since it’s not my story to tell. Thanks again, Holly.”
“Any time, Sally.” Holly separated herself and moved to sit at one of the tables.
Sally waited another fifteen minutes before giving up. She didn’t eat or sit down. The half-bell rang, and she set her tray down in the wash rack, scraping her food into the drains.
A voice from behind made her freeze. “Not hungry today, chestnut? You’ll need your strength.”
She turned around. There he was. “Pete! You’re alright!”
“Alright is a strong word,” said Peter. “I am alive, and in some kind of a shape to continue your training.”
“I heard you were brought into the Workshop. What happened?”
Peter shrugged. His shoulders creaked. “Holy man says I shouldn’t be wasting time training elves to do factory work when I’m behind on my quotas. So I showed him the Blu-Ray you forged yesterday at the end of your first session.” He held up the perfectly round disc between a pair of slender fingers. “Holy man was impressed. Said maybe he was wrong about elves. Gave me permission to teach you more.”
Sally’s heart raced. “You mean I can learn the alchemy parts too? What about the magic, and the dust? Can you show me how to put the broken pieces back together? When can I–”
“Slow down, chestnut,” said Peter, laughing mildly. “We take things one step at a time. You are proof of concept. If you do well, other elves may join you in training. More workers for the factory.” He smiled, displaying his coal-toothed mouth in all its glory.
Despite the grotesque display, Sally smiled back. “Pete, you big beautiful mess. This is wonderful. Finally, the elves will be able to wield some power again, and maybe–”
“No.” Peter’s voice was firm. “The elves will never wield power. Not the kind of power you’re thinking of. Remember why you’re here. Remember what you are to the Holy man. That will never change.”
He was right, of course. No matter how well she did in her training, Saint Nick would always see her as nothing more than a cog in his toy-building machine. The same was true of every elf there.
Still, if she could learn alchemy… It was a piece of power, at any rate. More than she had now. And if the other elves learned it too…
“Will you take me to see the reindeer?”
Peter’s black smile vanished, but the light remained in his eyes, dancing there. “I would be honored to take you to see the reindeer. Not now, though. Tonight. When it is dark.”
He placed his heavy hand on her shoulder, looked her in the eye, held her gaze.
“But you must eat, chestnut. If you are hungry, you will collapse or fall asleep or pass out in the snow. I will not be able to carry you back to your bunk. You must take care of yourself. Keep yourself alive. Can you do that for me? Make it a promise, chestnut, or I will not believe you.”
Sally smiled. “I promise to eat, Pete. Don’t you worry about me.”