He jumped up, stamping all four hooves in fury. “That does it! I’m sick of snow. I’m going someplace where it’s warm.”
Jemmick shook his head, narrowly missing Donio with his antlers. “You say that every year. Besides, you’re one of the back-ups.”
“We have a responsibility to Santa and the children.” Chuly sounded pompous, but then, he always did.
Donio snorted. “Fifty-seven years I’ve been on the back-up team. You know how many times I’ve gone? Exactly none.”
“So that makes it okay to just take off?” Jemmick said.
“Well, it’s not as though I’m doing anything important here.” Donio kicked at the snow. He was starting to hate the stuff already, and it was only December.
Chuly shot Donio an urgent look before bowing his head. “Good day, sir. How are the Christmas preparations coming?”
Donio whirled around. Great. All he needed was a pep talk from one of the Top Nine.
“We should be ready on time,” Dancer answered cautiously. “We had some trouble with the bag of toys. Someone misplaced the magic dust, and it actually filled up! But we’ve got it sorted now.”
“That’s a relief, sir,” said Jemmick. “Is there anything we can do to help?”
“More training would be a good idea,” Dancer replied. “We need everyone in top shape. Shouldn’t the three of you be running laps?”
“We’ll get right to it, sir.” Chuly bowed again, in case the first one didn’t get through.
Donio rolled his eyes as Dancer walked away. “That’s not going to help, you know. The Top Nine always handle Christmas.”
“Christmas Eve, 1849 and 1936,” Chuly retorted.
“Right, two times somebody got sick. It took them maybe five minutes to choose a replacement.” Donio snorted. “Dancer! He wouldn’t know a tango if it walked up and introduced itself.”
“And you do?” Jemmick’s smirk was nothing but fuel for the fire.
“No, I’d have to go to South America for that.” A slow grin spread across Donio’s face. “That’s it! I’ll go to Rio. I’ll stroll along the beach and find a bikini-clad beauty to teach me the steps.”
“And they’ll just be lining up for the privilege, I suppose?” Jemmick’s tone was far too superior.
“Why not?” The idea was taking hold. “How many talking reindeer are there? They’ll want to impress me to get in good with Santa.”
Chuly shook his head. “You know it won’t. Santa may have a naughty list for people, but reindeer who disappoint him go on a full-blown fecal roster. You’ll be years working yourself off that thing.”
Donio stamped his foot. “Worth it.”
“Donio’s just blowing off steam,” Chuly said. “He’s been talking like this for years. Nothing ever comes of it.” He started running, keeping himself in Dancer’s view. Jemmick trailed after him.
Donio stalked off. He’d show them. Santa had plenty of magic dust. He’d never miss the small amount it would take to fly to Brazil and back. He paused for a moment. Perhaps it would be better to wait until after Christmas.
Nah. He was tired of the pointless drills; he’d come back when he was good and ready. At least he’d have memories of warm beaches to sustain him. It was more than anyone else around here had. Except for the precious Top Nine.
First he had to find out where the magic dust was. Too bad Dancer didn’t say where they’d put it.
Donio strolled toward the main workshop, trying to look as though he should be there.
“You! What are you doing? We don’t need any reindeer yet.” The elf managed to look down his nose at the much-taller Donio, which might have been impressive another time.
“Uh, something’s gone wrong.” What would make them leave?
Nothing was coming to him. “I don’t know, but everyone’s running around. Is Santa all right?”
A look of concern crossed the elf’s face. “He was a few minutes ago. Now what’s wrong?” He gestured to the other two elves, and they started to follow him out.
Could it really be this easy?
At the doorway, the first elf paused and grabbed a small gold-spangled sack off the table. “Can’t lose track of this again.” He stuffed it into a pocket and ran out.
Donio hung his head. Great. The dust was gone, and now they’d find out it was a false alarm. He wouldn’t get another shot at it, not until after Christmas anyway. He kicked one of the sleigh runners and stomped out.
At least he shouldn’t get in trouble over it. If Christmas ran true to form, more urgent problems would chase this one from the elf’s mind. And it wasn’t as though anyone but the other reindeer knew him by name.
A group of does caught his attention, ferrying gifts to the sleigh. Donio sighed. As long as he was stuck here, he might as well pitch in. It wasn’t as though the kids had done anything wrong.
Donio waited until the does were coming out again and asked, “Can I help?” They would at least be better company than Chuly and Jemmick.
Ania raised her head and smiled. “Yes, thanks. I swear, every year there are more presents. We’re swamped.”
Donio joined her, and her smile brightened even further. She even danced a few steps.
That definitely had his attention. “What dance is that?”
Ania laughed. “My version of the tango. I saw it in a movie once. See? It goes to this beat. T. A. N-G-O.” She repeated it, with a fetching little crossover step in the middle.
“Let me try. T. A…” Donio’s leg’s tangled as he sidestepped.
“No…like this.” Ania broke it down slowly, and Donio caught the second time.
“This is excellent.”
Ania’s eyes sparkled. “It is, isn’t it?”
They danced their way back and forth to the sleigh. This was much better than running around in the snow, and this way he was making a difference. The thought was so cheery that Donio threw a sliding step into the dance.
“Hey, that’s not half bad,” Ania said. It looked even better when she did it.
They brought in the final load as Santa was harnessing reindeer. “Where’s Dancer?’ he demanded.
An elf came running in. “Dancer’s strained his leg, Santa. He was running laps with the back-up team.”
“Of all the…”
Donio grinned. It sounded like Santa was holding back swear words by main force.
Then Santa met his gaze. “Donio, right? Are you fit?”
Donio stood very straight. “Of course, sir.” He sprang forward, and Santa bucked the harness on. An incredulous smile spread across Donio’s face.
Prancer gave him a sidelong glance. “You’ve got a cheering section.”
Donio’s head snapped up, and he looked straight into Ania’s shining eyes. “Hey, I’m going to South America tonight. Maybe I can bring back some more steps for us to try.”
Ania smiled just as Santa made it to the sleigh. Donio felt the magic dust settle onto him—it tingled, just like in practice.
“Reindeer away,” Santa called. They leapt into the sky, and Donio smiled as he headed toward the northern lights.
Christmas was looking up.