Disclaimer: SM owns the characters; The White Stripes own "I Can Learn." (Rated M for M/M slash)

A/N: This story was inspired by Reni Simon's Christmas wish over on LJ's "Make the Yuletwi'd Gay." She asked for a DILF and a mall Santa in a J/E story that is "fun, fluffy, and some lemon with a Santa hat!" That's how it started, but then it veered off into a bit of angst. Where will it end?

"Mommy, mommy!" the little darling screams, stretching his arms out to his doting mother while she bobs around, taking the umpteenth photo of Mommy's Little Angel. For fuck's sake, I'm the one who should be screaming. I didn't pee on him; he just peed on me. Don't people toilet train their kids anymore?

Alice Brandon, one of the more amusing elves in Santa's little gingerbread house at the mall, bends down to pick up Junior and takes yet another opportunity to show me her tits.

"Watch it, Alice," I caution. "Junior sprung a leak. You don't want to get it all over your cute little elf costume." It's funny to watch her expression change from batting her eyelashes and attempting to look seductive to ewww. She holds Junior out in front of her, under his armpits, like he's a mobile toxic waste dump or something. Which, of course, he is.

I'm gonna kill Peter.

"Go to Heidi in Human Resources," he'd told me. "She'll take care of you." He'd heard that there was an opening for someone to sell high-end electronics for salary plus commission, along with a 20% discount on anything in the department. I was already working part-time in a restaurant and I was looking to earn some extra cash before Christmas. It sounded good to me.

"Flat-screen TVs," he said enticingly. "Digital cameras." He said that the worst thing I'd have to wear would be a red vest, or maybe one of those red Santa hats with a little white pom-pom on the end.

Well, that last part turns out to be true, although it isn't exactly the worst thing I have to wear. That dubious honor goes to either the itchy white beard or the pee-stained padding under the ugly red suit. How I went from a potential salary plus commission plus discount in electronics to an hourly wage as one of the Santas at the mall is still a mystery to me. But I needed another job, even if it was only for a month, and I'm still clinging to the faint hope that getting my foot in the door as Santa might lead to bigger and better things.

I personally haven't believed in Santa Claus for 20 years, ever since I was six years old and saw Santa at church, stuffing pillows under a red jacket that was cinched with a big black fake leather belt. Just like the one I'm wearing right now. No more visions of sugarplums for me; my Christmas wishes for a fat paycheck and a new flat screen have already gone up in smoke.

Alice interrupts my brooding as she bounces back up the steps to my gaudy throne with some paper towels and a spray bottle. Before I can stop her, she proceeds to kneel down and spray my lap with Febreeze, then begins doing some serious dabbing, starting at my knees and working her way up toward my junk.

"Whoa there, Little Elf!" I say before she invades my personal space any further. "Listen, sweetie, you're adorable..." She bounces to her feet and looks at me with sparkling eyes. "...And I'm gay."

I watch her sparkling eyes change to disappointed ones. I hate to let her down but Elf Girl needs a serious reality check before she starts hanging mistletoe over my head and looking at china patterns.

"Damn!" she mutters under her breath.

"Sorry, Alice."

"No, that's okay Jasper. It's just so damn frustrating that all the great guys are either married or gay."

"Don't I know it, honey," I commiserate. She looks up at me, then starts laughing. I like Alice. She's a psycho pixie in a green elf dress – if you could call six inches of velvet trimmed with fake white fur over matching green panties a dress – but she sure is cute. "Now go find us some stud muffins for dinner."

"Fat chance," she laughs as she opens the door to bring in the next little darling. "And even if I do, I'm gonna keep them for myself!"

And so it goes from the day after Thanksgiving – Lord spare me from ever again having to work on Black Friday – until four weeks later. Alice turns out to be the best elf a gay Santa could hope for and the shifts we work together are a lot of fun. We discover that we both love classic Chicago blues, as well as local bands like In Tall Buildings. We occasionally hang out together after work, checking out the local music scene.

We are both single. We share lunches in the food court, dishing about all the cute guys that walk by. She invites me over to her place one night to meet her gay neighbor, Mike. Turns out I already know him from a recent Karaoke Night at Spin, and I didn't like him the first time I met him either. However, Alice's lasagna is delicious.

Although I still have some Christmas shopping to do, I do manage to get a gift for Alice. She's a big Louisa May Alcott fan and the one thing she talks about on almost a daily basis is Little Women: The Musical, which I think is pretty funny: Little Women for a little woman. Alice is not amused, but at least she is grateful for the pair of tickets I give her.

December 23 arrives in Chicago, bringing with it temperatures below freezing and the promise of a blizzard by the end of the day. Instead of keeping people snug in their homes, sitting by a cozy fire with a cup of hot cocoa in one hand and Christmas cookies in the other, the weather forecast seems to push the panic button for every shopper who has been procrastinating all month. Now, the day before Christmas Eve, the parking lot at the mall is packed and the stores are filled with shoppers.

I get off the bus and walk through the slush toward the mall entrance, preoccupied with my plans for the day. Today is my last shift as Santa and after I finish, I'll head over to the restaurant for their open mic night. It'll be a nice change from making salads.

I sigh as I change into my Santa costume for the last time in the employee locker room. The costume, which was not all that new when I started working here, is now the worse for wear after three more "accidents" in as many weeks. In spite of several trips to the dry cleaners since Alice first sanitized me with Febreeze, the pants still have a cloying odor. More than one child has climbed into my lap, turned up his or her precious widdle nose at the unappetizing aroma, and rapidly climbed back down in disgust without uttering a single word about wish lists.

After changing into my deplorable costume, I have to run the gauntlet down the concourse from the big-box store that employs me to the faux gingerbread house that has become my second home. I have come to the conclusion that this is my daily penance for every wicked thing I've ever done. Along the way, children tug at my baggy red pants or grab the big ugly belt as if determined to take me home with them. Or they position themselves directly in my path as if I'm gonna drop everything and listen to their Christmas wishes right in the middle of the concourse.

I don't think so.

The mothers aren't much better. "Oh, Santa! Santa!" they call, scurrying toward me with Junior or Princess in tow as if it's 1996 and I'm holding the very last Tickle Me Elmo. As if stopping me on my way to the gingerbread house is gonna get them a better place in line, in the nonexistent VIP lane instead of the one- to two-hour line that usually awaits them.

Hey, if I have to run the gauntlet every day, then they have to wait in line. I wish that the mall had a secret passageway or something. An underground tunnel with a ladder into my throne room would make all the to-ing and fro-ing a lot less painful.

I try to be nice; I swear I do. I'm not really a heartless asshole hiding inside a Santa suit. I can tell that these tired ladies want nothing more than to check the visit to Santa off their lengthy Christmas to-do lists before heading home to a nice cup of eggnog spiked with brandy and a snog with their own personal Santa after tucking the little darling into bed.

After I leave the locker room, I give Peter a three-fingered salute – a Santa-sanitized version of the finger – as I walk through the menswear department where he's busy hustling three-piece suits. He laughs. Again. He'd already had a good long laugh when I told him how his great job lead turned out. He had seriously believed he was steering me to commission/discount heaven when we hooked up at Spin the week before Thanksgiving.

We met for the first time in a class at the University of Chicago but didn't really get acquainted until a couple of years later when we ran into each other at the club's Halloween party. Peter was dressed as Jack Sparrow; I came as Elizabeth Swann. Then I came in the club's rest room, when he went exploring under my skirts. I came several more times when I went home with him. He took great delight in undressing me and I took great delight in letting him. Unlike me, he swings both ways and this seemed to be the best of both worlds for him that night.

Since then, whenever I go to the club, I know that we will probably leave together if neither one of us hooks up with anyone else. Sex with Peter is always great. He's big and uncut and he works out regularly. Lord have mercy, that man is a living, breathing ad for abs of steel, not to mention buns.

And if Peter's not around, there always seems to be someone else who is attractive enough, attracted to me, and wants to get it on. Top, bottom – I enjoy just about anything. What's not to like? Most of the guys I meet are healthy and take good care of themselves. They know what they want and I like to give it to them.

Not very meaningful, I know, but it works for me.

As I continue making my way toward the gingerbread house, I realize that thinking about Peter and sporting a boner in a Santa suit is not going to go over too well with the soccer moms following in my wake so I quickly bring my attention back to my surroundings. Seeing the long line of antsy children and tired parents makes any notion of a boner disappear immediately.

If I have gained anything from this experience, it is the certainty that I am definitely not parent material.

It's not just their sticky hands and whiny voices; it's the whole idea of being responsible for a little person 24/7. I saw what that did to my mom. Don't get me wrong – she has always been there for me when it counted – but most of the time when I was growing up she had to work two or three jobs just to make ends meet. I know she hopes I'll meet a nice boy someday and eventually make her a grandmother but I just don't see that happening, at least not anytime soon.

The kids in line start getting even more restless when they catch sight of me as I walk up the ramp to the gingerbread house. I wave and toss out a few halfhearted "Ho-ho-hos" as Alice opens the door and my final day begins.

It is a very long day. It feels like every kid in Chicago comes through here today. Thankfully, none of them poop or pee on me. Jane, who is Elf Girl #2 today, isn't so lucky – one kid vomits on her shoes. The only upside of that is an emergency visit to the shoe department for a free pair of shoes. Her new Uggs don't exactly go with her costume but I can't blame her for making the most of the opportunity.

The general manager of the big-box store comes into the gingerbread house at 4 p.m. to congratulate us. Apparently, we have broken all records for the number of children visiting Santa in a single day. He makes a little speech, smiles for the company newsletter photographer, and gives each of us a coupon for 10% off in the housewares department before escaping back to his office.

We listen to his speech, hoping that he's going to send us home early. A Christmas Eve Eve present, if you will. No such luck. I roll my eyes and immediately give my coupon to Alice.

"You can file this under 'Bah, humbug,'" I tell her, looking at my watch. "Only one hundred minutes left in my career as Santa."

"Enjoy it while it lasts," she says. "You know you're gonna miss me when it's over, right?"

"Right," I agree. "But you and Garrett are still coming tonight, aren't you?"

At that moment, Jane opens the door to the gingerbread house and ushers in yet another little darling, a little girl with a very serious expression on her face. She is holding the hand of a tall man who has to stoop a little as he comes through the door, just like I do. When he looks up, I am face to face with one of the most gorgeous men I have ever seen. Athletic-looking, but not steroidal, with coppery hair in casual disarray, beautiful green eyes, and that chin... and those lips...

As I watch him look around with a similarly serious expression, I gasp softly but it's loud enough to catch Alice's attention and then she gasps a little too. It's very rare to see dads in the gingerbread house, and even rarer to see such a tall, dark, and handsome dad. He looks familiar somehow but I can't place him.

I can feel my heart racing and my mouth suddenly goes dry. I'm smitten. From the way her jaw drops, Alice is smitten too. I reach up with my index finger and touch her under her chin, pushing up gently. She snaps out of it pretty quickly, shuts her mouth, and blushes beet red before stepping down from the dais to lead the little girl forward.

I am curious to know why these two look so serious. Most kids come in either sobbing with fear because they are terrified of the big red and white lump (me) sitting on the fake throne, or wildly hyperactive, hardly able to sit still on my lap long enough for their moms to take those endless mandatory photos. The big-box store used to employ a professional photographer but once people started buying digital cameras, the demand for the formal portrait with Santa tanked and the photographer went the way of the dodo bird into extinction.

This guy also has a camera, a pretty expensive one. Everything about him looks expensive: his suit, his watch, the cashmere coat folded carefully over one arm. His shoes looked handmade. Even his scruff looks expensive. He has a three-day-old beard that looks like it has been carefully shaped and trimmed.

The little girl is dressed to the nines, if you can even say that about a kid. She looks more like she's going to an audience with the Queen of England than to visit a fake Santa at the mall. As she walks toward me, I can see a starched pink taffeta dress where her bright red coat opens, with white tights covering her legs and shiny black patent leather shoes buckled onto her feet.

Geez, I sound like a stylist for the Little Miss America pageant, don't I? It's just that she looks far too perfect compared to a typical Chicagoland kid. I know how slushy and disgusting the parking lot is and yet her shoes are pristine. So how do they do it? Limo, maybe, I speculate. Door-to-door service. Red carpet. Magic carpet... Magic fingers... Looking at the long, slender fingers on that guy, I wish I was the one holding his hand.

Now it's Alice's turn to clear her throat and bring me back to reality as the little girl lets go of the man's hand and reaches for Alice's outstretched one. But not before looking back questioningly at her father.

"It's okay, Isa. Go on now," he says with a nod of his gorgeous head and the sexiest British accent I've ever heard.

Alice and I look at each other again, with raised eyebrows this time instead of dropped jaws.

"Dibs," I whisper.

"In your dreams," she chortles.

We'll just see about that.

Fortunately, we both return from fantasy land fairly quickly and go back to doing our actual jobs.

"Hi, sweetie," Alice says in a mellifluous voice, just a little more loudly than necessary. "What's your name?" I roll my eyes as I watch her bend down to speak to the child, flashing those perky tits at Daddy over there in the process.


"My, that's a beautiful grown-up name for a little girl!" Alice exclaims. "How old are you, Isabella?"

"I'm six years old," the child replies, with the same delicious accent as her father.

"Well, Isabella, are you ready to say hello to Santa?"

"Yes, miss."

"Oh, what lovely manners!" Alice gushes, turning toward dear old Dad. "She's adorable," she says, batting her eyelashes and flashing that winning Alice smile.

"Thank you," he replies brusquely, with just a tiny twitch of his lips. It's not quite a smile and I feel a small flutter of relief. How girly is that? Clearly Alice – sexy, feminine dynamo that she is – is not closing the deal.

Now it's my turn to smile. I don't want to brag or anything but I am fairly good at flirtation and seduction. However, the odds are all stacked against me here. Just exactly how am I going to show this beautiful man that I – the smelly Sad-Sack Santa of Lincolnwood Town Center – am more attracted to him than any man I've met in ages – maybe ever?

And what's that all about anyway? Sure, the guy is amazing looking but it's more than just looks. I can't explain it, and right now I'm not even in a position to try. I sigh in defeat.

Alice now stands before me with Mini-Me, the tiny female version of the heartthrob who waits a few feet behind her. She has the same green eyes, the same wavy hair, the same chin (without the scruff, of course). She even has the same sad, anxious expression on her face as he does.

I reach down with both arms to lift her up. She settles onto my lap, smooths out her coat and then sits ramrod straight, examining my face for... who knows what? Authenticity? A sign? A miracle?

I realize that I might be doing the same thing. She sits very still, the most prepossessing child I have ever met. I briefly wonder what it would be like to be her father but then I almost laugh out loud. If I ever had a kid, she would be nothing like this prim and proper well-behaved little girl.

It's time to launch into my spiel.

"Well, hello there, Isabella!" I say in my heartiest Santa voice.

"Hello, Santa," she replies quietly.

"And what would you like for Christmas?" It's the standard, foolproof department-store Santa script that has launched a thousand greedy lists during the past month. It has never failed me.

Until now.

The little girl's eyes widen and she looks around frantically at her father. He frowns and cocks his head to one side. I look at Alice and we both shrug a little.

The girl cups her hand around her mouth and I lean down to hear what she has to say.

"Didn't you get my e-mail, Santa?" she whispers in a tremulous voice.

I straighten up and look at her for a moment, trying not to laugh. Hearing Alice giggling behind me doesn't help. No kid ever asked this Santa if he checks his e-mail. What the hell am I supposed to say?

"I'm sorry, honey," I begin. "Santa is a little behind on e-mails at this time of the year. Couldn't you just tell me now?"

Even as I say the words, I realize they are a mistake. Her lower lip trembles and her eyes fill with tears. That's it, I think, Santa Jasper has made this beautiful child cry. I'll be lucky if Dad doesn't punch my lights out.

But she's made of sterner stuff and rallies quickly with a deep sigh. She beckons for my ear again.

"Can you bring my papa back?" she whispers.

"Your grandpa?" I ask. Aw, poor kid, her grandfather must have died recently.

"No, my Papa Seth," she corrects me in a soft voice.

I'm confused. "But isn't he your papa?" I ask, gesturing toward the man who had brought her in.

"No, silly Santa," she says with the beginning of a smile. "That's my daddy. Seth is my other daddy but I call him Papa. That was my mama's idea."

"Where's your mama?" I ask, dumbfounded.

"Oh, she lives in Washington, with Uncle Jacob."


"No, in Forks, Washington," she says, then looks worried again. "But Santa," she asks, "how are you going to find Carlie and Leah if you don't even know where they live?"

"Who's Carlie and Leah?"

She sighs impatiently. "My sisters."

"Why don't you live with them?" I can't resist asking.

I hear Alice's sharp intake of breath. Maybe I'm going too far but I don't care. My gaydar went on full alert the moment little Isabella mentioned two daddies and now I want to understand the whole picture here.

"Because I live with my daddy and my papa, silly," she says, but then she remembers again and her lower lip trembles.

"I'm sorry about your papa," I say quickly. "Where did he go?" Rebound, I'm thinking. I can do rebound.

"Mama says he went to heaven but I don't believe her. How can you get to heaven when they put you in the ground?" A single tear rolls down her cheek.

"What does your... daddy say?" I ask, trying to keep the growing cast of characters straight in my mind.

"He says maybe Papa Seth went to heaven but he still lives in our hearts... Can you bring him back, Santa? I miss him so much and my daddy is so sad."

I look up and find those beautiful green eyes looking sadly at his daughter. Clearly he has caught the gist of her request.

"I'm sorry for your loss," I say to him soberly. Suddenly, his gaze shifts and he's looking directly at me. Or rather he's looking at Santa. I wish this man was a mind reader so he could know exactly how much I'd like to ease his pain. And how very, very naughty and nice I could be in the process.

'Thanks," he says abruptly, and turns away for a moment, head bowed.

"Is there anything else Santa can bring you, honey?" I ask sympathetically. I have a feeling that I already know the answer.

"No, thank you, Santa," she says dejectedly and starts to climb down from my lap.

I stop her. "Hey, Dad, do you want to get a photo here?"

He looks at the camera in his hand as if he's never seen it before. "Oh...," he replies. "Wait a minute, Isa."

She waits obediently as he sets up the camera and starts taking photos. I smile at him wistfully as he snaps half a dozen shots, wishing I could rip off this stupid beard and the whole ugly costume and just follow him out through the gingerbread house door.

Instead, I now sit with a frozen smile on my face as the beautiful little girl thanks me politely for the candy cane I just gave her. I watch as she jumps off my lap, follows Alice back down the steps, takes her father's hand, and walks with him out of my life forever.

Almost immediately Jane appears with another child, a red-faced toddler struggling to get out of his mother's arms, and I release a breath I don't even know I've been holding. I feel Alice's hand on my shoulder.

"Nice work, Santa," she says sympathetically.

I reach up and pat her hand in return. "You too, Elf Girl. One of your best efforts." She grins as we both struggle to find our way past the heartbreak we have just witnessed.

The last 90 minutes stretch on interminably as the crowds of shoppers dwindle and fewer children come in to make their last-minute appeals for the latest Xbox or Barbie, Harry Potter Legos, etc., etc. As the mall clock strikes six, Alice and I race each other back to the employees' locker room, more than ready to ditch these awful costumes and be on our merry way, although I must admit that Alice looks mighty cute in hers, and I tell her so. She thanks me and grins as she shuts her locker and jams the costume into her bag.

"Alice!" I exclaim in a stage whisper. "Are you stealing that elf costume?"

She gives me a conspiratorial nod and whispers back, "Garrett has a thing for elves," she giggles. Garrett is her latest boyfriend.

"TMI, Alice," I say, rolling my eyes. "TMI!" Before I close my own locker, however, I do reach in and pluck out the Santa hat, a silly souvenir of this god-awful job.

Alice and Garrett are planning to join me later so she and I take a moment to figure out where we'll meet. Then I tuck the hat inside my leather jacket before sauntering through the store and back into the mall.

Usually I'm too tired after a shift to do much more than climb onto a bus for the 30-minute ride and then stumble the two blocks from the bus stop to my apartment before collapsing in front of my TV or computer. But tonight for some reason, I'm still strangely energized from the encounter with that gorgeous guy and his kid and so I decide to do a little shopping before I leave the mall. Not that I can afford much from the shops here, but it never hurts to look, does it?

I pull out the Santa hat and place it firmly on my head, give the raspberries to the big-box store, and head down to the lower level of the mall. I'm walking in the general direction of the gingerbread house when I bump into a man backing out of the Haagen Dazs shop, both hands filled with shopping bags.

"Sorry," I mumble as I bend down to pick up some of the bags I've knocked out of his hands.

"That's quite all right," he replies curtly, after muttering something that I can't make out, and I hear a child's voice behind him. I am instantly jerked out of my reverie by the very man I have been thinking about for the past two hours.

"Oh! It's you!" I say, then feel like an idiot.

"Me?" he responds. "Have we met?" He steps back and looks me over. I'm a tall, lanky guy – taller than he is, I now realize – with steely blue eyes and dishwater blond hair pulled back in a short ponytail, wearing torn jeans, a black leather jacket, motorcycle boots, and a Santa hat.

I love having his eyes on me and I start to ask, "Do you like what you see?" However, before I can say anything, two elderly ladies approach him, stepping in front of me as if I'm not even there.

"You're Edward Cullen, aren't you?" the taller of the two asks, then goes on without waiting for a reply. "We saw you last night with the Chicago Philharmonic. You were heavenly... I mean, your playing was heavenly."

He chuckles politely, a low rumble that resonates in my chest as if I've just been tasered, but in a good way.

I'm in a state of shock.

This is Edward Fucking Cullen? The British piano prodigy who played in Beijing when he was ten years old? And with Elton John when he was 12? More recently he has been winning awards right and left for his unique fusion of classical and modern music. I knew he looked familiar when I first saw him but I had no idea that it was actually him. This man is a legend in the music business. I myself dabble a little on guitar, earthbound by my pedestrian talent, while this guy is a god, residing somewhere in the outer stratosphere.

I sigh as the last bit of hope I had disappears. My bubble is officially burst. There is no way I could ever have a man like Edward Cullen.

He is very gracious, giving the ladies his autograph when the shorter one whips out the Philharmonic program and a pen. At the same time, he's very protective of his daughter. She hovers slightly behind him, holding onto his cashmere coat as he deals politely with his fans. When the ladies ask for a photo with him, he positions Isabella so that she is completely behind him, not in the picture at all, as I stand nearby, still gaping.

The ladies finally depart and he turns around to pick her up, speaking quietly to her. Encounters with strangers do not appear to be her favorite pastime. Then I realize that another mystery has been solved: Her shoes are so pristine because he carried her into the mall.

As he turns away, I come to my senses.

"Edward," I call out. He turns back at the use of his first name, one eyebrow arched. "Uh, Mr. Cullen, sir. I just wanted to apologize again for bumping into you a few minutes ago."

"That's quite all right," he says again, a bit dismissively this time, and turns to pick up his bags.

"And, to answer your question, yes, we have met," I say in a rush before he can move out of earshot.

He turns and frowns as he tries to place me. I start to tell him who I am when I realize that I can't really do that without violating the ultimate Santa oath: Never tell a child the truth about Santa. Oh shit, now what am I going to do?

"Ho-ho-ho?" I say softly, pointing to the Santa hat and hoping that he'll make the connection without spilling the beans to his daughter.

The frown remains in place and I despair of ever moving beyond this moment. In the meantime, Isabella, with her arms still wrapped around her father's neck, turns to look at me.

"Oh! Hello, Santa," she says with a shy smile. Her father's eyebrows shoot up in confusion.

"What do you mean, sweetheart?" he asks.

"You are Santa, aren't you?" she asks in turn, as if I am a child myself, too stupid to know who I am. "I told you about my e-mail."

"What e-mail?" her father asks.

"What do you mean?" I say at the same time, repeating her father's previous question. I don't want to be the only one here not asking questions in this bizarre conversation.

"Oh Daddy," she say, rolling her eyes and ignoring both of us. "I know all about Santa. And he," she says, pointing at me, "is the Santa who gave me the candy cane."

"How do you know?" we both ask in unison, not wanting to accept that she no longer believes in Santa.

Then I hear a new sound: They both laugh. Her laughter is like jingle bells, dashing through the snow. And his? His is music to my ears and I want it to keep on playing forever.

"Leah told me last summer, silly Daddy," she says affectionately.

He growls playfully. "I'm going to have to talk to that young lady now, aren't I?" he says, pretending to be angry but I can see a twinkle in his eye. He whips out his phone and finds a number.

I stand there feeling like an idiot, on the periphery of a lovely little family moment. But it's not my family. I'm thinking that perhaps now is a good time to walk away but then I look at Edward and I shiver. Edward Cullen is looking at me intently as he listens to a phone ring. Somewhere in Washington state, if I remember correctly.

He licks his lips and I feel my cock twitch in anticipation. But he's only preparing to leave a message. "Bella," he says. "This is Edward. I'm here in Chicago with Isa and...," he pauses, still looking at me. "What's your name?"

"Me?" I point to myself like an idiot. He nods. "J-Jasper," I stutter, then collect myself. "Jasper Whitlock, at your service, sir." I end with a bit of a smirk and a florid, clumsy attempt at a bow.

He raises an eyebrow at that and continues his message. "Yeah, um, I'm with Isa and Jasper, and I've just learned that someone named Leah has been a little tattletale about Santa. Tell her she's a very naughty girl! Give my love to Jacob. I'll talk to you soon." With that, he ends the call. "So, Jasper Whitlock, what are you doing for dinner?"

I feel like I've died and gone to heaven as I hear his voice say my name, but I am quickly brought back down to earth.

"Oh shit," I say without thinking. Isabella giggles and Edward glares at me. "Sorry!"

"What's the problem?" he asks.

"I have a gig tonight, over at Katerina's." I've been waiting for months for a chance to move from lowly salad prep guy to a one-night stand as a guitarist at one of Kate's famous open-mic sessions and tonight is the night.

"A gig? Are you a musician?"

"Yeah, but not exactly the same way you are," I say ruefully. "I play a little guitar with a couple of guys from work."

"And what is Katerina's? A club?"

"Sort of. There's a bar and a restaurant, with a little stage in the corner for live music."

"Right. Katerina's it is."

"It is what?" I ask. I'm still too dazzled by him to follow his train of thought.

"Dinner, then your show."


"Shall we go?"

I nod, struck dumb by sheer terror as I imagine Edward Cullen watching The Dust Covers as we plod laboriously through our little set of bluesy ballads.

He bounces Isabella in his arms once to position her more comfortably and then reaches down for the shopping bags he had dropped when I bumped into him.

"Oh, I'm so sorry about that," I hasten to say.

"I'm certainly not," he says, looking me over in a manner that makes me want to preen and prance and strip for him right there in the mall.

"Let me carry those," I offer.

I don't expect the glare that my polite words seem to provoke. "You don't have to do anything for me," he hisses.

"Hey, I was just trying to be polite," I shoot back. "You already have your arms full. I may look like a bum but my mama always taught me to be mannerly."

"My mama teaches me manners too!" Isabella pipes up and the awkward moment ends. I extend my hand to take the bags and he silently passes them to me with a wry smile.

By the time we get to the West Touhy Avenue exit from the mall, Edward's driver is waiting in a shiny new black Escalade. He takes the bags from me and stashes them in the rear of the vehicle. Edward and Isabella sit in the back seat; I sit up front with the driver. I prepare to give him directions to Katerina's but he just punches it into the GPS and we're on our way.

The six-mile trip from the mall to the restaurant usually takes about thirty minutes on the bus. Today we have an extra stop to make that adds a few more miles. Plus there are heavy snow showers and plenty of rush-hour traffic to deal with, so the whole trip ends up taking almost ninety minutes.

"How does Isabella usually cope with restaurants and live music?" I ask as the traffic inches along slowly. I realize that her behavior has been impeccable so far, but I'm a little concerned about how she'll deal with dinner and a raucous evening of music as it gets closer to her bedtime.

"We're taking her back to the guest house," Edward tells me.

"I'm surprised that you have a room at a B & B when there are so many nice hotels in Chicago. Why don't you stay in some luxury hotel on the Magnificant Mile?"

"Jasper," he says, laughing a little, "we reserve the entire place – all five suites – whenever we come to Chicago. There are just too many of us." He starts ticking off the names and occupations of everyone involved. A nanny is mentioned, and a personal assistant, plus security staff. Sometimes a tutor comes along but she's off now until after the New Year. His parents often visit them when he and Isabella come to Chicago. Apparently they left yesterday. Edward and Isabella will join them in London on Christmas Day.

"The answer to your question is very simple," he continues. "Isabella always travels with me. I try to give her as much of a homelike atmosphere as I can. That's impossible in a hotel."

Soon we're dropping her off with the nanny, who had had the day off while Edward went shopping with Isabella. We don't stay long enough for me to tour the whole place but the living room and kitchen are pretty impressive. I can't help wondering if I'll get to see his bedroom later.

A guy can hope, right?

It's almost 8:00 by the time we get to Katerina's. We're due to go on in an hour, and I'm too keyed up to eat very much. I do manage to wolf down most of a bowl of Kate's famous fasolada, the Greek bean soup that I love, and it settles my nerves a bit. Edward starts with calamari and finishes with souvlaki.

In the Greek spirit of the place, Edward orders a full bottle of ouzo, which has never been a particular favorite of mine. I'm especially fond of Samuel Adams' chocolate Bock beer this year, but I can't say no to him when he insists that I join him in toasts to Christmas and Katerina's and Santa Claus and Chicago. After the fourth one, I'm beginning to see double and, although I feel much more relaxed, I now start worrying about whether my fingers will even be able to find the guitar strings, let alone play the right ones.

I suppose if I had been sober, I wouldn't have asked the next question.

"What were you doing last year at this time?"

His panicky expression tells me that I've crossed a line somehow and I suspect that it probably has to do with that guy Seth. Nonetheless, he does try to answer.

"Last year we were right here in Chicago, doing the Christmas concert with the Philharmonic for the first time," he says. "Seth had just negotiated a new recording contract and..." He stops; his eyes are watery.

Recording contracts. Personal assistants and security guards. The chasm between his existence and mine yawns wide open, in case I haven't already understood how truly out of reach he is from the fancy clothes, the driver, and the multitude of shopping bags. Fortunately, between the effects of the ouzo and the imminent start of our set, I don't have time to dwell on all that just now. Instead, I decide to take another leap... of faith? Into the abyss? I'd know soon enough.

"Here's to Seth," I say, holding up my glass. Edward kind of chokes up for a moment and I automatically reach out to take his hand. Even in my alcoholic haze, I immediately realize how inappropriate that is and start to put my hand back in my lap, but he reaches for it anyway under the table and holds on tightly.

"To Seth," he says, his eyes bright with unshed tears, "and to a new friend." He hoists his glass, clinks it against mine, and then drinks it all down.

Katerina had seen us come in and, much to my relief, picks that moment to join us. I don't even have to introduce Edward; she recognizes him immediately, which makes me feel like an even bigger shit than I do already for not recognizing him in the first place. She cajoles a little, trying to get him to play a set or two but he declines. She's clearly disappointed, but very gracious about it nonetheless.

James and Riley are already warming up and I excuse myself to join them. As I begin to slide off the banquette, reluctantly pulling away from Edward's warm hand, he stops me, still holding on for a moment.

"What are you playing tonight?" he asks. With my free hand I pull the play list from my pocket and read aloud the four titles we've been practicing in Riley's garage – three for the set, plus one encore if Kate says it's okay.

"Jasper..." he says, almost shyly, then stops.

I am intensely conscious of Edward's hand in mine. It feels so natural there, like these two hands belong together. Or something... I'm getting distracted again.

"Yeah?" I say, finally looking up at him.

"...would you mind if I sat in?"

He says it so softly, so tentatively, that I'm not sure I heard him correctly. International celebrity Edward Cullen wants to sit in with the northside homeboy Dust Covers?

However, before I can answer, I'm blindsided by a punch to my shoulder from behind and turn to find Alice bouncing in her patented fighter's stance.

"Jasper! What the hell happened to you?" she asks. "We waited for twenty minutes at the bus stop and you weren't answering your phone so we finally just decided to come and see if you got run over or something and Katerina told us you were over here so what the hell happened to you anyway?" She doesn't wait for a reply but readies another punch.

I hold up my free hand protectively but she's distracted by James and Riley as they call out a greeting. There's a cute guy with her and she drags him over to the tiny stage to introduce him. Garrett, the new boyfriend.

She stops bouncing suddenly, with a little "Oh!" when she finally notices that I'm holding someone's hand. Her eyes widen when she sees whose hand I'm holding.

"Um, Alice Brandon, this is Edward Cullen," I say, taking great pleasure in watching her jaw drop. Again. This time she manages to do it with a certain panache, I notice.

"Alice," Edward says, extending his other hand to shake hers. "The elf-girl!" he exclaims suddenly as he recognizes her.

At that, Garrett perks up and starts to speak. Alice puts a finger to his lips. "Not now, sweetie," she says, blushing as I laugh. Edward looks perplexed.

"Apparently Garrett is an aficionado of elves," I explain.

"Brilliant," Edward says with a lovely crooked smile on his face that I want to see much more of.

"Edward," I say, turning back to answer his question, "we'd be honored – and a little overwhelmed, I think – but you are more than welcome to join us."

I beam at Alice and gesture toward the empty seats at our table as Edward slides over and stands up, still holding my hand. Behind his back I can see Alice on tiptoe, mouthing "Wow!" in my direction.

As he sits down at the piano, I can hear a ripple of excitement flowing outward from our table as some of the other customers recognize Edward. When I introduce him to James and Riley, I see the same shocked expression that probably has been on my face ever since those two old ladies approached him in the mall. When he runs through a few arpeggios to warm up, I notice Kate's head pop up like a prairie dog in a gopher hole from where she is chatting with a couple of regulars. As we talk about a few things we need to change with the addition of the piano, she quickly makes her way to the stage with an excited gleam in her eyes.

Edward seems to guess what she's going to say and speaks before she can get too carried away. "Kate, right now I'm just a guy who met Jasper in the mall this afternoon. With his permission, I'm sitting in on a couple of numbers, if that's okay with you."

She nods mutely.

"If one of the guys does introductions at some point, he's welcome to introduce me too. Or not. It's up to them."

She opens her mouth to protest, to claim the honor of introducing him herself but he puts up a hand and stops her again.

"I hope you don't mind, Kate, but I'm on holiday and I'm just trying to relax a little."

She sighs, then shrugs, perhaps realizing that whether she introduces him or not, this is going to be legendary and will do nothing but add more luster to her restaurant's reputation. She throws in her last gambit. "Can I record this? For Jasper, I mean."

"How?" I ask eagerly. What I wouldn't give for a demo tape with Edward Cullen on piano!

"Use my phone," Edward says, pulling it out of his pocket. He sets it up for digital video recording, then hands it to Alice.

"Ready?" I ask. James and Riley are looking a little green around the gills but they nod and off we go.

Of course, Edward is a fabulous improvisational player. His notes weave in and out of our melody line, alternating between harmonizing beautifully and throwing in a bit of dissonance that transforms our journeyman efforts into something earthy and quixotic.

We finish our third number to wild applause and, when I introduce everyone, including Edward, there is a collective gasp in the house and then enough applause to raise the roof. I look for Kate and see her give an enthusiastic two thumbs up for the encore.

"We're gonna wrap this up with a little something from the White Stripes," I announce. I look at Edward but he shakes his head and sits back on the piano bench as we launch into "I Can Learn." Without an electric guitar, it doesn't have as much punch as the original but we aren't too shabby.

I don't know any lullabies,
I don't know how to make you mine
but I can learn...

No harm will come of this
one little midnight kiss
It will not burn...

I guess I'm not too surprised to find myself turning toward Edward like a sunflower toward the sun as I sing and play. James and Riley had argued with me for a long time about the fourth song of our set and I hadn't been in favor of this one. Now I am grateful for their persistence and I just sing from the heart, never looking away from Edward's steady gaze.

We take our bows and then it's over. The spotlights go off as we pack up our gear while Edward sits unmoving, staring at the piano keys. Before Kate can announce the next performer, his disembodied voice emerges from the darkness.

"This is for Seth," he says quietly into the mic as he starts playing a slow dirge of a melody that soon quickens and picks up a few jazzy motifs, light and sparkling and full of joy. Then it winds down, becomes solemn, and the dirge is back, except for the last few notes, which sound something like a question mark.

The room is so silent that you could hear the proverbial pin drop. No one is sure if he's finished until he stands up and walks back to our table. Then there is thunderous applause, rolling in waves from the bar at the back of the restaurant, through all the tables, and growing even louder as people stand up and add cries of "Bravo!" and "More!" to their applause.

He sits down wearily and lifts one hand in acknowledgment before covering his face. As he does, I see a trail of tears down his cheeks. Cameras are starting to flash and it just feels intolerably invasive to me. I stands up with my back to the house and pull Edward up in front of me, then push him toward the rest rooms between the stage and the kitchen.

We go into the men's room and I lock the door and lean against one of the sinks. Edward closes a toilet seat, sits down, and reaches for paper to blow his nose.

"I'm sorry about this," he says with an apologetic gesture toward his face. The tears haven't stopped.

"Edward, you have nothing to be sorry for. You – "

His head jerks up and he has a furious look on his face. "You don't know anything," he shouts. "You don't know what I did."

"Then tell me," I say quietly. He shakes his head. "What happened to Seth?"

"Don't you follow the news? It was everywhere," he says in a hollow, grief-choked voice. "Surely you've heard how Edward Fucking Cullen put his business manager and lover on a plane and sent him off to die."

"But Edward," I protest gently, now recalling a different version of the story, "it wasn't your fault."

"What the hell do you know? I should have been on that plane, not him," he mutters.

"Yeah, well, you weren't. I'm sorry that your boyfriend died," I say, a bit more flippantly than I intended. "Really I am," I amend carefully, "but I'm glad you didn't die and Isabella didn't die. You both would have been on that plane with him, right? If her connecting flight hadn't been late?"

How do I know this stuff? Suddenly, I vaguely remember the chef at Katerina's showing me an article in People magazine as I washed salad greens one night shortly after it happened... last year... right around Christmas...

"He didn't have to take that flight; he could have waited for you. It wasn't your fault, Edward," I repeat, terrified that he is about to walk out of my life again, filled with self-loathing for a plane crash over which he had had no control.

The air is thick with silence for several moments, broken only by the slow, steady drip from a leaky faucet, the soundtrack for Edward's tears.

"I met Seth when he was a roadie for the Pat Metheny Group during the Bright as Day tour," he begins in a low voice.

I remember that summer tour. I was 16 years old and I thought Pat Metheny was a fucking genius. I rode my battered old Honda 250 motorcycle to every one of his concerts in the Midwest – Illinois, Wisconsin, Indiana, even Ohio. Edward had stepped in for Lyle Mays at the last minute. That was the first time I had ever heard him perform live and it still gives me goosebumps to think about those performances. Now I'm grateful that I hadn't recalled this fact before the set. He's already intimidating enough as it is.

"He was 18 and I was 19," he continues slowly. "It was the first time I'd been allowed to travel without my parents and here was this beautiful Quileute boy who loved me, not my fame or my talent or my money or connections. I never met anyone so giving, so selfless. He taught me everything I know about love until Isa came along..." He faltered, and I could see fresh tears on his face.

I've never had a Seth in my life, someone who loved me with no strings attached, and I ache for Edward and his loss.

"Edward," I say, "she's a beautiful child. Anyone can tell that you're a really good father. I'm sorry that Seth died," I tell him again. "But I'm so glad you're here... right now... with me," I add fervently.

He doesn't say anything as he stands up and walks over to the sink next to me. He splashes some water on his face, then turns toward me.

"So am I," he says with equal fervor as he reaches up to caress my face. I move toward him as he licks his lips. This time there are no phones; he isn't getting ready to leave a message. Or maybe he's gonna send me a message, the kind of message I've been hoping to receive ever since I first laid eyes on him.

I run my fingers through his hair and pull him into a rough kiss. It isn't delicate; it doesn't start out soft or build slowly. It goes from zero to 90 in less than five seconds. It's a Maserati of a kiss, a Lamborghini, all sleek and shiny and hard, with powerful curves and racing engines. My heart is pounding as I press my body against his and I can feel his heart pounding too as I suck on his lower lip, then probe with my tongue until it meets his. I can feel his moan before I hear it. It sends a shiver down my spine and straight to my cock

As our kiss deepens, I feel his arms wrap around me, pulling me closer. I run my hands down his back to his muscular ass and grind my hips into his, letting him know how he makes me feel, and how much I like the feeling of his body close to mine. Even through my old denim jeans and his tailored wool slacks I can tell that his cock is as hard as mine.

I want to taste him so badly. I want to unzip him and then blow his mind. I get even harder as I think about turning him around, bending him over the sink, and coming deep inside him.

But not here. Not Edward Cullen. Right now he deserves something better than a tryst in a restaurant bathroom, something more than just a quick fuck.

And, I am surprised to realize, so do I.

When we finally come up for air, I open my eyes and see myself in the mirror. I can't help but laugh at the sight of bad-ass Jasper Whitlock in his leather jacket, lips swollen from kissing, eyes glazed with lust, and a jaunty Santa hat still sitting on his golden locks.

Edward stares at the mirror with a startled expression on his face. I know I'm not the one he's missing, the one with the shock of black hair and the burnished copper skin that I remember from publicity photos. I'm not the one with the familiar angles and muscles, ripples and bulges.

But perhaps he'll let me be the one tonight. The one who's here now. The one who can carry his bags without feeling like a servant. The one who can anchor him when the tsunami of loss threatens to drown him again.

The one he kisses; the one who kisses him back.

Real. Flesh and bone. Alive.

Is he ready for this? I don't know.

Am I ready for what comes after? For how I'll feel when he flies away, back to the outer stratosphere where he has always lived?

I don't know that either, but I'm willing to find out.

As the song says, I can learn. And maybe he can too.

A/N: TruceOver and winterstale took time out from their holiday preparations to give me the most amazing feedback on earlier drafts of this story. I hope they'll be able to see how their perceptive insights helped to make Jasper a better person. References to Spin are my homage to starfish422, who provided reassurance regarding a section of the story that ended up getting cut for the moment. DarkBlueBella held my hand during the anxiety-attack phase of writing this story. Merry Christmas and many thanks to all of you for your support. And thanks to Reni, not only for providing a great prompt that took me to unexpected places but also for allowing me to share the results of this journey.