On Halloween, Black Santa came to test them.
Rihito had heard Kaito and Kurumi talk about the man and the unforgiving trial he had subjected them to. Black Santa was someone who had the ability to forcefully rip the bonds between santa and reindeer apart. Rihito, even though he had never wanted to meet his santa, didn't want this kind of intrusion either.
His life and his will were his own.
Seeing the man and his crooked smile caused Rihito to take a step back, putting him slightly behind his santa, not that he was trying to hide or anything. The emotionless female reindeer by the man's side didn't help matters. Rihito's santa merely stared at the ominous man straight on with no clue about how dangerous the man could be.
"You heard what I told the idealistic duo," said the dark-haired man in the cloak, jerking his head towards the direction Kaito had left in with Kurumi. "I'm here to judge you." When Rihito continued to stare in distrust, the man paused and shook his head, disappointment flashing across his face, though his eyes told Rihito the man couldn't care less about what Rihito thought of him. "But you wound me. There's no need for you to be so wary."
Rihito pushed his thin glasses up. He was not at all reassured by the man's words.
"I've heard plenty about you," Rihito said. Inadvertently, he stepped closer to his santa, almost wanting to pull the high schooler back, to get him out of the way because this man was dangerous.
Black Santa waved his hand in the air in dismissal. "Surely they were good things? If not, know that inspections are crucial. I would have thought that you two would appreciate the chance to sever your relationship. You don't seem to get along."
Of course they didn't get along. Rihito hadn't ever wanted to play servant to anyone. His santa didn't need this either, since giving gifts to good children wasn't going to make him any richer, and what he needed wasn't good will but money to raise his sister. Neither of them wanted or needed this extra responsibility.
Be as that may, Rihito was determined to end things on his own accord if it ever came to that. He hadn't been allowed any choice in the start of this master-servant relationship between him and his santa, but he was going to do his utmost to cling onto what little volition he did have in this matter.
"I see you are connected even when it's not Christmas," stated Black Santa. "It confuses me why you would continue to choose to be around each other when you clearly don't mix well. You don't need to meet until Christmas."
Rihito had no comment for that because as much as he hated his servitude, he hated the idea of kissing his santa even more, and the same went for his santa. It wasn't like he particularly enjoyed or disliked his santa's presence, but their meetings just happened, regardless of whether or not his santa made him come flying to his feet with a slip of the tongue. Rihito always berated his santa for that, but his santa would forget and do it again the next day. Today actually wasn't his santa's fault for once. Kurumi had been the one to invite his santa over this time for the costume party, and Miyuki's excitement at the invitation had made it hard to say no.
"Let me fix that for you," said the man, breaking Rihito out of his thoughts.
Before Rihito could react to the man's words, the dark-haired man walked up to them, pushing his santa off to the side.
"Hey!" exclaimed his santa to no avail, his nonchalant expression replaced by an annoyed one. Rihito only saw it for a split second before the dark-haired man filled his vision.
The man's mouth was curved upwards in a smirk. He was completely in Rihito's personal space. It made Rihito's skin crawl, but for some reason, Rihito couldn't pull his eyes away, and he couldn't make out what his santa was saying. He only knew he was yelling something heatedly at the man that had separated them.
This man was muttering something too.
White. Something white was wrapped around the dark-haired man's hand. The reins. Rihito's reins. The man was holding the ribbon that connected Rihito to his santa. While his mind tried to process this, the dark-haired man pulled Rihito forward roughly, making Rihito stumble. The man was practically in Rihito's face. Up close, Rihito could see the emotion that swam in the man's eyes.
"Kiss him," the man breathed, close enough to send chills down Rihito's neck from the feeling of the man's warm breath on his skin.
His santa pulled the man off him.
The dark-haired man stepped backward, smirk in place.
His santa came forward, asking if he were all right and what the man had said to him.
There was no way he was going to kiss his santa. That was what Rihito wanted to say, but instead, he felt himself take a step forward.
No way, thought Rihito in desperation, his heart pounding furiously. No way was this happening. His legs felt like they belonged to someone else. Stop moving, he commanded himself. Stop. Don't do this. That man isn't even your santa. Why are you obeying his command? Why do you have to obey the command of another? Isn't Tateyama Daisuke more than enough?
His santa was saying something, but it wasn't a command.
Command me to stop, thought Rihito desperately, eyes on his santa's moving mouth. Give me a command, any command.
When his santa laid a hand on his shoulder in concern, Rihito instead closed the distance between them, pressing himself up against his santa. His santa was merely a high schooler, but he was a lot better built than Rihito from all the construction work and other miscellaneous jobs he did. Rihito could feel exactly how fit his santa was thanks to his santa's thin shirt, but Rihito didn't want to know any of this. He had never wanted to get so close.
He captured those chapped lips with his own, inanely thinking his santa needed some lip balm - he didn't need to know this either - even as he saw his santa's eyes widen, those normally aloof eyes filled with shock.
"What the hell are you doing?" his santa growled when they parted, his eyes flashing. He looked like he was about to shove him when Black Santa stepped in again.
"Nuh uh, not gonna let you do that," the man said. He grabbed both Rihito and his santa's arms and pulled them up, revealing bare wrists. "Look, gone right? You touch him again, those reins will come back, and everything would be for naught."
His santa snatched his hand back and stared at his bare wrist. "It's gone."
"Stating the obvious, but yes, it's gone, that is, until you touch him again," clarified Black Santa smugly.
"Was this our trial?" asked Rihito in shock, his stomach churning. He had kissed his santa. He had been forced to do something outside of his own volition once again, and it wasn't even Tateyama Daisuke who had commanded him. He hadn't been given a choice. He had been toyed around with like an inferior being that existed for the sole sake of following commands.
At the same time, he was free.
He rubbed at his mouth furiously, his lips burning from his rough treatment.
He was free.
He was free, but he felt downright terrible.
"I did you a favor. You wanted to be free, didn't you?" said the man.
"You made him do that?" interjected his santa, finally looking away from his bare wrist. "You forced him to do that?"
Black Santa held up his hands. "Hey, hey, like I said, it was a favor. Both of you wanted to be free of this. I helped you along since neither of you were taking any action."
He stopped and looked at them seriously.
"This is your trial. Decide what you're going to do from now on."
What were they going to do from now on? Rihito didn't know the answer to that. With the reins finally gone, Rihito could pretend he had never met Tateyama Daisuke, that he didn't know who his santa was. Even during Christmas, he could avoid running into his santa. He could turn his santa away if he ever came searching for him. As long as they never ever touched again, he could remain a free man. He could continue on with his life as a normal human instead of as a human who sometimes transformed into a reindeer and had to follow the commands of his santa.
He was part human. He cradled his wrist. He treasured that just as much as his younger brother treasured being a reindeer.
His santa was currently in the living room with Miyuki, who had been changing into her costume when Black Santa had come. Thankfully, that meant she had not seen what had happened. Kurumi, Kaito, and the rest of the family would be hard enough to deal with once they saw that his reins had disappeared. They'd know they had kissed. He didn't want to go into details or talk about what he felt. His entire family thought santas were the best. They never stopped to think about the fact that they were leading a life of servitude as long as their santas were around. What was so great about meeting their santas?
He slid down against the cabinets and covered his face with his hand. He could hear Miyuki's curious voice all the way from his position in the kitchen. He had retreated there with the excuse of getting something to drink. Sometimes, Miyuki reminded him a lot of his own younger siblings, though none of them had ever needed to learn how to cook out of necessity. None of them had to work to earn money for their survival either, like what his santa had to do. The fact that Miyuki was so cheerful even though her parents were no longer around must be thanks to her hardworking older brother.
Rihito lowered his hand and stared at his wrist. His arm looked so bare and pale. There was nothing tying him together with Tateyama Daisuke now. They were practically strangers.
"Are you coming with us-" came his santa's voice that gradually grew louder until it cut off abruptly. Rihito jerked his head up in surprise. There he was in the doorway, one hand propped on the side of the doorframe.
"Are you all right?" his santa asked instead when he saw Rihito on the floor. "You look terrible."
His santa was blunt like always. It made Rihito want to laugh.
His santa moved forward, as if wanting to reach out to give Rihito a hand up.
Rihito flinched, shoulder blades ramming into the cabinet doors behind him.
"Don't touch me!" he shouted, his voice reverberating in the empty kitchen.
His santa pulled his hand away as if he had been burned. Perhaps he had been by Rihito's sharp words.
"I'm sorry," he said quietly. "I forgot."
"You forgot?" said Rihito with a deprecating laugh, the laughter escaping before he could stop it. "You always forget. You have no idea what it feels like to have to obey someone's command, to have your ability to choose your own actions taken away from you."
His santa frowned.
"Don't take it out on me. It's not like I have a choice either. Do you think I like ordering you around?" he demanded in an annoyed tone.
Rihito shook his head, his throat dry. Despite first impressions, Tateyama Daisuke was a good person. Rihito knew he wasn't someone who took pleasure in ordering people about, but even knowing that didn't help keep his temper in check around the high schooler. Rihito was usually much more composed than this, but his santa's presence always set him off.
"I don't like ordering you around," his santa said with narrowed eyes. "I don't like being forced to be santa either, but I don't have the choice not to be santa because somehow, it seems that it's not something you choose. It's something that you are. And I'm santa, whether the reins exist or not."
Rihito stared. His santa breathed in deep breaths to calm himself, but he still looked like he was on his last fuse.
Rihito hadn't ever thought about it that way.
Tateyama Daisuke, like him, hadn't been given a choice. Tateyama Daisuke, like him, had a role to play.
Rihito had thought he'd be able to turn his back on the reindeer part of his identity. He had thought it'd be worth it, that he could do it without any regrets, but...
He ripped his gaze away from his santa to stare at his bare wrist.
Now he wasn't so sure.
"Are you coming with us to the party?" his santa asked again after a brief pause, returning back to the reason why he'd come to the kitchen in the first place. He managed to sound only slightly annoyed. Rihito welcomed the change of topic.
"Come with us," his santa urged. "You shouldn't be moping in here."
Rihito closed his hand around his wrist.
Ah, that Halloween party that Kaito and Kurumi had gone off to attend.
Going to the party with his santa and his santa's sister... that didn't sound half bad.
Even though there were no reins binding them together at the moment, Rihito found that he himself wished to go. His desire wasn't fabricated. He truly wished to go.
After all, his santa had asked him to come. At the party, Rihito had a feeling he'd be able to see his santa and Miyuki smile. It was rare for the siblings to be able to do something together, yet his santa was inviting him to join them. Maybe he'd even get along with his santa better without the reins hanging over all of their interactions.
Rihito pulled himself up, a tingling feeling traveling up his right leg from sitting too long. He tried to shake it out. His back was smarting too because of the hard cabinet doors that came with protruding handles that dug into his back. He stumbled over to the counter.
"Oh right," said his santa, "you came in here for drinks, right? Let me help you-"
Their hands brushed.
He stared in disbelief.
No way. This was not happening.
Slowly, Rihito turned towards his santa and shot him his deadliest glare over his thin glasses, a glare that would have scared most people out of their wits, but Tateyama Daisuke was not most people.
"I'm not kissing you again," Rihito gritted out through clenched teeth.
"I don't want to be kissed either!" retorted his santa.
"You don't need to yell that loudly!" exclaimed Rihito, his own voice growing louder with each exchange.
"You don't need to yell either!" came his santa's immediate response.
"Oniichan, what's going on?"
Rihito immediately froze. When had Miyuki approached the kitchen? It was all his santa's fault for being so loud.
"...nothing, Miyuki," said his santa.
"I thought I heard something about kissing..."
"You heard wrong."
"Really. Now out you go."
When his santa ushered Miyuki out of the kitchen, she reluctantly left but not without sneaking curious glances back at Rihito. His santa also looked back at him more than once, as if asking if he'd be okay. Rihito turned away, pretending he didn't notice a thing.
Once Rihito was alone, he grabbed the white ribbon that was once again wrapped snuggly around his wrist. He twisted the ribbon around his hand and swallowed thickly before clenching his hand, nails digging into his palm, ribbon crumpling in his grip. When he let go of the ribbon, it returned to its pristine form without a single wrinkle.
The reins were back.
"Are you coming?" came his santa's voice from the hallway.
He exhaled deeply, trying to regain some of his composure.
"Coming!" he called out.
A few streets away from the house, the man who had thrown Rihito for a loop was happily munching on his chocolate.
"Will they pass, Master?" asked Nene.
Hiza Akira broke off a piece of his chocolate and passed it to his reindeer. She took it and chewed on it without a word. He tossed his own chocolate into his mouth.
"Oh, they'll have no problems," he said while he chewed. "I don't even need to check up on them. I bet they've already exchanged blows or something of the like and reestablished the link, rendering my hard work useless."
He sighed dramatically and tossed the wrapper in the trash can. "All that hard work for nothing..."
He glanced back at his reindeer who made no comment about his theatrics. She was no fun, but that was because she had seen too much already, and he was getting close.
"Come, let's go, Nene. We have places to be."