The Christmas schlock at the mall was in full swing when Layla and Magenta entered. Layla looked around and sighed.
"Just say it," Magenta exclaimed.
"Christmas has become so commercialized," Layla started, with Magenta mouthing the word 'commercialized' along with her. "It’s supposed to be about love, generosity, family, all that good stuff. Not greed and just getting as many presents as possible."
"It’s about the presents, girl, don’t kid yourself. American Buddhist families celebrate presents, not the birth of Jesus."
"But love and generosity aren’t just Christian ideals! They’re universal."
"You think all spirituality is universal."
Magenta patted her on the shoulder. "Don’t worry, that’s one of the things we love about you."
They made their way through the furor of carols and tinsel and shoppers to the closest store, a cute little clothing boutique. As soon as they got in the door something on the first rack caught Layla’s eye and she pulled out an adorable short green dress.
"So all I have to do is find the things I would never ever wear and buy them for you," Magenta said.
"I think you look great." Although it was true: Layla would never wear any of Magenta’s outfits.
"Oh, that’s, I didn’t mean it that way," Magenta replied quickly. "You always look cute. I just wouldn’t wear your clothes myself."
Layla nodded and smiled. "I know. Hey, maybe we could dress up as each other next Halloween or something." Magenta giggled.
It took some coordination to acquire anything without letting the other girl see, but in the end Layla left with a scarf in stripes of purple velvet and black fishnet. She thought her friend would like it, and was glad that she didn't know yet what was in Magenta's shopping bag.
They headed back into the main concourse. The center of the mall had a North Pole scene with a giant pine tree under which a Santa sat on what looked exactly like a throne. The poor tree had been cut and placed in water and was slowly eking out the last bits of its life. Layla steered Magenta past it and touched one of the branches. Magenta looked on sympathetically.
Layla sent out soothing vibes through the tree. Its phloem was drying out and its needles were falling off, scattered over the blanket of fake snow beneath it. Layla wanted to send a vivacious jolt through it and strengthen it, but didn’t because that would just prolong its pain.
This was another part of Christmas she wasn’t so happy about.
They passed the line of children waiting for Santa and dodged through the crowd of parents on the side. "Have you been naughty or nice?" Layla heard Santa ask of the little girl on his lap. His loud, "Ho ho ho!" covered up her answer.
Then Magenta nudged Layla and pointed in a store window. Warren was standing there flipping through a rack of CDs.
"Hey, Peace," Magenta said as they walked up behind him, "don’t you just burn your own?"
"Oh, that’s original, hamster. Hi, hippie." He turned around and grinned at them.
"Are you doing Christmas shopping?" Layla would have assumed that it was probably one of the many things Warren disdained, so she was surprised to see him here. Actually, she was a little surprised to see him in the mall at all.
"Only for my mother. Don’t expect me to get anything for you guys." He bonked Layla lightly on the head with the CD he was holding and she could feel herself blush.
"Well, I’m still getting something for you." She gave presents to everyone she knew.
"Don’t worry, I won’t waste my money," Magenta replied. Warren grinned, cocked an eyebrow, and presented her the CD in his hands with a flourish. She took it, laughed, bowed slightly, and then passed it back to him. He returned it to the rack.
The three of them wandered out of the music store and back into the main causeway of the mall. A group of soccer mom types loaded down with packages jostled past, and Layla found herself having to push away bags that banged into her.
Once they had shoved through, trading quick apologies with the women, Warren glanced back, frowning. "What’s the fad this year? All the parents today have been getting their kids the same thing."
"What do you mean?" Magenta asked.
"All the parents, all their bags and boxes feel the same." Then he clarified, since Magenta was just raising her eyebrows at him and starting to open her mouth. "It’s something pretty flammable. So up close I can tell it’s all the same substance, same shape and size, same thing."
Layla nodded. "Yeah." She’d sort of noticed it too when they were banging around, but there were so many plants and plant products surrounding them that she hadn’t tried to distinguish anything. She focused outward, curiously, probing the bags around her. Cotton, paper, cardboard, but inside... "It’s a dead plant product, but not wood. Something like... humus dirt... gasoline? It feels like pencil lead."
"Pencils don’t really have lead," Warren said. "They use graphite, which is a form of-" His eyes went really wide. "-coal. Everyone’s carrying around lumps of coal."
"Seriously?" Magenta glanced around. "They’re giving their kids coal? How cruel is that."
"They can’t be!" Layla exclaimed. "That’s horrible!"
"Have you seen any stores in here selling coal?" Warren waved a hand around at all the brightly lit window displays and the various products. "I hate to say it, but I think we may be dealing with a villain." He narrowed his eyes, whirled around, and pointed dramatically back at the mock North Pole. "My guess is Santa."
Magenta pursed her lips and shrugged. "Makes sense."
"Santa isn’t evil. You two are such cynics," Layla argued.
"Oh, Santa’s definitely evil. Or he would be if he existed." Warren shook his head. "But since he doesn’t, and that’s just some guy dressed as him, I’m betting villain. You know how it is, if you’re going to use your powers to spread coal around in a mall at Christmas, you dress up as Santa Claus to do it. Them’s the rules."
"Or it could maybe be one of the elves," Magenta added.
Layla was watching carefully now. A mother with an armload of bags escorted her five-year-old up to sit on Santa’s lap. As the kid smiled and chattered away, the feeling of the mother’s bags changed, until they were just like the rest. The other bags still in line, and some of the ones in the halls, felt different and varied, but every parent who had already left the Santa station felt the same. "It’s someone over there," she stated, "for sure. That’s just despicable."
Warren nodded. "Do you think you can take a closer look, hamster?"
Magenta rolled her eyes. "Great. A chance to get trampled." But she handed Layla her shopping bag, slipped through the crowd toward the huge Christmas tree, and then dropped out of sight. Warren put a hand on Layla’s back and led her over to a bench that had a better vantage point, snagging the seats as he helped an elderly couple to stand up.
"Should we call for help?" Layla asked.
"Maybe. Wanna try it ourselves first?"
Layla considered for a moment and then nodded. She didn’t want mayhem in the mall, but there was a certain thrill to defeating villains. Saving the school from Royal Pain and Penny had been frightening and also one of the most exciting moments of her life, and had really made her understand what it was to be a hero.
They would have to be careful not to compromise their own identities, though.
The Christmas tree vibrated, then Magenta appeared from behind it. She waved at them and held up a scrap of shopping bag paper. "Yes," was written on it, and something in Chinese that Layla couldn’t read. Warren flashed a thumbs-up. Magenta disappeared again.
"Time to take down Santa." Warren grinned.
"Without getting turned into a lump of coal," Layla added.
"Don’t worry, hippie, if you do, I won’t let you get burned up." He nudged her gently in the ribs. "Do your tree-whisperer thing."
Reaching out with her power, Layla touched the Christmas tree that she had communed with earlier. She didn’t feel any creatures in its branches, so Magenta ought to be safely out of range.
The tree was fading and weak, and Layla sent an apology to it for making it do this. She pulled as much as she could of the water in its pot up into its system, waited until the current child left the Santa’s lap, and then bent the branches down and wrapped them around Santa.
The little girl approaching Santa’s throne screamed and started to cry. Her father snatched her up and backed off. The rest of the line turned into a pandemonium of shrieks and running feet.
"Santa!" she heard a kid yell. "That tree’s hurting Santa!"
Santa struggled but the branches held him tight.
Then all around them things started turning into coal.
Not people, Layla noticed with a rush of relief, just things.
One man’s whole shopping bag turned into a handful of coal that he dropped on the ground. A baby ended up crying on a piece of coal that used to be a stroller. A woman kicked away coal from her now bare feet. The plastic gingerbread playhouse was decorated with unappetizing black coal instead of painted candy.
Santa was still struggling and Layla kept worrying he was going to turn the tree into coal. He didn’t, so maybe he couldn’t. Or he just wasn’t that evil, sparing the tree and the people.
He totally was evil, though, because if all the children of the metropolis of Maxville had eagerly ripped open their presents on Christmas morning and found only coal, that would have been a truly cruel disappointment. Why would anyone want to do that, just hurt so many people for no reason? She couldn’t even see any benefit he would get that might explain it. She would never understand such malice.
A group of security guards was weaving through the crowd toward Santa. He struggled harder against the branches and some of the guards’ hats and walkie-talkies turned into coal. They didn't look prepared to face a villain; Layla didn’t even think they were carrying handcuffs or anything.
Then she heard Warren yelling beside her. "You bastard! That was my favorite jacket!" She looked over to see him pluck a lump of coal off the shoulder of his t-shirt and throw it toward Santa's throne. It burst into flame as it left his hand, arched through the air, and crashed into a giant fake candy cane which caught up the merry blaze.
Warren whooped in excitement, then immediately looked contrite and rushed over to knock the candy cane down into the neighboring fountain.
The blaze didn’t go out cleanly, though. It sent up a sizzling cloud of steam and smoke which caused the fire alarm to shriek out in warning. The sprinkler system kicked in and began to rain down on all of them. The loud blaring noises and flashing lights exacerbated the frenzy of the crowd, now streaming even more wildly toward the exits.
"Please remain calm," the PA system bleated, instructing people in how to respond to the emergency.
Magenta popped up beside Layla. "Wet fur isn’t fun," she said, "and neither are wet clothes." She had to yell over the noise, brushing her hair back and wiping her face. She took her shopping bag and curled over it protectively. Warren was grumbling quietly to himself on her other side. Layla still had to concentrate on the tree, but Santa didn’t seem to be going anywhere and the guards were right around him now.
"We should head out before we attract too much attention," Warren said. Layla waved her hands around, still focusing on the tree. She knew she was incoherent but Warren and Magenta both got it. No new pieces of coal seemed to be appearing. The guards had Santa surrounded and he was acting subdued, his head dropped and looking ready to go with them as they took hold of him and talked to him sternly. Layla pulled the branches back but stayed prepared to grab again if he made a run for it. He didn’t.
She pulled her powers away from the tree, leaving it to drink up the new falling water, then turned and started walking away before the guards noticed them, Warren and Magenta following her now.
"Hot chocolate?" Magenta asked.
"Sure," Warren replied. "We beat up Santa and I burned a creepy candy cane, let’s celebrate."
"And no one was hurt," Layla added brightly.
Warren gestured at the wet t-shirt clinging to his chest. "My wardrobe was."
Now Layla knew exactly what to get Warren: a nice new jacket that wasn’t made of leather.
Friendship and giving, that was the real meaning of Christmas.