Finland tugged his bright red coat closer about his shoulders, burying his nose in the layers of warm furry trim around the collar. Christmas Eve night was barely half over, and he still had many hours to go before he could think about turning the reindeer towards home. But in a few minutes, he knew, he would have a little company on his otherwise solitary flight around the world.
The whole concept of sharing the sky was relatively recent, as nations' memories went. Humans had scarcely mastered the art of powered flight before it became one more thing to squabble over, and soon the heavens had been carved up into jealously guarded pieces, just as the land had been. An even greater shadow had darkened the open skies before two full generations could take to the air. And in spite of all the stories that parents had told their children about Santa over the centuries, Finland had found himself worrying that the magic that carried his sleigh through the night sky every year would not be enough to shield him from the eyes and ears in the radar towers and military listening posts being built far below. Paranoid was too charitable a word to describe how America and Russia were acting towards each other in those days, and humans were seldom prepared to cope with the possibility that the old tales might have something of the truth in them after all.
Thankfully, the old magic protected him. No fighter planes came racing after his sleigh. No missiles sought him out in the air. He was relieved, of course, but his relief was not much comfort. There was peace on earth -- a tense, chilly sort of peace, but peace nonetheless -- and yet Finland sometimes found it difficult to muster any feelings of goodwill to anyone when he was alone in the sleigh with only the winter stars burning cold and distant overhead, mere pinpoints of light in the endless dark.
Nonetheless, each Christmas Eve came and went, much as it had for all the years before...until a breathless, top-secret telephone call from America gave Finland's yearly duties a whole new meaning.
At the time, he hadn't entirely understood America's story about the mixed-up telephone number and the children's phone calls. Once he heard the gist of the plan, however, he couldn't help but share some of America's excitement. Children still believed in the magic of the season, and adults could often recapture a little of that belief by playing along for the children's sake. For all his grown-up bluff and swagger, America still had a child's enthusiasm at heart, and Finland was more than willing to give the old Santa stories a modern, jet-age flair. So that Christmas, he went on his route as usual -- and had returned home to find his telephone ringing off the hook, heedless of the hour and the holiday, because America was nearly bursting with delight at how well their plan had been received.
'Oh, man, just wait 'til I tell Canada about this!' America had exclaimed, so loudly that Finland had to hold the receiver away from his ear. 'He'll totally want in on it. I mean, the North Pole is practically in his backyard!'
And that was how it had started. More than half a century later, America's fanciful idea had turned into an annual tradition, and Finland found it hard to remember how he could ever have looked forward to Christmas Eve without it.
Judging by the position of the stars, the sleigh was on the fringes of North American airspace. Carefully, Finland reached into the pocket of his coat and took out a small bullet-shaped headset, about the size of the one he used for his mobile phone. He wasn't entirely sure how the equipment worked with the magic of the sleigh: all he knew was that America had asked England and Norway -- the only other NATO member-nations that he and Canada had fully entrusted with the knowledge of their plan -- to put their heads together and puzzle it out. The first few headsets they had made had been awkward-looking contraptions cobbled together out of old wartime materials, but with America's help they had refined the mechanics and the technology over the years to work so smoothly that now it was almost second nature for Finland to operate it. He and Norway checked the headset's magical connection every Christmas Eve morning, and they'd never had any problems with it so far.
He switched on the headset, mindful of his fingers' slight clumsiness in their gloves, and adjusted the earpiece to fit snugly in his ear. His escort would be on its way. Taking up the reins with both hands again, he settled in to wait.
A minute passed, then two, then three. Finland kept the reindeer on a steady flight path, and resisted the temptation to glance over his shoulder. His patience was soon rewarded when he felt the familiar shift in the wind currents that heralded the imminent arrival of his escort.
Seconds later, a pair of fighter jets blazed past the sleigh, one on either side. Even though they passed him at a distance of several kilometres, Finland had to hold fast to the reins to ride out the turbulence of their wake. He barely had time to catch a glimpse of their tailpipes before they vanished into the darkness, but he knew the pilots would be banking hard to bring their planes around and decelerate to match his speed. Sure enough, not a moment later the jets rose into view once more, gracefully climbing into position a few kilometres above and ahead of his sleigh.
Finland's eyes had long since adjusted to seeing in the dark, and with the help of the planes' formation lights he could just pick out their identifying markings. The one on his left was blazoned with the U.S. Air Force's familiar star-and-stripes insignia, while the one on his right had the prominent maple leaf of the Royal Canadian Air Force on its tail and fuselage. Both planes were fitted with the standard missiles and other intimidating weapons systems intended for their defensive missions, but the sight only made Finland smile. They weren't here to attack him, after all -- they were here to welcome him.
'This is Eagle to Santa One, Eagle to Santa One.' The voice in his headset was clear and sharp, with no more than the faintest hiss of static to mar the transmission. 'Alouette and I have you on radar and visual. Confirm receipt of this message, over.'
Finland sat up a little straighter and looked from side to side, checking to be certain that he had direct lines of sight to both fighter jets before he replied. 'This is Santa One -- I read you, Eagle,' he said, slowly and clearly. 'I have you and Alouette on visual. How's my audio, over?'
Both fighter jets flashed their navigational lights, and the American plane waggled its wings in further acknowledgement. 'Loud and clear, Santa One,' America said cheerfully, as his plane settled back into smooth and level flight. 'It's good to see ya.'
'We were starting to wonder about you,' Canada said. On the older headsets, it had sometimes been difficult to tell their voices apart, but Finland's newest headset was sensitive enough to pick up the difference. It was also sensitive enough to pick up on the concern in Canada's voice. 'You're a bit behind schedule tonight -- is everything okay?'
'Made a slight detour near Iceland,' Finland said. 'Had a line of squalls passing due west of the Faroes, and I wanted to avoid them. I didn't mean to make you worry,' he added hastily.
'Nah, it's cool,' America said. 'Just making sure you're all right.' The mention of the weather seemed to remind him of one of the duties that justified the use of their expensive military equipment on this annual mission, and his voice grew more brisk and official-sounding as he continued. 'Forecast on my end gives you clear sailing through Chicago, and a bit of patchy fog and cloud cover up to the Rockies but nothing nasty that might knock you off course. Everything good up your way, bro?'
'Bagotville and Cold Lake have no warnings to report,' Canada replied. 'I'd say you have a fine night for it, Santa One.'
'I'm very glad to hear it.' Strictly speaking, the weather report wasn't entirely necessary. Over the years, Finland had flown through every conceivable kind of foul weather, from blizzards over the Himalayas to typhoons in the Sea of Japan, and there was very little that Mother Nature could do that would surprise him these days. Yet it was a moment of thoughtfulness that showed how seriously both America and Canada took their escort duties, and it never failed to hearten him even when he was feeling more cold and tired than usual. 'Thanks again for checking up on me.'
'Hey, we wouldn't want you to think we were falling down on the job.' America paused, and cleared his throat noisily before he added, with practised casualness, 'So, uh...any hints on our presents?'
'Oh, for -- ' Canada broke in, exasperated, before Finland could reply. 'Every year. Every single year. Why do you always ask that when you know what the answer's going to be?'
Finland had to laugh. Even though Canada was right, America always sounded so hopeful that it was a pity to have to disappoint him each time. 'You know the rules,' he said, gently chiding. 'Your gifts will be waiting for you when you wake up tomorrow morning -- which means that you can't stay up all night hoping for a peek.'
America's pout was almost audible over the radio, but soon enough he was laughing as well. 'Never hurts to ask, bro,' he said, and Finland could easily picture the pragmatic shrug that went along with the grin in his voice. 'Anyway, your flight plan's cleared across all of our regions, Santa One. Safe flying, and Merry Christmas from both of us.'
'Hyvää joulua to you, too,' said Finland. 'Give my best to your bosses, and I hope you and your people all have a safe and happy New Year.'
'Will do.' America waggled his wings again. 'Eagle to Alouette -- you ready to head back?'
'Roger that, Eagle,' Canada said, and both planes flashed their navigational lights once more. 'See you next year, Santa One. This is Alouette and Eagle, over and out.'
The two fighter jets broke away from their escort positions, turning into a coordinated dive that would take them out of Finland's flight path. Within moments, they were out of sight and hearing, racing away through the night to return to their bases on either side of the border.
Finland took the headset out of his ear, switched it off, and slipped it back into his coat. Now that he was officially in North American airspace, he could once again concentrate fully on the task ahead of him. Far below, hundreds of people would be busy all through the night, answering phone calls and writing press releases and posting 'updates' on his flight path and location. And for all that Finland was the one currently riding in a enchanted sleigh drawn by flying reindeer, he always felt a quiet thrill of awe whenever he thought of the other kind of magic that was hard at work on Christmas Eve.
It was a cold night and a long ride, this year and every year, but he wouldn't be flying alone.