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Saving Christmas

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“Oh, dear lord! Santa Saazbaum has been stricken with a terrible cold and Santa Cruhteo refuses to get out there because of the worst winter weather in a long time in his territory! Santa Marylcian was severely head-butted by one of his reindeer the other day and is submitted to the hospital, and Santa Mazuurek has disappeared after a practice ride with his sleigh along with his reindeer,” a woman shrieked and pulled at her jet-black hair with shock painting her face a red color.

She stood in front of the table in the conference room of the main building in the Korvatunturi fell, the main headquarters of Father Christmas and all Santas and their helpers. The room was filled with thirty-seven personal helpers in the form of representatives – one from each Santa – along with representatives from the toy factories and workshops, maintenance teams, finance department as well as the Helper Resources department and others.

The helper’s green little hat slowly slipped down from her head and fell on the table.

“What do we do now? We have an acute Santa crisis!” she howled.

“It’ll be stressful for the remaining Santas to deliver all the packages this year,” a brown-haired helper said. His hair had been tousled from the strong wind on his way to the main building moments earlier and he had not bothered to fix it. His green hat lay aslant on top of his head.

“Santa Marylcian’s reindeer have never liked him much, though. Serves him right for being such an ass,” a helper with light brown hair commented while flipping through the list of children Santa Barouhcruz would deliver Christmas presents to within a couple of days.

It was a long list.

“You shouldn’t say that!” a helper with perky ponytails said and looked at the other helper with a frown. “Santa Marylcian has been working hard,” she continued.

“By scaring the kids he delivered presents to last year you mean?” a fifth helper said with a wry smile. He had dark hair and a laidback attitude, always wearing a smile on his lips.

“Just because you represent Santa Marylcian, I don’t think you should deny him being kind of a mean Santa,” another helper said. She had dark hair as well, much like the helper standing in front of the large conference table.

The panicking helper was about to faint from the sudden stress this crisis had brought with it; she was pulling her hair harder and breathed heavily to stay calm. She failed at it miserably, though.

The little helper with blond hair sat far away from everyone and stared at the panicking supervisor Yuki, the wind-assaulted Inaho, the slightly unfocused Calm, the ponytail-crowned Nina, the carefree Okisuke, and the somewhat strict-looking Inko. He, however, was a silent helper who preferred to be the observant type by saying as little as possible during these meetings and simply did his job the way he had been ordered to without complaints.

The far end corner of the conference table was always his. Being social was not one of his strong characteristics; it was stressful for him in many ways as he thought he did not have much to contribute with in a dialogue or discussion. It was not that he did not enjoy listening to people or being around them; his problem was that others were eager to get him involved in everything they did, and being someone who lacked confidence in such situations led to social clumsiness. Mostly, he was left alone and no one paid him much mind. At times, however, he got anxious from being asked to go out for lunch or dinner. Turning people down again and again had become tiring; he did not like the feeling of being mean each time.

Instead, he filled his days with work – finding the reason of being too busy to socialize as a fitting excuse to avoid the anxiety socialization brought with it. This had given rise to a rumor of him being one of the hardest working helpers in Korvatunturi fell. He was unsure if the rumor was being truthful or simply flattering, or perhaps even spiteful, but he did his best with every task he got and solved the problems that came his way on his own.

“Slaine,” the panicking Yuki said, and the little blond helper flinched from the sudden attention he got.

“Huh?!” he blurted and directed his gaze to the helper speaking to him.

“Have you spoken to Santa Cruhteo about him refusing to work this Christmas? We really need all help we can get,” she said, and Slaine felt stressed out and fidgeted slightly where he sat far away from everyone else.

“Um… Y-yeah,” he mumbled and felt his face grow hot from everyone looking at him. “H-he simply refuses. Since the weather reports have promised a really bad weather during Christmas, he doesn’t f-find it tempting at all. He’s been o-on a bad mood for a while now, too.”

“And you have been forced to take care of his work for him again?” the Helper Resources representative Magbaredge asked and looked at the blond helper with a disapproving look in her pitying eyes. “You are aware that you have the right to refuse? It is not your job to do a Santa’s work since you are just a helper.”

Slaine blushed heavily and turned his eyes down to the edge of the table.

“I’m j-just helping him with his p-paper work and toy inspections…” he mumbled and wished everyone would stop looking at him like he was a victim of bullying.

“On top of that, you take care of his sleigh and reindeer, clean his office and other workspaces, take care of his tools, run his errands, go through the wishing lists of children and weigh the letters of these children to determine who is naughty and not,” Magbaredge continued. “That is more than any other personal helper does.”

Slaine shriveled up somewhat and felt mortified or being subjected to her bluntness in front of everyone else.

“I-I know,” he mumbled. “I don’t mind it really.”

The room went quiet. Slaine knew everyone knew he was working too hard for being a helper. No one decided to argue back, though, – which Slaine was grateful for – since they all knew Slaine was stubborn despite his namby-pamby attitude and character. Working to avoid others was his only way to cope with the anxiety socializing with others meant, and he would not let them take it away from him no matter how contra productive it might be, since, despite the loneliness, he still felt happy with his life as it was.

Even if he understood why the others carefully complained about Santa Cruhteo putting a lot of responsibility on the blond little helper’s shoulders, Slaine did not entirely agree that Cruhteo was a bad Santa. He actually thought the man was a hard worker, since he did not neglect his work simply because he thought he could. After Father Christmas’s global union of Santa headquarters had been created three years ago – an organization that united all of the Santa headquarters around the world – Santa Cruhteo had been the one in Korvatunturi fell who had gotten overwhelmed by paperwork and had little time to handle the rest of his duties. Because of this, Santa Cruhteo was a moody Santa, and no one really enjoyed his company except for those who had known him for many years.

Two years ago, the previous personal helper had quit their job as his assistant due to too much work and bad working conditions, and Slaine had gotten the position instead.

Santa Cruhteo could be scary, the blond little helper thought. On top of the huge load of work he had to deal with, he could also be moody because he got little to no time to worry for Father Christmas’s granddaughter, Asseylum, who he adored more than anything.

She was a willful girl who wanted much in life, and she was on a constant mission to modernize the Korvatunturi fell to catch up to the constantly modernizing world of humans. She was studying and working hard to one day take over the duty to administer the entire Santa activity in the world and become Mother Christmas, since Father Christmas – Rayregalia – had grown old and sickly. The strain to take over her grandfather’s work was great on the precious girl, and Santa Cruhteo was worrying and watching over her as if she was his own daughter. When the previous Father Christmas – Gilzeria and Asseylum’s father – had passed away after a dreaded accident with his sleigh, Santa Cruhteo had stepped up to help Rayregalia to care for his granddaughter.

She will be a perfect Mother Christmas,’ Slaine thought and suddenly blushed with joy. ‘She’s so tender and fair.

Because the blond little helper knew Santa Cruhteo was under too much stress and because he knew he thought of the future Mother Christmas being so precious, Slaine could also sympathize with him.

It’s no wonder he’s in a bad mood,’ he thought and found the other helpers’ accusatory tone ill-placed.

He was brusquely woken up from his unnoticed daydreaming at Yuki finally slamming her hands onto the table and looked at everyone in the room.

“What do we do?! We need more Santas!” she said. “If we won’t figure this out, Christmas will be a disaster this year.”

Inaho, who was Santa Mazuurek’s personal helper, answered with his usual monotone voice, saying:

“What about sending out some helpers to deliver the presents?”

“That is not acceptable,” Magbaredge said sternly. “It is too much work for a helper and not enough time. The midnight of Christmas Eve is two days away; you have to be ready by the evening of 23rd of December. On top of that, you have your regular duties to tend to as well, and it is too dangerous to send you out in the Santa sleighs since you have no proper training. The reindeer might be disobedient as well and fly off while the helper is busy delivering the presents.”

“But we can go two and two together,” Inaho insisted. “One takes the role of Santa, and the other keeps the reindeer under control. We already know how to drive the sleighs on the ground. I’m sure we can learn how to fly them pretty quickly. A day should be enough.”

A murmur swept through the room.

“That’s actually a good idea,” Inko chimed in with an excited look glistening in her dark eyes. “If the amount of work is the problem, I’m sure we can all help out. The ones who will fly the sleighs should prioritize the art of flying them, and we others will help best we can to relieve them of their regular duties; we’ll just have to work a couple of hours overtime.”

“Yeah!” Okisuke, who represented Santa Femianne, said and looked excited as well. “If we all help, we can do this! It’s less than a couple of days of hard work. It shouldn’t be too bad.”

Nina agreed with a glittering smile:

“I would love to fly my Santa’s sleigh! The reindeer like me, too!” she said and hummed eagerly.

“That’s because you’re good to them,” Calm said and shook his head when he continued: “Santa Marylcian is too harsh with the reins and commands; he’s too rough with his hardest workers. No wonder he was head-butted to the moon and back by Herschel.”

“Wait, wait,” a grumpy voice suddenly said, and everyone directed their eye to the grumpiest helper in the entire fell. Trillram was leaning against his elbow on the table and glared at everyone, clearly disliking the idea. “You mean I should fly Santa Saazbaum’s sleigh? Forget it!”

Inko narrowed her eyes, peering at him from the other side of the table.

“Then don’t,” she barked. “You would be a terrible stand-in for a Santa as well. It’s a wonder how the representative of Santa Saazbaum is such a Grinch when Santa Saazbaum is one of the best Santa’s in Korvatunturi fell.”

Trillram did not like her brutally honest remark and glared back at her with a poisonous glare. No one in the conference room neither denied nor agreed with Inko, but Slaine knew they silently shared thoughts with the dark-haired helper who did not hesitate to voice her opinions when she thought she should.

Slaine thought of that quality in her as admirable – it was something he was unable to do himself because of his withdrawn nature; all form of attention was uncomfortable for him, except for the attention he got from the future Mother Christmas. That one he liked.

“Okay, so we clearly have a problem with who wants to fly the sleighs and not,” Yuki said and scratched her head with a heavy sigh. She picked up her hat from the table and placed it back onto her head. “Should we vote for who wants to fly the sleighs?”

“I think it’s better to choose volunteers so that the reindeer won’t get stressed out by having someone reluctant pulling the reigns. We should remember the reindeer are mostly comfortable with their respective Santas, which makes them prone to stress with someone else flying them,” Inaho said, agreeing to his sister’s suggestion. “Perhaps it requires a little reorganization among us helpers, but all Santas have the same duties; switching between different Santas for a while shouldn’t be too demanding for the rest of the helpers.”

Everyone agreed, even Slaine. The blond little helper secretly wished to fly the sleigh as well, but he lacked the confidence needed for such a major task. Besides, he believed Santa Cruhteo would not be too happy about him handling his sleigh with an attitude like that.

I shouldn’t volunteer,’ he thought and sighed with shoulders slumping and a gloomy expression spreading on his face.

“Is this all right with you, Miss HR-tyrant Magbaredge?” Yuki asked with an innocent grin on her lips, clearly joking about the tyrant part.

The woman in charge of the HR department closed her eyes and sighed before going quiet for a while. She seemed to be thinking.

“If everyone agrees to this, then I will prepare the health team for increased stress. Do not forget that we are always stressed out right before Christmas Eve when everything has to be ready, so this should make this year even more stressful for us,” she finally said, and the room buzzled with happy voices.

“Okay, okay!” Yuki said and clapped her hands together to gather the helpers’ attention once again. “So, who wants to volunteer flying the sleighs? Put your hands up.”

Slaine watched Inaho, Inko, Calm, Nina and Okisuke raise their hands. Everyone else said they preferred to stay in Korvatunturi fell and help the volunteers with their regular duties. Yuki seemed somewhat disappointed as she calculated the volunteers, and sighed:

“Five,” she said. “We have five volunteers. We need one more if we’re going to send you out in teams of two. Is there anyone else who wants to volunteer?”

To Slaine’s horror, he saw Inaho turn his attention to him and look at him straight in the eyes. The blond little helper felt horrified of being so clumsily arrested in the other’s gaze, and got a heavy blush on his cheeks and turned his gaze away while shriveling up once again.

Don’t say anything! Let me be!’ the pathetic little helper thought, but felt a thick lump form in his throat when he heard the soothing voice say:

“What about you, Troyard?” Slaine tried to swallow down the lump as he listened to the brown-haired helper with tousled hair continue: “Your work ethics are admirable. If Santa Cruhteo doesn’t want to fly, then he can attend to his duties and someone else can relieve you of yours while you train to fly the sleigh.”

Slaine’s heart began beating violently. He wanted to shyly answer yes but scream no out of nervousness to take on such a huge task as delivering presents. While his shoulders tensed and a headache exploded from stress, he heard Inaho continue:

“I can fly with you if you have a confidence problem. You know Santa Cruhteo’s reindeer well, so I think you are suitable for flying his sleigh. Due to Santa Mazuurek and his reindeer being absent we will have to use Santa Cruhteo’s sleigh and animals, since he won’t use them anyway this year.”

“M-me?!” Slaine exclaimed and fidgeted on his seat once again. “Um… I… Eh…”

“Inaho’s really good at driving the sleigh on the ground, so don’t worry,” Inko urged with a smile and looked at the blushing helper.

“B-but-!” Slaine began, but was interrupted by Inaho again:

“You can be the Santa, and I can fly and keep the reindeer under control while you sneak in to deliver the presents. I’m sure Asseylum will be happy about that.”

Slaine’s heart skipped a beat. His already weak defenses were torn down the moment Inaho used the Asseylum-card against him; everyone knew Slaine was a dear friend with the future Mother Christmas, whom he had grown up with in the same house ever since he had been eleven years old. His father, Dr. Troyard, had been busy researching Christmas magic all over the world, leaving his only son in Korvatunturi fell in Father Christmas’s care. After his father had passed away two years ago, Slaine had been taken in by Santa Cruhteo to begin working as his personal helper. Asseylum had given him support throughout the years and encouraged him to work hard, and the blond little helper had taken her words to heart – perhaps a little too much.

“A-all right…” Slaine mumbled with a blush, and the entire room seemed relieved of him agreeing to help out.

Okisuke looked hyped with a bright smile on his lips, and he stood up and raised a fist into the air, exclaiming:

“Let’s save Christmas together!”

Cheers and applause filled the conference room for a brief second, before the door was slammed open and snow swirled into the room by the strong winds outside. Marito appeared in the door, bundled up with a warm fur coat and hat along with gloves and a knitted scarf. Everyone turned to look at him with surprise, and the man had a wry grin on his lips and pulled out a paper from the inner pocket of his coat.

“Bad news,” he said and walked up to Yuki to hand her the letter. “Santa Femianne has collided with a flock of birds and is hospitalized. Seems like she won’t be able to work during Christmas either.”

Okisuke groaned from shame at hearing the Santa he represented being involved in a ridiculous accident, and slumped down on his seat.

Yuki’s jaw dropped and her eyes widened enough Slaine feared they would pop out of their sockets. She stared at Marito with disbelief and then looked at the letter, which probably carried the news in ink. Moments later, a loud scream attacked everyone’s ears when Yuki finally blew from the stress of yet another Santa being hospitalized.

When the meeting was over and Yuki had been taken to the health center for acute stress syndrome, Slaine hurried back to work without exchanging a word with anyone. Tomorrow, the training to fly Santa Cruhteo’s sleigh would begin, and he had to finish his work quickly before that.

He dove into the workshop – a cozy wooden cottage – where he had been busy weighing the children’s letters to determine who was naughty and nice before the meeting had begun, and decided to continue in order to finish the pile of letters so he could concentrate on the toy inspections. He picked up a letter from the pile and began reading it:

Dear Santa,

This year, I have been a little naughty. I didn’t wish my brother happy birthday because we argued about stupid stuff, and I haven’t done my homework properly. I also didn’t eat up all my vegetables, and I’m really, really, really sorry for that. But I have done some good things too! I have helped my dad with his car and have done my chores at home, and I helped mom bake for a family reunion. I have also washed the dog and taken it on walks this entire year, and even if I was bad at doing my homework, I still got good scores on the tests in school! Please, please, please, Santa. I wish for an Air Blasters Automatic 20 with an inflatable target set. Can I have it, please?

Merry Christmas, Santa!

From Lily

Slaine chuckled at the letter. This child was honest. Lily’s parents must have helped her to write the letter because of the language; most children wrote with plenty of misspellings and such, but this letter was clean as far as Slaine could see.

He wrote down the gift the child wanted in a large and heavy book on the table; it was so heavy he could not lift it by himself. The child Lily was number 8 257 486 in the book.

Then he turned around toward the golden scale behind him, standing on the worn wooden workbench and waited patiently for a letter to weigh. Once the letter was placed on one of the golden plates, Slaine reached for a coal piece in a big sack of coal and placed it on the other plate of the scale. The letter was heavier than the coal, revealing Lily had been a good child throughout the year. He nodded satisfied and took the letter to the next workbench with a water-filled bowl made of crystal.

The letter was placed in the bowl and he let it soak in the water for a while. Then he took a small bottle made of brown glass and, with a pipette, he took some of the liquid from inside it. One single drop was released into the crystal bowl and the writing on the letter dissolved. Slaine waited patiently for a little while and then watched the writing magically come together again to reveal Lily’s full name, age and address.

The blond helper removed the letter from the bowl and let it dry within a couple of seconds, and walked over to the large book once again to fill in Lily’s address and age next to the gift she wished for. Once that was done, he wrote the name of the toy on Lily’s letter beneath the address, and put it in a wooden pipe-like container and sent it away through the brass pipe leading up to the toy factory close by.

The next letter was from another girl. It was a simple letter with not much text and, when Slaine weighed it, the letter was lighter than the coal. This meant the girl had been too naughty to deserve the gift she wished for, and Slaine placed the letter in the bowl and dropped another drop of the magical solution into the water to reveal her full name, age and address.

Once that was done, he scratched over the gift she wished for in the large book and took the coal piece from the scale. He walked over to a large machine that stood asleep in a corner of the workshop. There, he put the coal piece onto the conveyor belt and the letter in a slot, and turned the machine on by pulling down a wooden lever. The lever was heavy to pull, but with a strained huff and a little of his weight on it, it hit the bottom and the machine rumbled as it woke up from its slumber.

When the machine had started properly, Slaine pushed the lever up and stepped back to watch it swallow the coal and letter. It rumbled and vibrated so violently it stirred up some dust from the floor. The blond little helper watched it for a while until he saw the golden light shine up to show the machine had recognized the coal piece and letter.

Slaine walked back to the table with the large book while the machine was wrapping up the coal piece into a Christmas present. He took another letter and began reading it, and within moments golden glitter began sailing down over him from the machine working in the corner of the workshop, imprinting the girl’s address onto the present with magic ink. Without paying it much mind, he brushed the glitter off the letter before it began disappearing.

Just like that, he repeated the same procedure with the book, coal and bowl, and continued working until the clock on the wall showed it was seven in the evening. He finished the last letter in the now empty pile and dressed warmly in his soft fur coat and bundled up properly. It was freezing cold out in the North where Korvatunturi fell was located close to the border to Russia, and it was important to protect yourself from the ruthless temperatures.

The snow creaked beneath his boots as he walked through the snow-covered town. It was – surprisingly – perfectly calm outside considering there had been a snowstorm earlier that day. People were still working in workshops and factories, ran errands and did whatever they could to prepare for Christmas before the last hours of the day would come to an end.

It was a pleasant little town with a couple of thousand inhabitants, and Slaine found it cozy and welcoming. All buildings were made of wood and stone, and candles and fireplaces lit up the houses and streets. Some even had magic lights put up here and there to compensate for the long and dark days in the North, where no sun would be seen before January again. The Polar Night was enchanting, the blond little helper thought, because when the sun peeked over the horizon again everything around him came back to life.

With his breath hovering past his cheeks as he walked toward Santa Cruhteo’s reindeer enclosure next to the connected reindeer stable, he avoided anyone's attention by keeping his head low. The enclosure was empty at the moment, and Slaine opened the large wooden gate. He climbed up on the tall fence and yelled as loud as he could:

“It’s bed time! Come, come, my reindeer! It’s past seven o’clock!”

His voice echoed over the remote wilderness and disturbed the unbroken silence lying over the landscape. It danced among the trees that protested against the heavy snow, carrying the buildup with drooping branches. The blond little helper thought of them as strong and brave, and enjoyed watching them while waiting for the reindeer to return to the stable from a day out in the wilderness.

Now and then, the trees frightened him with loud bangs when the temperatures dropped drastically once the ruthless cold arrived along the winter season. The sap in the tree trunks froze and expanded due to the water it contained, which sometimes expanded so much the tree trunks were split and cleft by the force, making the explosion sound much like a gunshot. It was quite common in the area, but Slaine never seemed to grow used to it.

Soon, the soft rumbling of a running herd of reindeer was heard, and the gray and white coated animals emerged from behind a hilltop and ran toward the enclosure. Slaine smiled at seeing them and waited patiently until they all had gathered in the enclosure.

“Welcome back,” the blond little helper said and stepped down from the fence to close the gate once all eleven reindeer had arrived. “Did you have fun today despite the horrible snowstorm?” he asked them and walked over to the stable doors while the animals followed him excitedly.

They all looked forward to being brushed and fed, and they swarmed around him with eagerness to get inside the warm stable.

With a sigh spilling out from between his lips, the blond stared at the stable doors that had been blocked by the newly fallen snow. He rummaged around in the heap of snow next to the wall where he was certain the shovel lay, and was just about to grab it when his hat was removed from his head and the cold bit his ears while warmth began spilling out of him.

“Hey!” he said and turned around to look at a male reindeer that had a month earlier shed its antlers. It was holding Slaine’s hat in its mouth. “Give that back, Tharsis!” the blond little helper scolded and finished searching for the shovel and picked it up from the snow.

The reindeer called Tharsis was the leader of the herd and the one to guide the other reindeer during their flights. It was a proud male that had been spoiled rotten by Slaine without the little helper realizing it before it was too late. This particular reindeer seemed to have some kind of warped interest in making the blond little helper’s job difficult – a habit Slaine suspected it had adopted from Santa Cruhteo, who, too, was a little too harsh with him at times.

“Give my hat back or I’ll tattle to Santa Cruhteo,” Slaine said and tried to sound strict with the reindeer. When it did not obey, the blond little helper stomped his heel to the ground, slightly spooking the reindeer around him, and that was when Tharsis released the hat and stared at him. Slaine sighed and walked up to pick his hat up from the snow. “Give it a rest,” he muttered and shook the snow off it. “No more games, Tharsis, or I won’t brush your fur.”

The reindeer huffed in protest, but Slaine ignored it and walked up to the stable doors to begin shuffling the snow away while the animals waited somewhat impatiently behind him. It did not take long, however, before something grabbed the collar of his coat and dragged him back. The blond little helper stumbled backwards from the surprise before he lost his balance and was helplessly dragged away by Tharsis to the end of the enclosure opposite of the stable doors. There, the reindeer let go of him and strode back to the herd, leaving Slaine cursing in the snow.

“You haven’t disciplined them well,” a soft and monotone voice said from the gate to the enclosure.

Slaine turned to look at the unexpected visitor and saw Inaho look at him over the fence after he had climbed up on it.

“K-Kaizuka!”

The brown-haired helper climbed over the fence and walked over to Slaine who still lay in the snow, staring at him baffled. The brunet offered him a helping hand, and the blond little helper accepted it and was pulled up onto his feet.

“Have you been a little too lenient with them?” Inaho then asked when Slaine was busy brushing the snow off himself.

“W-well…” the shy helper answered and looked up at the other once he was finished brushing away the snow.

“Never mind that,” the brown-haired helper said and walked toward the stable doors after picking up the shovel from the ground. “You disappeared so quickly after the meeting that I didn’t get a chance to speak to you about tomorrow,” Inaho continued, and Slaine hurried after him.

“O-oh! I’m sorry, I just have a lot to do,” the blond answered when he caught up to Inaho.

The reindeer seemed curious and shy with a stranger suddenly visiting their enclosure, and kept their distance for now while they studied the brunet.

“You always do. We never see you during lunch and coffee hours,” the brown-haired helper said and began shuffling away the snow. “Do you eat properly?”

Slaine blinked perplexed before he managed to gather his mind enough to help Inaho removing the snow from in front of the stable doors with his wool-covered hands.

“Y-yes, I do,” he finally answered. “I just forget about the time and eat later when I remember to. The helpers in the cafeteria know this and are kind enough to put aside a portion for me that I can reheat.”

“Isn’t it lonely to eat alone like that?” Inaho asked, and Slaine blushed and avoided to show his face to the other, answering:

“N-no, I’m used to it. Besides, I like the quietness in the cafeteria when eating alone; when there are too much people around, I tend to feel stressed out and lose my appetite.”

“I see,” was the only answer he got, and they finished removing the rest of the snow in silence.

Once they got the doors open, the reindeer hesitated to step inside when Inaho stood close by. Since the helper with tousled hair did not have any affiliation with the reindeer, they became shy like this despite them normally being confident creatures. Whenever a new person showed up, they would study them carefully until they decided the stranger was not a threat.

“Come on,” Slaine urged them with a gentle and high-pitched voice. “He’s not dangerous.” Inaho stared at him from the corner of his eye, but Slaine ignored him. “Come on, Tharsis. Surely you’re brave enough to walk past a stranger?” Even Tharsis hesitated. “You big dummy! Get in here and show your herd how to be brave.” When Tharsis eventually obeyed and galloped inside the stable, the rest of the herd followed. “There we go. Good reindeer,” the blond praised satisfied.

When he and Inaho closed the doors, the brunet followed him to the shelves with tools for reindeer care, and took a brush to help Slaine brush the reindeer.

“O-oh! You don’t have to,” Slaine said as he watched Inaho prepare the brush.

“It’s all right,” the brunet answered. “I should familiarize with them so they know who I am by tomorrow. We only have two days to practice.”

Slaine did not answer and began brushing the first reindeer, and Inaho joined him gradually to not spook the reindeer. In the end, the brown-haired helper was allowed to brush it as well, and it soon released a pleased grunt when two brushes brushed through its fur, one on either side of it.

“She really likes it,” Slaine chuckled after seeing the reindeer close its eyes and huff. “See?” he said to it. “Inaho isn’t scary.”

“Do you always speak to them like this?” Inaho wondered from the other side of the reindeer.

“I do,” Slaine answered somewhat confused. “You don’t?”

“No,” the brunet answered. “I only use different noises to command them, and they have been taught to obey.”

Slaine frowned.

“I think the reindeer relax when spoken to,” he said and finished brushing his side of the reindeer and walked up to its mule to gently brush it over its forehead. It grunted from satisfaction again. “When they aren’t working, I think they should be free from commands related to work. They need a break sometimes as well.”

“Is that why you are bullied by the leader of this herd?” Inaho wondered, and Slaine felt the blush spread across his face yet again.

Awkwardly, he cleared his throat.

“P-perhaps,” he answered, stammering. “But once they hear a command, they obey.”

“Show me once we have finished brushing them,” Inaho said and met Slaine’s gaze.

The blond nodded, still blushing. He figured the brunet needed to learn to know the routines and commands the reindeer answered to, and Slaine felt awkward about being the one to teach him this; the attention was making him feel nervous again.

When all eleven reindeer had been brushed, Slaine removed his now hairy wool gloves and waited until Inaho had moved up behind him. Then, he took in a deep breath and said:

“Sleigh formation!”

Instantly, the reindeer reacted and paired up with each other in a line, and Tharsis hurried to stand in front of the pairs lining up behind it.

“Good reindeer!” Slaine praised with a smile, and the animals looked at him confused. “That’s a pretty sleigh formation! I’m sure one of you will get Rudolph’s red nose this year for being this good!” Then he turned to look at Inaho. “See?” he said proudly.

“You didn’t look like it out in the enclosure, but you have trained them well,” the brown-haired helper said, and Slaine pouted.

“What’s that supposed to mean?!” he asked, feeling insulted.

“It means what I said,” the brunet said unaffected by Slaine’s outburst. “You have a relaxed relationship with them and have spoiled them a lot, but, despite that, you have managed to make them listen to commands quite well. That’s impressive.”

Slaine was unsure if the brunet was insulting him or praising him, and sighed heavily before he flapped a hand toward the reindeer, saying:

“You can be at ease,” he told them. “It’s dinnertime anyway.”

The moment he said the word “dinnertime”, the herd of reindeer hurried to the feeding area, running past the blond and brunet. Slaine lost his balance as the last reindeer hurried past him and accidentally knocked him on his behind, and he released a huff of surprise and then glared at the greedy animals behind him waiting excitedly for food.

“As I said,” Inaho said and walked up to him to reach out his hand to the blond little helper again. “You have spoiled them. They don’t respect you as long as you don’t give them commands. It’s remarkable how you have managed with such an unusual relationship with these animals.”

Slaine felt his expression turn sour, but he swallowed his pride and took a hold of Inaho’s hand to be pulled up onto his feet a second time.

This’ll be a long Christmas…’ he thought and walked over to the excited reindeer to feed them with a little help from the brown-haired helper.