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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.

Chapter Text

The morning came along with the ringing of an alarm. The small toy train’s chugs and whistles were silenced by a tired hand slamming the lid to its chimney closed, and then a muffled groan followed by a yawn came from beneath the duvet and fur plaid.

As he sat up in bed, still beneath the duvet to hide from the cold winter air trying to lick his skin, he scratched his scalp beneath the messy blond hair and yawned once again before drying his wet eyelashes with the back of his hand. Slaine opened his tired eyes and looked at the clock in the pitch black room showing it was five in the morning, and he dared to stretch his tired body and battle the chilly air without the duvet’s warm safety.

“One day left before the delivery of presents,” he mumbled to himself and dragged his sleepy self into the bathroom to brush his teeth and neaten his hair.

Tomorrow afternoon, the Santas in charge of the Eastern part of the world would head out with their sleighs and deliver the Christmas presents to children, starting from the Far East and moving toward West to keep up with the time differences in each country along the way. Only four Santas from Korvatunturi fell were going out tomorrow afternoon to work along with the Asian Santas, while the rest were in charge of other areas in the world. About seven hours after their departure, Slaine and Inaho would head out as well and deliver the presents in the Northern Europe; United Kingdom and Ireland, Norway, Denmark, Sweden and Finland.

The blond little helper dressed in his uniform and ate breakfast, which consisted of a large sandwich filled with Christmas ham, salad, meatballs and mustard, and had a cup of coffee to drive away the sleepiness that tried to cling to his mind. Then, he headed out to Santa Cruhteo’s workshop where he found the delivery of yesterday’s present orders, and began inspecting the toys and giving them Santa Cruhteo’s seal of approval.

Each time he finished a toy inspection, he took the toy and the letter with the child’s address attached to it, to the machine standing in the corner. The toy was placed on the conveyor belt and the letter into the slot, and then he pulled the heavy lever and started the machine. The present was wrapped up and the address was magically stamped onto it, before the machine spit it out into a magical canvas sack behind it. It was a sack of the inter-dimensional kind; it contained millions of presents, but it weighed barely anything and was small enough to carry it on one’s back.

The morning continued like that, with approving the toys that had been delivered and wrapping them in the machine. It was pleasant work, Slaine thought, and did it happily. With each toy he approved, satisfaction spread through him that yet another present was made ready, and he hoped the toys would bring the children happiness from knowing someone heard their wish.

While working, he hummed quietly on Christmas songs and felt the Christmas spirit light up brighter in his heart for each passing hour. Even if he did this work all days of the year, he still got excited every time Christmas Eve was getting closer. He never seemed to grow tired of that.

When it was lunch time, an unexpected knock was heard on the window next to the door. Slaine, surprised of getting a visitor for once, looked up from the pile of toys to see who was standing outside, but the snow that had gathered on the windowsill was blocking the view of the visitor. Quickly, he got up from the floor and brushed his clothes off from the dust the machine had stirred, and opened the door.

“I figured you were here,” the familiar monotone voice said.

“I-Inaho!” the blond little helper exclaimed and stared at the other with shock; he had not expected the brunet to show up. “What can I help you with?”

“Lunch,” the other said and raised his hands to attract Slaine’s attention to the tray with plates of food, all wrapped in plastic.

There was ham, sausages, meatballs, potatoes, beetroot salad, blackcurrant jelly, and rutabaga casserole along with salad in a small bowl. Two star-shaped prune tarts stood on the side as desert.

“You said you didn’t like to eat in the cafeteria during rush hours because of the loud noise, so I thought of bringing lunch to the workshop and make you company,” the brunet continued and stared at the blond, waiting for him to let him inside.

Slaine was taken aback by the brunet’s thoughtfulness, and gave a dumbfounded nod and stepped aside to let the other helper inside.

“T-that is very kind of you,” he said awkwardly and closed the door after Inaho had shaken the snow off from his boots and stepped into the warmth of the workshop. “That’s a lot of food though.”

“Since we are going to practice flying the sleigh later, I think we should have plenty of energy,” the brunet said and placed the tray on the workbench. “Have you asked Santa Cruhteo about borrowing his sleigh?”

Slaine felt how all heat poured out of him at the reminder; he had completely forgotten!

“Um…! Uh…”

“You forgot?” the brunet asked, and the blond nodded and felt his face grow hot from shame.

“I’m so sorry! I’ll do that immediately,” Slaine answered and hurried up to the door to find Santa Cruhteo. “I’ll be right back!”

With those words, he slammed the door shut behind him and hurried down the street to Santa Cruhteo’s office, realizing halfway down the town that he had forgotten his coat. By the time he stepped into the warm house, he was freezing and the warm air made his frostbitten cheeks and thighs tingle and sting. Shivering, he stepped up the grand stairs made of beautifully carved wood, walked down the corridor to his right and stopped in front of a set of double doors. Golden letters told him he stood before the right office, as they said “Santa Cruhteo” in perfectly shining letters; Slaine had carefully polished them two days ago.

He swallowed hard and held his hand in front of the door, hesitating. How would the proud Santa react to his question of borrowing his sleigh on Christmas Eve? The work of delivering the presents was supposed to begin tomorrow just before midnight. It was like asking a prince to borrow his horse!; the sleigh was really important to the Santas. The Santa working on the other side of the doors would probably refuse. Even so, Santa Cruhteo had no real choice, considering the supervisor and the rest of the departments had all agreed that this was their only choice now that so many Santas were on sick leave or refused to go to work because of dangerous weather.

Slaine took a deep breath and finally knocked on the door; nothing would be accomplished if he stood there hesitating.

“Sir?” he asked and was told to step in.

The first thing he registered when stepping into the office was the large fireplace crackling to his left, and a set of armchairs and a coffee table was set up to his right with a Christmas tree in a corner behind them. On the walls, which were covered with wooden panels, decorations of fir twigs hung in red bows and ribbons with golden bells. Two brass chandeliers hung on each side of the room, lit up by magic, and candles stood in golden candle-holders. A large red carpet lay on the floor, and medals, diplomas and trophies stood on a shelf.

They were the rewards a Santa was given when doing something special or working exceptionally hard during a demanding time. The only Santa who was more recognized than Slaine’s employer was Santa Saazbaum because of his long time in service in the Korvatunturi fell. These awards were the proud Santa Cruhteo’s honors for many years of hard work, and he was found sitting at the large wooden desk with papers and parchments piling up higher than Slaine thought was okay; Santa Cruhteo was always busy.

“What is it?” the man asked brusquely when the blond had closed the doors, and Slaine stiffened.

“Um… Y-yesterday at the meeting,” he began, and Santa Cruhteo looked up at him from behind the piles of paper. His feather pen stopped moving.

“Yes?”

“Eh…” Slaine mumbled and was finally scolded for not speaking up and for wasting the Santa’s time. “A l-lot of Santas are unable to go out d-during Christmas Eve and-“ Slaine took a deep breath from nervousness before he continued; Santa Cruhteo’s expression was always scary. “And s-supervisor Kaizuka and the HR-department have agreed that this year we will have to send helpers to deliver presents.” Santa Cruhteo’s eyes narrowed and the blond little helper began cold-sweating. “I a-and Santa M-Mazuurek’s helper – Inaho Kaizuka – h-have been assigned to d-deliver your and Santa Mazuurek’s presents.”

Santa Cruhteo stared at him in silence for a little while, and Slaine began to grow more and more nervous. He wished the man would say something – preferably something nice – instead of staying silent and eyeing him the way he did. An awkward minute passed with neither of them saying a word to each other, but to Slaine this minute felt like an hour. Then – finally! – Santa Cruhteo spoke:

“And how will you and Kaizuka deliver the presents?”

Slaine swallowed hard and took a deep breath to answer:

“B-by learning how to … fly your sleigh… Because Santa Mazuurek’s sleigh and r-reindeer are missing, too…”

Santa Cruhteo scoffed immediately, ridiculing the blond little helper:

“You mean to tell me you and Kaizuka will take my sleigh out on Christmas Eve to deliver presents? That is tomorrow before midnight.” When Slaine nodded, Santa Cruhteo put the feather pen into the bottle of ink and knitted his hands together in front of him like a business man while staring at Slaine. “That is not acceptable. No helper is allowed to fly a Santa’s sleigh without proper training.”

Slaine took a deep breath again, and answered quietly:

“T-that’s why we were ordered t-to practice… I h-have almost finished all the presents and a-another helper will come to fill my ordinary duties w-while I’m busy practicing…”

“Outrageous,” Santa Cruhteo said and stood up from his seat. Slaine took a step back and bumped into the doors behind him. The golden-blond Santa was frightening. Even if he never had laid a hand on the little helper, Slaine was still terrified of his foul mood because of its oppressive nature; it changed the atmosphere into a suffocated one every time Santa Cruhteo was close by. “I will have to speak with the supervisor and Father Christmas,” the Santa continued and walked up to his burgundy coat and Christmas red cape.

Slaine stepped out of his way as Santa Cruhteo was to pay his superiors a visit, and was ordered to head back to the workshop to finish the toy inspections. Slaine obeyed and hurried back to the workshop where he had left Inaho and the lunch.

When he stepped inside the workshop – once again freezing from the winter cold biting him on his way back – he noticed the heap of toys had considerately gotten smaller. Inaho was busy pulling the lever on the machine, but was struggling a little with getting it all the way down. Slaine figure he did not have the right knack with the machine, and hurried up to help him.

“Already back?” Inaho asked and huffed as he tried to pull the lever.

Slaine stepped up and took a hold of it as well, and showed Inaho how to pull it down.

“Yeah,” he answered and let Inaho push the lever up once the machine had started properly. “He didn’t like the idea, so he’s speaking with his superiors at the moment. I guess he’ll let me know how it went once he’s finished.” Then he looked around the room and noticed the food was still untouched. A warm sensation spread in his chest as he understood Inaho had probably decided to help him with his duties and waited for him to return so they could eat together. “Thanks for helping me, by the way. You could have finished your lunch before that, though.”

Inaho returned to the workbench with the lunch and unwrapped the plates from the plastic.

“No, I thought we should eat together. We haven’t spoken much before, so I think we should get to know each other a little now that we’ll have to work closely together during the oncoming days,” he said and set the table for lunch.

“I guess that’s a good idea,” the blond little helper mumbled and placed two wooden stools next to the table so the boys could sit down and eat.

“After we have eaten, I think you should teach me the commands you have trained the reindeer with,” the brunet said as they helped themselves. “I think that’s fair for the animals as well, so they won’t get stressed out.”

“S-sure,” Slaine mumbled and filled the fork with ham and rutabaga casserole. The moment he felt the taste of the food, he blushed and got a happy smile on his lips and began chewing. Rutabaga casserole was his favorite. “This is so tasty! The nutmeg really adds flavor to it,” he squeaked after swallowing it down and went immediately for the next bite.

After a while, he noticed Inaho staring at him, and the lunch turned awkward.

“I guess you have a healthy appetite,” the brunet said and returned to eat. “Everyone is worried about you, since we never see you in the cafeteria.”

Slaine felt his mood sour. This was the problem he found with people; they never let him be. He was perfectly happy eating lunch and dinner alone, so why did everyone have to worry about him to the point they talked about him behind his back? It disturbed him greatly even if he knew people talked about him because they were worried, but he still thought of it as rude and disrespectful of them. It was Slaine’s own business where he wanted to eat and when and with whom.

They should stop being neurotic shepherd dogs by trying to constantly include me, but I guess I have no right to complain; they care about me, so I shouldn’t be angry,’ he thought and tried to calm down, but felt how his spikes had already emerged, ready to protect him.

“Was that why you decided to eat lunch with me?” the blond little helper pouted and poked a sausage with the fork, unable to control his frustration. “I told you yesterday that I eat properly. You don’t have to check up on me, you know.”

“You eat breakfast too?” the brunet asked, and Slaine released an exaggerated sigh and nodded.

“A large sandwich with lots of filling,” he said briskly, almost making it sound like a childish protest.

“How early?”

“Right after I get up; five in the morning.”

“That early?” the brunet asked and seemed somewhat surprised. “A helper’s shift doesn’t start until eight o’clock.”

“I start at six,” Slaine answered and turned some of his attention to the food again. “It’s because I have so much to do, and I like to start early rather than finishing late. I don’t mind it, though.”

“You’re probably the most hard-working helper in Korvatunturi,” the brunet said. “Are you getting compensation for that?” When Slaine stayed silent, Inaho continued, as monotone as ever: “Those awards Santa Cruhteo has won recently – is it because of you? You’re doing a lot of his work after all.”

“W-well…” Slaine mumbled and felt awkward again. In a sense, Inaho was right. “He has worked really hard recently, too. Somehow, his paperwork is piling up and he looks stressed out. I don’t really understand why he has so much to do, but apparently it has something to do with the suppliers and clients in countries he’s in charge of; they have increased their administrative work because of new laws and such, and therefore Santa Cruhteo has been forced to adapt.” Slaine sighed and suddenly felt tired. “I’m not too sure of how all of it works, but on top of that, after we got involved with the global United Christmas Associations Father Christmas started, Santa Cruhteo has been struck the hardest by the inflow of paperwork. I don’t think that’s fair.”

“But that has nothing to do with your compensation for helping him,” Inaho answered, and Slaine turned moodier from being talked back to. “You shouldn’t work too hard just because you feel sorry for him. It’s kind of you to be so considerate, but you have to take care of yourself, too.”

“I know…” Slaine sighed frustrated again as he decided to be fair by admitting Inaho was right.

“Do Yuki and HR know about this?”

“They do. They just think it’s Santa Cruhteo’s problem, but they fail to see how much he actually works. They tell him to do his job and they scold me for not refusing to help him, and that’s it. Because of that, I feel like I have no choice,” Slaine answered. “Besides, it’s not like I have anything better to do during my free time. The work I do fills my day perfectly.”

Inaho continued eating for a little while in silence, and then said:

“You’re quite loyal, aren’t you?”

“Huh?”

“I think you put everyone else first. That’s not healthy,” the brunet continued. “I think you should speak to Father Christmas about this. It’s not fair to either you or Santa Cruhteo to work from early morning to late in the evening. Because Father Christmas decided to create the UCA, it is his responsibility to solve the problems it creates. If Santa Cruhteo has so much to do, he needs a second personal helper to ease the workload of papers.”

“That’s true,” the blond little helper sighed. He leaned against an elbow on the workbench while chewing on a sausage. “I just don’t want to bother Father Christmas after all he has done for me and my dad. I’m really grateful he took me into his own home and cared for me while my dad was busy working.”

Again, the brunet was silent for a little while, studying the gloomy blond little helper, before he took the word again:

“Your father was a magic researcher, wasn’t he?” Inaho asked, and Slaine looked up at him and nodded while a smile spread on his lips; he was proud of his father, Dr. Troyard.

“He traveled across the entire world to all the Santa headquarters and studied the difference in magic in each country. Apparently, he found that the magic we use is culturally conditioned and behaves differently because of the differences in languages, even if it’s the same magic everywhere,” he said while his heart swelled with pride.

“That makes sense,” Inaho said and finished his lunch. “Since an Adamic language doesn’t exist, the equivalents of words in different languages will never have the exact same meaning. It shouldn’t be surprising magic – in both verbal and written form – behaves differently because of that, but no one paid it much attention until Dr. Troyard discovered it. His findings were interesting.”

Slaine chuckled.

“Oh! Like when I read the Swedish letters written by parents where their children ask for the latest ‘The Leather Patch’ action figure or suit,” he said and tried to choke his laughter. “In the rest of the world – at least as far as I know – he’s called Batman.”

“It’s the old word for bat in Swedish, if I remember correctly. I suppose if you translate it roughly to English, it is humorous,” Inaho said.

“Yeah, but even the Swedish word for bats is funny if you translate it roughly to English,” Slaine continued and chuckled again, nearly bursting out in laughter. “It becomes ‘flutter mouse’. I think it’s the same in German.”

“And in English, a batman is an officer’s personal servant, so even there we can get a misconception,” Inaho added, and Slaine nodded.

“Yeah. Although, I like the sound of that. It’s a little like us helpers,” the blond little helper said. “Since we are a kind of personal servants to our Santas, we are almost like batmen!” He blushed and smiled happily: “Makes one feel like a superhero because of the association the word has, right?”

Inaho watched him for a while again, but this time slightly more intently than before. The blond little helper felt awkward and shrunk somewhat from the other’s stare. He wanted to ask him what was going on, but dared not to. He hated he was timid and insecure like this, and, to avoid the awkward stare of the other, he lowered his head and looked at the nearly empty plate in front of him.

“Do you like Batman?” Inaho suddenly asked, and Slaine was flabbergasted by his sudden question and looked up at the brunet.

“N-not really,” he stammered and stared at him confused. “Sure, he’s cool and all because he’s a superhero, but I don’t really care too much about him.”

“I see,” Inaho said and stood up and picked up his plate from the workbench. “Has the superhero finished eating then?” the brunet asked and turned to look at the blond, who blushed.

“Don’t be mean,” he complained. “But yes, I’m finished. Thank you.”

“I’m not mean,” the brunet answered and took Slaine’s plate as well and began preparing them to return them to the cafeteria. “Don’t forget the desert, Bat,” he reminded the other, and Slaine blushed and reached for his prune tart while feeling flustered.

“But you are!” the blond little helper exclaimed. “You’re teasing me, aren’t you? I may be timid and such, but I’m no pushover!”

“Clearly,” Inaho said and took a bite of his prune tart. “The moment you think you are teased, you snap at people. That’s good.” Slaine’s face flushed even deeper red for being analyzed like that. “Also, I appreciated the discussion about the topic of languages. It was fun.”

Fun? ’ Slaine thought and looked at the brunet who told him he would be right back before Inaho stepped out into the winter world with the tray in hand. ‘You didn’t smile or react at all.

The blond little helper pouted and nibbled on the star while thinking about how this Christmas would turn out now that he had to spend a lot of his time with the awkward Inaho. It felt difficult, since he was not used to people like the brown-haired helper who said very little and showed little emotions. Others, who were naturally showing their inner world on their expressions and ways were much easier to handle, since they were handling the socialization all on their own that required very little interaction from Slaine. It made him wonder what Inaho actually thought and felt; he was sure he had a lot of thoughts and feelings coiling around in his mind, and it made the blond little helper nervous since he had noticed Inaho throw studying glances at him now and then.

What are you thinking about when you look at me?’ he wondered and frowned.

Slaine knew Inaho came along with his sister Yuki and Marito, and Inko and Okisuke from Japan to work in the main Santa headquarters in Korvatunturi fell to learn a little bit more of Christmas magic and study how the Santas and helpers in Korvatunturi fell worked in order to bring back some inspiration to Japan’s headquarters.

Japan had not had a long history with Christmas thus far, which made the still young Japanese headquarters want to learn as much as possible from the main source of Christmas related work in Europe. It was common with helpers transferring and traveling across the globe to the different headquarters to learn and teach. That way, new solutions to old and new problems were developed while the efficiency was slowly optimized.

Yuki, Inaho and Inko had enjoyed their stay in Korvatunturi fell and had asked to be stationed there permanently, but Okisuke and Marito longed back to their lives in Japan and would be retransferred the day after New Year’s Eve.

Do I think of Inaho as awkward because we come from different cultures?’ Slaine wondered as he waited for Inaho to return. ‘It can’t be just magic that is affected by culture and language. Maybe we helpers and Santas are affected as well?

Even if Inaho had probably teased him before, Slaine had to admit he had enjoyed the conversation about Batman with the other. It had been so long since he had had a conversation like this with someone else. Because of his own awkwardness around people, he had unknowingly used work as an excuse to isolate himself. Once he had realized this, it had been too late; he had already become too insecure talking to people and he had continued working hard since he had nothing better to spend his time on. It had become a coping strategy he relied on, but now – as he was forced to socialize with Inaho – he had been forced out of his comfort zone to talk with Inaho in a way he was not entirely used to.

It feels good to socialize like this, though,’ he thought and felt his gloomy and nervous feeling dissipate and smiled happily instead while he finished eating the prune tart. ‘He’s not judging me for being weird - at least as far as I know.’

Without warning, the door into the workshop flung open in a way Slaine recognized, and he looked up at the Santa standing in the doorway. Santa Cruhteo had an unhappy frown on his face – unhappier than usual to be precise – and stepped inside the workshop and closed the door behind him. Hurriedly, Slaine got up from the wooden stool to stand at attention.

“Welcome, Santa Cruhteo,” he said nervously and watched the golden-haired Santa take his red cloak off and hang it over his arm.

“How are the reindeer?” he asked, and Slaine swallowed nervously and said:

“They are fine, sir. I let them run in the wild all day yesterday, so they have gotten restlessness out of their system. They are kept in the stable today in preparation for the practice flight.”

“Good,” the man answered and looked around the workshop. “And the presents?”

“Almost done, sir,” the blond little helper answered.

“The sleigh?”

“All polished and inspected.”

Santa Cruhteo looked around the workshop once more and let his eyes rest on the machine in the back of the room, before rummaging around in his burgundy coat and took out a small gray canvas bag and gave it to Slaine.

“You have done well, helper,” he said, and Slaine looked at the small bag and hesitantly raised his hands to cup them beneath it. The Santa dropped it into his hands and continued: “I spoke to Miss Kaizuka and Father Christmas, and I allow you to take my sleigh out during Christmas Eve. However,” he said and turned to look at Slaine, who felt like shrinking again as the man’s blue eyes pierced him. “Make sure it comes back safely, and that none of my reindeer are injured.”

It was a warning, and Slaine nodded mechanically from fright.

“Y-yes sir! I will take exceptionally well care of them!” he exclaimed, and they stared at each other for a couple of seconds before Santa Cruhteo turned to leave.

“You have done well this year. Once you get back after the Christmas present deliveries, I will give you a week off from work. Proceed with the presents. A helper will come and take your shift later so I can assist you and Kaizuka with practicing,” he said, and Slaine stared at him with shock and relief mixing together from knowing Santa Cruhteo would assist them with the sleigh.

“T-thank you, sir!” he said and watched Santa Cruhteo disappear out through the door that slowly closed behind him.

When Slaine turned his eyes to the little bag in his hands, he got tremendously curious. When he opened it, he found four hazelnuts and two oat biscuits inside. To be given something by Santa Cruhteo was an honor; Slaine could not remember a single moment when he had been given praise or gifts during his two years in the man’s service.

A smile curved his lips and he decided to save the nuts and biscuits for the evening tea, as a reward for working and practicing hard all day. It felt easier to have something look forward to, he thought, and wanted to use the treat he had gotten from Santa Cruhteo as motivation.

When Inaho arrived, he found Slaine with a silly smile on his lips but did not ask about it. Instead, he asked Slaine to teach him the commands he used on the reindeer while they helped each other to finish the toy inspections and wrappings.

☆☆☆

“All right,” Santa Cruhteo said as they stood in the stable a couple of hours later. “Do the commands like it is Christmas Eve.”

Slaine gave the brown-haired helper some space and allowed him to call out the commands, since he was the one who was going to fly the sleigh.

“Sleigh formation,” Inaho said, and the reindeer were hesitant of listening to him; they stared at him and flicker their ears.

“Come on! Chop chop!” Slaine said to the unsure herd of reindeer. “Listen to him or Rudolph’s red nose will go to another reindeer this year again.”

“You use that as a motivation?” the brunet asked, and Slaine nodded.

“Of course! It’s an honor for reindeer to get the shiny red nose,” the blond little helper said like it was common knowledge, and Santa Cruhteo chimed in:

“All reindeer want to walk in the footsteps of Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer and want to be honored with the red nose at least once in their life, since it is only granted to a single reindeer that deserves it the most during Christmas Eve. I wish upon a star that Tharsis will be granted it this year, so that you will not get lost in the oncoming snowstorm.”

When Inaho was asked to call out the command again, the reindeer answered it this time and got into the formation they had been trained. Slaine praised them like usual and the helpers strapped them to the sleigh and got on board. Inaho called out the next command:

“Rooty-toot toots!”

Slaine slapped his hands over his mouth to choke his laughter hearing the straight-faced helper say the ridiculous command so sincerely. If Santa Cruhteo knew Slaine was nearly screaming with laughter each time he heard the Santa call the commands as well, he was certain he would be reprimanded harshly.

It was a helper’s right to decide the commands that applied on the ground while the Santa decided the commands used during flight, and – since Slaine had been only fourteen years old when he had begun training the reindeer two years ago – he had not properly thought of his commands and had used the first things that had popped up into his mind, which had been outstandingly ridiculous noises.

When Inaho said the command and slapped the reins, the reindeer were spooked and Slaine quickly threw his hands over Inaho’s.

“No, no, no!” he said horrified. “You don’t need to do that. Just say the command and Tharsis will lead them according to your guidance; just pull the reins carefully to the direction you want him to go, and he’ll obey. Be gentle.”

Inaho threw a glance at the blond little helper before repeating the command and pulled the reins to the left to guide the reindeer out of the stable, and Tharsis obeyed with slight insecurity and guided the reindeer out onto the runway. Inaho was not used to being this unstrict with animals; he seemed frustrated even if his expression was as dead as it had always been according to the blond little helper’s memory. This would probably be a difficult task for Inaho, but Slaine had no confidence to fly, which made him want to rely on the tousle-haired helper’s alleged skill in sleigh driving.

Santa Cruhteo walked beside the sleigh and kept an eye on the reindeer and the helpers, and once they stood on the runway, Slaine got off the sleigh and checked the leather straps one more time to make sure they were secured while Santa Cruhteo’s observed him, and then patted Tharsis on his mule.

“You can do this, all right? Just be nice and show Inaho and me some consideration; he’s not used to this and neither am I,” he whispered, and the animal grunted back at him with its breath steaming from its nostrils. “Make Santa Cruhteo and Rudolph proud.”

Then he hurried back to the sleigh and got on board, announcing the straps were secured.

“All right,” Santa Cruhteo said. “Remember that when you get up into the air, slacken the reins and only guide the animals. If you pull at them unnecessarily or keep them too tight, they will get frustrated and quickly tire since they are used to free movement, and the straps are already restricting them enough as it is. Say your commands loud and clear, but never treat them like work-horses. They have their pride just like we do.”

“Yes, sir,” Inaho answered.

“Now, get the sleigh up into the air and let me see how you handle it,” Santa Cruhteo answered, and Inaho nodded.

Slaine made himself ready by clinging tightly to the armrest to his left, and then held his breath as he waited for Inaho to say the next command, feeling all the more nervous for each second that passed:

“Rummy-tum tums!”

Slaine released a humored grunt this time, just barely managing to hold his laughter.

This time, the brunet did not slap the reins, and the animals answered to his command, hesitantly this time as well. Because they were nervous about him steering them, Tharsis seemed to feel agitated and had lost his confidence. It resulted in the others feeling confused, and – with a horribly jerky start – they began running down the runway. They increased in speed more and more until Slaine felt like his hat would blow off his head, and – once the reindeer’s natural speed had been reached – Inaho said the next command:

“Takeoff!”

The reindeer’s hooves began to emit a silvery glitter and faint jingles from bells began to sound when Tharsis rose up into the air and pulled the rest of the reindeer along with him, increasing their speed again. The lift was so quick and steep Slaine clung to the armrest to not fall off, and his hat was finally blown away and disappeared somewhere behind the sleigh.

“Woah!” he exclaimed instead and looked at Inaho holding the reins. The brunet seemed nervous. “Are you all right?!”

He had to yell in order to make his voice heard through the jingles and the wind.

“We have too much speed!” Inaho answered. “The animals are pulling too much!”

“Is it because they’re nervous?!” the blond little helper asked, and the brunet yelled back:

“I don’t know! Probably!”

This is dangerous ,’ Slaine thought and looked at the animals, and shouted:

“Slow down, everyone! We have too much speed!”

The animals did not listen. Tharsis was protesting; he really did not like Inaho and Slaine sitting behind the reins while they were in the air. He was not used to flying with inexperienced helpers and Slaine figured the reindeer felt the difference between Santa Cruhteo and the helpers all too clearly. They had to grow used to taking these commands from the helpers for this to work, and Slaine was worried, wondering if the reindeer would get used to him and Inaho in time for Christmas Eve.

“He won’t obey!” the brunet said loudly and squinted in the strong airflow as Tharsis kept on increasing the speed and the faint jingles became louder and faster while the glitter from the reindeer’s hooves shone brighter and brighter until it illuminated a clear silver trail over the sky that slowly faded.

When he pulled the reins to force Tharsis to slow down, the reindeer bucked and grunted angrily. This interrupted the flight and made the reindeer and sleigh jerk violently as they briefly lost altitude, like they had run into an air pocket. Slaine’s heart was beating wildly in his chest from this horrific experience of falling down from the sky, and he yelled to the reindeer as loudly as he could, begging them:

“Slow down! Calm down, my reindeer! We’re sorry! Please, calm down! It’s all right! You can land next to Santa Cruhteo again, Tharsis!” When Tharsis still did not obey, Slaine got tears in his eyes and yelled louder: “You’re always this mean, Tharsis! Stop! You won’t get the red nose like this! The spirit of Rudolph will be very disappointed in you if you behave like this! Slow down!”

Luckily, to both of the helpers’ relief, the reindeer began calming down and descending. The loud jingles slowly quieted down and the brightness of the glowing glitter began to die down as well.

“Pull the rein to turn them around!” Slaine said loudly to the brunet, who did as he was told and the sleigh was turned around back toward the runway.

Inaho attempted the command to slow down again, and – this time – the reindeer seemed to answer slightly more obediently than before. When the brunet commanded them to descend some more, they answered somewhat hesitantly, but – the moment the sleigh hit the ground at landing – they began to calm down again as they were back in a familiar situation. Agitation was still making them behave nervously, but that, too, would calm within moments.

“Whew!” Slaine gasped and slumped in the seat as they came to a stop, trembling and with a heart beating so loud it pounded in his ears. “That was scary!”

When he threw a look at the brunet, he saw Inaho was just as calm as before the flight, and the blond little helper wondered how on earth the brunet could be even the slightest collected after their horrifying first flight.

Hurrying steps came toward them, and when the helpers looked up they saw Santa Cruhteo stomp up to them with a serious expression on his face. Slaine felt like shrinking on the spot again and took a hold of Inaho’s coat. The brunet threw a quick look at him, before turning his attention to Santa Cruhteo, who stopped beside the sleigh.

“That was the worst flight I have ever had the honor witnessing, and you will have to learn how to fly until tomorrow before midnight!” he scolded. “The reindeer are too nervous with mere helpers behind the reins. I knew this would be impossible. You will never get the sleigh up into the air by tomorrow evening.”

“W-we are so s-sorry, sir!” Slaine squeaked.

“Perhaps the Santa should show us how to do it by taking us on a short ride?” Inaho asked with a straight face, and Slaine threw a horrified look at him for asking something so outrageous from Santa Cruhteo.

The golden-haired Santa narrowed his eyes for a while before taking a deep breath and ordered the helpers to move to the present compartment. After doing so, the man got onto the seat and gave the commands to take the reindeer up into the air once more. This time, the reindeer answered to his commands with calm and utmost obedience, and – for the first time in his life – Slaine was having fun along with the scary Santa Cruhteo, who seemed to relax when he was flying his sleigh.

Santa Cruhteo showed every command there was and instructed them on how to hold the reins. Inaho and Slaine listened carefully and studied his techniques closely to memorize and repeat them the next day. Their practice would start early in the morning, and they would practice until both the reindeer and helpers were tired.

In the end, the golden-haired Santa decided to take a longer flight to let the reindeer get used to Inaho and Slaine on board the sleigh, and the helpers sat down in the present compartment and huddled up as they began to feel a little cold.

“I never thought it would be this fun to fly,” Slaine said and smiled joyfully while wiping his nose as the cold made it runny. “I’m jealous of the presents that get to fly with the Santas every year.”

The brunet looked at him awkwardly again just like he had done in the workshop earlier that day, and Slaine pursed his lips.

“What now?!” he grumbled.

“I just thought you are a very lighthearted person,” Inaho said and kept staring at him. “It’s refreshing and fun.”

Slaine blinked from the blunt answer and raised his eyebrows as he was baffled by someone enjoying his company like this.

I liked hearing that …’ he thought and felt a warm feeling spread in his chest, and he slowly smiled again.

“Thank you,” he answered happily and looked the brunet in the eyes. “That’s very nice of you to say. It made me happy.”

Chapter Text

Once morning came and a gentle knock came from the door Slaine was already up and ready to go, dressed in his uniform and had just combed his hair.

It was six in the morning, still as dark as during the night, and Inaho had just come to pick him up to head to the stable where Santa Cruhteo was waiting for them.

“Good morning,” the helper with tousled brown hair said once Slaine opened the door.

The brunet’s nose and cheeks were red from the cold, and his breath was visible in the morning air.

“Good morning,” Slaine answered slightly more relaxed than yesterday, already growing used to the quiet company of the brunet. He put his outerwear on and then closed the door after stepping out into the chilling winter world. “Did you rest properly last night?” he continued asking as they began strolling down the street, and Inaho looked at him for a brief moment before turning to look at the busy helpers and Santas occupying the streets.

“Yes, I did. And you?” he asked, and Slaine nodded with a smile.

“Yeah. I was really tired after we got home last night. I never knew flying was this exhausting,” he answered and felt a blush warm up his cheeks from remembering yesterday’s long flight in the starry night sky.

He had enjoyed it a lot. Riding a Santa’s sleigh was special.

They hurriedly stepped out of a stressed-looking helper’s way that was carrying a tower of presents in her arms, running down the snowy street and nearly slipping on the hard snow and ice. She was hurrying to one of the Santas who were to get out on their present delivery later this afternoon to meet up with the midnight hour in the parts of the world where the night of 24th of December was already just around the corner. The presents she carried were probably of the last-minute kind. This evening, close to midnight, Slaine and Inaho would – along with the other stand-in Santas – begin stressing about as well in a similar manner.

“You are exposed to harsh weather conditions when flying,” the brunet said as they continued walking toward Santa Cruhteo’s stable. “It’s no wonder you got exhausted last night.”

“I guess,” the blond little helper said happily, but then felt his smile fade. “It’s already cloudy,” he continued and looked up toward the sky where no stars were visible, and a wind softly played with the strands of his blond hair. “Tonight will be really bad and cold…” he continued and looked at the smoke from the chimneys around him; the faint tower of smoke drifted horizontally; it being a sign of cold temperatures.

“Don’t worry,” Inaho answered. They turned around a corner to head out of town and stepped onto a narrow winter road. Their footprints from yesterday were still untouched. “It’ll only be stormy in Sweden and Norway. Denmark and Finland will be fine, and so will United Kingdom and Ireland. I heard Santa Cruhteo gave over Iceland to the Santas on the North Pole?”

“Y-yeah,” Slaine mumbled. “You checked the weather report?” he continued to ask, and Inaho nodded and answered:

“My sister came running with it into my room this morning.”

Slaine chuckled and smiled.

“She really cares for you, doesn’t she?” he asked and was met by a burgundy glance again.

Slaine pouted. Again, he was being stared at. Why was the brunet throwing looks at him all the time? It was getting more and more annoying, since the unknown thoughts going around in the other’s mind was bugging the blond little helper - worrying him even.

“She does. Sometimes a little too much,” Inaho answered and turned his attention forward.

How ungrateful,’ the blond helper thought and found Inaho’s answer somewhat harsh. Slaine had no one to look out for him except himself, which made him jealous of people such as Inaho, who had family or friends to spend his time with. ‘I got Asseylum,’ Slaine then thought, comparing his life with the brunet’s while the two helpers continued their walk in silence. ‘But she’s too busy now to spend time with me…’ He threw a shy glance at the helper walking next to him, and then pressed his lips together. ‘I wonder if we’ll continue seeing each other after Christmas…?

Slaine was a little unsure of where he had Inaho, who had not been clear with the purpose of their relationship. Even if they had spent little time together, the blond little helper felt lighthearted next to the brunet. This new-found feeling of being connected to someone made him fear asking how their relationship would look like once Christmas Eve was over and all the presents had been delivered. Was this just an illusion of a future relationship of some kind, or were his feelings truly the real deal and mutual?

He did call my lightheartedness refreshing and fun, though,’ he mused and wondered how much of it was true. It might have been a momentary feeling after all and did not necessarily mean anything in particular.

In a way, he really wanted to cling to the other and hope he would not disappear from Slaine’s life at the end of Christmas Eve, while – in another way – he was terrified of showing this pitiful wish, since he thought of it as desperate. To be this friendly with someone was a great accomplishment for him, and he felt unsure if he would ever be able to make this kind of connection to someone again – or at least in a long while.

If I pretend like nothing, will he stay? But if I won’t tell him I like his company, he might not think anything of me and leave once Christmas is over…’ he thought and felt his mood grow gloomy. ‘But if I ask him, I might come off as clingy, and then he’ll be creeped out.’

What a dilemma.

They had only shared a day and a couple of hours with each other, but Slaine already felt at home with Inaho. There was something soothing in the other’s presence, like he was capable and knew what to do while also harboring a great source of patience and understanding. Slaine liked that; he himself had never felt capable or good with people, making Inaho pleasant to be with.

He hasn’t judged me or been dismissive,’ the blond thought.

In fact, he always felt like he was in other people’s way or was a bother, it being a part of why he was living such a lonely life. It felt the easiest to be alone in his own home or work throughout the entire day to avoid people, because he was terrified of the socializing part where he was clumsy and oblivious to the rules – fearing he would do or say something bad without intending it, which would make people dislike him. Because of this, he put others first and himself as last; what others thought about him meant a lot to him since he was terrified of judgment due to his poor self-esteem. This had resulted in him not even daring to ask others to spend time with him, and it had gone to such lengths he was afraid of eating with people where socializing was common. All in all, he had become incapable of getting to know anyone.

I’m so pathetic,’ he thought and felt his heart grow cold as he suddenly felt the loneliness lay over him like a wet blanket.

“Are you all right?” he heard Inaho ask out of nowhere, and Slaine looked up at him.

“Huh?”

“You lowered your head and slumped your shoulders while your steps grew heavier,” the brunet explained, and Slaine felt the heat of an unpleasant shock spread on his cheeks.

“U-um… N-no, I’m fine,” he stammered and pushed a smile onto his lips, trying to let it reach all the way to his eyes.

Again, Inaho looked at him for a moment, before he turned his face away to rest his eyes on the stable coming into view.

Again, he looked at me like that, like he sees something in me that I don’t understand…’ Slaine thought and felt ashamed of accidentally showing his downheartedness so openly – feeling like he had done something wrong by doing that. ‘Don’t be creeped out by whatever it is.

Once they got to the stables, they met Santa Cruhteo waiting for them outside the stable doors. The reindeer were still inside the stable, waiting in the warmth before they would be taken out on a practice ride by the helpers.

“Good morning, Santa Cruhteo,” Slaine said respectfully and straightened his back to stand tall.

“Good morning,” the brunet said next to him, and the golden-haired Santa nodded to them with a silent greeting.

“I expect you got some rest last night and are awake and alert,” the man said, looking strictly at the helpers. “This will be a long day for us all, and an even longer night for you.”

“Yes, sir,” Slaine answered, but was immediately surprised by Inaho taking the word, saying:

“Thank you for taking your time showing us your technique yesterday, Santa Cruhteo. We learned a lot.”

He’s friendly with him!’ Slaine thought and stared at the brown-haired helper with admiration. Slaine never dared to speak so casually with his employer.

Santa Cruhteo eyed the helper with the tousled hair that never seemed to be tamed - or perhaps Inaho did not care about it? - and then nodded and took a deep breath of the cold air.

“Strap the reindeer to the sleigh. I shall wait on the runway,” he said, and Slaine and Inaho hurried inside the stable.

Tharsis and the others looked up at them the moment the helpers stepped inside the stable. The animals seemed rested and energetic, and Slaine got the feeling they were on a happier mood today than yesterday.

“Good morning, reindeer,” Slaine said with a singsong voice and walked up to the sleigh. When Inaho said nothing and stood next to the blond helper, Slaine frowned. “You know, they won’t take a liking to you if you never speak to them. Why not wish them a good morning?”

“I didn’t think that was necessary,” the brunet said, and Slaine sighed.

“I think I told you the day before yesterday that that they relax when spoken to. If you make them relax by speaking to them, I’m sure they’ll accept you faster,” the blond helper explained, and Inaho threw yet another glance at him.

Again?

“Good morning, reindeer,” the brunet said after turning his attention to the animals. “I hope you all had a good night.”

Satisfaction spread through the blond little helper, who smiled and nodded happily.

“Much better,” he praised. “Keep talking to them, and they’ll like you at the end of the day I’m sure.”

“You seem much more relaxed with animals than with humans,” Inaho suddenly said, taking Slaine off guard.

“W-what’s that supposed to mean?” he exclaimed, feeling both embarrassed and humiliated as he could not understand what Inaho’s intention had been by saying something like that out of the blue. Immediately, the blond little helper began to grind the brunet’s words into pieces to analyze what he had meant by them.

I know how pathetic you are; I see right through you.

You think you can lie about always being busy?

I know you are too scared to talk to people.

You like animals rather than humans because they won’t argue back; you can’t deal with people doing that, right?

You’re a coward.

“That’s just something I’ve noticed,” Inaho continued with his usual monotone but soothing voice. “It doesn’t have to mean anything.”

After his mind had spun out of control, Slaine felt exhausted. He was so insecure he always - automatically - began analyzing what people meant by the words they said, always doubting their kindness and intentions because he thought he did not deserve any of it. Then, there were those who were out to get him, such as Trillram who was a great example of saying mean things nicely; he had mastered the art of verbal bullying and had subjected Slaine to it far too many times. His ways of speaking to the blond always disarmed him, and Slaine could do nothing to stop it or argue back.

“W-well…” the blond little helper mumbled and looked away to hide his mortified expression. “They are simple creatures.”

“Unlike humans?” the brunet asked, and Slaine’s mortification increased.

“Isn’t t-that what differentiates humans from animals?” he asked quietly.

“Some say it is,” Inaho said and then said out loud: “Sleigh formation!” Again, the animals hesitated – just like yesterday. “Come on, everybody. The spirit of Rudolph won’t notice you if you keep hesitating like this. Show some confidence. It’s all right. Show me a pretty sleigh formation,” he continued, using similar words the blond helper would, and Slaine turned to stare at the tousle-haired brunet with pleasant surprise while the animals obeyed and paired up behind Tharsis in front of the sleigh. “That’s a good formation, reindeer.”

“You’re a quick learner,” the blond gasped, and Inaho nodded.

“That’s why I wanted to be paired up with you. You know the animals well, and I’m a quick learner,” the brunet said and walked up to the reindeer to begin strapping them to the sleigh.

Slaine released a bittersweet chuckle before helping the other, skillfully preparing the sleigh along with the other. He felt hurt for that being the only reason why Inaho wanted to pair up with him, but he also thought he should not complain; he was good with the animals, and he should not expect Inaho to think more of him than being a brief colleague.

He doesn’t know me; of course he didn’t want to pair up with me because he actually likes me or wants to get to know me,’ he thought and got on board the sleigh once they were finished. ‘We’re colleagues with benefits. I shouldn’t feel hurt by this.’

“Rooty-toot toots!” the brunet called out to the animals, holding the reins slacked but securely, and – once the reindeer reacted to his command – he guided Tharsis and the other reindeer out of the stable, toward the runway.

Slaine watched the animals as they pulled the sleigh and smiled. They were walking with a stress-free gait, unlike yesterday when they had been obedient but tense. It showed Tharsis had gotten some of its confidence back, and it was affecting the other reindeer as well.

“They seem more relaxed today, don’t you think?” he asked the helper sitting next to him.

“They do,” Inaho answered. “I think they feel safer after yesterday’s long flight with Santa Cruhteo and us together; they got used to our presence during flight.”

“Probably,” Slaine answered with a deep sigh before they stopped the sleigh next to Santa Cruhteo waiting for them.

Once the sleigh stopped, the blond little helper got off and began with the final check to see all the buckles and belts and straps were secured. Once he was done, he patted Tharsis on his mule again.

“It’ll be better this time, I promise,” Slaine whispered to the reindeer. “Inaho’s a quick learner. I’m sure the flight will be less stressful today. Do your best, as we will, too.”

Tharsis grunted and blew out a cloudy breath through his nostrils, just like yesterday.

“All secured,” Slaine announced as he walked back to the sleigh and got on board. “We are ready for takeoff.”

“Good,” Santa Cruhteo said and looked at them both with a stern glare. “Do you remember the commands?”

“I do,” Inaho answered with a nod, and Slaine chimed in.

“Then, show me how well you observed me yesterday,” the golden-haired Santa said and stepped back.

Slaine grabbed a hold of the armrest on his side of the sleigh and prepared for a similar takeoff as yesterday, and then heard Inaho command:

“Rummy-tum tums!”

The animals answered immediately with slight hesitation, but they soon got into full speed. Slaine’s heart begun to beat wildly again as he remembered yesterday’s frightening flight, and held his breath once Inaho gave the command to lift.

Again, silver glitter began emitting from the reindeer’s hooves while a quiet jingle of bells began to sound, and – to Slaine’s surprise – the reindeer rose into the air smoother than yesterday. It was not steep like yesterday, but it was slightly jerky still.

The flight was much more pleasant this time, and Slaine and Inaho spent the entire morning up in the air, trying out all the commands Santa Cruhteo had taught them yesterday. The cold air pulled at their clothes and hair while the reindeer pushed through the resistance. Slaine watched their backs with pride and joy as they pulled the sleigh bravely above the glittering silver road beneath their hooves, and at times he threw glances at Inaho who skillfully commanded the animals nearly as perfectly as Santa Cruhteo had done. The brown-haired helper truly was a quick learner, no doubt about it.

Then, when he least expected it, the gloomy feeling came over him again, and his smile faded:

Once morning comes, our work will be over…’ he thought and threw a discreet glance at the brunet, feeling his heart ache just slightly.

As he enjoyed the flight, he began mulling over how he would be able to return to his normal everyday life by tomorrow. He had been caught by the helper driving the sleigh next to him, since his presence had been so enjoyable Slaine did not want it to disappear; it would feel empty going back to his lonely life.

Giving up wanting to spend more time with the brunet was the best choice he could make; he was not confident enough to face unpleasant surprises and wake up lonely in the morning once the night’s work was over.

It’s Christmas Eve tomorrow…’ he thought and looked at the clouds right above their heads. ‘Inaho has his sister to spend it with. What will mine look like?

“Are you all right?” he heard the soothing voice say next to him, and Slaine quickly turned his gaze to the brunet.

“Yeah,” he said and smiled while secretly feeling downhearted. “You’ve already asked me that once before today. I’m fine.”

I’ll manage,’ he thought as Inaho turned his attention to the reindeer again. ‘There’s no need to worry. I’ll be fine on my own, like always.

Even if he tried to be brave about it, he felt his eyes tearing up. To prevent the tears from falling, he chewed on his lower lip enough for it to hurt as a desperate attempt to distract his sorrowful mind with the pain.

I’m too attached,’ he concluded and took a deep breath as silently as he could, and frowned. ‘I’m so pathetic.’

Once lunchtime came, Inaho steered the reindeer back to the runway and commanded them to land. Slaine gripped the armrest next to him again as tightly as he could while nervously watching the ground come closer, and not until he saw Tharsis take the first steps onto the ground and pull the reindeer and sleigh back onto the runway did he calm down and relax.

“T-that wasn’t as frightening as yesterday,” Slaine said breathlessly as the sleigh came to a stop.

Santa Cruhteo hurried up to them and wore an expression the blond little helper had not seen before, and the man said:

“Well done. I am impressed.”

“Thank you,” Inaho answered as emotionless as ever, and Slaine stared at the Santa with shock.

He had never heard Santa Cruhteo say such things, not even when the man had praised Slaine yesterday for working hard. A sense of inferiority crawled over him for not being as capable as Inaho, and he felt even gloomier.

His praise was meant to Inaho.’

“Let the reindeer rest and eat some lunch. I want to see you do that once more before I dare letting you out this evening to deliver the presents,” Santa Cruhteo said, and Slaine and Inaho obeyed.

They drove the sleigh back to the stable and unstrapped the reindeer from the sleigh and fed them, before walking back to town to grab some lunch for themselves. Slaine was quieter than earlier this morning, weighed down by the pessimism he did not seem to successfully shake away, and he was certain Inaho had noticed it all too clearly by now.

Will he ask me if I feel all right again?’ he wondered, but found out that the other did not comment on the blond little helper’s mood at all.

Instead, Inaho asked:

“Should we eat lunch at your place? I think a helper is occupying your workshop at the moment, and my sister might be home before we have eaten up; she always takes a nap right after lunch.”

Slaine stared at him and blinked a couple of times, trying to understand what the other was going at without expecting too much from his sudden suggestion, before silently answering:

“Sure. We can do that.”

Visitors were an unusual occurrence for the blond little helper, since he had no friends of family to visit him. It was quite intimate of him to let someone inside his humble home, but he was not someone who turned a visitor away from his door for such a selfish reason.

“Then I’ll go get lunch for us. I’ll meet you at your place,” Inaho said and turned to walk toward the cafeteria, and Slaine continued down the road and arrived at his place.

Again, he’s considerate enough to eat lunch with me alone,’ he thought as he stepped inside his home and looked around the tidy place, to figure out what kind of personality his home mirrored now that he was going to get a visitor for the first time in a while.

Even if he lived alone, he had not let it go like other bachelors or bachelorettes seemed to do; he liked his home organized, but not in a strict way; a messy home stressed him out, but so did a home that had an oppressing air of cleanliness to it. To prevent that, he had lots of personal decorations in his rooms, filling out the empty spaces with stuff he felt attached to.

Used candles stood on the tables, shelves and ledges, some of which were placed inside pretty lanterns. Thick curtains with red, green and yellow stripes isolated the draft from the windows and helped to keep the warmth inside the house, and matching pillows and tablecloths gave the rooms the sense of a simple home. All kinds of books and notebooks were stacked here and there, and pens and paper were never far away no matter where he might find himself in the house. Used but comfortable furniture filled the spaces above large and heavy carpets covering the wooden floors, to protect the helper’s feet from the cold. Different kind of paintings and objects occupied the walls and bookshelves – some of which were toys and cute decorations that had not passed the toy inspections, which he had decided to keep instead of throwing them away.

Flourishing flowers and plants stood on the tables and windowsills next to the candles. The blond little helper had always had a special touch with plants; he was quite good at taking care of them, since they never seemed to stop blooming or growing. His favorite plant was a small magical flower. It looked like an orchid and was Christmas red in color, but the middle of it a golden glow shone weakly, like a pretty firefly from the tropical summers in the south. It bloomed all year round, and was a flower Asseylum had given him as a housewarming gift two years ago after Slaine had moved into the small house.

All of this made his home look somewhat messy at first glance, but, when taking a closer look, everything seemed to be placed in an orderly fashion with their designated places – in the way he preferred it. Such was the personality his home reflected to his visitors, and he wondered what Inaho would actually think of him once stepping into his home.

The most personal objects that existed in the house would be found in the living room. On top of the small fireplace, his father smiled back at him from a photograph whenever he stepped inside the room. Beneath the frame, a talisman shone in a wooden box; his father’s talisman. Suddenly, now that Slaine knew he would soon get a visitor, he felt somewhat unsure if he wanted to show such a personal display. The rest of the house was fine, but to show how much his father meant for him felt far more intimate than any of the decorations in the rooms.

Should I take it down and hide it?’ he thought and stared at his smiling father. His rounded glasses rested low on his nose as he gazed over them with his steel blue eyes, and his blond hair lay somewhat disheveled but still showed traces of it having been neatly combed earlier that day when the photo had been taken. ‘Nah,’ Slaine thought and smiled back to his father. ‘I’m proud of my dad.’

He decided to leave the photo and talisman where they were and walked into the kitchen to wash the dishes from this morning before Inaho arrived with the food. Then, he prepared the dinner table while his gloomy mood continued grinding his usually lively Christmas spirit away.

Once a knock was heard on the door, he hurried up to it to help Inaho inside the small house with the tray. The food smelled wonderful, and they helped each other to set the table in the kitchen.

Inaho truly was a man of few words; he never seemed to speak just for the sake of talking, but rather communicated when he felt he had something he actually needed to say.

Slaine, who was awkward in his social skills to begin with, stayed silent as well, not saying a word out of insecurity; he always thought a lot, but dared not to voice anything of it. He usually preferred other people steering the dialogues, and rarely participated himself. Somehow, however, he had opened up communication with the brunet yesterday and the evening before, and he had successfully done that this morning as well. Now, after getting conscious and gloomy over his loneliness, he had nearly turned mute.

This made an uncomfortable silence rest in the kitchen when they began eating their lunch with only their cutlery clinking against the plates, which made the blond little helper feel bad. It would be unfair of him to let his gloomy mood make the other’s lunch hour uncomfortable and spoil his appetite, and he decided to enliven the atmosphere even if he did so clumsily:

“This food is really tasty.”

“You’re used to eating reheated food, I assume?” Inaho asked, and Slaine nodded – happy to get a conversation going.

But why about me?’ he wondered before answering:

“Y-yeah. As I said the other day, I always eat later when I get time, so the helpers in the cafeteria put away a plate of food for me during lunch and dinner each day.”

“Food that comes straight from the stove is always tastiest,” the brunet answered, and Slaine smiled wryly.

“I guess,” he mumbled awkwardly and felt somewhat ashamed of never eating together with the other helpers; he began to feel more left out for each hour he spent with the brunet, who was usually socializing with others during lunch and dinner in his own way. Quickly, he changed the subject: “What will you do tomorrow after we have finished the deliveries?” he asked instead.

“Since we’ll be up all night, I think sleep is in order,” the other answered while filling his fork with oven baked mashed sweet potato and sausage.

“Hm,” Slaine hummed while nodding. “I think you’re right. It’ll be a tough night. I’ve never been up so late into the early morning before.”

“Me neither,” Inaho said and looked up at Slaine from his plate of food. “Make sure to sleep some this afternoon once we have finished our practice. Our shift starts right before midnight.”

“Sure, I’ll try,” the blond little helper smiled and feared their conversation would stop here, so he forcefully searched for something more to say, and finally asked: “Have you wished for something from Father Christmas by the way?”

The brunet turned his attention to his food again, and answered:

“No. Have you?”

Slaine shook his head.

“I would have wanted to have one of those cast iron pans and a clay pot for cooking, but since Father Christmas is ill, I find it kind of rude to ask him of anything right now. I think he should get better and only think about himself for now,” the blond helper answered and noticed Inaho was watching him again.

To avoid the unpleasant stare, he kept his gaze cast down at his food.

“Do you like cooking?” the brunet wondered, and Slaine blushed somewhat.

“I’m really bad at it,” he admitted. “But I really want to try and get better.”

“Is that why you want a cast iron pan and a clay pot?”

“Y-yeah,” Slaine mumbled and felt his cheeks grow hotter, until the warmth reached his ears. “Dad was bad at cooking too, but he always made tasty poor knights in a cast iron pan, and he used to make a traditional stew in a clay pot that he left in the oven for hours at low temperature. I think he found the stew easy to make since it required little cooking skills,” he continued and chuckled. “I would like to try those someday.”

“Poor knights?” Inaho asked, and Slaine looked up at him. “What is that?”

Slaine realize that perhaps the other was not familiar with the Northern name of the dish, and feared he might have made Inaho feel stupid for not knowing what it was, hurriedly explaining:

“Like French toast?” he said. “Um… Slices of white bread fried in egg, milk and flour. You eat them with jam and they taste almost like pancakes.”

Inaho stared at him with a studying stare for a little while before he continued eating, and said:

“That does sound tasty. I’ve never had any before.”

Slaine, happy to have helped the other understand, felt encouraged and was about to ask Inaho if he wanted to try Slaine’s future attempts sometime, but then stopped right before voicing the question.

What if he wants to go back to his old routines after tonight?’ he thought and felt the gloominess return. ‘Why would he want to hang out with me and eat my silly poor knights?

Instead, he avoided the question and said:

“I hope you get to taste it someday. It’s really good.”

They finished their lunch and Slaine took the role of a host and asked if the brunet wanted a cup of tea or coffee. Inaho accepted and wandered into the living room while Slaine prepared two cups of black coffee for them both. When he stepped into the living room, he saw Inaho stand in front of the fireplace, staring at the photograph of Slaine’s father. After a moment of hesitation after an unpleasant feeling filled him, he stepped up to the other and offered one of the cups to the brunet.

“Thank you,” Inaho said and took the cup before looking back up at the photograph. “He had gray and blue eyes?”

Slaine blinked from surprise and stared at the brunet for a while, before looking up at the photo as well to take a closer look.

“Y-yeah, he did.”

“And your mother?”

“Um… I’m not sure. I never knew her. Why?” the blond little helper asked, and was baffled once more as he heard the other say:

“I got curious. You have a greenish color, which is rare.”

Slaine stared at the brunet without knowing what to think or say. When had the other registered the color of his eyes, and why? It was easy to see the burgundy brown eyes since brown was always brown no matter what the hue, but grey, blue and green eyes were harder to distinguish from each other.

Why does he know my eye color?’ he wondered and looked up at the photograph of his father again as Inaho continued staring at it.

“Do you know how people get green eyes?” the brunet continued, and Slaine looked at him again.

“The iris has a green color?” he asked uncertainly, and Inaho turned to look at him, saying:

“No. It’s because of Rayleigh scattering in the iris, the same phenomenon that makes the sky blue. Eyes with green hues have a yellow colored stroma, and blue plus yellow becomes green.”

Slaine was completely taken off guard and felt a heavy blush spread on his cheeks. He felt stupid for blushing, since it revealed what he really thought of Inaho’s comment. Had the other any idea of how romantic that would sound if told to the right person? Somehow, since he felt mortified of blushing so sincerely, Slaine awkwardly realized Inaho’s comment had flattered him, and his heart began pounding in his chest.

“I… I didn’t know that,” he mumbled and hurriedly sipped some coffee to desperately distract his mind.

“The same applies to blue eyes, except they don’t have a yellow stroma,” Inaho continued and then sipped on the coffee. Immediately after, he said “The coffee’s good” in a blunt manner and looked around the living room to rest his eyes on the things occupying the coffee table, shelves and windowsills.

“T-thanks,” the blond helper stammered, wishing he would be left alone for a little while to collect his thoughts and feelings.

This is so embarrassing!

After lunch was over, they headed back to the stable to make their third and hopefully last practice flight. This time, it went even better than earlier, and Slaine felt relieved things were finally going their way. The reindeer were still somewhat nervous, but they obeyed Inaho’s commands without resistance and seemed to slowly relax the longer they flew.

Four hours later, they landed the sleigh on the runway and were praised by Santa Cruhteo once more before getting his approval to fly during the oncoming night. Satisfied, the two helpers took the reindeer to the stable to feed them one more time and brush their fur to make them ready for the yearly flight with children’s presents as cargo.

“My sister has prepared a red Santa suit for you,” Inaho said suddenly while they were brushing a reindeer.

“A Santa suit?” Slaine asked and raised his eyebrows. He would have gotten excited had he not been in such a gloomy mood. “You won’t have one?”

“No,” the brunet answered. “I’ll be flying the sleigh, and there can’t be two Santas.”

This made Slaine feel somewhat special in the middle of all the gloominess, making him smile. To wear the red Santa suit was an honor not many of the helpers usually got.

“Why, though?” the blond little helper asked and finished his side of the reindeer and patted it on its mule. “We’re no Santas either of us.”

”It’s just in case children might spot us,” the brunet answered and finished his side of the reindeer as well. They moved on to the next animal. “She will deliver it later this evening.”

To be spotted by a child… The thought made Slaine thrilled to be allowed to be the legendary Santa Claus for tiny tots with eyes aglow, watching the sky to get a brief glimpse of the red suit and reindeer. Even if his mood lightened somewhat, he was still short of words, and answered quietly:

“I see…”

As they continued brushing the animals in silence, Slaine noticed the brunet throw glances at him again, like he was trying to determine what mood the blond little helper was in. Slaine, who just wanted to get done in the stable and go home to sleep so he could stay up the entire night, ignored him and continued with his work without acknowledging Inaho’s watchful eyes. He refused to look at the brunet all together.

Just as they had finished and Slaine was cleaning the brush before putting it back onto the shelf, absentmindedly pulling the fur out of the brush, something bumped into him. It was a gentle puff, and when he looked over the shoulder, he saw that Tharsis stood behind him.

“What is it?” he asked and continued cleaning the brush, and another gentle shove pushed against his back. “Tharsis, stop that,” the blond little helper mumbled instead, simply wanting to finish up and go home.

“Slaine,” Inaho said behind him, and Slaine sighed from being interrupted again. “Look.”

When the busy helper turned around to look at Tharsis, his breath was caught in his throat the moment a faint red glow shone in front of him. The reindeer stood with its head somewhat lowered and had a calm atmosphere around it – or was it more like shock? It was waiting for Slaine to react to the little miracle.

“Tharsis…!” the blond little helper gasped and put his hands over his mouth for a moment to stare at the red nose of the reindeer. Then he lowered his hands and took a step closer to the animal. “You … got Rudolph’s red nose!”

Tharsis shook its head and grunted, and Slaine felt a genuine smile spread on his lips. Joy washed over him and tears welled up in his eyes from seeing the proud reindeer show the faintly glowing nose that would soon light up brightly enough to show the way in the dark.

“Congratulations!” the blond little helper exclaimed and threw his arms around the reindeer’s neck to hug it close and pat its shoulders. “I can’t believe you got it! You finally got it! I’m so proud of you! I can’t wait to tell Santa Cruhteo about this; he will be so happy too!”

“Our present deliveries in the storm will be considerately easier now,” Inaho said as he walked up to Tharsis as well, and Slaine looked up at him with a bright smile.

“This is great news! I’m so happy for Tharsis. He deserves it,” he said and patted the reindeer with both hands before stepping away from Tharsis to get a good look of the nose. “It’s so pretty… Be proud and make good use of it, so Rudolph will be proud too, Tharsis.” He felt exalted. “I have to hurry and tell Santa Cruhteo!”

“I’ll feed the reindeer,” Inaho said to the joyful helper. “You go and spread the news. Just don’t forget to get some sleep before midnight.”

This stimulated Slaine’s excitement to blow through the roof. He jumped at Inaho and hugged him tightly, thanking him breathlessly and then dashed out of the stable to run down the winter road and into the busy town.

“Hey! Where’s the fire?!” he heard helper Marito say while he were out taking a smoke.

“Tharsis has gotten the red nose this year!” the happy blond-haired helper yelled while he continued down the street, and people turned to look at him. Some yelled congratulations to him. “Thank you!” he answered, and disappeared into the office building.

When he got inside the building where Santa Cruhteo’s office was, he hurried up the stairs and knocked on the door. The moment he was asked to step inside, he opened the doors and gasped for breath with the bright smile still playing on his lips, and said:

“Tharsis got Rudolph’s red nose!”

Santa Cruhteo stared at him, baffled by the blond little helper’s sudden appearance, but then sat back on the chair and took a deep breath of relief.

“Thank goodness,” he sighed. “I have prayed for him to get it since yesterday.”

“He’s really proud, sir. I think he wants to show it to you, as well,” Slaine said happily, and the proud Santa looked at him for a little while with a somewhat neutral expression, but then nodded.

“All right,” he said and got up from the chair, and Slaine felt like a happy puppy from all the excitement. “I will come with you to the stable.”

With the joyful news of Tharsis getting the red nose this year, Slaine forgot all about his gloominess and nervousness. When he and Santa Cruhteo walked down the road in town, the rumor about Tharsis having been visited by the spirit of Rudolph had already spread. People hurried up to them to ask if it was true, and Slaine got the honor to explain that it was nothing but the truth. Congratulations showered over the Santa and helper, and once they finally reached the stable and stepped inside, Slaine was greeted with a faintly smiling Inaho and Tharsis whose nose had begun to glow stronger.

While Santa Cruhteo stepped up to Tharsis to inspect the red nose and give praise to the reindeer, Slaine walked up to the tousle-haired helper, smiling as brightly as ever.

“Welcome back,” Inaho said, and Slaine chuckled.

“I was away for just a couple of minutes,” he said, but Inaho shook his head.

“I didn’t mean that,” he explained, and the blond little helper felt curious. He tilted his head and heard Inaho say: “You have seemed down all day. I was getting worried, since a Santa is never supposed to be downhearted during Christmas Eve. You should keep smiling; it suits you better.”

Slaine stared at him, feeling greatly baffled by the brunet’s comment.

So this is what you have been thinking about today?’ he thought and sighed with a smile. ‘You’ve been worrying about me.’

“Thank you…” he answered quietly, and together they walked over to Tharsis to pat the reindeer that seemed to begin sharing the excitement over its red nose.

We can do this!’ Slaine thought, feeling slightly more confident about tonight's flight.

Chapter Text

It was finally time. He stood dressed in the classic red suit of a Santa, with a black belt over his waist and a Santa hat on his head while black boots protected his feet from the cold snow beneath him where he stood on the runway. The sleigh had been prepared; the reindeer were strapped to it and the sack with presents was in the present compartment.

“You look so adorable in a Santa suit!” Yuki exclaimed with a joyful smile. She was going to see them off. “You should consider applying for a Santa position in the future!”

“T-thank you, Miss Kaizuka,” the blond little helper stammered nervously, blushing all the way to the tips of his ears.

“Now, do the best you can do, both of you,” she continued and looked at them both.

Inaho sat in the sleigh, reins in hand and waited for the moment the hands of time would reach midnight. He was dressed in his usual uniform and outerwear.

“If you need any assistance, you can reach me on the radio all night,” Santa Cruhteo, standing next to Yuki, said and kept a watchful eye on Slaine.

The blond helper lowered his eyes and decided to check the straps were secure one last time. He was working again to avoid something unpleasant, and he got a feeling Inaho was watching him again as well.

Is it that obvious?’ he wondered and pulled on the buckles and straps.

When he got to Tharsis’ straps, he looked at the reindeer’s nose shining so brightly he had to squint with his eyes. The reindeer was standing proudly, majestically arching its back to stand tall on the forelegs. Despite its dramatic pose Tharsis looked somewhat comical without the antlers, and Slaine chuckled and patted its mule.

“You have all the right to be proud,” he said to it. “Your nose is really pretty and it lights up our path and brightens our spirits. Use it well. I know you can do this.”

He scratched the reindeer on its mane hanging from its neck. The animal groaned from satisfaction and huffed, and the blond little helper chuckled again.

“Good boy,” he said and then continued checking the rest of the reindeer and straps. “We are ready to go,” he then announced and climbed up onto the sleigh next to Inaho.

“Two minutes left,” Yuki said after looking at her watch. “I have already seen one team off and it all went well, but I’m still nervous seeing you two get out there because of the storm.”

“Don’t worry, sis,” Inaho said and looked at her with his usual neutral expression. “We have the red nose. The storm won’t be a big problem.”

“Just be careful,” she said with a sigh; Slaine saw the worried look of a sister in her expression and found it warm and kind. “Come back in one piece, both of you.”

“And my reindeer and sleigh,” Santa Cruhteo added in strictly, and Slaine and Inaho promised to come back alive with the reindeer and sleigh in good condition. Before the proud Santa backed away from the sleigh, he gave Slaine a red cloak and a pocket watch. “Use them wisely, boy,” he said to the blond little stand-in Santa, and Slaine looked up at him and nodded, answering:

“Yes, sir. I will.”

Yuki and Santa Cruhteo backed away as thirty seconds were left until takeoff, and Slaine took a deep breath and took a hold of the armrest next to him.

“Are you nervous?” Inaho asked, and Slaine pressed his lips together for a little while and then nodded.

“I’m scared, to be frank.”

“Don’t be,” the helper said and made him ready. “We will be back within a couple of hours.”

The blond little helper swallowed hard and nodded.

“I’ll trust you,” he said quietly, and finally heard Yuki’s voice order them to takeoff from the ground and begin their mission.

Inaho gave the order for the reindeer to begin running down the runway, and they obeyed without causing trouble. Tharsis seemed to have gotten so much confidence it nearly poured out of the animal’s ears, and it showed in the rest of the reindeer as well. When the leader was confident, the rest would follow.

“Takeoff!” the brunet exclaimed once they had gotten enough speed, and the faint jingles began to sound and the silver glitter exploded from the reindeer hooves.

The liftoff was surprisingly steady and determined; Tharsis was leading the herd with an iron hand, pulling them and guiding them according to Inaho’s commands. The reindeer slowly rose up into the air and pulled the sleigh with them, and they climbed the sky until they were right beneath the clouds.

The wind was cold, but with a push of a button the sleigh kept the temperature hot enough their clothes could keep them warm, but cold enough their noses turned red; a red nose was a must for the Santa when visiting the children’s stockings and Christmas trees.

“All right,” Slaine mumbled nervously and turned on the GPS. “The first house is up in the North.”

“Turn on the TimeMod,” Inaho said and looked ahead, and Slaine nodded and did as he was told.

A small button next to the GPS shone with a bright blue color, and the stand-in Santa pushed it. The blue light turned green and nothing seemed to happen at first glance, and they continued their flight to the most northern house in Finland, to where a child had sent a letter from. As they began to descend to the first house of the night’s present delivery, the effect of the TimeMod button Slaine had pushed was showing itself; everything outside the sleigh went slowly as the sleigh's time had sped up. To the ordinary humans, time was still moving on in its usual pace, but in the sleigh time went so fast they had already arrived to the first house within a minute.

“I’ll land on the roof. You know what to do?” Inaho asked and commanded the reindeer to slow down and land.

“Y-yeah,” the stand-in Santa mumbled and felt nervous. To enter someone’s house without their approval was scary, he thought.

I can’t even enter the cafeteria when there’s people there, and now I’m supposed to enter someone’s house!’ he thought and began feeling jittery.

Inaho managed to get the sleigh down onto the roof with a rough landing, and Slaine jumped out of the sleigh and took the sack with presents and heaved it up onto his back. It was light and only filled with the presents that were to be delivered to this particular house. The presents emerged in the sack at every destination according to the magical address the gift wrapping machine in the workshop had stamped on it, making it easy to carry the sack along.

To protect himself from being seen by the occupants of the house, he pulled a cloak over his shoulders that turned him invisible – just like in the Harry Potter books. When the books had turned up in the human society, the entire Korvatunturi fell had initially been horrified of the Santas’ secret devices leaking out. Then, when the author for the books did not explain anything about the source of her inspiration, the shock had died down and disappeared; it had just been a coincidence.

Slaine let his head peek out and looked up at the driver in the sleigh before taking a deep breath.

“Wish me good luck,” he said and watched Inaho nod.

“Don’t forget to take a bite of the cookies and drink some of the milk if there’s any,” the expressionless helper reminded him and turned the TimeMod off, and the blond little stand-in Santa nodded.

“S-sure,” he mumbled and looked at the leader of the reindeer. “Good job, Tharsis,” he said to the proud reindeer trying to show off its red nose by holding it high.

Slaine walked over to the chimney and climbed up on it, and he looked down into the sooty hole after pulling the invisibility cloak over his head.

“Inside the house when no one’s around, through the chimney take me down,” he whispered and he immediately felt a shocking suction in his stomach as he fell through the chimney. With a frightened gasp, he landed clumsily on his behind in front of the fireplace and then grunted from pain. “Ow, ow, ow…”

He took the golden timepiece he had gotten from Santa Cruhteo and pushed in the top button of it to speed up his own time, just like the TimeMod on the sleigh, and then looked around and found that it was a simple home; ordinary and nothing special. Four stockings hung on the fireplace, and a beautiful Christmas tree stood in a corner with its lights on. Slaine got up from the floor and took a deep breath to ease his nerves, and stepped inside the living room. He thought he should get his business in the house done with as soon as possible and walked up to the Christmas tree to take the presents from the sack and put them beneath a branch among the rest of the presents. Then he looked around if he could see a gift to Santa, and found a small plate with chocolate cookies and a glass of milk on the coffee table.

This family believes in Santa,’ he thought with a smile and sneaked up to the plate and took two cookies. Then he drank a gulp of milk and moved back to the fireplace.

It was a custom that each time a family gave Santa a present in the form of cookies or porridge and such, the Santa would leave something as a thank you. Slaine rummaged around in the sack and found four chocolate Santas, and dropped one in each sock; one for the mother and one for the father, and one for each of the girls in the house. After that, he turned off the timepiece and took a deep breath, and whispered:

“Presents delivered, Santa has to go poof. Take me away from here, up onto the roof.”

The magic answered to his command and he was quickly transferred through the fireplace and up to the top of the chimney. There, as he came to a stop, he lost his balance and fell off the chimney and crashed onto the roof.

“How did it go?” Inaho asked and pushed in the TimeMod button to save time outside the magical sphere, and also delayed the possibly awakened occupants of the house; Slaine’s crash had been loud.

“Ow…” Slaine sighed and got up and pulled the invisibility cloak off. “Traveling through chimneys hurt… But the presents are delivered and they even had cookies on a plate. I took one to you as well,” he said and climbed up onto the sleigh.

“They are for Santa,” Inaho said and looked at the cookie Slaine held out for him.

“So?” the blond little stand-in Santa asked. “I can’t get all the sweets. It would be unfair.”

The brown-haired helper stared at the blond for two long seconds, but then took the cookie and looked at the reindeer.

“Thank you,” he mumbled and then gave the animals the command to lift, and right before the reindeer got up into the air to run on the glittering road of silver emitting from their hooves, he put the cookie between his lips and somehow managed to chew it down during their flight to the next house.

The helper and stand-in Santa repeated this step over and over again. Slaine preferred the houses over the apartment complexes, since traveling through a mail slot was really uncomfortable because of it being a tight squeeze, but the travel through a chink between the floor and the doors which had no mail slots was the worst.

As he stood outside the door to an apartment, he pressed his lips together and sighed heavily. It was time to squeeze through the tiny chink again.

“So children can their presents adore, squeeze me through the chink between floor and door,” he whispered and braced himself for the horrible feeling of being sucked into the apartment through the chink.

As he got inside, he was thrown out of balance yet again; he stumbled forward and nearly crashed into the table standing in the hall. He never seemed to grow used to the sudden release when he managed to squeeze through whatever tiny gaps he traveled through, and he silently grumbled and walked deeper into the apartment to find the Christmas tree. He delivered the presents like he should and looked around for more sweets that were offered to the Santa, but there were none. Instead, he paid the stockings no mind and hurried back to the door.

“Presents delivered to morning of Christmas Eve, and through the door I now must leave,” he whispered, and was sucked out of the chink again and back out to the staircase. He hurried to the next address in the same building and repeated the magical spells to allow him to get inside the apartments.

When they were finished in Finland, Inaho steered the sleigh toward Sweden. The blond little stand-in Santa felt cold sweat break out on his skin as he watched the border between Finland and Sweden come closer on the GPS.

Oh dear… Let this go our way,’ he silently prayed and threw a glance at Inaho to see if the brunet was nervous as well. The tousle-haired helper looked calm and collected as usual, and Slaine sighed from jealousy. ‘I want to be able to be that calm as well.’

The stormy weather waited for them with menace, and – once they got over the border and had delivered the Christmas presents in the Northern parts of the country – they were assaulted by horrible weather further south.

A strong wind came from their left out of nowhere, throwing the entire sleigh and reindeer off their course. Slaine nearly lost his Santa hat while Inaho had to grip the armrest on his side of the sleigh to prevent him from falling off. They saw nothing of where they were going, and Slaine felt a horrible feeling coil in his stomach.

“This is really bad!” he yelled to drown out the harsh wind deafening them. “Shouldn’t we turn around?!”

“We shouldn’t!” Inaho answered and squinted in the strong wind, looking ahead to see whatever Tharsis’ red nose lit up on their way. “The children will be disappointed if we don’t deliver their presents!”

Slaine knew he was right; a Santa’s job was dangerous and rough, and he could sympathize with Santa Cruhteo for not wanting to get out in this weather. Then again, he felt so frightened of this weather that he could not stay calm enough to be rational.

“But what if we’ll-?!”

The blond little stand-in Santa was suddenly interrupted as he saw the present sack be caught by the strong wind and nearly blew off the sleigh. Instinctively, he threw an arm back to grab a hold of it while holding onto the armrest with knuckles whitening, but his hand holding the sack was too weak; the thick fabric began slipping as the sack was brutally thrashing in the wind.

“Inaho!” he yelled and got tears in his eyes. “The presents!”

The determined helper yelled out the order to the reindeer to descend onto lower altitude, and the animals obeyed bravely, pushing and prancing through the storm on the glittering silver road while the noise of merry jingles from bells continued sounding around them.

The wind did not dissipate fast enough, and Slaine felt his fingers lose their grip of the sack. Frightened but with a great sense of duty, he let go of the armrest with his other hand and turned around on the seat to grab a double hold of the sack.

“Hurry! Go down!” he yelled with tears in his eyes as the wind pushed the sleigh further off course.

“I can’t! It’s too dangerous; I can’t see well enough!” Inaho yelled back right before they flew into an air pocket, and the silver road beneath the reindeer disappeared.

The fall was terrifying. Slaine screamed at the top of his lungs while Inaho battled to keep the reindeer under control, and it felt like the fall would never stop. Then, like landing on a fluffy pillow, the reindeer got air beneath them again and the glitter began pouring out from beneath their hooves.

Slaine felt like vomiting. His body was protesting by trembling from emotional shock, and he slumped over the backrest to calm down before another strong gust of wind knocked them off course.

“Trust Tharsis!” Slaine yelled to the brave helper next to him over the roaring wind. “Let him show us the way to a safe and low altitude! He can see because of his nose!”

When he threw a glance at the brunet, he saw Inaho grit his teeth and look troubled.

He’s scared too?’ Slaine wondered briefly, before he heard the helper yell to the leader of the reindeer:

“Tharsis! Do what Rudolph did and guide us to a low altitude! We cannot see back here!”

The somewhat spooked reindeer answered to his command by increasing the slope of their decreasing altitude. The animal pulled and began to steer on its own, and Inaho slackened the reins enough to allow Tharsis to adjust their angle and direction according to the winds.

“Woah!” the blond stand-in Santa exclaimed as a strong wind took a hold of them again.

This time, he was about to be thrown off the sleigh entirely with the sack of presents in hand. He slipped to his side of the sleigh and was about to fall over the armrest when a hand grabbed a hold of his black belt and pulled him in.

“Don’t let go of the presents!” Inaho yelled behind him, and – with tears in his eyes – Slaine gritted his teeth as well and clutched his hands around the coarse fabric of the sack to hold it from disappearing into the dark night.

Once they got to a low enough altitude the strong winds became manageable, Slaine released a whimper from relief and put the sack back into the present compartment while Inaho still held his belt to aid him. When the presents were back in place Slaine turned around and sat down onto the seat. He gasped to calm down while the brutal wind still pulled at his clothes and hair, and an arm wrapped around his waist and pulled him close to a warm body.

“You did well,” he heard Inaho say, and Slaine looked up at him and saw the brunet hold onto the armrest on his side of the sleigh with his other hand while having the reins wrapped around his arm.

“T-thanks…” the horrified helper said and let the other’s arm hold him close. “You saved me.”

“And you saved millions of children’s happiness this Christmas,” Inaho answered.

Slaine felt his cheeks blush despite the terrible experience, and he smiled awkwardly and put one of his arms around Inaho’s neck and reached for the armrest on the brunet’s side of the sleigh to hold onto it as well. This way, they held each other securely on the sleigh while Tharsis guided the reindeer to a safe altitude where the wind was not as strong, and Inaho could steer the reindeer again.

They landed on the roof of the next house, and Slaine jumped off the sleigh and looked up at Inaho, who turned the TimeMod off.

“You’ll be all right?” he asked while the strong wind assaulted them all, and the brunet nodded.

“Yes. Hurry; we have about a million presents left to deliver only in Sweden, and we have already spent an hour and an half of the normal time,” he said, and Slaine sighed and pulled the invisibility cloak on again.

“But it’s only half past midnight in Sweden now,” he pointed out.

“And we will have to finish before six o’clock before the sky starts lighting up,” the brunet answered. “We have half of Sweden left, and then Norway, Denmark and United Kingdom.”

“I got you,” Slaine grumbled and sighed, turned on the timepiece and walked up to the hatch leading down into the building of the apartment complex, and said: “To get to the homes with presents in tow, through this hatch I must go.” After slipping through the hatch, he walked up to the first door on his list, and then whispered again: “The presents I have brought, let me inside through this slot.”

After he was finished, he got back up onto the roof and turned off the timepiece, climbed up onto the sleigh with exhaustion and slumped down onto the seat.

“Done,” he mumbled.

“Are you all right?” the brunet asked and turned on the TimeMod again, and then commanded the reindeer to get up into the sky.

“No,” the blond stand-in Santa complained. “I feel sick. I have eaten so many sweets and had so much milk that I think I’ll barf. How do the Santas do this?”

“Perhaps they just take a couple of sweets with them and sip some milk, and then throws the sweets away and spits the milk out?” the brunet suggested, and Slaine frowned.

“But that’s mean,” he said upset. “The sweets and milk is put out to give Santa something to keep them going throughout the entire night, and it brings the families happiness to see Santa appreciated it.”

“You can’t honor innocent wishes all the time,” Inaho warned him and steered the reindeer to the next house. “Sometimes you have to be indifferent and even reject people’s kindness; it might suffocate you in the end.” He made a pause to land, and then continued: “Or make you vomit from forcing yourself to eat too many sweets and drink too much milk.”

The blond little stand-in Santa felt like he had gotten a brusque scolding even though Inaho’s voice had been as emotionless and soothing as always. Mortification flushed up out of nowhere as he knew Inaho was probably right and Slaine had been the naïve one for trying to please too many people.

Without answering anything back, he got inside the building and delivered the presents, this time taking one sweet from each home and put them in the present sack. Even if he could not eat anymore sweets, he still wanted to make the children excited by seeing traces of Santa visiting their Christmas tree during the night.

They pushed through the storm in Norway as well with the guidance of Tharsis’ red nose. They nearly lost the presents several times and almost crashed into tall buildings and mountain tops along the way, always resulting in the reindeer saving them from a certainly lethal accident. After the dangerous areas had been cleared, they continued on to Denmark. After that, they flew up to the United Kingdom, beginning up in Scotland and continued on to England, then Wales, up to Northern Ireland, and finally to Ireland.

When they arrived to one of the last houses, both of them and the reindeer were exhausted. Slaine wobbled over to the chimney and climbed up on it after Inaho had turned off the TimeMod, and pulled the invisibility cloak around him.

“Inside the house when no one’s around, through the chimney take me down,” he sighed tiredly, and felt the now all too familiar fall through the chimney. “Ough!” he exclaimed as he crashed out of the small fireplace, landing face down and hitting his chin against the wooden floor. “Ugh…”

He pushed himself up from the floor and made sure the invisibility cloak was covering him, and dragged his feet over to the Christmas tree and picked out the presents from the sack and put them beneath the tree.

When he turned around to leave, dazed and tired from the night’s hard work, he suddenly came to a halt and froze. A child was up, standing in the living room just a step away from him, kneading his sleepy eyes and looked at the delivered presents. The blond little stand-in Santa dared not to move or even breathe, and he felt suddenly wide awake. Somehow, he had managed to come and go through the homes without being seen by anyone throughout the entire night; he had been careful with the timepiece and done everything according to protocol. Now, however, he stood face to face with his mistake of forgetting to turn it on to speed up his time, all because he was feeling exhausted.

“Santa?” the small child, not older than four years old, mumbled sleepily.

If Slaine moved now, the child would hear him. Instead, he stood frozen and hoped the child would go back to their room. Instead of obeying Slaine’s silent wish, the child decided to walk over to the presents. In the process, he bumped into the invisible stand-in Santa, and the cloak fell off from Slaine’s shoulders.

As he was revealed to the child, the boy stared up at Slaine with wide and shocked eyes. Slaine, in turn, was arrested in the boy’s stare and dared not to move in case he would spook the child into a scream.

He did not need to worry about that for much long though. Suddenly, the child’s eyes glittered with amazement and yelled at the top of his lungs:

“SANTA! SANTA IS HERE!”

It was the child that spooked Slaine instead:

“AAAHHH!”

Horrified, the stand-in Santa screamed and picked up the invisibility cloak from the floor and covered himself and the present sack with it and ran toward the fireplace, but was intercepted by a slightly older girl who came running with an older brother and sister in tow, and soon a mother emerged out from behind the corner too.

“Mum! I saw Santa! Santa came with presents!” the boy behind Slaine yelled excitedly.

“What? Someone is here?” the woman asked horrified and seemed not to know what to do. “Pete, call the police! We might have a burglar in our house!”

With silent steps, Slaine walked back into the living room and backed up against a corner. He watched the frightened mother gather her children in her embrace until the four year-old pointed at the presents beneath the Christmas tree and said:

“But mum, you said Santa is a good man. He gave us presents. Look.”

The smallest daughter tore herself away from her mother’s embrace and hurried up to the presents.

“Santa! I want to see Santa too!”

“Doesn’t a burglar steal stuff from a house, mum?” the older girl asked and folded her arms over her chest, staring accusing at her mother. “This ‘burglar’ came with presents.”

The oldest son, Pete, who was a young teen, sighed and looked tired.

“You don’t have to pretend anymore, mum,” he said. “Santa’s not real. When did you put the presents there?”

Their mother frowned from confusion and looked at the presents, and then she looked around the living room with her eyes sweeping across Slaine’s hiding place in the corner. The blond little stand-in Santa’s heart was beating wildly in his chest and his knees shook beneath him.

“I didn’t,” she said, and her oldest daughter groaned:

“Stop it, mum! We know it was you!”

“No!” the little son exclaimed with a sour look on his face. “I saw Santa!”

“But honey,” his mother said and walked up to her little boy to squat down in front of him. “I don’t see any Santa in here.”

“But I saw him!” the child protested. “I saw Santa!”

Even if Slaine had found the thought of being seen by a child thrilling, this was still terrifying enough he wished the child had not seen him at all.

You didn’t see anything!’ he thought and prayed for the family to go back to sleep. ‘Leave!

As the child continued protesting, nearly crying as his mother did not believe him Slaine decided he had to take the chance and turn on the timepiece even if his movement risked making his clothes and cloak rustle. Quickly, he put his hand into the pocket where the timepiece lay, and – just as the family looked up toward the corner where he was hiding – he turned the timepiece on and watched the family members’ movements slow down enough they nearly looked frozen.

He hurried to the chimney and said the spell that would take him up onto the roof, and once he got out of the invisibility cloak and had turned the timepiece off, he jumped on board the sleigh. Immediately, he turned the TimeMod on.

“Hurry! We have to get away from here!” he said urgently, and Inaho threw a questioning look at him but did as Slaine told him. Once they were finally up in the sky, Slaine slumped back against the backrest and sighed to calm his still racing heart. “A child saw me,” he gasped and closed his eyes. “I was so tired I forgot to turn the timepiece on.”

Inaho turned to look ahead and observed the world Tharsis’ nose lit up, and said:

“We have worked all night for several hours. It’s understandable,” he said, and Slaine nodded.

“Let’s finish up and go home…” the blond little stand-in Santa sighed, and they did just that.

When the welcomed sight of Korvatunturi fell came into view, lights had been put up on the runway they were to land on, and the closer they got the clearer they saw that people were waiting for them. It was a large crowd.

When Inaho gave the command to land, the exhausted reindeer clumsily landed on the runway and the sleigh drifted a little to the left from the speed they came down with. People around them began cheering and whistling with joy, and – when the sleigh came to a stop – Slaine’s eyes landed on the beautiful future Mother Christmas, who stood with a rosy blush on her pale cheeks.

“Well done!” Slaine heard Yuki exclaim from somewhere. “You came back alive!”

Santa Cruhteo was there waiting as well, and he walked up to the sleigh and stared at the two helpers. Slaine lowered his eyes immediately as he felt too tired to meet his employer’s harsh look, but a finger beneath his chin raised his head back up immediately, and Slaine was forced to look into Santa Cruhteo’s icy blue eyes.

“Do not lower your head, Slaine Troyard,” the man said with a scolding tone.

“I’m s-sorry,” Slaine gasped and frowned, worried the man was angry.

Instead, he was surprised as Santa Cruhteo said:

“You did well and have worked hard. I admit I am proud of you as my personal helper.”

The blond little helper swooned from the kind praise he got, and thanked him sincerely but nearly voicelessly. Never had he imagined the strict Santa Cruhteo to give such praise to the little helper, since the man almost never gave him any kind of praise at all. Now, however, Slaine got such great praise he did not know what to do with it.

“Oh, Slaine!” he heard the sweet voice of Asseylum exclaim, and she hurried up to him and put her glove-covered hands over his red cheeks and smiled angelically. “I am so proud of you! You saved Christmas bravely. My grandfather is proud as well and he wished he could have been here to greet you when you came back, but he is regretfully not faring well at the moment,” she sung to him, and Slaine felt his already flushed cheeks grow hotter.

“T-thank you!” he said and smiled happily with tears in his eyes for finally being home and being greeted by such kind words from two important people in his life.

“You too, Inaho Kaizuka,” Asseylum said and turned her attention to the brunet who was being forcefully cuddled by his proud sister. “You have shown outstanding courage!”

The brown-haired helper had no chance to answer her as his sister dragged him off the sleigh and pulled him along to take him home. Slaine threw a worried look at Inaho, fearing he would never spend time with the other again. It felt like his heart was smashed to pieces at watching him go, and he felt grateful his eyes were already filled with tears of relief; he could hide his tears of loneliness among them.

“Come,” Asseylum said and took his hand to pull him down from the sleigh. “Other helpers will tend to the reindeer. You should get some rest.”

Slaine gave her a smile – forcing it to appear on his lips – before he nodded and thanked her for her kindness. She and Santa Cruhteo followed him all the way to his house and Asseylum gave him a tight hug before bidding him farewell so he could go to sleep. Slaine met Santa Cruhteo’s gaze once more before giving him a slight and tire bow, and then turned to open the door into the house. Before he stepped through it his Santa hat was pulled off and a hand ruffled his hair for a brief second, before it disappeared and the creaking of snow beneath feet could be heard behind him. Slaine looked over his shoulder, watching the golden-haired beings walk down the road.

Santa Cruhteo…’ he thought and felt his lonely heart grow slightly warm. It beat softly.

Finally, he stepped inside his house. Without taking the Santa suit off, he threw himself onto the bed and fell asleep immediately, sleeping soundly through the entire Christmas Eve and dreamt peacefully about nothing.

Chapter Text

“Uughh…”

He turned around in his bed, feeling sweaty and nauseous while his head pounded harshly. All limbs were heavy as stone, and his mind groggy enough he felt like he was just recovering from a horrible flu. When he opened his eyes, it was pitch black in the house, and he groaned and felt the sensitive stomach ache from hunger.

How long was I out?’ he wondered tiredly and reached for the magic light standing on his bedside table, and turned it on. His eyes were light sensitive, making him squint in the light as it grew strong enough his head ached, and then looked at the clock. It showed it was three in the morning of 25th of December. ‘About twenty-two hours?’ he calculated slowly in his mind, and then took a deep breath to ease his aching body.

He could not remember a single time in his life when he had slept so long. Had he been so exhausted from the night’s work that he had been out cold for nearly an entire day? How bizarre! In a way, since he was used to working hard, he felt somewhat ashamed of having slept through the entire Christmas Eve and not lifted a single finger during the day. But then again, he had worked really hard during the night.

It should be all right?’ he thought and got up from the bed, and immediately felt his feet grow heavier than lead.

With a tired groan, he stumbled into the kitchen and opened the fridge. His stomach was too sensitive from not processing food for about thirty hours, making him not want to eat anything solid. Instead, he made some oatmeal porridge and sprinkled some cinnamon and sugar on top, and added a large scoop of apple sauce on the side. With a bottle of water and the plate with porridge in his hands, he walked into the living room with shuffling steps and sat down on the floor in front of the fireplace.

“Harsh cold and rain and wind and storm, light up a fire that keeps me warm,” he mumbled and yawned, and a small spark crackled in the fireplace and soon a fire lit up the dark room and radiated comfortable warmth that soothed the blond little helper’s tired body and mind.

There, on the living room floor and beneath his father’s protecting gaze, he slowly filled his stomach with the porridge and apple sauce, and drank the entire bottle of water to hydrate his body properly. The meal made him feel nauseous again, but it also gave him a good portion of energy that made him feel slightly better overall. He lay down on the floor and stared at the fireplace, trying to remember what had happened so many hours ago that would make him this exhausted, and then remembered the sight of Inaho’s back.

That was last time I saw him,’ he thought and frowned with a heart that begun aching. ‘Is he sleeping too?

Everything felt lonely. The life he lived was lonely. The house he lived in was lonely. This living room was lonely, and his spot in front of the fireplace felt lonely. Even his heart felt disturbingly lonely, and tears sprung to his eyes when thinking about never working with the brown-haired helper again.

It was fun,’ he thought and sniveled where he lay on the floor and curled up, still dressed in his red Santa suit.

Now, he could only go back to his normal life and continue working like he had done before the past two days. He wanted to hurry and pick up his life as soon as possible to drown his sorrows in work – like he always did when he had to flee from something bothersome or unpleasant.

It’ll be awkward to see him in town from now on,’ he then thought and took a deep breath to sigh and calm down.

A sudden noise from something bumping into the wall outside next to the door made him sit up and look toward the window in the hall. A figure was seen leaving his door and curiously the blond little helper got up and hurried over to the window to sneak a peek outside at who had visited his house. It was strange for this person to not knock on the door, but – then again – it was in the middle of the night after all.

Then he noticed a golden light emit from beneath the window, and he decided to open the door a crack to look outside at what was going on. When he did, he was surprised by lots of candle flames billowing in the wind, and a large sack of presents stood next to the door beside a large straw goat with a red ribbon strapped around its body. Leaning against its legs, a wooden sign said:

Thank you for saving Christmas”.

Slaine drew in a sharp breath at realizing people had come to his house to pay their respects for the hard-working helper. The other helpers had probably gotten the same kind of treatment. A weak whimper escaped him and he pushed his hands over his mouth to suffocate it. Then, tears filled his eyes, but this time out of the overwhelming feeling of being appreciated rather than being abandoned.

“Did you sleep properly?” he heard a familiar voice ask further down the street, and Slaine turned his eyes up to see Inaho come walking toward his house.

“Y-yeah,” he said awkwardly and dried his tears to hide he had been about to cry. “And you?”

“I got up three hours ago,” the brunet answered and walked up to the door. He looked exhausted; dark circles lay heavily beneath his bloodshot eyes and his skin looked ashen. “I was going to give you your Christmas present,” he continued and looked at the large sack of presents next to Slaine’s door.

“P-present?” the blond little helper asked confused and felt his heart skip a beat from joy. “Why?”

“Because I think you should have one from me too,” the other answered and then looked at Slaine’s clothes. “You haven’t changed yet?”

“N-no,” Slaine mumbled and looked down at his clothes. “I got up about half an hour ago; I fell asleep with the clothes on.”

“I see,” Inaho answered, and then an awkward silence lay to rest between them.

What should I do?’ Slaine wondered and frowned.

“Um…” he began, but was immediately interrupted by the brunet:

“Won’t you ask me to come in?”

Slaine blinked and stepped away from the door like he had gotten a verbal shove, and Inaho stepped inside the house and closed the door behind him. The blond little helper hurried to turn on the lights in the hall so Inaho could see where to put his shoes and coat, and then looked at a bag in the brunet’s hand.

“D-did you get presents outside your house too?” Slaine asked and nodded toward the door behind Inaho.

“I did. The other helpers got presents as well,” the brown-haired helper answered and stepped inside Slaine’s kitchen. “There will be a party tonight in our honor. The entire town will be there.”

Slaine felt a bad feeling bubble up from his stomach. A party meant socializing with people, and even the thought of attending a large party made him feel sick out of anxiety. He noticed his mind began to quickly search for an excuse to stay home and, when he looked up at Inaho to say he had to go back to work and tidy the workshop, he noticed Inaho stare at him again, looking at him with a gaze that told him he should not say a word.

Slaine felt like he had been caught red handed lying. Somehow, the other helper had seen it coming.

“You will come, right?” Inaho asked, and the blond little helper blushed and let his eyes wander over the room, looking at everything but the studying brunet. “It’s in your honor as well; you were a stand-in Santa after all. You should come.”

What’s with him?’ Slaine thought and pressed his lips together, feeling awkward as he was being pushed to accept the invitation. The air around the brunet gave him a feeling Slaine had no choice but to come, since Inaho knew he was trying to find excuses to maintain his shyness.

“I- Um…” the blond little helper mumbled, wanting to refuse but dared not to.

“You’re always like this with people,” Inaho suddenly said, and Slaine looked up at him and felt his heart make a hard beat from the accusatory sound to the other’s voice. “When they invite you to do something with them you always refuse and say you have work to do. Do you think they will be mean to you?”

“Huh? N-no, not at all!” Slaine said and felt shocked from hearing Inaho ask such straight forward questions.

“I have observed you for quite some time now,” Inaho continued and picked up the present from the bag and put it on the table. It seemed heavy. “And I have noticed things about you that you should care about as well.”

Slaine swallowed hard and frowned, nervously asking with a gasp:

“W-what is that?”

“You've been isolating yourself for a long time, which has made you dysfunctional while being with others. This causes you anxiety, and you protect yourself from anxiety by isolating yourself more. That’s not healthy,” the brunet said and asked for a cup of coffee, before continuing: “As long as people reach out to you, you answer them with respect. Then, when they turn their attention to something else, you let the connection go and turn your back to them. It’s the same as telling them you don’t want anything to do with them, so they stop asking you, and I know that is not what you intend doing every time it happens.”

Slaine felt his chest grow tighter for each word the other said, and he silently prepared a cup of coffee with his back turned against the brunet. It felt somewhat safer to hide his face like this, even if the other’s words hurt tremendously.

“You have poor self-esteem and confidence,” Inaho continued. “This makes you believe you are a bother to others, and is the root of your problem. By thinking like this, you stop yourself from getting to know people. Instead, you take away your rights to your own emotions. You don’t go out of your way for anyone’s sake – not because you don’t care but because you care.”

Slaine drew in a sharp breath and tears began rolling down his cheeks. Inaho was on the right track – perhaps a little too close to the blond little helper’s heart.

“Is t-this what you’ve been observing all this time…?” Slaine mumbled. “I h-have noticed you looking at me a lot.”

“It is,” Inaho answered bluntly, his voice never changing from the monotone and soothing quality. “You try to please people too hard, even to the point of saving them the trouble of being with you. I suggest you let go of this need of control and exaggerated respect and help yourself to be with others. No one dislikes you, Slaine, so stop thinking they do.”

Slowly, Slaine poured coffee into two mugs and then took them in his hands. He hesitated of turning around to show his tear-struck face to the brunet, but after taking a deep breath he turned around, keeping his eyes lowered while holding out the mug to Inaho.

The brunet was looking at him; he saw it in the corner of his eye.

“What’s w-with all this?” the blond little helper asked with a voice thick from sorrow. “It’s l-like you’re attacking me or something.”

Inaho took the mug and held it in both hands, not letting the blond helper go with his gaze.

“That’s not true,” he said. “I've just noticed this behavior in you for a long time and decided to get to know you a little more to see why you were like this. I believe you won’t do anything about this problem of yours if no one points it out loud and clear.”

Slaine turned his face away, and sniveled.

“Is this why you wanted to pair up with me?” he asked quietly, barely audibly.

“Partly, yes,” Inaho answered frankly. “But also because we needed Santa Cruhteo’s sleigh.”

“I figured…” Slaine whispered and sat down on a chair, still hiding his face from the other.

Inaho kept staring at him for a short while, before he said quietly:

“Open your present.”

Slaine hesitated – feeling horribly vulnerable – and had no desire to open any presents while crying. Presents were supposed to be bringers of joy, and he could not put up a smile at all. Despite that – too afraid of saying no after the reprimand he had gotten from the brunet – he looked up at it and dried his tears, which were immediately replaced with new ones. Then, he took a hold of it and pulled it closer.

“It’s really heavy…” he mumbled and with trembling hands opened the gift wrapping. Inside, a brand new cast iron pan lay in a box, with a large picture of it on the package. Slaine stared at it with surprise and remembered back to what he had told Inaho during their previous lunch about his father and poor knights, and a chuckle slipped from between his lips. “A frying pan?” he asked and felt a genuine smile spread on his lips.

“You told me you wanted to have one so you could try making your father’s poor knights,” Inaho said. “I tried to give you an opportunity to invite me for lunch once getting a frying pan during our talk the other day, but you flat out rejected it by dodging the chance I gave you.”

Slaine looked up at the other with wide eyes, shocked to hear how Inaho had tried to reach out for him, and he began wondering what else the other had tried to do. Was this why he had turned up with lunch in the workshop? Was this the reason to why he had invited himself into Slaine’s house for lunch, to prove to him he wanted to eat lunch together and be invited back? Slaine’s mind began spinning with such thoughts, but then got stuck when situations he could not understand came to mind.

“How about the moment with the reindeer when I spoke to them?” he asked, and Inaho explained:

“I just thought of how different we two are. You're kind to the reindeer, like you’re treating them as friends.”

Slaine frowned and asked the next question:

“And about the evening in the sleigh when Santa Cruhteo let us fly with him?”

“I told you: The way you expressed your joy of flying made me think of you as a lighthearted person. You looked happy.”

Slaine stared at him for a short while, and then asked:

“A-and when we walked to the stable and runway the other morning?”

Inaho was quick to answer:

“You seemed sad about something, and since you had opened up to me the day before that by speaking about your father’s research and showing a happy smile in Santa Cruhteo’s sleigh, I figured you were wondering if we would stay friends after Christmas Eve and came to the conclusion we wouldn’t.”

Slaine lowered his eyes again and let his shoulders slump, whispering:

“Why didn’t you say anything if you noticed me being sad about it?”

Inaho’s words were simple:

“Because I wanted to see if you would try to let me know you wanted to be my friend. I asked you if you were all right, giving you a chance to speak up your mind, but you didn’t.”

Slaine’s smile from moments earlier faded entirely and he sulked. He played with the handle of the mug with his fingertips and thought about his clumsy mistakes while shame crept over him, and then sighed heavily, admitting his wrongs.

“I’m sorry…” he whispered and made a new attempt to dry his tears. “I must have seemed like a jerk.”

“No. I knew why you behaved like that. As I said: I have studied you for a while now,” Inaho answered and sipped on the coffee. “Not everyone else have, though, which makes me want to ask you again to come to the party this evening. Not everyone understands your reasons like I do.”

Slaine pushed the frying pan out of his way and lay down on the table, hiding his face in his arms.

“I don’t know what to say to people if they start speaking to me,” he mumbled from inside his temporary hiding place.

“You have tried to keep a conversation going when I have tried to be silent,” Inaho answered, and Slaine squeezed his hands into fists as the brunet explained yet another one of his experiments involving Slaine. “Like during our last lunch. You did it quite well. I think you’ll do fine during the party; it’s your self-esteem and confidence that makes you think that what you say has no worth. That’s not true at all. You just overthink things too much.”

What the brunet said made Slaine feel like he had been ridiculous his whole life – and he had. Now that Inaho put things in perspective, the blond little helper wondered if what the brunet said could actually be true. He found it was, and this made tears roll down his cheeks again.

I’ve made things harder for myself than it needs to be?’ he thought and felt a chuckle bubble up from his throat, and he laughed quietly.

“God, I’m so stupid, aren’t I?” he asked from inside his hiding place. “I had no idea my actions would be perceived like that by others. I must have hurt a lot of people.”

“I don’t know anything about that, but your behavior has gotten worse throughout the years I have observed you,” Inaho answered and sipped on the coffee again. “The way you have protected yourself recently has seemed like you have rejected others, though, even if you simply wanted to give them space and not bother them. To them, you might have come off as cold.”

Slaine sat up again and dried his tears and snot on the sleeve of his Santa suit, and leaned his head back to look up at the ceiling.

“I have always known something’s wrong with me,” he said quietly. “I just didn’t think it was me trying to be kind to others by staying out of their way.”

“You always put others first,” the brunet reminded him. “That has made you isolated. Since you can’t please everyone, you have stopped trying to please anyone at all. That’s not healthy. Supposed altruism like that is toxic.”

Slaine looked at him, and asked:

“So what you mean is that I should bother people a little?”

Inaho nodded, and asked again:

“Will you come to the party?”

Slaine chuckled quietly, sniveled, and then asked:

“Only if you come for lunch later. How about having some poor knights?”

Inaho smiled a small smile, saying:

“And you can make some stew for dinner with the present Yuki will bring later once she visits you.”

A sudden joy washed over the blond little helper of finally being allowed to say he had a special person in his life that was not Asseylum. Even though the future Mother Christmas was so busy that she never had time to visit her childhood friend, Slaine finally had someone who had time to see him. This made him happy.

I’ve never cooked for someone before, and I haven’t invited anyone over on my own,’ he thought and got up from the chair to walk over to Inaho. ‘And I have never had someone who cares for me like you do.’

Carefully – after deciding he would take Inaho’s advice and bother him a little – the blond little helper wrapped his arms around the other’s neck and hugged him close. Shortly after, Inaho put his arms around him as well, and a deep sigh escaped Slaine’s lips as he relaxed in the embrace.

“Thank you,” he whispered. “And I’m sorry for being stupid and not noticing your tries to get to know me. I just didn’t think you cared at all.”

“I didn’t at first,” the brunet answered, and Slaine felt his heart skip a beat again. “Then I noticed you are a refreshing person to be around; you’re more cheerful than anyone I know.”

You should keep smiling; it suits you better,” Slaine remembered Inaho saying when he had returned with Santa Cruhteo after sharing the news about Tharsis’ red nose.

“I am?” Slaine asked with a chuckle, feeling warm all over.

“You get jealous of the presents that get to ride the Santas’ sleighs,” the brunet answered.

Slaine could not help but to laugh again. His body was bustling with joy and he felt happier than he had felt in a long while. Suddenly, he felt more complete than he had ever felt before, and breathed in a deep gulp of Inaho’s scent to fill the last spaces in his heart with happiness.

During lunch, Slaine tried the frying pan and made a messy first attempt at his father’s poor knights. They tasted the same way he remembered even if they were slightly burnt. Inaho seemed to enjoy them as well, and Slaine learned the brown-haired helper was a good cook; he gave the blond helper some advice about the heat on the cooking hobs.

Before dinner, Yuki showed up and offered Slaine her congratulations for a job well done. Like Inaho had forewarned him, Slaine got a present from her in the form of a clay pot. This, the blond little helper put to good use immediately, daring to ask Inaho’s sister to stay for dinner, and prepared the stew he remembered his father had used to do. It was simple but had a good and full taste, and all three of them enjoyed the meal around Slaine’s kitchen table. After that, Slaine opened the presents people had left at his door, and got lots of helpful things into his own home, such as kitchen utensils made of wood that he preferred over plastic and metal, new ornaments onto his shelves, books and socks, gloves and scarves.

Perhaps the blond little helper had needed a push in the right direction like the one Inaho had given him, since he felt his troubles about how to socialize with others had slowly begun to lessen. Even if he was still nervous around people, he tried to remind himself that he created his own problems and had begun to pile them up. In a way, he had fallen into his own created trap by isolating himself, not getting enough experience to understand others and get references he could compare himself with.

It demanded courage to push through his fears, but in the end he followed Inaho and Yuki to the party in the town’s square. When they arrived, all the helpers who had flown the sleighs during Christmas Eve got their own honorary table, and everyone who were well enough to attend the party were there to celebrate the brave helpers. Slaine sat next to Inaho and felt nervous about people cheering and swarming around them, and – when he needed it the most – he felt a hand sneak into his. When he looked up Inaho threw a soothing glance at him, which made the blond little helper smile happily. He squeezed the other’s hand gently and felt his heart flutter.

I should bother people… They don’t dislike me. In other words…’ he thought and gritted his teeth for a short moment and gathered his courage.

“I like you, Inaho,” he said quietly and blushed. “I’m sorry if it’s-“

“Don’t say sorry,” the brunet interrupted him, and Slaine turned to look at him with wonder, meeting the burgundy eyes that stared at him with determination. “I like you too,” Inaho continued.

For two years, Slaine had lived alone. Now, for the first time since he could remember, he felt safe and like he belonged among the people even if was still charged with uncomfortable worries. Despite that, he figured he would be able to adjust himself into the social arena with a little help from the brunet holding his hand so sincerely.

“Thank you,” the happy little helper whispered and smiled with heart swelling.

This Christmas is the best thus far,’ he thought with a sparkling smile, joining in on the festivities with everyone else around the square with the tousle-haired helper’s hand in his.