by Natsuno Owari (夏野オワリ)
“It’s no good, son. You’re going to have to be an elf.”
Mr. Santa stood in front of Sven, sizing him up. Sven was in his early twenties and had yet to look like he was even remotely in with a chance of developing the kind of belly that shook when you laughed, like a bowlful of jelly. In fact, Santa had even caught him with a gym membership card. It looked rather like Sven was going to have to join the band of elves that worked and played around the workshop. However, while they were tall and thin like his son, Santa knew well that they were also famed for their huge ears, which Sven did not possess. Elves were also noted for their long blond hair; Sven had white hair like his father and a darker goatee that made him look more like Satan than Santa. It didn’t look like he would ever fit in anywhere in the workshop and he dreaded the day he would have to admit this and send Sven to the real world to get a university education.
“I hate you,” Sven pouted. “I wanted to study politics at Oxford!”
“N-No…” stuttered Santa, a single tear running down his face. “Don’t say things like that! We’ll find a place for you here… somehow!”
Looking around, it was very little he could do. To his right was a pile of Playstation 3s for which the elves had camped in line overnight. Between them, they had managed to get about a hundred and Santa had paid them well for it. They’d been similarly successful at an inexplicably popular finger puppet shop in Harajuku, Japan. The special this year had been ‘Rudolph the Purple-Nose Reindeer’. To his left, the machines that had spewed sawdust and shavings in the past had been modified in recent times to make brand name purses.
“I’m leaving! I’m going to a place find a place that doesn’t celebrate Christmas!”
Santa stroked his beard, his face flushed red from his brief tears. “That seems rather difficult to me. Western commercialisation and the need to consume have overtaken just about any developed nation you could name.”
“I hate you!” repeated Sven. He marched out still wearing the tight red shorts with fluffy white trim that his father thought would get him into the Christmas spirit.
On another continent, a well-dressed man leaned against one of the pillars that supported the mass of glittering overpasses near Ikebukuro. A little up the road, Sunshine City was lit up like a Christmas tree, which was quite appropriate considering the season. In the absence of anywhere else to go, Masa had gone in the direction of the brightest lights. He’d chosen to sit in front of one of the many vending machines that served hot coffee straight from the can, although he’d decided he hadn’t enough money to buy any.
A small flurry of snow drifted onto his black leather coat and the area around his waist wriggled suspiciously. It struggled and bulged to quite alarming proportions before bursting open to reveal a pair of pointy black ears. It started to mew.
“Shh, Yule,” Masa told her and tried to bundle her back into his coat. “It’s cold out here.”
He had found her two weeks ago, when she was a poor little thing sitting in the middle of an alleyway near the station after dark. When he approached to stroke her, she hadn’t moved at all; when he’d taken her to his apartment and turned on the light, he found she had half her face missing due to an eye infection. She was dying.
The vet had a special support program for stray cats, but there was still money to be paid and Masa had already bought presents for his family and friends in his hometown in Hokkaidou. He’d rented his apartment for less than a month and found out today that his neighbours had informed his landlord of the loud miaows emanating from number 401.
“That man had no Christmas spirit, did he, Yule?” prompted Masa as he stroked her. He didn’t like to swear in front of her as she was just a baby.
Masa still had the presents; they were in the suitcase next to him, but he didn’t have the money to send them anymore. Ever the optimist, he even wondered if he could find a way to scrape together enough to be able to send the traditional New Year money to his two year-old nephew in less than a week.
A man in uniform cycled up to him and dismounted, leaning his bicycle against the metal fence near the vending machine. “Are you all right, sir?”
Masa nodded. “I…I just don’t really have anywhere else to go.”
“Oh, I see. Missed the last train, huh? Well, you can sleep in the station, you know. Ask the station staff for some cardboard.”
For the first time, Masa found himself crying. He was so, so stupid. If he knew Tokyo well enough, if he knew anything about not having any money, then both he and Yule would probably be warm and indoors right now. “Thank you,” he managed to say as he picked up his suitcase.
“Take care,” replied the policeman as he got back on his bicycle.
Sven powered up the sleigh. Prancer, Dancer, Donner and the others were still in the stables, since they were really just for show. Technology had considerably improved since the tales of long ago, and it was only for the sake of tradition that Sven got up at six every morning to muck them out and feed them. Today, tradition be damned.
With a press of the button, the sleigh started along the runway, gathering speed. The LCD display lit up and reminded Sven there was no course set.
Outside, the plastic candy canes that decorated the yard slid into the ground; the evergreen that hid the runway entrance revolved on well-oiled hinges to allow clear passage.
The engines roared as the sleigh reached its top speed. It shot across the back yard and into the sky. Sven pressed a few buttons and narrowed his choice of countries down to somewhere in Asia. After brief consideration, he decided on Japan; he remembered reading on the internet that they had so little clue about Christmas that a boutique in Ginza had put up crucified Santas as part of its Christmas display. Or was it in Roppongi? The legend changed every time.
In order to visit every child on earth in the space of one night, even allowing for the difference in time zone, the sleigh had to bend the rules of the space-time continuum. It did this by having the speed drive create a disturbance in the higher geometry of space which folded the physical plane and allowed the sleigh to be in two places at once. In less than a second, Sven had shifted the vehicle into a holding pattern just outside Tokyo.
Below him, he could see a sparkling gold Christmas tree wrapped in neon orange ribbon. It was lit up, but utterly outclassed by the bright lights of the pachinko parlour next door. Sven smiled: this was everything he had hoped for. There were no other decorations around, meaning this was just a token attempt. The hideous colour scheme meant that nobody could be expected to look at it and feel an ounce of Christmas spirit.
He continued to the city centre and flew over the brightly-lit Ginza Strip. Annoyingly, there were very few parking places and he continued onwards until he found an equally festive area that had a huge shopping centre with an appropriately-sized car park attached to it. He put it into park mode on the roof and looked over the edge. Ikebukuro seemed to consist of a huge hotel and shopping complex which gave way to snakes of concrete the further you got from the epicentre.
There was a strange ripple across the sky, which reminded Masa of the way water distorts words when it runs down a screen.
He sat in the east exit to the station and Ikebukuro was almost quiet. People were still around, but most were inside and drinking, having resigned themselves to the fact that they’d missed the last train.
It wasn’t snowing properly just yet, but the flurries of snow were thicker now and less isolated. Yule was back in Masa’s coat once more and he wasn’t sure if the vibrations were purrs or shivers. She was getting sluggish too, he realised.
That settled it. He could use the little money he had to buy something small to eat and unlimited hot drinks at the twenty-four hour Saizeriya, a cheap Italian fast-food chain, on Sunshine Doori. If he was good, he could stay there all night, although he’d have to hope Yule remained hidden in his coat and didn’t struggle. In the morning, he could sell the presents and some of his clothes.
He crossed the street which ran under the overpass and started on his trudge to the restaurant. At the traffic lights on the other side he looked back to see where he’d been sitting, the anger growing inside him. “No fucking Christmas spirit at all!” he hissed, kicking the post.
A man who Masa didn’t think was in earshot snapped around at that. “What did you say?”
Usually Masa’s first instinct would be to protest loudly that he didn’t mean it and there was some kind of mistake. However, the man’s appearance startled him. He was wearing tight red shorts and tunic that left nothing to the imagination and highlighted his long slender legs. He didn’t appear to be cold.
“Your stomach… is purring.” The man spoke again before Masa could collect himself.
“Yeah,” he admitted, unsure of what else he could say. Yule chose this moment to pop her head back out and delight in the fuss she’d caused.
“Poor abandoned kitten…” The other man took a step closer.
“Yeah, she’s blind,” Masa told him.
“I meant you.” The other man lifted his hand to lightly brush against Masa’s flushed cheek. “My name is Sven. And you seem cold.”
Sven undid the top button of Masa’s coat, which Masa didn’t think to protest. Sven undid the other buttons with one hand, taking his red and white bobble hat off with the other. He reached forward, brushing the tips of his fingers against Masa’s shirt as he scooped up Yule. He placed her in the hat, which was at least as fluffy as she was. He held her gently and started to walk back in the direction of the car park. “Are you coming?”
“Yes, of course.” They were right next to the Prince Hotel, once of the most famous hotel chains in Japan, Masa remembered. He bit his lip as he realised that he didn’t even care if this man took him to a hotel room and screwed him senseless if it meant he got a warm bed and a meal out of it. He ran to catch up, dragging his suitcase behind him.
“I’m a fashion designer,” Masa told him. “I’d always wanted to work in the big city…” He trailed off. This man might have connections with someone who could offer him a job and, at the very least, he would realise that he was something more than just temporarily unemployed and homeless.
“Didn’t work out?”
They arrived at Sunshine City, but Sven seemed to be leading them to the car park. “We’re not going to the hotel?” asked Masa.
Sven shook his head, looking slightly surprised. He broke into a smile. “No… Do you think we should?”
It would only be after New Year that anyone would realise he was missing, and so the perfect time for a murder. Masa’s alarm increased as he realised they were heading for the rooftop. “Can I have my kitten back, please?” he asked.
“Ah? Oh, sure. Here you go.” Sven handed his hat back.
The rooftop was bare, except for a transparent ripple in one corner. “Over there!” yelled Masa. “I saw something like it flying in the sky a little earlier!”
“Yeah?” Sven looked surprised. “I thought the cloaking technology switched itself on automatically when you started it and remained on in park mode…”
The truth was slowly becoming clear to Masa. Sven was an officer on the US Navy Base in Okinawa who’d had a particularly drunken Christmas party. That would explain the clothes and the stealth technology.
“It IS cloaked,” Masa assured him. “But I can still see something.”
Sven reached into his pocket and pressed a tiny remote control attached to what looked like a car key. The mirage at the far end of the car park silently imploded in rainbow bubbles. What was left was a sleigh.
“So you’re like…” Masa didn’t have the words to describe it.
“Santa! I’m Santa!” Sven nodded vigorously. “Each year I visit every house that hangs up a stocking.” He wasn’t sure how his father knew which houses to go to and he wasn’t exactly sure when children stopped being children and became adults. Generally, it was considered to be anywhere between eighteen and twenty-one, depending on the region, but he was pretty certain the visits stopped before that.
“So how do you know which houses to go to?” Masa asked.
Placing a finger to the side of his nose (a habit he’d picked up from his father), Sven replied, “Santa always knows.”
“I… see,” said Masa slowly. On his way here he’d been considering how bad it had to get before he’d turn down the implied offer of a warm place to stay. This resulted in his making a list of acceptable and unacceptable sex acts in his head, but he had to conclude that he simply hadn’t been imaginative enough.
Sven had already mounted the sleigh and was helpfully patting the seat next to him. Masa took it; his stomach was growling. “Is it safe for Yule to ride?” he asked.
“Of course. I regularly make this trip with nine reindeer.” Sven pressed a button and the sleigh shot forward and over the edge of the building. Masa shot backwards in his seat, clutching Yule tightly.
“Shit!! STOP!! Fucking stop!!”
The sleigh rose just in time to avoid the metal railing. Without the friction from the concrete paving and the reassurance that it did really fly, Masa relaxed. The horizon glowed pink and snow fell, bathed in that same light.
“Can I sing eWalking in the Air’?” asked Masa, clutching his hands together in a begging motion.
Sven harrumphed. “Do I look like a snowman to you?”
Masa shook his head. But there was something special about Sven; he loved the way his long white hair shone in the early morning light and the way he smiled to himself. He just hoped he really was Santa.
“What are you thinking about?”
“I was thinking that dad’s going to be real angr–” Sven bit his lip.
Masa looked puzzled. “You still live with your father?”
Sven chose that moment to hit the button on the dashboard that controlled the space-time continuum. Space bent in two in front of them and they lurched forward, then seemed to hang in the air for a split second.
They were flying above a huge expanse of ice and snow that was dotted with small farmsteads and towns that were lit with quaint Victorian-style lampposts. It was early afternoon here and the sun glowed through frosted clouds.
In middle was the biggest industrial park Masa had ever seen. It seemed to consist of an enormous factory surrounded by smaller workshops and stables. At the front was smaller residential housing surrounded by candy canes and Christmas trees.
The sleigh swooped low and the engines growled as they made their final descent. They landed with a slight bump and Yule yowled. Sven parked the sleigh and ran into the nearest building with Masa, who was shaking with cold.
They were greeted by a blast of warm air as they entered and a tall blond man with pointed ears. “Master Sven! Your father has been worried sick about you! Where have you been?
“Out. Where is he? I’ve someone who he has to meet.”
“He’s out looking for you. I’ll contact him and tell him you’re back.” The elf glared at Masa with a look of disapproval. “Looks like you’ve finally brought home something bad enough to get your father to disown you.”
Sven grinned. “Or at least enough to get him to send me out of the house and to university.” He grabbed Masa’s hand and led him away.
It was then that Masa noticed the background music was orchestrated Christmas carols and smiled. Together they passed through a huge Western-style kitchen, the likes of which Masa had never seen outside of the Ikea flagship store in Chiba. It even had gingham tea towels. On the way, Sven grabbed two mince pies from a cooling rack near the oven and put them on a nearby plate.
“What’s this about your father?” asked Masa, now they were far enough away from the elf.
“It doesn’t matter.” Sven waved his doubts away with his hand.
Masa put one of his hands of his hips, as the other one still carried the hat with Yule. “Yes it does! You owe me an explanation!”
Sven sighed. “Santa’s my father. I’m just his son.”
“But you have a warm place to stay? And a job?”
“And mince pies,” Sven said, pointing to the plate.
“Good enough for me. Can you get some food for Yule?”
“Ah, I’ll pass him on to our vet.”
“This place has its own vet?”
“Of course. Naturally, she specialises in reindeer, but she knows her domestic animals well. Santa never gives pets as presents, but people do. Once Christmas is over, we have to look after them all.” Sven sighed and shook his head. “This way, then.”
Sven led him down a narrow passage until they came to an office. He knocked once and opened the door. Inside there was a desk and an adjoining room that seemed to serve as a base of operations. There was no one there.
They continued through the office and went though another door that led to the stables. A woman looked up from where she had apparently been having a conversation with a reindeer.
“Ms Ingmar? Could you look after this cat for us? She looks cold and she hasn’t been fed for a while.”
“Certainly.” Ms Ingmar took the hat. “Poor little thing… Okay, shouldn’t be a problem. Leave her to me.” She hurried back inside.
Even though he was shivering, Masa was transfixed by the reindeer. “It’s so cool!”
“Let’s get back inside,” Sven told him.
“But it’s a reindeer! Look at his big eyes! It’s straight out of a Disney movie!”
Sven looked confused. “Seen one reindeer, seen them all.”
“This place is amazing!” Masa told him. “Why… Why do you hate it?”
“Because it’s Christmas every day. And I wish it wasn’t.” Sven paused. “Let me show you something.” He started walking outside the shelter of the thatched roof and Masa followed, hugging himself with cold.
They walked only a short distance before they got to a snow-covered mound with a door in it. “Go in,” ordered Sven. “It’s quite safe.”
Masa ducked his head to avoid the low beam and started walking down the stone steps. He was quite warm now, since this area seemed to be heated too. The music that he’d heard in the house had also followed him. After he’d been walking for a short time, the ground levelled out and he found himself standing in complete darkness. He heard Sven behind him and a strange click. Suddenly spotlights turned on and he realised he was in a cavern.
“The coalmines,” announced Sven. “Traditionally, we’re supposed to give a lump of coal to bad children. But we don’t, of course, and this place is no longer used.”
The music changed to eWe Three Kings’ and Sven sighed. “It’s only until you listen to this song up to ten times a day that you realise it’s a funeral dirge. I really, really hate Christmas!”
“Sven…” began Masa, putting his hand on the other man’s shoulder. He didn’t really know how to end the sentence.
Sven’s lower lip trembled. “Get me out of here, um…”
“Masa,” he supplied. “Why did you choose me out of all the people in Tokyo?”
“Because you had a cat. I… like cats.” Sven took a step forward and wrapped his arms around Masa. “Get me out of here, Masa.”
Masa held him, but he couldn’t resist trying to solve the problem. “Couldn’t you hand out the coal this Christmas?”
“No. There’s no traditional costume associated with it. If we assume that Santa himself is the one that puts it in stockings, it makes him look like a real bastard.”
“I’ll design a costume for you! And I can redesign the elves’ costumes too.”
“Dad would love that idea and I still won’t be able to leave this place,” Sven moped.
“You can take a correspondence course. And you can use the sleigh any time you like to get away from here. It’s more freedom than anyone else has in the world.”
“It’s not enough. Somehow it’s not enough.”
“Then you can have me.”
Sven tensed in his arms.
“Sven? Did I say something wrong?”
In answer, Sven kissed him hard on the lips. They froze, waiting for the other to do something more, not even daring to move their hands. Finally, Masa pushed his tongue further and Sven’s grip tightened.
Sven took a step back and for the second time that day, it was his hands that undid Masa’s coat. Shakily, he continued to his shirt this time and threw both to the ground.
Confusion clouded Masa’s eyes. What could they possibly do here? Surely Sven couldn’t have been prepared for this? Was there any lube in Lapland?
“It’s okay.” Sven kissed his forehead and eased Masa down onto the coat. Next to them was a coil of heavy chains, leftovers from the coalmining days. He picked up one end, curled it around Masa’s wrists and arranged his arms above his head.
Sven kissed his neck and behind his ears as his hands struggled with the other man’s belt and fumbled with the buttons on his black jeans. Masa felt the last button snap open. He moved down Masa’s body, sometimes kissing and sometimes licking, following his silky treasure trail. Finally, he took Masa’s erection in his mouth. It was such a sharp contrast to the cold that Masa gasped and his hands strained against the chains.
Sven left his handprint in coal dust on Masa’s stomach and brushed his fingers up and down his body. When he couldn’t take it longer, he shoved his hand violently into his own shorts and started pumping. His lips became looser the closer he came to climax and Masa begged him to grip harder, his stomach muscles tightening in anticipation of release.
Masa came to soaring violins that marked the start of “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing”. He threw off the loose chains easily and clutched the lining beneath himself, gasping and letting out small cries. “Sven…!”
Masa collapsed and they lay there in silence. Chill sweat ran down his back and he suddenly felt even colder than before.
Sven broke that silence. “So what kind of outfit were you thinking of for me?” He smiled, but his face was flushed.
“Definitely black leather, I think. And lots of silver buckles,” Masa told him, stretching out like a cat.
Sven stroked his goatee. “Are you saying I look evil?”
“A little. That goatee makes you look a bit like–”
“Satan. Yeah, I know. I get that all the time. Want a mince pie?” Sven pointed to the plate beside them as he fell back into Masa’s arms and closed his eyes. He could get used to it if every Christmas was like this.