A/N: It's Easter, so of course I'm posting a Christmas story. What of it?
Snowflakes spiralled down from dark, billowy clouds, dusting the chimneys and rooftops like icing sugar on gingerbread houses. The stars were silent and dim, the moon hid her face; the only light came from the lights strung between lampposts, red-green-red-green, a Christmas wreathe that sat on the shoulders of the entire town.
In short, it was Christmas, the time of year when Aru ceased to be a humble shopkeeper and instead became a bundle of quivering nerves held loosely together by duty, adrenaline and a pair of thigh-high striped stockings. The wonder was not that she managed to deliver presents to worthy children the whole world over, but that she had so far managed to avoid spontaneously combusting from pure, unleaded anxiety.
Being Santa, as it turned out, was a big responsibility. Maybe that was why everybody thought he was fat – so the weight of that responsibility could be spread out over more square inches, like how camels had huge feet to spread their weight out over the sand. Aru, sadly, was not fat, although not for lack of trying. Before she became Santa, she had been adorably plump, the very picture of a snuggly, plushy bunny. Then she went on her first Christmas run, where she'd burned nearly half her body weight in calories in a single night of frantic present distribution. It became clear that the plates of cookies and milk that children obligingly left out were not just a perk of the job, but an essential method of refuelling.
Still, there were perks to the job. For example, she never needed to buy home decoration magazines, because she'd seen the inside of almost every home on planet Earth, and was never short of ideas for funky shoe racks and well-meaning but ultimately foolish DIY projects. There were great travel opportunities, and an unlimited amount of air miles as standard. There was the absolute adoration of everybody under six, the grudging respect of everybody from six to twelve, and the wistful longing of every child who'd been told she didn't exist.
She was taking a break to enjoy one of her perks, although she felt a vague sense of guilt about it. This year had been an easy one. She had, through a mixture of intimidation and persuasion, recruited Nico as Santa's Helper again, and splitting her bag between two bunnies had made the work much faster. She'd still done maybe three quarters of the route herself – Nico would need a lot of practice before she became worthy of wearing Santa's stockings. But it had left her with a little time before the dawn, and that was all she had really wanted.
As a rule, Aru always did her own town last. It didn't really matter, but she felt very strongly that it meant she was living up to some international code of Santa conduct: thou must be impartial, abiding by the letter of the List. Doing her own hometown last left no room for favouring them; she couldn't swap their presents with better ones, because she had no better ones left. She wasn't putting them first in case she couldn't finish her route. It meant she could enjoy the smiles of children around her for the rest of the year, knowing that she needn't feel like she needed to distance herself for the sanctity of her office.
Of course, it followed down the chain. Of all the people in her hometown, she did her friends last. She had stolen across Syura's roof, careful to leave a footprint on her roof with a size nine boot she kept specifically for that purpose. She had shimmied down Krila's chimney holding a wrapped sewing machine close to her chest. Now, finally, she had reached the very last name on her list.
"Merry Christmas, QP," she whispered, pulling the bedroom door shut just enough that the light didn't fall on her friend's face.
Aru was vaguely aware that going into somebody's bedroom at the dead of night to look at them while they slept was edging into weird, stalker-y territory, even if they happened to be your close friend and even if your stated profession was breaking into people's houses to give them things. In her defence, she couldn't help it. QP's house was not very large; she didn't quite live in an actual dog house, but it was getting there. Her kitchen was a clutter of pans with no cupboards for a home, and her living room was more of a storage facility. (The refridgerator, home of pudding, was enshrined in its own little nook, spotlessly clean). As a result, QP had no room for a towering fir to celebrate the holiday. But she kept a bonsai tree on her bedside table, and it had been loving draped in tinsel; it would have to do.
"Sorry I can't come to your Christmas Party," Aru said, her voice even lighter than her footsteps. "I'm always so tired on Christmas Day. Even if I came, I'd just be boring, and haggard. I don't want you to see me like that."
QP said nothing, because she was exploring an enchanted dream world of pudding and jam and mailmen who didn't run quite as fast as she did. It was, of course, phenomenally silly to sit and apologise to a girl who was softly snoring and rolled into a small, snuggable crescent, but Aru was no stranger to doing silly things in the middle of the morning.
It was also, of course, very silly to tiptoe across the floor instead of hovering soundlessly above it, or to speak at all, for fear of outing herself as a cosmic gift entity. Part of her thought it wouldn't be so bad to be caught… after all, who would believe QP if she told anybody? If QP told anybody at all? It would be refreshing to let the secret out, just this once. Refreshing, but impossible.
QP rolled over, her hair spilling over her face, her chin held toward the ceiling like a dog asking for a scratch. Aru sighed. Perhaps another time. Today was still Christmas, and she still had her job to do. Reaching into her sack, she took what she was fairly sure was a monogrammed dessert spoon and slipped it under the bonsai tree, before retreating as quietly as she had come.
In the kitchen, she found the expected plate of cookies and milk (with the obligatory carrot, which she split with the ReBits), and a note, written in QP's childish scrawl, the i's dotted with hearts.
Hi! I'm QP. Thank you for all the presents you've given me. I wanted to get you a present back, but I didn't know what you'd like, so I left some pudding in the fridge for you instead. You can have as much as you like.
Aru smiled to herself. Pudding for Christmas. Of course it was QP's go-to gift. Well, she wasn't complaining. She turned the note over, sourced a pen from a cup that QP had decorated with macaroni and glitter, and began to write.
You're a good kid. Thank you very much for thinking of me. I'll only take one cup of pudding. I need to watch my weight, or I won't be able to fit down the chimney next year. If you keep being good, I might actually stop and say hi in a couple of years when you're all grown up. Until then!
Your friend, Santa
p.s. Don't let Syura catch you under the mistletoe.
She put down the pen, folded the note twice, set it on the table. Took a deep breath, and fought the urge to put the note in her pocket and spirit it away. The second thoughts had come instantly. Was it okay for her to reveal herself, even once QP had grown up? She didn't know. The thought of it seemed cataclismic to her. But so did the thought of more years of secrets. She sighed; the orange dawn had begun to spread like watercolours over the sky. There was no more time to worry about it. She took up her sack, grabbed one of QP's many, many assorted puddings from the fridge, and fled with the last remnants of the night.
It was late afternoon when Aru woke up, with her phone buzzing like a wasp next to her aching head. A groan escaped her like a prisoner breaking free of its shackles, rumbling all the way through her body.
"H'llo? Who izzit?" she asked, accepting the call. Her words were slurred, her eyes bleary.
"Oh, QP. It's yoooooouuu," Aru replied, although a yawn spirited away the last syllables. "S'rry I couldn't be at the party…"
"Don't worry. It's fine. Hey, Aru?"
There was a moment's silence. On the other side of the phone, Aru was sure, QP would be be slowly swishing her tail, her brow scrunched in concentration.
"You know I can recognise your handwriting, right?"
There were probably a number of appropriate reactions, none of which Aru did. What she did instead was open her window and launch her phone out of it as hard as possible, before sitting down on her bed and trembling as if she'd jumped in an ice bath.
For Christmas, Aru had gotten a single cup of pudding and a big, big problem. It promised to be an interesting year.
A/N: This story was troublesome, so I just wanted to end it quickly. Upon replaying Xmas Shooting - Scramble!, Aru really isn't very good at keeping her identity under wraps.