Meredith stormed through the double doors, knocking each one so hard it bounced off the wall behind it before slowly closing again. With her came the whistle and whirr of the workroom, along with shouted orders, called-out responses and murmur of conversations above the clank and hammer of machinery.
Jensen put his pen down, pushed the papers aside and watched as she strode down the centre of the room, her heels clacking on the marble tiles that shone between the rows of desks. Her red hair, perfectly matched to the color of her skirt, was drawn back into a severe bun and her green eyes glowed with ire.
It was serious then.
Jensen pushed back from the desk and stood. Much better to great her with a handshake; it would disconcert her and give him a few more seconds to work out what was wrong.
Meredith glared at him when she arrived at his desk and ignored his hand. “Santa, you can’t keep avoiding the situation. You have to do something about it.”
Jensen sighed and returned to his seat as he gestured for Meredith to make herself comfortable. “Which situation are you talking about, Mer?”
“The same one I talk to you about every week. Stop avoiding it. There’ve been no live births amongst the elves in five years, and no pregnancies in three.”
Jensen slumped. It was that bad? The elves always found it difficult to have children, particularly with the loss of magic in the world, but no live births in five years? That was harsh. “There’s nothing I can do about it, Mer. You know that.”
“You have to marry.”
They’d been through this before. Numerous times. Jensen’s job was about more than being Santa and watching over all the children of Earth. It was his duty to ensure the health and prosperity of the elves as well. “I can’t get married. We’ve discussed this before and there’s nothing I can do. R&D is researching solutions. We just have to be patient until they can come up with something.”
“They’re not going to come up with anything in time. You know that. There’s no way they’ll find a solution to the problem and have it operational in time. With such a short fertile period to work with, elves will be on the road to extinction within the next ten years.”
Jensen slammed his hands on his desk making Meredith and every elf in the office jump. On the other side of the doors, the hum of work ceased abruptly. “What do you expect me to do? I won’t marry someone I don’t love and I can’t love anyone suitable to marry. R&D is our only hope.”
Tears brimmed in Meredith's eyes and Jensen thought, not for the first time, that she was where they’d got Puss-in-boots’ bereft gaze from. He sighed and rubbed his hands over his face. It was only August, so his beard hadn’t grown in yet and the soft stubble tickled his palms.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “I didn’t mean to snap.”
“Talk to them again. Please, Santa, they might find something new if you go and talk to them again.”
Jensen lowered his hands to find every head in the office turned to him. Every elf’s eyes were trained imploringly on him. He could feel their desperation like warm honey oozing over his skin and ants scurrying under the surface trying to reach it. “Fine,” he said as he pushed himself away from his desk and to his feet. “I’ll go down to R&D and see what they have today.
Relief rippled through the office, so strong it blew the doors open. Great. They really want me to go down there. Why couldn’t they just say so? He tugged at his white dress shirt to make it sit straighter. His belly was rounder this week than it had been last week, but it was August. Another week or two and he’d need to break out the next size up in his wardrobe.
Meredith frowned at the small gaps showing between his buttons. “Why don’t you just wear your suit? It would fit you all the time.”
Yes, the red suit would fit, but that would mean he’d be round and jolly all year round. Santa hadn’t done that since his great-grandfather’s time, and Jensen much preferred the comfort of modern clothing—and being relatively slim and clean-shaven for nine months of the year. He’d had that discussion with Meredith and numerous other elves before—many times—so he didn’t bother responding. “I’ll go down there now.”
He didn’t miss the smirks on several faces as he passed the rows of desks on his way out of the office. Not one elf was working when he entered the workroom either. They all stared at him with varying degrees of humor, hope and worry on their faces. He avoided their expectations and kept his gaze trained on the floor in front of him and he strode the length of the workshop and pushed through the doors that matched his own at the other end of the building.
The silence of R&D enveloped him as the doors swished closed behind him, like a workroom eclipse, instead of a solar one. In the deadness of surprise, one voice could be heard.
“Try it again, with a 0.05 degree increase in temperature.”
“But that’ll be too hot.”
“We have to find the outer limits of tolerance and we’re running out of time. If 0.05 is too much, we’ll decrease it.”
“The histories tell us the optimum temperature—”
“There can’t be just one degree for optimal fertility. It must be a range. We just have to find out what that is. Now, 0.05 degrees.”
“Yes, sir,” a sullen voice responded to the strident tones of the instructor.
Jensen paused, almost turned and walked away. P. D. Blooms, the scientist in charge of R&D, sounded irritated—again—and Jensen didn’t do irritated. Not in himself, and not from other people. Before he could leave, though, a lab technician spotted him.
“Santa on the floor,” she called, her face breaking out into a glorious smile.
Jensen smiled back automatically, unable to resist the joy on the tech’s face. “Hello, Flower.” He leaned over to kiss her cheek. “How are your parents going?”
“They’re fine, thanks Santa.” Her face clouded for a second. “Mum’s hoping next month will be the one,” she finished, determined positivity strengthening her voice.
Flower’s parents had volunteered to be part of P.D.’s fertility experiments and hadn’t given up, even though there’d been no pregnancy in the nearly eighteen months since they joined the program.
“I told you yesterday there was no progress. There’s no progress again today. If you stopped interrupting, I might be able to get some work done.”
Jensen turned to regard the man who’d come up behind him. P.D. was one of the tallest elves Jensen had ever met; so tall he towered over most humans. Being an elf himself, Jensen had to tilt his head to look at P.D.’s face. P.D. scowled at him, a disconcerting expression in the Toy Shop, but one Jensen had been seeing more and more often lately. He regarded P.D.’s deep brown eyes for a second; farseeing eyes shadowed by the prominent brows, like Legolas in the movies.
“Could we talk in your office for a few minutes, please P.D.?”
P.D. scowled again then turned abruptly and led the way to his office in the far corner of the lab. The door closed softly behind them, blocking the worried, expectant faces from view. P.D. turned leaned back against his desk. “It’s no good, Jen. Sorita was right. There’s only one temperature where conception can occur.”
“How far off that are we now?”
“A full two degrees. With each month you delay marrying, it rises another 0.025 degrees.”
“That doesn’t sound like much.”
“It mightn’t sound like much, but the impact is huge. We’ve already lost the ability to procreate. That alone means we’re heading for extinction, but with each rise in temperature, another aspect of our bodies is impacted. Have you noticed how much sick leave has increased over the last few months?”
Jensen nodded. “I thought they were timing their sick days, trying to get pregnant.”
“Some of them are, but the rest are genuinely ill. We’re getting colds and the ‘flu; if we cut ourselves, we’re getting infections.”
“Infections?” Human antibiotics didn’t work on them. They’d never needed them before.
P.D. nodded and held up a finger. The tip was pink and, when Jensen touched it, warm. “A paper cut from a few days ago. This isn’t serious enough to kill me, but when have we ever got infections from paper cuts?”
When had they ever got paper cuts?
“You have to marry,” P.D. stated baldly.
Jensen froze then stepped forward to lean heavily against P.D. and breathed in the warm chemically scent of him as he wrapped his arms around the taller man and hugged tight. “No. Marrying someone I don’t love would make it worse.”
“If you marry and have children, the elves will be saved.” P.D.’s arms came around Jensen and held him. His hands ran up and down Jensen's back soothingly.
And Jensen would spend the rest of his life—his very long life—tied to a woman he could never love, and forever separated from the only one he did love.
“You’ve always wanted children,” said P.D., his voice thick with emotion.
Jensen’s throat was hot and tight. Unable to speak through the tension, he nodded, then shrugged. He shook his head in denial. He didn’t want children more than he wanted P.D.
P.D. eased him back onto his own feet, cool air washing between them as they separated. “Go and plan your wedding. Tell Meredith to find a suitable wife for you.”
“P.D.” Jensen sniffled. He must be coming down with one of those colds.
“It’s the only thing that will save the elves.”
He knew that. He’d always known it, just as P.D. had too. But they’d hoped. They’d both worked so hard to make it different. He lifted a hand and stroked his fingertips down P.D.’s smooth cheek. Soft, silky blond hair slid over his hand as P.D. bowed his head and pressed his lips against the inside of Jensen's wrist. The silence thickened. Jensen knew he had to leave: his life was full of things he knew he had to do, but none of them were things he wanted.
“Go on, love,” whispered P.D.
“I will always love you,” Jensen said as he stepped back.
P.D. nodded and Jensen left his office. He focused on the floor directly in front of him as he strode away, not wanting to see any of the pity, the sorrow or the expectation he could feel swirling in the air around everyone in the Toy Shop. He’d do what he had to do, but he didn’t have to like it.
It wouldn’t make him happy.
Meredith was waiting for him when he returned to his office.
“Start planning my wedding, Mer,” he said as he sat and let out a sigh.
Her face lit up, but the joy morphed into confusion when he continued speaking.
“You’ll need to find someone suitable for me to marry too.” he held his hand up against her questions when she opened her mouth. “I trust you to choose someone… compatible. I don’t want to meet them or see them before the wedding. Just—” he swallowed against the sudden tightness in his throat. Was this how ‘flu felt? “—just arrange it all.”
“Your best man?” She sounded choked up, almost as upset as…
The best man, the best friend. He only had one best friend, and that was P.D. There was no way he could have P.D. standing beside him while he married someone else. “You. You do it.”