LOVE Vs TRADITION
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.”
Jensen looked up from the papers on his desk. He’d been checking the children on his list all day and now his shoulders ached and the muscles in his neck burned. The office was empty and, beyond the doors, the workroom was silent. It was nearly midnight, and all the elves would have long been in bed. He stood and stretched. He didn’t really need to be putting in such long hours yet. Extended hours would be implemented in November. He rolled the list up and slid it into the circular cavity at the side of his desk.
He flicked the lights off as he left his office and strolled into the dimly lit workshop. At the other end of the building, lights shone through the frosted glass doors. Either someone was still working in the lab, or they’d forgotten to turn the lights off when they left. Jensen increased his pace.
The doors opened silently to reveal P.D. perched on a stool, one foot on the floor, one on a rung, his back bowed as he stared through the lenses of a microscope on the bench. Jensen leaned against the bench and waited until he straightened.
“Anything?” he asked.
P.D. started slightly then frowned. “Lots of things, but nothing we want to find.”
“What does that mean?”
“Fertility isn’t our only problem.”
“I know. We’re getting sick too.”
“Human diseases.” P.D. pushed back from the bench and gestured to the microscope. “Take a look.”
Jensen dutifully leaned over the microscope and peered through the lens. Whatever was in there was blurred. He humphed. “You know I have no idea what I’m looking at, don’t you?”
P.D. pushed him aside. “It’s September. You probably can’t even see what you’re looking at,” he said as he stared through the lens again. He sighed and rubbed his forehead as if all the tension in the world rested there. “These are human diseases. We don’t get human diseases, Jen. The only people who can contract human diseases, are humans.”
Jensen paced the length of the lab, then stopped again in front of P.D. “So what you’re saying is we’re turning human.” He scrubbed his hands over his face. “Will that solve the fertility problems?”
“So not only are we facing extinction because we can’t reproduce, we’re facing extinction because we’re losing our elveness. We’ll become human and there’ll be no more magic in the world.”
“And the only thing that can save us is—”
P.D. pressed his lips together and turned away. Jensen grabbed his elbow and pulled, pressing his chest against P.D.’s back. He lifted his chin so his nose could nuzzle the soft skin behind P.D.’s ear.
“I miss you, P.D.” he whispered as he ran his hands down his lover’s chest. “I can’t sleep without you beside me.”
P.D. pushed Jensen’s hands away and spun around, grabbing his shoulders and pulling him into a rough kiss. He’d had peanut butter and jelly for his supper again, the familiar flavor exploding through Jensen’s senses like a memory. Jensen sank into it, able to simply relax and enjoy for the first time since… since he’d last seen P.D.
They were both panting, gasping for breath, when they separated. P.D.’s soft brown eyes were troubled. “Who are you marrying?”
Jensen stepped back and wrapped his arms around himself. “I don’t know.”
“What do you mean you don’t know? You’re going to spend the rest of your life with her. Shouldn’t you at least know her name?”
“The only person I want to be with for the rest of my life is you. If I can’t have you, it doesn’t matter who I end up with.”
“Mer will choose someone I can get on with.”
Jensen turned away.
“Jensen! Look at me.” P.D. grabbed Jensen’s arm and turned him around. “Look at you. How are you going to be happy when you hate this so much?”
“It’s not about me being happy, P.D. It’s what I have to do to make sure we survive, that all the elves survive.”
“But nothing.” He threw his hands up in defeat. “I have to get back to work,” he said, even though he was way ahead because of the hours he’d been putting in. He walked to the door.
“Don’t come back, Jensen.”
He stopped but didn’t turn back.
“Don’t come back here, and don’t invite me to your wedding. I’m not going to watch you commit yourself to a miserable life.”
The doors opened in front of Jensen but he didn’t walk through. He’d suddenly forgotten how to move, how to breathe. The only thing on him that moved were the tears sliding slowly down his cheeks.
Eventually, his lungs expanded and air filled him, bringing with it the need to get away. He strode through the doorway. By the time he was halfway down the workshop, he was running. His feet stopped running when he reached his house, but his mind and heart kept going. He didn’t think they’d ever stop.
The day before, Jensen started wearing his big-boy clothes and his beard was beginning to curl on the ends. His cheeks were round and ruddy, his belly well on the way to being jolly, but there was no sparkle in his blue eyes behind the round glasses.
The Elves were still getting sick. Jensen knew P.D. was working all hours of the day trying to find a cure for the illnesses and the fertility, but he hadn’t been back to the R&D lab since September. Meredith kept insisting the records weren’t precise and seemed to expect Jensen to know what that meant.
Jensen couldn’t remember the last time he’d slept through the night. His eyes constantly felt gritty and he always felt slightly ill. Food held no appeal and if it wasn’t for the magic of Christmas changing him to the jolly old man everyone knew and loved, he’d look gaunt. He couldn’t bring himself to care, not even when his parents cut their holiday short and came home.
His father was once again in charge of the workshop. Production had fallen off to practically nothing before his parents came home because Jensen’s bad mood scared the elves so much they couldn’t work. Jensen spent his days, and most of his nights, in his office, crossing names off The List. He spent so much time staring at the snow globes that lined the walls of his office, and showed all the children of Earth, that nothing escaped his notice. The slightest misdemeanor was spotted and noted, and the demerits mounted up. This year, more children than ever before had been crossed of The List.
“Jensen, look at me!” His mother strode into the office and waddled down the centre of the room amidst gasps from the elves working there.
Jensen almost smiled as he watched her. She looked much as she had all through his childhood. Jolly and round, curly blonde hair and sparkling blue eyes. Only now, her eyes were sparkling with anger, not joy. When they’d returned from Hawaii three weeks ago, she’d been slim and tanned, and her eyes were green.
“What have you done?” It was an accusation, not a question, but Jensen still had no idea how to answer it.
“I’ve done everything I can to fix it.”
“Well, it’s not working. You have to do something else. Something different.”
“There is nothing else to do. R&D haven’t come up with anything that doesn’t confirm what the records already say.”
“The records say Santa has to—”
“I have to marry to ensure the survival of our species, so that’s what I’m going to do.”
“You can’t marry someone you don’t love, Jensen.”
“Didn’t you hear me, Mother? I don’t have a choice.” He stood and walked past her. “I’m going for a walk.”
Jensen had lost weight at the same rate his father had gained it. His beard had begun falling out, hanging in tangled tufts with spots of reddened skin showing between them. He sat on a bench under a straggly tree, icy rain slipping down the collar of his brown coat, making him shiver.
He’d cancelled the wedding. P.D. and his mother were right. Condemning himself to a loveless marriage wouldn’t have solved anything. If it was going to, there’d have been some sign of returned health as the date grew closer. Instead, only his parents glowed with health, and that had an edge to it, as though there was a time limit.
Jensen knew it wouldn’t last. He was Santa now, not his father. At best, Jensen had been given a reprieve. He stared over the drab expanse in front of him. The snow was thinner on the ground this year than it usually was, piled in dirty drifts under the trees. It had been snowing less and less each year since he’d taken over and not married. Now he’d cancelled the wedding, nothing would stop the rot seeping into his world.
A shadow fell over him but he ignored it. It was probably either one of his parents or Mer come to try to cheer him up. It amazed him that they never realized nothing would make him happy again. He was solely responsible for the death of Christmas and everything that went with it. He was killing his own people. The shadow moved and the person sat beside him, still silent.
“Peanut butter and jelly,” Jensen whispered, knowing immediately who it was. His breathing eased and he closed his eyes to savor the scent. “My dad told me it was always fruit cake he smelled whenever Mother was near. His father always smelled fresh-baked cookies.”
“You’re an idiot, Jen.” P.D.’s voice was low and ragged, as if he’d spent hours screaming.
“I know.” He sighed, the breath coming from so deep it carried all the pain he’d felt the last few months. “Nothing I’ve done has helped at all. It’s only made it worse.”
“You know I never read the records myself. I just accepted that you had.”
“Of course I read them. They say Santa has to be married to ensure the health and happiness of the Elves and the continuation of Christmas.”
“Like I said. You’re an idiot.”
“Thanks.” Jensen leaned back on the seat and closed his eyes. The peanut butter and jelly soothed him, making every muscle in his body relax. His head became too heavy to hold up so he tilted it sideways and rested it against P.D.’s shoulder. Warmth flooded him and his breathing slowed and deepened.
“So what are you going to do now?”
P.D.’s voice jerked Jensen out of his light doze. He sat up straight and turned to face the man he’d love forever. There was nothing left that he could do to save his people. They were going to die anyway, so he’d grab what happiness he could before the end. “We’re all going to die, P.D. There’s nothing any of us can do about it. I’m sorrier than I ever thought I could be, but I can’t make myself love someone else. You’re it for me. I don’t want anyone else; I never will.” He slid off the seat, onto his knees and reached up to hold P.D.’s hands in his. Fine tremors wracked his body; fear that it was too late. But he had to try. “The time I have left, I want to spend with you. Will you marry me, P.D.? Will you live with me and listen to my ranting and deal with my obsessions with toys and helping the people of Earth learn about love, and love me anyway?”
“What if we find a cure? What if we find a way to save everyone but you can’t be Santa because you’re married to me?”
“It doesn’t matter. We’ll leave. We’ll live on Earth and become human, and die in forty years.” He sat back on the seat and drew P.D. close to him. “I’ve tried to live without you and life’s no good that way. I’d rather live a short life with you, than exist for a thousand years without you.” P.D. said nothing and Jensen’s heart thudded. “Do you still love me, P.D.? Have you moved on? Is…,” he swallowed around the sudden lump of trepidation in his throat, “Is there someone else?”
“I was joking before when I said you were an idiot, but I’m not now. You, Kristof Jensen Kringle, are the biggest idiot I’ve ever had the misfortune to know.”
Jensen sat back, a tremulous sigh gusting between his lips. This was it then. He’d sit on this park bench and be alone forever.
P.D. thumped him on the arm.
“Good. I’m glad it hurt, you idiot. You’re so focused on your damned lists and production schedules that you never look around you, do you?”
“Well excuse me for wanting to do a good job.” Jensen huffed. “And you can’t talk, Mr. I’m-the-best-scientist-there-is. How many nights in the last six months did you go home at all?”
“I’ve been trying to save us.”
“So have I!”
P.D. grabbed his shoulders and shook. “If you’d had your bloody brain engaged when you read those records, this would have been sorted out months ago.” He tugged Jensen into a kiss that was at once the same and totally different to the last one they’d shared in September. Yes, it was still almost brutal, but this wasn’t a goodbye kiss. This was nothing like the end would be.
Finally, they separated, breath lingering and mingling, skin tingling wherever they touched. “Santa has to be married to the one person in the world he’ll love forever,” P.D. whispered.
“I know. I—”
“The records don’t say Santa has to be married to a woman. Hell, they don’t even say Santa has to be a man! Did it never occur to you that Christmas is all about love, not tradition? We just use the traditions as an expression of the love we feel.”
Jensen leaned back so he could look P.D. in the face. “What—?”
“Take a look, Jen,” P.D. whispered. He cupped Jensen’s cheek and turned his head to look at the park. It was snowing, coming down heavier as they watched, and the trees…. Instead of standing forlornly in the dim light, they now stood proud, limbs lifting to the sky, welcoming the snow that sparkled as it fell.
“I think you’d better tell Mer the wedding is still on,” said P.D., his cheek pressed warmly against Jensen’s.
He jumped. “The wedding? No! I’m not marrying anyone but you.”
P.D. put his arm around Jensen and pulled him close. “Idiot. Of course you’re not. I’m keeping you.” He pressed a chaste kiss to Jensen’s cheek, making him sigh. He’d never felt more loved.
They sat silently, watching the flakes of snow drift gently to the ground. Suddenly, the silence was fractured by a scream. Jensen looked over at the Workshop to see his mother running toward them, turning to yell at his father who stood at the open doorway.
“Kris! Kris! He’s done it. Our boy’s finally got his head out of his arse and done it!”