It had been a long time since Haohi had felt shame.
True actual shame, the likes of which made it hard even for an angel like her to shoulder.
She attempted to smooth out her dress in a vain attempt to comfort herself, but found that no matter how many times she ran her hands over the silken fabric, it didn’t help. She tried her best to make herself look preoccupied. But even then, she could feel the piercing stares from those around her burrowing into her like bullets into a hay bale.
“He’ll see you now,” a dry, slightly whimsical voice called.
Haohi rose from her chair and tried one last time to smooth out her dress before readying herself. She took extra care not to make eye contact with the secretary as she walked towards the giant wooden doors in front of her. To her own surprise, it took some effort to open even as an angel as she let herself in.
The room itself was modest. It had furnishings that one would have expected from any other office.
There was a desk, two chairs, carpet, and even a ficus potted plant in the corner.
But it was the towering man sitting behind the desk that was perhaps the most prominent feature in the room.
For such a recognizable figure, it was startling to find him in such an unrecognizable state.
His face was covered in soot and scratches, one eye was bandaged and tinged red, and his beard was covered in red splatter. His clothes were singed to an extraordinary degree and Haohi half-wondered if there were tire tracks across his chest.
“First off,” she began. “I would like to begin my three part apology by stating how sorry I am that-“
“Save it. I’ve heard it all before,” he interrupted.
Haohi froze as the massive bloodied man rose from his desk and turned around.
“Why don’t you have a seat.”
As if by command, Haohi found herself moving towards the chair in front of her and gingerly sat down.
She held her breath at the sheer enormity and gravity of the situation she found herself in.
The only thing she could do was watch as the man in red fiddled with whatever it was he was working on.
It was only then that she noticed the golden name plate that adorned the desk in front of her. Etched and written in fine cursive was a name that was legendary in almost all corners of the world.
‘Saint Nicholas C.E.O.’
More commonly known as Santa Claus.
Haohi looked up to find the him holding a crystal glass filled with a dark amber liquid.
“Thank you, but I don’t normally…actually, thank you,” Haohi said, changing her mind and accepting the glass.
The stench of caused her nose to wrinkle.
Though to refuse it might have been the wrong decision, Haohi thought to herself.
The normally jolly man was anything but jolly. He swirled his own glass in hand as she turned and faced the only window looking out onto the snowy tundra beyond.
It seemed like eons had passed before he finally spoke.
“Do you know why you’re here?” He asked in a gravely tone.
Haohi clutched her glass in hand with trepidation.
“I can fathom a guess,” Haohi offered.
He raised his glass to his lips but paused, as if a thought had crossed his mind.
“It is my job…my duty…to give presents to all the good boys and all the good girls in the world; Who believe in me.”
“And normally,” he continued, “It is not uncommon for the extraordinarily enthusiastic to try and catch a glimpse of me. There’s the cookies and milk. Some even lay traps for me, with the little sprinkle of flour on the floor or sometimes even the odd video camera,” he said chuckling to himself.
“But your daughter,” Santa continued. “…is something else.”
He finally took a swig of his drink and turned around to sit back in his own chair across from her, with some strain of difficulty,
Hoahi noticed. Something told her wasn’t because of old age.
“I thought the bear trap at the foot of the chimney was cute. Admirable even,” He smiled.
The smile disappeared just as quickly as it appeared.
“But the year after that. With the trip wires and mines…I knew she was different. So I took extra care this year. I made two passes beforehand. I used an extra dose of Christmas magic and even a miracle. I even had your place cased the day before. No offense.”
Santa stared into the distance and slowly shook his head.
“It still wasn’t enough.”
A single blood shot eye darted to Haohi.
“Do you know the damaged she caused?”
Haohi sucked in her lips and solemnly nodded.
“I believe I saw the damage on my way in.”
“Hard to miss,” He huffed. “You have to understand. My elves are tinkerers and toymakers. Not counter-terrorists.”
Haohi’s finger twinged.
“My daughter is not an terrorist!” Haohi shot back, offended.
Santa raised an eyebrow.
“Really? Half of my workshop is on fire, the entire west wing is in rubble, and I still have casualties flooding into my hospital
He downed what was left of his drink without any hesitation and slammed the empty glass on his desk.
Haohi flinched at the sound.
“I’m…I’m sure your elves did the best they could do.”
Santa peered down at a manila folder lying on his desk and half-heartedly opened it before closing it again with a sigh.
“I wish I could say the same. So I’m going to offer you deal…”
He leaned forward, placing his elbows on his desk and tenting his fingers. Haohi found it difficult to look him in the eye. Not because of his glare, but rather she didn’t know where to look. The bandaged eye, or his bloodshot eye. She chose the middle ground and went with his red button nose. Which she only noticed now, judging by the angle it was at, probably broken.
“I’m going to give your daughter her Christmas presents.”
“Really?” Haohi stared in disbelief.
“A bike and two stuffed toys. Not the guns she wanted; I’m not an arms dealer.”
“Well that’s…very kind of you,” Haohi said, affording herself a sigh of relief.
“But she’s going to be on the naughty list,” Santa declared. “Forever.”
Haohi’s mouth dropped.
“Surely you can’t be serious.”
“I thought it was harsh as well. But now I have to dig through six feet of ice and snow. Do you realize how hard it is to dig through six feet of ice and snow in the North Pole?”
“Right, right. I get it,” Haohi acquiesced. “Can I see my daughter now?”
Santa seemed to hesitate for a moment before sighing once more and pressing a button on his desk. Barely a moment passed before the double wooden oak doors cracked open and a figure with ghostly black horns, clearly marking her as a demon peeked in.
She had silver-white hair, and a long tail trailing black tail. At the sight of the angel, she darted towards her.
Haohi rose and caught the young demon girl in a tight embrace.
She noticed she smelled like smoke and cordite.
“Are you okay? Are you hurt anywhere?”
“No mom, I’m fine!” Aiko chirped happily, looking up at her mother.
“I had so much fun! I snuck into Santa’s sleigh when he wasn’t looking and got to go to his workshop! I saw all the toys, and the elves, and the reindeer, and there was so many explosions! I was all like ‘pew pew pew! Bang skabooosh! I ran out of ammo so I had to hide in the air vents and all the elves were going ‘It’s in the walls!’ so I had to start taking ‘em out one by one, and then a couple were trying to escape in this helicopter, right? And they were all like ‘Get to the choppa!’ and I was like ‘Nope!’ and I managed to blow it up! And then one elves was like, screaming into the wind all like, ‘C’mon on! Do it!’ But I saw it was a trap so I went around and stab-“
“Okay, that’s enough sweetie.” Haohi said, quickly smothering Aiko’s head against her chest.
Upon noticing the man behind her, Aiko wormed her way out of her embrace.
“Hi Santa!” Aiko waved happily. “Do you have presents for me?”
Santa shot out of his chair, his defeated blank expression replaced with a jovial grin.
“Ho ho ho! I’ve already delivered your presents! They’re waiting for you back home underneath your Christmas tree! You should hurry home and open them!” He replied happily in a jolly tone.
Aiko stared at him in wonderous awe.
“Woah…You’re is so cool! Can I get a hug?”
He suddenly backed away.
“Actually, I don’t think-“
“Mom still has some business with Santa, alright sweetie?” Haohi interrupted. “Do you mind waiting outside till we finish?”
Aiko looked at her and then back at Santa.
“Okay,” she said, slithering out of her mother’s embrace and slipping out the doors.
Haohi waited for the door to shut completely before turning back towards Santa.
“So I guess I’m responsible for her Christmases from now on?”
The jolly mask that Santa had worn for the briefest of moments instantly fell away as soon as Aiko left.
“Millions of other parents manage. I’m sure you’ll do fine. Oh, and one more thing.”
He reached into his desk and pulled out a small box that fit the palm of his hand, wrapped neatly and tied with a bright golden ribbon.
“This is for your husband. From what I can understand, he needs it.”
Haohi didn’t know what to say. Carefully she picked up the package, marveling at the bright red and white Christmas wrapping.
“Why thank you Santa,” Haohi said, finally finding the right words.
She looked at Santa hopefully.
“I don’t suppose I get a Christmas present too?”
Santa’s good eye narrowed.
“Don’t push your luck.”