"The damn neighbor again," she said. "As if wearing red underwear on the outside of that awful blue spandex wasn't enough, flying supersonic over the North Pole again? At this hour?"
Ah, so it had been a sonic boom. That was getting old. Half the elves were frightened by them and the other half cheered enthusiastically when he flew by. The reindeer herd was skittish at best with the big day less than a week out and they needed their sleep between training runs.
"Not very neighborly, is he?" Santa said, rolling over in hopes of ending the conversation.
"Gonna be a rough Christmas if the herd can't get a decent night's sleep."
He could read between the lines. They'd had this discussion several times since the alien-posing-as-super-human built (no, grew) his house (make that a fortress) next door to 1 North Pole. Missus hadn't taken to his manner of dress, activities at all hours, or the crowd of misfits he associated with. She expected Santa to do something, confront the guy. He wasn't exactly the confrontational sort but a courtesy call was at least in order.
"I'll pop over there in the morning."
Santa sighed at his wife's skeptical response. What could he do? He was jolly by nature, so jolly it would have to be.
Following his team's training run, Santa made a stop in front of 2 North Pole. He'd visited once, when the neighbor first moved in, but things had changed a little bit since then. The structure - all massive columns of clear and white crystal set at angles - was both beautiful and intimidating, and apparently still growing. Fortress was certainly a good word for it, though it was unlikely to ever face a siege up in these parts. Even the polar bears had the good sense to stay away. The other difference was the addition of a junker out in the front yard up on blocks.
Santa's team pulled up alongside the eye-sore and he scoffed with a "ho" while disembarking and tromping up through the snow to the front door. There was no doorbell or knocker, not even a handle, on the thirty-foot tall monstrosity, just a single massive keyhole halfway up.
Summoning up his mighty voice, Santa boomed out, "Jingle, jingle!"
Almost immediately the door opened and there stood his neighbor. The man was tall, statuesque, and handsome to a fault. His hair was black, combed back save for a stray curl that dipped across his forehead. He was dressed in his usual working costume - blue body suit that left little of his muscled bumpiness to the imagination, red boots, cape, and aforementioned trunks, and yellow highlights, including the conspicuous logo on his chest that was most certainly not a letter despite the uncanny resemblance.
"Greetings, neighbor!" Santa couldn't help but sound cheery. And, since he knew all the good deeds this man had done for humanity, he couldn't rightly be too upset at the odd minor indiscretion.
"Hi Santa." The man said shook Santa's hand with a grip like steel. "What brings you over?"
"Oh, was just out with my team on a training run this morning," Santa said. "Been meaning to drop in and see how you were getting settled in."
The man shrugged. "Getting along alright, I guess. It's quiet. I like the solitude."
Santa jumped on the best passive-aggressive opening for which he could have hoped. "Speaking of quiet, I've been meaning to ask you about those occasional fly-byes you've been doing over my place."
The man cringed apologetically. "I know, the sonic booms are a bit much, aren't they? I'm really sorry about that."
Santa chuckled in a low voice that was almost sub-sonic. He knew the man to be sincere.
"Yes, well, I don't mind them so much, but it is spooking my herd." Santa thrust a mittened thumb over his shoulder toward the reindeer hitched to his sleigh. "What with Christmas only a few days away, they need their beauty rest."
The man held up both hands. "Say no more," he said. "I'll do what I can to avoid buzzing your place, especially at night. But, you know when a sweatshop in Bangladesh is fully engulfed, well, every second counts. You know how it is."
Santa nodded, then realized by doing so he'd more or less just conceded that his neighbor's motives took precedent over the Christmas operation. Santa couldn't rightly call him out on that because, well, it was Christmas and there was nothing more important to his own very nature, but he wasn't blind to the ethical dilemma. He was irritated at himself for so easily giving up his point.
"Right, thanks," Santa said, managing not to grumble. In a brief moment of pique, however, he turned things back on the neighbor. "Oh, and I noticed that wreck out in your yard. You know, my elves could come over and salvage it for scrap. Wouldn't take them more than an hour to have it stripped clear."
Take that, he thought. Yeah, I called you out on it.
"That's very kind of you to offer," the man said, non-plussed. "But that's the spaceship in which I crashed on Earth as an infant. My adoptive mother was tired of my enemies poking around the farm for it in hopes of extracting technological secrets or that sort of thing. I just brought it up here, but the new room to store it in hasn't finished growing yet. Shouldn't be more than another day or two and that...eyesore...will be out of the way."
Santa’s rosy red cheeks flush further. Now he felt like a complete tool. He should have remembered that tidbit about the man, having brought him gifts since he was a wee little thing.
"My mistake," Santa said, trying to salvage some face. "Had no idea. Sentimentality is a precious thing."
An awkward silence hung between them for several shakes of a jingle bell.
"Well, I hope I haven't kept you from saving the world again," Santa said, hitching up the belt on his belly. "I should be off to finish the day's training with the team. Breaking in a new reindeer this year. You know how that is."
The man nodded in polite agreement. "Stop by any time."
Santa waved farewell and started back for his sleigh when the man called out.
"Oh, I've been meaning to stop by and thank your wife for the new outfits. I really appreciated the gesture, but I'm not sure it'll work out."
Santa caught his step as he flushed with humiliation. Missus had sent the guy a new costume? Or costumes? And hadn't even mentioned it to him? That was bold and could've been construed as rude, depending on what she'd sent.
He turned back. "I'm sorry, I didn't realize she'd sent you anything."
The man just shrugged like it wasn't any big deal. "I liked the one that replaced my red trunks and boots for a solid blue look, but the media raked me over the coals for the change so I went back. And the all-black look... Yeah, I'm not sure I'm ready for that yet."
Santa nodded, unsure what he could even say.
"Anyway, I really appreciated her gesture and I'll pop over to thank her in person as soon as I can. Unfortunately, there's a chemical spill situation breaking in Uganda that I should probably go lend a hand with."
Santa said, "I'll let her know and please go, don't let me get in your way."
The man saluted with a couple fingers from his brow and launched into the air, his red cape whipping in his wake.
Santa couldn't believe how such a nice, wholesome man could invoke such irritation in him. Most of it was directed at himself and his wife, not the neighbor.
"Peppermint sticks!" He grumbled all the way back to the sleigh, decidedly not looking forward to speaking with Missus over his afternoon hot cocoa.
The remaining days in the lead-up to Christmas Eve had been blessedly quiet. The neighbor, whether intentionally or not, hadn't done a supersonic flyby over 1 North Pole and preparations for the big day had gone smoothly. Santa's unsettled instinct, however, proved prescient, and everything went sideways with about six hours to go before Christmas deliveries were to get underway.
Santa was outside, giving his sleigh its final inspection with a team of elvish mechanics. The sky, perpetually dark this time of year, exploded with brilliant yellow and orange fire, turning the winter wonderland into a hellish landscape. Concussions that made the neighbor's sonic booms pale by comparison rocked the region several seconds later. The reindeer herd began bleating in panic and Santa had to rally extra handlers to get them under control.
Smoke and flame obscured what was going on in the sky, but Santa's assistant Ginger was by his side within moments, anticipating his questions.
"Looks like some extra-dimensional warship, about four miles long, has engaged your, uh, neighbor, in some sort of grudge match," she said, gazing into her snow globe. "They're going at it right over his fortress."
The heat rising in Santa's veins could have roasted chestnuts. He watched simultaneously in person and through the elf's snow globe as the scenic peak of the nearby Frosty Mountain was obliterated in the crossfire. Chucks of molten metal and slabs of dislodged granite rained down on his property, where they changed into harmless snowflakes via the protective Christmas magic. Still, his defenses didn't help against the noise and shaking, and everyone was in disarray. Had this battle been joined six hours later, Santa's magic would have reached a peak where he could intervene with a miracle. For now, however, he could do little but stand by and watch.
"What should we do, Santa?" Ginger sounded as worried as he'd ever heard the elf. That tone brought him back into the moment.
"We prepare for Christmas, just like always," he said, the jolly gone from his voice. "Make sure everyone stays on task."
"And that?" Ginger nodded toward the neighbor's property.
"Won't be a problem." Santa tried to sound convincing. It shouldn't be a problem, he thought, as long as they didn't let it be a distraction.
"Got it, boss."
As Ginger hurried off to carry out his wishes, Santa excused himself from the last bit of the sleigh inspection. He trundled back to his office where he pulled out the final versions of the nice and naughty lists. Dipping his quill in a pot of ink, he scratched out one name from the nice list and added it to the naughty.
There had been some rough Christmases in the past, but this one was certainly among the bottom ten. All the gifts were delivered, the cookies and milk consumed, and Christmas cheer spread to every corner of the world. Nothing technically went wrong. The entire vibe, though, between him, his team of reindeer, and the support crew of elves back at the North Pole, was off. Santa, in a rarity, was glad to be done rather than disappointed that the holiday was already over.
Over, that was, except for one last delivery.
Santa guided his team to land in a scorched patch of ground in front of the heavily damaged remains of 2 North Pole. The neighbor's fortress hadn't fared particularly well in the battle, but it had survived more intact than the interloper's flying warship which was now in rubble spread across several dozen square miles. The smell of burnt plastic and molten metal assaulted his nose.
The fortress was empty. He could sense that much as he slipped in through the shattered door. Inside, massive columns of crystal had fallen amongst the various trophies and mementos from the hero's exploits. It was a mess.
Without a stocking in sight, Santa produced one and magically affixed it to a relatively intact, bare stretch of wall. Into it, he stuffed a handful of coal. Deep in his heart, he knew the alien meant well. He even knew the guy had probably just saved the Earth. In spite of all that, though, the passive aggressive part of him felt good about sending this not-so-subtle jab for the incessant unneighborly behavior everyone at 1 North Pole had been forced to deal with recently.
With a twinkle in his eye, he let out a final ho, ho, ho to mark the end of the season.
Santa oversaw the unhooking of his reindeer team, thanking each for their good effort. The elves swarmed over the sleigh and pressed him for stories about how the deliveries had gone. His spirits lifting, he indulged them all, putting off his own desire to settle into the recliner in front of his fireplace.
When he finally got away and let himself in the front door of his house, Santa realized something was amiss. They had a guest.
"Welcome home, dear," Missus said, wiping her hands on her apron as she hurried over to give him a big hug. She was in remarkably high spirits. "Everything go well?"
"Well enough," Santa said, looking over her shoulder and feeling that Christmas cheer fade as he saw the neighbor sitting at the dining room table, still in costume, eating cookies and drinking a mug of hot chocolate. The man raised the mug in a toast while his eyes twinkled good-naturedly.
It was impossible for Santa to be anything but a gracious host, no matter how uncomfortable that might be, so he nodded and greeted their neighbor. Had the guy opened his stocking yet?
Missus guided Santa to the dining room by his elbow. "Our neighbor just came over to apologize for all that mess yesterday," she said cheerfully. Santa couldn't believe this was the same woman who'd decried their neighbor almost daily since he'd moved in.
"And I'll have it cleaned up as soon as possible," the neighbor said.
"He even asked me if I'd help him landscape the place, afterward," Missus said, practically tittering. "Some pines with Christmas lights, maybe some winter flowers, it'll be beautiful when we're done with it."
We? Santa just nodded. "Sounds lovely."
"Oh, and you have to try these snickerdoodles he brought over," she said, handing Santa a cookie as if he hadn't just eaten upwards of a billion of them last night.
"They're my mom's," the neighbor said. "I made a quick trip down to Kansas so I wouldn't show up empty-handed."
Santa nodded. He munched on the cookie, remembering that he'd had this very recipe, baked by the neighbor's mother no less, many times before. They were good.
"Empty-handed, hardly," Missus said. "He also brought this. Which he made himself. Such craftsmanship!"
Missus picked up from the table a small snowman figurine, each of the body pieces a singular, perfect diamond. Santa knew, instinctively, just where those diamonds had come from - crushed into existence from a certain stocking full of coal. Touché.
Shamed, Santa gave up. He couldn't hold grudges or be angry, not in the face of a gift and gesture of goodwill on Christmas. "Thank you," he said. "It's beautiful."
"You're most welcome," the neighbor said, standing such that his cape swayed dramatically behind him. "And thank you, Mrs. Clause, for your hospitality. I should be off to start cleaning up my mess. Merry Christmas to the both of you."
Santa shook his hand and stood beside his wife as they watched the neighbor fly off.
Missus sighed, leaning in to her husband. "He sure can fill out that costume. Looks better up close, in person."
Santa cast a sideways glance at his wife, which she completely missed as her gaze lingered on the vanishing speck.
"Wouldn't hurt you to work out once in a while, huh?" She nudged his bowl full of jelly and returned inside.
Santa grumbled a few things about keeping up with the neighbors under his breath before sighing and finally closing the door.