"The snow tastes like sugar!"
Abby yelled gleefully. Of course, she had her tongue packed with snow, so her words sounded more like, "The slaw takes why sure girl!"
All around her was a world like something out of one of her childhood dreams. She was quite literally in Santa's Workshop. Red and green trimmed wooden buildings with glassy, frosted windows lit from the inside by candlelight.
And, best part of all, she stood before Santa. From satiny mittens and long, flowing cap to belt, belly, beard and smile ever-so-friendly, it was him in every last respect just as she might have imagined him. She hugged herself with a smile and twirled around in the dusty-soft snow.
Santa gave a hearty laugh and a warm greeting to her as he explained, "We make our own snow and we do like to sweeten it a bit." Abby clenched her hands in front of her with a grin. So it was sugar!
Abby begged for the whole tour, the toy-making, the village, the sled, the whole thing. She planned to snap as many pictures as possible. She'd already taken enough to fill an album just on arrival.
She answered the message in her goggles, "Santa Needs Help" as fast as she could, landing in a forest clearing beaming from ear to ear. She'd introduced herself to Santa with a bow, saying she was willing to be "a humble honorary elf" in whatever necessary.
The actual elves, who looked more to her to her eyes like Aiborae than the traditional sort, found her a warm, red-and-white woolen coat to wear. Not that Abby minded the cold, especially frolicking in the snow-sugar.
After a look at the towering, lighted tree in the village center, Santa took her inside. Rubbing at her frost-reddened nose, Abby marveled at the sights. There were some things like she expected. A series of handmade toys by the girlish elves with brightly colored hair and wide, bright eyes. A vast oven for special baking. Then, there was the Dreamcrafter.
It looked like a snowflake suspended in starlight radiating across a room. It made what could not be crafted by hand easily. Santa explained, "Everyone dreams. And the most heartfelt of dreams become wishes and hopes. The Dreamcrafter listens to all the dreams in all the worlds that it can hear as they become wishes and hopes among the young and old. Sometimes it's a thing. But sometimes it can't be simply placed in a box. So, it makes a little gift, something no one would expect but inside that unexpected little gift is their wish and hope, unseen, hidden inside to bring about their dreams, a little bit at a time."
Abby just grinned and nodded until Santa's smile began to fade. He added, "But…some dreams are different. You see, a few days ago, there was a dream in particular which focused on me, dreamed by a young girl of reddish lavender hair and great ambition. I feel no ill will against her. Katsumi is a young lady with a surprising heart but she has made Christmas a bit more challenging for me, I'm sorry to say."
Immediately, Abby offered to go talk to Katsumi (all of them), to reprogram the Dreamcrafter, to do whatever it took. Santa smiled and thanked her. Still, Abby had a question, one she couldn't keep to herself, eventually blurting out, "So, what is her dream?"
Santa decided it was easiest to show Abby. He took her into the stables where the sleigh (THE sleigh, she felt tingles realizing that) was being painted for Christmas Eve. Giving a sigh, Santa put his foot on the first step of the sleigh. Radiating out from his foot, glowing energy like the kind flowing from the Dreamcrafter washed over Santa.
His boots became smaller and red and green stockings climbed up his full thighs and his bulky pants stretched into a long, fluttering skirt. The rest of his outfit took on satiny softness to match his mittens-turned-gloves with full, poofy sleeves. Before Abby could ponder the notion of a cross=dressed Santa, his body shifted in shape as well. The beard, to Abby's lament, was the first to go. But a wild stretch of the palest, platinum-blond, curly locks swelled all over, almost restoring his beard.
Santa remained rounded and chubby, but especially so in a few new places. It took Abby a moment before she could speak. Santa gestured to her changed, full figure and told Abby, "This is only part it. This happens if I step inside my sleigh. Any gifts I give have qualities Katsumi would most certainly approve of." Santa bowed her head and held her silky, curving arms together as she said, "So, I am afraid I can't give out any presents this year without…unintended consequences." Her voice was soft but with the gentle sweetness that Abby knew in the male Santa. Her heart ached at the words and she bowed her head too.
Sadness only held Abby for an instant before her thoughts kindled and her head jerked back up as she announced, "Then there's only one thing to do! I have to deliver the gifts."
Santa withdrew her foot from the sleigh and, slowly, she returned in clothing and body to the Santa of a minute before. He rubbed at his beard in thought, saying, "Mrs. Claus was ready to go in my place. But she was training too hard and soon fell sick…"
Abby gasped. Santa waved his hand in reassurance. "She'll be fine but not before Christmas. The elves would offer…and it may come to that. But I fear they may not be enough either."
Abby reiterated her idea and Santa pondered on it some more. He cautioned her, "While magic keeps the hours of the night and many gifts can be delivered automatically through the Dreamcrafter, it is a lot for one person. However, I know you are not just any person. And I sense…I know you could do it. But it is a lot of work and a lot of pressure. There are many worlds…"
Looking at Santa with steady eyes and an unwavering focus, Abby told him again, "I will deliver all your gifts and I will make sure everyone is as happy as possible. Please, I don't want to see Christmas lost for anyone."
Santa relaxed his beard stroking and slowly nodded. "I know. Your wishes and hopes are powerful too, Abby. I know you can do it. So, let us begin."
Becoming Santa wasn't a one day thing. At least they had some time left before the big day. Finalizing all the lists and figuring out the routes were tedious but Abby marveled at the magic of the world around her, especially at how Santa's bag managed to hold a far greater load than her special coat pockets but without being impossible to carry.
She stared down the reindeers and told them she would be the driver. They gave their answer by flying around in dizzying loops before crashing. But she kept training. What eventually it took was a small, random gift by Santa to Vixen. Apparently, Katsumi's wish was in effect even for animals. After that, none of the reindeer complained a bit.
The elves made a suit just like Santa's in Abby's size. The red pants were familiar and she'd worn plenty of Santa caps before. But to see the whole thing together, plush and warm and full of all the details, a real thing, brought her twirling with joy. She even lamented she didn't have a fitting belly or a beard to show off to complete the ensemble. She did try wearing it as her male self a bit with a beard but eventually discovered the wish Katsumi had placed meant that no man could drive the sleigh.
When the night finally came, Abby was ready with plenty of energy charged to her task. Her Santa outfit had her regular red flannel pants with a few modifications. She adjusted the hat until it looked perfect and marched out into the tasty snow. Everyone was there to send her off. She smiled and looked over at the sleigh with wind fluttering at her majestically. She turned to the elves who had set up a wind fan off to the side and told them, with a snicker, "Okay, that's enough."
Marching to the sleigh, she waved to Santa and Mrs. Claus as they gave her words of encouragement. The elves cheered together. On the whole, she couldn't help but feel giddy as she lowered her goggles down over her eyes and held on tight to the reins. She ushered the reindeer skyward and sailed into the night to make her first deliveries.
Koral Strener staggered backwards into the undergrowth as she clutched her feeble traveling robe around her body. It wasn't snowing at least, not yet. She shivered and muttered to herself, "Give up…just sleep…just stop…"
She shut her eyes for a long moment. It didn't matter anyway.
Then, she felt something strange. Her eyes flicked open and she twitched, ready to draw her sword. A girl, not much older than her, had her arms wrapped around her in a full embrace. She was dressed in a Santa outfit with a bundle over her shoulder.
Koral stood there and stared as the girl smiled at her and said, "Never give up. No matter the odds, you can do it." She reached into the red bag bundle behind her and pulled out a small tent, a set of supplies, and the most woolen, warm overcoat Koral had ever seen (all seemed too large to be contained within the bundle and it didn't seem to shrink when they were removed). The girl bowed her head a moment and offered, "Sorry they aren't gift-wrapped…but Merry Christmas!" She wrapped the overcoat around Koral, gave a wave, and then scampered off into the woods.
The chill, which had been all-consuming before, vanished in the embrace of the coat. Koral had so many questions and so much confusion about the strange girl but as she pulled the gifts close, her fear diminished and she gave a faint, calm smile with her dusty dark lips.
Tsumiko pounded her fist on the command table as she yelled, "Darn it! I want security beefed up. We have projects which could help us convert the entire world into women and I don't want them to fail. No one gets in who…huh?…"
As she was looking ahead to the large monitor, a girl with soft, reddish hair and a bright Santa suit skipped her way into the command room. She held a large, crimson sack over her shoulder and a small scroll in her hands. She glanced Tsumiko's way and said, excitedly, "Hi there! Been looking for you! Merry Christmas!"
The Shieldmaidens nearby tensed up. But Abby passed little candies to them and smiled. With a giggle, Abby noted, "I'm Santa…well this year. I have something special for you, Tsumiko. I've done the rest of the deliveries for this base and you're the last one."
Tsumiko stared, puzzled at the girl as she passed a large box to her. Raising an eyebrow, she pulled a bit at the wrapping and then stopped. The girl claiming to be Santa didn't tell her to stop. So she pulled off the paper and opened a brown box. Honestly, she had no idea what to expect. She half-worried this was a strange sort of plot against her. Then her eyes bulged at what was inside the box.
Carefully, softly, she cradled a plush, purple teddy bear from the box. She knew it well. It was just like the one she'd lost so many years ago. Abby, seemingly sensing her thought, noted, "It's not exactly the same one as before but it's meant to be really close. I hope you enjoy it. Christmas has been a little different…that's only because Santa was cursed with turning into a woman. And stuff like that. I'd say more but I really have to run. Everyone else's gifts are in their lockers but I had special instructions to give that directly to you. Bye!"
With that, as swiftly and mysteriously as the girl entered, she was gone. Swallowing gently, Tsumiko stroked the teddy bear's fur and gave the sort of smile she didn't realize she was still capable of giving.
The moment passed with a question from a Shieldmaiden and a rough cough from Tsumiko as she reiterated, "As I said…security. Not everyone will be girl Santas next time."
Kenzie leapt over the previous en dashes and marveled at the world of Tsumiko, declaring, "Now there is truly a world where transformation can be celebrated. Shame even that story was without much of it. I DEMAND MORE TRANSFORMATION!"
Abby stepped lightly across the page of the screen and surveyed the edges before saying, "Cozy."
Kenzie folded her arms and snorted. "I expect you're going to give me some sort of ironic gift, like a man's jock-strap." Abby looked down at her gift scroll and frowned a little before saying, "Actually, that was in story notes by someone named 'Anna'….weird…so is this what it's like without all the walls of the universe in place?"
With a sigh, Kenzie noted, "I wouldn't know. To me, I just call it Life…" Abby peered around the light-green page, leaned through the field, and waved to someone who certainly wasn't expecting it before she noticed familiar pictures to one side and gasped, "Is that me? People draw me?" Glittering sparkles could almost be seen in her eyes.
Pushing her way to another page, Kenzie gestured and answered, "Quite a lot. As you can see here…" It was past the point of words for Kenzie as Abby twirled through the page of "Anirhapsodist" and viewed each image with a grin and sprinting curiosity. At the end, she faced outwards into the unknown, cupped her mouth, and yelled, "Thank you so much! They're awesome!"
Kenzie camped out on a pony transformation story page for a bit until Abby's gleeful energy finally settled down and she recalled her Santa duties. Abby fished around in the sack as Kenzie kept her arms folded and tried not to read negativity into her description. She did, however, try to peek at the gift she would be given lower on the page. Abby flashed a surprisingly stern look and she didn't try any further until Abby pulled out a wrapped gift the size of a pole arm but without all the pointy bits.
Rather curious, she went about unwrapping it. Despite her ability to see beyond the narrative, Kenzie wound up surprised at what she found. At least the author claimed she did. Kenzie would claim plenty that she knew it all along. She gave a bit of a raspberry to the ether and picked up the oversized pencil she'd been given. Looking between Abby and it, the obvious question was, "What does it do?"
Clearing her throat, Abby declared, "You want to be able to write your world in the way you wish. Here's the means. You are now a writer. And blank pages are before you. Have at them!"
Smirking, Kenzie hefted the pencil up and went forth through the walls of narrative to build a few new ones and break a lot down.
Dee and Korri had another late night at Newid's. Another holiday. The day after Christmas wouldn't be as bad as the previous day after Thanksgiving (or so they both mutually hoped) but the day before certainly left them with a lot of paperwork.
With calm, sly grin, Dee sifted through the last of his work and leaned on his arm to look at Korri, who still had several papers, despite her best efforts. She muttered through her teeth with a little growl, "True form toothpaste recalls…"
Resting his eyes, Dee said, "Another fine, Nuhaizi product….want to get something warm to drink when we're done?"
Korri amended, "If we're done. Well, if I'm ever done…" A clatter arose just out the doors to Returns and Complaints. While Korri jerked up, Dee didn't even flick open an eye. He knew with all the nanite security that there was no way intruders were getting in. Not even those unexplained ones on Halloween.
Before Korri could give voice to her concerns, a girl in a Santa suit burst through the doors with a bound. She adjusted her outfit and smiled at the both of them as she announced, "Sorry. I'm a little behind schedule. So easy to get lost in something called TV Tropes. But nevermind…"
Lively and quick, she went about digging deep into her sack. She brought out an odd-sized package wrapped in glittering paper for Korri and a smaller, red-wrapped one for Dee. On top of that, she was able to find a cup of perfectly-balanced, steaming cocoa to place before each of them.
Just as Korri was about to touch her package, it suddenly took on a life of its own with vigorous buzzing which shook the entire box. Korri seized the box immediately and glanced around with a bright, obvious look of embarrassment as her eyes flicked between the clearly-amused Dee and the smiling Santa girl.
Whispering, Korri asked, "Uhh…gift girl…"
"Santa", Abby corrected, before adding herself, "Well, I'm not really Santa. Just for tonight because he can't step inside his sleigh without being turned female."
Korri shrugged and Dee gave a nod as Korri continued, "I mean…Santa…did you just give me what I think you may have given me?"
Abby looked at her a long moment before saying with a broad smile, "Oh….oooooh….uh. I have nooo idea." She then added, "Well, I do have the list…"
She raised the scroll in her hands and the end of it spooled away to trail along the floor, seemingly growing longer as it rolled away. With a chuckle, she explained, "Actually, this one is just for fun. I have the real list in my scanner device. I could read it off…."
Dee chimed in, "Perhaps we could just save it for a surprise when we open it…together…later tonight." A pleased look flickered across Korri's face before she cleared her throat and offered thanks to "Santa" along with Dee as they sipped their cocoa.
When Abby was gone (in a hurry of twirls and a barely-recovered scroll), Dee glanced at the present in front of Korri and noted, "It's probably not as bad as we think. Dirty minds…" Korri snorted, agreed, and added, "What about her though? Santa? Just out of the blue as a fill-in girl like that? Isn't that weird?"
Dee gave a shrug and responded, "Weird? What about the reptile terrarium return just after lunch?"
Korri couldn't resist a smile as she scooted her chair closer to Dee's as she said, "Well, that hardly counts. Especially not after last week's slime incident."
Raising their cups, they clinked the two together as Dee noted (sharing a warm, lingering smile to one another), "Sometimes weird is just a matter of context."
For the worlds closest, especially to Abby's heart, she had to be swift and, so her instructions said, stealthy. It didn't really work in practice. Gertie, the formerly feminizing flatulence farm animal, received a fancy new blanket for her pen. Patrick would wake to a myriad of tools she'd been wanting for a while for her favorite new hobbies along with farm work. She smiled deeply at the little letter Abby left behind.
The same was true of a different Korri as she found a new gift suddenly in her bag when she and her carol-singing sister Tara returned home. The gift gave a throbbing buzz and she narrowed her eyes a bit before sighing and softly saying, "Oh, Abby."
For those friends she hadn't seen for a while in the world of Trimountaine, a bit of divine candy and a number of special goddess blessing charms were enough to make them all smile too.
For little girl Abigail who lived in a library, she left behind, in the still-new tower apartment of her adopted parents, a game which would earn a curious look from Abigail. But favorite of all was a lavender little pony which Abigail cradled in her hands. She didn't need to be told what to do with it.
Marcus's gift would wait until the return trip. By this point she was fading fast, sore all over from the hauling and wishing she could just curl up in the sleigh. But she still had a few trips left to do before that…
Lynx peered straight through the forest and the forest returned the favor. She could see eyes everywhere. Those which weren't faint and soft would be her targets. She aimed carefully and picked off several stragglers before she finished her next breath.
She was focused, so focused she didn't hear Abby making her away along the most precarious tree branch of all with a weighty sack. When she did notice, it was too late. They went down together with a great crash. Lynx landed on her feet and immediately burst up to scold the strange girl, who was wearing the least camouflaging sort of red and white holiday outfit.
Reaching into her sleeves, Abby bowed her head and waved a white flag, announcing, "I surrender. I'm just here because Santa would've been turned into a woman, so I'm filling in for him." Lynx interjected a moment to lament that such an opportunity to transform the most masculine of men would be missed. But she went quiet when Abby handed her a medium-sized package.
It only took her a swift slice to open it. Then she stared. Abby hoped that was a good sign. In her hands, Lynx held a special sort of scope which could be shifted and attached to almost any weapon. Looking between it and Abby, she soon had it attached to her gun, testing it a bit by peering into the forest.
Abby figured this would be her chance to sneak away, but not from Lynx. She somehow got ahead of her. She stood before her in a clearing with the scope and her weapon at her side. She bowed her head and announced, "This…this…is the single greatest gift anyone has ever given me."
With a smirk, Abby told her, "Just my job as Santa and my joy." With a nod, Lynx approached her and immediately wrapped her arms around Abby in a hug that was simultaneously crushing and deeply affectionate. When Abby could breathe again, it was Lynx who had managed to ninja herself away, leaving only a small, handwritten Thank You note.
Abby surprised two young friends, Neil and Mayu, who were over at Mayu's house for an anime marathon with several large packages from her dwindling sack. The both of them delighted at limited edition collections of animes they'd often sought but could never find.
Then they smiled and looked fondly at each other when out came a series of specially-packaged figures. They weren't just any figures but anime ones of forms and colors which the two of them, for a time, had known so personally and intimately.
The last surprise came from an innocuous box which Abby passed to Mayu. She puzzled over it a bit and then noticed the title. Her eyes widened. Then she restrained herself. But she couldn't. She had to shout, "KINGDOM HEARTS 3?!" Just holding it, she collapsed in a pool of joy as Abby continued on her way.
Abby surprised two young more-than-friends, Nasira and Miguel, who were stuck in the dorms over winter break by nearly crashing through Nasira's door in excitement, announcing, "You guys have an entire building with my name! This is officially the Best Universe Ever!"
Once she'd settled down and gone through her explanation of being the replacement Santa in training, she passed two small gift boxes to each of them. Before she could apologize for the smallness, they opened the gifts and looked down at what they had received. A dual, looping bracelet with a frog and a bunny.
It could be split and traded between the two of them. Abby's apologetic feelings warmed to joy as the two laughed and thanked her profusely. She didn't quite understand it but she figured that was just because she wasn't a high enough level Santa yet. But soon…
She couldn't help but yawn a little when she finally came to her last Ogawa stop. She'd visited the Katsumi in her glittering Nuhaizi tower and left her a gift which garnered a wry smile from before she hurried on her way.
Abby went in through the front door, gave her now easy introduction, and passed around gifts both fitting and startling to the girls assembled. The only one missing was Katsumi, who had to be dragged from her balcony and her doodles. Before Abby passed the last gift to Katsumi though, she had one, strongly-emphasized last comment, "Don't mess with Santa please. I know your dream is a world with girls alone. It's a dream which has spread far but Santa loves the dreams of all. Those other dreams need a chance to grow too."
Katsumi grumbled a bit but begrudgingly gave Santa a rare and very special exclusion from her usual list, saying, "He is only allowed to be the manly Santa on that time of the year when dreams are answered and joys celebrated. For toys…for little kids and such…Santa can be Santa. But, any other time, he's as fair game as all the other males who presume they can escape me…"
With that settled, Abby felt relief as Katsumi peered into the open top of gift. She immediately slammed the top back on and asked Abby, "Has anyone seen this?"
All Abby could do was shrug and offer, "Maybe the elf who packed it…"
Katsumi, with a cacophony of feet assaulting the floor, burst upstairs with the gift and didn't return until she said she had it locked away where no one would ever know where it was. Of course, to those Mecchen House girls around watching, it was a captivating mystery.
The only elaboration Katsumi offered was, "It's a lovely gift. What I wanted but no one else must EVER know about it…." Her face was redder than any of the gift recipients so far as she thought about what she'd received. Abby made a motion of sealing her lips and told her, "At least you can say you're not in the version of reality where the gift you received is a pair of underwear with bright blue flame images on the sides."
Slumping her head, Katsumi sighed as the rest of girls began formulating their own theories from the tidbits they'd heard.
Exhausted from her long evening but feeling good, feeling better that she might've imagined some days, Abby leaned back in the sleigh. Cool air rushed just outside her touch, protected by a magic bubble around the sleigh. Despite that protection, she reached for one of the blankets which had been packed for her as the reindeer hurried on through the starlight. She clutched the books for Marcus in the most comfortable grip and drifted off to sleep.
In her thoughts and dreams she could see, like holidays of years ago, Demetrius's beaming gaze and smiles as he taught her of Christmas and all its lovely little facets, one delightful one after the other.
As she slipped deep into her dreams, a part of her hoped that Santa's Dreamcrafter could do something with these thoughts, even though she knew it wasn't possible. But something not being possible had never deterred Abby.
She focused on it. She wished for it. She let dreams carry her into a very warm place. A place where she could see herself stepping through the front door of the Longbloom house as perky little hoverbots whizzed around. And there was Demetrius…like he'd never even left, his arms open.
She shivered with quiet hope bursting forth in words and yelled, "DADDY!" until her voice was hoarse and tears streamed down her eyes.
Abby could see it all. A dream but she knew it was also her future. Not this Christmas but she knew a Christmas soon, and all those after, would theirs together, as it was before. Holding into the feeling, the joy, gave Abby the most delightful Christmas gift she could imagine as she and the reindeer sailed on through the crisp, pure night.