Chapter Nine: Mother Nature
On the edge of the Maple Guardian’s forest
“Hey, man,” the hiker said, slightly out of breath from having to jog with a backpack on to keep up with me, “I gotta say thanks for helping me out.”
“Of course,” I answered with a smile, “it’s what we’re here for.”
“Well, yeah… But still. Thanks, man. For choosing this job I guess.” He said this with the half-quirked grin humans had started adopting to indicate they were joking. I mimicked the expression.
“You’re quite welcome, sir,” I said.
This forest’s mess had been the most pleasant to deal with. Oddly enough, given the choice between dealing with a forest of prematurely awoken animals from hibernation, an almost forest fire, repairing cloaking magic, and escorting an affable lost human back to his hiking trail, I would pick the lost human. Huh. Maybe they were onto something with their idea of company speeding up time. I wonder what Father Time’s opinion of the phrase is.
“Man, this whole situation has been pretty fuckin’ weird,” he paused, glancing over at me tentatively before adding, “pardon my language.”
“It’s quite alright,” I said. I’m not about to begrudge him one of humanity’s greatest assets. Especially when he has more right to be freaked out than he knows. I’m surprised he took this whole thing so well. Going off what he’d told me, this forest’s protective border glitched out by rapidly ballooning and shrinking. From his perspective, he’d been hiking along one step, and the next he was off-trail, in the middle of a forest, outside the Forest Perimeter Guard outpost I’d found him in. I’m pretty sure the border happened to balloon when he was passing by it and pulled him inside when it snapped back to its normal size. I had expected him to be bristly, cranky, or at the very least scared. Instead, he’d been nothing but chipper (if a little puzzled) for the entire walk.
I really should mingle with humanity more often. Maybe I could try out that rock star idea. That might be fun.
After we’d walked for what felt like an appropriate amount of time, I had the trail he’d been whisked away from appear before us. I left with his reassurance he knew where he was now and a light admonishment from me to pay attention and stay on the trail from now on. Returning his cheery parting wave, I waited until he’d turned away for good before disappearing.
That was the last forest I had to wrap up loose ends for. The Scout Elves had dealt with a fair amount of the fallout, but the Forest Guardians had my assurance that I, personally, would handle this string of mishaps myself. That seemed to quell any thoughts of cutting ties with the North Pole. For now. There was only one thing left I needed to do. But I had to find him first.
Jack was in the last place I’d expect to find Santa and precisely where I expected to find him. Or, at least, a place I expected to find him. He’d squirreled himself away under one of the curving staircases leading up to the workshop, using snowbanks to cover any gaps the elves could see in from, while a pile of snow in the middle of his little den served as an armchair. He’d curled up around a steaming mug of what I assumed to be hot chocolate, as once he noticed I was there, he started so violently the liquid splattered into small brown pockets in the surrounding snow. I suspect he did not recognize me at first glance.
Jack busied himself by swiping at the hot chocolate that had spilled down his front. “Mother Nature. A little warning would be nice,” he grumbled, not bothering to look up.
I had no patience left for his usual nonsense. “We need to talk.”
“Let me guess… there’s been an unprecedented demand for my Frostmas displays.”
“Oh, right,” he said, smacking his forehead with exaggerated realization, “I haven’t done that this time. That was in the old timeline.”
“Jack, we don’t have time for this.”
“Come to think of it, I haven’t done anything I wasn’t supposed to since becoming Santa,” he said, looking up and cupping his face in his hand in a fake show of surprise. “It’s almost as if you just don’t like me.”
“It’s what you haven’t done that’s the problem, Jack.”
That finally shut him up. He froze in place, his playacting adopting a twinge of annoyance.
“If I didn’t know any better, I’d say I couldn’t win,” he said through a gritted smile, “Fine. Out with it.”
“It’s about the Forest Guardian agreement.”
“Agreement? What agreement? I don’t have any agreement with the Forest Guardians.”
“No, but the North Pole does.”
He snorted, “What on earth for?”
I sighed. “The forests provide wood for toys and the North Pole provides added protections to specific forests. I received a complaint recently from the Ash Forest Guardian,” Jack visibly rolled his eyes at this, “that proper procedures had not been followed during the most recent wood shipment. Namely, in the lack of paperwork.”
“What a shock. Aske has an issue with people not sticking to rules. Look, why is any of this my problem? One of the elves probably forgot to send it or something.”
“It would require your signature. You are now, among other things, the figurehead of the North Pole. Everything that happens involving it is now your responsibility. You wanted to be Santa? This is part of being Santa.”
Jack cleared his throat, “Yes, well…”
“The missing paperwork isn’t an issue in and of itself,” I said, not wanting to wait through half thought-out excuses to get to my point. “The Guardians know they’re dealing with a revolving door of humans in this position. I wasn’t called in until magical glitches started affecting all the forests the North Pole is currently responsible for protecting.”
“Hold up. Why did they call you and not me? Not that I’m complaining, but as you said this is my problem. Doesn’t this count as interfering with another Legendary Figure?”
“This was already my business. I’ve acted as the mediator between the Guardians and the North Pole since the initial agreements were drawn up. Now,” I said, taking a step towards him, “either you cooperate with me,” another step, “or I tell the Forest Guardians I’ve decided to stop mediating,” I was now standing directly next to him, towering over his still seated figure, “and that I’ll inform them with precisely where you are at all times so they can take up their complaints directly with you.”
His eyes had gradually narrowed over the course of my spiel, sliding from wide with concern to a hardened glower. “You know what? Fine,” he said, throwing his hands up, “what do you want?”
“Tell me why you didn’t sign the paperwork.”
“Didn’t know I had to.”
“Your staff didn’t tell you?”
“Oh, maybe they did. I don’t know. I try not to listen. So much nagging.” He gestured around him, “why do you think I’m here and not in my office?”
That explained a lot. Made sense, given his tendencies. “Why did the Forest Perimeter Guards experience magic failures?”
“Don’t know. Didn’t know it happened until you told me,” he said, starting to take a drink before the empty mug reminded him he’d thrown its contents out already. He let out a pained sigh.
“I see,” I said, already putting the final pieces of a plan together. It might overstep my bounds a bit, but if it worked…
“If that’s everything,” he said, standing and wiggling his mug in my face, “I’m in dire need of a refill.”
He tried to step past me, but I hooked his collar, yanking him back down into his makeshift chair. He made a small affronted noise at the back of his throat. “Hey!”
“We’re not done here yet.”
He rubbed the sore spot where his collar had cut into his windpipe in response.
I materialized Curtis from whatever errand he’d been running to next. Understandably, he was a bit discombobulated and nearly ran headfirst into the wall. He stopped himself in time, fortunately, and scanned said wall in confusion.
“What in the—?”
“I apologize for popping you in like this,” I said, to which he spun around to face us, “but expediency was needed. Are you alright?”
It took him a moment to process what had happened, but the moment everything clicked together he regained his composure with impressive speed.
“I’m fine, ma’am. Just a bit startled.” He glanced over at his sulking boss, “I see you’ve managed to find where he’s been hiding.”
“He’s actually part of why I summoned you. I have a request.”
Curtis nodded, “What do you need?” I could see Jack mocking him soundlessly out of the corner of my eye.
“Could I have Jack shadow you for a few months?”
“What‽” Jack screeched.
“For the whole year if necessary,” I continued. “I’d leave it up to your discretion when he’d be ready to start on his own.”
“So have him follow me while I do my job?”
“Is he supposed to help out?”
“If you deem it necessary. I’ll leave the details to you.”
“Um, excuse me! I didn’t agree to any of this!” Jack cut in. “And I refuse to! You never said anything about doing anything!”
Having had quite enough of Jack for several mortal lifetimes, I turned to glare at him. He shriveled up when the often forgotten part of myself slipped through. The part responsible for diseases, predators, parasites, and natural disasters. I didn’t intend for that to happen, but it seemed to do the trick. He got the point. His cheeks burnt an angry blue as he pretzeled himself like a toddler seconds away from a tantrum they know they won’t win. “Fine,” he grumbled after he’d stewed long enough to protect his pride.
“You’ll do it?”
“Yes, fine, whatever.”
“Perfect!” I said, pulling myself together and stowing my dangers away once again. Turning back to Curtis, I saw he’d backed up against the wall, twisting away as if to protect himself. “I’m sorry about that,” I said, trying to placate the situation, “It’s been a stressful day.”
Curtis relaxed once it was clear I was back to my more social self. “I-it’s fine. Understandable.”
“So would you be willing to let him shadow you?” I asked, gesturing down at the fuming ice ball.
“Certainly, ma’am. It’d be a big help, actually.”
“That’s good to hear,” I said, returning my attention back to Jack, “you start tomorrow. Curtis will decide the time. That was all I needed, gentlemen. I thank you both.”
And with that, I sent Curtis back to whatever path he’d been running on and Jack to his office. I let my posture slump as I let out a long breath. That was quite enough fiddling with the universe for one day. I just hoped it would be enough in the long run.
A/N: I’m not dead! Sorry for the break, took a few months to outline the upcoming chapters by figuring out the point of all of them. Took a while. I make no promises, but I’ll try to have a faster upload schedule from here on out. Thank you so much for reading!