In the grey mist of slo-time the team of reindeer jingled and jostled, their great splayed hooves thumping on the banks of nothing-in-particular as they charged through the air, splashing it about as though they were running across a frozen lake.
Santa was feeling pretty good.
His workload was getting bigger and bigger every year. Not only was the population increasing, but standards were changing. Time was, you wouldn’t have worried too much about ending up on the Naughty List for some things – you would have burned screaming for the long march of eternity in a lake of molten faeces for them. Now, they were a misdemeanour at worst, a cool and quirky hobby at best. Actually at best, HBO made TV shows about some of them. Yes, standards were certainly changing, and it meant that fewer and fewer people were even qualifying as naughty in the first place. Plus, of course, it wasn’t just Christians getting in on the act anymore, or the last holdouts of the old Roman winter solstice. People were dropping the politics and the agendas for a little while and just enjoying being nice to each other and giving gifts, and the lines in the sand were getting more and more blurred, and that was just fine. Heck, these days even atheists got a free pass for what Boze, the foreman of the toy workshop, called “massive hypocwitty-titties”.
 Short for Bozeman-Feldton-Putnum-Ramsay-Ranfurley. Elf names were silly.
Santa didn’t mind having the extra work. It wasn’t as if two billion customers took up many more yoctoseconds than one-point-five, not in slo-time. And he had to admit, in this modern age of clean energy and fuel shortages, it was nice not to have to carry quite so much coal.
In fact, he was feeling so good about this year’s rounds that he decided to take his customary meridian break. It was time to cut through the mince pies, cookies, sherries and other offerings with a nice plate of curly-fries and a pint of bitter. He edged the team sideways a little until Rudolph’s steady blue light picked out the Diner’s cheerful sign. A few subjective moments later the reindeer were clopping into the dooryard and Santa was straightening the kink in his back with a grateful sigh.
 It was only red when you looked at it from the front.
His satisfaction only lasted a few seconds, until he realised another team was hitched up at the posts. He recognised them immediately, just from the horses – but he didn’t need to, since the crew were gathered around them, arms folded, looking like a sheriff’s posse out looking for someone to string up.
“There you are, Kringle,” War dropped his sodden cigar into the mist and crushed it beneath his sandalled foot. “Been waiting for you for however-the-fuck long.”
“Lads,” Santa said cautiously.
“Death’s navigator crapped out on him,” Famine said, jerking a knobby thumb back at the dark-robed rider whose horse – yes – seemed a little paler than usual. No way you’d find your way through the mists with that.
“I see,” Santa opted for a neutral tone.
“So we have good news and bad news,” Conquest unfolded his arms and looked at his watch. Unlike the rest of his team, he’d updated his image a bit over the centuries. He’d stopped in 1980s Wall Street, which was a bit disconcerting, but Santa had to admit that it served its purpose. And you didn’t want to call him Pestilence. “What do you want first?”
“Which do you want first,” Death growled from the depths of his hood. He got pedantic when he was annoyed.
“Alright, alright,” Conquest rolled his eyes conspiratorially at Santa. “Which do you want first, then?”
“I don’t suppose you could see your way to just giving me the good news twice?” Santa tried to be jolly – usually pretty damn easy, actually – as he climbed out of the sleigh and began unhitching the reindeer, avoiding the eyes that were fixed on him. Dancer and Dasher were a little bit static-y, so he bustled back for the grounding blanket he usually kept in a roll on his seat for his lower back.
Conquest smiled. “Sure,” he said. “The good news is, you’re not going to need to finish your round tonight,” he stepped forward. “Need me to repeat that?”