It was a suspiciously peaceful winter evening for Jon at the Institute. Often, Jon would have to work while tolerating the chatter and scuffling outside of his too-thin office door, but for the past hour it had been dead silent, save for some music playing in the distance. This was perfect, as it allowed Jon to enter a psychological state of complete and utter focus. He typed at his computer, exhilarated by his own efficiency. It was as though there existed nothing in the universe other than himself, his work, and his own tranquility. That is, until the door creaked open, and Sasha poked her head through.
“Knock-knock!” Sasha exclaimed. At this, Jon jumped.
“Gah! Sasha. You startled me,” said Jon. “Come in.”
“I wanted to see if you planned on joining us,” she said, stepping into the room.
“The Christmas party,” she clarified.
“Oh! Yes, of course. I mean, no I don’t plan on joining you,” Jon said.
“No, really? You’re not serious.”
“I’m sorry, but I’m far too busy. You go have fun without me.”
“Alright then, be that way,” Sasha conceded. “I can bring down your present for you, then, if you’d like.”
“My… I’m sorry - my what?”
“Your present? For Secret Santa.”
Jon stared at her blankly.
“You did get a present, didn’t you?”
“I - well I drew a name but I - I already said I wasn’t taking part,” Jon stammered.
“Oh no! You can’t just back out of Secret Santa - this means someone’s gonna be without a present!”
“I didn’t think it would be a problem.”
“Well, who were you meant to get one for?”
“Let me see,” Jon started, riffling through his desk drawer. He pulled out a folded piece of paper. “I was assigned... Martin.”
“Oh, poor Martin,” Sasha said. “Okay, I’m sure we can figure something out last minute.”
“I honestly think it’s fine if I don’t give him anything.”
“Do you think it’s fine to leave him feeling like not a soul in the world cares about him?”
“I’m... ambivalent towards the idea.”
Sasha gave Jon a stern look. He sighed.
“Fine, okay,” Jon said, looking around. “Maybe there’s something in here that I can wrap up... Do you think he liked pens?”
Just as Sasha opened her mouth to respond, Tim appeared in the doorway, wearing a santa hat and holding a bright red cocktail in each hand.
“Hellooo, what’s going on in here?” Tim asked.
“Jon forgot to get Martin a present,” Sasha said.
“Jon! How could you!”
“I didn’t forget, I just... opted out.”
“Ah, so you intentionally ruined his Christmas.”
“I didn’t think it would be a big deal!” Jon said. “Anyway, there’s an M&S down the road, I can just go there and, I don’t know… buy him some chocolate.”
“That could work,” Sasha said.
“Yeah, if you’re trying to seduce him,” Tim chuckled. Sasha suppressed a smile.
“Well, what do you suggest I do then?” Jon asked.
“It’s tricky, there aren’t many shops nearby,” Sasha added.
“You could knick something from storage,” Tim said.
“Tim, that’s outrageous! I’m not going to steal! The fact that you would even -”
“Hey, cool it! I’m just kidding… sort of,” Tim said.
Tim stepped over to the side of the door where Jon’s coat hung. A black wool scarf was draped over it. He leaned forward to inspect it.
“Say, nice scarf you got here, boss,” Tim said, raising his eyebrows.
“Thank you,” Jon said, in slight suspicion.
“That is a nice scarf!” Sasha added, catching on. “But I’m sorry to say, Jon, I’m not sure it suits you.”
“You know, I was just thinking the same thing!” Tim said. “Say, Sasha, you know who a scarf like this would look really good on?”
“Yes, yes, alright, I get it,” Jon interrupted. “I suppose I wouldn’t mind parting with it, but Martin’s already seen me wearing it. You don’t think he’d notice?”
“He’s not that attentive,” Tim said.
“Yeah, and besides, it could easily be a different scarf that just looks the same,” Sasha added.
“Okay then, fine,” Jon said, walking over and snatching the scarf from the hook. “I’ll go home with a cold neck, for Martin’s sake.”
“That’s the spirit!” Tim exclaimed.
“You’ll need to wrap it,” Sasha said.
“Right,” said Jon.
The next few minutes were then spent acquiring wrapping paper and wrapping the present with as much care as was given selecting it. That is to say, Sasha procured a length of wrinkly brown paper from artifact storage, where it had previously provided cushioning to a box full of old cameras, and Jon used it to wrap the scarf before securing the parcel with scotch tape. He added a yellow post-it note that read, “To Martin, Happy Christmas - Jon.”
“Well then,” Jon said with a tone of finality, holding out the present. They stared at it in silence.
“Looks a bit shit,” Tim said. “But hey, it’s the lack of thought that counts!”
“Right, well, at least now Martin won’t go home empty handed,” Jon said. “Sasha, could you bring this to him?”
“Don’t tell me you’re still not coming,” Sasha said.
“C’mon, it’s Christmas!” Tim added.
“It’s December 23rd, and I have work to do.”
“Rosie made cocktails,” Tim crooned.
“Yes I see that - you know what? Fine. I’ve lost momentum anyway. Give me a moment to finish up and I’ll... I’ll be right there.”
“Yes!” Sasha cheered. She held up her hand to high-five Tim, who, having both his hands occupied, headbutted it.
“I knew the cocktails would do it,” Tim muttered.
Jon had half the mind to continue on indefinitely with his work after Tim and Sasha had left, but he decided it was only right to stick to his word. He made note of his next course of action to take regarding the statement he was investigating, then followed the sound of Christmas music and laughter to the break room. The room was surprisingly lively - gold and red tinsel hung across the ceiling, tables were lined with baked goods and those red cocktails, and in the far corner stood an impressive Christmas tree. Jon wondered how they managed to get it into the building. Not wasting any time, Jon scuttled towards the tree to deposit his present, hoping to not be noticed.
Jon was, in fact, noticed.
“I’m so glad you could join us,” came Elias’ voice. “Happy Christmas.”
“Mr. Bouchard. Happy Christmas,” Jon said, standing upright.
“Oh, you really should call me Elias.”
“How is your role as Archivist coming along? Do you find it suits you?”
“I suppose so,” Jon said. From across the room, he made eye contact with Sasha, who could sense his discomfort.
“The archives are less… organised than I’d prefer, but I’m managing alright,” Jon continued.
“Ah, good,” Elias replied. “After all, I’m sure you’re capable of all that this job will require.”
“Yes, I think so…”
“Jon!” Sasha chimed in. “You made it.”
“I did,” John replied.
“Elias, merry Christmas,” she added.
“Sasha, ah, you’re just the person I wanted to see,” Elias said.
“Yes, actually. Now is as good a time as any to reveal that I am your secret santa,” Elias said, putting an emphasis on those last words as though they were a foreign language.
He held out his palm to reveal a small box, wrapped with a bow.
“Oh, thank you! I don’t think we’re doing presents yet though,” Sasha said.
“Open it,” Elias insisted, trying and failing to be warm.
“O- okay.” Sasha complied, undoing the ribbon and lifting the top of the box to reveal a set of olive-green earrings.
“Oh, these are beautiful!” she exclaimed.
“I purchased them from an artist in Shoreditch. They’re one of a kind! Or rather, two of a kind,” Elias chuckled.
“I love them. Thank you,” Sasha said.
“Well, I’d best be off. Enjoy the rest of the party, you two,” Elias said, and immediately absconded.
Sasha and Jon raised their eyebrows at each other.
“That was uncharacteristically kind of Elias,” Jon muttered.
“I know!” Sasha said. “I hope these weren’t too expensive.”
“I have to go put my present by the tree,” Jon said. “But thank you for intervening.”
“Of course,” Sasha laughed. “Any time.”
Jon continued his journey. He had barely made it two steps passed the refreshment table when he was accosted by Tim.
“Jon!! Jonny-boy,” Tim slurred, wrapping an arm around Jon’s shoulder.
“Tim,” Jon acknowledged, trying and failing to worm his way out from under Tim’s arm.
“Have you had anything to drink? Any snacks?”
“No, I’ve literally just arrived.”
“You HAVE to try Rosie’s cocktails. Loosen you up a bit, here.” Tim put a cocktail glass up to Jon’s lips and tilted it as if to pour the drink into his mouth. Jon recoiled, tucking in his chin.
“Tim! No don’t -” Jon sputtered as he frantically snatched the glass out of Tim’s hands. “Jesus…”
Jon took a reluctant sip from the cocktail.
“Oh, that is good. Is that peppermint?”
“You know what it is? It’s the taste of the stick leaving your ass.”
“It’s - excuse me?”
‘You know, Jon,” Tim said, jabbing his finger into Jon’s chest. “I like you.”
“I would hope so.”
“No, for real. As much as you’re a stick in the mud -”
“Oh, is that where the stick went.”
“- I reckon that, deep down, you’re a cool guy. And that you care about people, about us. I think, y’know, working together, you and I could even become friends.”
“Are we not already friends?” Jon asked. At this, Tim grinned.
“You’re damn right we are!” Tim exclaimed, shaking Jon vigorously. “Tim and Jon forever, against the world!”
At this, Jon downed the rest of his drink, and grabbed another. Tim looked at him with dumbfounded admiration.
“Look at you!” Tim said.
“The migraine’s worth the risk,” Jon grumbled.
“You know,” Tim said, lowering his voice. “You’re not too bad to look at, actually. Good skin and all.”
“That’s nice, Tim,” Jon said, once again dying for an escape.
“I could see this happening. Your office, artifact storage. Lot’s of private places in the Institute.”
Jon felt his blood turn to ice.
“Tim, I have to - I’m sorry - present… tree…” Jon stammered.
‘Alright, alright,” Tim said, releasing Jon from his grip. “Offer’s open though.” Tim winked. Jon chugged the remainder of his drink.
“Until next time,” Jon squeaked. Avoiding eye contact, he hurried away.
For a brief and shining moment, Jon thought he was in the clear. He could see the tree in front of him, and his path was direct. Barring the slight obstacle that he was now slightly tipsy, he believed he could make it. He believed wrong. Adjacent to the tree stood Martin, wearing a gaudy Christmas jumper. Jon saw Martin. Martin saw Jon. Fuck.
“Martin!” Jon said, feigning enthusiasm.
“Hi,” Martin said. “Merry Christmas… ish”
“Right, a few days to go,” Jon laughed nervously.
“What were you and Tim talking about?” Martin asked.
“Oh, that? Nothing really. Just Tim finding a way to insult me and flirt with me in the same breath.”
“Oh,” Martin said softly. Jon cleared his throat.
“I like your jumper,” Jon said, changing the subject. “Very... festive.”
“Thank you,” Martin replied with profound sincerity. “My mum got it for me, a few years back. Still fits, luckily.”
“Speaking of gifts, do you know when we’re meant to do the whole... secret santa thing?”
“I don’t know. Soon, I think. Are you in a rush?”
“I would prefer to be done with this party,” Jon said spitefully. “Not much point in it, the way I see it.”
“Scrooge,” Tim butted in.
“What is it now?” Jon spat.
“I’m just picking up my present,” Tim said. “Hey everyone! Present time!” At this, the others began to congregate around the tree.
“I guess that answers your question,” Martin said.
“Oh, from Rosie!” Tim said, inspecting the card on his present. “After all you’ve done for me already!”
“Do you see any made out to me?” Martin asked.
“Actually,” Jon said, extending his present to Martin. “Here. For you.”
Martin’s face lit up.
“Wow, thank you,” he said breathlessly, accepting the parcel from Jon. His eyes darted across the note, and having read it, he smiled. He pulled the wrapping apart by the tape, as though it were genuine wrapping paper worth being preserved, and lifted out the scarf.
“Oh, you have one just like this!” Martin said. Jon winced.
“Ah, well, you know. Black scarf. Classic.”
Martin looked the scarf over, passing it between his hands.
“It’s perfect,” Martin said.
With that, he wrapped his arms around Jon. Jon went stiff, for a second, but then relaxed into the hug.
“Thank you,” Martin said again, and his breath tickled the hairs on Jon’s neck.
“It’s nothing, really,” Jon replied. Martin pulled away.
“Well, I appreciate it.”
“Here, let me -” Jon said abruptly, taking the scarf from his hands. He placed it around Martin’s neck, then wrapped one end around, and tugged at it to adjust it. All the while, Martin tried not to beam. Jon patted his hands on Martin’s shoulders.
“There you are.”
“Thank you,” Martin said.
“You really don’t need to keep thanking me.”
“No, that’s,” Jon sighed. “You’re alright.”
Martin looked at Jon fondly. Jon cleared his throat.
“I probably have a present under here too! That hadn’t even crossed my mind.”
“Of course, yeah! Let’s see what you got!”
There were very few presents left under the tree at this point. Without even searching, Jon’s gaze fell upon a box, labelled, “Archivist.” He picked it up.
“Huh,” Jon said.
“Who’s it from?” Martin asked.
“Doesn’t say,” Jon said, turning it over between his hands. He shrugged, and opened the box. Inside sat a small doll. It’s body was fabric, adorned with a red outfit and a matching Santa hat sewn to it’s brunette head. The face was plastic, and was plastered with a cheeky smile, as though it knew something Jon didn’t.
“Oh, it’s an elf on the shelf,” Martin said. “I think they’re an American thing.
“They’re meant to, um, spy on children. Then they report back to Santa, and tell him if they’ve been naughty or nice.”
Jon pulled the doll out of the box by its foot and dangled it in front of his face.
“I wonder if whoever gave me this thinks I’ve been naughty,” Jon said grimly.
“I’m sure it’s nothing,” Martin said. “Besides, it’s just a story they tell kids to make them behave.”
“Of course,” Jon replied, dropping the elf back in the box. “Just a toy. Childish, really.”
“Are you alright?” Martin asked.
“Yes. I’m fine.” Jon said dryly. He placed the box on an adjacent table.
“Right,” Martin said, unconvinced.
“You know,” Jon continued with a sudden determination. “I’ve given it some thought and… I think I’m going to try to enjoy myself this evening.”
“Yes,” Jon said, as if surprising himself. “After all, it is Christmas.”
Martin let out an incredulous laugh. It quickly turned out that Jon had a rather restrained definition of enjoying himself; this endeavour began with him indulging in contents of the snack table, and giving holiday wishes to colleagues he barely knew. If it were not for the few drinks he had in him, Jon would have been mortified by this wanton display. And yet, Jon was somehow goaded into consuming more alcohol, and to the surprise of his colleagues, began displaying a genuine and unrestrained expression of fun.
The night blurred from moment to moment. Music played, and Jon danced with Sasha, taking her by the hand and spinning her around, before spinning around himself. He found himself with Tim’s arm around his shoulder, this time reciprocating, as they sang Christmas carols together in bellowing, off-key voices. He later sat with Martin by the light of the Christmas tree and ranted furiously about viscosity modification. Martin enjoyed it thoroughly.
As the night came to a close, as coats were adorned, and as people began to leave, Jon found himself surrounded by Martin, Tim, and Sasha. He also, beyond his own control, simultaneously found himself with words leaving his mouth.
“Invaluable. Truly invaluable,” Jon continued. “And I want you to feel like you’re contributing something important here, because you are. Even you, Martin. The work we do here - we’re moving towards something important, together. And I think if we really stick to it we can help people. At the very least, these accounts provide incredible insight into the nature of hallucinations and delusions, and at the very most....”
Jon trailed off, plagued by sudden self awareness.
“... I should expect you to get your work done, regardless,” he concluded.
“Well, that was fun while it lasted,” Tim scoffed.
“Are you guys getting the tube?” Sasha asked.
“I am,” Tim said.
“Yeah, District and Circle,” Martin added.
“Jon?” Sasha asked.
“Right, well, the rest of us can walk together,” Tim said.
Martin turned to Jon.
“Are you going to be alright getting home on your own?” Martin asked.
“Yes, actually, as it turns out I am perfectly capable of taking care of myself,” he retorted.
“Right, of course,” Martin said quietly.
“In that case, merry Christmas,” Sasha said with a wave.
“Yes, right, happy Christmas to you all,” John said. They turned to leave.
“And hey,” Tim added, clamping a hand on Jon’s shoulder. “Word of advice: try to drink a lot of water tonight. Helps with the hangover.”
“Yes, thank you Tim,” Jon said coldly.
With that, Tim followed Sasha out. Martin lingered behind for a moment, opening his mouth as if to speak, then decided against it. He nodded at Jon, then left.
Alone once again, Jon wandered towards the table where he had left his present, that odd elf doll. Upon arriving, however, he discovered that the box in which it had been wrapped remained, but the doll itself was nowhere to be found. He huffed. Someone must have taken it. Jon didn’t mourn this loss - it had been a creepy thing, and Jon had no plans to put it up in his home, regardless. And yet, somehow, Jon found himself perturbed by the site of that empty box. He shrugged it off, however, and after that, Jon never thought of the elf on the shelf again.
It was a few weeks after the Christmas party.
Elias sat in his office, writing something on a notepad. Slowly, the door creaked open - just by a crack. Elias looked up, but saw that the doorway was empty.
“Hello?” he said calmly. There came a pitter-patter, like fingernails tapping, that travelled from the doorway and around Elias’ desk. He looked down.
Standing beside his chair stood the elf on the shelf.
“You’re late,” Elias sighed. “Anything to report?”
The elf said nothing.
“Oh, of course,” Elias said. “Silly me.”
Elias lowered his hand to the floor, and the elf stepped onto it. Elias lifted the elf and placed him on his shoulder. The elf put his face up to Elias’ ear.
Elias paused to listen.
“Oh really?” Elias replied. “That’s a surprise. I would have expected him to keep it tidy.”
The elf spoke again, in a voice only Elias could hear.
“No, all alone? How sad,” Elias said with a smile. “That’s no way to spend the holidays.”
“That’s alright. You’ve done enough,” Elias concluded. “I think that, now, you and I should have some fun together.”
The elf briefly put his face to Elias’ ear again.
“No, I can keep tabs on Peter myself. I had someone else in mind, actually,” Elias explained. “There’s a young person, somewhat far away, who I think needs some cheering up. Yes, they’re dealing with a loss, or what they perceive to be a loss, and I believe their method of grieving is… unhealthy. Imagining another world where that loss has not yet happened. It’s severing their connection to reality, or at the very least damaging their eyesight, what with all that blue light.”
Elias scribbled something down on his notepad, and tore off the page.
“Here, go to this address,” Elias said, handing the paper to the elf. “And… do what you will with them.”
The elf took the paper, and Elias helped him to the ground. The elf headed towards the exit. Elias rested his elbows on the desk, and pressed his fingertips together.
“Oh, and one more thing!”
The elf turned to listen.
“Tell them Happy Christmas,” Elias said with a smile. “From all of us here at The Magnus Institute.”