TSOCID – Chapter Thirteen

Hazel tries to comfort Bernard and Curtis is late.

Chapter Thirteen: Elfmas Past

Hazel hadn’t quite assembled her whole ensemble when she walked out of her living room into the tavern. Her gloves were still tucked under her arm and her scarf hung lopsidedly from her neck as she fiddled with the buttons of her coat. She’d left her cane resting against her armchair, but that was only because she planned to spirit it to her with magic once she reached the front entrance.

The tavern, as it usually was in the middle of the day, was quiet, save for the pockets of sound that could only dominate with no competition, such as sighs or the sway of cheap paper. Bernard sat alone at one of the tables intended for groups of four. Cut-out sections of newspaper and cluttered maps of specific areas of the Pole encompassed the entire tabletop. He sat with his head propped up at the temples by his fists, his face angled down towards the nearest newspaper. Even at this obscured vantage point, Hazel could see that his eyebrows had crunched themselves together in concentration and his mouth was a few degrees away from a full-on pout.

“Is everything alright, dear?” she asked, letting her coat hang half open and sliding her gloves into her pocket.

Bernard’s head jolted up. “Oh, hello Hazel,” he said, blinking his eyes into focus. “I’m fine. Just seeing if there’s any work available. Anywhere.” He paused, glancing skeptically at Hazel’s attire. “Where are you headed off to?”

“Need to pick up some coins from the Mint. The stash I use for the waitstaff is running a little low,” she said, claiming one of the table’s vacant chairs. “Are you doing alright?”

He stared in her direction, but his gaze drifted well outside of the present moment. “Enough,” he answered, turning back to his papers. “Certainly have a lot more spare time on my hands.”

As he made himself appear busy, she caught that his eyes still stared through the papers he pretended to read. Ah. She’d seen and experienced more than enough loss to recognize a deflection tactic when she saw one. “Well, I’m right here if you ever need anything, dear,” she said, reaching across the table and patting his propped-up arm consolingly. His eyes refocused at the touch.

“Do you have any openings available?” he asked.

“Do you not like your current room, dear?”

He shook his head, “No, I mean a job opening. Do you need anyone to…I don’t know, tidy up after guests or something?”

“Oh! Oh, no, dear, sorry. This place has spells in place older than you for that kind of thing. It’s practically self-sustaining at this point.”

“Oh,” he said, deflating as his eyes unfocused on his papers once again.

Hazel frowned slightly. “Is that all, dear?”

“Yes, thank you.”

“…Are you sure there’s nothing else you want to talk about?”

“Yes, I’m fine, thank you,” he said, slumping back into the chair, pulling up a newspaper to hide his face.

“If you say so, dear. Just remember that I’m here to talk if you ever need to.”

His grip on the newspaper unfurled a little. “I know. Thanks, Hazel.”

“Anytime, dear,” she said. It wasn’t quite where she felt a conversation like this should be left, but this was about as open as she remembered him being and she decided that was enough emotional prodding for one day. Leaving her chair pulled out as she stood from the table, she continued buttoning up her coat as she shuffled to the entrance. 

While the North Pole Kitchens were open 24/7, both for serving the denizens of Aelfsburg and fulfilling Christmas quotas, Judy’s Super-Secret Early Morning Patisserie & Hot Chocolate “Shop” had a very small window of time very early in the morning when she’d serve customers. The tiny, ignored room of the Main Workshop’s East Corridor served as a haven for the scant few elves who had to lumber in early, either to start on baked goods or to stock and prep the floor before production began. As the Head Kitchen Elf, Judy didn’t normally have much of a chance to actually prep food or play shopkeep anymore, so she started this almost as a hobby. She was on a first-name basis with everyone there, even having a few of the “usual” orders memorized from the most frequent patrons. For example, Curtis, who always came in thirty minutes to seven, on the dot, every morning and always ordered a mug of hot chocolate and whatever stuffed or filled pastry she was serving that day. So, when he stumbled in ten minutes to seven the morning after Elfmas, she took notice.

“Hey, Curtis!” she greeted, still halfway through filling a previous order. “The usual?”

“Actually,” he said, slightly out of breath, “I was wondering if you could double it for me this time?”

Judy smirked, “Hungry this morning, aren’t we? Twice as big servings or two of each item?” she asked, raising her voice to speak over the hot chocolate dispenser’s whine.

“Two of each item, please. I want to bring some to Abby.”

Judy handed off the freshly completed order to the blurry-eyed elf waiting off to the side. “Oh, she’s coming in early, now?”

“Yeah, she’s usually there when I show up with breakfast.”

“And I take it you’ve taken this opportunity to tell her about our little bakery?”

“Uh…not yet. She’s usually really busy getting paperwork ready and stuff.” Curtis said, glancing at the pastries to avoid eye contact.

“And now you hope to distract her with food, so she’ll talk to you?” Judy said, tongs hovering over the freshly baked apple-filled danishes.

“More like now I won’t be the only one in the room eating,” he mumbled, pulling out his pocket watch, “Crackers, I’m late!”

“Why worry about it?” she asked, curling the hot cocoas with stacks of whipped cream as tall as the mugs themselves. “It’s not as if Jack’s gonna notice given how late he shows up. Or care, even if he did know.” She slid the doggie bag of pastries and the two brimming mugs of hot chocolate across the counter.

“That’s not important,” he huffed, cradling the bag in the crook of his arm and tentatively taking a mug per hand. “It’s the principle of the thing.”

“Just don’t burn yourself out, Number Two,” she said, sticking her tongue out at him.

“Bye, Judy,” he said, powerwalking as carefully as he could manage towards Santa’s office. Normally he’d sip down his hot cocoa to avoid spilling it, but he’d neglected to plan for that when picking the arm to cradle the pastries in and he doubted pre-sipped cocoa would be received well. At least he didn’t have to worry about running into anyone. The hallways were depressingly empty for two minutes to seven. He blamed lax sleep habits over Elfmas and even laxer tardiness regimens this early into the year. He doubted that everyone had some pet-related emergency to contend with like he had. 

Honestly, why do we even have a handbook if no one is going to bother to use it?

He arrived just under two minutes late. Still far later than he thought comfortable. But he guessed Judy did have a point. At least it was still before—,

“Curtis! There you are!” Jack boomed, as loud as the door he’d slammed open. Dribbles of cocoa slid their way down the sides of the mugs and the doggie bag fell to the floor with a papery plaft. “You’re late!” Jack continued, stepping back to allow Curtis to enter. “We’ve been waiting for you!”

Normally, upon being startled so violently or caught slipping up his pristine routine, he’d have mumbled out an apology to his superior, or at least a small “shoot” at the fumbled foodstuffs. But the current factors had shot the moon in terms of “normal”: Jack of all people was calling him out for being late. He’d even, apparently, shown up early enough to wait for him. Curtis made a few noncommittal attempts at words as he gawped like a fish.

Jack, who apparently didn’t expect a response, swooshed away the moment Curtis gathered his things and stepped inside. He headed straight for his desk, to which Abby, who had been using the desk to sort through that day’s paperwork, had to scuttle out of the way. When he sat down and actually started to read the sorted papers, both elves flicked tentative eye contact towards each other, making sure the other was seeing this too.

“Well, it seems as if we have quite the busy schedule today,” he crowed, flipping through some of the pages. Something about his demeanor was…off. It was still as theatrical as ever, but something about the energy wasn’t quite right. Whatever it was, Curtis found it to be far less grating on his patience. He wasn’t sure he liked it. As he digested the changed tone, he scooted his way over to Abby, holding out the second mug for her.

“So!” he said, punctuating it with a clap, “we ready to get started?” When he looked up, his performative smile slipped a little at the edges as his gaze flitted between them and the proffered mug.

“Ah,” he said, standing up, “I see I’ve interrupted breakfast. My apologies. I’ll just…um…” he bent back down to scrutinize the topmost paper again, “…meet you at the Naughty and Nice Center. Just don’t take too long!” he added, zooming for the door and trailing a little handwave behind him.

The remaining two stayed frozen in place, their mental facilities monopolizing their resources to process their whirlwind of a morning. Curtis didn’t snap himself out of it until he felt the tug of Abby removing the proffered mug from his grasp.

“What the fudge was that?” she said, holding the sticky mug with the tips of her fingers and taking a cautious sip.

“Dunno,” Curtis mumbled. The image of Jack at his apartment’s door Elfmas Eve floated across his mind. “But we should probably keep an eye on him. Just in case.”

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