Her desk was buried in presents. There were only nine of them, but some of them were large. It was December 25th.
Miss Pauling wasn’t a stranger to extravagant gifts. Growing up, her family’s Christmas had always been a large, public affair, with extended aunts and uncles and cousins, and both sets of grandparents, crowded into her parents’ home. She only liked one set of grandparents. Papa Helton was her very favourite.
Her parents had always seemed to treat the occasion as a time to show off just how excessively they pampered their daughter. Porcelain dolls, a new bicycle, dresses of lace and silk and taffeta. Never mind that she’d asked for a chemistry set. Never mind that she wore an itchy, woolen school uniform for nine months of the year in a Catholic boarding school in upstate New York. Gifts that were always slightly babyish, for a little girl, long after she’d started to become a young woman.
She was alone in the office, and there was no need for decorum, no politely watching crowd of relatives to delicately unbox things for, exclaiming with exhausting, feigned delight each time. This was the first Christmas in years for which she had been genuinely, incredibly excited. And completely, totally surprised.
Miss Pauling was nothing if not meticulous, though, even in the throes of Christmas morning.
Well, this first one was just a crate of beetles. Like, a big crate. Tightly sealed, a screen stapled over the top when she’d found her crowbar and pried the lid off. There was a chunk of raw meat, rotting, still clinging to a chunk of bone. A lot of beetles. Okay. But there was a note, and it was a joint gift from Sniper and Demo. And she read it. And these were flesh eating beetles. And her face lit up. She couldn’t remember if she’d evergotten a practical gift before.
She got her second one, in short order, from Soldier. A field shovel. Neat, handsome. Collapsible. All words she liked the sound of. And a lovely shade of drab olive green, with a leather sheath buckled over the blade, with the words “MISS PAULING” wood burned into the handle. Crudely, but lovingly. It was heavy and comforting, She had never hugged a shovel before.
Scout, just a box of candy. A big box. A big box of candy, from the very particular candy store in upstate New York, where the nuns had forbidden their students to go, but where she went anyway and spent all her money. Her favourite things, treasure after treasure, things she hadn’t seen or thought of or tasted in years. How had he remembered that, the name of an artisan candy store on the other side of the country? How had they even got to talking about it, she didn’t remember. Candy was sinful. God, was it ever. She should share, but it would be difficult.
Pyro, kerosene and matches. Her favourite brand of kerosene, and she’d always loved matches. The first time she had gotten scolded on the job, it had been for sitting with Pyro on her lunchbreak, the pair of them just taking turns lighting long, candle matches, enjoying the flare of light, the smoke, the smell. She would need to find him so they could split this box, too.
From Heavy, with a tag about it’s neck that said “Matroyshka” in his dark, Cyrillic handwriting. A wolf, carved from a piece of bone. Delicate, lovely. Wholly impractical, like holding a piece of poetry. She turned it over in her hands, a little teary. There was something about the strength of the lines, the shape of it. She had no doubt he had carved it himself.
Miss Pauling had to take a moment, to sniffle quietly.
Spy, a bottle of incredible looking wine and a pair of French silk stockings. Engie, a little toolkit for the back of her truck, a quart of the right kind of motor oil, and backup batteries for her radio. Medic, an antique German anatomy textbook, bristling with handwritten notes about dismemberment in his heavy, neat tectonic script.
Now she had to sit down in her chair and have a proper cry. How were nine bloodthirsty mercenaries also the sweetest men alive?
The Administrator cleared her throat from the doorway. “Miss Pauling, please attempt to compose yourself.”
Miss Pauling had gotten her “composing herself” skills down to nine seconds flat. A big, dramatic sniffle. “Sorry, ma’am. Christmas. First Christmas away from home.”
“Bah, humbug,” Dryly. Only somewhat sarcastic. “MIss Pauling, please draft a memo that informs the mercs of your home address—or more wisely, a post office box—so we don’t have to repeat the occasion of this much clutter when they find out about your birthday.”
“Yes, ma’am. Sorry, ma’am, I wasn’t expecting anything like this.”
“No, clearly not.” The Administrator paused. “I left you a little something, on the top right corner of your desk. Just small, a trinket. Merry Christmas, Miss Pauling.”
She burst into tears again. The Administrator sighed and left the room.
It took her another ten minutes to stop crying, to pick up the smallest box, wrapped with what was apparently the absolute bare minimum of effort demanded by the season. Purple wrapping paper. A severe, utilitarian bow.
And a lovely watch, gold-toned, squarish. Tiny, delicate hands. Not a woman’s watch, but still charming. Old. With a simple note, Merry Christmas, Miss Pauling.