"I don't know how you talked me into this...and you don't even have a mouth."
The Cloak rippled against Stephen's back-its way of cheekily snickering at him. The doctor just rolled his eyes, as he was more concerned about stuffing a remote control car underneath a silver, aluminum Christmas tree without waking the sleeping patient nearby. Slowly...steady...
His gloved fingers unknowingly brushed against the power button on the side, causing the toy to light up and come to life in a burst of music and sound effects. Surprised at how loud the thing could be, he nearly panicked as he tried desperately to turn it off.
A yawn and a mumble from the bed made him give up. Too late-the kid was waking up.
Silently cursing his ever shaky hands, the sorcerer quickly waved a circle in the air-summoning a portal. Just as the child was opening their eyes, he jumped through the golden dimensional tear to escape, all while thinking back on how he got into this mess.
Just two days before, he was taking advantage of a quiet day in the spacious study of the Sanctum Sanctorum, though the moment was anything but relaxing. Hunched over his desk, he was literally sweating over a letter he was attempting to compose to Christine. It had been a while since the..."Dormammu incident"...and he wanted to try and finally give his old colleague a long, overdue explanation of what had happened to him since he disappeared from her life, then literally reappeared...and needing her to save him (and later, the Ancient One) from dying. It wasn't right to have thrown such otherworldly-ness at her so suddenly, and it was high time he apologized (as well as for a great many other things, but one step at a time).
He would've done it sooner, but unfortunately, he had other, pressing business to take care of, like being officially sworn in as the master of the New York Sanctum, cleaning up said sanctum, picking up any leads on Mordo's whereabouts (none so far)...and finally giving the Ancient One a proper burial-a lovely, but bittersweet ceremony he hoped he'd never have to go through again. The stares he kept getting from the other masters and students and how they were now looking up to HIM more than unnerved him, and it took everything in his will to not show his underlying fear. He hoped he could live up to such high standards left by his old teacher.
But back to the problematic letter. The blank parchment and old style ink pen seemed to mock him at every turn. He wanted this note to sound perfect, but try as he might, he just couldn't conjure up the right words. Eventually, knowing words wouldn't do Christine the proper justice, he finally settled on just inviting her to the Sanctum to explain in person. It took him well over an hour to write a short note with the address-because handwritten was far more meaningful than an email, and though the script was pitifully wobbly, it was at least legible.
But now a new problem...should he mail it? Or give it to her in person? Was it right of him to do this? Or would it just come off as creepy? He thought back on their final encounter in the hospital. They DID leave off on good terms...right?
He was broken from his thoughts by a knock on the door. Turning, he found Wong, ever studious and serious, watching him. Covering the letter with his hand slightly, Stephen replied, "Oh, hey. What's up?"
"Just wanted to let you know I'm running a few errands before the weather turns too sour. Do you need anything while I'm out?" the librarian asked.
"No, I'm alright. But thanks", the doctor shook his head, "You just be careful out there."
Wong nodded-grateful for the blessing. A particularly bad snow storm was on its way towards New York City. The telltale flakes were already falling outside, and between the holiday songs on the radio, people were being advised to stay indoors. Of course, when one practiced magic and had a handy sling ring, traveling was nary a problem. What WAS a problem was inexplicably appearing someplace and potentially having clueless witnesses gaping at you...so yeah, walking was still a thing.
Speaking of the holidays, the newly-minted master of the sanctum currently had a radio playing nearby, on low volume-just something to help try and put his mind at ease while he tackled the Christine conundrum. With December 25th fast approaching, all any station played was the classic holiday jingles everyone and their mother knew.
Wong's eyes briefly flitted to the radio-the soothing voice of Bing Crosby lulling out, when he suddenly asked-his tone purely curious, "Have you any plans for the holidays?"
Stephen was momentarily thrown by the question-not expecting his fellow magician to ask such a thing. Both of them, little by little, were getting to know each other more personally. Sometimes, it happened in bursts, like at a sorcerer meeting. Other times, the occasional aside would slip out over something mundane, like trying to find a book or making lunch. Or like right now. And truthfully, between all the sanctum business, his training, and coming up with a plan to patch things up with Christine, Christmas was practically the LAST thing on his mind. So he responded with a question of his own, "Why? Are YOU doing anything?"
The Asian man shrugged, "Typically, I don't celebrate it. I'm actually going back to Kamar Taj for a few days to catch up on some research at the library." It was true that the dojo's students came from all walks of life, from all across the world. And if one had a certain tradition from back home that they upheld, they were more than free to take time out to observe the holiday. But in a world of sorcery and mixed cultures, most of the students and masters kept to themselves on such matters.
But Strange was interesting-annoying at times, but interesting. And though he sort of already knew the answer, Wong carefully asked, "Have you any...next of kin?"
"N-no..." Stephen shook his head; reflecting on his own past Christmases in the span of a few seconds. The bulk of his happier ones were the times he spent with his family as a child...a family that was now long gone. Realizing he left his friend hanging, he spoke his thoughts aloud, "I guess once I got older, Christmas just became another day of the year. When I was in med school, I was studying. And when my career took off, I was working...sometimes double shifts." He sighed, "Hospitals never close, after all..."
Wong could understand the logic...yet he still gave his surroundings, and then his friend an odd look, before replying, "I see...well, if you're in need of anything, you know where I am."
"Sounds like a plan", the doctor stretched in his seat, "Good night, Wong."
The librarian nodded for a goodbye. But then, upon spying the parchment on the desk, he added, "Maybe you should go where YOU'RE needed as well...perhaps to someone who might also be alone on such a holiday."
How the guy could read him so well, Stephen would never know. Magic book keeping powers? Without any further explanation, Wong gave him a knowing glance, before taking his leave. And with his friend's advice in mind, Strange stared at the squiggly letter once more...then reached a decision.
"Don't worry, Mrs. Kirby. Your son's just come down with a bad strain of the flu. We'll keep him overnight for observation, but he's going to pull through just fine."
There came happy hugs and sighs of relief from the worried mother, and with that, Doctor Palmer added to her internal tally of having FIVE families she had to calm down that night-frightened parents who rushed their kids to the hospital, thinking they were dying, only to find out they were just extremely under the weather. Add to that three patients with whiplash after getting into fender benders on the slick roads, a lady with a broken leg (again thanks to ice), and a homeless man suffering from mild frostbite, and Christine knew she was in for another hectic Christmas.
But her name hadn't been paged for fifteen minutes, so she took it as a sign to go grab something to eat, and MAYBE a tiny cat nap if she was lucky. As she made her way down to the cafeteria, she sucked in a hard breath. Spending Christmas Eve like this was nothing new to her. This was her December 24th every year-making sure the sick and injured were taken care of, because pain, accidents, and bad luck never took a holiday. She knew what she signed up for when she chose this career...didn't stop the frustration, however. It wouldn't have been so bad if that stupid blizzard hadn't picked the worst time to blast through. And just when she was beginning to think that this year, things would finally be different. That she could get out at a normal hour, go home, and relax, even if it was in solitude.
She did NOT need any more surprises tonight...
But just as she dropped a few quarters in the nearest vending machine, she was about to curse her big mouth...when the face of her old colleague suddenly popped out of the glass and said, "Christine!"
Thank the higher powers that be for small graces, for she was the only one in the break room at the moment, leaving no one to hear the frightened scream she let out as she fell backwards on her butt and crab crawled backwards on the floor.
The ghostly, translucent form of Stephen hovered outwards a bit more-the lower half of his body still 'stuck' in the machine. Realizing what he just did, he sputtered out the first dumb thing that came to mind, "Oh...I'm so sorry. Did I scare you?"
Shaking like a leaf, it took the woman a moment to gather herself, before springing to her feet and yelling, "Stephen?! What the hell?! You gave me a freakin' heart attack!"
The sorcerer shrugged, "Well, technically, if I had REALLY done that, then.."
"Don't you get smart with me, Strange!" Christine cut him off-poking him in the chest, even though her finger passed right through his astral projection, "You choose TONIGHT? NOW? Of all times to show up?! Where have you been?! You wanna' know how much I've been-?!"
Stephen put his hands up; trying to calm her down, "I know this is a bad time, but I had to find you. " Seemingly just noticing their surroundings, he coughed, "Look, can we at least talk some place a bit more private?" He glanced down, "Preferably a place where my soul self isn't sitting on a bag of Doritos?"
The young woman folded her arms in a huff, "Lemme' guess-the mop closet?"
The sorcerer smiled, "You know me too well."
With that, her ghostly companion disappeared back into the wall...but not before making the machine spit out two extra bags of potato chips for her, AND her couple quarters back.
Christine inhaled a deep breath before opening the door to the janitor's closet; trying in vain to prepare herself for whatever weirdness was going to be behind that doorknob THIS time. And the sight that greeted her almost made her wish it WAS another tiny, shiny wormhole to another dimension. What she got instead was a blue robed Stephen Strange-his prone body hovering in the air thanks to his crimson cloak cradling him like a man sleeping in a hammock. Making sure the door was shut, Doctor Palmer slowly edged closer to her (dead?)(asleep?)(unconscious?)(zombie?) ex-coworker; quickly examining him like one would a cadaver, and waving her arm through the space between him and the floor, like some assistant in a magic act. Heck, this WAS a magic act.
But right as she was considering checking herself into the nearest mental institution, the sorcerer jolted awake with a gasp, making her jump for a second time. She gazed on in a nervous, but fascinated silence as his cape made sure to set him down gently while he got his bearings again after putting his soul back where it belonged. He shook his head once, twice, then turned to find his old friend had managed to beat him back to his body.
For a long, uneasy moment, the once-couple stared at each other-her with her powder blue, snowman print scrubs (that was new); him with his...cult-that-totally-wasn't-a-cult garb.
Until finally, she pointed at the first thing her brain could comment on, "...the gloves are new."
His eyes went to his hands-scars that were now covered by yellow satin, "Oh, these? I was just exploring the sanctum...er, my house, one day, and...found them..."
Leave it to Christine to be the only one that could make him become tongue tied, by the way she glared at him with her 'I'm running on four hours sleep and the energy of one salad that was eaten ages ago and I don't have time for this Gandalf bull crap right now" face. Pinching the bridge of her nose, she groaned, "Stephen...what do you want?"
The sorcerer wracked his brain for what he could possibly say in the span of five minutes-suddenly realizing how bold (and silly) of a plan this was. But there was no turning back now, so he spouted off his reasoning off the top of his head, "Well...like I said, I know I'm probably catching you at a bad time, but I didn't know when the right time would BE. And I thought an e-mail was too impersonal."
Christine couldn't argue that logic, and truth be told, she appreciated his forwardness and not hiding behind a screen to pour his heart out...but that didn't excuse his tendency to drop in out of thin air without warning. Her hands balled into fists as she vented her frustration, "Do you wanna' know how worried I've been about you?"
"I didn't mean to make you..." Stephen started, but then was caught off guard by her confession, "...wait. You were worried about me?"
"Yes! For pete's sake, when you took off like that, and I didn't hear from you, I thought you were dead!" she was beyond exasperated for having to point out something she thought was obvious, "Our ship may have sailed, but that doesn't mean I don't care!"
Strange had no honest idea that she was still concerned about him, or even thinking about him. For how much he had put her through, he was under the impression that she would've tried to forget everything and stay away from him for good. He let his hands flop to his sides, "I'm sorry. Time just...got away from me."
She'd never understand the huge irony of THAT statement. Crumpling under the expecting and impatient gaze of Doctor Palmer, the magician fought to keep his initial plan from disintegrating, and pressed onward, "It wasn't fair of me to drag you into a conflict that even *I* didn't fully understand at first. I was hurt, I was desperate, and you were the only person I trusted to help me."
Her eyes softened just a tad. He continued, "Whether you were worried about me or not, you deserve to know the truth. I want to tell you everything. What happened. What's been going on..." He motioned to his eccentric wardrobe, "...this." He took a step closer, "And I wanted to be sure YOU were okay, too."
The tension in her body noticeably relaxed, but her voice remained firm, "The short answer? Yes. I'm fine."
He raised a brow, "And the long answer?"
She sighed as she rubbed at her temples-warding off an oncoming headache, "Stephen...my world and yours...it's just...too different now. Part of me isn't even sure if I WANT to know what all..." She waved at his magical attire, "...THIS means."
He shook his head, "This isn't about trying to get back together or anything. It's just...doing some patchwork is all." He began to slip the letter out of a pocket in his robe, "Why don't you stop by, and..."
But much like their last meeting, their moment was interrupted by the shrill beeping of the pager in Christine's pocket. Snapped back to the present, she immediately answered the call, "Doctor Palmer here."
"We need you over in the third floor waiting ward. We got a prognosis on the Ditko child", the voice on the other end reported.
"I'll be there in five minutes", she spoke, before hanging up and muttering under her breath, "That's the sixth kid tonight."
Her words sparked something of the old neurosurgeon in him, and Stephen leaned in, "Why? What's going on?"
"The snow storm. That's what's going on", Christine rubbed her tired eyes, "You know the drill. The weather turns sour, and suddenly, there's nothing but accidents and sick people pouring in." She bit her lip, "Only for some reason, I've been getting almost nothing but kids."
Ah. That would explain her more colorful scrubs. Best to put on something happier for the kiddies. But before Strange could make a comment about them, she let her worries pour out, "It's bad enough we have to make sure they haven't caught some deadly virus, but you wanna' know how awkward it is to have to tell a six year old that they're going to be alone because their parents can't come out in the storm? Or that Santa Claus isn't coming?"
Now Stephen was just flat out confused, "What do you mean?"
"Toys for Tots was cancelled", she made quotes in the air with her fingers, "Or 'delayed until further notice'." She threw her arms out, utterly baffled, "I mean, come ON. They're supposed to be the freakin' marines! As in, they come rain, sleet, or snow...but apparently, a little blizzard was just TOO much for them to handle. They said they're not budging until the roads are clear."
By then, she was just ranting, and the sorcerer knew that she, deep down, understood the reasoning. Considering his own accident, he didn't dare get in a car anymore, period-rain or shine. But none the less, to hear the marines weren't coming was just too surreal. Back before magic and multiple dimensions entered his life, seeing that charity van in front of the hospital on Christmas Eve had become a staple every year. Going from one operation to the next, it was normal (cheerful even) to see the uniformed volunteers flitting through the halls and handing out presents to the families who were laid up for the holidays. A couple years, they even went so far as to have 'Santa' appear as well.
...why these memories were suddenly coming to the forefront of his mind, he wasn't entirely sure. He had never paid it too much attention back then. Though, if he had to guess, he surmised it was because after all the craziness of the past couple months and facing down a giant demon face thing in the sky, one started to cling to whatever normalcy they had left.
He was pulled from his thoughts when Christine went on-her tone much softer and more sad than angry, "All those kids...they're gonna' be so disappointed when Santa doesn't show up. It's the one bright spot they have right now...now even THAT got ruined."
Clearly, this holiday was not shaping up to be a great one for ANYONE today. She looked close to coming apart at the seams, and Stephen wanted nothing more than to hold her and tell her he could use his new abilities to make all her problems disappear. He wasn't so certain about the latter, but the former he could definitely do.
But just as he began to make a move, Palmer's accursed beeper sounded off again, to which she whipped it out and forced herself to not yell, "I'm coming!" Turning back to her ex-colleague, she pointed to the door, "Look, I..."
"I know, you gotta' go", the magician nodded; pulling out the envelope again, "At least let me-"
"I'm sorry, I just...CAN'T right now", Christine started backing away, "Whatever you wanna' tell me, it HAS to wait. I've got too much to worry about."
But Strange's defeated pout gave her pause, and she added in, much more gently, "Maybe after everything isn't so crazy around here anymore, we can talk. Okay?" When his eyes lit up with hope, she quickly shut him down, "But until then, go back to Hogwarts and do whatever it is that wizards do."
With one final glance over her shoulder, Doctor Palmer turned on her heel and left; making sure to shut the door behind her. For a full minute, the sorcerer stood staring at the wall in silence; hoping she'd come back. Or that he could use the Eye of Agamotto to rewind time and start the conversation over. But when neither happened, he was left staring at the cream colored letter in his shaking palms-her name written in very un-elegant cursive that almost seemed to mock him and taunt 'you blew it...'
"Idiot..." he muttered to himself. Popping in unannounced, on a holiday, thinking she was just going to stop everything to shoot the breeze with him about how the Earth almost got swallowed up by an evil portal with eyeballs. This whole thing was a bad idea. Why did he even bother? With a sad and frustrated huff, he slipped his sling ring over his fingers-gearing up to summon a portal to whisk him back home so he could sit in solitude and read...
...that is, until he felt a tugging by his feet. Looking down, he spied the corners of the Cloak floating upwards until they were almost at eye level with him. He raised a brow, "Uh...you want something?"
All at once, his enchanted cape suddenly pushed at his back, while the corners continued to pull him forward. Not hard, but forcefully enough to make him yelp, "Hey! What's the matter?"
He got his answer when he was unceremoniously shoved over to a nearby table. Only then did he notice the stacks of papers and posters strewn about-stuff the cleaning crew must've left behind. But one form in particular seemed to catch the Cloak's attention, and it patted the paper with the edge of its fabric.
"I don't get it. What are you showing me?" the perplexed magician asked.
The Cloak just continued tapping, making it's chosen take a closer look. The poster in question was a colorful advertisement for the local charity drop box-most likely the very one that sponsored the hospital volunteers who, sadly, got snowed in presently. Included was a list of suggested toys to donate, and the phone number and address of where to collect the gifts.
"I'm still not following", the doctor shrugged; still having to learn all of his magic cape's silent gestures and hand...er...fabric signals, "I don't exactly have any toys lying around to give out. Not unless you want to give a kid the Wand of Watoomb."
The Cloak's collar slapped his cheek in frustration for him being so dense, before tapping the poster one more time-in particular, the picture of Santa Claus in the corner, then rubbing the sling ring on his hand for emphasis.
Comprehension finally dawned...and immediately, Stephen's face fell, "Oh no...you've GOT to be kidding me..."
The enchanted cape curled around his arms in a pseudo-hug. It wasn't joking. Strange shook his head-trying to make the artifact see reason, "I can't, I...I could be back at the sanctum studying. Or we could go and help Wong with whatever research he said he was up to."
The Cloak knew damn well they had no urgent place to be, and it knew that its chosen knew that too. It wrapped itself just a tad more tightly around him in stubborn defiance.
Stephen was all for helping people, but this was his dignity on the line-something he had only just recently earned back. He facepalmed at the absurdity of it all, "There's no way I'm walking around with a fake beard and a bag on my shoulder, handing out presents to a bunch of kids who..."
But as he tried to explain, the more his flimsy defense broke down, "...who are laid up and...probably sick...and scared...and lonely...with no one to be with...who need help..."
And the more he babbled, the more he realized he was potentially turning down a bunch of young souls who were in the same position he once was...and what an ass he was being. The Cloak, seemingly noticing his moment of clarity, eased up on him, and for a minute, the sorcerer thought about what was truly bothering him. He chalked it up to never having been particularly fond of children. Not that he didn't like them, far from it. He was just always sort of awkward around them. With adults, you could tell them the hard truth of what was wrong with them and if they had a chance at recovering from whatever ailed them. But with kids, it was like walking on eggshells. You had to put a pillow around everything and not let on how serious something was. And he hated lying, or being lied TO.
...but if that conversation with Christine taught him anything, it was that things were different now. He was a sorcerer. Master of a sanctum and guardian against any threat, big or small. It was time to start acting like one. Especially when the words of the Ancient One replayed in his mind as clear as the day he heard them.
It's not about you.
There was also the fact that these children were going to be potentially failed by the person they believed with all their hearts to be the most magical of all.
Well...he doubted that Santa trained in the mystic arts, but he was NOT about to fail someone who was in trouble. He may've blown it with Christine, but here was at least ONE problem he could fix.
The Cloak folded back its arched collar akin to a cat putting its ears down-its version of giving the puppy dog eyes. Hoping he wasn't about to regret THIS choice either, the doctor sighed, but relented, "Alright...you win."
The artifact rippled against his back in childish excitement, all while its chosen rolled his eyes and took note of the address on the poster. Thankfully, he recognized the street name, and with a few simple hand waves, a golden, sparkling portal was carrying him off to the 'north pole' of sorts.
And again, with the worst timing ever, Christine chose that moment to return to the closet-having forgotten her bag of potato chips. And while she just missed witnessing the last remaining sparks from the vortex, she DID, however, take notice of something on the floor where Stephen once stood...
An hour later, the volunteers at the local firehouse were left scratching their heads-perplexed on where one of their donation boxes disappeared to. They suspected thieves, which technically wasn't far from the truth. But this thief was less a burglar and more Robin Hood, as attested by the parchment left behind that had three things: the phone number for the hospital they were supposed to go to, said hospital's address, and a note-
"Gone to deliver presents for you. Sincerely, a Good Samaritan."
So it became that Doctor Stephen Strange-master of the New York Sanctum, and in training to be a possible Sorcerer Supreme...was sneaking around his old stomping grounds like a magical ninja, with a bag over his shoulder-dropping off presents to every patient in the building that was under the age of twelve.
He was SO glad Wong wasn't around to see him like this. He knew he'd be teased to the ends of the multiverse.
But it was for the children, he reminded himself. And with that thought in mind, he slowly made his way through each maze-like floor of the hospital-attempting to figure out a workable pattern to ensure that no one was missed. Using a fairly out-of-the-way closet or bathroom as his home base, from there, he would sling ring his way to the various rooms; leaving behind a gift that he hoped the little boy or girl would like. He tried to think back on his own childhood for a reference, but came up short. Even when he was young, he was pegged (and picked on a bit) for being a "brainy" type. Most of his afternoons were spent either listening to his music, or reading...A LOT. "Strange" kid indeed...which made him doubt that any of these kids were super bookworms like him. So he resorted to simply peeking around their room-gathering some clues from whatever other decorations or games they had lying around, and played fickle finger of fate for the rest.
The journey had its bumps at first, especially when not all the patients were sleeping. At one point, he poofed into one of the recovery wards...at the same moment that one of the parents decided to drop in. The mother jumped about five feet in the air, let out a frightened gasp at the sight of him and the swirling vortex in the wall, then promptly fainted. The only thing that stopped him from checking on her was when he noticed her son staring right at him in open mouthed shock.
With the sound of footsteps out in the hall closing in on him, he hastily replied, "Uh...fear not! For I'm the...Ghost of Christmas Present! And I come bearing gifts!" Quickly, he tossed the stunned toddler a plastic tub full of Hot Wheels, before stammering, "Er, ah...Merry Christmas!" And before the mom fully woke up, he hightailed it out of there as if the Dark Dimension were after him.
From then on, he decided to play it safe and astral projected first-scoping out the rooms to make sure the coast was clear BEFORE he came barging in. And any ward that had other people hanging around in it, he took a page from his "Wong underfoot" strategy and carved a portal hole just big enough to stick his hand or arm through and drop the gift off discreetly, provided it was small enough, of course. Pretty soon, this new and improved plan had him moving at a much faster pace...and as the night wore on, bit by bit, even he had to admit to himself he was starting to have a bit of fun. He was happy to be doing SOMETHING right, and the extra spell practice didn't hurt either. Santa's reindeer had nothing on him.
Even the Cloak seemed to get in on the act and completely fell into the role of a helpful elf. If Stephen hesitated or stared into the bag, stumped, the magic cape would assist in choosing the present. Not that the sorcerer didn't appreciate the help, but at first, he doubted an enchanted piece of cloth's shopping advice. It was adamant on leaving a new soccer ball to a girl with her leg in a cast, or giving a boy an easy bake oven. But the breaking point came when the levitating garment insisted on gifting an army tank to a little girl. Any time the doctor tried to swap it for, what he believed to be, the more reasonable Barbie doll, the Cloak would smack it out of his hands and push the tank towards him. So strong was it's argument, the artifact and its chosen got into a brief tug-of-war match with the box.
The fight was finally settled when the sounds of someone approaching and the door opening forced the magician to flee-leaving the toy behind in his escape. From the room next door, he strained to listen through the wall, and hearing the girl suddenly cry out made his heart sink...
...until he realized they were squeals of delight, and he overheard, "WOW! This is SO cool! FINALLY! Not another stupid, prissy doll!"
Both his relief and the irony of it all made him burst into chuckles, causing the Cloak to pat the bag as if saying "I told you so." The message wasn't lost on him, and he apologized for not trusting his friend's judgment. But he supposed it made sense. If a magical artifact could sense someone's aura and choose their bearers, it stood to reason that it could also see a person's true heart's desire. He didn't question the Cloak's choices after that.
But as much as this little adventure was turning into a fun outing, there WAS the occasional reminder that these people were sick or injured or otherwise trapped in a less-than-accommodating place on the one day of the year where they should've been at home enjoying themselves. His little jaunt provided him with a stark view of what had become of his hospital since he'd left...and honestly, some of the rooms the kids were placed in were just pitiful in the ways of decorating. It was something he had never really noticed during his time as a surgeon, and seeing it now just added to his underlying guilt. So he sought to rectify things by practicing a couple new spells he discovered in his recent studies-tiny harmless ones, like changing the color of the room to something more bright, or rejuvenating some wilting plants, or sprucing up any trees he came across by adding a touch of glow and sparkle to the ornaments. Anything to liven up the place. He smirked at his handiwork, and the occasional, subtle sweep or touch from the Cloak assured him he was doing a good job.
It took nearly all night, but eventually, he had finally swept every corner of the vast building-backtracking once via astral projection just to be certain. He regretted having been such a Scrooge earlier, as admittedly, he was now just a bit sad that his work was nearly done. It wasn't often someone got to do such a thing as this, and after being plagued by so many stresses and problems with his "magic business" as of late, being a secret elf for the night was a welcome release.
He had only ONE more present left to give away-a dollhouse.
It was sizeable enough that he had to fully come in the room. With all the care and steadiness that his wobbly hands could muster, he set it down next to the Christmas tree set up in the corner. Making sure he had it positioned just right, he then set about fixing some of the cards that fell over on the table the tree was sitting on...and then his inner perfectionist couldn't help but fiddle with the decorations; polishing the bulbs and straightening the lopsided star.
...but that extra, lingering minute cost him, when a VERY tiny voice whisper gasped...
All at once, Strange's hands and heart-his entire body-locked up on him, and (perhaps a tad too quickly) he swiveled at the sound.
A little girl-her blond hair in braided pigtails-who couldn't have been any more than five years old, was sitting straight up in bed; her blue eyes bigger than lollipops as she stared directly at him. With a huge, enchanted smile on her face, she exclaimed in an equally hoarse voice, "You came...!"
Stephen swore she was asleep a second ago. How did he not hear her get up? And what was he supposed to do NOW? Getting over his freeze up, he instinctively began to stutter, "Uh...I'm not..."
A quick bop on the nose from the Cloak's collar silenced him; the message clear-shut up and play along.
The girl was too entranced by him to notice his little slip up, and she wiggled in her seat, "I was afraid you wouldn't find me 'cause I wasn't at home."
The magician crumpled under her hopeful gaze. Not wanting to break the innocent illusion, he stammered, "Uh...of...course not, Miss..." He peeked at the clipboard at the head of her bed, "...Katie. I would never forget about you."
She smiled with relief, before glancing at a nearby Christmas card on her nightstand-one that depicted the genuine article she thought she was talking to. Squinting, she spoke her puzzlement aloud, "That's funny...you look a little different than the picture..."
Considering his gloves, boots, robes, red cloak, and goatee, he supposed it was reasonable why he could be mistaken for St. Nick. A very young version, anyway. Now falling into the role a bit, he smirked, "Well, let's just say my dashing looks were a bit exaggerated."
Katie giggled, but it proved to be a mistake, and she soon dissolved into a coughing fit. Eyes watering from her throat being on fire, she groaned, "Sorry. I got really sick and they had to take my tonsils out. So I can't talk too good."
Stephen's face fell at such a sad display, "Oh...try not to worry. You'll be better in no time." And he completely meant it. In his surgeon days, he could do a tonsillectomy in his sleep. Pretty common procedure-quick recovery time. He passed her a water bottle that was just out of her reach and gave a sympathetic smile, "You're very brave to be here all by yourself."
She took a hearty swig of her drink. Though her throat was soothed for the moment, she turned solemn at his words, then stared at him with the biggest doe-eyes imaginable, "Did you bring my mom and dad?"
The sorcerer's heart skipped a beat for a second time. Shoot. Think, think, THINK.
"I...had to keep them at home where they'll be safe. This snow storm's too dangerous to travel in", he hoped what he was saying would pacify her, "But they're...very proud of you for being so brave."
She seemed satisfied with the logic, but then asked, "Will they be here tomorrow?"
A trickle of sweat made its way down Stephen's neck. What could he say to comfort her that wasn't a lie? A few seconds of deliberation, and he went with, "...as soon as the snow lets up, they will."
Katie smiled and nodded at his reassurance, but then sighed-drawing her knees close to her chest, "...I miss sled riding."
"You like the snow, huh?" the magician tried to steer the conversation towards something happier, "Well, once you're all better, I'm sure you can get back out there and play all you want."
But apparently, he said something wrong, for the girl let out a tiny, high pitched whine and buried her head in her lap. Put off by such a reaction, he fumbled, "W-what's the matter?"
She kept her face hidden, but it was clear she was crying, "We don't have a yard no more...we moved to the city and our new house got no grass or trees or nothin'..." Without looking, she pointed at the wall, "I didn't know it was snowin' 'till the nurse told me. I can't see it 'cause my room don't got no window."
Strange was at a loss for words. Bad enough that she was stuck in the hospital, on Christmas Eve, by herself, but that she had to leave behind her seemingly most favorite thing in the world too...
He was just about to put a hand on her shoulder to comfort her the only way he knew how, when suddenly, her head shot up; tears streaming down her cheeks as she cried out in a scratchy voice, "It's not fair!"
Stephen visibly jumped at her reaction. Before he could completely gather himself, she went on ranting, "Why do we hafta' go? We were all happy! Why couldn't things stay the way they were? I miss my house and I miss my school and I miss my friends! I liked everything the way it was!"
She quieted down into soft sniffles and hiccups, but for the doctor, one might as well have handed him a ticking time bomb. Why was it that he could face a giant demonic head and not flinch, but a kid sobbing gave him the heebie-jeebies? Once again, he tried to use logic, "I'm...sure your parents had a very good reason for wanting to move..."
"But everything's different. What if it turns out to be bad?" Katie wiped her eyes and pleaded with him, "I'm scared..."
There was an uneasy pause as the sorcerer thought it over...but the more he did, the more he came to realize that...perhaps...he completely understood where she was coming from. Images of Kamar Taj came flooding back to him, and with it, the memories of feeling lost and alone in such an old, odd place-his struggles to fit in with the other residents, and the stares and snickers he got from the students when he couldn't even conjure a simple portal. Of course, things greatly improved with time, but how was he to know that at the start?
Oh yes...he knew the feeling VERY well.
Stephen didn't even notice how he was absentmindedly fiddling with his hands; running his thumb across his fingers-gloved ones that were hiding the scars beneath. As he did so, the words came to him, "You know...a lot of times...a big change CAN be scary...sometimes, we just want things to go back the way they used to...but it can also be a good thing." The Cloak ever so subtlety squeezed his shoulders a bit tighter as he gently spoke from experience, "Things may seem sad now, but...something different can lead to something even better."
Katie's weeping had quieted down to barely a whimper as she soaked in his advice and seemed to seriously consider it for a moment. She may have believed him, but something else was nagging at her mind, and she sagged over again, "I don't think my brother thinks so...I've been tryin' to be good for mom and dad, but Jack yells at 'em...he's really mad and doesn't wanna' go either."
"I'm sure he'll see reason", the magician shrugged.
But the girl clearly wasn't so sure, and she confessed, "I told him to write to you. I said maybe you could use your magic to make it so we didn't have to leave."
Strange held his breath-hoping to any higher power listening that she wasn't about to ask him to do the impossible. But to his relief, she instead blurted out, "But he got mad. He told me you weren't real." Her tiny hands balling into fists as her brow furrowed in frustration, "We got in a fight. I tried to tell him how you do stuff with your magic...but he said magic isn't real either." She bit her lip, "...if somethin' don't make no sense to him, it ain't real."
Stephen's heart twisted itself into a tight knot. Even the Cloak's collar sagged a bit. He may have been a skeptic once too...but this was different. And just then, a surge of...some emotion he couldn't quite place came boiling to the surface. He wasn't about to let some loose lipped, close minded person take away what little cheer or hope she had left.
His breath caught in his throat for a split second as he began, "A very wise person once told me that...not everything makes sense...and not everything has to." He opened his one hand; showing off the sling ring he wore, "And the more belief and confidence you have, the more you can MAKE something real."
When she perked up a bit, he gave a sly grin, "And besides...if magic isn't real...then how can I do THIS?"
With that last word as his cue, the sorcerer waved his other hand with practiced ease, and before Katie could even blink three times, a sparkling, circular portal opened in the ceiling above her, revealing the evening sky outside. But oddly enough, what made her jaw truly drop was when a slow burst of snowflakes came sprinkling out-gently covering her like shiny, crystalline confetti. She gasped in delight; holding her tongue out to eat the flurries, and throwing her arms in the air to watch the tiny ice particles melt in her hand, almost in confirmation to make sure what she was seeing was the truth.
Her wondrous joy was infectious, and a pleased and happy smile spread across the sorcerer's face at finally giving her some relief from all her troubles, at least for a minute. Only very briefly did he ponder if this counted as an abuse of his powers...
...and when she let out a laugh, he promptly thought-screw it.
By then, the bed railings were gathering a noticeable layer of snow, to which he chuckled, "Okay, let's not overdo it. I don't want the doctors to get mad at me for turning your room into the North Pole."
Thankfully, Katie understood, and she caught one more flake between her fingers, before saying, "Oookaaaay..."
With just a simple hand wave, the vortex closed up, leaving a thin sheet of white powder over the area it once covered. The magician pulled a face at the slight mess, and even the girl seemed to catch on to the secret they had to keep. So in one fell swoop, she grabbed hold of her blanket and fanned it as hard as she could-the flakes spraying everywhere like the inside of a shaken snow globe. Both of them had a good giggle over it, and a moment later, everything was as it once was.
"That was SO cool!" she clapped, "I can't wait to tell Jack! He'll HAVE to believe me now!"
She started to say more, but was soon interrupted by a long and tired yawn. Between the hour of the night, her operation, and meeting 'Santa', it was a wonder she was awake this long. Stephen could see her losing the fight to keep her eyes open, and he spoke in his most soothing tone, "It's getting pretty late. You should get some sleep."
Katie rubbed her eyes, "M' kay..."
Being mindful of all the monitors and IV's and stuff, the magician helped to tuck her in, "Besides, you still need to get better." And only then did he realize that she had been so enamored with him, she didn't even notice the dollhouse in the corner. So he added, "So you just rest up, and in the morning, you're gonna' get a big surprise."
By then, he was leaning in so close, and he was so focused on settling her down, he wasn't prepared for what happened next.
She sat up once more-her small arms reaching out and hugging him around the neck. Giving him a tiny peck on the cheek, she said barely above a whisper, "Thank you so much...I love you."
Never in his life did Stephen's face turn so pink or burn so fiercely. An un-definable spark of...something...swelled within his chest and threatened to burst, and he had to fight to keep from getting misty eyed. Taking a sharp intake of air, he managed out, "You're welcome. Merry Christmas, sweetie."
She finally settled in, and he patted her on the head. Even the Cloak snaked a corner of its fabric through the bed rails and caressed her hand a moment, before its chosen stepped back to finally make his exit. But knowing she was still very much awake and watching him, the sorcerer decided to go out with a little flair.
Rather than the usual doorway, he opened the portal above his head-the closest he could get to a chimney. With one last smile and wave, he winked at her-putting a finger on the side of his nose like the old fairy tale...then flew straight up; disappearing in a shower of golden sparks that left the girl mesmerized and dreaming of snow and magic spells the rest of the night.
Ironically, the hospital was more colorful and lively than what Strange came home to-an aging townhouse that was dark and silent. Stretching his tired limbs and letting out a deep yawn, Stephen didn't even bother with any lights as he began the large trudge up the grand staircase-his heavy steps the only sound that echoed through the quiet sanctum. A part of him found it odd as to why he was exhausted. Back in his surgeon days, he had pulled all nighters with virtually no trouble. He supposed it was a few factors; the main one being that he was still adjusting to using large amounts of magical energy. But he was hardly worried-not when his drowsiness was of the pleasant kind. After all that had happened that night, it was very difficult to feel depressed about anything.
The silence was broken by the soft chimes of the grandfather clock in the other room. The magician absentmindedly counted the bells...three a.m. So they were already well into the next day ...he didn't even know until just then. He hadn't really been paying attention to the time during his undercover jaunt.
Under his breath, he whispered, "Merry Christmas..."
The Cloak collar petted his cheek in response, as if saying, "Job well done."
The doctor didn't shy away from the affection, and thanked the real friend who had put him up to the task, chuckling, "You make a damn good elf."
To that end, the enchanted cloth gave its chosen a slight boost to help him make the rest of the trek upstairs. By then, the sorcerer had begun to hum a few carols to himself-slow and relaxing ones as he went through his evening routine and changed into his pajamas. He was lucky to have reached his chamber, for the moment he collapsed into bed, he was asleep in almost an instant-the Cloak draping over him as a second blanket, as it was wont to do sometimes, especially as the season drew colder.
To borrow a phrase, he slept in heavenly peace the rest of the night-that still-lingering peck on his cheek giving him the tiniest hint of a smile on his lips.
It was a little late in the morning when Stephen finally woke up. Not used to sleeping in, the doctor slowly stretched and rubbed his eyes-trying to resist the urge to just turn over and go back to the nice dream he was having...a weird mix of him as a child, sitting with his parents and practicing magic spells with them, making it snow in the living room...
And since it was Christmas in the dream, it made him remember it was ALSO Christmas in real life-today. And much as he normally didn't make a big deal out of it, he certainly wasn't going to sleep through it either.
So upon forcing himself to get up, Strange took note of three things-two of which by looking out the window; the third just by default. One-it had finally stopped snowing. Two-the roads had been cleared (thank God). And three-the Cloak was nowhere to be found. That last observation was especially odd, considering the artifact always stayed with him during the night; sometimes snuggling, but constantly on guard for any possible threats to its chosen. But despite being puzzled, he tried not to worry. On the rare occasion the garment made itself scarce, it was never for long.
And true to his prediction, as Stephen left his bedchamber and padded down the hall, there was a flash of red, and from around a corner, the Cloak came speeding towards him like a kid who missed their daddy. Its chosen perked up upon seeing it, "Oh, there you are. Where were-?"
But his question was cut off when the enchanted cape began ducking and weaving and flying circles around his head like a fluttering bird. Instinctively, Strange put his hands up, "Hey! What's the matter? What's got YOU all in a tizzy?"
For an answer, the artifact wrapped a corner of its fabric around his elbow and tugged him. The sorcerer raised a brow, "What? Follow you? O-okay..."
With an excitement and happy energy the magician never saw from the cloth before, the Cloak pulled its chosen by the arm; forcing him to jog down the length of the long hallway. Stephen had little choice but to let himself be practically dragged to the banister-wondering what the big rush was.
When the cape finally released him, he looked to where the garment was pointing, all while grumbling, "Yeesh. What's this all abo-?"
His words cut off when, from the top of the staircase, he could glance down into the main foyer of the house. And the sight that met him left him frozen in complete and utter surprise.
The main entrance room had been fully decorated. Large wreaths hung in the windows. Shiny ribbon, tinsel, holly, and thistle was strung up along the doorways and all the way up the banister. And in the center of the floor stood a decent sized pine tree-a REAL one-dotted with sleigh bells, ornate decorations that appeared handmade at a closer glance, and...not normal lights, but some kind of glittering particles with a non-burning, gentle flame on top in leau of a star that no one would ever find in a store.
Stephen came down the steps at a slow crawl-his jaw hitting the floor as he admired all the rich greens and reds and golds from tip to toe; eyes filled with a near-childlike awe that wasn't unlike the moment he discovered that magic was real. He stared up at the tree; blinking just to make sure he wasn't still in bed, dreaming. Not since he was a little kid did he see an evergreen so beautiful.
The only thing that stopped him was when a voice suddenly said, "Merry Christmas."
Strange was so lost in the wonderment, he nearly jumped, and he turned to find Wong leaning against a wall in a non-descript corner; observing his reaction with a passive expression that DID contain the tiniest hints of a smirk if one knew where to look. The doctor, not expecting his friend to be back so early, did a double take, "Wong? I thought you were...? What..? How...?"
The sorcerer's head kept darting back and forth between Wong and the decorated hall, and that time, the Asian man DID have to hold back a chuckle. Eventually, Stephen formed enough words to ask, "I thought you didn't celebrate Christmas?"
"As I said before, normally, I don't", the librarian explained, "But let's just say I was...compelled to partake in a little sprucing up while you were resting. Some of the students from Kamar Taj came and assisted in decorating very early this morning. A surprise. They said it was the least they could do for the one who saved us from the Dark Dimension."
He then motioned with one hand, and the doctor followed to where he was pointing. He was so focused on looking UP at the tree, he hardly bothered with looking DOWN. Sitting atop the intricately designed blue and gold tree skirt, was a bundle wrapped in red tissue paper. Now wondering for definite if any of this was real or not, the magician picked up the package and carefully unwound the paper-being mindful not to tear it too much. Inside was a new set of robes that was an even richer shade of blue than the ones he currently wore. And a brief search through the pockets revealed a drawstring bag, containing a few pouches full of herbs and teas-some of which he never tried before.
For the first time in a long time, Stephen was struck speechless. Overwhelmed at such thoughtfulness all around, he stammered, "Oh...oh, Wong, I..."
But upon noticing the cheeky, sly smirk the librarian was shooting him, the sorcerer caught himself and quickly saved face-not wanting to get too sappy. Instead, he raised a brow, "So...'research', huh?"
The Asian man just rolled his eyes; feigning innocence. But the former surgeon could see through him and spoke completely sincerely, "Thank you."
Aware of how much gratitude was contained in those two simple words, Wong gave a warm smile and bowed in return.
It was then that Strange's memory was jogged, and he practically smacked himself over the head for forgetting, "Oh! Right. Um...speaking of presents..."
The Cloak, who was busy entertaining itself with the jingling bells on the tree, came to attention when its chosen gave it a tug. The doctor leaned into the collar (the closest equivalent to the human ear) and whispered something, after which, the enchanted cloth took off like a bullet back up the steps; disappearing for a moment. Less than ten seconds later, it came back-having morphed into a pouch to carry a package like the stork delivering a baby. It gently dropped the item in Wong's curious hands; pulling back in a dramatic fashion as if saying, "ta-da!"
Of course, being a librarian, he'd receive a book for a gift. It was well worn, and some of the pages had begun to yellow with age, but it was far from shabby. With a brown, leather-bound cover, it had no title printed on it-just a singular gold stone in the middle, flanked by the protection symbols dotted around the sanctum. As he examined the old tome with a detailed eye, Stephen explained, "I was browsing an antique store a few days ago when I came across that. From what I could gather, it turns out the owners got their hands on an old spell book and didn't know it. How it ended up there is anyone's guess. But I knew there'd be no safer hands to have it than yours."
As the sorcerer suspected, Wong seemed to already have the mystery partially solved. He briefly skimmed the pages-his face coming as close to surprise as Strange figured he'd ever see, "It is a sad fact that a few of our books have been lost, whether to time, or carelessness, or bandits, or other malevolent forces. One of my many duties is to ensure that these lost tomes are someday recovered." He polished the gemstone with his sleeve, bringing out its inner shine, "I have not heard mention of a great many of these incantations for quite some time. If I remember the list correctly, this just may be one of the books that have been missing from the archives." He gave the former surgeon an equal look of gratitude, "Thank you for retrieving this. The library owes you a debt."
Considering the holidays AND that he basically got the sanctum decorated without lifting a finger, Stephen forgone the usual snark he would've quipped at him and shrugged, "No problem. It was between that or the newest Beyonce' album, so I'm glad I picked right. Help me practice some of those 'forgotten' spells, and we'll call it even."
That was a fair enough deal for the librarian. He was already beginning to leaf through the pages with masked excitement, "By the way, how DID you spend the eve of Christmas?"
The sorcerer rubbed the back of his head; wondering how to explain, or even IF he should, "Well...you see..."
But before any other words came out, he was interrupted by a, of all things...a knock on the front door.
Both he and Wong turned at the sound. Even the Cloak went on the alert-curious, but hovering close to its chosen just in case. The doctor turned to his friend, "Were you expecting anyone?"
Considering that most sorcerers came and went via sling ring, the librarian shook his head, "No." And he didn't bother asking Strange the same thing, if his confused reaction was any clue.
Whoever it was knocked again-a bit louder and more forcefully. With a shrug that said 'well, only one way to find out', Stephen walked over and, with caution, opened the door...and was promptly stunned to silence for a second time that morning.
It was Christine.
Dressed in her full earmuffs, scarf, mittens, and heavy coat, the young woman was equally taken aback momentarily, as if she were surprised that she had gotten the address correct. But soon enough, a clever smirk played across her partially scarf-covered lips, and she teased, "What? I can't just suddenly appear out of thin air either?"
Just the sound of her voice finally snapped the sorcerer to attention, and he sputtered, "C-Christine...?! How...? How did you...?"
His half asked question was answered when she reached into her coat pocket and produced an envelope-the very one containing the letter that he intended to give her the previous night. Even though he was in his pajamas, the magician instinctively patted his pockets, only then just realizing what he had been missing when he went to bed that night. She waved the paper between her fingers as she explained, "You dropped this in the mop closet. Had to pull a doubler last night, but...I'm off now, so...figured I should clean up and change first before coming over."
Strange couldn't help but feel like that little girl, Katie, when she saw 'Santa Claus'. Christine was here? She actually came?! She WANTED to come?
When he didn't come out of his stunned reaction fast enough, Doctor Palmer leaned in and whispered, "This is the part where you let me in."
"Oh. Um...right. Of course..." Stephen internally smacked himself for being so flustered, and stepped aside to let his old colleague walk in. She immediately began glancing around, whilst patting off the snow from her coat and shaking off the bitter cold from outside. As she did so, the sorcerer made a silent motion of offering to take her hat and other things, while asking, "So...what...brings YOU here?"
Christine could've nearly laughed at his nervousness around her. So unlike the Stephen Strange she once knew...and she was still debating if she liked that change or not. But she WAS completely certain of her cheeky joy in using him as her personal coat rack. When her things were finally sorted and out of the way, she turned to her former co-worker-face now totally serious, as she replied, "If you could swallow your pride and play Santa for a bunch of kids, then I can make time to check out the headquarters of your cult that's not a cult."
Of COURSE the children would've blabbed all about how St. Nick paid them a visit, against all odds. And of COURSE only Christine would be able to figure just what or WHO was responsible for the holiday miracle. He tried in vain to feign confused innocence, but her 'you're so busted' happy glare tore down his defenses.
The awkward quiet was broken by a flabbergasted voice, "Santa...? ...SANTA CLAUS...?!"
Both turned to find Wong staring at Strange with the biggest, heartiest, ear-to-ear grin that one would've never thought possible on the normally stoic librarian. The sorcerer might as well have been wearing the pink bunny pajamas from 'A Christmas Story'-he would've gotten the same reaction. Without warning, Wong busted a gut laughing; not caring if anyone saw him break his veil of composure.
The Cloak could sense its chosen's embarrassment, and temporarily wrapped around his shoulders-patting him on the head like a mother trying to shield their child from a bully, as only it knew the true act of humility he carried out last night. But on the outside, he looked for all the world like Linus clutching his security blanket-making things worse. Folding his arms and eyes on the floor, Strange harrumphed, "I'll have you know those kids would've had a pretty sad holiday if someone didn't do SOMETHING."
By then, Wong had calmed down. Naturally, he wished to know the full story, but just that one sentence explanation was enough for him to get the picture that something truly magical had occurred while he was away. As a sign of good will, he gave the former-surgeon a 'job well done' pat on the back, to which Strange finally loosened up and took the teasing in stride.
Helping to save his pride a bit more, Christine turned the focus towards the wonderful tree and strings of holly all around. She marveled at such a pretty set up-having never remembered seeing Stephen's old house decking the halls so much. She smiled brightly, "I didn't know you decorated!"
The magician chuckled while giving Wong a glance, "Let's just say Santa's helpers visited."
And at the mention of Santa and presents, he noticed he had his own gift still clutched in his arms. And only THEN did he realize he was still in his softer, cream colored robes-the ones he used for pajamas. Cheeks flushing, he stammered, "Uh...yyeeeaah...I...better go change first."
With that, he shot off up the stairs-walking just fast enough that it wouldn't be considered jogging, with the Cloak right on his heels. Christine watched him vanish; rolling her eyes, "Honestly, he can be such a little kid sometimes."
Wong couldn't agree more, but then added, "Perhaps a younger soul is exactly what we need."
The young woman wasn't sure what he meant by "we", but smirked all the same, "Don't fuel his ego too much."
"Never", the Asian man shook his head, and the two shared a smile at one another. They say it takes a village to raise a child. Apparently, such was the case for sorcerers too. And these two were going to get along just fine. The librarian gave a formal bow; making official introductions, "Welcome to the Sanctum Santorum, Doctor Palmer. You may call me Wong."
Considering the weirder stuff she had to deal with, she wasn't going to even question how he knew her name, and grinned, "Thanks for having me. And as long as we're making friends, it's just Christine."
A minute later, Stephen returned to the foyer-sporting the new robes he had been gifted. They fit him perfectly, and he briefly pondered how the tailors got the measurements so accurate. But that was a mystery for another time. Right then and there, his entire focus was purely Christine, who gave him a curious, brow-raised smirk when he offered his arm for her to take and simply asked, "Ready?"
Sucking up her courage with a single sigh, she tentatively slid her hand through his elbow and said, "As much as I'll ever be."
And so it was that the two doctors found themselves spending the entire day together, with Stephen slowly showing her around the epicenter of magic that he now called his home. He apologized profusely to her...again...for the many awful things he had said to her long ago, to which she (to her own amazement) forgave him. Perhaps it was the spirit of the season, but honestly, she was through with pity parties. What was done was done, and admittedly, hearing Strange say "I'm sorry" for the tenth time was getting unnerving. The man had clearly changed, and she was ready to move on as well.
But HOW he had changed was another matter entirely, and eventually, gradually, Stephen spilled the story-explaining what had happened to him and how he went from broken surgeon to master sorcerer with a ton of new responsibilities. (Though he went through great pains to keep out the gorier details-that could be left for another time that wasn't supposed to be the jolliest day of the year. Today was strictly for the good and the wondrous.) Christine listened with open mouthed astonishment and fascination, and considering the world they lived in now-a world full of superheroes, gods, mutants, monsters, and aliens-and the more she explored the house, the more she was able to begin to accept magic too.
From weird paintings to the tiniest artifact, Doctor Palmer marveled at it all. She was still a bit intimidated and put off by all the mystical stuff (though she fancied the thought of going on a vacation when she saw the doors that changed channels to other parts of the globe), but was amazed just the same, especially at the lovely Cloak that followed them around like a happy puppy sniffing out the new person. She muttered something about "Aladdin's magic carpet", to which Stephen just chuckled. So engrossed were they in shooting the breeze and catching up, they barely noticed that hours had gone by-only realizing it when Wong called them for an appetizing chicken and ramen noodle meal that, considering her last few holidays spent alone or working, Christine swore was the best Christmas dinner she had in a long while.
By the time evening rolled around, both doctors were sitting together in the study, on the sofa, by the fire, as if their gap of absence had never happened. Wong had since left to return to Kamar Taj "to do more research on his new book", though he was most likely just wanting to give the two some privacy. They sampled the new tea the sorcerer had been given (a wonderful brew perfect for relaxation), and watched the flames crackle and dance in a companionable silence-reflecting on just how much of both of their lives had changed...but ultimately decided it was a good change. They'd earlier come to the conclusion that it was highly unlikely they could ever get back together-not in the way they once were, not romantically. Their chosen paths were just too far from the other's realm of normalcy.
...but it was also foolish to dismiss on remaining friends. They respected each other's smarts and talents too much to do that. And if their worlds happened to cross again, well...Christine would be much more prepared to patch up her old colleague again...or any other NEW colleagues he brought with him.
The radio was playing at a low volume-a few slow, holiday tunes filling the room with melodies singing about togetherness and laughing children. Such lyrics brought to the young woman's mind all the happy young patients she came across that morning who were thrilled that Santa hadn't forgotten them, or the perplexed volunteers that rushed over to see that their goods had indeed been delivered against all odds, or the hospital staff that remained boggled by the miracle.
"You really saved the day for those kids", she said, breaking the quiet.
"Hey, I'm the mystic protector of Earth now", the magician shrugged, "It's kind of my job." He threw the Cloak (who was draped on an armchair) a quick wink, to which it rustled a bit in return.
But speaking of presents, his face then turned sour a moment, and he guiltily stared down at the tea in his lap; hands shaking a bit from more than just damaged nerves, "I'm sorry I didn't get you a gift. I didn't know what you...if you'd even..."
He stopped short when Christine's hand came over and clasped his-thumb rubbing his mostly healed scars-gently squeezing until the shake was nothing but a tiny occasional tremor. He finally looked into her awestruck eyes, as she motioned to all the otherworldly objects surrounding them, and she assured him, "Trust me...this whole day was a present."
Relieved beyond reason, Strange smirked, "Chalk it up to a little Christmas magic."
She smiled in return, before settling in to watch the fire some more-unconsciously leaning against the sorcerer like a pillow. What was once expensive cologne and sterile soap, she now breathed in the scent of peppermint tea and incense. Between that, and the soothing music, she found herself quickly drifting off. And the magician, for his part, was equally tired-exhaustion overcoming both of them from having been up all night with barely any rest.
Just before nodding off completely, she mumbled, "Merry Christmas, Stephen."
His whole being warmed both by the fire, her touch, and the pleasant feelings of this undoubtedly being the best holiday he'd ever had, the sorcerer's eyes slid shut and he happily sighed, "Merry Christmas, Christine..."
They remained there on the couch for the rest of the night-sound asleep; the Cloak dutifully floating over to cover them both and tuck them in. And outside, the snow gently fell...carolers sung of saviors and heavenly hosts...
...and kids excitedly talked about what Santa brought them during the night.
AN: After falling in love with this movie, I knew I had to write something for it, and with the holidays coming up, I decided to pen a funny and fluffy little Christmas story (that actually got serious in a few parts that I didn't plan on initially). Cookie points to anyone who can catch the couple Marvel-related easter eggs I threw in here (the biggest one being the little girl he talked to-her description and the name of her brother gives you a hint).