Fiddletips sat on the green plastic chair in the assignment room, hands clutching his knees tightly. This was it. His first day. His first assignment. He’d never been so excited. Or so terrified. A handful of other agents sat in the other chairs, their expressions ranging from boredom to something akin to Fiddletips own.
The door to Departmental Commander Tinsel’s office burst outward, knocking the closest chairs flying. Fiddletips let out a squeak of surprise, then clapped both hands over his mouth as a glowering figure strode out of the Commander’s office. Fiddletips’ eyes widened as he recognised him; it was none other than Sergeant Socks.
Socks was a legend among the agents of the Goodwill Department. A field agent for more than thirty years, with some of the most impressive Harvest Optimisation scores on record, Socks had refused promotion eight times. The only thing more legendary than his field record was his temper.
The living legend looked particularly cantankerous at the moment, Fiddletips thought as he stared at the older agent. Socks was frowning down at a small green card; his work assignment from DC Tinsel. The Sergeant cast a baleful glance about the room, and Fiddletips became very interested in his own knees, as did everyone else present.
The sergeant’s voice cracked across the room, and brought Fiddletips instantly to his feet. He stood to attention and gave a sharp salute.
Sergeant Socks strode over to stand before the young agent, and stared down at him, taking in the slight frame, the bright green boots, his Christmas jumper showing a grinning polar bear holding a knot of Christmas lights… As Socks stared at him Fiddletips felt like he was shrinking smaller and smaller, until finally Sergeant rolled his eyes and sighed.
“You’re with me,” Socks said wearily. “Let’s get to it.” Without another word he strode out of the Assignment Room, leaving Fiddletips no choice but to follow.
* * *
As they drove to their first assignment, Fiddletips tried to gather his thoughts. New agents were always paired with an experienced veteran on their first job in the field. A rookie agent’s first assignment was a shadowing job; learning the ropes. But Sergeant Socks was the greatest agent the Goodwill Department had ever had. Why on earth should he be partnered with–
“We’re here, Rookie.”
The Sergeant’s voice was quiet, but it cut through the younger agent’s thoughts instantly.
“Ve- Very good Sir,” he stammered, and Socks sighed again.
“Socks, Rookie. Just call me Socks.”
“But Sir, regulations state–”
“Look kid,” the Sergeant growled. “We’ll get on a whole lot better if you don’t start quoting Regs at me, okay?”
“Okay Si- Ah, Socks.”
To Fiddletips amazement, the older man grinned.
“That’s better. Right then. Let’s get suited up.”
The two agents slid out of their seats and moved to the back of the vehicle, where their field harnesses were hanging in suspension racks. They slipped into them, and stood side by side at the back door. Socks turned to Fiddletips and raised a questioning eyebrow. The rookie field agent pressed the button on his jumper, and as the Christmas lights the bear held began to flash in bright colours he met the sergeant’s gaze and nodded. Socks rolled his eyes and shook his head as he thumbed the door control panel.
The doors of the glide-car slid back, and Fiddletips took his first step into the Human Plane. The air was chill and the sky grey, fat drops of rain slicing through the afternoon to splat on the ground. Fiddletips shivered as some of the drops passed through his body; his field harness tuned his body’s vibrations to a level just beyond the Human Plane, but close enough to allow the minor interaction required for their work.
Sergeant Socks stepped down beside Fiddletips and pointed towards a house a short way off.
As they moved swiftly over to the house, Socks spoke quietly.
“Remember, Rookie, you’re my shadow, nothing more.”
“I remember,” Fiddletips said, and the veteran nodded.
“Then let’s go.”
As he spoke, Socks stepped forward, passing through the brick and glass of the building and moving inside. Taking a deep breath, Fiddletips followed. He stepped through the wall, feeling every particle of glass and brick and mortar as he passed through it, and emerged gasping on the other side. His breath caught in his throat, however, as he took in the room before him.
It was filled with warm light, and populated by a number of items Fiddletips recognised from his training sessions; a sofa, an armchair, a television… But dominating the room was something he knew well; it was, arguably, his reason for being here. From his first day in the Goodwill Department, Fiddletips had been drawn to the Christmas Division. There was something about Christmas that called to him, just made sense.
Fiddletips suddenly grew aware of Sergeant Socks beside him.
“First time on the Plane can be a bit of an overload,” the older man grunted, and Fiddletips nodded. “You’ll get used to it though.” He nodded again, and watched as Socks moved about the room, passing through furniture where necessary, examining the layout of this household’s generator. Each system was different, varying from household to household, holiday to holiday. The components of a Hanukkah system were different from a Christmas system, were different from a Holi system… But the effect was the same; the system harnessed goodwill, which was then redistributed to the household over the following months. Goodwill Field Agents had the task of ensuring that a household’s goodwill system was working most effectively, regardless of the system being used.
Fiddletips watched Sergeant Socks as he worked. The system was basic, but an effective one; a real tree, wrapped in a spiral of twinkling lights and red and gold tinsel. Beside the tree a woman stood, deftly hanging red and gold decorations about the tree. One the sofa sat a small boy in dark clothes. Upon his head, however, sat a bright green hat topped with a silver bell, and his eyes followed the woman as she decorated the tree. His tiny fists were clenched, and his gazed strayed often to a collection of mismatched baubles pushed to one side, away from the tree.
As Fiddletips watched, Socks moved close to the tree, peering closely at the arrangement of the lights and tinsel. He turned to Fiddletips and spoke quietly, though the woman and child could not have heard him.
“What do you think, Rookie?”
“The system is… Ineffective,” Fiddletips said, and was delighted when the veteran gestured for him to continue. “There is too much order, too much structure. More… Randomness is needed.”
“And why will that help?”
“Because true joy will grant the greatest goodwill, and true joy is wild, unstructured.”
As he spoke, Fiddletips’ gaze drifted back to the small boy, who still glanced at the rejected decorations…
“Very good Rookie,” said Socks, and moved to the young woman. He placed his hand upon her shoulder and whispered some words the younger agent could not make out. The woman paused in her placement of a decoration, and with a small smile she tugged at the tinsel, pulling it into a more haphazard, unstructured arrangement. Socks nodded to himself as though content, but Fiddletips frowned. It wasn’t enough…
Once again he felt his gaze drawn to the young boy on the sofa, and suddenly he was filled with a quiet certainty. He knew what was needed, Fiddletips was sure of it. Before he could even think was he was doing, Fidddletips had crossed the room and had placed his hand on the boy’s shoulder.
“Don’t be afraid,” he whispered. “You know what it needs.”
Fiddletips felt the boy’s body tense, but then a solid, powerful hand grabbed him by the straps of his harness and propelled him forcefully through the side of the house.
Fiddletups stumbled and fell, his face landing in a puddle that he could not quite feel. He rolled onto his back and looked up at Sergeant Socks, who stood staring balefully down at him.
“You’re supposed to be a shadow. Nothing more.”
The sergeant’s voice was cold with anger, and Fiddletips paused. He slowly rose to his feet, brushing at the water which had not stained his clothes, before finally facing the veteran agent.
“Don’t say another word, Rookie,” the veteran growled. “Just get back to the car.”
* * *
Socks slammed his harness into the rack and stomped into the cockpit. Fiddletips hung his own harness carefully and followed. He lowered himself into his seat and looked over at the older agent. Taking a deep breath, he spoke quietly.
“I’m sorry, Socks. I was supposed to be shadowing you, but–“
The older agent stared at him, but Fiddletips looked away.
“But I couldn’t help it. I saw the boy… He was so desperate, so afraid… But he knew, Socks. And as soon as I saw that, I knew that if I just nudged him…”
“That he’d speak up, and his mother would listen.”
Fiddletips forced himself to meet the older agent’s gaze.
Finally the older man nodded, and thumbed the ignition on the glide-car.
Neither spoke as Socks piloted the vehicle into the air and on toward their next assignment. Finally, after a long while, it was the older agent who finally broke the silence.
“You were right, you know. It worked.”
Before Fiddletips could respond, Socks spoke again.
“You weren’t assigned to me, Rookie. I requested you.”
Fiddletips’ mind reeled backward in shock, almost unable to process the words.
“You remind me of myself. But what I’ve learned over years, you know. You know, Fiddletips. You have it in you to be the best Field Agent in the history of the Goodwill Department. That’s why I requested you, Rookie; I can help, I want to help. What do you say?”
Fiddletips stared at the older man, the veteran field agent who knew so much, and grinned.
“I say it would be an honour, partner.”
So Socks and Fiddletips flew on through the rain and cold, toward their next assignment…