Charlie Boone

by Geron Kees

It's the Gayest Christmas Ever, Charlie Boone!

© 2016 by Geron Kees. All rights reserved.

This is a work of fiction. All characters and situations are imaginary. No real people were harmed in the creation of this presentation.


Kippy Lawson stepped back and looked at the tree standing in one corner of the family room. It was a Douglas fir, six and a half feet in height, draped with gold and silver strands, and dotted with glass balls of red and blue and gold. Clear glass ornaments in the shape of icicles hung here and there, and strands of lights among the branches winked on and off in multiple colors.

"What do you think?" Kippy asked, looking at the other boy in the room, who was sitting in a chair reading a book on ancient Egypt.

"Not bad," Charlie Boone decided, nodding. "Not bad at all. There's a spot on the right about halfway up that needs some lights, though."

Kippy stepped back, his head moving up and down as he peered into the branches. "I see it."

He stuck a hand in among the needles, and pulled a strand of lights over and made sure they would stay. Then he stepped back and admired his handy work. "What about now?"

Charlie looked again, and nodded. "You got it. It looks good now." His eyes went back to the book he was holding. "Did you know that King Tut's tomb was supposedly cursed, and that a lot of people associated with the opening of it were rumored to have died from unusual causes?"

Kippy stopped moving in the process of hanging another ornament, and looked at his boyfriend. "No. Are you aware that boys reading history books while they are supposed to be helping decorate the tree have also been known to die of unusual causes?"

Charlie turned another page before what Kippy had said registered, and then he looked up, smiling. "No. Where did you read that?"

"I didn't read it. I am promising it. Now come and help me."

Charlie sighed, and stuck a bookmark in the pages of his book. He sat it on the little table by the chair, got up, and approached his boyfriend slowly. "You wouldn't really hurt me, would you?"

Kippy pouted a second, and then smiled. He puckered up, and closed his eyes.

Charlie grinned, stepped the rest of the way to Kippy, and took the boy into his arms. Kippy sighed as lips were pressed to his, and arms were wrapped about him in a warm embrace.

"That's more like it. Now grab some balls and help me put them on the tree."

He started as Charlie cupped his crotch in a hand and gave him a fond squeeze there. Kippy stepped back, smiling. "Not those balls, dummy." He pointed to the box of ornaments on the floor. "The ones there."

Charlie made a small disappointed face, but bent to pick up an ornament. He turned to the tree, looking for a place to put it. "There are a lot on here already."

"There's room for more," Kippy insisted. "I like a shiny tree."

Charlie laughed. "I'd say you're there. One more ornament, and aircraft will be diverting to land here."

Kippy shook his head and stepped back to examine the tree - and then stepped back even farther. His eyes searched among the branches a moment, and then he nodded. "Hmm. You're right. There is such a thing as overkill, I guess."

"You think?"

Kippy placed his hands on his hips and gave his boyfriend a look. "This is your house, and your tree, and I did all the work. Do you really feel like you have a right to criticize?"

Charlie sighed, looking apologetic. "No. You're right, and I'm sorry. You did a nice job with the tree, and my folks will be happy. I'll make sure to let them know you did most of the work."

Kippy allowed one eyebrow to raise. "Most of the work?"

Charlie stepped forward and hung the ornament in his hand on a branch, then stepped back. "Yup. Most of it."

Kippy shook his head, but helped Charlie to gather up the remaining boxes of decorations and put them back in the hall closet. They went to the kitchen after that, and got themselves some late lunch.

Charlie got a glass of milk and put some sliced turkey and cheese on a roll for an open-faced sandwich; but Kippy made himself a full-blown sandwich of epic proportions - thick enough that Charlie could count his boyfriend's teeth when he opened wide to take a bite. Charlie tried not to smile, looking away out the kitchen window.

Lazy snowflakes were drifting down into the backyard; snow was called for, but no accumulation predicted. Still, Charlie hoped that his folks would make it home before the weatherman's forecast proved out. The guy had been wrong plenty of times before.

"It's getting late," Charlie noted, looking up at the clock by the sink. "My parents will be home before long."

"Nah," Kippy said, around a mouthful of sandwich. "I'll bet the mall is a madhouse. Christmas is just seven days away. Why they waited to go on a Saturday, I'll never know."

Charlie raised an eyebrow at him. "Maybe because they work during the week?"

"There's the evenings," Kippy pointed out. "My mom's been doing her shopping after dinner."

"My parents like all the crazy crowds and stuff at Christmas," Charlie said. "My dad says it reminds him of Christmas shopping when he was a kid."

"Reminds me of the zoo," Kippy returned. "Nothing worse than having some guy all pressed up against you while you're trying to decide on which Tupperware to get your mom."

Charlie smiled. "You get your mom plastic bowls for Christmas?"

Kippy huffed, and gave him a look. "No. It was an example, Charlie."

That his boyfriend was still a little miffed at him over the tree was obvious to Charlie now. He decided to turn the conversation in a less volatile direction. "It's going to be nice having you spend the night tonight." He waggled his eyebrows. "Nothing like snuggling on a cold winter evening."

Kippy finally smiled. "I'm looking forward to it."

"Be even better if it's not just us," Charlie added. "I hope Ricky and Adrian can make it."

"Where's is our Ricky-tick today?" Kippy asked then, looking up at the clock himself. If there was one thing that their friend Ricky Travers could normally be counted upon for, it was punctuality. Ricky had said that he and Adrian would be by, but so far the pair were conspicuous by their absence. "I thought they'd be here by now," Kippy finished. He made a noise as he struggled to take a bite out of the center of the sandwich, which was proving to be even thicker than he had bargained for.

Charlie shrugged. "When I talked to him, he said that Adrian had called him and asked him to come over. He said they'd be by here later."

Adrian Whitacre was Ricky's new boyfriend - well, new since the end of October. They had met as a result of a Halloween party, and gravitated together like two bowling balls in a hammock. Ricky spent about half the time these days with a smile on his face, when Adrian was around; and the other half looking lovesick, when Adrian was not.

Adrian, for his part, was equally smitten.

Kippy smiled, obviously imagining the same picture. "Do you think we looked like they do when we first met?"

Charlie grinned. "Probably."

"It's really sweet." Kippy sighed. "Those were the days."

Charlie laughed out loud, and got up and went around to his boyfriend, and wrapped his arms around Kippy's shoulders and squeezed him. "It's not over yet, Kip."

The other boy smiled, and put a hand up and laid it on Charlie's wrist. "You're interrupting my lunch."

Charlie gave a surprised laugh, then sighed. "Maybe it is over." He let go of the boy, and went back to his seat.

Kippy gave him a look, but went on eating. Charlie sighed, and promised himself to never again be caught reading when he was supposed to be helping Kippy do something.

The front doorbell rang, and Kippy waved a hand in that direction. "Make yourself useful."

Charlie nodded, and headed for the front of the house. Kippy wasn't normally one for revenge. But maybe Charlie had been ignoring him a little lately, and Kippy was feeling taken advantage of, and was just paying him back a little. Charlie had meant to help with the tree, but the book on Egypt had just been so fascinating...

He reached the front door, peeked out through the row of lights by its side.

Two boys stood on the front stoop: Ricky Travers and Adrian Whitacre.

Charlie grinned, opening the door. "About time, you two. What, you stopped on the way to --"

He broke off then, noticing then the expressions on the boy's faces. Adrian looked upset, and Ricky looked even worse.

"What's the matter?"

"Can we come in?" Ricky asked, waving at the snowflakes drifting down around them.

"Sorry." Charlie stepped back, admitting the other two. "What's up? You guys look like someone canceled Christmas."

"Someone did," Ricky said, biting his lip. "Adrian's mom got laid off. They might have to move."

Adrian nodded, looking sick at heart. He glanced at Ricky, and his hand went out, seeking the other boy's hand.

Charlie nodded, an ominous feeling settling upon him. "Come on in the kitchen. Kip's here. You can tell us."

They filed to the back of the house, where Kippy was just finishing his sandwich.

"Hey, guys." Kippy's eyes immediately detected the worry on the two newcomer's faces. "What's going on?"

Charlie and the others pulled out chairs and sat down. "Adrian's mom lost her job," Charlie said. "Adrian said they might have to move."

A pained look touched Kippy's features, and his eyes went to Ricky. The other boy was morose, already looking like he had lost his boyfriend. Kippy immediately got up and went around to him, placing his arms about Ricky's shoulders and laying the side of his head against Ricky's. "It won't happen," Kippy said, with assurance. "Stop worrying."

Ricky nodded, but looked far from convinced.

"What happened where your mom works?" Charlie asked, looking at Adrian.

Adrian looked bleak. "They said they were downsizing the workforce due to the economy. My mom and sixteen other people got let go."

Charlie was stunned. "At Christmas? What kind of dump is this place?"

Adrian shrugged. "My mom's an editor. She checks copy for the advertising department."

Kippy made a face. "And they laid her off? Wasn't that an important job to the company?"

"I guess not. My mom said she was just one of twenty people that worked in that office. She and two other people - the low guys on the totem pole - got laid off." Adrian shrugged. "The others that got laid off came from other offices in the company."

"Man, that sucks," Kippy said. "So what's up with the house?"

Adrian sighed. "My mom used the life insurance money - well, most of it - from when my dad died, to buy our house. She needs the job to make the payments, though. She has some money saved in the bank - but it won't keep us going for long."

"What about unemployment?" Ricky asked then, finally coming up enough from his depression to join in. "My cousin got on that for a while when he lost his job. They paid like half, or something like that, of what he was making. I think it was for six months."

Adrian nodded. "She went and filed for that yesterday. She said that will keep us for a little bit - but not for long. We sat down last night and looked at what she has in the bank, and what she needs each month to pay everything." He sighed. "It takes a long time to sell a house, and she can't wait and hope she finds a job, or until the unemployment runs out, to start thinking about putting it on the market. She said we can wait until the end of January, and then we'll have to decide."

Charlie gaped. "That's only six weeks away!"

Adrian and Ricky both nodded, and the two boys leaned closer and hugged. The pain and fear of looming separation was written plainly on their faces.

Charlie felt badly for both of them. For just a moment he imagined if it was Kippy facing a possible move, and he and Charlie being separated. Charlie turned and looked at his boyfriend, found Kippy's eyes upon him. Charlie got up, went around the table, and took his boyfriend into his arms. "I'm sorry I didn't help more with the tree."

Kippy nodded. "It doesn't matter. It was fun."

Charlie closed his eyes and rubbed his face against Kip's a moment, while his thoughts whirled inside his head. Ricky and Adrian were important to Charlie and Kippy both. They were their friends, and they were also their companions. Like minds, in a world where like minds were not so common. They shared a lot together. And Ricky had been such a part of Charlie's and Kippy's lives for so long now that they could not bear to see him go through the pain of losing Adrian after he had only just discovered him.

"Well," Charlie decided, opening his eyes, "we'll just have to do something." He smiled at Kippy, and kissed him. Kippy sagged closer, and the kiss was warm and wonderful.

Charlie finally pulled back. Kippy's eyes shone, and a sweet smile decorated his face.

"Like what?" Adrian asked, squeezing Ricky's hand.

Charlie looked at him. "We need to find your mom a new job."

Adrian gaped. "What? You're not serious, are you?"

Charlie squinted at him. "You want to move?"

"Uh, no." Adrian smiled for the first time since he had arrived. "What have you got in mind?"

Ricky nodded, looking interested now.

Kippy sighed, and leaned a little bit harder against his boy friend. "Here we go!"

Charlie took his free hand and stroked his chin. "Well, for starters, let's see what the job market looks like for editors online. That means my laptop. Let's go up to my room."

They settled themselves in the chair and on the bed in Charlie's bedroom. Kippy went to sit on the bed, but Charlie pushed him down into the chair before the desk instead. "I need to think, Kip, so I need you to be my hands. Get Google up, and then I'll tell you where to go."

Kippy nodded, lifting the laptop's lid. The LCD lit, and Kippy squinted at what was there. "This is your homepage? For real?"

Charlie smiled. "Something wrong with it?"

Kippy made a face. "No. Everyone has the Library of Congress for a homepage. What was I thinking?"

Charlie laughed. "Just get Google up, will ya?"

Kippy was not the typist that Charlie was. Kippy was of the hunt and peck variety. He used his laptop at home mostly to look at clothing, boy's toy's, and porn. Charlie considered his boyfriend underdeveloped when it came to the online world. Kippy, on the other hand, was a realist about it. 'If it interests me, I look at it', he liked to say. 'If it doesn't interest me, I don't'.

Besides, Kippy did most of his online reading and searching at Charlie's house, where his boyfriend could do the key work for him.

"Okay, I'm at the Google page," Kippy said. "What should I put in?"

Charlie looked at Adrian. "Can you tell me more about what your mom did?"

Adrian looked surprisingly unsure of himself. "Well, damn, Charlie, I don't know all the details. She edited stuff the ad department wrote for their products."

"Okay, then. What products did the company make?" Charlie had a patient look on his face. He knew that not everyone scrutinized their lives on the same order that he did. Charlie's dad was a machinist. He manufactured custom parts for aircraft, and a lot of what he did was one-off work. The only reason that Charlie did not know more about it was because his dad worked under a security clearance, and therefore did not talk about the details of what he did.

Charlie's mom was a graphic designer for a cosmetics company. She created packaging and sales materials for the company's line of beauty products. Simple.

Adrian looked like he was thinking furiously. "Um, well, they make stuff like blenders and minivacs."

Charlie frowned. "Hmm. Maybe we should just concentrate on the job itself. Kip, type in Craigslist, and then look for editor jobs."

Kippy did as he was instructed, and Ricky and Adrian went to stand behind him.

Initially, it looked promising. There seemed to be a lot of work out there for an editor. But they soon noticed that few of the jobs were in their area. It wouldn't help to find Adrian's mom a job somewhere else; moving was what they wanted to avoid.

Charlie wrote stuff down, and showed Kippy how to save the links to anything that looked to be worth a follow-up. They went through the jobs listed for editors on Craigslist, and then moved on to Indeed, and looked there. And then, and CareerBuilder, and LinkedIn. Charlie instructed Kippy to do a search on websites listing jobs, and that produced SimplyHired, Glassdoor, Mediabistro, Dice,, FlexJobs, Idealist, and several others. All of the sites listed editor jobs. Charlie made eight pages of notes and Kippy marked dozens of links. More than two hours passed.

Finally, Charlie called a break. He went to the window and looked outside. The snow had slacked off again, and the ground had only been dusted white. Obviously, Kippy had been correct in his assessment of the mall's madness; Charlie's parents were still out.

"We got a lot of stuff," Kippy said, looking through Charlie's notes. That he did not sound encouraged by that only mirrored Charlie's own worry over the process. Finding a job was a lot harder than he had imagined.

"Of course, your mom will need to look at this stuff and see if there's anything she can try to get," Charlie finally said, collecting the pages of notes from Kippy and passing them to Adrian.

The other boy looked at the papers just a little sadly. "My mom has been doing just this same sort of stuff, Charlie." He looked up. "I know you mean well, but I don't know how much this will help."

Charlie sighed. He was willing to admit now that he hadn't really had a good idea how tough it was to go about looking for a job, nor that it required so much follow-up. There were a lot of jobs out there, according to what they had seen, but getting one of them for Adrian's mom was another story.

"Maybe we should just type in Help!" Kippy suggested.

"Couldn't hurt," Charlie admitted, lost in thought.

Kippy laughed. "Let me get back to Google...okay." They watched as he typed in five characters, and then hit enter.

For a moment, nothing happened. But then the laptop's little internal speaker made a funny tinkling sound, and the view on the screen changed.

What kind of help do you need? it said, in large blue letters.

Charlie gaped. "What the hell?"

Kippy looked up at him. "It isn't supposed to do that?"

Charlie shook his head. "Uh uh."

Kippy grinned. He turned back to the keyboard and began typing with two fingers: "Adrian'"

The laptop tinkled again: Why do they want to stay together?

Kippy huffed. "Because they're in love, stupid."

"They can't hear you," Charlie said; but then shook his head, not sure what was possible now. What the heck was this shit?

"Oh." Kippy bent over the keyboard again, and laboriously typed in what he had just said.

"I'd leave out the stupid," Charlie suggested, reading over Kippy's shoulder. He was about ready to take his boyfriend's place at the keyboard, just to see what was really going on here.

Kippy backspaced over the last word, and hit enter.

The screen went dark.

"Now you busted it," Ricky suggested, sighing.

But he had hardly gotten the words out when the screen came back to life. What looked very much like snow began to sprinkle down from the top of the screen, collected at the bottom, and slowly built up what looked like a standard Google return to a query.

But as the screen finished filling in, they could see that there was only one entry.

Charlie bent lower, so that he could read it out loud:

"North Pole News - Interested elf awaiting Christmas moonlights as troubleshooter for firm of Planet Earth Endeavors, seeking to aid all those in difficulty at this special time of year...[Read more]."

Charlie straightened, unable to believe what he was seeing. "This is bullshit," he said then, a feeling of certainty coming over him. "You got on some kind of stupid humor site or something."

Kippy looked up at him. "How? I just typed in the word 'help'".

"Yeah," Adrian said. "I was watching. Google just gives you pretty much what your keyword asks for."

Charlie bent lower again, staring at the screen. It was then he noticed something for the first time. "It says 'Goggle'."

Kippy frowned. "What?"

Charlie pointed. "There, where the Google logo should be. It says 'Goggle' instead."

Kippy looked at the screen, then held up his fingers and gave a small laugh. "Oops. Slip of the finger, Charlie. You know I can't type very well."

Wait a minute, Charlie thought. This just was not making sense. Charlie had been using computers - and search engines - ever since he was old enough to sit himself in front of a computer. They just did not act this way - did not do the things that his very own laptop was now doing.

Could this be some kind of crazy virus? Or ransomware, maybe, about to take over his machine? It had to be something more than just the results of a typo in the name of a search engine.

"Might as well see what it says," Kippy said then, and before Charlie could speak, his boyfriend had selected the single entry and pressed enter.

"Shit," Charlie said then. "I hope you didn't just hand my machine over to some Russian hacker."

Kippy made an "O" with his mouth, and held a hand up to cover it. "Sorry," he said, looking up at Charlie.

Odd patterns flitted across the LCD screen now, swirling about like snow during a blizzard. Suddenly, the swirl moved to the center of the screen, dissolved back outwards, and then a face appeared in the center of the screen. Cool blue eyes surveyed them.

The face appeared to belong to a teenaged boy, not much older than their own fourteen years. He had very blue eyes, actually, and a cute little nose, and a mouth that looked like it might like to be kissed. The guy's hair was blond, and curly, and circled about his face like the wind had blown it there.

"What can I do for you, gentlemen?"

Kippy gasped and looked up at Charlie. "He's talking to us!"

Charlie blinked at the screen. What...had they been shanghaied to Skype or something?

"Man, this can't be real," Charlie blurted then.

The face on the screen pulled back, and they could see the room behind. An immense room. It stretched away to a point in the far distance, and there was just motion everywhere. Charlie gasped as he caught a glimpse of conveyor belts, rolling along, as if in a factory - but one designed by Dr. Seuss. The belts went up, they went down, they curled in circles, they doubled back, and many exited the room for destinations unknown. All manner of things went by on the belts, from teddy bears and coloring books to drones and PlayStations. Other teen boys moved about the belts, grabbing items off the line, looking them over, and then writing things on clipboards.

The face on the screen squinted at them. "How'd you get this number?"

"What number?" Kippy said - the first to unfreeze. "I typed in 'help' on Google...I mean, on Goggle, and I got you. It said something about Planet Earth Endeavors, or something."

The boy on the screen looked alarmed. "Shh!" He looked nervously over his shoulder, then back at them. "The big guy is floating around here someplace, on a quality control inspection. If he finds out I'm moonlighting, I could get canned."

"Um, too late for that," Adrian offered. "It's in the North Pole News."

The face on the screen grinned. "Yeah, that's an elf paper. The big guy don't read that."

Charlie felt a sense of absolute disbelief. "You...are an elf?"

The boy on the screen huffed. "Don't I look like it?"

"No," Kippy said immediately, smiling. "You look like a cute dream guy to me."

Charlie couldn't help laughing.

The boy watching them looked alarmed. "Aw, geez, you guys ain't fairies, are ya?"

Charlie was so surprised that he laughed again. But Kippy didn't. Kippy looked indignant. "What are you, some kind of homophobe? I say you're cute, and that's a reason to talk trash to us?"

"Whoa, whoa, whoa." Now the onscreen face looked upset. "Could you turn just a little - let me see your back?"

Kippy made a face, but obliged, turning just long enough to display the back of his shirt.

"No wings," the boy onscreen commented to himself. His eyes got large then. "Great slushy snowballs! You're people!"

Kippy stared at him. "Well, duh." He was still annoyed. "What's your name? I want to make a complaint."

"Now, now, let's not get carried away. My name is Max. I think what we have here is a misunderstanding."

Charlie laid a hand on Kippy's shoulder. "Relax, Kip."

Kippy frowned. "Just because we're gay is no reason for someone to be mean."

Max blinked at them from the screen. "You fellas are gay?" He immediately held up a hand. "Not that there's anything wrong with that."

Charlie tried not to grin, but Kippy looked annoyed all over again. "Look, you - !"

He broke off as Charlie squeezed his shoulder.

"This is some kind of crazy joke, right?" Charlie asked. "You're having a lot of fun, and recording this, we're going to get slapped on YouTube and go viral. Then everybody will be laughing at the dumb gay guys, huh?"

Max squinted at them. "What do you think I am?" He sighed. "Look, you guys, I don't know how we connected, but we did. Must be Karma of some kind. But you say you need help, and I'm in the business of helping. Maybe we can get together on this and see what can be done, huh?"

Charlie looked up at Adrian and Ricky.

"I'd try anything at this point," Adrian said quietly.

Ricky circled an arm around Adrian's waist, gently pulled him closer, and nodded.

"What have you got in mind?" Charlie asked the face on the laptop's screen, sensing the desperation of his two friends.

Max looked over his shoulder again. "I get off in an hour. Temporally, as far as you guys are concerned, that's now." He fiddled with something under the screen, out of their sight. "Okay, I've got your location. See you shortly."

"Wait," Charlie said, holding up a hand. "You're -"

The screen went dark.

The doorbell rang.

Charlie looked at Kippy, and Kippy looked at Charlie.

Ricky gave a small laugh. "That can't be -"

Charlie swallowed hard. "Let's go see."

They ran down the steps to the first floor. Charlie got there first, and peered through the lights beside the door.

The snowfall had increased in rate again, and the world outside was whiting out a bit. But the person standing on the front porch was perfectly visible.

It was Max.

A sense of unreality came over Charlie as he opened the door.

Max was a little shorter than any of them, and dressed all in red. Short sleeve, button-down red shirt, red pants, and red boots that looked like the kind that Superman wore in the comics, like red socks with soles.

He was awfully cute, Charlie couldn't help thinking, before he shoved the thought out of his head and stepped back, opening the door wider.

Max grinned. "Hello, all. Well, I'm here."

"Um - that was fast," Charlie said, for want of anything better to say.

"Yeah. Them temporal transports are quick, you know? Hi, fellas." Max nodded to the group.

Ricky and Adrian returned the nod, still in shock over the speed of Max's arrival.

"Aren't you cold?" Kippy asked, smiling despite himself.

"No." Max shook his head. "Can I come in?"

Charlie nodded, and motioned with his hand for the other to enter. Max came in, his eyes going around the entry foyer. "Nice place. Got somewhere we can talk?"

Charlie nodded again, shut the door and led them all back into the family room.

Max spied the tree, and grinned. "Dang. Someone likes balls."

"I do, I do!" Kippy said, jumping up and down. Charlie laughed, shaking his head at his boyfriend.

Max squinted at him. "Aw, hey, a joke. Pretty funny." He sat down on the couch, looked around. "Dang. People houses are so square."

Charlie felt surprise at that. "How do you mean?"

Max shrugged. "You know - the rooms are all square. Corners everywhere. At the floor, at the ceiling. No round stuff, much."

"It's different, where you live?"

"Sure. Lots of round rooms. You want a corner, you gotta go out and buy one."

Charlie tried to digest that, but really couldn't. "So, what do you think? Can you help Adrian?"

Max looked around. "Which one is he?"

Adrian was sitting on the couch, with Ricky tight beside him. Adrian raised a hand, and Max looked at him. "Guess that would be Ricky, then, all over you like that." He grinned. "Not that there's anything wrong with that."

Charlie leaned forward. "Where - exactly - did you say you were from?"

"North Pole. You knew that, though, right?"

Charlie scratched his head. "Well, see, there's a slight problem with that. Um...we're too old to believe in flying reindeer and elves."

Max looked surprised. "Really? I don't know why. We believe in you with no problem." He turned his head, found Kippy watching him. "You're staring."

Kippy blinked, and then grinned. "I'm sorry. You're just so damn cute. old are you, if I might ask?"

Charlie rolled his eyes.

Max shrugged. "Six hundred and twelve."

The boys simply stared at him.

"Six hundred and twelve - what?" Kippy finally asked.

"Six hundred and twelve years. Heck, I got a wife, and twenty-seven kids, eighty-four grandchildren, and one-hundred-sixty-six great grandchildren. There's some great, great grandkids, too, but I lost count of them."

Kippy simply shook his head. "But how can you look so cute if you're that old?"

Max grinned. "I told you, I'm an elf. You know - elfin? Cute is part of the package."

"You think you can help Adrian?" Charlie asked, trying to steer the conversation back to the subject at hand.

"Don't see why not." Max leaned closer to Adrian. "We at PEE pride ourselves on our resourcefulness. Uh...what exactly is the problem?"

"My mom lost her job."

Max blinked. "That's it?"

Adrian looked surprised. "We could lose our house because of it." He looked at Ricky. "I'd have to move away."

Max looked at the two boys, and Charlie couldn't miss the note of sympathy that crept into the elf's expression. "Well, that sucks. Hmm. So it's a question of money, huh?"

Adrian nodded. "Basically."

Max reached down, and his hand disappeared into a previously invisible pocket in his pants. When it re-emerged a moment later, there was a flowering in his hand, as though a magician had pulled a bouquet of roses from the sleeve of his jacket.

Charlie gaped at the sudden volume of bills in Max's hand, and Kippy made a little squeak like a mouse surprised by his first cat. Adrian and Ricky simply stared, their mouth's hanging open.

Max was unaware of the reaction, being busy thumbing through the bills, his mouth moving silently as he counted. Then he looked up. "I got about twenty-seven thousand here, if that would help."

"Is that real money?" Adrian managed to get out, leaning forward.

Max laughed. "Sure. Good old North Pole folding greenish stuff."

Charlie found his tongue. "Uh...I don't know if that would spend here in the US."

Max waved it in his hand, and they were suddenly looking at an enlarging wad of bills - all showing the face of Benjamin Franklin.

"Those are hundreds," Kippy breathed, staring at Charlie.

"Geez, your money ain't worth crap here," Max observed, as the wad continued to expand a moment before finally stopping. He thumbed through it again, counting silently. "Okay - I got sixty-one grand. Would that help?"

"You would give that to Adrian?" Charlie asked, unable to believe his eyes.

Max shrugged. "Sure. It's pocket money. I wish I had more, but I did my own Christmas shopping for the kids, and even with employee discounts, well, I got a mess of 'em!"

Adrian looked at Charlie. "Oh, Charlie, that would help so much, but -" Adrian suddenly looked crestfallen.

"What's the matter?" Max asked, seeing the reaction.

Adrian looked at him. "How could I just walk in and give my mom all that money? She wouldn't believe an elf gave it to me. She'd think I stole it or something."

Charlie could see that plainly. "Yeah. I think Adrian's right." He smiled. This whole thing was just nuts. But one thing was clear: Max really had intended to offer the money to Adrian. It was kindness of the first degree, and it was Christmas giving without strings. Whatever lunacy was going on here, it wasn't all bad.

"Adrian's mom needs a job, so she can make her own money," Charlie said quietly.

Max nodded, and forced the huge wad of bills back into his pocket. They disappeared with a small slurping sound, leaving no trace of even a lump in the elf's pants.

"How do you do that?" Kippy asked, leaning forward. "There's no trace of all that money in your pocket."

"Yeah, the big guy don't like bulges," Max said, shrugging. He patted his stomach. "He's been fighting them for years. So all our clothes are designed to hide that kind of stuff. Go figger."

Kippy's mouth dropped open, and he made a disapproving face at Charlie. "Oh, wow. Pants with no bulges. How boring."

Charlie grinned, and rolled his eyes. "Let's stick with the issue at hand, shall we?"

Max nodded. "I hate to say it, but I don't know squat about people jobs." He smiled. "You're the first people I've ever met in person."

Ricky laughed then. "But you said you believed in us with no problem."

"Oh, sure. I spend all year in shipping, routing all that junk you guys like so much at Christmas. The big guy says you people are worth it."

"You mean...Santa?" Kippy hazarded.

Max blanched, and looked around the room before settling his eyes back on Kip. "Yeah," he said, his voice soft. "We don't say that name out loud, though, because he can hear it. I'd just as soon not get him focused on the fact that I'm here, okay?" He leaned forward, and lowered his voice to a whisper. "This is outside work, fellas. The big guy frowns on elves that have side jobs, you know? He says it distracts us from our mission in life."

"So why do you do it?" Charlie asked.

Max grinned. "I like to help folks, that's why. We at PEE believe in giving until it hurts."

Charlie grinned. "There are others of you that are involved in this organization?"

"Uh, well, no. It's just me. But it sounds better if it's Planet Earth Endeavors, rather than just Maximillian Pribilownakowskif, don'cha think?"

Kippy gave a laugh. "I'd say so." He favored Charlie with a conspiratorial smile. "Not to change the subject," he went on, leaning closer to their visitor, "but I have to ask: are there any, um, gay elves?"

Max blinked, and then laughed. "Oh, sure. Sex ain't something we elves worry about. Anything goes, we like to say."

Charlie stared at him. "So what's with all the 'not that there's anything wrong with that' stuff?"

For just a second, Max looked uncomfortable. "Well, guys, let me tell you. I never personally did anything like that myself. Me and my old lady have been together since I was not a lot older than you fellas. So, I don't really get it, you know? But gay is okay where I come from, and I was mostly kidding around with you earlier." He nodded. "What you guys do is your business, you get me? I'm sorry if I seemed to be making judgments."

Kippy sighed. "Cute and sweet." He made eyes at Max, to which the elf actually reddened. "If you were one of us, Charlie and I could make you very happy." He winked. "Bulge or not."

Charlie tried hard not to smile, and he could see Adrian and Ricky both doing the same thing. That Max was a little uncomfortable was obvious. Charlie decided to help get him off the hook.

"So, back to the job thing," he said, looking pointedly at Kippy. His boyfriend grinned, but nodded, and Charlie let his gaze go back to the elf. "Any ideas?"

Max seemed relieved at the change of subject. He turned to Adrian. "What kind of stuff can your mom do?"

Again, Adrian tried to explain what his mother had done in the advertising department of the company where she had worked.

"Oh, promotions," Max said, nodding. "Sure, I've heard of that kind of stuff. The big guy wouldn't be where he is today without our PR guys." He frowned. "But I don't know much about it, personally."

"So what do we do, then?" Charlie asked, a feeling of hopelessness settling over him. That Max really wanted to help seemed apparent now; but that he wasn't sure how to do it seemed equally clear.

Max frowned, and turned to look at Adrian. "Your mom is looking for work?"

Adrian nodded. "Yeah. When me and Ricky left to come over here, she was sitting at the computer looking at some of the same stuff that Charlie and us looked at here."

Max smiled. "Well, hey, that makes it easier."

Kippy shrugged. "How so?"

"Well, if Adrian's mom is looking for work, all we have to do is check ahead in time and see if any of the places she's applying are going to hire her."

Charlie scratched his head. "And how is that going to help?

"If we find out that someone is going to hire her, we don't need to do anything. She'll get a job."

Charlie shrugged. "And what if they're not going to hire her?"

"You could make them hire her," Adrian said suddenly, pointing at Max. "Right?"

The elf looked at him. "How would I do that?"

Adrian shrugged. "Well, you use your magic. You don't even have to force them. Just wave your hand or whatever you do, and make my mom's application look just a little better than everyone else's."

"Sounds unethical," was Charlie's first response.

For just a second the elf beamed a smile Charlie's way; but then Max looked at Adrian, a puzzled look on his face. "You'd want me to do that?"

Adrian nodded. "Well, yeah. My mom needs a job so Ricky and I can stay together."

Max seemed to consider the idea. "Just wave my hand, and make your mom's application look better than everyone else's, huh?" He grinned. "Put the old whammy on the competition?"

"There you go," Adrian said. "Make my mom's application look the best, and my mom will definitely get a job."

Charlie looked at Max. "What is this whammy you're talking about? Does it hurt?"

The elf looked pained. "Cut me some slack here, huh? Elves make people happy." He leaned forward. "So of course I ain't hurting anyone."

Charlie shrugged. "Then what does it do?"

Max leaned forward, his eyes moving among the boys. "Just like Adrian says. Someone looks at those applications, right? They check the person's qualifications, and work experience, stuff like that."

Adrian nodded. "My mom has good references."

"Okay. Well, what we do is put the whammy on how the application looks to the reviewer. We just make it look that much sweeter than all the others." Max frowned. "Only one problem with that."

Charlie nodded, figuring it sounded too good to be true. "And what is that?"

Max scratched his forehead. "Well, if another application is a standout...I mean, if one of the other applications is just obviously the best, the whammy won't work." He held up his hands. "The whammy just makes one thing look better if all of them are about the same. You gotta figure a lot of people applying for a job have similar qualifications. The people with lesser qualifications, they're out of the running already. The people with more, they need to have one stand out. But if one application is already just better than all the others, that person will get the job, whammy on your mom, or not."

Max brightened. "But, since she's surely applying at more than one place, we still have a good chance that it will work at one or more of them."

Charlie felt a little better, but not much. He had a thing about cheating, and this smacked exactly of that. But he also realized that this was a case of need. He at least knew the consequences of Adrian's mom not getting a job. All the other applicants for the jobs Adrian's mom was after were not quite people in Charlie's mind. They were just, well, applications - faceless, and impersonal.

And, it really wasn't up to him, anyway. Adrian needed to be the one to make the decision to proceed.

Charlie looked at him now. "What do you think?"

Adrian licked his lips, turned and looked at Ricky. Their eyes locked, and Charlie could see the silent pleas moving between them.

Adrian sighed, and looked at Max. "Let's do it."

The elf grinned. "Okay. Gather 'round, gents, and we'll make our plans..."

Charlie took a deep breath, and leaned forward with the others.

The first thing they did was have Max change his clothing. The suit he was wearing when he arrived, while cute, was just a little too visible for any unobtrusive creeping about they needed to perform. Charlie dug out some of his older clothing from the cedar chest at the top of the attic stairs, stuff he had worn the year before that was just a little small for him now. They went back to Charlie's room, and he laid the clothing out on the bed.

Max looked at the stuff a little uncertainly. "I dunno, guys. It's against the rules for us to masquerade as people."

"It's not a masquerade," Charlie explained. "Anyone asks any of us if you're an elf, we'll all say you are."

Max grinned. "Oh, well, in that case, it's okay."

He sat on the edge of Charlie's bed and began to undress, pulling his odd red boots off first. He had red socks on beneath them.

"Uh, we'll go out," Charlie said, moving to herd the others from the room.

"That's okay," Max said, smiling. "I ain't bashful."

Charlie found himself unable not to watch as the elf continued to undress, until he was wearing nothing but a pair of red boxers.

Max had a swimmer's physique: lean and mildly muscular, and otherwise looked like any fit teenaged boy of fourteen or fifteen. His chest was hairless, but a thin, nearly invisible line of soft fur started at his navel and disappeared into the waistline of his shorts. A noticeable presence in the front of his boxers indicated that the North Polar restriction of bulges in clothing did not extend to underclothes.

Kippy looked over at Charlie, a to die for expression on his face. Charlie stuck his tongue into his cheek and tried not to laugh at Kippy's reaction, although somewhere inside he agreed with it wholeheartedly. For six hundred and twelve, Max was killer cute all over.

The elf finished dressing, tied his running shoes, and stood up. "Hmm. Little heavy, but not uncomfortable."

Charlie nodded. "You look great," he said, and meant it.

Max grinned at him. "Thanks." He patted the jeans he wore. "Don't know why, but it makes me feel like a kid again."

Charlie gave a little sigh. "So. What's next?"

Max considered a moment, then turned to Adrian. "We need to see where your mom has been applying."

The boy nodded. "Um, we'll need to go to my house. It's just a short walk."

Max nodded. "Yeah. All you guys come here and put a hand on me."

Kippy jumped to his feet, grinning. "Anywhere?"

Charlie shook his head. "Be good, Kip."

Kippy's eyes were full of humor. "I'm just playing."

All four boys moved closer to the elf, and reached out and put their hands on his shoulders. Kippy pushed his hand close to Charlie's and smiled at him, his eyes saying how much fun he was having. Charlie just sighed, and smiled back. He loved Kippy, and that was all there was to it.

"You got a place that's yours, Adrian?" Max asked, looking at the boy. "A room or something, that's private?"

"Yeah. Why?"

Max nodded. "Can you picture it in your mind for me?"

Adrian frowned. "I guess. Um, yeah." He closed his eyes, concentrating.

Charlie suddenly felt dizzy, and the room spun, and there was the sensation of a fierce wind all about him, and the lighting flickered and suddenly changed...

...and then they were all standing in Adrian's bedroom.

Charlie gaped around at the familiar posters and pictures on the wall. A lamp was on on the nightstand by the bed, and it filled the room with a soft, even glow.

Ricky looked around, smiling. "Well, here's one of my favorite places!"

Adrian actually laughed, leaning closer to Ricky and kissing him. Max smiled, his eyes meeting Charlie's. "Beats walking, huh?"

Charlie nodded. "For speed, anyway. That dizzy part I could do without."

Kippy nodded, rubbing his belly. "Yeah. Any stronger and I'd have lost my lunch."

Max shrugged. "You get used to that. I don't even notice it anymore."

Everyone had stepped back from the elf except for Kippy, who still had a hand on his shoulder. Max eyed him, smiling. "You can let go now."

Kippy looked regretful, but withdrew his hand, and Charlie just smiled. His boyfriend's enchantment with Max was obvious, and Charlie could readily understand it. Knowing that Max was six hundred years old was in the same ballpark as knowing he was an elf from the North Pole. Neither fact really registered in their zone of belief. They had gotten used to the fact that he was there among them, and that to all appearances he was as real as they were. Charlie had put a hold on his other beliefs for now, just unable to deny what his senses were telling him about their visitor.

At the same time, there was a warm pleasure to the elf's company that was hard to get away from. He looked for all the world like a really cute guy their own age, and exuded a certain undeniable sexual appeal that was stimulating in the extreme. Kippy was a sucker for cute and sexy guys, and Charlie had had to ride herd on him before. Kippy would never think of being disloyal to Charlie, but he would certainly play, if Charlie was there to play along with him. That Max did not seem the type to be interested only increased Kippy's need to experiment.

"Wait here a minute, guys," Adrian said. "I'll go see where my mom is, and see if we can get to her laptop."

He went to the door of the room, opened it, checked the hallway beyond, and then slipped out.

Max looked at Ricky. "You love him, don'cha?"

Ricky looked startled, but the speed with which he nodded made Charlie smile.

Max smiled, too. "We're gonna fix this, okay? Guys that feel the way you two do need to be together." He looked at Charlie, and then nodded at Kippy. "That one's yours, huh?"

Charlie laughed. "Yep. Warts and all."

Kippy's mouth dropped open, and he laughed. "I beg your pardon. I have nice skin."

Max looked back at Charlie, and Charlie nodded. "Pretty much."

One of the elf's eyebrows went up. "You've seen it? All of it?"

Charlie laughed. "Yes. And rubbed all of it, and kissed all of it, and licked all of it. Kip has beautiful, soft skin."

Kippy's eyes fastened on Charlie's, and the warmth that Charlie could see there was undeniable.

Max gave a little sigh, looking curious. "What's it like?"

Charlie was surprised. "What? You mean having a boyfriend?"

The elf nodded.

Charlie shrugged. "I'm sure it's like you having your wife. It's really just loving another person. You know how to do that, right?"

Max nodded. "Interesting."

"And kissing a guy is just like kissing a girl," Kippy said. His eyes danced a little as they came back to Charlie's. "Better, with certain guys."

Charlie grinned. "I'll say."

Max's eyes went from one boy to the other, and back again.

Adrian returned at that moment. "We're in luck. I found a note in the kitchen. My mom ran out to the grocery store to get some stuff in case we got snowed in. Her laptop is on the kitchen table."

Max nodded. "Then we can go to it. Come on, fellas." He looked at Adrian. "Lead the way."

Adrian looked excited, grabbed Ricky's hand, and pulled him out the door. Charlie and the others followed.

Adrian's house was clean and nicely furnished, although one room they passed barely had anything in it. It was just Adrian and his mom, and the house had three bedrooms. Obviously, they had not felt the need to furnish all of it just yet.

They went down to the first floor, and Adrian led them around to the kitchen. This room had a little more of a daily-use look to it, with dish towels hanging on the oven door handle and knickknacks on the counter near the sink. An oak octagonal table sat in a nook by a bay window showing the backyard, and Adrian's mom had left her laptop open at one seat. Adrian slid into the chair, looking at the screen. "What do we do?"

Something occurred to Charlie then. "Um, if we just go stomping around through her computer, we might leave a sign that we've been here." Charlie laid a hand on Adrian's shoulder. "I don't know about your mom, but my folks would get a little pissed if I did that with theirs."

Adrian nodded. "Yeah. I didn't think of that." He looked up at the elf. "How are we gonna do this?"

Max grinned. "Oh, geez, fellas, we don't need to touch the thing, even. Let me talk to the electrons and see what they say, okay?"

Charlie stared at Max. "What was that?"

Max smiled, and came to stand by the laptop. He looked at it carefully, as if seeing something that Charlie couldn't, then made a small sound. "Wow. These things just get bigger inside every year." He stepped back, and moved a hand slowly across through the air in front of himself.

A stream of glittery particles flowed from the laptop, and Adrian pushed his chair back with a start. The particles formed an expanding wave that swirled about in front of Max, coalescing into a cloud that pulsed with light and energy. The cloud thinned, and just as suddenly, there were pictures.

Torrents of them.

Charlie felt absolutely frozen in place, as images swirled all about them: faces, and spaces, and strange foreign places. Landscapes of glass with no volume or mass, formed grand vistas of diamonds and blue sapphire grass. Landscapes abounded, unbounded outside, but composed of vast rooms full of people inside; and lantern light played over crowds far and wide, giving just enough light to display the far side. There were roadways of headlights, just glittering with cars, as they traveled the miles under night skies filled with stars. Buildings so tall that he knew they would fall, to the soft, tree-filled gardens that lined their great malls. A billion life forces teemed there, all around, their spirits all smiling, but making no sound; wandering and seeking a future with vision, trying to skirt the dark hands of division. All about them, and inside them, great imaginings unfurled, projected within the mists as they twisted and curled.

Charlie shook his head, overcome, and closed his eyes against the torrents of information funneling into them. He was aware of the other boys reacting similarly, and felt a hand find his and grasp it; and then Kippy was beside him, pushing against him. Charlie raised an arm, circled it about his boyfriend, and they held tightly to each other as the lights and warmth of time and space bounced off of their eyelids.

And then it was over. A stunning darkness closed in, and Charlie realized that it was simply due to the fact that he had his eyes closed. He opened them, found another pair of eyes just inches away, looking back into his. Kippy.

Charlie kissed him, just overcome with the knowledge that in all the vastness he had just witnessed, there was one heart and soul that always would be with him.

Kippy kissed back, pushing his face against Charlie's, until the kiss slowly evaporated into just touching.

"I love you, Charlie," Kippy whispered.

Charlie nodded. "I love you, too, Kip."

Charlie looked about then, and was surprised to find that Adrian had somehow found his way from the chair he had been sitting in to Ricky's side, and that they seemed to be sharing a moment just like the one that Charlie and Kippy had shared.

"It has that effect on people, sometimes," Max said quietly. The elf was watching them, a small smile on his face. "Sometimes, when you get to see how huge the world really is, you suddenly see how wonderful the small space is where you're standing." He grinned then. "Especially if you're sharing it with someone special."

Charlie nodded, squeezing Kippy to him again. "What was all that?"

Max shrugged. "There's an awful lot inside one of these," he returned, leaning over to tap the laptop. "We just sifted through what's there, and what will be there, between now and Christmas day." He looked at Adrian. "So now we know where your mom has applied so far, and where she will apply in the next week."

Charlie frowned. "We have six weeks, not one."

Max's face compressed, just a little, but enough to convey sadness. "Yeah. But I can only help you until Christmas Eve day. Remember? I'm an elf. I have to be back at North Pole in time to help the big guy get on the road with his stuff."

Charlie and Kippy exchanged glances, but Adrian just nodded. "So what did you find out?"

Max shrugged. "Your mom knows about you."

Adrian shook his head slowly. "Knows about me?"

Max nodded, licking his lips. "She may not know you're gay, but she knows you and Ricky here have developed something special. Something not easily pulled apart." Max's eyes moved slowly back and forth between the two boys. "She is confining her job hunt, thus far, and at least until Christmas day, to job offerings that allow you to stay in this house, and with Ricky."

Adrian swallowed hard. "I didn't tell her anything."

Max smiled. "Come on, man. She's your mom. You think you can hide being in love from her?"

Adrian looked at Ricky, who smiled at him. For a moment there was fear and doubt in Adrian's eyes; but then Ricky's smile won out. Adrian smiled. "I guess not."

Max nodded. "That's narrowed what she can apply for by quite a bit, fellas. We're dealing with nine possibles here. No more."

A small wave of excitement passed through Charlie. Nine possible jobs? Certainly one of them would work out!

"And four are out right away," Max continued. "Remember I said the whammy wouldn't work if there were any applicants that were just superior? Four of those jobs will go to other people with better skills sets."

"Five," Adrian breathed, looking at Ricky. "It's still possible."

Ricky nodded, looking at Max. "So how will we know?"

Max stepped forward. "Let's go back to Charlie's room, and we'll talk."

They placed their hands back on the elf's shoulders, and endured the brief dizziness and swirl of energies as they were transported back to Charlie's room.

"Yuck," Kippy said, sitting on the edge of the bed. "I don't think I could get used to that."

Max smiled. "No. But it would get used to you."

Kippy looked at him. "What's that mean?"

Max winked at him, and went over and sat in the desk chair. The boys lined up on the edge of the bed, watching him.

"You guys are all staying here tonight, right? Sleepover, I think it's called?"

Charlie squinted at him. "I don't think I mentioned that. How'd you know?"

Max grinned. "Well, let's see..." He suddenly leaned forward. "I'm a magical elf, remember?"

"Yeah. About that," Charlie said, leaning forward. "I just don't believe in magic."

Max laughed. "Really?"

"No. But I have to admit you have some really cool technology at your disposal. I'm trying to figure out if you guys are some kind of aliens, or maybe from an alternate reality, or something like that."

Max leaned forward again. "Ever consider the idea that magic is technology? Just a different kind than you're used to?"

For a moment Charlie didn't know how to answer that. He had never considered the idea of technology being anything but the semiconductor science he was used to. He scratched his head. "Um -"

Max laughed. "Leave it right there, son. That's as good as you'll ever get with it. And it's really not your problem just now, is it?" The elf pointed at Ricky and Adrian. "Helping these two is."

Charlie took a breath and let it out. "Yeah. You're right." He grinned. "We can debate the other stuff later."

"So what about tonight?" Kippy asked, nudging Charlie slightly with his elbow. Shut up, Charlie.

Charlie smiled.

Max nodded again. "You'll all be here tonight. So we are going to do a little looking around, okay?"

Kippy shrugged."What are we going to look at?"

Max's eyes went down the line, pausing at each boy. "Gentlemen, the world runs on cause and effect. Everything that happens effects everything else. I need you to understand this, okay?"

"I get it," Adrian said. "But how does it affect what we're doing?"

Max sighed. "If I put the whammy on this, and shift the balance slightly in your mom's favor, it will affect the entire universe. But mostly, it will affect the person who might have gotten the job instead of your mom. We're talking about five other lives here, boys. If I fix it so that Adrian's mom gets a job when someone else might have gotten it instead, it will change that someone's life. Do you understand?"

Adrian looked at Ricky, and both of them suddenly understood that what had at first seemed like a simple problem had suddenly grown complex. "What do you want us to do?"

Max shook his head. "Not us. You. I'm going to show you how pushing a job into your mom's favor might affect another life. And then you are going to have to tell me whether or not to do it."

Adrian gasped.

"That's not fair," Ricky said, tightening his arm around his boyfriend.

Max shrugged. "It's not? Of course it is, boys. Nothing is free in this world. Everything costs. You need to understand that."

"So you're staying with us tonight?" Charlie asked.

Max nodded. "Yeah. I like sausage pizza, by the way."

Charlie blinked. "What's that mean?"

The elf just smiled. "You'll see."

It was getting towards dark when Charlie's parents returned. His dad called him downstairs to help unload the car, admonishing him not to look into the bags he was bringing inside. Kippy came down to help, too, and the work went quickly.

"Just the two of you?" Charlie's dad asked. "I thought Ricky and Adrian were staying over, too."

"Yeah, they're here," Charlie said. "They're upstairs."

"Oh, good," Charlie's mom said, giving Charlie a quick hug. "We brought three big pizzas, and that would be too much if they hadn't come."

Charlie blinked in surprise. "Is one of them sausage?"

His dad nodded. "Yup. We got a sausage and onion, and a ham and pineapple, and a pepperoni and bacon."

Kippy smiled, looking at Charlie. Charlie just shook his head.

"Everybody's parents okay with everyone staying over tonight?" Charlie's mom asked. She was used to Kippy seeming like an extra son at her house, and Ricky now and then; but Adrian was new.

"Yup. Everybody's cool with it."

Charlie and Kippy went back to the garage for a last load, and then turned off the light and came inside the kitchen and shut the outer door. Charlie's mom wanted all the stuff placed in the den, where she could sort and wrap at her leisure, without presents laying about in plain sight.

"Now stay out of here, okay?" She said, closing the door and herding the boys back to the kitchen. "Oh, I am so glad to be home."

Charlie grinned. "Was the mall busy?"

His mom rolled her eyes. "Oh, you wouldn't believe it. The place was mobbed. The poor Santa they had there looked so tired. He must have had a hundred kids sit on his lap."

There was a sound from upstairs, and they all looked at the ceiling.

"What was that?" Charlie's mom asked.

Charlie shrugged. "Probably just Ricky or Adrian moving around."

"Oh, right. You want to call them down to get pizza, before it gets cold?"

"I'll get them," Kippy offered, heading for the stairs.

"You have enough blankets and sheets for the cot, and, um, the floor?" Charlie's mom asked him, after Kip had gone. She knew they would be sleeping together, but maintained a small fiction about it, because she believed that talking about it embarrassed the boys. Charlie wasn't embarrassed at all about sleeping with Kippy; but he went along with the game, on the outside chance that it was his mom who would be the embarrassed one in any conversation about sleeping arrangements.

"Yeah, mom. I put some extras in the hall closet just in case."

His mom nodded. "It's supposed to be cold tonight." She paused, and smiled at him. "How are you and Kip doing?"

Charlie smiled. "We're fine, mom."

She nodded. "And Ricky and Adrian?"

"They're good."

She put her hand under her chin a moment, and looked thoughtful. "That sure was a surprise about Ricky."

Charlie knew what she meant. Charlie had suspected that his friend had bi leanings, but had never imagined that he'd have a boyfriend anytime soon. "They're happy, mom."

She smiled at him, gave him another little hug. "That's the important thing." For a moment they just smiled at each other.

Then his mom did one of those shifting of gears things that Charlie was used to, and waved at one of the cupboards. "You want to get some plates out for the pizza? It should still be hot; but if it isn't you can nuke it in the microwave for a few seconds." She turned and pointed at a bag sitting on the kitchen table. "Some drinks there, if there aren't any left in the fridge."

Kippy returned with the other two boys, and greetings were offered all around. Ricky and Adrian seemed a little subdued to Charlie, but his mom seemed not to notice.

They each got a plate, and Charlie used the pizza wheel to cut slices and hand them out. He placed an extra slice of sausage pizza on each plate, pointing his eyes at the ceiling as he did it. No one said anything. They all understood. The pizza was still hot enough to eat, and required no nuking.

"Thanks, mom," Charlie said, and the other boys echoed him. "Thanks, dad," Charlie called towards the family room, where he could hear the sound of the TV.

His dad came in from that room then, grinning. "Hey, Charlie, the tree looks great." Charlie's dad looked over at Charlie's mom. "Did you see it, honey?"

"Not yet. Get a plate and get your pizza, Tommy, and we can eat in there. I'll see the tree then." She smiled at Charlie.

"Um, Kippy did all the work," Charlie said.

"Charlie helped," Kippy insisted.

They looked at each other and grinned.

The four of them got drinks from the refrigerator, and Charlie tucked an extra ginger ale under his arm; and then the four boys headed upstairs.

Max was kicked back on the bed, his hands tucked behind his head. He sat up as the boys entered the room, and swung his legs to the floor. "Hope you don't mind me taking a rest. Someone down there with you mentioned the big guy's name, and I was playing invisible."

Charlie was not at all at odds with the idea of the cute elf laying in his bed. He grinned. "Yeah, that was my mom. Sorry. Help yourself to as much laying down as you need."

They settled down to eating, each of them pointing at the extra slice of sausage pizza on their plates. Max proved to have a healthy appetite, and quickly consumed all four, and poured the ginger ale down in virtually one gulp.

Charlie watched him with admiration. "And I thought Kip could eat." He looked over at his boyfriend's plate, which still had two slices of pizza on it.

"Elves are high-energy beings," Max said, stifling a belch. "We use a lot, so we need a lot."

The boys returned downstairs for seconds, and brought the elf another round, too. And another ginger ale.

They talked while they ate, and it was the most relaxing moment they had all had that day. Even Adrian laughed and smiled and looked happy.

Charlie sighed when they were all done, and settled back in his chair.

"So," he said, looking at Max, "when are we getting started?"

The elf shook his head. "Not until later. It would be better if we wait until your parents are asleep, so that they don't come looking here and find you gone."

Charlie's eyebrows went up. "We're actually going someplace?"

"Oh, yeah. We have several places to go tonight. And, several times."

Charlie licked his lips and looked at Kippy; his boyfriend just shrugged. Charlie looked back at Max, but the elf's shining eyes gave nothing away.

"So...what shall we do until then?" Kippy asked. He suddenly grinned. "We could have an orgy."

Max laughed. "Yeah, that's funny."

Kippy sighed. "I'm perfectly serious."

Max looked at him, and frowned. "Uh, I don't think so."

Kippy smiled. "Fine. You're scared."

Max's mouth opened and closed. "Of course I'm not."

Kippy jumped to his feet, grinning. "Well, good. We're having an orgy, guys." He pointed at Ricky and Adrian. "Help me get the elf undressed, okay?"

"Hey, hey, hey," Max said, pushing himself back on the bed.

Kippy started laughing, and Charlie and the others joined in. Max looked about for a moment, and then shook his head. "Aw. Ya got me, guys. Pretty good."

Kippy smiled, and walked across to stand before the elf. He bent down, until his face was just inches away from Max's. The elf watched him come, swallowing hard, but held his position.

"Thank you for trying to help us," Kippy said softly. "Even if you can't, you tried."

He bent down, and placed a short kiss on Max's forehead. Then he turned around and went back to where he was sitting.

Max looked around, from face to face, and finally nodded. "You guys are sweet. I'm starting to see how it is with you."

"Love is love," Charlie said. "Who you give it to is written in your genes."

Max nodded. "We believe the same thing."

They launched into a discussion on love, and each one of the boys talked a bit about discovering their feelings for another boy. Charlie was surprised at the eloquence with which Ricky and Adrian talked on the subject. In the back of his mind he had been thinking of his two friends as newbies; but he was seeing now that their feelings for each other were every bit as advanced and deep as the feelings that Charlie and Kippy had developed for each other over time.

Kippy seemed to feel the same way. He got up and came and lowered himself onto Charlie's lap, and Charlie put his arms around his boyfriend and held him. Adrian seemed to find this appealing, and leaned into Ricky, and Ricky smiled and snuggled closer.

Max smiled. "You guys ready to go?"

Charlie blinked at him. "I thought you wanted to wait until later?"

Max pointed at the clock on Charlie's nightstand. "It's later."

Charlie looked at the clock. It was a few minutes before midnight.

Kippy and the others also looked; and then all eyes went back to Max.

The elf shrugged. "It's all relative, guys."

Max stood, and motioned for the others to get up. "Put your hands on my shoulders, and don't let go."

The four boys stood, and converged on the elf, and placed their hands on his shoulders.

"First applicant," Max said.

Then they were feeling the sense of dizziness again. But something was different this time. Darkness swirled around them, and then there were jarring sounds, a flash of lights, the squeal of tires against the pavement, and then a horrendous crash. Charlie flinched, his senses overpowered.

And then they were standing in a roadway.

That something awful had just happened only moments before was apparent. Smoke filled the air, and the smell of oil and coolant.

Charlie looked around, and saw a car. Or, what remained of one. No, it was two cars.

They had hit head-on.

"Applicant one was a Janet Rogers, age thirty-three. She applied at the firm of Bridges-Gallant at the same time as your mom did, Adrian. At that point in time, she lived a scant six miles from where you live now. After your mom got the job instead of her, she went to live with her brother in Pennsylvania while she continued to look for work. She finally found employment, but it was a job in a factory on the night shift. She took it because she needed it, even though she was a talented editor."

"What's this?" Adrian asked, squinting through the smoke at the pile up.

The elf looked back at the wreckage. "A few months after going to live with her brother, she was on her way to work one night when she rounded a turn in the road and found another car on her side, in her lane, coming directly at her. The other diver was drunk, and unable to react, and Janet was not quick enough to avoid the collision. This is the result."

Charlie gaped at the twisted autos. "We have to help them!" He tried to move forward, but some invisible force held him at bay. The other boys also fought against it, to no avail.

"You can't," Max said sadly. "This has not happened yet, boys. There is nothing you can do here."

Adrian stared at Max. "What...what happened to these people?"

Max licked his lips, and shook his head slowly. "They both died in the collision."

Adrian squeezed his eyes closed, and made a noise that was heart-wrenching. Ricky was immediately at his side, holding him. "What are you doing?" he yelled at Max.

"What I have to do," Max said. His expression was neutral, but Charlie could see the pain in the elf's eyes. "And now I have to ask you, Adrian. Do you want your mom to have this job?"

Adrian simply stared at Max. "You're nuts."

"Is that a yes, or a no?"

"No!" Adrian bellowed, turning his face into Ricky's chest. Ricky glared at the elf; but Max simply nodded.

It took them all a moment to calm down. Max waved a hand, and the gruesome pile up of cars faded away into darkness.

"You guys need to put your hands on my shoulder," Max said, quietly.

The boys slowly gravitated back to the elf, placed their hands upon his shoulders. The reluctance with which Adrian and Ricky did so was apparent even to Charlie.

Again there was the disquieting sense of dizziness, and lights swirled around them.

They were standing on the front porch of a home, in the country. It was a small house, and held a sense of away from things. A small lawn stretched outward beyond the rail around the porch, to a road - a narrow blacktopped road, that held no traffic.

"Applicant two," Max said quietly.

A man sat in a rocking a chair. An old man. His hair was gray and his face lined with age. He rocked slowly, and stared off into space. A small dog lay across the man's lap, and his hand stroked slowly down its back as he rocked.

"Michael Growler, aged 86," Max said. "Fifty years ago, he had an application in at Redman Industries, for the position of editor." Max looked at Adrian. "Your mom got the job instead."

Adrian looked at the old man, and almost smiled. "Well, he didn't die. He's had a long life."

Max nodded. "Fifty years ago, Michael and his wife, Jenny, the love of his life, lived in a pretty little house five minutes away from the Redman offices. Michael wanted that job badly, because he wanted to be near Jenny, because she was pregnant with their child. She was in her seventh month, and she was so big she was having trouble getting around." He looked at Adrian. "But your mom got the job instead."

Adrian looked around the porch, and Charlie could see the dread in the other boy's eyes. "Where is she now?"

Max nodded. "When he didn't get the job at Redman, Michael applied elsewhere. He finally landed a job; but one a forty minute drive from home. One day while at his new job, a horrible sense of urgency overcame him. He felt something was wrong, but he didn't know just what. So he got out his phone, and he called Jenny. And there was no answer."

Adrian closed his eyes, and Ricky went behind him and wrapped him in his arms. "Don't," he said softly.

Max sighed, "I have to." He looked over at the old man, rocking silently in his chair, and staring off into space. "Michael simply walked off the job, got into his car, and raced for home. He burst into the house, calling Jenny's name...but she did not answer. He found her then, at the bottom of the basement steps. Stubbornly trying to keep the house going despite her difficulties, she had been ferrying a load of wash down to the washer in the basement, and fallen down the steps."

Adrian sobbed, and Charlie could see tears in his eyes. Ricky closed his, and squeezed his boyfriend in his arms. Charlie could feel the pain radiating from both of them.

"This is cruel," Charlie said, taking a step towards Max. "Stop it."

"This is life," Max said sadly. "It's about choices."

He looked back at the old man sitting in the rocker. "In the world in which Michael got the job at Redman, he was in time. Five minutes away. He called the rescue squad, and both his wife and the baby were saved." Max held a hand out towards the old man. "In the world where your mom got the job, forty minutes was too long. Jenny died, and the baby died, and Michael spent the next fifty years of his life like this. Alone."

Charlie felt tears in his own eyes, and then Kippy was close again, hugging. Adrian was crying now, and Ricky with him. Charlie locked eyes with the elf, and could see the sadness there.

"Please," Charlie begged, for his friend.

Max nodded, and waved a hand, and the old man and the porch receded into the mists. "Adrian," Max asked softly, "do you want your mom to get this job?"

Adrian lifted his head from Ricky's shoulder. "No! And I don't want to see any more."

Max nodded. "I showed you the two worst ones first, son. The others are not nearly so bad. In fact, the fifth applicant actually got a better job, and had a happier life as a result of not getting the job instead of your mom."

"I don't care," Adrian said. "I don't want to see more."

The elf smiled. "I'm so sorry. It was just not meant to be, son. Your mom was not meant to have any of the jobs she has applied for."

Adrian pulled back and looked at Ricky, his face filled with pain. "I'm going to lose you."

"No," Max said then. "You're not."

All four boys looked at the elf. Max sighed, motioned for them to come closer, and they replaced their hands on his shoulders. The dizziness returned, and the world spun, and then they were back in the warmth and comfort of Charlie's room.

Max sat again in the chair, and the boys along the edge of the bed.

"I thought you wanted to help," Adrian said. "But there's nothing left to do."

Max smiled. "Sure there is. I was heading that way when you suggested I finagle the applications so that your mom could get a job." The elf's smile faded, and he shook his head. "We had to address that thinking before we could move on, Adrian. You brought that up, not me."

Adrian nodded. "I'm sorry. It just seemed like an easy, harmless thing to do."

Max looked at Charlie, and smiled. "Tell him, Charlie. Nothing can be gained in this word by taking it away from others. Nothing good, anyway."

Charlie smiled then, his thoughts whirling behind his eyes. "Are...are you actually telling me we've just been on a moral journey?"

Max brought his hands up and clapped softly a few times. "Bravo."

Adrian gaped. "You were teaching me a lesson?"

Max laughed. "Son, it was there inside you all along. I can tell by the way you reacted that you knew it in your heart. I just wanted to make sure. For your own good." He waved his head side to side in a merry fashion. "I am an elf, after all. I have certain obligations to the big guy, right? So be good, for goodness sake."

Charlie burst out laughing, and Kippy was right with him. Adrian and Ricky looked at each other, and then started laughing, too.

Max smiled, letting them unwind, and then held up a hand. "Now. Are you ready to get back to the way I wanted to do this in the first place?"

"I am," Adrian said immediately. "Boy, am I."

"This I have to see," Charlie said, leaning forward. "How are we going to get a job for Adrian's mom that lets them stay in their house, if every job she applies for that is close by, we already know she is not going to get?"

Max leaned back in his chair and looked at the ceiling a moment, then dropped his gaze and grinned. "You guys are so young. Just so sweet and innocent."

Charlie felt his face redden. At still shy of fifteen, he was under no illusions that he was a man of the world. But he did read a lot, and know some things. "So how do we get Adrian's mom a job?"

The elf nodded. "When you get older, and actually go looking for a job, you're going to learn one of the most important facts of adulthood: it's not always what you know; sometimes it's who you know."

All four boys simply stared. Charlie scratched his head. "Okay."

Max laughed. "See, looking for a job ain't all about applications, boys. Sure, you got to put them in places, too. But putting in an application is only a small part of searching for a job. What you will learn when you have actually done it once or twice is that social networking plays an important part. That's where the who you know comes into play."

Adrian shrugged. "I'm not sure what you mean."

"Yeah," Ricky added. "Are you saying you can get a job by word-of-mouth?"

Max clapped his hands once and pointed a finger at Ricky. "You're smarter than you look, kid." But he winked, just to let Ricky know he was foolin'.

Ricky grinned, not at all insulted. "Actually, I kind of get that." He smiled over at Charlie and Kippy. "If I didn't know these two guys, I wouldn't have Adrian with me now."

Adrian beamed, and leaned his head against his boyfriend's. "That's right. If it wasn't for Charlie and Kippy, I wouldn't have Ricky."

"And gettin' a job is just like that. The first thing you do is you tell all your friends you're looking for a job. And they tell the people they know, 'Hey, I know this guy that needs a job.' And before you know it, someone says, 'Hey, I know a place that's hiring', and back along the trail comes the news. And bingo, you get a job."

Adrian frowned. "Yeah. But me and my mom just moved here before school started. She doesn't know a lot of people yet. All her old friends are back at our old house in Buffalo. We don't want to go all the way back there."

Max laughed. "That's where I come in. Who could possibly have a bigger social network than a guy that's been elvin' for six hundred years?"

Adrian gaped. "You would do that for us?"

Max sighed. "Son, that's why I'm here. Because you called out for help, and that's what I do in this life. You understand?"

Adrian's face compressed. He released Ricky, got up and crossed the room, went to his knees in front of the elf, and embraced him.

Max looked startled; and then his own face compressed a little. He looked down at the top of Adrian's head, raised a hand, and laid it gently in his hair. "It'll be okay, son."

Adrian nodded, but didn't pull away. Finally, Ricky got up and went and retrieved him, and brought him back to the bed. Charlie felt movement next to him, and then Kippy was squeezing him again.

"It's probably really late," Charlie said quietly. "Maybe we should get to bed."

Max laughed. "What? You guys are supposed to be having a good time tonight. It's early yet. Enjoy yourselves!"

Charlie whipped his eyes to the clock. It was just seven o'clock.

"Told ya," Max said, getting up. "It's all relative."

Adrian stood up. "You're leaving?"

"Yup. I'm done here for now." He crossed to Adrian, gave him a quick hug. "I won't forget you. You just need to have a little faith, okay?"

Adrian looked at Ricky, who also got to his feet. "We can't thank you enough, Max."

"Group hug!" KIppy yelled, jumping to his feet. Charlie grinned and stood as well, and then he was moving towards the elf, who suddenly looked alarmed as the four boys closed in on him.

"Now wait a minute, fellas!"

And then they were on him, and against him, pressing Max between their bodies, their arms circled around him and each other. Adrian stuck his lips to the elf's cheek on one side, and Kippy stuck his against the other.

"Aw, geez!" For just a moment Max's eyes were wide and startled; and then he was smiling at Charlie. He winked...and then he was gone.

The four boys stumbled together into the void, and spent a moment untangling themselves.

"I think we embarrassed him," Charlie said, laughing.

Adrian looked around the room. "He'll be back, won't he?"

"Yeah," Ricky said, nodding. "How will we know when something happens?"

Charlie smiled, remembering the wink. "Oh...I think we'll know it when it happens."

Kippy sat back on the edge of the bed, and Charlie went to sit with him.

"I just can't believe all this," Kippy said. "What a day!"

Adrian and Ricky came and sat next to them. "How'd it get to be so early again?" Ricky asked.

Kippy laughed. "I guess when you're a magical elf, time's your buddy."

Charlie shook his head. "I just can't bring myself to believe in magic."

There was a moment of silence.

"Well, what would you call all the stuff that's happened today?" Adrian asked.

Charlie couldn't answer that.

"That was some scary stuff he showed us," Adrian continued, his voice even quieter. "I can't believe how just not getting a job someplace could change people's lives so much." He shook his head. "And so awfully, too. I sure don't want to be responsible for messing up people's lives like that."

Charlie smiled, and leaned across Kippy and kissed Adrian's cheek.

Adrian looked surprised. "What was that for?"

Ricky grinned, and kissed Adrian's other cheek.

A sweet smile crossed Adrian's face, and he nodded. "No. I know. Thanks, guys."

"So," Kippy said suddenly, bouncing up and down on the mattress. "Orgy?"

Charlie laughed, and so did Ricky. But Adrian leaned forward and looked at Kippy, and then at Charlie. "You got a pretty big bed, Charlie. Maybe we won't need the cot tonight?"

Kippy made a gleeful face, and raised his hand in a fist. "Yes!"

Ricky bent forward and grinned at Charlie across the other two boys. "What are we gonna do with these two, Charlie?"

Charlie considered that a second, and then grinned himself. "Why, whatever they want, of course."

The weekend passed quite happily, and the school week followed in kind. As the last week of classes before Christmas, there was an energy in the air that simply couldn't be missed. People everywhere smiled, and laughed, and not a lot got done in the classrooms. The teachers didn't seem to mind, and laughed and smiled quite a bit, too.

Charlie had understood this about Christmas ever since he was a small boy. The holiday brought out something special in people: some small bit of, and he hated to use the word- magic. For the few days around the holiday, the walls that people had erected about themselves during the course of the year to preserve their sanity in a hectic world, were lowered. At this time you could see all the way in, to the real spirit that most people carried about inside of them. The human spirit.

Charlie was aware of the religious underpinnings of the holiday. He loved Christmas carols, and Christmas hymns, and Christmas music in general. Those sounds brightened the insides, and made you glad to be a part of the human race. He had been raised to respect people's beliefs, even if his own family was not religious in nature. But kindness towards others, and decency, and a willingness to share? Those things needed no other beliefs than the basic one of seeing people as related to enjoy.

On Thursday evening, after dinner, the four boys went to the mall to do a little last minute shopping. Christmas was just three days away, and Adrian had been doing his best to conceal his anxiety. Each day after school, the four of them would walk over to Adrian's house and ask his mom how the job search was going. That day she had smiled, and said she had just placed her ninth application, and surely one of them would bear fruit. Adrian could only smile and nod, and hug her, all the while knowing that none of those applications would pan out. That he was a little depressed was obvious to the others, and to Ricky, especially.

So Ricky had suggested they go to the mall Thursday evening, both to maybe buy some last minute stuff, and to just be out with people.

After walking around for over an hour, Kippy said he was thirsty, and needed a drink. There was a McDonald's in the mall, with two dozen small tables out front, many of them crowded with people. The mall was packed in general, and the boys found themselves lucky to get a table. Kippy went inside and ordered four drinks and four small fries, and brought them back to the table.

They sat and ate slowly, just looking about at the people. The mall was filled with light and sound. Large wreaths with red bows, and colorful decorations, hung from the second level railings; and giant, winking ornaments were suspended from the roof high above. People milled everywhere, laughing and talking. It was cheerful, if a lot to take in.

Kippy sighed. "I love this time of year."

Charlie nodded. "Me, too. Be nice if people could be like this all year 'round."

Adrian looked lost in thought, and Ricky reached out and rubbed his hand. "Wake up."

Adrian smiled. "I'm okay. I just wish we'd hear something from Max."

A woman three tables over suddenly stood up. Charlie was drawn to the speed of the move, and the fact that she was smiling. So he was watching her as she opened her mouth and started singing, her voice bright and beautiful:

"Said the night wind to the little lamb,
Do you see what I see?"

A man a few more tables over stood, and added his voice, a rich tenor:

"Way up in the sky little lamb,
Do you see what I see?"

A dozen people suddenly stood, adding their voices to the song:

"A star, a star,
Dancing in the night,
With a tail as big as a kite,
With a tail as big as a kite."

Kippy breathed out, and then looked at Charlie. "Flash mob! I've heard of these!"

More people stood, all about the restaurant tables, and some seeming to be just passing by stopped and added their voices as well:

"Said the little lamb to the Shepard boy,
Do you hear what I hear?
Ringing through the sky, Shepard boy,
Do you hear what I hear?
A song! a song!
High above the trees,
With a voice as big as the sea,
With a voice as big as the sea."

Kippy jumped to his feet, his food forgotten. "I know this song," he whispered, laughing.

All around them the conversations had stopped, as people halted what they were doing, smiling, watching, holding up their phones to record what was happening; and many others had simply stopped, to add their voices to the song, the volume swelling and echoing beautifully about the mall:

"Said the Shepard boy to the mighty king,
Do you know what I know?
In your palace wall, mighty king.
Do you know what I know?
A child, a child,
Shivers in the cold,
Let us bring him silver and gold,
Let us bring him silver and gold.

It was clear that a large number of people among them were professionals: people that knew exactly what they were doing, some singing original verse, others echoing. Kippy was singing, too, and Charlie stood to be with him, placing his arm around his boyfriend's waist and joining in as best as he could. Ricky gaped at them for a second; and then he was also rising, and pulling Adrian to his feet.

Said the king to the people everywhere,
Listen to what I say,
Pray for peace, people everywhere,
Listen to what I say,
The child, the child,
Sleeping in the night,
He will bring us goodness and light,
He will bring us goodness and light!"

The song reached a realm of grace. Hundreds of human voices, united...and then ended.

People cheered, and clapped, and smiled, and laughed, as the original singers sat down again, or simply ambled away.

"That was just awesome!" Kippy sat next to Charlie, his face aglow, excited as any child, anywhere, had ever been before. Charlie sighed, and just loved him so much it hurt.

Even Adrian was smiling now. "I don't believe we were here for that. Man, was that amazing, or what?"

Ricky was smiling, too, looking at his boyfriend with the same affection that Charlie was feeling for his.

The crowd about them was also happy and smiling, and voices raised again in conversation and laughter.

"Dang," Charlie said, smacking himself lightly in the side of the head. "I should have gotten that on my phone."

No one else had thought of it, either.

Ricky grinned. "Bet it's on YouTube by tomorrow, Charlie."

Charlie had to nod at that. "Maybe. We'll check it out."

Their mood had been brightened, and the rest of the evening went by in cheerful fashion.

So, too, did the last day of school before the holiday. Classes were a blur of gift exchanges among friends, and hugs, and well wishes from all.

The coolest gift came from Adrian's friend, Bret Calloway.

"Yeah, don't open it here, okay?" Bret said, grinning. "We don't want to be embarrassed, right?"

Whatever it was it was large and flat, maybe two feet by four feet, and wrapped in white paper. Adrian carried it out after classes, and as the four friends hooked up at their lockers, Kippy made a comment on it.

"Maybe it's a poster of One Direction," he said, smiling. "Or 5 Seconds of Summer."

Adrian shook his head. "Bret wouldn't give me something like that."

"Well," Charlie said, a little impatiently, "let's go somewhere private and see."

They started for Adrian's house, making jokes about the gift all the way.

When they got to Adrian's house and went in, his mom came straight from the kitchen and hugged him.

Adrian gasped. "What is it, mom?"

But she was smiling when she pulled back. "I think I got a job."

Kippy immediately jumped up and down. "Yay!"

Charlie waved a hand at him, and Kip subsided; but he was grinning, and didn't care who saw it.

Adrian's face held disbelief. "What? Where?"

His mom laughed. "A place called Ornament Graphics. They make greeting cards, and they need an editor." She shrugged. "Oh, it's a little bit of a step down from what I was doing." Her smile brightened. "But they said they would match what I was making at the old job, and that's what's important."

Adrian turned to Ricky, and the two boys grinned at each other.

Charlie was still watching Adrian's mom, and couldn't help but to see the way she watched her son and his friend smile at each other. There was a light in her eyes that showed both understanding, and satisfaction. She could see that Adrian was happy, and that was enough to make her happy.

"I have to run out for a little, okay?" Adrian's mom said. "I called the people at Unemployment, as I was enrolled in a workshop. They said to go online and cancel it, but their website seems screwed up, so I'm going to run down there and do it in person."

"Mom," Adrian said suddenly, glancing swiftly at Ricky, "can I celebrate the job? Can I have my friends sleep over tonight? Sort of a party?"

Kippy grinned and rolled his eyes, and again Charlie gave him a look. But Mrs. Whitacre seemed not to have seen it.

For a second the woman looked at Ricky, doubt plainly written in her eyes. But then her gaze went back to her son's face, and saw the hope and excitement there, and she smiled. "If it's okay with all the parents, it's okay with me. You've been okay sleeping over at Charlie's without a hitch. I'm sure it will be okay here, too."

Adrian could barely contain his excitement. He looked at Ricky. "Will you come?"

Ricky nodded. "I'll ask my mom right away."

Adrian's eyes moved to Charlie, and Charlie nodded. "I don't think it will be a problem."

Kippy was next, and he nodded, too. "I wouldn't miss it for the world."

Mrs. Whitacre seemed satisfied. "Maybe we can order pizza or something."

Charlie grinned. They all loved pizza.

"Okay," Mrs. Whitacre said, "grabbing up her purse and a coat that was already laying on a chair waiting for her. "I should only be an hour or so. See you shortly." She turned to go, and then suddenly turned back. "Oh. I almost forgot." She laughed. "I found out about the job via an email from the company." She shook her head. "It's a little weird, but fun, too. I left it up on my laptop on the kitchen table so that you could see it. Okay. See you soon."

As soon as Adrian's mom shut the door, Kippy was pointing at the gift from Bret Calloway. "Open that before we do anything else."

Adrian grabbed it up and ripped the paper off of it.

It was a poster. But a custom made one.

Kippy immediately started laughing. "I remember that!"

Adrian gaped at the picture, and Charlie and Ricky both smiled.

It was a picture of Kippy and Adrian, with Charlie and Ricky in the background. Two other boys were present: Bret, and David Corman.

Adrian was hiding behind them, a look of horror on his face, while Kippy was trying to reach him, his arms extended across the blocking shoulders of Bret and David. The picture was clearly taken at the lunchroom doors at school. It was of a moment before Adrian had come out to Charlie and Kippy and Ricky, a moment before he had become a part of their group. Kippy and Charlie had been exchanging a kiss, and Adrian had walked by with Bret and David, and started making fun of them. Kippy had been unfazed, and tried to put Adrian in his place.

A sticky note was attached to one corner of the poster, and Charlie leaned forward to read it: "Sharon Moffit had her phone out when all this was happening and recorded it. I thought you'd like to have a picture of it, to remind you how times change. Your friend, Bret."

Charlie looked at Kippy, who was trying even harder not to laugh now.

"I think Bret's telling you he kind of knows you and me are close," Ricky said quietly.

Charlie had to agree. "Yeah, but he's not making fun of you, Adrian. He had it wrapped, and he told you not to open it in front of people." Charlie smiled. "I think you have a good friend there, who is just telling you he understands."

"Maybe," Adrian said, eying the print. He finally grinned. "I'm going to hang it up in my room, anyway, just to remind me what a jerk I was then."

Ricky sighed, and gathered an unresisting Adrian close. "Love you."

Adrian nodded. "Me, too, Rick. And even more, now that I know we get to stay together."

"That reminds me," Charlie said, moving towards the kitchen. "I want to see this job email your mom mentioned."

They all filed into the kitchen. Charlie spied Adrian's mom's laptop on the kitchen table. The screen was dark. The machine had gone to sleep.

He stepped up to it and brushed his finger across the touchpad. The screen lit, revealing Thunderbird Mail, and an email opened in the read window. Charlie slid into the chair before the laptop and started reading.

Dear Mrs. Whitcare:

Greetings and happy holidays! My name is Sandy Klaus, and I am the production manager at Ornament Graphics, a subsidiary of Northern Industries. We are in the business of producing quality greeting cards, and we have been looking for a production editor to oversee our energetic copy department. I have a friend at Dillon-Derwood, a company where you recently applied, who called me this morning and said that she had discovered an editor that, while not quite meeting their own needs, looked to be just too good to let go by. She knew that we were on the lookout for someone here, and passed your application along to me.

I have checked your work history, and you appear to be a perfect fit for our needs. I think that, if you are still interested in employment, I can guarantee you a job starting on Wednesday, December 28th. Don't fret over the delay. Our company believes that employees should enjoy a lengthy holiday!

I have spoken to the company president about you, and the big guy himself is enthusiastic about having you join us. And, he has agreed to the salary you requested in your application with Dillon-Derwood. This will of course be in addition to the benefits package we offer, which includes comprehensive medical coverage, dental and eye care, and retirement pension. We are an equal opportunity company with a wonderful work atmosphere and a secure future. Please call me at the number listed below at your earliest convenience, and we can arrange all the particulars.

We are looking forward to having you join us at our wonderful facility! I look forward to hearing from you soon.

Sincerely yours,

Sandy Klaus

Production Manager

Charlie stared at the message. " guys see anything funny here?"

Kippy licked his lips. "She called the company president 'big guy', just like Max referred to, um, Santa."

Ricky nodded. "Ornament graphics? Northern Industries? Christmas cards?"

But it was Adrian who seemed to have seen the same thing that Charlie had. "The production manager's name is Sandy Klaus."

Charlie grinned. "It's not what you know, it's who you know."

Adrian looked at him. "You think this is...?"

Charlie nodded. "You wanted to hear from Max." He pointed at the computer screen. "I think you just did."

After everything was arranged with all the parents, the boys returned to Adrian's house. Charlie had brought a sleeping bag for himself and Kippy, as Adrian didn't have the luxury of a cot to offer them. Charlie didn't mind. He would sleep on the bare floor, as long as he was with Kip.

Adrian's mom had ordered pizza for them, and it had come, and they had polished it off. She seemed to enjoy seeing them enjoy themselves, and by the time she excused herself for the night, Charlie could see that she was at peace with her thoughts.

They went up to Adrian's room, and Charlie and Kippy rolled the sleeping bag out on the carpet.

Adrian had a double bed, and now he patted it with one hand. "I think we can get four in here, just like at your house, Charlie." He looked at Ricky, who grinned and nodded.

Charlie looked at Kippy, who smiled. "Nothing sweeter than sleeping with friends."

Charlie nodded at Adrian. "I think we can arrange something."

They put a movie on the laptop, and played Christmas music on Adrian's stereo at the same time. They were having too much fun kidding around and just being together to pay much attention to the movie, anyway.

Charlie had just looked at the clock, which was just striking nine, and was thinking how great a day it had been and what a wonderful night was coming, when they heard a soft rap at the bedroom door.

Adrian made a face. "Maybe we're being too loud."

He got up and opened the door...and then stepped back.

It wasn't Adrian's mom.

It was Max.

He came into the room and shut the door, and beamed around at all of them. "Hi, gents. How's stuff?"

They piled onto him, hugging the elf, and even kissing him, while Max put up with it all nervously, but good-naturedly. Finally, they separated and let him come up for air.

"Thanks so much for helping my mom," Adrian said, obviously ready to go right back to hugging Max.

But the elf danced back, grinning. "Don't thank me, thank the big guy. I just mentioned to him that his greeting card place near where you lived needed an editor, and told him I knew one, and he was all for it." Max leaned forward, and briefly looked at the ceiling. "I think he knew, somehow."

"We all want to thank you," Charlie said, smiling.

Max grinned. "Well, then, maybe you guys can do me a favor in return."

"Anything," Adrian said.

Max came a little closer. "I kinda messed up. I was talking to the missus, and after meeting you guys, and seeing what wonderful people you were, I asked her if any of our family was gay. She said my great, great, great grandson, Frit, had just come out of the stocking. He has a boyfriend and everything." Max shrugged. "So I looked him up, to see what he was like."

Charlie had a sudden suspicion. "And?"

Max looked sheepish. "Well, I kinda mentioned you guys to Frit and Pip. Uh, Pip is his boyfriend."

Kippy made a little sound and looked at Charlie, his eyes bright.

Charlie nodded. "And?"

Max threw up his hands. "Aw, well, Frit ain't let me alone since I told him about you. He and Pip been after me like the tail on a reindeer. They wanted to meet you guys."

Charlie laughed. "And?"

"Well, they're your age, about fifteen."


Max sighed. "I kinda brought 'em with me."

He went back to the bedroom door and opened it. "Frit?"

A face appeared at one side of the door, peering around the jamb. Another face appeared at the other side. "What'd they say, gramps?"

Charlie heard Kippy take a breath. He nearly did the same thing himself.

The elf that stepped around into the room looked very much like Max. He was maybe an inch shorter, and a tad more slender; but he had the same curly blond hair, striking blue eyes, and full mouth begging to be kissed.

Kippy raised a hand and bit the edge of his palm, and Charlie just laughed.

The other elf teen also had curly hair; but his was black, and a little longer then Frit's. And he had green eyes. Pip was every bit as cute as his boyfriend, and Charlie and the others just stood with their mouths hanging open as the two elves came further into the room.

Frit looked at them nervously, and waved a hand. "Hi, fellas."

It was enough to pop the moment. The boys surged forward, surrounding the three elves, shaking hands, welcoming them.

Pandemonium reigned for the next five minutes as conversations whipped back and forth between the boys and their visitors.

Finally, Max held up a hand. "Hold up, guys, let me speak."

It took a moment, but everyone went silent. Max nodded. "Frit and Pip here were hoping to stay a little while and get to know you guys. Talk about, um, stuff. I thought, maybe an hour or two, and then I'd come back and get them."

"We're having a sleepover," Kippy said then. "We'll be here all night." He looked over at Adrian, who smiled and looked over at Ricky, who smiled and looked over at Charlie.

Frit and Pip both stared a moment, and then looked excited.

Adrian came over to Charlie and gave him a little nudge. "Ask them," he whispered.

Charlie nodded, looking back at the two elves. "Uh, you two are invited, if you'd like to stay the night."

Frit and Pip both turned on Max, who took a step back in astonishment at their fervor. "Whoa, whoa. I thought Pip was staying the night at your place, Frit?"

"You can fix it with my mom and dad, gramps. I know you can!"

Max gulped, but nodded. "They probably wouldn't kill me outright. Maybe." But then he smiled at the boys. "I know these guys will take good care of you, so I'll do it."

And suddenly, Max seemed to be in a hurry to leave. Kippy pulled the two elf boys aside to speak with them, and Max came over to Charlie. "Thanks, Charlie. Those two was drivin' me nuts!"

"They'll be okay here," Charlie said. He grinned. "Kip won't let anything happen to them."

Max laughed. "Oh, I ain't worried about that. Those boys can take care of themselves. You just watch out for them, you hear? They got, uh,, well, I shouldn't really say."

When Charlie simply stared, Max relented. "Um, they're a little wild."

A burst of laughter from Kippy and the elf boys crossed the room. Charlie smiled. "Well, they're in good company with Kippy." He reached out and gave Max's arm a fond squeeze. "Thanks for everything, Max. You're a good friend."

The elf looked startled, and then delighted. "Thanks, kid. That's the nicest thing anyone's said to me in a hundred years or so."

Max went over to Frit, gave him a hug, and hugged Pip, too. "I'll be back for you guys about lunchtime tomorrow, okay? And behave yourselves, you hear me?"

Frit and Pip both turned the most innocent eyes that Charlie had ever seen in Max's direction. "We will!" they said in unison.

Max gave a little shiver, waved at Charlie and the others, and then disappeared with a small pop.

Frit immediately came over to Charlie. "The bed isn't big enough. You'll never get all six of us into it to sleep." He grinned. "And stuff."

Charlie felt a small shiver of his own. "Um, it's Adrian's house, Frit."

"He told me to ask you. Can I fix it?"

"Fix it?"

The elf nodded. "Yeah. You know, so we can all fit into it?"

Charlie looked over at Adrian, who seemed to have been waiting for the eye contact. Adrian grinned, and shrugged a little helplessly.

"Um, well, sure," Charlie said.

"Great!" Frit turned and waved a hand at the bed. There was a grinding sound at the bottom end of Charlie's hearing, and then the bed suddenly grew sideways in both directions, pushing the nightstand away on one side and blocking the door on the other. When it stopped, the bed had more than doubled in size.

Frit gave it a satisfied nod. "Big enough now." Charlie stared at him, and the elf just grinned.

"I hope you guys like sex," Frit said, just a bit bashfully. "Me 'n Pip are trying to learn."

Charlie gave a small laugh, and let his eyes go over to meet Kippy's. His boyfriend saw him looking, and grinned delightedly.

"Don't worry about the bed," Frit said, grabbing Charlie by the hand and pulling him towards it. "I can put it back tomorrow when we're done. It's just size." Frit shrugged, his eyes shining. "It's all relative."

"Yeah," Charlie said, giving in to a grin. "So I hear."

Charlie and his friends will return...

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