Charlie Boone

by Geron Kees

Is That My Heart in Your Hand, Charlie Boone?

© 2018 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. Please observe the laws of your jurisdiction with regards to reading this material.

If you are not 18, you shouldn't be reading this at all. Go find a boyfriend and talk stuff over with him.

The events in this story follow It's Almost Time For Christmas, Charlie Boone! And before that, in reverse order, It's A Spooky Night Out There, Charlie Boone!, It's the Gayest Christmas Ever, Charlie Boone!, and It's the Great Punkin, Charlie Boone!

You really sorta need to start with them.

Kippy Lawson was not happy. "That's a heck of a day to have Valentine's Day on! A Wednesday? What were they thinking?"

Charlie Boone tried not to smile at his boyfriend's tone. He was seated on the sofa next to Kippy, his shoulder pressed firmly against the other boy, and so felt the tenseness in the muscles of his body. Kippy was wound up, and smiling at him when he was upset could be dangerous, often leading to looks that dripped icicles, and words of such acidic content that clothing and skin might be damaged.

Charlie's parents had gone to the wedding of a friend, and were expected back late, and so the boys had been enjoying some alone time together. Everything had been fine until the subject of the impending holiday had come up.

"I don't think anyone thought about it at all, Kip.They put Valentine's Day on the 14th, and that nasty old Pope Gregory and his calendar have been shifting the days that date falls on for quite some time."

Kippy turned to look at him, his face pinching up with irritation. "Are you being funny, Charlie?"

In the big overstuffed wingback chair across from them, Ricky Travers and Adrian Whitacre burst into laughter. They were squeezed onto the cushion together, each with an arm around the other.

Kippy favored them with a frosty look, but Charlie threw an arm around Kippy's shoulders and leaned over and planted a big kiss on his cheek. "No one's making fun of you, Kip. You just need to stop getting upset over things you can't control."

For a moment Kippy remained stiff and unyielding. But Charlie kissed him again, and nuzzled his cheek with the tip of his nose, and gently nibbled on the lobe of his ear while making fond noises. Kippy suddenly sighed, and sagged against Charlie, who squeezed him even closer.

"Oh, Charlie. You always make me feel so special."

"You are special, Kip."

"Yeah, like short yellow bus special," Ricky quipped.

Charlie couldn't help letting slip a small laugh at that; but he immediately faded into a bout of coughing and clearing his throat. "Hey, that's not nice."

"He's kidding," Adrian said, giving Ricky a very gentle slap on the arm. He leaned forward and turned to give his boyfriend a stern look. "Right?"

"Oh, uh, yeah. I'm kidding. Hey, if your friends can't jerk you around a little, who can?"

Kippy stuck his tongue out, and snuggled against Charlie. "My boyfriend doesn't think I'm nuts. He understands me."

Charlie smiled, and nodded. "That's right, Rick. Having Valentine's Day smack dab in the middle of a school week makes it really hard to do anything fun for the evening. Kip was just lamenting that fact."

Ricky's eyebrows bounced upwards. "Lamenting? Is that anything like getting nutty over it?"

Adrian shook his head. "Stop baiting him, Rick."

Kippy sighed, and presented a small, self-satisfied smile. "Poor Ricky. You're just jealous that you don't have the wonderful relationship with your boyfriend that Charlie and I have."

Adrian's lips quirked in an almost-smile, but Ricky blinked in surprise. He gave Adrian an unconscious squeeze, and leaned forward toward Kippy. "What the heck does that mean? Adrian and I have a great relationship!"

Adrian laughed then, and laid his head on Ricky's shoulder. "He's baiting you back, hon."

"Worked, too," Charlie said, his smile widening. He held up the hand that was not presently rubbing Kippy's shoulder, and made ceasing motions.. "How about we all agree to lay off the personal hits for a while, huh? You know...act like friends?"

Ricky opened his mouth, and then closed it again. "Um, I'm sorry. I just don't see what the big deal is. So it's a school night, so what? We can still go out and have a nice time."

Kippy frowned again. "It's a Wednesday night, in addition to being a school night. You know what that means."

Clearly, Ricky didn't. He licked his lips uncertainly, and then shrugged. "So?"

Charlie cleared his throat. "My mom has art class on Wednesday nights. She'll be using her car."

Despite the fact that Charlie had only had his license a short period of time, it was amazing how dependent the boys had become upon the new freedom it offered them. They had come to love being able to go new places and do new things, exploring the suburban landscape, at the rural edge of which they lived . Kippy now seemed to feel that a holiday enjoyed on foot was somehow less than it should be, and Charlie could only be patient with that notion, because it was Kippy, and he loved Kippy with all his heart. did seem that his boyfriend was overreacting.

Kippy tossed an I told you so look at Ricky. "See? We're not even there yet, and already the evening is messed up."

Charlie frowned at Kippy's dismal tone, and squinted at his boyfriend. "Something bothering you, Kip? You're not usually so negative."

Kippy looked at him, and it was clear that he didn't know what to say. Finally, he just shrugged. "I've been getting some really weird, skwishy feelings all day about...well, today, and about Wednesday, that's all. Something that makes me feel uneasy, when it shouldn't, you know? Valentine's Day is about love. I feel like it should be special, Charlie." He sighed. "Instead, I feel like something is going to happen. I feel like something is wrong." He suddenly looked surprised. "I feel like...your phone is about to ring."

In his shirt pocket. Charlie's cell started into its new ring. An alien-sounding voice said, "Ring. Ring, ring. Ring. Ring, ring..." It got louder and more insistent as Charlie fumbled with the flap of his pocket, ultimately reaching a frenzied scream by the time he got the phone into his hand and answered it.

"God, I hate that ring," Kippy said, gritting his teeth. "It was funny one time, Charlie. But now it makes me want to break something."

Charlie nodded, agreeing. "I'll get rid of it...hold on. Hello?"


Charlie frowned, almost recognizing the voice, but unable to place a face to it. "Yeah? This is Charlie."

"I need to see you and Kippy, Charlie. Can I come there?"

Charlie frowned at Kip, who was watching him intently now.

"Who is it, Charlie?" he whispered.

Charlie gave a little shake of his head. "I...don't know. I almost recognize the voice --"

The person on the phone obviously heard him. "Charlie, it's Frit. I need to talk to you."

Charlie pulled the phone away and gaped at it a second. "Frit!" He stared at Kippy. "It's Frit," he repeated, in amazement.

The fact that the elf was calling him on his phone, just like any other friend would do, had Charlie momentarily at a loss for words. He stared at the phone a moment, trying to imagine what this might mean.

Kippy made an annoyed sound, and reached over and plucked the phone from Charlie's hand and pressed it to his ear. "Frit? It's Kip. Are you okay?"

Charlie blinked, startled at the blatant theft, and opened his mouth to say something about it, when Kippy slid a finger over and pressed the button for speaker phone.

"...I guess. I ...I need someone to talk to...someone that knows...what I'm feeling. I need to talk to you guys. Can I come over? Please?"

The elf sounded upset, not at all like the bright and always smiling boy they had come to know. Kippy looked at Charlie, his eyes imploring.

Charlie unfroze all at once, and nodded vigorously. "Sure, Frit. Come right now, if you want."

There was a small pop in the air of the living room, and the elf appeared before them. He was not holding a phone, and he did not look bright and smiling. In fact, Charlie had to gape at his condition. Frit's clothing looked rumpled, as if slept-in; the blond hair that circled his cute face was uncombed, and his bright blue eyes were framed with small, dark circles.

Kippy took one look, squirmed out of Charlie's grasp, and leaped to his feet. "Frit! Are you okay?" He rushed forward, and the elf met him halfway, and they fell together into a fierce hug.

"You've been crying," Kippy said, softly, squeezing Frit. "What happened?"

By now Charlie and the others were on their feet and crowding around the other two boys.

Frit pulled back and stared into Kippy's eyes. "Pip and I had a fight." A brief, devastated look crossed the elf's face, and then he buried it into Kippy's shoulder. "We broke up," came a soft, shattered whisper.

Kippy turned anguished eyes to Charlie, who simply wrapped his arms gently around both Kippy and Frit and hugged. Ricky and Adrian came up behind the elf, and gently leaned against him and put their arms around his heaving shoulders. The five of them stood in a silence broken only by Frit's sad sounds, and Charlie was just about to suggest that they all sit down and talk when he felt the oddest sensation. Briefly, he shivered, as if someone had laid a cold hand upon his bare flesh. A tiny, dark wind momentarily blew through his very being, tossing up debris from the less often trod alleyways at the deepest level of his soul.

For a second Charlie felt breathless, and disoriented, and somehow even horrified. He was aware of intakes of breath around him, and an even deeper silence from the other boys than had been there a moment before...and then it simply went away.

Charlie's head cleared, he caught his breath, and almost immediately he seemed to forget what he had been thinking just a moment before. He shook his head to clear it as his focus returned, gave out a soft sigh, and gently pried the elf away from Kippy's shoulder.

"Come on upstairs, Frit. We can talk, okay? I don't want my mom or dad coming home and walking in on the middle of you telling us what happened."

Frit drew an arm across his eyes and nodded, and Kippy put an arm back around the boy's shoulders and moved him towards the steps.

Ricky reached out and stopped Charlie as he made to follow. "He's pretty torn up, Charlie."

Charlie nodded, his eyes shifting briefly to Adrian, and then back to Ricky. "Wouldn't you be, in his place?"

Ricky also looked at his boyfriend, winced, and nodded. "Yeah."

Adrian smiled at Rick, and rubbed at one eye briefly with the back of a crooked forefinger. "Me, too."

Charlie nodded. "Me, three. Let's go and see what we can do to help."

"Everything was going so well," Frit said, sitting on the edge of Charlie's bed. "We were so happy. Everything we did together was so fun. And then...and then it just came apart."

"What happened?" Charlie asked quietly. Kippy was seated on one side of the elf, and Adrian on the other. Both boys had their arms linked with Frit's, and were gently rubbing their shoulders against his. Ricky stood beside Charlie, who was seated on the end of the undressed cot next to the bed - a perpetual fixture in the room now that Ricky and Adrian spent so many nights sleeping over.

"Christmas was great," Frit went on. "All the men that work for the big guy were in this really great mood this year, like something they had been worried about had been fixed. My granddady Max never stopped smiling the whole holiday season. "

Charlie locked eyes with Kippy a moment, and both of them smiled. But neither wanted to interrupt Frit's story.

"When the holiday ended, we went back to koulu. Everything was fine until they announced the Valentine's Day party." Frit shook his head. "I asked Pip to go with me, of course."

Kippy looked at Charlie. "And what did he say?"

Frit sniffed, and looked upset again. "He said...he said he'd have to think about it."

"Think about it!" Adrian exclaimed, his eyes widening. "He said that, really?"

"Yes. He said he'd have to see what other offers he got first."

Charlie frowned at that. "Are you sure he wasn't just kidding you?"

"He wasn't. I said, sure, who else would ask him, and he got mad at me!"

Charlie felt like smiling, but knew it was not the time for that. This sounded a little bit familiar, almost like the kind of game that Kippy would play with him. Only, both of them would know it was a game, and neither would ever get mad about it.

"Has anyone else shown any interest in Pip?"

"No! That's just it. He doesn't have any other offers. I mean, there's other gay guys at the school, but they have boyfriends. Unless there's one I don't know about, or something." Frit looked forlorn. "I don't know what happened, Charlie. He got mad at me and yelled, and I got mad and yelled back, and then he was walking away from me. It happened so fast!"

Charlie nodded, and put a hand on the elf's shoulder and rubbed it comfortingly. "Have you tried to talk to him?"

Frit closed his eyes. "I've been norking him for three days. He won't answer."

Ricky scratched his chin, and smiled. "I know if someone was norking me, I'd pay attention."

"What is that?" Kippy asked. The expression on his face showed that he clearly had some fanciful ideas about what such an odd-sounding practice might entail.

Frit frowned. "Oh. It's like the way you guys talk on your phones, but without the phone. Like how I talked to Charlie on his phone, earlier."

Charlie smiled. "I wondered about that."

Kippy looked slightly disappointed at the rather mundane explanation. "He won't answer?"

"No. I just get his norkmail."

Charlie gave his head a quick shake, always fascinated at the differences between the world he knew and the one that elves seemed to live in.

"I think you guys had a little misunderstanding, is all," he said. "Sometimes small things blow up unexpectedly and get out of hand."

Frit shook his head. "He dumped me, Charlie." The boy sounded so hopeless that Charlie, had to sigh.

Kippy shook his head vehemently. "I don't think he'd do that, Frit."

Charlie had to agree. Even though they had spent a limited amount of time with the two elf teens, the fondness they had for each other had been apparent. "Neither do I."

"Then why won't he answer me?" Frit asked, sounding exhausted now, and at the end of his wits.

Charlie leaned forward, and took one of Frit's hands in his own. "Feelings are funny things, Frit, Sometimes, when they're hurt, we are at their mercy, and not the other way around."

Adrian nodded. "Man, I can agree with that one. Sometimes, you just don't know what to say to make up, even to someone you love. Getting started again can be the hardest thing there is."

Charlie looked speculatively at the other boy, wondering what he was referring to. Adrian's relationship with Ricky had not suffered a single bumpy moment since it had started.

Kippy sighed, and gave Frit a squeeze. "We need to get you two together again, so you can talk."

"He won't nork me, Kip. I don't know what to do."

Kippy blew a little puff of air between his lips. "Have you gone by his house?"

Frit looked from one boy to the next. "I...don't know where he lives."

For a moment no one said anything. Charlie was stunned, right down to his shoes. "You don't know where he lives?" he repeated, in a whisper.

The elf shook his head. "It's different for us, Charlie. We all live in big houses with a lot of family. Those houses are spread all around the undisclosed location near the pole. When you want to visit someone, you nork them, and they answer, and you just pop over to them." He shook his head. "I've never seen the outside of Pip's place. I don't even know where to start."

Ricky shook his head. "Wow. That makes it pretty hard, doesn't it?"

Frit just looked upset again. "He won't answer me, so I can't go to see him."

"What about his family?" Charlie asked. "If you, um, nork his mom and say you want to come over to see Pip, she won't home you in, or whatever?"

"No. There's rules, Charlie. Norking is regulated. You can't just pop over to see someone whenever you want, unnorked. Nobody would get any privacy!"

Charlie had to admire that idea. Some of that kind of respect needed to be imported into the human world.

"How about school?" Kippy asked. "Don't you see him there?"

"There was just Friday, Kip. And I was so upset I didn't go." Frit sighed. "I've been sitting around all weekend, just going nuts. I finally decided I needed to do something...and then I thought of you guys."

Charlie smiled. "We're glad you did. That's what friends are for."

Kippy nodded vigorously. "Uh huh." He patted Frit's arm comfortingly. "Your troubles are our troubles, buddy."

Ricky and Adrian both nodded.

"Tomorrow is Monday," Charlie reminded. "If you go to school, he'll probably be there."

Frit bit his lip. "What if he isn't?"

"What if he is, and you're not?" Charlie countered. "I'm pretty sure that Pip is just as upset as you are, Frit."

The elf looked panicked again. "I don't know what to do. I don't know what to say." But then he brightened. "Hey...would you guys go with me?"

Kippy suddenly smiled. "Go to your school with you? One full of cute elf guys?" He laughed, and turned bright eyes to Charlie. "I think we should."

"We have our own school to go to tomorrow," Charlie pointed out.

"Oh, you can go with me in no-time," Frit said quickly. "I mean, time will pass for us, but not back here. It's all relative, you know."

Charlie smiled. "So I've been told." He let his eyes slide back to Kippy, whose expression made it clear that he wanted to go to help Frit. Charlie looked up at Ricky. "What do you think?"

"I'm game. Love to see how the other half lives."

Charlie nodded, and looked questioningly at Adrian.

He smiled. "You have to know the answer to that already, Charlie. After everything Max has done for me, especially."

Charlie nodded. "I guess we can, then. What time do we need to be ready?"

"I'll come back when you are ready to go to your school tomorrow morning."

"Should we come here?" Adrian asked.

"Do you normally?" The elf seemed a little steadier now.

Adrian nodded. "Rick and I come here and meet Kip and Charlie. Then we all walk to school together."

"Okay. When you're all here, I'll come and pick you up."

Kippy gave a little frown at that. "How will you know when we're ready?"

For the first time since he had arrived, the shadow of a smile hit Frit's face. "I'm an elf. I'll know." He sighed. "Thanks, guys. See you in the morning."

Kippy smiled then, and gave Frit's shoulder a quick squeeze. "Go home and take a nap. We'll get this all straightened out in the morning. Okay?"

Frit nodded, and then did manage to smile. "Okay." And with that, the elf faded, and was gone with a pop as air rushed into the space he had vacated.

Kippy immediately stood and started pacing back and forth. "I knew something was going to happen. I felt it."

Charlie shook his head. "You need to get this skwish thing under control, Kip. It's okay if it points you at stuff, but you can't let it run your moods. You need to calm down. Okay?"

Kippy looked over at him. "Yeah. I see that." He shook his head. "It's like I picked up on Frit's upset, even before he called you." He paused, and gave his head a little shake. "I feel really weird now, like something's wrong, and I don't know what."

Charlie sighed, and got up and went over to his boyfriend. He smiled, and pulled Kippy into his arms. "You cannot solve all the world's problems, even if you'd like to. And especially not if it's going to make you crazy." He leaned his head forward and touched the tip of his nose to Kippy's.

Kippy smiled. "Am I acting nutty?"

"Do I get to vote?" Ricky asked, raising a hand.

"No," Charlie said immediately. He nuzzled Kippy with his nose. "You were a little...hyper this morning."

Kippy laughed, and settled himself in Charlie's arms. "I love you, Charlie Boone."

Charlie grinned. "I love you, Kippy Lawson. Even when you get all skwishy and stuff."

"I'll try to control that better."

"Mm. Okay. Maybe just be aware of when you're feeling something that isn't yours, if you know what I mean."

"I do." Kippy kissed Charlie, and then drew back and smiled. "Pizza? I'm hungry."

Charlie grinned, and sighed. "Anything you say, Kip. Anything you say."

"Man, it's cold," Ricky said, clapping his hands together as the door to Irving's Genuine Italian Pizzeria closed behind them.

"I'm tired of winter already," Adrian agreed, guiding their group to an empty table away from the large, loud party on the other side of the dining room. A young girl in a party hat, maybe eleven or twelve, was grinning over a huge, deep dish pizza with lit candles sticking up in a circle from the dough around the edge of it, while a crowd of adults and kids sang Happy Birthday.

Kippy frowned across at them as they pulled off their coats and slid into the booth. "I never heard of a birthday pizza."

Charlie laughed. "It's one of Irving's gimmicks. Like the all-you-can-eat dip for your breadsticks."

"And the free fifth cheese on the four-cheese pizza," Ricky added, nodding. "Irving has got some real goofy promos."

"What do you expect?" Adrian asked. "He's winging it. Irving is the only 'genuine Italian' pizzeria owner I ever heard of whose last name is Wajahezsky."

"It's pretty good pizza, though," Charlie had to admit. "And I'm in the mood for the five cheese meat-lover's pizza. Anybody object to that?"

Kippy looked horrified, and placed a hand on one thigh. "But my figure!"

Adrian and Ricky both laughed, and Charlie had to smile. "Kip, your figure couldn't get much better." He leaned forward and leered at his boyfriend. "And I've seen every inch of it, remember."

Kippy grinned, and sighed. "Yes, you have. Okay, I guess I can step out once in a while and take a zillion calories home with me. Not to mention some clogged arteries."

"Come on, Kip." Ricky shook his head. "Man up. What's a little pure grease now and then?"

Kippy gave him the eye. "I haven't had a zit all month. Unlike some people."

Adrian laughed, and grabbed Ricky's wrist. "Don't start none, won't be none!"

Ricky nodded. "Yeah, yeah, I forgot. We're being friends today. Okay, I got it."

"Seriously," Charlie said, looking around the table. "I know it's kind of greasy, but it is sooo good. And it's only once in a great while. I get tired of that one cheese, turkey sausage we always get. It's healthier, but it's kind of bland." He grinned. "So, a five cheese, meat-lover's pizza? Is it okay with everyone?"

It was agreed that the unhealthy but delicious pizza would do, and when the waitress showed up they ordered a large one, and four soft drinks to go with it. The girl, a bored-looking blonde with a pink streak in her hair, only slightly older than themselves, took their order and wrote it down, and asked what kind of free dip they wanted with their breadsticks. They settled on hot mustard, after some attempt at a playful back and forth with the waitress, which she seemed reluctant to enjoy.

"Connie Ballard's sister," Ricky whispered, as the waitress wandered off towards the kitchen.

"She seems to like her work," Kippy said, rolling his eyes.

Ricky looked after the girl and shrugged. "Connie said she's a little out there. She sure looks it."

Adrian nodded. "The pink hair doesn't help. The word 'bimbo' comes quickly to mind."

"Who isn't a little different?" Charlie asked, leaning forward. "And what is with this mean streak everyone is showing off today?"

Ricky rolled his eyes. "Ease up, Charlie. Live a little."

"Yeah, Charlie." Adrian smiled. "We're just playing, right Rick?"

"You're playing," Ricky corrected. "I think that girl is a can or two shy of a six-pack."

"You don't even know her," Kippy remarked. "She could be lovely people, despite the hollow sound from between her ears."

Charlie looked at his boyfriend and gave a startled laugh. "Kip! I'm amazed at you."

"Big surprise," Ricky said drily. "As much as your boyfriend talks, you're probably amazed a lot."

"Are you serious?" Charlie asked, astonished at what he was hearing. "Listen to what you're saying, Rick."

"I heard myself. What's the problem?"

"It was rude, for one thing," Kippy said.

"And uncalled for," Adrian added, "no matter how true it is."

Charlie stared. "What is wrong with you guys?"

Ricky curled his lip. "What's that mean? Why does something have to be wrong, just because you don't like to hear what we're saying?"

Charlie blinked, all at once thinking Ricky was joking, and then realizing that he wasn't.

"I's not like you to be so, um...outspoken."

Ricky shrugged. "What's the problem? That waitress is obviously a space case. If the blank stare didn't cue you in, maybe you need glasses or something." He frowned, "And your boyfriend never does shut up."

Adrian's jaw dropped, and he immediately smacked Ricky's wrist.

"Who the fuck are you hitting?" Ricky turned and glared at his boyfriend. "Do that one more time and I may just take a poke at you myself."

Adrian looked shocked, but then his eyes narrowed. "That'll be the day. You couldn't hit the broad side of a barn if you swung ten times."

Charlie simply stared at the two, unable to believe his ears. "Come on, you guys."

"Leave them alone, Charlie," Kippy said. "One has to always be in charge, and the other has to beef about it, every time."

"Nobody asked you, mouth," Ricky said, leaning across the table. "If you ever shut up long enough to let someone else talk, you might learn something."

"Don't talk to him like that," Adrian said, sliding slightly away from Ricky. "You sure are being an asshole today. What the hell's the matter with you?"

"I don't know what you see in this jerk," Kippy said to Adrian. "He's got the manners of a pig."

"Screw you," Adrian returned, sliding right back next to Rick. "It's always your big mouth that starts all the shit we get into."

Charlie gasped, suddenly feeling angry. "Hey! Kippy doesn't start anything. You two are acting like jerks. What's the matter with you?"

"They're finally showing what's really on their little minds, that's what," Kippy snapped. "Nice to know what they really think of us."

Charlie gaped at that. "Us? I think they were talking about you!"

Kippy's eyes narrowed, and his mouth drew down to a thin line. "Are you on my side, or theirs?"

"I'm not taking sides. This whole thing is stupid. Have all of you gone nuts or something?"

"Now look what you started," Adrian snapped at Ricky. "Had to open your ignorant mouth and get Her Majesty going. Now we're going to have to listen to this yapping all night!"

Charlie was looking at Kippy, and so saw the hurt that crossed his face...and then the anger. "Are you calling me a drama queen?"

Adrian grinned wolfishly. "If the glass slipper fits, honey, wear it!"

Charlie slammed his fist down on the table. "Hey!"

Ricky turned and pushed Adrian so hard that he nearly slid out of the seat onto the floor. "Now look. You got Mr. Always Right in on it, too."

A pause ensued, as Charlie's eyes darted around the circle of his closest friends, some small, calm part of his mind noting the anger, the callousness, the...meanness...on all of their features. He couldn't help but to close his eyes, even as understanding broke that the four of them were on the verge of a split so devastating that it might be impossible to recover from.

Why? Why was this happening?

Unbidden, a memory returned, of them standing around Frit in Charlie's bedroom. Of a strange feeling, as if of a malevolent breeze blowing through the warmest regions of his heart. A lost memory, it seemed, somehow now found.

Charlie opened his eyes. "Stop. No one move."

Ricky and Adrian both had opened their mouths, but paused at the sheer strength of command in Charlie's voice.

Charlie looked at Kippy, who had clamped his mouth shut and was looking at him grimly. "Kip. What is your skwish telling you right now?"

Kippy blinked, and the anger on his face seeped away, to be replaced with a puzzled look. "What?"

"Your skwish. You said it was giving you feelings. What is it saying now?"

Adrian opened his mouth to say something, the look in his eyes promising that it wasn't going to be nice. Charlie raised a hand and pointed at him, and shook his head. "Don't," he grated, anger seeping into his own voice now.

Something happened then. Something Charlie couldn't name. But Adrian blinked, and looked at Ricky, who frowned and seemed confused.

Ricky raised a hand, looked at his fingers as if he had never seen them before, flexed them, and then used one to rub at an eyebrow. "Something's wrong." He looked at Adrian, and then over at Charlie. "Something's wrong, Charlie."

Charlie nodded, certain of that now himself. "Yes." He turned back to Kippy. "What are you feeling, Kip?"

Kippy swallowed hard, and closed his eyes. "I...I don't know. I don't feel right. I don't feel like...myself."

Charlie nodded. "I don't feel right, either." He looked over at Adrian, who licked his lips, but also nodded in agreement. "Yeah. Something is wrong."

Charlie took a deep breath, let it out slowly. "I had a memory a second ago, of when Frit came to see us. We were all standing around him, and...something happened. A weird chill, something that made me shiver."

"I felt that," Kippy said, softly. "I remember now. It was...cold."

Ricky nodded slowly. "I seem to remember that, too."

"Me, too," Adrian said. He sounded scared now, and looked at Ricky. "I'm sorry. I said some things...I didn't mean to say."

"I know. Me, too." Ricky looked over at Charlie, then Kippy. "I'm sorry."

Kippy simply looked frightened now himself. "Charlie, something's...with us."

Charlie watched his boyfriend's face, could easily see the strain inside him. He reached over, laid a hand on Kippy's shoulder. "I love you."

Kippy nodded. "I love you, too, Charlie. But...something...doesn't want me to."

Charlie could feel the odd sensation in the pit of his own stomach now, as if his gut was warring with itself. "I think that's exactly what's happening."

He looked up as the waitress came back, their drinks on a tray. She set them out on the table. "Breadsticks will be here in a minute."

"Something's come up," Charlie said quickly. "We need to leave. Can you make everything to go?"

The girl gave a little sigh, but then smiled. "Sure. I know all about emergencies, myself. Back in a flash."

After she had gone, Charlie looked around at his friends. His best friends, and his boyfriend. "No one say anything, unless you have to."

"What are we going to do?" Kippy asked.

"Go back to my house. I think we need some help with this."

Ricky looked confused. "Who can help us at your house?"

Charlie held up a hand, and shook his head. "Just wait. Let's get back to my room, and I'll explain." He drew out his wallet, took a few dollars and stuffed it under the napkin dispenser. He couldn't forget the smile the waitress had offered.

The pizza came, boxed and ready for transport. A white paper bag stood atop it, stuffed with goodies. Charlie rose, took them from the waitress, and thanked her. Some part of him offered up something nasty to say, but Charlie swatted it away before it could come out into the light. He looked at the other guys, and nodded. "Let's go."

They paid on the way out, and the waitress smiled at them again.

The walk back to Charlie's was mostly accomplished in silence. At some point Kippy moved closer, and linked an arm with Charlie's, but said nothing. Ricky and Adrian also walked hand in hand. Charlie concentrated on putting one foot in front of the other, not dropping the pizza, and getting back to his house without letting his mouth take charge of anything.

Charlie's parents were still not home when they arrived. Apparently, the wedding had gone on longer than they had expected. They climbed the steps to Charlie's bedroom, sat the pizza and the drinks on the desk, and promptly forgot about them. Charlie sat on the edge of the bed, drew Kippy down beside him, and had Ricky and Adrian take places on the cot facing them.

"We're friends," Charlie said. "I love all you guys." He turned to Kippy, and forced out a smile. "I love you more than life, Kip."

It hurt somehow to say, and something inside him roared with anger at his words. But he nodded, feeling also that he had done the right thing.

Kippy pushed against him. "I love you, too, Charlie. You're the center of my heart, and the sunshine in my every day. I can't...I can't bear to think of being without you."

They both looked over at Ricky and Adrian, who looked unhappy, somehow, but who both nodded. Ricky turned to Adrian and examined his face, and finally let a small smile touch his lips. "I never knew I would fall in love, but I did. It was with you, Ad. I never want to lose that, okay?"

Adrian nodded. "Me, either, Rick." He sighed. "I think I would stop living if you were gone."

Charlie nodded. "Something happened when Frit was here. Something came with him, into this room, and into us. I don't know what it is. But I can feel it, and I can hear it, inside me. And I can see it in all of you. " Charlie gave a determined nod of his head. "And it's got to go, because nothing can change the way I feel about all of you."

Kippy sighed, and laid his head on Charlie's shoulder. "What do we do?"

Charlie looked over at his nightstand. Behind the lamp was the carved wooden gift that Nicholaas had given him for Christmas.

A thank you from Santa.

It was like a small statue, two figures carved out of some dark red wood, beautifully polished, beautifully detailed. The first figure was a man in a flowing cloak with a hood, cinched at the waist by a thick belt, and if one peered closer, he would see the face of Nicholaas inside the hood. One of the figure's arms was stretched out behind him, and he was leading a horse by the reins. There were small packs strapped to each side of the horse's back, and small items protruded from beneath the flaps.

The base was carved to resemble snow, with the footprints of both man and horse plainly visible. Nicholaas, and Kirka.

It was a beautiful thing, something from the heart, fondly given. Charlie had accepted it with wonder, feeling a sense of satisfaction and joy at what it represented.

All the good things that made up the world.

And with the gift had come a promise: I want you to know that you always have a friend in me. Any time you speak to the figures, they will acknowledge your presence and greet you. But if you ever need help, ever need a friend, just tell them, and I will know.

Charlie leaned closer to the statue. "Nicholaas? It's Charlie. I need...we need your help."

The small head of Nicholaas turned to look at him, and Kirka raised a leg and gave out a tiny chuff.

The room about them seemed to suddenly still, to become so quiet and feel so distant that Charlie for a moment felt that the other boys had gone. The light faded, and Charlie found himself standing in darkness. Immediately, his heart quailed. "Kip?"

He sensed movement at his side, and then someone touched his arm, and then took hold of it. "I'm here," Kippy said, quietly.

"I am, too," Ricky said, from somewhere nearby.

There was the sound of movement, and then Adrian's voice whispered into the still night about them. "I thought you were gone! Don't ever do that...I'm so glad..."

"It's okay," Ricky comforted, and Charlie knew the two boys were in contact.

In the distance, a light sprang into being, and slowly made its way towards them. Despite the turmoil within his body, Charlie suddenly grinned. "I know where we are. We're in the basement of Santa's workshop."

The light became a cone as it neared, the beam of a flashlight, and finally stopped about twenty feet away. "Aw, hey guys."

"Max!" Charlie breathed, and started towards the light, pulling Kippy with him.

But the light immediately backed away from them. "Stop right there!"

Charlie drew to a halt, shocked. Someone bumped into him, and he knew that Ricky and Adrian were right behind him. "What's the matter, Max? It's us, Charlie and Kip and Ricky and Adrian."

"I know, Charlie. guys seem to be contagious. I can't let you come too close."

Charlie's jaw dropped. Contagious!

"We have something?" he asked...and then knew the certainty of it. Of course, they did have something. The very thing he had sensed inside himself and the others, like an ill wind attempting to blow away the good from their hearts. "What can we do?" he immediately followed with.

"Stand still, you guys. I'm going to help you, but I need you to stay in one place, okay?"

"Okay." Charlie put his hand on Kippy's forearm and rubbed it gently. "Stay close, Kip."

He felt the other boy nod, and Kippy leaned against him. Charlie raised an arm and circled it around his boyfriend's shoulders, and gently squeezed him even closer.

Inside his head, the nasty voice he had been mistaking for his own thoughts railed at Kippy's closeness, screaming at Charlie to reject the touch, to push it away. It was hard, but Charlie ignored it, and squeezed Kippy even closer.

Behind the light, Max was obviously doing something. The flash bobbed and waved, and then was finally still.

"Okay, guys, we'll be going now. Just stay calm, okay? And don't be surprised at what you see or hear."

The flashlight slowly faded, and darkness again surrounded them. Somehow, Charlie felt that they were going now. But going to where, he had no idea.

Inside Charlie's head, the mean voice raged and screamed, trying to drag him to a standstill, to keep him in place. Charlie felt it slow his strange movement, and the thought that the voice might somehow stop him from going made him frightened. Inside his own mind, in a darkness quite complete, he whirled about with his mental arms extended, until his hands closed on something rough, something sharp, something that burned with a fire that touched more than his skin.

His impulse was to release it, to run away and hide. But somehow, to do that very thing, he knew, would be to also run away from something else, some part of him that he knew he would never get back. It was an unremarkable appearing thing, and yet he knew it was of paramount importance. It was the tough, resistant, somehow beautiful thing that contained his love for all those important in his life and his world. His parents. His friends. Kippy.

A fear like he had never known before took hold of him, as his mental scales weighed what throwing away that very special thing would mean, against the will it would take to grab hold of the sharp and bitter thing instead, and throw it away, and out of his life.

He did not have to consider it. A strength arose within him, a strength born of ages of human experience and of countless generations that had preceded through lives before his own. He grabbed the malevolent thing, felt its spikes pierce his skin and its fires burn his flesh, and wrestled with it. It was unbelievably strong, and it screamed its rage, and Charlie felt his heart quail at the sound of it.

And then...he was no longer alone. Other hands reached out of the darkness, and grabbed the ugly thing. And then more hands, until Charlie struggled with three cloaked others to wrestle the ugly thing into submission. The four of them grunted and yelled and fought, and slowly got a grip on the enemy, lifted it up, squirming and fighting - and cast it away from them, into the darkness.

A new sound began, a sound like the soft pulse of blood rushing inside Charlie's head when he hung upside down from the pull up bar his dad had mounted in the basement. An insistent sound, that grew, and became full of power and movement.

The world about them began to lighten, in a circle that slowly radiated outward from where they stood. Kippy appeared, smiling at Charlie; and when Charlie glanced over his shoulder, Rick and Adrian were there, their arms circled about each other.

Grass sprang up beneath their feet; wild grass, like that found in a meadow by the woods, multi-hued greens and browns, knee-high, all waving gently as if in a breeze. The circle widened, and small trees came into view, and then very large boulders, and then very large trees, marching away up a steep incline. The rushing sound seemed to swell, and with a surge of new light, a river appeared just beyond the boulders, and then a wide pool, into which water dropped at a furious rate.

The face of a great cliff appeared, and as Charlie let his eyes follow the sparkling stream upward, he realized he was seeing a waterfall, plummeting from a green-covered escarpment high above them. With a last great influx of energy, the circle of light flew away from them, and a warmth touched Charlie's skin, the warmth of sunlight, radiating downward from the yellow orb holding sway over the deep blue of an utterly perfect sky overhead.

With an almost audible pop, the world about them settled into being. A breeze ruffled Charlie's hair, and the sounds of the waterfall receded. Above them, birds sailed serenely in updrafts off the falling water.

"This is one of my favorite places," a familiar voice said.

Charlie and Kippy turned together, as did Rick and Adrian behind them.

A man was seated on a small boulder. He was bearded, young and handsome, dressed in worn gray leathers, and carried a knife in a scabbard at his belt. Behind him stood a horse with a yellow mane, grazing contentedly upon the grass. At the touch of their gazes, the horse raised his head and gave out a brief chuff, the warmth within his intelligent eyes an unmistakable greeting.

Kirka. And with him...

"Nicholaas!" Charlie exclaimed, and he and Kippy started forward.

But they had only taken two steps when Charlie ground to a halt. "No, wait," he said to Kippy. "We're contagious, remember?"

Nicholaas stood and came towards them. "No. Not to me. And not to anyone here, in this place." He waved a hand beyond them, and they turned to see Max standing there.

"You sure it's okay, boss?"

Nicholaas smiled. "Yes. You are quite safe here."

Max grinned, and came forward, his arms spread wide. "Hey, fellas! Gimme a hug!"

Charlie and Kippy both laughed, and surged forward into the elf's open arms. Ricky and Adrian followed, and the five of them spent a brief moment clapping each other on the back and kissing cheeks.

Max finally pulled back, his face red with embarrassment, his eyes aglow with moisture. "Aw, geez, fellas. You're gettin' to me, with all this huggin' and stuff!"

But his eyes showed only a warmth and fondness that was unmistakable in its depth. The elf sniffed, and rubbed a hand across his eyes. "Sure is good to see you all again."

Charlie nodded. "Us, too, Max." He frowned then, unsure of what to do next. "We have a problem, it seems."

"I know of it," Nicholaas said, coming forward. He smiled, spread his arms, and again there was a round of hugging. "But I do not fear it." He nodded. "And I see that you have not let this thing master your souls, either."

Charlie leaned forward. "What is it? What have we got?"

Nicholaas frowned. "What invaded your spirits is an old thing, Charlie. A misery, that eats away at all the things good in life." He shook his head. "More important to me now is how you came by it."

Charlie looked at Kippy, and then at Max. "We think it was Frit that brought it to us."

Max immediately paled. "What!"

The boys took turns telling about Frit's phone call, and his visit, and his break up with Pip. Max's expression grew grim as the story progressed, and he stepped away from them and turned his head a moment when they had finished. Nicholaas stood patiently, smiling at Kirka and rubbing the horse's muzzle, while Max was occupied, seemingly unconcerned at where events were leading them. Charlie wondered at this, but could only imagine that the man's abilities gave him a certain confidence that others would never know.

It was either that, or Nicholaas possessed the sure knowledge that nothing they could do would alter the course of coming events.

But then Max was back, shaking his head. "I just norked the missus. Frit ain't anywhere around the house that she can find. She norked him, and he doesn't answer."

"What about Pip?" Nicholaas asked.

"His dad said they can't find him, either."

The man plucked momentarily at his beard, and then shook his head. "This is not good. Those two can get to places that even I can't. We may have a hard time finding them, if they don't want to be found."

"But Frit is supposed to come and get us before school tomorrow," Kippy said. "He said he would, anyway."

"And he likely will," Nicholaas returned. "How very interesting this is."

Charlie was at a loss at that. Interesting?

Nicholaas noticed his expression, and immediately smiled. "Charlie, what you and your friends acquired is an utterly human thing. As I said, it's a misery, and a very old one. It tends to transfer itself among humans in times of darkness, when it can become epidemic in proportions." He shook his head. "But elves are not human, and to my knowledge, have never contracted this particular malady. It's a first, and therefore cause for interest."

"We need to do something," Max said, his voice filled with fear. Fear for the welfare of Frit, and for Pip.

"And so we shall." Nicholaas smiled at the boys. "How do you feel, now that you are here?"

Charlie hadn't thought any more about how he was feeling, so concerned had he been for Frit and Pip. "I don't --" But then he stopped, as something dawned upon him.

He no longer felt the dark thing that had been within him.

Charlie looked at Kippy, and then at Ricky and Adrian. "How do you guys feel?"

Kippy gave a sigh, and cuddled against him. "I feel pretty good, actually."

Ricky smiled at Adrian, and hugged him closer. "Me, too."

Adrian nodded, the thin, nasty cast no longer present in his eyes. "It's gone. I feel it. I mean, I don't feel it, anymore."

Charlie swiveled back to Nicholaas. "You cured us?"

The man laughed. "You cured yourselves." He waved a hand about them at the peaceful and spectacular scenery. "You could not have arrived here, had you not pushed away that which had come to dwell within you. Misery cannot survive in such a place as this."

Charlie looked again at the lovely waterfall. It was beautiful. But --

"I'm not sure I get it."

Nicholaas nodded. "Charlie, there are some ugly things in life. And some beautiful ones, too. People see tragedy and destruction, somewhere in the world, every day of the year. In places like those, that misery - that thing you felt inside of you - flourishes. Darkness is it's home, apathy the thing that nourishes it. Apathy, and fear, and...hate."

He waved a hand about them. "But all humans also have within them the concept of paradise. Eden, Utopia, Arcadia, Shangri-la." He winked. "Heaven, if you are so inclined. It's the wonderland of the soul, the happy hunting grounds, cloud nine, the blissful place where only goodness and light prevail."

Kippy gave a small laugh. "That's real?"

Nicholaas returned a small frown. "Kip, it's real for those that look for it, and find it, and embrace it. There is no cure-all for the ills of the world. Most people find a balance in their days, and it brings them enough peace to stay happy with their lives. But some never manage even that, and so that dark malady continues to walk the earth."

"I get what you're saying," Ricky said. "But I never thought of hate and stuff as something you could catch, like a cold."

"Oh, make no mistake about that, Rick." Nicholaas's voice sounded grave. "The ills that plague the human mind and soul can be caught from others, just like the flu that makes its rounds each year." He smiled then. "But you boys were strong enough to withstand this particular bug, because you had been vaccinated against it. By each other."

Kippy shook his head. "We said some crappy stuff back in the pizza place. " He leaned his head on Charlie's shoulder and closed his eyes. "It was awful."

"Yeah." Adrian reached forward and put a hand on Kippy's shoulder. "I'm sorry about what I said, Kip."

Kippy nodded. "I know. I'm sorry about what I said, and about the things I was thinking." He looked at Charlie, who turned his head to gaze back. "I thought some mean stuff about you, Charlie. I'm so ashamed."

Charlie sighed, and closed his eyes and pushed his face into Kippy's cheek. "You aren't alone, Kip. I did the same thing."

"Me, too," Ricky said, unhappily. "I feel like shit now."

Nicholaas smiled. "You should all feel happy, actually."

All four boys stared at the man, who smiled again. "You don't understand, I know. But you faced this thing, and you won. You won because you did not allow what you have to be broken. " He leaned forward at the confused looks that arose on their faces, and beamed at them. "Each other. Your friendship, and the love you all share. I have felt this thing between you at our meetings in the past." He chuckled. "Even in my dreams of you. Your strength is your fondness for each other. Like a glue, it bound you together, even in the darkest moment of your lives."

Charlie shook his head. "But you said that coming here is what cured us."

"No, Charlie, it was the determination of all of you to come here, to this state of mind, rather than have your unity destroyed, that allowed you to make the journey. Don't you see? I did not bring you here. You made your way by yourselves."

Charlie digested that, and tightened his arm around Kippy. "I get it now." Briefly, he recalled the struggle in the dark place. Him...and three others.

Charlie gave Kippy a kiss and laughed. He turned to look at the others behind him. "You were all there. We were all there. We grabbed that thing and threw it away."

"That was real?" Kippy whispered. "Oh, Charlie! I thought it was some horrible dream!"

Ricky and Adrian looked at each other. "I should have known it was you helping me," Rick said. He smiled, and kissed Adrian. His eyes moved to Charlie and Kip. "And you guys, too."

"Each of you battled with the assistance of the others," Nicholaas said. "Your combined strength has rid you of this dark thing."

Max, who had been silent up until that point, grunted. "That's a relief. But what can we do about Frit and Pip?"

Nicholaas seemed to consider that. "I am still trying to figure out how they came down with this malady. It would seem that they had not been together long enough to resist its ability to sunder their relationship. " He looked over at Max. "I hope we are not seeing a sign of things to come. Elves have now absorbed so much of the human world that they may be becoming subject to its darker creations."

Max grimaced at that. "I sure hope not. I'm worried that others can catch this thing now. Other elves, I mean,":

Nicholaas nodded. "I don't know." He paused in thought a moment. "It seems obvious that Frit or Pip first contracted this thing and then passed it to the other. what the boys have told me, I suspect that it was Pip that came down with the malady first, and transferred it to Frit."

"And Frit gave it to us, when he came to my house." Charlie finished.

"That part was easy," Nicholaas affirmed. "If you had a dog --" he suddenly smiled at Kirka "-- or a horse, that somehow came down with a strange human illness that was highly contagious, it would be easy enough for him to transfer it to other humans. But what about other horses? Somehow, I do not think so. I suspect that there was some unique factor involved with Pip becoming infected, and that, even then, only their extreme closeness allowed it to be passed to Frit. Otherwise, we would already have heard of other instances of infection. This would not be the sort of thing that would remain hidden in the genial community of elves. Bad tempers and ill words are not something you see there on a daily basis."

Max gave a grin at that. "There was that one time in 1641, when Medgemar the Magnifcent and Bollingaff the Beatific had that fight. But it only lasted fourteen seconds, and then they hugged and made up."

Nicholaas laughed. "There you go. So we would have heard about any large infection by now." His smile turned to a frown. "Where would those two youngsters get to, that we cannot find them?"

But Charlie had to ask. "Medgemar the Magnificent?" He couldn't help laughing at that.

Max nodded. "Yeah, that was some time ago. Elves these days go by more commonplace names, like mine."

Kippy and Charlie both laughed together. "Pribilownakowskif is commonplace?" Kippy asked.

Max grinned. "Coupla thousand of 'em at my house. What do you think?"

Nicholaas suddenly went still, and then smiled. "Well! What have we here?"

Everyone looked at the man, who became aware of the attention, and smiled. "Here I was, looking for them in the elf domain, where they would be somewhat hard to spot, and then in the human domain, where they would stand out. And all the time they were in neither place." He laughed. "They're here, with us."

Max looked around, an expression of joy on his face. "Here!"

"Well...not right here," Nicholaas corrected. "But here in this place." He turned to look across the river at the forest beyond. "Over there, in fact. And I can see...I can see that they are no longer in need of assistance."

"They're back together," Kippy whispered, looking delighted.

"So it would seem. Um, oh, my. Quite back together, too."

Charlie grinned at the look on Nicholaas's face. "What does that mean?"

"Maybe you and your friends should go and see." Nicholaas turned to Kirka, and rubbed a hand affectionately along the horse's muzzle. "Kirka and I were about to go for a ride when all this started. I think we're ready for that now."

The horse tossed his head, obviously agreeing. Charlie smiled, delighted to see that here, at least, Nicholaas and Kirka could be reunited. No wonder it was one of the man's favorite places.

"What about this infection thing?" Max asked.

Nicholaas smiled at him. "There will be time to figure out where it came from. But...after my ride."

Charlie sighed. "Thank you, Nicholaas. For everything."

The other shook his head. "I didn't do much, Charlie. You and your friends did the work."

"You enabled it," Charlie said.

"Yeah." Kippy nodded in agreement. "Without you we couldn't have found the space to get together and beat this thing."

"We called for help, and you came," Adrian said. "We won't forget."

"Thanks," Ricky added.

Nicholaas smiled. "This is what friends do. What I really did was listen, and hear. The four of you healed your own wounds." His eyes sparkled. "Seems to me that some friends of mine did the same for me, once."

Charlie smiled, feeling warm inside. Yes, that is what friends do.

Nicholaas patted Kirka's flanks, and then swung himself up into the saddle. "I think you boys have something to do. Max, I know you'll want to go along. Can you assist the boys in getting across the river?" He waved a hand at Charlie and the others. "Don't be strangers, you hear?"

He gave a gentle squeeze to Kirka with his legs, and the horse ambled off, looking just as happy as his rider.

Charlie watched as the pair vanished into the taller grasses of a mountain field, and then turned to Kippy and pulled him close. "Go for a walk with me?"

Kippy smiled. "I'd go anywhere with you, Charlie Boone."

"Hear that?" Ricky asked, pulling Adrian closer. "Those two sound like they're in love."

"Are you?" Adrian asked, his eyes bright with affection.

Ricky's eyes roved over his boyfriend's face a long moment, and then he nodded. "Yes. I am."

"It might be gay," Adrian kidded.

Ricky nodded. "It might be." He sighed, closed his eyes, and hugged Adrian close.

Max watched the four boys, and then looked around the landscape. "Geez. Maybe I should close my eyes!"

Charlie and Kippy laughed. "Let's go and find the guys," Charlie said.

The five of them walked into the mass of boulders, and came to the banks of the rushing river. Here the waters were in turmoil, stirred to a frenzy by the action of the waterfall. Max whirled a finger in the air, and they sailed across and were deposited safely on the other side of the river.

"There's a trick I'd like to learn," Kippy said, grinning at Charlie. "We wouldn't have to worry about getting your mom's car when we wanted to go somewhere."

Charlie laughed. "That's okay. I want my feet firmly on the ground for a while after this adventure!"

They spotted a path that led away from the riverbank, and followed its winding course among the trees for several minutes. Suddenly, Max held up a hand for them to stop, and pointed. "What the heck is that?"

Charlie looked ahead, and had to grin. A small clearing presented itself, and some small trees by its edge. The branches of the trees were draped with colorful clothing - pants, shirts, socks - even underwear. The sound of laughter reached their ears.

"Let's go and see," Kippy suddenly said, pulling from Charlie's grasp with a delighted little laugh. He danced ahead, and Charlie grinned and followed.

They emerged into the clearing. A large square of green material lay upon the ground, atop which Frit and Pip lay. Both boys were naked, their legs entwined, their arms about each other, their faces pressed together, the sound of warm laughter emerging from between them. Kippy threw an enchanted look at Charlie and then came back to him and put an arm around him. "They don't look unhappy with each other!"

Frit and Pip pulled their faces apart and smiled up at them. "Hi, fellas!"

"Aw, Geez!" Max threw up a hand and covered his face. "I knew I shoulda shut my eyes!"

"I went looking for Pip," Frit said later, after he and his boyfriend had dressed. They were sitting together on a large rock, holding hands.

"And I went looking for Frit," Pip continued, leaning against his boyfriend and sighing. "We found each other at koulu."

"School," Max said, unaware that the boys had heard the word before from Frit. "Heck of a place to wind up!"

Charlie smiled at the older elf, suddenly picking up on a certain distaste that Max seemed to be displaying towards the educational process. Not that Charlie didn't understand a little of that himself.

"I went into the dancehall, and there was Pip, flying slowly around in a circle," Frit went on. "As soon as I saw him, I wanted to be with him."

"I was thinking about Frit," Pip continued, "and trying to figure out what happened. Why we got mad." He sighed. "It was all very stupid, and I didn't know why I had acted that way."

Frit nodded "Or why I acted like I did." He smiled at Pip, and squeezed his hand. "I flew up to him, and went alongside. We kinda circled the hall for a few turns before he looked at me, and asked me what I wanted."

"It was weird," Pip went on. "I was so glad to see Frit, but something inside my head wanted me to yell at him and push him away. That made me mad."

"Uh huh. I felt the same way." Frit smiled at his boyfriend. "I grabbed Pip and we wrestled around. It was crazy. One second I was pushing him away, the next second I was holding onto him so he couldn't get away."

"Then we saw it," Pip continued. "Big, ugly thing, inside our heads. We knew right away it was contra stuff."

"Contra?" Ricky asked, before Charlie could himself.

"Yeah. You know, Something that is against something else? This thing was against me and Frit being happy together. We knew right away we had to get rid of it."

"Kicked its ass," Frit said, gleefully.

"It was running hard, when we got it going," Pip agreed. He laughed, and snuggled against Frit. "You shoulda seen that thing git!"

"Scared it," Frit added, delight plain on his features. "It found out it was messin' with the wrong elfs!"

"And then it was gone." Pip sighed. "We needed a healing place, and we wound up here."

"That's all," Frit ended. "Are you mad at me, grandaddy Max?"

Max had been swinging his head back and forth as the two young elves told their story. Now he blinked, and shrugged. "No, I'm not mad. Just relieved that you two are okay." He sighed. "Geez, I thought I was past worryin' about what the kids was doing!"

"They seemed to be able to deal with this thing better than we did, once they saw it for what it was," Charlie put forth.

"Oh, yeah. Not too many human woes are a match for elf magic, especially once the elf gets his dander up," Max said. "Um, if you don't mind me sayin'."

"Nope. Not at all. "Charlie laughed. "I'm glad it turned out okay."

"Now we can go to the Valentine's Day dance on Wednesday," Frit said, happily.

"Oh...wait!" Pip said then. "You didn't ask me!" He looked admonishingly at Frit, whose eyebrows bounced upward.

"I did, too! It was me askin' you that started all this!"

Pip leaned forward and kissed Frit. "But I wasn't in my right mind, and I didn't get to answer. Ask me again? Please!"

Frit grinned over at Charlie and the others, and then nuzzled his boyfriend's face. "Go to the dance with me?"

Pip sighed dreamily, and sagged against Frit. "I thought you'd never ask!"

Max rolled his eyes, and forced a smile. "I think I hear the missus callin' me." He raised an arm, frowned at his empty wrist, and shook the arm gently. A large wristwatch appeared, mounted on a gold wristband, and Max stared at the ornate dial. "Aw, yeah. It's dinner time. Gotta run!"

Charlie felt a moment of panic, and grabbed the elf's other wrist. "Wait! How do we get out of here?"

"Easy," Frit offered, before Max could even open his mouth. "Just wish you were back home!"

Max sighed, and patted Charlie's hand. "That's right. All you have to do is want to be back at your house, and there you'll be." He smiled then, and looked around at the forest. "Tell you a secret, though. Now that you've been here, this place is yours, Charlie. You ever want to come back - any of you - just wish it."

Kippy gasped, and looked around them. "Really?"

"Yep." Max smiled. "It's your peace. You made it. Enjoy it any time you want to."

Charlie bit at his lip, suddenly unwilling to see the elf go. "Max. Um...thanks."

Max sighed, nodded, and pulled Charlie into a hug. He immediately opened one arm and allowed Kippy to join in, and then the other arm as Ricky and Adrian rushed forward. Max hugged all four of them. "I love you guys like my own," he said softly. "You ever need me, just call."

Charlie held onto the elf tightly for a moment, his eyes squeezed shut. Then he nodded, and let the man go. Kippy also stepped back, and put his arms around Charlie.

Max wiped at one eye, and then turned to the other two elves. "Don't be out too late, you hear?"

"We won't!" Frit and Pip chorused, laughing.

And then there was a small pop, and Max was gone.

"What are you guys doing Wednesday night?" Frit asked right away.

Kippy laughed, and Charlie squeezed him close. "What have you got in mind, Frit?"

"Party," Pip answered. "Well, it's called a dance, but it'll be a party. You guys wanna come?"

Kippy looked gleeful. "At your school? With all those cute elf guys around?"

"They'll have dates," Frit said.

"Yeah. Girls, too," Pip added.

"Hands off!" Frit went on.

"You coming?" Pip asked.

"We'll get you after dinner," Frit decided, nodding. "You can go in no-time, and then you'll still have your own evening for yourselves."

"Are we going?" Ricky asked, grinning at Charlie.

Adrian nodded, bobbing his head up and down happily. "We are going, right?"

Charlie looked at all the faces turned his way, and sighed. "We're going," he agreed.

"Knew you would!" Frit and Pip said together.

Charlie had never seen anything like it. The 'dance hall' at koulu - the school that Frit and Pip attended - was enormous. It looked like the interior of a football stadium, except if was much taller. The roof curved upward to meet in a dome far overhead, the entire thing looking to be made of great blocks of snow, like the interior of some colossal igloo. At the apex of the dome, the tiny lights of stars seemed to swarm about like enchanted fireflies, obviously on the inside, with them. It was a fairytale place if Charlie had ever seen one, yes indeed.

He and Kippy and Rick and Adrian stared upwards at the crowds of elf kids as they also flew about in great swoops and arcs, dancing to the sounds of music that sounded very much like human rock, but the words of which Charlie and the the other boys could not decipher at all.

"Radio Kanorfabeck," Frit said, laughing. "All the music that's fit to fly to." He turned to Pip and held out an arm. "Dance with me, sweetheart?"

"Wait a second," Kippy said, looking alarmed. "Are you just leaving us?"

The two elf boys laughed. "No, we'll be here," Frit promised. "You should dance. You'll like it!"

"Just hold hands and jump up," Pip instructed. "You want to come down, just wish it."

"That's it?" Ricky asked, staring above them at the other dancers. "We can fly?"

Adrian looked mesmerized, and snuggled closer to his boyfriend. "Oh, let's go, Rick!"

Charlie and Kippy grinned as the other two boys held hands and gave a little push off the ground with their legs. Instantly they soared up into the dome, holding onto each other and laughing, and were soon swooping about with the others

Charlie sighed, and turned to his boyfriend. "Dance with me?"

"Oh, Charlie. I thought you'd never ask."

They joined hands, gave a little push off, and lifted upwards into the dome. It was eerie at first, as others sailed past them, oblivious to their presence. But it soon became clear that some force was at work here, keeping the dancers from colliding with one another. Every time a couple moved toward them on an obvious collision course, something intervened, gently guiding them to miss each other. Charlie soon stopped worrying about a collision, or even dancing at all. He and Kippy held each other, their eyes closed, and moved about as the air currents willed it.

"You sure know how to treat a guy, Kip," Charlie whispered, after they had moved in several serene circles about the massive dome. "I can't remember the last time I enjoyed being with someone so much."

"I can remember the last time," Kippy returned. "It was the last time I was out with you."

Charlie opened his eyes and looked about them. Many of the other couples were now doing as they were, simply moving slowly about in a circle, holding each other, hugging or kissing. Ricky and Adrian went by, their eyes closed, expressions of bliss on their faces. Charlie and Kippy both laughed, and then turned back to look at each other.

Charlie grinned. "This has to be the happiest dance I've ever been to."

The other boy nodded, and turned eyes bright with affection upon him. "I'm always happy, when I'm with you."

Charlie felt his throat catch. "Me, too, Kip. I...I just love you so much."

Kippy's smile promised much. "I love you, Charlie. Be my Valentine?"

Charlie could barely speak, as he gazed into Kippy's eyes. Finally, he nodded."Yes. For now, and always."

Kippy sighed, and offered up his lips.

Charlie kissed them, and they continued to sail onward, underneath the twinkling stars.

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